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Captain Rachel Trayhern was five steps away from Bravo Base Operations and the control tower when the first Taliban grenade struck the tarmac.
The hot August sun beat down upon her, and their mission had just ended.
A sudden disruption made her flinch, and she whirled around at the hollow "thump" sound. Panic raced through her as she anticipated the fall. Lieutenant Susan Cameron, her copilot, had already gone inside to file their Apache gunship flight report. At least she might be safe.
The enemy grenade landed squarely on her helicopter. The ensuing explosion sent booming shock waves rippling across the landing area. Cheating death once more, the crew that was coming to hitch the Apache up with a motorized cart drove in the other direction. Fire flew toward the sky. Metal erupted and became deadly shrapnel in every direction. Thick, black smoke rolled outward and upward.
A second, third and fourth grenade popped into the sky. Rachel hit the asphalt hard, her helmet bag flying out of her hand. The August sky had been clear blue. Now, as the well-aimed grenade launchers hit the second Apache and a CH-47 Chinook that had landed a few minutes earlier, the whole airport was under siege. Attack!
Gasping, Rachel kept her hands over her head. Her helmet bag lay nearby but not close enough. The smoke was thick and choking. She heard the surprised cries of men as the attack continued. Return fire began. Bravo Base was one of the most forward CIA operations in Afghanistan, not more than fifteen miles from the line between this country and Pakistan. And it was always a target of the Taliban.
Crawling to try and find some kind of protection, Rachel heard another thunk and knew the enemy had launched yet another grenade. She was out in the open and completely vulnerable. A piece of shrapnel could kill her as easily as a grenade exploding nearby. More shock waves rolled across the air facility. Shrieks of wounded began to fill the air.
Oh, God, let me get out of this alive. The Apaches roared and burned, creating smoke so thick she couldn't see one foot in any direction. Rachel heard the pounding of feet across the tarmac. Orders were screamed above the devastating attack. She felt strangled, helpless. Her brown hair fell loose from its knot, and tears ran down her face as she continued to crawl blindly along the edge of the tarmac. So far, Ops wasn't hit, but she knew the Taliban would try and take it out. She was in real danger.
With return fire of heavy artillery in full force, thumping sounds filled the smoke-clogged air. Special Forces had to be heading for the edge of the base to engage the Taliban. Bravo was surrounded by two ten-foot tall walls with razor-blade sharp concertina wire on top. Somehow, the Taliban had gotten close enough to inflict major damage. The heavy chutter of machine gun fire began in an attempt to ward off the Taliban located at the end of the runway.
Hacking and choking, Rachel crawled swiftly away from the control tower. Her elbows and knees smarted with pain, the asphalt hard on them. Her mind spun with shock over the violent attack. Somehow, she managed to scramble off the tarmac and into the weeds and dirt. She was a good fifty feet away from the tower, which was an obvious target. She worried for her copilot, Susan, whom she hoped had escaped in time.
A hot, black cloud of smoke overtook her. Burying her head in the grass, Rachel could barely breathe. She felt as if she were going to die. As she continued to crawl, blind and constantly coughing, she knew her only way to live was to escape the attack. The roar of the burning helos, the return fire from heavy machine guns reverberated against her unshielded eardrums. Her strength began to dissolve. She was barely getting any oxygen, so she thrust her face down into the weeds, the only place with clean air. Fire sucked and ate up oxygen. Heat from the flames rose.
The wind shifted toward her, a bad sign. Pushing forward, her flight boots digging into the hard Afghan soil, Rachel felt the small rocks and stouter weeds poking into the chest and belly of her green flight suit. She thrust out her hand, fingers like claws digging into the resisting earth. It rarely rained in August at eight thousand feet. The land was hard and unyielding.
No! I can't die! Rachel gasped like a fish out of water, saliva drooled from her mouth as she tried to suck up the life-giving air. Oh, God, don't let me die like this! Her vision began to gray. More smoke rolled toward her, hot and stealing her oxygen. The breeze across the mountains where the base was located was constant. Now it blew toward where she tried to crawl.
Her senses dulled and tears ran down her face. Trying with all her might to escape the smoke, she began to sob. At thirty years old, she had her whole life ahead of her. And even though she'd been an Apache gunship pilot for the last five years, she'd never thought that she'd die crawling across the ground.
Weakened, she lay still for a moment, fighting to get her consciousness back. The smoke was an oxygen-sucking monster. The heavy chut, chut, chut of machine guns spitting out their bullets became distant. The flames and roaring fire sounds lessened, too. Her aching ears seemed filled with cotton, erasing all the noise that had pounded relentlessly seconds earlier. Rachel collapsed, her face pressed to the ground, small rocks biting into her cheekbone. Even that pain seemed to float away. She was losing consciousness because she couldn't get enough air into her lungs. No matter what she did, she no longer had the strength to pull herself forward. The last thought she had was that after the fires were put out, they'd find her body in the weeds.
It was an ignominious end, Rachel decided. She was a combat pilot. A damn good one. She'd battled through Apache flight school and nearly got kicked out thanks to Captain Tyler Hamilton, who hated her. And yet, she'd fought back and remained to graduate.
Shutting her eyes, Rachel thought of her family. Her father, Noah Trayhern, danced before her closed eyes, his smile making her feel better. And her mother, Kit, who was a police detective, had a sharp and alert gaze. Praying, her lips moving, Rachel didn't want her parents to hear from the Army that she'd died of smoke inhalation on a barren, godforsaken mountaintop in Afghanistan.
As her world grayed, her body went slack and consciousness receded. Darkness was complete.
And then Rachel felt someone standing at her side. She couldn't see who it was, but she felt love radiating from this being.
Welcome, Rachel, the being said to her. You are all right now. You're here to review your life. Are you ready?
This had to be a dream. There was no voice she could hear. But she could feel the words. Confused, afraid, she looked around. Everything was a bright white light, but not so bright as to make her squint. Finally, she said mentally, I guess I am ready .
She began to see the moment when she was conceived. Her mother was very young, very beautiful. Her father was in the Coast Guard, a commander of a cruiser. The love they had for one another overwhelmed Rachel. Her heart opened powerfully.
You were brought into this world with love, a voice said.
Rachel felt hot tears come to her eyes. She loved her family so much! Her given name was Melody Sue Rachel Trayhern. She laughed when she saw herself as a ten-year-old girl talking to her mother, stubbornly telling her mother that she hated the name, Melody Sue. She wanted to be called Rachel, her middle name, because that was her grandmother's name. And Rachel fiercely loved the elder. She saw her mother smile and laugh. From that point on, everyone called her Rachel.
Everything moved swiftly for Rachel as she reviewed her life. She saw four more sisters born to her parents. She was the oldest. And they'd had a very happy childhood. Rachel, the pathfinder for the family, as her father referred to her, wanted to go into the military. She'd been allowed into West Point and had been one of the top ten officers to graduate from that military academy. Rachel's gut tightened as she saw her orders were for Fort Rucker, Alabama, the flight school. She had dreamed of being a pilot, of flying, all her life. Her father told her that flying was in the blood of the Trayherns. Rachel remembered her powerful reaction to that information.
Rachel felt her heart slam shut with pain. She saw her first days at the Apache flight school. Her anger rose as she saw her instructor, Captain Tyler Hamilton. He stood in front of her company, arrogant, a real bastard, who hated women on the same tarmac with him. And he'd singled out Rachel because she was doing better than the other men learning to fly the Apache helicopter. More rage rose as she watched Hamilton plot her demise. Sheer hatred, that's what flowed through her. This son of a bitch was going to flunk her out of school. The dream of flying was dying.
Rachel, the voice said gently. Until you make peace with this man you cannot leave.
Confused, Rachel looked around. She was surrounded in a white-and-gold glowing fog. How she wished again she could see who owned this voice.
That way she could explain face-to-face that she could never forgive Hamilton. He tried to ruin her.
He'd said the Trayhern family was always trying to get what they didn't deserve. Well, that wasn't true. She'd worked damned hard to get her wings at Fort Rucker. She was a good pilot. That bastard wouldn't take her dream away. The Trayhern family served its country with pride and honor. No way would she stand there and let him kick her out.
Because of your ongoing hatred, you must go back and work through this with him.
Before Rachel could say a thing, she felt a powerful, whirling sensation, as if she were in a funnel, spinning around and around. Then she fell and everything grew dark. The gold light disappeared, and the blanket of love dissolved. Suddenly, it was as if an anvil were sitting on her chest. She gasped and coughed violently.
Her eyes flew open. The sunlight nearly blinded her, and she found herself on her back in the dirt and grass. Someone was kneeling at her side, gripping her shoulder. He was looking into her eyes, panic in his. His mouth opened and he raised his head, screaming for a medic.
Rachel felt the strong touch of his hand, saw the care and fear in his blue eyes. Her mind refused to work properly. She continued to gasp, grabbing her chest as if to force air into her lungs. Weapons continued to fire in the distance, and she heard men and women calling out orders. The sky. Staring up at the blue sky, Rachel blinked as her chest heaved. No more smoke! The smoke had moved. She was alive. Alive!
Mind barely functioning, Rachel heard the man at her side calling for help once again. He sounded desperate. Afraid. For her? And then as her consciousness grew, Rachel felt a shock wave of another kind roll through her. This one took her breath away. The man at her side was Captain Tyler Hamilton, the instructor pilot who had almost gotten her flunked out of Apache flight school. What the hell was he doing on her base? Rachel's mind shorted out, and she struggled to make sense of what was happening. Was this a nightmare?
Groaning, Rachel couldn't handle the emotional tsunami, and she blacked out. The last thing she felt was his protective hand on her shoulder. He was the last man on earth who she ever wanted to touch her.