Authors: Leigh Bale
Copyright 2013 by Leigh Bale
First Edition published 2013 by Leigh Bale
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His secret could destroy them both…
Toni Hamilton is torn by grief after a special ops mission
in Afghanistan claims the life of her brother. When a cryptic letter arrives
from him one month later, Toni finds her own life threatened and the only
person she can turn to for help is the man who may be responsible for his
Hoping to heal from the bullet wound in his leg and the
guilt lodged in his heart, Sergeant “Mac” MacKenzie seeks solitude in Nevada, at
his remote cabin on Crystal Lake. When Toni shows up on his mountain, injured
and frightened, Mac finds himself drawn into a volatile situation that could
get them both killed. Now, he must find a way to protect Toni when he doesn’t
know who to trust, including himself.
Note to reader: This book is an inspirational romantic
This book is dedicated to Daniel. My Marine.
They moved in under cover of darkness.
The purr of the Pave Hawk helicopter filled the parched night air. Inside the
chopper, Sergeant Michael “Mac” MacKenzie sat back on the bench seat with the
other members of his special ops team and took a deep inhale. Operation
Mongoose had officially moved into action. Their mission: retrieve survivors
and destroy top secret intelligence on board a downed U.S. military aircraft
before the Taliban found it.
To ease the sudden pressure in his
ears, Mac popped a piece of spearmint chewing gum into his mouth and chomped
down. Sweat beaded his brow and he wiped it away with his forearm before
adjusting the Kevlar helmet on his head. He tugged at the collar of his
camouflage uniform and flexed his toes in his Oakley assault boots. Highly
alert and ready for action.
Not much longer now.
From the open door of the chopper,
the lights of Kabul glimmered in the distance as they left the city and
traveled east toward the high peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The dry heat
burned his eyes and he blinked. Pitch black, the sky was alive with stars. It’d
be morning soon and they hurried to beat the harsh, dusty wind that made it
impossible to see and filled their clothes, eyes, ears and equipment with sand.
“In and out,” Major Carpenter, his
commander boomed over the drone of the chopper. “We’ll reach the crash site,
retrieve the package, and get out of Dodge before the insurgents know we’re
Lieutenant Gordon, the team’s
explosives expert, flashed a thumbs up. Simple and routine.
Yeah, right. With all the missions
Mac had been on, not one of them had been simple. Or safe. But this time,
something about the impending danger made his pulse trip into double-time.
Adrenaline. A rush he found strangely exhilarating.
He glanced at the six other men on
his team, squinting to see their expressions in the dark. Lieutenant Eric
Hamilton, their intelligence officer and Mac’s best friend since childhood,
caught his gaze. Mac knew Eric better than anyone. Eric hated flying and
usually showed a cheesy grin to cover his nervousness.
Even in the low light, Mac caught
Eric’s somber expression and tight lips. A subtle tension settled in Eric’s
shoulders and clenched hands.
Something was wrong.
For the past two days, Eric hadn’t
been himself. Yesterday, Mac had asked what was bothering him, but Eric brushed
him off, promising to discuss it later when they had more time. It probably had
something to do with the letter Eric insisted on mailing home to his two
Cara, more than likely. Since their
parents had died last year, Eric’s teenaged sister had become nothing but bad
news. Toni was doing her best to run the family shoe store and finish raising
Cara, but the situation wasn’t easy at home.
Eric’s eyes locked with Mac’s for
several seconds, then his gaze slid away. Mac would find out the problem in the
morning, after they’d completed their mission and returned to their barracks
for a good meal. He wouldn’t let Eric put him off any longer.
Sergeant Andrus sat on the other
side of the chopper. Mac had met Andrus just one hour before their flight, but
Eric knew him well. Both men had served together as intelligence officers. They
had the job of destroying the electronics from the downed aircraft, but Mac
sensed hostility between them.
Andrus avoided Eric’s glare by
staring at his booted feet. Something stood between these two. No doubt either
professional envy or a woman involved.
No, it couldn’t be a woman. Mac
would know if Eric was in love. Yet, Eric wasn’t the type to get involved in
petty jealousy either. So what could it be?
Yep, Mac had a lot to discuss with
Eric. He didn’t like the distance that seemed to be growing between them
lately. A steak dinner and a night off would fix that problem. They had leave
coming soon and Mac planned to make the most of it.
No one spoke. Each man’s gaze
darted to the chopper door where the barren landscape whizzed past in a blur of
shadows. Nothing but the scorched remains of poppy fields, mountains and rocks.
A country decimated by war, bloodshed and hate.
Mac sighed inwardly. Next week, he
and Eric would fly home and spend time fishing with Dad on Crystal Lake in
Nevada. They’d take long, cool swims and enjoy the smell of tall pinion pine
and aspens on Thorne Mountain.
Mac might even drive in to Vegas
and visit Eric’s family. With any luck, he’d get invited to supper. An excuse
to see Toni again.
He and Eric would eat Eric’s
grandmother’s homemade apple pie and tease Cara about all her boyfriends. Mac
liked teasing Toni, too, but she didn’t smile much since their broken
engagement. He’d like to make her laugh like she used to, but figured he no
longer had a right to even try.
He shook his head. Focus,
MacKenzie. Think about the mission.
“Okay, listen up.” Major Carpenter
yelled as he stood and clasped the handle hanging above his head to steady
himself. “You know the drill. Let’s be alert. Sergeant MacKenzie and I will go
first. You all know the rendezvous point if we get separated. Don’t be late.”
At the Major’s cue, they each
pulled on their night goggles. Mac’s shadowed world turned to eerie green light
as he waited for the drop.
Grim determination filled
Lieutenant Silvestri’s eyes while Gordon, the comedian of the group, flashed a
wide grin. “Piece of cake.”
Mac and the other men chuckled. It
eased the tension some.
As the team’s field medic, Mac
braced his left arm against his first aid bag slung across his back, hoping he
wouldn’t need it tonight. Shifting the CAR-4 rifle on his right shoulder, he
prayed he wouldn’t need that, either. Someday, he’d like to finish medical
school and be transferred to a nice, quiet military hospital.
But that dream seemed years away.
He watched from the open doorway as
the chopper flew like an elegant bird past the rock wall of the canyon rising
up on either side of them. The balmy breeze did little to ease the oppressive
heat. The camouflage greasepaint he’d coated on his face itched and he resisted
the urge to scratch.
The chopper pulled up and held
position over the first drop zone less than two miles from their objective. From
here, they’d hike the rest of the way. Then, they’d return to the rendezvous
point on a hilltop where the chopper would pick them up.
Lieutenant Silvestri helped the
Major toss two rappelling lines out the door. The whirring of the chopper
blades overhead filled the void and Major Carpenter waved a hand. Mac stood and
steadied himself. In ritualistic fashion, he made a fist with his gloved hand
and reached toward Eric. His best friend hesitated, then flashed a grin and
bumped his knuckles against Mac’s. Without words, they promised to watch each
other’s back and return home safe. Never leave a fallen man behind. Mac took
the vow seriously and knew Eric felt the same. A promise they’d each kept since
they’d joined the U.S. Marine Corps six years earlier.
In unison, Mac and the Major
clasped the heavy nylon lines and slid out of the chopper like a yo-yo without
the upswing. In a matter of seconds, they hit the ground and darted for
shelter, their CAR-4’s primed to fire and cover the other men ejecting from the
Mac hunkered down amongst the rocks
and scanned the cliffs surrounding him, wary of attack. The Taliban had a
talent for hiding in places only a scorpion would think of.
He waited as Gordon and Andrus slid
down the line. Next came Silvestri, the team’s sniper. A crack shot who’d
learned his technique as a boy hunting deer in the Rocky Mountains. Silvestri
planned to go hunting with Mac and Eric on Thorne Mountain as soon as they all
found the time.
Eric came last, just like
clockwork. His feet touched the ground and, in one pack, they started to run.
Experienced, self-assured and independent. Some called the team anti-social.
Lone wolves that solved problems. Mac didn’t mind being anti-social. He liked
his solitude. But it had also cost him his relationship with Toni, the only
woman he’d ever loved.
The chopper lifted off and
disappeared into the night. Mac knew it would circle back and wait like a giant
hawk, ready to swoop down and cover their position from above at a moment’s
Without a word, the Major took the
lead and they trotted behind him in single file. Their booted feet sank deep in
the sand as they held their weapons ready. Alert. Moving through the night with
Twenty minutes later, they reached
a short embankment leading into a narrow canyon and paused. Using night vision
binoculars, Gordon scanned the area for movement. He lifted a hand to signal
The men spread out, staying close
to the rock wall. As they approached the interior, they saw their objective.
The downed military aircraft lay like a great white whale beached in the sand,
its body torn to shreds from the impact of the crash eight hours earlier. The
blackened cockpit and front of the plane still smoldered, showing a gaping hole
in its side. Fire had gutted the plane, no doubt killing the pilot and
destroying the electronic components. But they had to make sure.
Eric headed toward the plane. Mac
stepped forward to accompany him and ensure no survivors. Then, they could all
A roaring whoosh filled the air,
the unmistakable sound of mortar.
“Incoming!” Mac yelled and pushed
Silvestri with him as they lunged for shelter behind a large boulder.
Silvestri grunted, rolled and
covered his head with his arms. Mac flattened himself in the dirt as an RPG, a
rocket propelled grenade, exploded against the cliff. Pebbles rained down on
his back. His helmet and an outcropping ledge saved him from being pummeled by
Dazed from the unexpected
explosion, Mac shook his head, trying to stop the ringing in his ears. The
sound of gunfire permeated his senses. He crouched low and fired his assault
rifle, aiming at the bursts of light coming from enemy fire on top of the ledge
With his night goggles, he could
just make out the bearded faces and white head coverings of their assailants.
Taliban insurgents. And they had the high ground.
How had the insurgents found them
Bullets whizzed past and ricocheted
around Mac. Splinters of rock peppered his face, stinging like bees.
“Hamilton! Get out of there,” he
hollered at Eric.
Pinned down in the middle of the
canyon, Eric huddled behind a large rock. If an insurgent aimed an RPG at his
position, he’d be toast.
Against regulations, Mac
cross-fired over Eric’s head, to give Eric the chance to run for cover. But he
didn’t move. To his right, Mac heard Silvestri radio the chopper for air
The thunder of heavy guns boomed.
Mortar shells slammed into the cliff. The earth shook and Mac feared the whole
mountain might come down on his head.
Gunfire inundated Eric’s position
and he yelled for help. Mac had to get him out of there. In a frenzy of
desperation, he poured fire over his friend’s head.