New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd kicks off her Cape Charade suspense series with Hard to Kill, a short story of treasure, treachery…and murder.
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"Captain, you're an interesting woman."
Kellen Adams glanced at Corporal Harlow Hackett, lounging in the seat beside her, his seat belt loose across his hips. Kuwaiti dust and sand rolled in sweaty drops down his sunburned face and off his chin.
For years now, Kellen's mind had organized the personal details of her friends (and enemies) into data snapshots. Kellen flipped through the Rolodex in her mind ...
Harlow Hackett: Male, Caucasian, 22 years old, 6' 3". Blond hair, blue eyes. Avid runner. Joined Army at 18years of age. From rural North Dakota.
She didn't know how Hackett did it; she was sweating, too, but in the desert heat, it evaporated right off her body with the dry wind coming in her open driver's side window.
At least he was keeping hydrated. So many of the others refused to drink enough water, as though early training in football and marching band outweighed the fact that this was the desert, where water was life.
Focusing back on her right-hand man, Kellen said, "Corporal, you're supposed to be watching the road."
"Don't have to. I won the toss."
"I get to be in a Humvee with you. No one ever gets hurt when they're with you."
Kellen had been in the Army for six years, deployed mostly in war zones around the world, and she'd never heard that before. "What are you talking about?"
"You're lucky, or you're smart, or you see stuff no one else sees. That's what makes you such an interesting woman. Don't nobody get killed when you set the route and drive the Humvee."
Sharply, she said, "Don't nobody get killed as long as people watch for an ambush."
"I'm watching." He glanced around. "See?"
"Hackett, do you know the number of unexploded land mines loose in the world? Have you seen pictures of the civilians, children, who accidentally stumble onto one and die, or lose limbs? Now — watch!"
"Yes, ma'am." He straightened up and started glancing around the sandy road. "But unless you're the lead dog, the view is pretty much always the same."
She grinned. She knew what he meant. The bumper of the armored personnel carrier in front of them never changed. She eased back a little. "How much time do you have left before your stint is done?"
"Three weeks, four days, seven hours and —" he glanced at his watch "— forty-nine minutes. But who's counting?"
"What are you going to do when you get out?"
"Go to college," he said promptly. "Like I should have done in the first place, if my folks hadn't been so dead set on me doing just that."
"You joined up to spite your parents?"
"Yes, ma'am. The finest case of cutting off my nose to spite my face ever. I imagine you never did anything that stupid, not even when you were eighteen."
She thought back on her high school graduation, on getting into her car and waving goodbye to her aunt and uncle and cousin, driving away from Nevada, across the country, seeing the sights, reveling in her freedom, getting to Maine and ... She took a long breath. "No, I never did anything stupid."
He sat up straight. "You did! What was it?"
She shook her head.
"Was it as stupid as mine?"
"So much worse. You're too tough on yourself, Corporal." The APC in front of them lurched along the sandy, rocky road. "The Army's not all bad. You've got experience, you've got the GI Bill, you know enough now to appreciate that good time in college and you're going back in one piece."
Hackett turned white. "Shush, ma'am. You'll jinx it."
"Sorry." She was. Stupid thing to say.
"Quick, spit out of the truck." He gestured.
"Will that undo the jinx?"
"Unless you spit on a land mine."
She laughed and spit, which was easier said than done, what with the dry air and the dust.
Satisfied, Hackett picked up the conversation. "I got something better than the GI Bill. I can run."
She knew what he meant. The guy was fast; from the time he was in basic training, he had a reputation for running faster, farther, longer than the other recruits. He could sprint, yes, but on long-distance runs, his long legs ate up the ground. The only times he didn't come in first were those times when his fellow soldiers, gasping and exhausted, hooked their fingers into his belt so he could drag them across the finish line.
Hackett continued, "I'm going to be the best runner in the history of college sports. I might go to the Olympics, and that's going to give me a leg up — if you know what I mean — when it comes to sportscasting. That's what I'm going to do. Communications degree, sportscasting job."
"So, you've got a plan."
"I do." He turned toward her. "What about you? What are you going to do when you get out?"
"I'm in for the long haul. I'm career military."
"But you're pretty!"
She looked at him sideways.
"I mean ... you don't have to ... not that you're not a damned good soldier." He glanced around wildly, looking for an escape, stiffened, pointed and yelled, "Watch out!"
She jerked the wheel sideways, missed the mine, but the Humvee behind them was following too closely and wasn't as lucky. The front right wheel impacted and exploded, blasting that Humvee on its top and knocking their Humvee on its side. Metal blew everywhere; in a spray of blood, Corporal Hackett flew over the top of her, as she remained buckled into her seat.
How did he get out of his seat belt?
But Kellen didn't have long to consider how dire the blast had to have been to sever Hackett's seat belt. She hit the sand through the open driver's side window hard. Her ears rang, her vision blurred. The sand burned her skin everywhere it touched, her face and neck, her right palm.
Somewhere close, Corporal Hackett screamed.
She had to get up. She had to help him. There had been blood. She wiped at her face. Too much blood. And the sand — it could roast them alive.
The Humvee. On its side. She unbuckled her seat belt, crawled through the interconnected shards of windshield, grabbed her camo jacket off the back of her seat and spread it in the shade under the Humvee's hull and over the blistering hot sands. She wiped the blood from her eyes and located the first aid kit. She dragged it toward Corporal Hackett's crumpled form, out on the flats.
Why was he still screaming? She wiped again at the blood trickling down her face.
Wait. It wasn't all his. Some of this was hers. She ran her fingers through her hair and dislodged a shard of glass. More blood. Damn it. She should have left the shard alone.
Corporal Hackett first. She could faint later.
She staggered over — she couldn't seem to walk a straight line — and dropped to her knees beside him.
He stopped screaming. "You're a girl," he said.
"Last time I checked. You got a back injury?"
He struggled for breath. "No back injury."
"Good. I've got to get you out of the sun, so I'm going to drag you into the shade of the Humvee. Right?"
He was breathing deeply now. "Right."
She slid her arms under his shoulders. He was big, solid, heavy, but she tugged, and tugged again, hard enough to unfold him and pull him toward the Humvee. Good. Good. She could save him.
Then she saw.
One leg was gone above the knee.
Corporal Harlow Hackett would never run again.
She pulled him onto her jacket and lifted his head to give him water. When he had sipped, he said, "Captain, you don't look so great."
She squinted at him. He was getting smaller and farther away. "Don't feel so great."
Corporal Hackett started yelling for medics, which Kellen should have done in the first place.
Not far away, the ground rumbled and lifted in a giant explosion, bigger than the first one.
Kellen only had time to look in the direction of the blast before she was hit hard on the shoulder and sent flying across the desert to land on the burning sands.
So much for her luck.
The world disappeared.
She was alone in the familiar dim gray of unconsciousness.CHAPTER 2
Six months later, in Germany ...
Kellen watched as Corporal Hackett pushed himself upright with the help of his physical therapist.
Susan Hawker: Female, African American, 27years old, 5' 2". Curly brown hair, brown eyes. In peak physical shape. Originally from Fort Worth, Texas.
Kellen had to hand it to Susan — the petite brunette's arm muscles were incredibly impressive after years of picking up disabled soldiers to put them in wheelchairs and hold them over the parallel bars that would teach them to walk again. Even pushing Hackett around didn't seem to faze Susan. She also studiously ignored Hackett's deep blush at having a woman so close to him. Kellen guessed Susan was used to these college-aged kids idolizing her.
Susan placed Hackett's upper body between the parallel bars, and Hackett, sweating buckets as usual, used his sinewy arms to hold his body weight above his two legs, one scarred flesh, one new and Army-issued.
"Okay, Corporal, same as yesterday. We're looking to go five steps. No rush." Susan's voice was calm, but she stood at the ready to catch Hackett if he needed support.
Hackett grinned at Kellen and, like a little kid, said, "Watch this, Captain!"
With a deep breath in, he lifted his prosthetic leg, and slowly, he placed the leg a few inches in front of him. Sweat rolled down his face from the effort, but when he accomplished it, he yelled, "Ta da!"
She could never have been so good-natured about such an ordeal, but then, this was why she'd enjoyed having Hackett in her unit. Kellen clapped enthusiastically and grabbed a small towel from a nearby basket.
Susan nodded her thanks as Kellen wiped the sweat out of Hackett's eyes. "Good job, soldier — but you owe your PT four more steps."
"Yes, ma'am." Hackett braced himself again on the bars, picking up his other leg and pushing it forward, inch by inch. When he'd caught his breath, he said, "Captain, tell me something interesting to keep my mind off of this super-fun activity."
Susan laughed softly at his obvious sarcasm.
"Where are you deployed to next?" he asked.
Kellen froze. She hadn't really adjusted to the truth herself, so it was hard to say it out loud. But she owed Hackett the unvarnished truth.
Hackett looked up from scowling at his unresponsive leg. "What do you mean, ma'am?" He managed one more slow step, his knuckles white against the bars.
"Corporal, I mean that I'm being medically discharged, just like you," Kellen smiled tightly. "No need to head back to all that dust and grime in Kuwait."
Hackett was too young to hide his surprise. "Wow, Captain. That's a really bad break. I know you wanted to stay in for the long haul." After Susan cleared her throat, firmly and pointedly, in response to his comment, he turned his concentration onto his next step. His arms were shaking. He needed to get those last two steps in.
Kellen shrugged. "I'm not as lucky as you thought I was. The Army frowns at a captain remaining unconscious for two days for no reason except that she landed on her head."
"Nah, I still believe in your luck. All those explosions, and we're both still alive. Sounds pretty lucky to me."
Kellen thought for a moment. If Hackett could look at the situation with such good humor and positive thinking, she could stop acting like her world had ended — though it still felt as if it had.
Hackett pushed his leg forward again, and when he stopped panting for breath (leading Susan to say, firmly, "Stop holding your breath, Corporal."), he asked, "What are you going to do now? Head back to the States?" He cocked his head to the side, thinking. "Wait, I've never asked you — where is home for you?"
Kellen pursed her lips. "I don't have a home."
Hackett nodded and didn't say anything.
A lack thereof was a fairly common theme in the Army.
Kellen continued, before Hackett could ask more revealing questions, "I'm not sure where I'll go or what I'll do. I've been checking out a resort job in Washington State." Which was as far away from Maine as she could get and stay in the lower forty-eight. "The resort looks gorgeous, very out-of-the-way. But I'm not sure I ever want to go stateside again."
Hackett pushed his leg forward one last time. His pain was evident in the tightness of his jaw, the paleness of his skin. But he still looked over at Susan and pulled a funny face. She chuckled and held him up so he could turn around and slip gratefully into the wheelchair she had waiting for him at the end of the parallel bars.
Susan leaned down to adjust his legs onto the foot stands. "I'm proud of you, Corporal. For that, you get a fifteen-minute break before we work on your flexibility."
Hackett gathered himself and smiled. "You spoil me so, ma'am. I will take your kind offer!"
Susan and Kellen both laughed.
"If only more kids were like Hackett," Susan said to Kellen. "He never says, 'I can't.'" She went over to the mats on the other side of the small gym to prepare the foam rollers, stretch bands and towels for Hackett's flexibility regimen, leaving Kellen and Hackett alone.
"What about you, soldier?" Kellen asked quietly.
"Where are you off to once you get back on your feet — no pun intended?"
Hackett chortled softly at her joke. "I've had to change my plans up a bit. Seems to me I won't be running in the Olympics any time soon." For a split second, he looked incredibly sad; a man watching his boyhood dreams crumble. But he held himself straight in his chair, showing courage in the face of his personal tragedy.
Kellen thought quickly and said, "Wait, what about running prosthetics? You could be a Paralympic star!"
"No, ma'am," Hackett shook his head slowly. "The Army won't pay for specialized prosthetics, and my parents can't afford one."
"How much are we talking here, Hackett?"
"Upwards of fifty grand."
Kellen let out a low whistle. "That's a bundle, all right. What about sportscasting? Are you going forward with that plan?"
Hackett chewed on his cheek for a moment. "Sometimes dreams have to change. I'm a grown man with a US-government-issued prosthetic. I'm glad to have it, and I'm determined to work hard enough to deserve it." He paused. "My parents wanted me to get a college education. Sure, I love to race down a country road with the wind in my face and the smell of the prairie in my nose. But now I need an education so I can get a normal job, nothing flashy, maybe get married, have a couple of kids."
"Sounds like a good dream to me." For you. For Kellen, it was a tarnished dream.
"I'm a country boy at heart, and I want that house with a white picket fence. That's easier to come by when you're not traveling to sporting events."
"So that's it? You're going back home, and your goal is to get a desk job?" Kellen really wanted to know. She wanted to see his response; she wanted to understand if he was ever going to be truly happy after this terrible turn of events.
Hackett sighed and rubbed his clean-shaven chin. "I doubt it'll ever get easier — looking down to see metal instead of skin. But it'd be a shame to waste that GI-Bill college funding ..." He gathered himself and grinned at Kellen. "So, yes, Captain, it's the life of a grunt for me."
"Okay! Time for flexibility work!" Susan said cheerily from the gymnastic mats in the corner.
"She's tryin' to kill me, Captain," Hackett said, playfully grim.
Susan said, "I'm trying to relieve Captain Adams of your care, so she can go take care of herself. How is your PT going, Captain?"
Kellen didn't particularly like thinking about having been unconscious for two days while she underwent shoulder surgery and the military began processing her medical discharge paperwork. Waking to find that not only was her shoulder thoroughly crunched, but that the Army no longer needed her services, was a double blow. But she reminded herself not to take out her frustration on Susan.
"It's going fine. My physical therapist is confident I'll work out the kinks if I do my exercises every day ... forever."
Susan smiled. "You're a hard worker, Captain. Your shoulder will thank you someday."
"In the meantime, my hand-to-hand combat is suffering," Kellen said morosely.
"From what I hear, you were the best in basic training," Susan said.
"Still is. She kicks ass," Hackett said.
"I only kicked your ass once," Kellen reminded him.
"Once was enough." He rubbed at his butt.
"There you go," Susan said. "It'll come back. Give yourself time."
Kellen got to her feet.
Hackett sagged in his chair. "You headed out?"
"Yep. Gotta go check on my discharge paperwork, and then I'm off to find my own dream — whatever that is."
"Best of luck. I'm sorry for not rising, Captain, but it's been a pleasure serving with you." Hackett saluted stiffly.
Kellen pushed the tears back from her eyes and saluted back. Then she leaned down for a hug and whispered, "I hope you find your picket fence, Corporal."
Hackett closed his eyes for a moment.
When he opened them, Kellen was gone.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hard to Kill"
Copyright © 2018 Christina Dodd.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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