Step into the boots of a former Marine in this heart-pounding adventure in life and love. Colton “Cowboy” Neeley is a Marine trying to find his footing as he battles flashbacks now that he’s back home. Piper Blum is a woman in hiding—from life and the assassins bent on destroying her family. When their hearts collide, more than their lives are at stake. Will Colton find a way to forgive Piper’s lies? Can Piper find a way to rescue her father, trapped in Israel? Is there any way their love, founded on her lies, can survive?
About the Author
Ronie Kendig is an award-winning, bestselling author who grew up an Army brat. After twenty-plus years of marriage, she and her hunky hero husband have a full life with their four children, a Maltese Menace, and a retired military working dog in Northern Virginia. Author and speaker, Ronie loves engaging readers through her Rapid-Fire Fiction. Ronie can be found at www.roniekendig.com, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/rapidfirefiction), Twitter (@roniekendig), and Goodreads (www.goodreads.com/RonieK).
Read an Excerpt
Discarded Heroes #2
By Ronie Kendig
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Ronie Kendig
All rights reserved.
Fifteen months later.
One shot. One kill.
The sniper's motto streaked through Colton Neeley's mind as he lay with his arm folded under the stock of his Remington 700. Dampness soaked into his sleeve, evidence of the swampy terrain. He eased his hand toward the trigger well. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple and slid past his eye pressed to the scope.
"Tangos en route and twenty yards," whispered his spotter, Marshall "the Kid" Vaughn, from his four o'clock position.
"Roger that." Synchronization between him and the Kid helped Colton focus on the mission. Peering past the crosshairs, he watched their team leader, three-quarters of a mile away, signaling a heads-up to the others.
Colton gently nudged his weapon, sighting the guerillas trekking north of the team. If all went well—which the elite team of former spec ops soldiers would ensure it did—they'd be on a C-130 back to the States and out of this mosquito-infested jungle by morning. He'd already spent thirty-six hours longer than he wanted in the vegetation. It'd rained for the first twenty, leaving him drenched and cold. But crawling in early gave them the advantage of locating their objectives and the guerrilla group holding them hostage.
Once again, he verified the position of the team. Nothing would ruin a mission like friendly fire taking out one of their own. At his two, he sighted Frogman hunkered down next to a boulder. Greased up, Max Jacobs had the perpetual scowl that marked him as the man in charge—and a grump. Nobody minded. The former Navy SEAL had come through a lot.
Behind him slunk Canyon "Midas" Metcalfe, probably the sanest of the group, even if he had once been a Green Beret. And they forgave him for that.
"Heads up, Frogman," the Kid whispered into his coms, alerting the team. "Six headed your way for a party."
Checking his nine gave Colton a close-up of Griffin "Legend" Riddell, his Marine Special Operations Team buddy, as he took up point. Even from this distance, their movements felt silent, deadly. During the thirteen months Nightshade had been operational, it had built a phenomenal record, but nobody took that for granted. Each mission could be their last.
"Target," called his spotter. "Sector B, TRP-1, right fifty, add fifty."
Colton harnessed his energy and mind on the mission. He had an excellent shot-kill ratio, and he wanted to keep it that way. Mishaps exponentially increased the chances of being spotted and sniped back. In other words, dead.
"Roger," he replied as shadows morphed into solid shapes of Cuban rebels and their exhausted captives. His objective was the leader. "Sector B, TRP-1, right fifty, add fifty." The repetitive dialogue gave him an added measure of comfort.
"Dumb and bald soldier, M16 in right hand, cigarette in left."
Leave it to the Kid to give a snarky description. But he was right. The leader had taken the hostages into a jungle easy to maneuver and hide in, but also one easy to track. "Dumb and bald soldier, M16 in right hand, cigarette in left." Colton took a minute to assess the man behind the crosshairs. "Target identified." He measured the marks on the vertical bar. "I have two mils crotch to head."
"Roger, two mils crotch to head." Leaves on their ghillie suits and the low-hanging branches rustled as the Kid made his calculations. Air crackled beneath the gentle urging of the wind. "Dial five hundred on the gun."
Colton adjusted the optics. "Roger, five hundred on the gun. Indexed."
"Wind right to left, six miles an hour, hold one-quarter mil right."
"Roger, wind right to left six miles an hour, hold one-quarter mil right."
"Take the shot."
Quiet confidence roared through Colton as he eased the trigger back. The tiny sonic boom signaled the firing and sent the bullet spiraling toward its target. "Broke one- fourth mil right." While Colton immediately followed through and chambered another round, the Kid would eye the vapor trail of the bullet to check for precision.
"Center hit," the Kid confirmed. "Stand by."
"Roger, center hit, stand by." Waiting, he kept his scope on the guerillas—minus one. Frogman and Legend disabled the remaining bad guys without a hitch.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
"Taking fire. Taking fire!" Frogman shouted, diving over the hostages to protect them.
"Find him," Colton growled to the Kid. Blurs blended into the foliage as Colton swept his scope over the jungle. Tension ratcheted with each second—each second that meant the enemy sniper could reacquire and kill.
Father, guide my eyes.
A subtle difference in color, shade, and texture caught his eye. The left side of his mouth tweaked upward. Amateur. A tank would've been more stealthy. "Shooter spotted, blue 2."
Within seconds, the Kid provided the range to target. Colton set up the shot and lured the trigger back. Three hundred yards away, the branches swayed. A solid mass slumped into view. "Tango down," Colton voiced into the mic.
"Moving out. Rendezvous in sixty," Frogman ordered.
As he hiked down the steep hill, Colton kept his rifle slung over his shoulder. Leaves and mud squished underfoot as the Kid brought up the rear. There'd be no talk between now and the rendezvous. They were alone and in a hostile environment. No need to wave to the bad guys on their way out.
That gave him an hour to pray the images from his mind. While lying behind the Remington and firing off a round, he compartmentalized. Strategically boxed up what he had to do. Yet even now, guilt harangued him. He reminded himself the guys he took out were wicked men. Many around the globe had problems with Colton's area of expertise, but he knew God had given him this talent for a reason. And thanks to that talent, Nightshade had been able to intervene in hot spots no nation or government would touch.
Like today's objectives. A politician on a secret mission flies over the Cuban jungles and gets shot down. Taken hostage. Held for political maneuvering. Getting him back, along with the wealth of knowledge in his thick skull, was a priority for the U.S. government. Yet if they were caught, Nightshade would be disavowed. Their lives would be forfeit—all of them.
That wasn't going to happen if he had any say in it. He lifted the miniature dog tag embossed with Mickey's picture and kissed it. I'll be home soon, darlin'. Although he hated being away from his daughter for any amount of time, his parents filled the gap. Eventually Mickey would be in school and his absences wouldn't be felt as severely. At least, he hoped so.
His mother's rant filtered through his head, and he leapt over a large, fallen trunk. "If you'd get married and settle down, you wouldn't have to worry about leaving McKenna."
If only that were true. He'd have more to worry about if he let that happen. A woman he loved and a daughter? No, it wasn't worth the risk. He'd already failed one woman—his sister. The memory assailed him—the detonation, the fire, the screams ... finding her broken body under a table and part of the counter from the Israeli café.
No, he'd hurt too many people over the years. He wasn't about to leave the door open to failure and more bad dreams by taking a wife. Besides, what woman in her right mind would take a guy like him?
A rustle somewhere north elicited his training. He dropped to a knee behind a tree, his rifle at the ready. He peered down the scope, searching for the source of the noise. All at once, he registered the Kid taking up position behind him and the shifting of branches thirty yards northeast. To maintain a calm heart rate, Colton drew in a slow, deep breath—
A dull bird call trembled through the humid air.
He eased his face away from the butt. Relaxed—the Nightshade signal. Colton responded with a similar bird call and stood.
A half-dozen forms emerged from the trees. He grinned at the cocky, dark-haired man moving toward him with an M4 cradled in the crook of his arm. With the green and brown paint, Frogman's smirk seemed more pronounced.
"Nice job up there, Cowboy."
"These guys are amateurs—I think they pegged this gig on luck." Colton patted Frogman on the shoulder, then reached for the hand of his MARSOC buddy, Legend Riddell. The burly man grinned, his pearly whites brilliant against his dark skin.
Legend said, "Once again, perfect shot. Remind me not to flinch when you're taking aim."
"You could stand to lose an inch or two," Colton teased, then looked to their leader. "Sitrep?"
Frogman handed him the GPS. "About a klick northeast of rendezvous. Objectives are intact."
"Twenty minutes," Colton said as he returned the device and looked at the rescuees.
The politician slumped on a fallen tree, sweat ringing a shirt once starched to perfection. A grimacing woman struggled to sit on the log next to him, make-up smeared and white-blond hair askew.
Colton secured his rifle, then shifted to Frogman. "With the extra shooter I took down, I suggest we keep moving."
"Roger that. On your feet, people," Max ordered with a tight, controlled whisper.
As they hiked over the uneven terrain, the clouds let loose again. The grassy areas became slicker than the ground after Dolly calved last year. Colton pulled up the rear of the marching column, having to stop each time the woman slipped and tripped. He eased into position to help her. No sooner had he stepped behind her than her foot caught between two rocks, wrenching her ankle.
She cried out, but Colton clamped a hand over her mouth. Her wide eyes snapped to his.
"Quiet," he hissed, his eyes darting out over the hillside.
Midas let down his medic's pack and knelt in front of her. With her ankle between his hands, he probed and prodded, making her wince and whimper. "No break. Torn ligament, most likely. She can still get around."
"Good. Everyone move," Max snapped in a low, but effective tone.
The politician grunted. "You're not seriously going to make her walk—"
Max drew himself up straight. "We're only five minutes out, and a delay could mean death."
Colton watched as the woman absorbed Frogman's point with a slow nod, then worked herself upright. Propped on her toe, she faked a smile. Metcalfe supported her arm as she hobbled behind Frogman, weaving around trees and boulders. Her injury made the slow journey slower, more arduous. More dangerous. His senses were pinging. As if the rebels breathed down his neck this very second. Finally, crouched at the hem of the hill, they waited for the chopper.
Sitting ducks. He couldn't help the thought and tried to wipe it away with the thick sheen of sweat on his face and neck. The familiar thwump of distant rotors stirred his heart. Another few minutes and he'd be on his way back home to his daughter. To his ranch. As he smiled and kept watch on the swaying limbs and leaves, he felt a pressure on his arm.
Eyes lined by hardness and wrinkles glared back at him. Salt-and-pepper hair clung to the politician's face. "If you tell anyone about us ... about this ..."
The good ol' boy thought he had a secret Colton would be interested in. He grinned and winked. "Don't worry, partner. We don't exist either."
"How do you deal with it?" the woman asked, her voice shaky and hoarse. "Killing people, slaving through a jungle, hiding like criminals ..."
"Criminals? Nah, never thought of it like that." Besides, who dealt with war? "You shove it down and pray hard."
"Chopper!" The Kid grabbed his pack.
Aboard the Black Hawk, Colton let the steady, deafening drone of the rotors lull him to sleep. Three days without a decent amount of rack time left his muscles aching and eyes burning. Images took on ghostly forms in his dreams, snapping him out of the slumber. He sat up straighter, rubbed his eyes, and swallowed against the metallic taste in his mouth. Colton bent, his arms propped on his knees, and prayed. Prayed for God to protect his heart and mind. He'd never pray to forget. Forgetting meant repeating mistakes.
After safely delivering the politician and crew to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the team boarded the private plane back to Virginia. At the converted warehouse base, Colton stood at his locker, holding two shirts. Stripes or just blue ...?
"Time for another trip to Hastings?" Max laughed as he clapped him on the back. "What're you going to buy from her this time? Lingerie?"
"Go home to that wife and kid of yours, and leave me alone." He shoved his friend out of the way.
Peeling out of his grimy duds, he let his mind drift to the woman at Hastings as he headed to the showers. Though he gave Max a hard time, the guy was right. Colton intended to stop by on his way home, just as he had every time for the past eight months.
So what if he couldn't bring himself to ask her out? That wasn't a bad thing, considering his past.
* * *
"My daddy is lost."
The squeaky little voice drew Piper Blum away from arranging the line of cosmetics. She shifted to the opening between the two counters. Beneath a coral-colored floppy hat peered the brightest blue eyes.
Piper smiled and leaned toward the girl. "Your daddy is lost?" She tried to hide a laugh when the girl propped her hands on her hips.
"Mm-hm. I told him I was going to look at the toys." Her lower lip pouted as she pointed to a display of Gund stuffed animals. Fear trembled through her chin. "But then he just left." Her voice cracked as she tossed up her hands. Puddles formed in the cobalt eyes.
Crouching, Piper rubbed the girl's arms. "Don't worry. We'll find him, sweetie." She led her around to the white leather bars tool and helped her up. "What's your name?" Folding the hat rim back, she brushed the white-blond bangs from the girl's face.
"Okay, Mickey, why don't you sit here, and I'll call your daddy."
"You can't." She huffed with another quiver of her lip. "He forgot his phone at the house, and we live out in the country, so it's too far to drive." She wrinkled her nose. "He's not having a very good day."
The laugh bubbled up over Piper's resistance. "Well, what about your mother?"
"I don't have one."
The matter-of-fact statement stunned Piper into silence—and drew out her own pain at that comment. She smoothed her hands over the pale pink Maxximum Girl jacket. "Why don't I try to call your daddy through the speakers here in the store?" She lifted the phone from the cradle. "What's his name?"
Phone in hand, Piper paused and looked at the little cherub. The coral cowgirl boots matched the hat. Jeans. A cute white eyelet top. The name for her father shouldn't have surprised Piper. But she couldn't exactly use that over the intercom. "Does he have another name?"
"Poppa calls him Colton."
Okay, that was better. Not much, but she could work with it. She pressed the number code for the intercom and shifted, facing the long aisle that reached for the escalator. A man darted toward the sliding staircase, his movements rushed and frantic.
"McKenna?" he called as he spun and scanned several directions.
It didn't take a genius to know this was Mickey's father. The black Stetson gave it away. Cowboy. Yeah, he had the jeans and boots, too.
Piper replaced the phone and moved into the open. "Sir?"
He spun, his eyes practically hidden by the tip of his hat. "Have you seen—" His gaze lit on the girl on the stool. "McKenna!" He rushed down the aisle, his strides determined and powerful. "Thank God!"
Piper inched away, propping against the counter as the man swept his daughter into his arms. His hat flew off. Disbelief sent her composure spinning in a dozen different directions. This was the same man she'd seen in the store over the past several months. She couldn't help but notice him because her typical customers were elderly ladies and young mothers with strollers. Not strong, muscular cowboys who bought towels.
But watching him embrace his daughter ... She choked down the lump rising in her throat. The moment felt painfully familiar. And yet so distant.
He set his daughter on the floor and knelt. "Where'd you go?"
"I told you," his daughter said. "I went to look at the animals. But you left." Her face then brightened as she pointed to Piper with a big smile. "I did like you told me, Daddy. I told this lady you were lost. And she found you!"
How this man ever disciplined his adorable daughter, she'd never know. All Piper wanted to do was laugh.
Excerpted from Digitalis by Ronie Kendig. Copyright © 2011 Ronie Kendig. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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