Authors: Irish Winters
IN THE COMPANY OF SNIPERS
“The first chapter of this romance suspense will touch your heartstrings and leave you hungry for more. Grab a box of tissues and hang on for the ride of your life.”
“Just when you thought you could not possibly fall more in love with Mark Houston—you do!”
“Irish Winters has done it again. She continues to craft tales of tender warriors who charm your socks off—and maybe Libby Clifton’s, too. Mark Houston is irresistible, Libby is as much a warrior as he is, and Alex Stewart continues to surprise.”
“This sweet romance is a lesson in karma. We really do reap what we sow, and every once in awhile if we’re lucky—what we reap could last forever.”
MARK; In the Company of Snipers, 2
Copyright ©2014 by Irish Winters
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, dialogues, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Edited by Katie Johnson, Editing Services.
Cover design and author photo by Kelli Ann Morgan,
Interior book design by Bob Houston eBook Formatting
ISBN Paperback: 978-1-942895-05-3
ISBN eBook: 978-1-942895-06-0
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013958282
Irish Winters can be contacted at
For my amazing sons—Jason, Tim, and PJ.
You boys make me proud every single day.
First to my husband, Bill, you’ve been on this ride with me for a few years now. Thanks for believing in me, being proud of me, and reading my books. You’ve added a man’s perspective and caught some errors that really needed catching. You’re always there for me. I like that in a guy. Love you, Sweetheart.
To my beta readers, Nancy Richardson and Lynn Hill, you were my fans long before there was a series. I hope you know you’re in this to the end with me. The stories aren’t over yet.
To Katie Johnson, my editor extraordinaire. Thank you for polishing this book. You made it shine!
To Kelli Ann Morgan, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Yes, I’m still smiling.
To Bob Houston, the best format artist around, thank you, sir. You’ve made publishing a breeze.
And lastly, to my mother—I can never thank you enough, Mom. There were eight of us kids in your family. I was the third oldest, born during the decade after World War II ended. We were poor like everyone else back then, but we were always happy. You made sure of that when you introduced me to the world of books. Because of you, I learned to read under the covers at night with a flashlight. I learned to speed read so I could finish all twelve library books (or more) before they had to go back. And I learned to dream. Thank you for instilling in me the love of reading. You’ve given me the treasure of a lifetime and some of my best friends, too. Love you still. Always will.
Slow down. You have plenty of time. Just do it right.
USMC Sergeant Mark Houston stood too long at the heavy oak door on Libby Clifton’s front porch. Shaking his nervousness off, he inhaled yet another measured breath. If he didn’t knock soon he would be in trouble. The sun was high and the humidity higher. A red-faced Marine in full dress uniform would not be a respectable sight so early in the morning.
Chaplain Kenny, his wingman, stood to his left, ready to pick up the pieces. Still, Mark faltered. Today was one of those hard days, the kind a person never forgot.
Where were you when JFK was killed? Where were you when the towers fell? Where were you when Mark Houston told you …?
A thousand ways he didn’t like the answer to that final question.
Gentler memories flooded his mind. He had stood here before during a kinder visit to Spencer, Wisconsin when he’d followed his buddy, Jon Wells, home on a ten-day pass. They’d spent most of that ten days swimming and fishing at nearby Lake Wissota with Jon’s fiancée, Libby, or visiting her family.
The Clifton’s welcome had been warm with unexpected hugs from her mother, and a gripping handshake from her father that evolved into a bear of a hug. Her two sisters, Faith and Marie, had flirted and teased. They’d all barely met him, but in an instant, Mark belonged. They’d loved him like a son. Then ....
The circle that began with Jon ended with him today. Good old Jon. Best buddy. Brother. Mark and he could have passed for brothers with their same dark looks, only Jon was the taller, handsomer one, while Mark was the stocky, muscular brother. They’d met the day they joined the Corps, two young men with stars and stripes in their eyes, intent on serving their country after 9-11. Some of the guys they survived boot camp with called them twins. Some called them Mutt and Jeff. It was all the same. They were on their way to glory.
The world was different then. America was in a hurry to hold someone accountable. For Mark, it was a matter of pride. He had enlisted to right a wrong, to take justice across the ocean for all those lost. Together he and Jon hit the road less travelled. They studied hard and drilled harder. Before long, both were known for their relentless dedication and fierce patriotism.
In the hardscrabble, accelerated military life after the towers fell, Mark found himself in Afghanistan within the year. The last time he saw Jon was the day a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade blasted his Black Hawk out of the sky. The memory of charred remains haunted Mark still.
Chaplin Kenny coughed politely beside him.
Mark jerked himself out of the past.
Yeah. I know I’ve got to do this. Give me a minute.
Fast forward to the Clifton porch. That was the one thing Jon had done right before he deployed. He’d listed Libby right after his parents to be notified in the event of his death. Even now, another team of two stood at Jon’s parent’s home announcing the same sad news.
No longer a welcomed guest or conquering hero, this morning Mark came as the destroyer. Thief in the night. Bringer of death and sorrow. USMC Notification Officer.
He stalled, his eyes glued to the brass door handle while sweat stung his eyes. Yesterday the handle opened doors. Today it kept Libby Clifton in her happy, carefree world. Until the moment it turned, she could believe. She could dream.
“Are you okay, son?” the chaplain asked kindly.
“Yes, sir,” Mark answered.
Hell, no. I’ll never be okay again. What kind of question is that?
With one last breath, he rapped his gloved knuckles against the oak. Muted sounds of the household came to life.
“I’ll get it,” a feminine voice declared. Sounded like Faith. Not Libby.
“Beat you to it, little girl.”
Mark recognized that teasing baritone voice. The brass handle turned. He stood face to face with Libby’s father. Warm recognition and surprise crinkled the corners of Jerry Clifton’s sharp eyes. He looked Mark up and down, processing the sight of two full dress Marines on his front porch. Jerry nodded once, but said nothing. He already knew.
Mark stepped forward. He was bad cop. Chaplain Kenny remained steadfast behind him. Good cop. Come to offer support after Mark’s awful deed was done.
“Mr. Clifton.” He licked his dry lips and kept his voice steady and low. “May I please speak with Libby, sir?”
The aroma of coffee and breakfast wafted through the open door. Breakfast was another one of those commonplace things about to change. Jerry turned away without inviting the Marines into his home.
Mark felt Kenny’s hand on his shoulder. If it was intended to offer strength, it missed.
This porch was where Jon had first kissed Libby, where he had asked for her hand in marriage. He’d been scared that day, a cocky young man humbled by a taciturn father. The same day he proposed marriage to the sweetest girl in the world. First the brass door handle, then breakfast, now the porch. What next?
Libby came timidly to the doorway. It had been a year, but the sight of her took Mark’s breath. He flinched when the scent of baby powder filled his nose. Her scent. It had haunted his dreams for months. The draft of the open door teased the white blond tendrils around her face, adding to the child-like innocence he had come to crush. Cobalt blue eyes begged him not to speak. His heart pumped too fast and too hard as his fight or flight response kicked in.
Stop. Don’t do this. Run. Never tell her. Never break her heart. Run!
But duty ruled. Honor prevailed. He steeled his heart and reached for her slender hand, letting the official pronouncement roll from his lips. “Libby Clifton. The Commandant of the Marine Corps of the United States of America has entrusted me to express his deepest regret. Your fiancé, Jonathan William Wells, was killed in action in Afghanistan on June second of this year when his Black Hawk helicopter was struck down by a Taliban rocket. The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
Libby stood blinking as she struggled to process the one hundred and eighty degree change in her life. Jerry held her elbow. Rosemary, her mother, stood behind her, wiping her own tears with a corner of her apron. Daisies and bunnies. Her apron was printed with brightly colored yellow daisies and brown fuzzy bunnies.
The things a man remembers ....
“Libby, I am so sorry,” Mark choked. He’d been trained to bury his emotions, to stand and stare and never show weakness. Never blink. Two centuries of military tradition, the stare was the battle-hardened Marine’s mask. Not today. Standing this close to a delicate flower of a girl, and watching his words break her heart—he blinked.
She pulled her hand out of his and took a step back.
“No. You’re wrong. This was not the plan. I’m in nursing school. Jonathan’s in Afghanistan. That’s the plan. He’s on a special assignment. He told me. When he comes home this time, we’re going to be married.” She looked to her father and then to her mother as if searching for a way out. “He promised. Mom? Dad? Didn’t he promise? This time he would really come home? You heard him. That’s what he said, didn’t he?”
Rosemary clutched her daughter’s shoulder.
The tone in Libby’s voice ratcheted higher. She stomped her foot, glaring at Mark. “No. No. No. This. Is. Not. The. Plan!”
By now her sisters, Faith and Marie, stood sobbing behind her.
She stood defiant; her hands clenched at her side, breathing hard and ready to fight. Mark saw the tear. The moment it slid out of her eye, he took a step forward, longing with all his heart to take her in his arms and speak other words.
“I hate you. I hate you!” She flung herself through the door and pounded his chest. “You’re wrong. You’re supposed to be his friend.”
He took it unflinching. This was everything he had expected, his loss come back a thousand-fold. And more.
At last, Jerry and Rosemary got hold of her. They pulled her back into the house, but she slipped out of their hands to the floor.
“You have to be wrong. He promised,” she whimpered.
Mark stepped back, gulping down the gorge rising in his throat, and pivoted on his heel. The deed was done. Her family would have to love her through it. His heart broke. Gone was the one sweet memory in his life. They would never dance on the beach again. She would never look at him with starlight in her eyes. All she would see forever more would be the monster who had destroyed her world.
It was Chaplain Kenny’s turn.
He made it down the first step when a firm hand clutched his jacket sleeve. He stowed his emotions, bit his lip, and willed his tears away.
“I need to leave now,” he muttered thickly without turning around.
“Mark.” Rosemary’s voice cracked. She held him fast and made him turn, still on that precarious first step – where he could walk away. Gentle hands cupped his clean-shaven chin, tilting his head up to face hers.
“Ma’am,” he ground out, defenseless to this older woman’s kind blue eyes – just like Libby’s. He blinked. Moisture clouded his vision. The strong. The brave. Yeah, right.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered kindly. Like his mother might have done a long time ago, she gathered him into her arms, her hand to the back of his head and held him tight against her heart. His white cap tumbled to the porch. “You poor boy. Jonathan was your friend, too.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. Anger he could handle. Not this.