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Chief Warrant Officer David Ryland glanced around the sterile waiting room at Fort Bonnell Medical Center, taking in the crowd of well-wishers gathered around the little boy on the stretcher. The circuslike atmosphere made him feel a bit frazzled and edgy, but then he'd just landed on American soilon good ol' Texas soilafter flying medevac Black Hawks for eighteen months in the war-torn Middle East. He had a right to be edgy.
Moving his gaze from the excited group hovering near the doctor and little Ali Tabiz Willis, David found himself staring straight into the blue-green eyes of Anna Terenkov. Anna looked away, then quickly glanced back at David, a slight smile on her heart-shaped face.
David studied her closely, deciding he'd better dust off his social skills now that he was home. And his flirting skills. Because he definitely wanted to get to know the woman responsible for helping to make this day happen. David had heard about the legendary humanitarian who ran the Children of the Day charity, but seeing her in person was a whole different matter. She was not what he had expected.
She was even better.
Her blond hair was pulled back in a haphazard coil held up by an intricate silver clip. She was petite, but her calm, assured presence made her seem taller. She wore loose-fitting green cargo pants and a crisp white button-up blouse. And around her neck she wore a choker-style strand of dark leather, from which hung a chunky sterling-silver pendant with the cross and the lance of Golgotha set against an etched background. He couldn't move his gaze from her.
Caitlyn Villard, the Care Coordinator for Children of the Day, and Army Chaplain Steve Windham introduced Caitlyn's twin nieces to Ali. While the precocious five-year-olds wished him well in Arabic and English, David watched Anna's face. She lit up around children, her smile turning to sunshine. He'd noticed that the minute he'd exited the plane with little Ali earlier that morning.
"CW3 David Ryland, ma'am," David had said by way of a greeting back at the airfield. "Delivering one Ali Tabiz, as ordered."
Anna grinned as she studied the three square bars on his insignia. "It wasn't exactly an order, Chief. More of a hope sent out on a wing and a prayer."
David nodded, liking the way the slight lilt of her foreign accent mixed nicely with a little bit of Texas twang. He'd learned in all the back and forth coordination for Ali's trip that she was Russian and had lived there until her early teens, when her father had been killed in Afghanistan.
"Well, I got the wings secured and I guess you took care of the prayer, ma'am."
She touched her fingers to the cross at her neck. "We all had a big part in that." Reaching out to shake his hand, she said, "Thank you so much. And please don't call me ma'am. I'm Anna."
"You're welcome, Anna," David replied, the warmth of her energy shooting through his tired, travel-worn system.
She held his hand, cupping it between both of hers. "I'm not just thanking you for helping Ali, sir. Thanks for serving our country, too."
David was both humbled and shaken by her sincere, misty-eyed gratitude. "Okay, if I can't call you ma'am, then you sure don't have to address me as sir."
She nodded. "Then I'll just call you Chief."
David laughed. "From what I hear, you're the real chief around here."
She shook her head. "No, just someone who understands that war is devastating to children."
All of the activity around them had blurred into the background. He could hear the sounds of other soldiers coming off the jet, the cries of family members who'd been waiting for their loved ones to come home. He could feel the way the hot August wind pushed through the humid Texas air. David heard all of this, saw images passing by all around him, but the light of Anna's eyes seemed to outshine all of that. He was smitten, but he chalked it up to being home. Having such a reaction to the petite blonde would be normal for any man who'd been at war, he supposed. She was easy on the eyes.
David had dreaded this journey. Finally, things were looking up. While everyone around him celebrated Ali's safe entry into the United States, David thought back over the last forty-eight hours and the intensity of his final mission as he'd airlifted Ali away from Camp Die-Hard to a staging area and on to Landstuhl, Germany, to a waiting C-17 air force plane.
Now that David had made it home to Texas, he stood back as he always had, watching. He'd grown up in Prairie Springs, but he had never been a part of this place. He'd been a struggling outsider back then, and now his worst fear was that he'd return to that yet againno matter what he'd done to serve his country. And no matter how interested he was in the pretty blonde who'd started this whole chain of events.
But they weren't the only two who'd worked to get this little boy to America and safety. Ali's grandfather had called in a whole passel of favors, though still making sure he went by the letter of the law to get the little boy to Texas. The old warhorse had finally realized he'd failed his son, but Ali would give all of them a renewed chance to make things right. To honor the memory of Greg and Karima Willis.
David prayed they'd be able to help the lost little boy both physically and spiritually.
His gaze held Anna's, and he wondered if she was praying for the very same thing.
"We need to tell Dr. Blake about Ali's cough. With all the cameras and press, I didn't get a chance to brief her when we came in."
Anna looked away from David to find army nurse Maddie Bright tugging at her arm. "I can't get her attention," Maddie said.
Anna turned back to David with a reluctant shrug. "Excuse us, please."
He gave her that soldier nod she'd become so familiar with over the years of working closely with Fort Bonnell personnel. "Go on. I'll be right here," David said.
That drawling promise sent a foreign tingle down Anna's spine. The pilot was certainly good-looking, but the man had been through the worst of the war. He'd be hungry for any sort of feminine attention. Even hers.
Putting her mind back on Ali's needs, she escorted Maddie to where Dr. Nora Blake loomed over the boy, checking his vitals while she ignored the reporters trying to get her attention.
Anna pushed through the crowd. "Dr. Blake, this is Madeline Bright, the nurse who accompanied Ali home. She needs to speak to you."
"Talk," the blond, no-nonsense doctor ordered without even glancing up.
"I'm worried about fluid backing up into his lungs." Maddie hurriedly explained that both she and the on-board flight nurse had monitored Ali during the long, grueling trip across three continents.
Dr. Blake stood silent, allowing Maddie to vent her worries then said, "Dr. Montgomery explained some of that in his last report. He said Ali's ankles and feet have been swollen. That's why we pushed so hard to get him here as quickly as possible."
Maddie nodded. "Swelling's not a good sign."
Dr. Blake glanced over Ali's charts. "No, it is not. We'll check that and probably put him on digoxin to help his heart pump and lasix to get rid of the fluid. We need to get him in tip-top shape before we even attempt the surgery." Snapping the chart shut, she stood straight again. "Does that ease your mind?"
"Yes, ma'am," Maddie said, relief evident in her sigh. "Thank you."
"She's a good nurse," David said as he moved closer to Ali's stretcher.
"I'm glad you both got permission to accompany Ali," Anna replied, liking his soft smile. "It's so horrible to think he lost both parents in this war."
David nodded, his eyes going dark. "That's why we wanted to get him to his grandfather. They have only each other now."
"Well, thanks again," Anna said. "You're a local hero now."
He balked at that. "No, ma'am. I'm just a soldier, doing my job."
Anna let it go at that, since she'd brushed off his earlier compliment to her. She was happy to see Ali surrounded by people who cared about him so much.
But she couldn't help thinking about the man who had escorted Ali home and what little he'd told her about Karima's death and Ali's injuries. She longed to hear more about his war experiences, but she also knew the pilot would need some time. Readjustment to post life could be very stressful for any returning soldier. Anna hadn't known David before he left right after high school to train to be a pilot, but she'd heard that he'd requested a Permanent Change of Station so he could come back to Fort Bonnell to finish out the two remaining years of his current enlistment. Sending him a covert glance, she decided she'd like to get to know him now, though, when and if he was ready for a friend.
She had so many questions, and not all of them pertained to the war. She wanted to understand the kind of man who'd go out of his way to help an injured child. The kind of man who, much like her own deceased father, was willing to lay down his life for his brother. The kind of man who could bring life coursing back through her numb system simply by looking at her.
But Anna's questions would have to remain silent. Right now, everyone who had been so instrumental in getting Ali to Texas was here to welcome the tiny, obviously scared five-year-old to the United States. After this quick greeting, Ali would head on up the hall for testing and observation, so that Dr. Blake could get him ready for surgery in a few weeks.
Anna did plan to thank David again in a more formal setting for all his help in getting Ali here. And she hoped David would open up to her about more than just the little boy. Because from the way he stood to one side, silent and somewhat unsure, Anna had a feeling David could use a friend now that he was back on post. Maybe she was just imagining the way his dark eyes gleamed with interest every time he looked at her. But, every time he looked at her, he was smiling.
David stood watching as the hospital staff prepared to wheel Ali away. Dr. Nora Blake marched behind Ali's stretcher, her hands up to keep people from crowding in too close, her expression as chilly as a cold desert night.
Ignoring the loud questions from a group of local television and radio reporters who'd followed them from the airfield, she shouted, "Okay, people. Let's finish so Ali can get settled in for some tests and some quiet time before he goes home in a couple of days."
David got the distinct impression nobody messed with Dr. Nora. She looked as intense as a colonel about to lead his troops into battle. She seemed to soften when she looked down at Ali, but the coolness was still there in her stance, just the same.
David could understand that intensity. He'd felt that way for the last two days, his mood waffling between worry for Ali and relief that they were going home. Now that Alie was here, David had fulfilled his dity. His part of this important mission was over. All he could do now was pray for the scared little boy and hope Ali adjusted to his new life in America. And that the surgery to repair his heart would be successful.