True Valor – Book 1 – Excerpt

True Valor Cover

 

Prologue


 

 

The radio in Nic D’Onofrio’s ear crackled.

“Hey, Nic, did you find us a soft place to land?”

“Na-ah. Should I have?” Nic spoke, the mic in his ear picking up his own voice.

Someone whined. “Joey always does.”

“Yeah, well, Joey spoils you guys. I’m the navigator tonight. Leave the drop zone to me.”

A standing joke for several years, one Bravo Squad never let Alpha forget. A member of Alpha Squad had landed wrong on a jump and broken his ankle. If that weren’t enough, he’d been dragged by his chute through the mud screaming in pain; all on video tape for the entire unit to see. It hadn’t been the navigator’s fault but Joey took the opportunity anyway to give him a piece of sound advice. “Always look for a soft place to land.” From there, the conversation had degenerated.

On this jump, they’d have to survive without Joey. He was in Afghanistan for another week. No big deal. Every man on Bravo Squad was trained to navigate jumps.

Amigo, you think you can do this without Joey?” Eric Cruz’s voice snapped with humor. Any of them could do this stuff half asleep.

Nic mentally flipped him off. “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” At terminal velocity, he had to shout to be heard over the air whipping past him at one hundred twenty-five miles per hour. Nic braced himself as he approached the cloud deck. He squinted to see the altimeter on his wrist as snowflakes pelted him, hard as bullets.

“In the clouds.” Lt. Quillen’s voice came over the radio. Seconds ticked away.

“I’m out.”

At six thousand feet, Quillen gave the order to separate so the team could open their chutes. One by one, they checked in.

“Navigator okay,” Nic reported as soon as his chute deployed. The others followed suit.

“All chutes okay.”

Now out of the clouds, Nic could see the lights of town twinkle in the distance, the cold making them look like candles. It only took seconds to find the target drop zone.

“Navigator?” Quillen again.

“Got it. Turning right to heading one-nine-three degrees.”

“Make it a soft place, Nic.”

Nic let out an evil laugh. “I’m headed for the rocks. Suck it up.”

 

The unit commander, Colonel Rick McIntyre, known as Mac to his squads, leaned heavily against the north wall of the pararescue headquarters, watching Bravo Squad unload the last of the gear from the back of the truck. Dawn would break before any of them got any shuteye.

He cleared the lump from his throat then smiled, watching his parajumpers congratulate each other with slaps on the back. A jump that went off without a hitch was no small victory.

The snow fell in swirls almost obstructing Mac’s view. Even with their faces covered in camo paint, and with limited visibility, he knew these guys well enough to know which one was which. Mac loved his PJs. Sure, he had to rein them in sometimes but he never had to jump-start them. They were ready for anything any time. Simpliciter Paratus!

Mac caught Quillen’s eye and motioned him over to where he stood. Please, God, don’t let me choke. His stomach churned. Please, God, don’t let me puke.

Lieutenant David Quillen, Bravo’s Combat Rescue Officer, straightened and walked crisply over to Mac.

“Sir,” he said, saluting, “you’re here late.” Mac could see recognition of his seriousness in Quillen’s eyes.

Mac slapped David on the back, smiled as best he could. “Great job tonight, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Before your team leaves, David, I need to speak to them.”

A momentary grimace may have chased across his lieutenant’s face. But then the young man squared his shoulders and nodded.

If only Mac could get through this without blubbering like a baby. Breaking this kind of news never got easier.

Never.

 

Chapter One


 

 

Nic had intended to close down the bar, but now he didn’t feel like it. He’d managed to watch the end of the hockey game on the corner big screen and polish off the pizza he’d ordered. But finishing his second beer required more effort than he was willing to expend. He half smiled. Joey would have said leaving beer in a glass was alcohol abuse. Grief surged up from his gut, closing his throat. No matter.

 

Just before midnight, Nic shoved to his feet and walked to his car. No energy left to dig his gloves from his pockets, his hands frozen from scraping snow from the windshield, he headed back to the hotel.

Nic muttered aloud as the car in front of him, which up until this point had been going slow enough to make him curse, now coasted to a stop on the side of the road. “Not… now… Batman.” His breath came out in a crystal fog and he tugged the collar of his North Face parka up around his chin.

The ongoing argument began again. Nic, the rescuer, thrived on rushing in and saving the day while Nic, the private citizen, had better things to do. Right now, he just wanted to get back to the condo and go to bed. He’d tried, on numerous occasions, to outsmart, out wait, or out will Batman Nic. It hardly ever worked. But damn it, Citizen Nic was tired and cold and he would win tonight. He tried not to look at the driver as he pulled around the disabled sedan but Batman managed a long-enough glimpse that he knew it was a female, a not-too-bad-looking female with shoulder-length blonde hair and delicate features. Her hands on the wheel, she stared straight ahead.

Citizen Nic made it to the end of the block before grumbling his frustration with superheroes and turning the car around. He grumbled again as he pulled his rental car around in front of hers, and, huddled in his coat, dashed back to her car.

“Miss?” He knocked on the window, then drew his hands to his mouth, using his breath in a vain attempt to warm them. “Miss?”

As if moving through Jell-O, she turned and looked at him, her eyes glazed with confusion. Drugs? Or alcohol? At last, she rolled down the window.

“Something wrong with your car, ma’am?”

“I… think… it’s, uh, maybe—” She shifted her gaze to the instrument panel. “—out of gas.”

She was definitely on something. “You live around here?” Maybe he could just give her a quick ride and be done with this.

“No.”

No such luck.

“Where are you headed?”

She stared at him as if he were speaking another language. “I don’t know,” she said at last.

Concerned now, the paramedic in him geared up to solve a medical mystery. “Are you feeling okay?”

She smiled a bit, causing an almost-imperceptible tightening in his groin. Almost imperceptible. “I think so.”

He began looking for evidence of injury, scanning her face, her head. No blood. Odd, she didn’t have a coat on. But there was something else, something not quite right.

“Do you need an ambulance?”

“No!” The word came out almost in a shriek, her hands grasping the steering wheel in an iron grip, her head shaking back and forth desperately. “No ambulance!”

Wanted by the police? Running from an abusive husband? The thing that nagged at him had finally made it to the forefront of his brain. “Are those your pajamas?”

Her gaze drifted down, taking in her clothes. She looked back up at him. “Maybe.”

Okay, let’s start over. “What’s your name?”

“Julie.”

“Julie what?”

She began to look around as if hoping the answer would appear in lights. It wasn’t that hard a question. Hell. This could be a problem. While he waited for the answer, he automatically clicked through the possible causes of altered level of consciousness. Alcohol, altitude, anaphylaxis, apnea… the list went on.

“I don’t know,” she said at last.

“Do you know where you are?” Nic proceeded through the questions methodically.

“Not really.”

“How about the day? Do you know what day it is?”

“December, um, twenty-third?”

Close. By now it was Christmas Eve morning, but who was counting. “Okay, here’s the deal, Julie. My name is Nic and I’m a paramedic from Boston…” That wasn’t exactly true.

“I’m in Boston?” Again, her voice edged toward hysteria and her eyes filled with panic.

“No, no. You’re in Lake Tahoe, California.”

“Oh.”

“We need to call an ambulance or get you to a hospital. You don’t know your last name—where you are…”

“No!” She reached down and turned the key, trying to get the car to crank.

Nic waited until she gave up.

“Julie, listen to me.” He spoke as if talking to a small child. “You can’t stay here. You’ll freeze to death.” His mind raced with alternatives. The hospital or ambulance was unacceptable to her and dropping her off at the next hotel he came to was dangerous, inhumane and made him a total jerk. So, he chose the option that sounded the craziest and didn’t, at all, fit into his plans.

“Let me take you to my place and get you warmed up. We’ll see if you aren’t thinking more clearly after that. I promise I won’t hurt you.” 

Julie nodded and reached for the door handle. He helped her from the car, noticing that all she had on her feet were floppy slippers. Well, actually, only one slipper. Her other foot was bare. Time stood still as she smiled up at him and took his hands. The fleeting feelings and thoughts that followed were definitely not Batman-like.

Nic cleared his throat, shoving away the thoughts. “Do you have a purse or anything?”

Julie looked into the car then back at him. “I don’t think so.”

Nic reached for the keys, made sure the doors were locked and, sweeping Julie into his arms, trudged through the snow toward his car. Citizen Nic balked and Batman furled his cape.

“We’ll come back and get your car in the morning,” he said, helping her into the passenger seat. On his way around to the driver’s side, he made a mental note of her license plate number. California plates. She couldn’t be too far from home.

Batman Nic was pleased to be helping the helpless. But, before putting the car into gear, Citizen Nic was looking for a graceful escape.

Nic flipped the heater fan to high.

“I’m only wearing one slipper,” Julie said in a monotone.

“I noticed.”

“How do you suppose I lost the other one?” The look on her face was confused, but not panicked. That was good.

“I don’t have a clue.” He gave her his practiced smile of support.

“Well that’s not good, is it?”

“What, losing a slipper?”

“No. Not knowing how I lost it. That’s not good, is it, Paramedic Nic.”

He couldn’t help but grin. At least she remembered what he’d told her. Short-term memory intact. Likely not a concussion. She seemed to be taking the situation well.

“No, it isn’t, Julie. But we’ll get you warmed up and something to eat. Maybe that will help your memory.”

We? That definitely wasn’t a good sign.

They rode in silence. Nic drove through the parking garage, hoping to find a place close to the doors into the hotel so Julie wouldn’t have to walk outside.

“I’m missing a slipper, but I’m not Cinderella, am I?”

No, and I’m not Prince Charming, either. “Well, Julie Cinderella doesn’t sound right, so I don’t suppose so,” Nic said, spotting a parking place and pulling into it, went around to open Julie’s door. He peeled off his coat and wrapped it around Julie as she stepped out of the car. He’d planned to let her walk to the door, but reconsidered when he saw all the puddles left by dripping cars. So, once again, he scooped up Julie and walked into the hotel, not putting her down until they were on carpet.

“Well, here we are,” Nic said, wondering once again what had possessed him to bring her here.

Once inside the door, he steered Julie past the kitchen and into the living room, gently pressing her into a chair. She’d begun to shiver so he left his coat around her shoulders. Room service would likely be closed.

“I’ll see what I have in the kitchen for you to eat.”

She didn’t reply.

He’d picked up a few snacks at the local market and, luckily, he’d also gotten a few cans of soup for after a day on the slopes. He grabbed one, and after pouring it into a bowl, placed it in the microwave and punched high.

“Want a cup of coffee, Julie?” Nic asked from the kitchen.

Again, she didn’t answer, so he walked out and knelt in front of her. She stared at the television as if it were on. He took her hands in his—ignoring the tug in his chest—they were so cold. He rubbed them with his thumbs as he got her attention.

“Julie, do you want a cup of coffee?”

“No, thanks, I don’t drink coffee.” Amusement flickered in her brown eyes. “Weird, I don’t know my last name, but I know I don’t drink coffee.”

The bell on the microwave sounded. Nic squeezed her hands reassuringly and headed back into the kitchen for the soup. By the time he got back into the living room, Julie had moved to the window, gazing out at the falling snow.

“Christmas Eve, huh? I wonder where I’m supposed to be right now.”

It wasn’t her tone—even and matter-of-fact—but the words that forced him to clear his throat before speaking.

“Come eat some soup.”

Once at the table, Julie ate well. Nic sat across from her and, when she was finished asked if she wanted more. She shook her head and sat back, pulling his coat around herself again.

“So, Julie. Why don’t you tell me what you do remember?”

She looked up at him, her eyes once again reflecting a sort of panic. Then her gaze fell to her hands. “The only thing I remember is the car sputtering. I looked down at the gas gauge and then pulled off to the side of the road.” She paused, clearly trying to get to the memories locked away inside.

Nic waited, hoped.

“It was like when you zone out while someone’s talking. You kinda zone back in and realize you’ve missed what they said. I just sat there trying to figure out where I was and where I was going. Then, you were at the window talking to me.”

Her eyes met his. God, she was beautiful. Her blonde hair fell around her face, and her eyes, a deep brown when he would have expected blue, shimmered with tears.

“You think, if I go to sleep, I’ll wake up and remember?”

“I don’t know. Sure you won’t let me take you to the hospital?”

“No!” She sat up straight, as if wanting to flee the room.

Nic put his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. No hospital. C’mon, I’ll let you have the bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.” He walked around the table and held out his hand to pull her to her feet, then led her to the bedroom. He laid back the bedding. “Get some sleep. We’ll see how things are in the morning.”

There was that “we” word again.

Julie sat down hesitantly on the bed.

“Do you think someone is looking for me?”

His gut twisted at the question. It wasn’t a sinister question. If she was missing, likely her family would be looking for her. But it wasn’t that simple. He just knew it. Still, he didn’t want to scare her with the first response that came to him—that someone might be looking to do her harm.

“Maybe.”

When she didn’t say more, he moved away.

“I’ll be in the living room if you need me.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Nic backed out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him.

“Nic. Could you just leave the door open?”

Nic smiled and complied. Then he walked to the couch and flipped on the TV. The sound blared, making even him jump before he could find the mute button on the remote.

“Sorry,” he hollered in the general direction of the bedroom.

He could hear her laugh in reply. “No worries, mate.”

Nic laughed. With her use of the Aussie phrase, Brandon Kirke’s face flashed through his head. Kirke was former Australian Special Forces and came to Yosemite every summer to play with the SAR boys. Nic had picked up some Aussie phrases from him. Where had Julie picked up hers? A friend? A husband?

He’d stripped to his boxers and shrugged, not wanting to go into the bedroom to grab sweats. He spread out the blanket and pillow he’d retrieved before Julie went to bed and curled up on the couch, his legs too long to stretch them out.

While he stared at the ceiling, his mind raced. The girl in his bed—there was a strange thought—had amnesia.

Amnesia. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Or, maybe she was faking. Why would she do that? What god-awful thing had happened to her to leave her lost and alone? For an instant, horrible images of violence and rape chased each other around his brain.

With a whispered curse, he turned up the volume on the TV, then flipped through the channels trying to find something…anything to make him drowsy. To give him something else to think about.

Who the hell was this girl?