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"Stick a fork in me 'cause I'm well done," Lieutenant Colonel Chad Cassavetes muttered as he popped the canopy of his A-10 Thunderbolt. Sweat had soaked his flight suit and clogged the valve of his oxygen mask.
Summer in Afghanistan was hell. And speaking of which, the devil would feel right at home at Bagram Air Base. On a misery index of one to ten, this place was a twelve. The wind was crazy making, the heat was abominable and there was grit everywhere. Everywhere!
Then there was the desolation. Not only had the sun baked the high desert into a mountainous moonscape, the ghostly remnants of the Soviet invasion gave it the aura of Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1880.
But Chad really didn't have anything to gripe about. At least he had three hots and a cot. That was more than he could say for his grunt buddies who went weeks at a time subsisting on MREs—aka Meals Rejected by Everyone— and bunking on the rock-hard earth.
Chad's job was to provide aerial support for troops on the ground, and in a couple of months he'd be back at his home base in Spangdahlem, Germany. Deployments, temporary duty, "interesting" assignments and great adventures—it was all part of life as an air force pilot.
After the crew chief secured the plane's wheels, Chad climbed down to join his friend and wingman, Neil Spencer, on the tarmac.
"We saved those guys' bacon," Neil said. "They owe us one." The combat situation they'd just come out of had been iffy at best and really freaking dangerous at worst.
A Special Forces team had been pinned down on a ridgeline. They couldn't move without being slaughtered, so they'd called in the A-10s. Chad andNeil had come to the rescue.
Unlike their F-16 buddies, who delivered their payloads low and fast, A-10 pilots got down and dirty in helping the troops in the trenches. Their current mission was to provide up close and personal firepower for the NATO expeditionary forces.
"We were lucky," Chad admitted. To be completely truthful, their success had been the result of more than a few unorthodox tactics.
"Damn good thing the dust lifted," Neil said as he wiped some of the sweat and grime from his face.
When the Special Forces' SOS first came in, the visibility had been less than ten feet, so they'd waited and waited, not knowing what they'd find when they finally got airborne. As far as Chad was concerned, the feeling of being powerless was one of the most frustrating elements of the Afghan mission.
The war was a crapshoot, which made it frustrating. "Let's head over to the intel office and get this debriefing out of the way. Then I could use a cold drink," Chad said.
"Sounds good to me." Neil flashed his trademark grin. "I got an e-mail from a buddy at headquarters. He said there's a rumor floating around about you."
"Yep. You want to hear it?"
"I can't wait." Chad couldn't resist a bit of sarcasm. Political gossip wasn't his thing.
"You're gonna love it." This time Neil didn't bother to disguise his smirk. "Believe me, you're gonna be stoked"
Neil was a good friend, but his rumormongering sometimes got out of control. Consequently, Chad only half listened as his friend rattled on about the comings and goings at Ramstein AFB, Germany—headquarters for the United States Air Forces in Europe, USAFE.
Bagram wasn't exactly Club Med. In fact, it was closer to Club Leavenworth. The infrastructure was basic at best—the plumbing was iffy and the heating and cooling systems were primitive. To say it was austere was something of an understatement, and the intel building was no different. It was a sea of gray—ceilings, floors, walls and metal furniture.
The debriefing lasted more than an hour, and when it finally concluded, Chad and Neil retreated to the newly built recreation center. It was the epicenter of base life, primarily because it was the only place with a working air conditioner.
"What I wouldn't give for a frosty brew." Neil grabbed a handful of pretzels and stuffed one in his mouth. In deference to the host country, alcohol wasn't allowed on base.
"Amen to that," Chad agreed. He couldn't wait to get back to Germany, where the grass was green, the air was fresh and the beer was plentiful. But for now he'd make do with a cold Pepsi and be grateful for it.
"Want to hear the rumor?"
Chad chuckled. His friend was dying to tell him, and he guessed it wouldn't hurt to listen.
"Okay, spill it."
"Rumor has it that someone at this table is about to become a squadron commander, and it sure ain't me."
Well, that came out of left field. Chad was the squadron's operations officer, so he had assumed he'd eventually get the top slot. But Steve Richter hadn't been in the job all that long.
"Are you kidding?" That was the best news he'd had in ages. It was common knowledge that getting a squadron meant you were one step closer to full colonel.
"I'm serious as a heart attack."
"Hot damn! Are you absolutely positive?"
"That's what the powers that be are saying. It's supposed to be announced in a week or two."
Talk about making his day. "What happened to Richter?"
"He's heading back to Langley AFB. Apparently they have something special lined up for him. I'll bet he gets his colonel's eagles on the next promotion list."
"I'm sure you're right," Chad agreed.
Neil looked at his watch. "Hey, guy. I hate to spread the good news and run, but I gotta check my e-mail. Heather gets antsy if I don't answer her right away." He slapped Chad on the shoulder. "I just wanted to see you grin."
Chad stood to shake his friend's hand. "And you did. Man, did you ever."
He was still in a daze when he got back to his cubicle-size room. He'd wanted a squadron since his days in pilot training, and if Neil was right, Chad was going to have a lot to celebrate.
He wished there was someone special he could tell, but his love life since the divorce had been sketchy at best. It was almost impossible to meet someone on an overseas air force base. Fraternization with anyone below his own rank was verboten, and most of the female upper level officers were married.
Squadron commander—hot damn! Chad couldn't keep from grinning as he grabbed his laptop. The good thing— if there was a good thing—about this deployment was the communication access to folks back home. In his case that meant he could e-mail his daughters every day.
Although Chad's marriage had ended five years ago, it had produced two of the greatest kids on the planet. Rachel was a typical fifteen-year-old. Her interests ran to text messaging and her Thoroughbred mare, Ariel. Although seven-year-old Hannah knew her way around a computer, she was more interested in Patches, her equine best friend.
Chad opened his e-mail account and realized it had been several days since he'd heard from either girl. How had he lost track of time? Oh, right, he'd been up to his kneecaps in crap but that wasn't an excuse for not checking in with his kids. Chad was giving himself a mental butt kicking when he heard a knock.
"Just a sec," he yelled as he closed his e-mail account. He opened the door with a grin, assuming it was Neil. But instead it was Lt. Colonel Paul Harrison, the expeditionary force deputy commander.
"The colonel wants to see you about something important. Would you come with me?" He was normally a jovial kind of guy, but now his face was dead serious.
"Right this second?"
"Yep, we need you ASAP."
Chad assumed they wanted to tell him about the squadron commander position. But when the deputy commander didn't so much as crack a smile, Chad's radar started waving all kinds of red flags.
Colonel Kevin Earhardt was one of the good guys, but the grim expression on his face said something terrible was about to happen. Please Lord, the chaplain wasn't going to show up. The only time they called in the God squad was when the news was an eleven on an apocalyptic scale of one to ten.
When Chad entered the office, the colonel walked around his desk and indicated a grouping of chairs. "Why don't you sit down?"
Chad fell into the nearest seat. His fight-or-flight reflex was pinging out of control. His kids! Something had happened to his girls. He hoped like hell his voice wouldn't crack. "What's wrong?"
The commander glanced at his executive officer before sitting down across from Chad. "We got a call from the Red Cross this morning."
Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Chad's heart was about to beat out of his chest. The Red Cross got involved only when something disastrous had occurred.
"Let me tell you straight off," Colonel Earhardt said, "everyone's alive and well."
The exec muttered something Chad couldn't quite hear, but he didn't care. His kids were okay! He took a deep breath. So what was this all about?
"Have you heard from either of your daughters recently?"
"Not lately, and that's kind of weird. They usually send me an e-mail at least every other day. But it's been a week, maybe more."
"Like I said, they're both fine." The commander was using his most reassuring tone. "And let me remind you that anything said in this office will stay right here."
"Okay." Chad rubbed a hand over his chin. "So?"
Colonel Earhardt glanced at the piece of paper in his hand. "Your ex-wife, Lynn, left the girls with her parents, Peter and Florence Carter, and then she apparently disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Who, what, where and when? And most importantly, why? Chad was desperate for details.
"According to what Mrs. Carter told the Red Cross, Lynn is involved with a man named Leonard Schmidt, and last week she left the country with him." Colonel Earhardt checked his notes again. "Since then the Carters have had only one phone call from her. They believe she's somewhere in Central America, but they're not sure where, and they haven't been able to contact her. Mrs. Carter also said her daughter has signed all her guardianship rights over to you."
"Why would she do that?"
The colonel shrugged. "I don't know. What I do know is that your father-in-law was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's and the Carters don't think they can take care of the kids on a permanent basis. It looks like you're about to join the ranks of single fatherhood."
Holy crap! Chad had gone from the euphoria of Neil's announcement to utter confusion in about two point two seconds. He hadn't even known his ex-father-in-law was sick. He loved his daughters almost more than he could express, but how could he raise two kids with the nomadic life he led? Sure, he could hire a nanny, but was that the right thing to do?
During the custody proceedings Lynn had insisted she'd be a better full-time parent, and considering the nature of his job and the temporary duty assignments, Chad hadn't argued the point. That was why he was limited to having his kids during the summer and every other Christmas. And that all depended on his deployment schedule.
Chad was pondering that piece of ancient history when another question struck him. What had happened to the girls' horses? Hannah was as close to her pony as she was to her sister. And Rachel lived for her equestrian competitions. Swear to God, if Lynn had sold those animals he'd track her down and—let's just say it wouldn't be pretty.
Looking back, Chad knew his ex-wife's unpredictable behaviour had been coming for quite a while. During the early years of their marriage she'd seemed content, but little by little she'd changed. As time went on he never knew which Lynn he'd see over the breakfast table. Then out of the blue she'd announced she was filing for divorce and taking the girls back to her parents' home. According to her, all the moving wasn't good for the children.
Rachel and Hannah had been happy kids, as were most of the military "brats" Chad knew, so none of it had made any sense to him. To be completely honest, he thought Lynn missed the attention she'd had as a local beauty contest winner. And then there was her mother.
Several times Chad had wondered if at least part of his ex-wife's instability was a late rebellion against her mom's overdeveloped sense of propriety. Florence Carter was the biggest snob he'd ever met, and the old saying about the apple not falling far from the tree was unfortunately true in Lynn's case.
"If you want my advice, I think you'd better get back to Virginia and figure out what you're going to do. Word is the Carters are panicked. So take as much leave as you need. If there's anything we can do, don't hesitate to ask."
"Yes, sir. I'll call the girls as soon as I'm sure they'll be awake. Then I'm on the next plane out of here."
Chad didn't know what to say to his daughters, or what he should do, but he was the adult in this fiasco, so it was up to him to fix it. But first he had to talk to his kids.
"Daddy!" Hannah squealed. She'd somehow managed to grab the phone from her sister. "Mom's gone and I overheard Grammy and Pops say she isn't coming back. Is that right? She can't do that, can she?"
That was a valid question and one Chad couldn't answer. What kind of worm had gotten into Lynn's brain?
"She is coming back, isn't she?" Chad could tell that Hannah was on the verge of tears, and there wasn't a darn thing he could do.
"Don't worry, punkin. I'll be there before you know it. Is Rachel still handy?" he asked, trying to distract his youngest daughter. "May I speak to her?"
There was a sniffle and a hiccup before Hannah answered. "Yeah, she's in the other room. Rachel!" Hannah didn't bother to hold the receiver away from her mouth before she shouted. "Dad wants to talk to you."
Chad rubbed the bridge of his nose. He really didn't want to bad-mouth the girls' mom, even though she richly deserved it.
"Dad," Rachel wailed. "What are we gonna do? Pops said Mom ran off with a snake-oil salesman," she added. "What does that mean?"
"It means someone who isn't quite honest." Chad didn't know how to explain the sway a charismatic character could have over someone as vulnerable as Lynn apparently was. "Listen, honey, I'm coming home. Will you take care of your sister until I get there?"
Rachel paused before answering. "Sure, I can do that. Do you want to talk to Grammy?"
He didn't really, but he was fresh out of options. "Sure, put her on. I love you, kiddo."
"I love you, too," Rachel sniffed.
That's all it took for Chad to realize what he had to do. It wasn't going to be painless, but good things rarely came with a small price tag.