Mission: Children

Mission: Children

by Marisa Carroll

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781460334041
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 06/01/2014
Series: Hometown Reunion
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 564 KB

Read an Excerpt

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Kathleen Kelsey shifted restlessly on the hard, straight-backed chair, trying to get comfortable. She'd been dreaming again. Dreaming of home, of family and of Tyler. She rubbed the back of her neck, attempting to ease the tension that tightened her nerves and sent shards of pain through her arms and shoulders.

Home. It seemed so very far away. It was autumn now. In Tyler apples would be ripening on the trees. Farmers would be busy in the fields and kids would be playing football in the vacant lot near her parents' house. There would be bonires and hayrides, and trickor-treating up and down the oak-lined streets of the small Wisconsin town where she'd been born and raised. The days would be short and golden, the nights long and frosty.

But here in the village of Triglav, in what had once been Yugoslavia, there were no hayrides or trickor-treaters or long Sunday afternoon walks through the fallen leaves. Here there was war and terror and death, and people forced underground to live their lives like moles.

And she, Kathleen Anna Theresa Kelsey, was right in the middle of it.

When was the last time she'd sat in the sun or eaten a tree-ripened apple? Or eaten anything at all that was fresh and good and not from a can hastily heated over a camp stove? Almost too long to remember. She glanced toward the window of the room where she kept her vigil, to ind it piled high with sandbags, curtains drawn against the night. Fragile protection from the death and destruction outside, which roamed at will.

Thunder roared again and Kathleen stifled a cry. She'd never been afraid of thunder in her life, but in the past three weeks her life had changed. Changed so radically she knew it would never be the same again. For the thunder that shattered the October night wasn't really thunder at all, it was the sound of mortar ire coming from the hills above the town.

Kathleen froze, listening to the eerie whine of a projectile that passed overhead, shuddered as the impact of its explosion rattled the walls and sent the burned-out light bulb above her head swinging on its naked wire.

''That one was close.''

Kathleen stood, stretching tired muscles. She moved to the high bed in the center of the room, peering down at its occupant in the feeble glow of the single candle on the bedside stand. ''I didn't think you were awake.''

''Only the dead can sleep through this. And I am not yet dead.''

Kathleen bit her lip, then made herself smile as she leaned closer to the pale, wasted figure on the bed. ''Are you in pain?''

''I am all right.'' The deeply etched lines that bracketed Rujana Drakulic's mouth and furrowed her high forehead told a different story, but Kathleen didn't contradict her. It wouldn't do any good. There was no medicine to give her friend, no morphine or even aspirin to ease the pain of her wounds.

''Would you like some water?'' Another mortar shell, this one outgoing, passed overhead. It was a response from the guns of the defenders of the beleaguered village, and the roar of it nearly drowned out her words. Kathleen tensed for a moment, then tried to relax. ''It's fresh. I brought it up myself an hour ago when I went to check on the children.''

''Yes, water. Please.'' Rujana tried to lift her head but she was too weak. Kathleen slipped her hand behind the hard, thin pillow and propped up her friend's skeletal shoulders. Rujana drank thirstily, then lay back, exhausted by the effort. It took her a long time to catch her breath. She was growing weaker by the hour.

Her friend was dying and there was nothing she could do about it. Kathleen fought back tears and a wave of panic so intense it threatened to buckle her knees. What would become ofthe children when Rujana died?

''How are the children? Are they sleeping?'' Rujana asked when she could speak again. It was as if she had read Kathleen's mind.

Kathleen fought down her panic, forced it from her thoughts and her voice. ''They're sound asleep. I left them with Ana.''

Ana was an old woman, or perhaps not so old as she was worn-out with suffering and war. She had lost her husband and son and daughter-in-law in the shelling in Sarajevo years before and had come home to Triglav, the place where she was born. Like Kathleen, and Rujana's children, Andrej and Marta, Ana had taken shelter in the basement of the hospital, the largest, strongest building in town.

''Is it very late?'' Rujana asked in a small voice. ''I would like to see them. Andrej must practice his English. I would like to listen to him read.'' Rujana's hand moved restlessly on the sheet. Kathleen covered the thin ingers with her own.

She avoided looking at the window again. The cubicle she shared with the children was in the basement. Sometimes the temptation to pull the sandbags away from Ru-jana's second-floor window and stare out at the sunshine or the moonlight, no matter the consequences, was almost too great to resist. ''Andrej is asleep. It's very late. In a few hours it will be dawn.''

Rujana turned her head to the window, and Kathleen knew they once more shared the same thought. ''What day is this?'' The English words came slowly, haltingly.

''Tuesday,'' Kathleen told her.

''Market day.'' Rujana's voice was barely more than a whisper. ''I always loved market day. Remember when you came to visit that first year that Josef and I were married, and I was carrying Andrej in my belly?''

''Yes,'' Kathleen said, pulling her chair close to the side of the bed. Rujana spoke more and more of the past as she grew weaker, closer to death. ''I remember that year. We went skiing in the mountains and sailing on the Adriatic. It was my irst trip to Yugoslavia, and I thought it was the most beautiful country I had ever seen.''

She had been studying in Paris on a scholarship when she first met Rujana and Josef Drakulic. They were students also, newly married and expecting their irst child. It had been a happy year for Kathleen. A year of seeing new and wonderful places, meeting new and interesting people. She had never dreamed then that her facility with languages and her familiarity with European customs and life-styles would eventually lead to a job as Edward Wocheck's assistant at DEVCHECK. Then it had only seemed like the once-in-a-lifetime chance to live and study in Paris for a girl from small-town Wisconsin. It had also been the beginning of a friendship with Rujana and Josef that neither distance nor war could come between.

Certainly war had been the last thing on their minds that long-ago summer. Yugoslavia had been basking in the glory of having recently hosted the Olympics. The economy was good, the borders open for its citizens to travel to Vienna and Trieste to buy jeans and boom boxes and television sets. Now it was a shambles, a battleground where neighbor fought neighbor and no one seemed to know how to make the killing stop.

''Do you remember when you and Devon came to visit us in Paris?'' Rujana spoke as though once more reading her thoughts. Kathleen reached up to smooth a strand of hair from her friend's forehead.

''It seems so long ago.'' She had been working for Edward Wocheck for only six months when she made that second fateful visit to Paris. The travel and the rarified atmosphere of DEVCHECK's corporate headquarters had still been new and exciting. As had been her whirlwind love affair with Edward's stepson, Devon Addison. But the darkness of civil war had fallen over Central Europe, and Josef and Rujana, who were expecting their second child, had already been exiled from the country they loved so well. That summer in Paris they had tried to cover their unhappiness with laughter and the company of good friends, but the sadness they felt, and that Kathleen felt for them, was always with them, below the surface, ignored but never forgotten.

''They were good times.'' Kathleen smiled as she remembered the evenings she and Devon had spent in her friends' apartment, arguing over such diverse subjects as the relative merits of Japanese and American cars, and the philosophical implications of the Star Trek transporter beam. And when her guard was down and she couldn't shield her thoughts, Kathleen also remembered the sultry Paris nights she had spent in Devon's arms.

''Good times,'' Rujana echoed. ''But they seem so far away now. So long ago.''

Only four years. But so much had changed since those days, and none of it for the good. Kathleen had realized very shortly after those enchanted summer evenings that Devon Addison, the Prince Charming of every girl's dreams, was really just an ordinary man with feet of clay, with a life-style and a value system far removed from her own. So she had returned to Tyler without him. By Christmas she had convinced herself she was over him and, thankfully, with no one the wiser.

There was life after Devon Addison, and she intended to live it to the fullest. It was awkward at irst, running into him at Timberlake Lodge and at Addison Hotel's corporate offices in London, but she had made herself treat him as no more than a friend and co-worker who just happened to be her boss's stepson. And Devon, to give him credit, was enough of a gentleman not to step over the line she'd drawn.

While Kathleen learned the ins and outs of Edward Wo-check's inancial empire and mended her bruised and battered heart, the sporadic ighting in Yugoslavia erupted into full-blown war. By Christmas of the next year Ru-jana's husband, Josef, with the laughing eyes and ready smile, was dead. Now unbelievably, horribly, as the war went on and on, Rujana was dying, too, and there was no one left alive to care for her children.

No one but Kathleen.

A nurse appeared in the doorway, carrying a tray with another lighted candle. The hospital had a generator, but electricity was used only in the operating suite and the emergency room. The rest of the building was in darkness day and night, with only candlelight for the exhausted staff to work by.

''I have medication,'' the nurse said in French. Kathleen did not speak the local Slavic dialect, but most of the nurses and doctors spoke at least some English, or French or German.

''For the pain? What is it?'' Kathleen was skeptical, and she was afraid it came through in her voice. To treat their patients, the medical staff at the hospital had been forced to resort to unconventional remedies and folk medicines, the eficacy of which was often in doubt.

''Morphine,'' the nurse whispered.

Kathleen breathed a sigh of relief. ''Good. But how?''

''A shipment just came in, thank God,'' the nurse explained. ''It will last for a few days, perhaps a little more.'' She was a young woman, but her eyes were old. She was haggard looking from overwork and loss ofsleep, but her smile was beautiful and reassuring as she bent toward Rujana and spoke in hushed tones in her native tongue. ''She will sleep now,'' she said once more in French as she straightened after giving the injection.

''Thank you,'' Kathleen said. ''Was it a United Nations convoy that brought the medications?'' Perhaps she could get to the commander, beg his help in inding a way to transport the children to safety.

The nurse shook her head, her hand on Rujana's wrist, monitoring her pulse. ''No. It was a private shipment. I do not know how they got through, with the shelling so strong.'' Two more shells had passed overhead as they spoke, but the targets tonight seemed to be on the other side of town, and they paid them little attention. It was unbelievable the things that one got used to living in a war zone. The hospital so far had been off-limits, but Kathleen wondered how long that fragile truce would remain in effect.

''Will you stay with her until she falls asleep?'' the nurse asked. ''I have other injections to give.''

''Yes.'' Kathleen nodded. ''I'll stay.''

''Good. I will check back as soon as I can.'' She patted Rujana's hand once more and left the room as quietly as she had entered.

''Kathleen?'' Her friend's voice was a mere thread of sound.

''Yes, Ru.''

''Are you still here?''

''I'm here.'' She squeezed the thin ingers gently between her own.

''Where did the morphine come from? Was it the u.N.?

Was it the Red Cross?''

''I don't know,'' Kathleen murmured soothingly. ''I'll ind out as soon as you fall asleep.''

''Yes.'' Rujana's breathing slowed, grew even more shallow. ''See if you can learn who has come. Maybe…maybe this time we can get the children out.''

''Yes, Ru.'' Kathleen wiped a damp cloth across her friend's forehead. ''Maybe this time.'' Rujana's eyes were closed. Kathleen was glad her friend couldn't see her face. If what the nurse said was true, and it was not the united Nations that had broken through to bring the medical supplies, there was no way, no safe way, to get the children out of Triglav, away from the killing. Kathleen had tried. Lord, how she had tried.

When she irst arrived in the village at the end of September, there had still been telephone service to the outside world. She had spent hour after frustrating hour attempting to get medical help for her friend and to ind someone, anyone, who could assist her in getting travel papers for Rujana and her children.

She had met with dead ends and bureaucratic footdragging everywhere she turned. Ten days later, exhausted and desperate she had even attempted to call Devon Addison's mother, Lady Holmes, in London and beg for her help, only to be told her ladyship was vacationing on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and that her staff did not know where to reach Mr. Devon at that moment. Two days later a new government offensive began and all phone service to the beleaguered village had been cut off. Kathleen had never heard from Nicole Holmes, or anyone else. She had been on her own ever since, and she had never felt so helpless in her life.

''I'm tired,'' Rujana whispered. She had been silent so long Kathleen had thought she'd fallen asleep, lulled into unconsciousness by the drug's hypnotic power.

''Shh, you need to rest.''

Rujana's head moved on the pillow. ''I'm afraid if I sleep I will not wake, and I cannot die until I know you and my children are safe.''

Kathleen's throat tightened and she blinked away her tears. ''Sleep, Ru,'' she whispered. ''Sleep. I promise you I'll keep them safe.''

Devon Addison was beginning to wonder if he'd descended into the bowels of hell. All around him men in dirty khaki uniforms sat slumped with their backs against the wall, their heads cradled on bent knees, or else lay curled in the fetal position, so tired or so ill that they seemed oblivious to the noise and confusion. It was dark and cold and the building smelled of blood and fear, too little disinfectant and too many unwashed bodies.

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