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Authors: Claire Ashgrove

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A Broken Christmas

BOOK: A Broken Christmas
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“You need to go,” he murmured. “Away from me. I’m a monster.”

The ache behind her ribs intensified, and Aimee leaned in close to press a soft kiss to his cheek. “No. I’m staying right here. Go back to sleep, it’s not yet five.”

As his gaze locked with hers, she read the anguish behind his eyes. His whisper sent chills rolling down her spine. “I don’t want to hurt you. I shouldn’t even be here, but I needed clothes, then I fell on the stairs. I couldn’t make it back to the couch. Thought I’d sleep a little here…” He trailed off with another disbelieving shake of his head.

The man sitting before Aimee resembled nothing of the man she had married or the soldier she sent off to war. This one was on the verge of total meltdown, and the fact it was Kyle broke her heart. She slipped her hand into his, entwined their fingers. “Tell me about the dream?”

He lifted his gaze, his eyes pleading with her to understand. “I can’t.”

For the first time since she’d been issued the standard party line, she heard the truth. Not can’t.
Wouldn’t
. Kyle’s silence didn’t come from covert orders. The broken quality of his voice told her he didn’t
want
her to know.

Tonight wasn’t the time to push the issue of what happened in Afghanistan. Lifting his hand, she brought his knuckles to her lips then tucked their joined palms into her lap. “Is this why you said you don’t sleep so well anymore?”

Kyle looked to the window and answered with a short nod.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Since…”

Praise for
A BROKEN CHRISTMAS

 

“A BROKEN CHRISTMAS
is a very poignant, beautiful story of love and sacrifice. It reaches into the heart of all those who serve our country—the men, the women, and their families—and the struggles they may have to endure to continue to love. It leaves those who read it richer, more humble, and smiling.”

~Julia Galeria Casca, Amazon reviewer

 

“A BROKEN CHRISTMAS
is a wonderful holiday read. Claire Ashgrove weaves a tale that will break your heart and lift it up at the same time.”

~Dyann Love Barr, author of
A Perfect Bride for Christmas
(available from The Wild Rose Press)

 

“In Kyle Garland, Claire Ashgrove has created the ultimate wounded hero. Kyle is determined to keep his painful scars and even more painful memories from caring ex-wife Aimee. She's equally determined that he will be healed, and she's the woman for the job.
A BROKEN CHRISTMAS
is a passionate powerhouse of a story. Have the tissues ready!”

~Stephanie Cage, author of
Desperate Bid
(available from The Wild Rose Press)

 

 

 

A Broken

Christmas

 

by

 

Claire Ashgrove

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

 

A Broken Christmas

 

COPYRIGHT
Ó
2011 by Valerie M. Hatfield

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Contact Information: [email protected]

 

Cover Art by
Rae Monet, Inc. Design

 

The Wild Rose Press

PO Box 706

Adams Basin, NY 14410-0706

Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com

 

Publishing History

First Champagne Rose Edition, 2011

 

 

Published in the United States of America

Dedication

 

To all the men and women who have sacrificed

for their country, most especially

the anonymous inspiration for this story—

may your recovery be speedy and your heart full.

 

And my own special hero, Jason.

Acknowledgements

 

Thank you, Dyann Love Barr, for brainstorming critical elements that were outside my area of comfort. To Judy Ridgeley, for your veterans insight and knowledge; to Dennis, for your opinions on a long car-ride back from conference; and to Jason for your insight to the reality of service as well as the countless hours you helped navigate my vision.

To my mother, thank you as always, for the patience you've given, the hours you've spent as Grandma, and your support.

As always, thanks go to Midwest Romance Writers, Mid-America Romance Authors, and Heartland Romance Authors, and all the people who've mentored me along the way. Last, but certainly not least, my agent Jewelann Cone and my editor Cindy Davis, without whom none of this would be possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

Afghanistan, March 2011

 

Nervous
.

The immediate thought crossed Kyle Garland’s mind as Saif Dhamaja, Delta Force’s reliable source for the last two years, looked out the window for the second time in fifteen minutes. Beyond the open curtain, anxious voices from the busy market two streets over carried on the sticky afternoon breeze. No different than any other time they’d joined Saif for late afternoon tea.

So why was Saif nervous?

Kyle didn’t like the gut-instinct answer—
sold out.
He dismissed it, certain he was being paranoid. Since U.S. Troops invaded Afghanistan, the village had been loyal and friendly.
Sind Krait
wasn’t the first Special Forces unit Saif and his family had aided. Why flip now?

Clearing his throat, Kyle leaned forward, set his teacup on a saucer, and rubbed his open palms on the knees of his loose, lightweight pants. He glanced at his best friend, Connor Walsh, then gave Saif a smile. “Your wife and daughters are at the market?”

Saif nodded. “Asal has decided to make a rug.” He ran his hand over the faded red, woolen rug they sat on. “This one has seen many uses. She will buy wool today.” He reached to the middle of the rug for the dish of miniature sweet cakes. “And sugar. Would you care for another?”

Kyle wasn’t hungry but refusing would seem rude. He took another cake then passed the plate to Walsh. The dish made it around the circle, all four
Sind Krait
members accepting another. Cliff Denton, the newest member on the team made eye contact with Kyle. His expression was clear—
not another cake.
Poor guy. He couldn’t stand sweets.

“And Jawid is at school?” Parker asked. “How is his mathematics coming along?”

“Math.” Saif laughed. “I do not think my son shall ever count beyond the things he can see.”

Kyle chuckled. The last time he’d seen Jawid, the eight-year-old was more interested in grilling Parker for everything he knew about goats. With Parker’s farm upbringing, the two had plenty to talk about.

Outside, a clatter of pans and other metal objects gave way to angry shouts. A woman shrieked, and chickens erupted in a cacophony of noise. Saif frowned. “If you will excuse me?”

“Of course.” Kyle nodded.

He kept his cordial smile in place as Saif rose to his feet and headed to the door. When he’d ducked outside, Kyle gave his teammates a hard stare and lowered his voice. “Does Saif seem off?”

Jones shrugged—his typical response. Unlike Denton, he’d rather eat than talk. Parker and Denton exchanged puzzled glances, then looked to Kyle as they shook their heads.

“Seems fine to me,” Denton replied.

Only Walsh held onto Kyle’s level gaze. They’d worked together so long that at times Kyle would swear they could read each other’s minds. It didn’t take much to realize Walsh had picked up on Kyle’s apprehension. Kyle nodded at him. “What do you think?”

“I think we have an hour before we leave for our final meetup, and Saif’s taken us this far. I can’t see him turning tail now.”

Maybe not Saif, but maybe someone else in his family. This time Kyle’s team wasn’t just making some standard-issue insurgents disappear. This time, they had a loftier target in their sights—the current number three on the US’s list, Aadel Hamidi. With Saif’s help, Aadel would be dead in an hour, and preventing that death would elevate someone to pretty high status. Grant them a few special considerations from the Taliban that they might not have been privy to before.

As Kyle glanced to the closed door, Walsh leaned in at his left. “You seeing sheep again?” A smirk hovered at the corner of Walsh’s mouth.

Kyle scowled. “Those weren’t sheep. And that
suspicion
saved your ass. Otherwise, those
sheep
would have stood up on their two legs, hauled out their AKs, and you’d have been making friends with angels.” His gaze pulled to the window and the noise on the street outside. “I don’t like it.”

Walsh subtly held out his hand, palm up. His voice was a near whisper. “If you’ve got a feeling, give it over.” He waggled his fingers.

Damn
. Kyle had hoped Walsh would forget their pact, and he wouldn’t have to explain why his wedding band was back in his trunks at base. He hadn’t told Walsh he’d served Aimee divorce papers in January. Didn’t want to confront that conversation. That absolute failure.

“The last time you had a feeling you nearly ate an IED. Now give it over. I promised Aimee.”

Yeah. He’d promised to return Kyle’s ring. A silent signal Kyle wouldn’t be coming home, so Aimee wouldn’t have to wait on bureaucratic red tape and politicians to cover up whatever job they hadn’t been doing, that didn’t exist, before they broke the news to her.

Kyle reached for his tea. “Finger swelled—I left it in my footlocker.”

As he lifted his cup to his mouth, a whoosh of air caught his attention. He froze, knowing what it was. Knowing it was already too late.

Time moved in slow motion, each heartbeat thunder in his head. From his right, from the window Saif had been so preoccupied with, a long, lean, tan missile sailed inside.

This is gonna suck.

The thought had barely registered before the RPG cruised over their heads, through the doorway into the adjoining bedroom, where it crashed into the wall. A flash blinded Kyle. Heat washed over his body, sending him backwards into something hard and unmoving.

Death ricocheted through his ears.

****

Dim and fuzzy, thoughts filtered through the haze in Kyle’s head. He fought his way through the noise to the surface, grasping at sharper sounds, clearer tones. Then pain burst through his body, and he opened his eyes. Flat on his back, he stared at the charred remains of Saif’s ceiling.

Alive. Fucking impossible.

He closed his eyes and took stock of his body. Left hand, pinkie, ring finger, middle finger, index, thumb—he could feel them all. His left leg too. But there was something very wrong with his right leg. He ordered his toes to move, and agony blistered through his body. Where he’d been blissfully numb seconds before, it was as if his brain finally shed the last bits of unconsciousness and woke with a vengeance. White fire coursed in his right arm and leg.

Kyle opened his eyes once more and glanced down the length of his prostrate body. Wet, sticky, crimson stains covered his off-white pants. Bits of tattered flesh along his thigh protruded from a long rip in the cloth.

Fuck.

Walsh. Where the hell’s Walsh?

A man’s scream stilled Kyle seconds before he turned his head. He moved only his eyes, first left, then right, and groaned inwardly. Parker lay near his right shoulder, Jones just above his head on the left—both staring at him with the glassy-eyed look of death.

No Walsh. Where the fuck was Walsh?

Another scream ripped through the room, accompanied by a strange, metallic
ping.
The muffled Pashto language reached his ears, followed by the sound of masculine laughter. Two voices… No, three.
Clean up team.
Insurgents sent in after the blast to finish off anyone who remained alive. Either they hadn’t noticed him, or they’d grouped him as dead along with Parker and Jones.

Fucking Saif. When he got his hands on that bastard, he’d enjoy wringing the life out of his traitorous neck.

Kyle tuned into the voices, placing them in the room just behind his head. Beyond the pile of rubble, close to the door. Another cry curdled his blood. In the sobs that followed, Kyle caught familiar words. More than that—a familiar voice.
Denton
.

The bastards had Denton.

He willed his body to move, gritted his teeth against the searing pain that ripped along his right side from shoulder to toes. Slowly, quietly, he levered himself onto his left side. Then over, flat on his belly. His fingertips on his right hand grazed the sidearm tucked away beneath his long shirt, but they flat out refused to grasp and hold. Biting back a curse, Kyle worked his good arm beneath his body and fished at his waist for the pistol. Carefully, he dragged it out and tested the grip. It had been a long time since he’d shot anything left handed. With a little luck, he still had decent aim.

The metallic
ping
, echoed through the surrounding rubble. Denton yelled again, his cry dying on a hoarse choke. That gut-curdling scream gave Kyle strength enough to ignore the torment in his limbs and lift on his elbows. Using Jones’ broken body as cover, he peered over the bits of plaster and clay.

Three insurgents gathered around Denton, blocking him from view. Exactly what they were doing, Kyle couldn’t tell. But gauging from the blood that seeped between a pair of feet and soaked the ground near Denton’s shoulders, it wasn’t good.

A flash of metal drew his attention, seconds before another eerie
ping
cut through Denton’s muffled cries. Kyle’s gaze jumped to the Afghani bent over Denton’s midsection. As the man straightened, he tossed a small hammer aside. It thumped to a stop near a pair of motionless bare feet that protruded from a small hill of debris. Walsh. Fuck.

Kyle bit back a wave of sorrow and worked his gun atop Jones’ body. Three shots. Across no more than twenty feet. Bad aim or not, he could do this.

He aimed and fired. Two men hit the ground before the third swiveled around in surprise. As that one slung an AK-47 over his shoulder, Kyle pulled the trigger again. The man fell face-first, stirring up a cloud of dust.

“Denton?” Kyle called quietly.

Only the nauseating sound of masculine tears met his ears.

Kyle inhaled deep and forced his own pain aside. Crawling on his elbows and pushing with his good leg, he dragged himself over Jones’ body, over the rubble, and to his bleeding teammate.

When he came to a stop, Denton’s far away stare focused on him. Kyle’s heart ground to a stop. He’d seen a lot of sick things in his life. Committed a few atrocities that still haunted his sleep. But this…

Denton’s left eye dangled from its socket. His face was swollen and purple, hardly recognizable after they’d taken something heavy to it. Blood ran in rivulets down his neck, across his shoulders, to pool beneath his head.

Kyle dragged his gaze lower, his stomach churning. The RPG had ripped Denton’s arm almost in half, which explained the blood Kyle had seen between the insurgents’ feet. But the crimson stain spreading beneath Denton’s waist came from something far worse. Something only a psychopath could do.

Kyle shut his eyes to block out the scene. But he’d looked long enough that the two, blunt-tipped metal rods protruding from Denton’s kidney regions were burned into Kyle’s eyelids. Staked to the floor,
hammered
in no less. The wounds tolled a slow, excruciating death.

“Aw shit,” he muttered as he reached for Denton’s hand. Kyle squeezed as he worked himself into a better position. “I’m here, Cliff.” He couldn’t bring himself to find words of encouragement, couldn’t utter false promises. Denton had been around long enough to know they would just be pretty sounds. He wasn’t coming out of here. Not breathing, at least.

His gaze found Denton’s once more. Brown eyes conveyed acceptance. The instantaneous flash of anger that filtered through anguish for a heartbeat accompanied the flutter of Denton’s lips.

Kyle squeezed his hand. “Shh. Don’t talk, buddy. I’m not leaving you.”

Denton closed his eyes, long and slow. When his swollen eyelids lifted again, steely determination glinted behind gathered tears. His lips moved again, this time mouthing distinct words.
Do it.

BOOK: A Broken Christmas
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