Mission: To be the man she needs and wants!
It's taken Amy Benton eighteen months to move on after her SEAL husband's death. Now she's nearly realized her dream of breeding and training military war dogs. Unfortunately, no one sees her as anything other than "the grieving widow." Her ambitions, determination, even her longing for a man's touch are invisible to everyone except the man she can't have.
Pararescue Jumper Mark Rhodes has always been there for his best friend's widow. But lately, there's been a growing awareness between them And when he comes home to help open her training facility, the heat between them is impossible to resist. But is Amy willing to risk her heart on another soldier who may never come home?
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The commander's voice echoed through the tactical operations center's loudspeakers. Mark Rhodes leaned over the intel officer's shoulder and scanned the details on the computer screen. IED blast. Double amputee. American. Special Forces. He ran for the door.
When he'd first joined the PJs, if he'd heard a mission drop, fear would have settled in his gut. What if their helicopter got hit? What if they landed on a mine? Sure, they touched down in swept areas, but shit happened. In Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, it happened every day.
But now, on his fourth deployment, he wanted to get out there and do his job. Save a life. Send a soldier home to his loved ones.
Mark reached the helicopter and started pulling on his gear. "One Alpha," he shouted to his teammates over the bird's roar. "This guy needs a hospital within the hour. And we're going in hot. We're picking him up outside the wire."
His team nodded and climbed into the bird. They went to work, prepping IVs, getting ready to do whatever they could to keep the fallen soldier alive.
"How long has he been down?" one of Mark's teammates asked as they lifted into the air.
"Twenty, based on when the call came in," Mark said. By the time they reached the soldier, they would have only minutes to get him in the air and to a hospital. After one hour, the guy's chances of making it dropped significantly.
Minutes later, Mark's lead helicopter landed, leaving the trail helo circling overhead to provide cover. When the dust settled, three men carrying a stretcher emerged, running toward Mark and his team. They loaded the injured American on board. The soldier was conscious, a good sign. But he'd lost a lot of blood.
"Let's go," Mark shouted into his headset, then turned to his teammate. "Start an IO, this guy needs blood." Drilling into the man's arm and sending the blood directly to the bone was their best shot. Still, Mark added, "Prep an IV as backup."
The solider turned his head toward Mark. His lips moved. Mark took the injured man's hand and leaned over, pressing his ear close to the guy's mouth.
"Repeat that," Mark said.
"I wish I'd told her I loved her," the injured soldier whispered. "My girl."
"Stay with me and you'll get your chance."
"Not this time, man." The soldier's eyes fluttered, then closed. The hand Mark was holding went limp.
"We're losing him." Mark pressed his fingers to the soldier's neck, searching for a pulse. It was there. Barely. Dammit, at times like this, he wished he'd gone to medical school and had the skills to open the guy up. But even the best surgeon probably couldn't do more than Mark and his team in the back of a helicopter flying over a war zone.
His teammate, hovering over what was left of the man's legs, shook his head. "This is bad. He's lost a lot of blood."
"How far are we from the hospital?" Mark spoke into his headset, hoping like hell the pilot said five minutes or less.
"Wheels down in fifteen. Maybe more. There are reports of enemy fire to the east. We need to take the long way around."
Shit. They couldn't risk getting shot out of the sky, but this guy didn't have fifteen.
"Starting CPR." Mark checked for a pulse again. Nothing. They were losing him. Fast. He began compressions on the guy's chest.
Twenty minutes later the bird was still in the air, taking the goddamn scenic route to avoid rocket launchers, and the soldier still didn't have a pulse. They'd lost him. Mark knew it. But he refused to give up. He continued CPR until the helicopter touched down.
On the ground, Mark and his teammates rode with the soldier in the ambulance. He ran alongside his stretcher as they wheeled him into the trauma bay, conveying every detail to the doctors. But he knew that look in their eyes. The doctors were good, but they couldn't save him now.
Mark stood, his teammates beside him, watching and waiting. What felt like an eternity later, after they'd tried everything they could, the attending called it.
His teammate stepped forward and handed Mark a folded American flag, one of the ones they prepped during their downtime at the base. He carried it forward and laid it on the fallen soldier's chest, and then he turned and walked away.
They did their best to honor fallen soldiers. But it wasn't enough. It was never enough. Somewhere, half a world away, this man had a family and friends who had no idea they'd just lost their loved one.
And this guyhe had a girl.
Mark climbed into the helicopter for the ride back to base and closed his eyes. He hoped the soldier was wrong. He hoped the man's girl knew how he felt about her.
But if she did know, when she learned of his death, her world would shatter. And picking up the pieces wasn't easy. Sometimes he still felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him when he thought about losing his best friend. And he'd watched Darren's widow navigate her own pain. Witnessing her struggle, especially in those early months, was hard.
Mark opened his eyes and stared out the window, watching the colorless landscape speed by beneath the helo. As much as he missed his mom, part of him was glad she'd already passed away. If a rocket launcher hit this helicopter right now, if tomorrow he took a bullet trying to save a fellow solider, he wouldn't leave behind someone deeply bound to his memory. He couldn't do that to someone he loved. And loving himthe kid who'd grown up with nothing, whose father had never given him a second thought and whose mother had worked two jobs just to get bywasn't worth the pain of losing him.
Back at base, the helicopter touched down, and Mark headed for the barracks. He needed to wash up and check his gear. In twelve hours, he had to be prepared to go out there again and risk his life to save a life.
The alarm on Mark's watch sounded. He glanced down and checked the time. Shit. He was late for his video chat with Amy, the one person he made an effort to keep in touch with back home. He picked up the pace.
"Hey, Mark, time for your date?" Tommy, the team rookie, joked.
"It's not a date," he said gruffly, jogging past his teammates.
"You talk to that chick every week. She must be giving you something."
"Show some respect," Mark said. "She's a widow. Her husband was my friend. When he got hit, he had less of a chance than the guy we lost today."
Tommy sobered instantly. "Sorry, man."
Mark nodded, apology accepted, as he pushed through the door. In the break room, Mark opened his laptop, the one he'd quickly set aside when the mission had dropped. While he waited for it to connect, he glanced down. Blood covered his shirt. No way he could talk to Amy like this. He pulled it over his head and tossed it aside.
"Mark?" Amy's soft voice filled the quiet space followed by her image on the screen. She held a cup of coffee in her hands, her blond hair loose and flowing over her shoulders. When she was out working with her dogs, she always tied it back, tucking her long bangs behind her ears. But it was early still in Oregon, not even six in the morning. He knew she woke up hours before the sun every Sunday for this call.
Keeping in touch and maintaining their friendship meant something to her. Even though part of him wanted to sever ties with everyone back home, he couldn't let go of Amy. She'd already lost so much, burying her husband at twenty-eight. If there was anything he could do to help her, he would.
For months after Darren's funeral, they'd played the memory game, writing up long lists and sending them back and forth. She reminded him of some of the best parts of growing up in Heart's Landing. She'd made him laugh, and once or twice, her list had reduced him to tears.
"I'm here." He studied the screen. Amy kept her computer on her kitchen table. Through the window behind her, he could usually see Oregon's coastal range. But today, on an early October morning, it was too dark. Part of him missed those mountains and the smell of the ocean in the air.
Mark turned his attention back to Amy, taking in the dark circles under her blue eyes. He forced a smile. For her sake, he put on a front, trying to be the fun-loving guy she remembered, not the jaded solider. "Amelia Mae, you look exhausted. Are you sleeping?"
"Hmm?" She drew her lower lip between her teeth, running her tongue back and forth, her gaze fixed on his bare chest. She hadn't even noticed his smile. She'd been staring at his muscles. Maybe she was reading the words tattooed across his pecsso that others may live. Or maybe she was just plain looking.
And that look, combined with the way she nibbled on her lower lip, swirling her tongue as if she wanted to taste, maybe touch, spoke to part of his body that had no business participating in their weekly chat.
Hell, this was Amy. But one more second of that look and he'd freaking want her. Every beautiful, blond inch of her.
Mark closed his eyes, pushing the thought away. He couldn't go there. And dammit, he should have taken the time to find a clean shirt. He'd loved Amy for years, but never in a let's-get-naked way. They'd been friends since high school. Nothing more. Not a chance.
Still, he wasn't blind. Amy was gorgeous. But wanting what he couldn't have he knew better.
"What happened to your shirt?" she asked, finally looking up at his face.
"You lost someone," she said softly.
"American. Special Forces." She didn't need to know the details, to picture the man bleeding out in the helicopter. He'd probably already said too much. Amy's husband had been a SEAL. Darren had died over a year ago, but Mark knew the grief still weighed heavily on her.
He nodded. What was there to say? He was sorry, too. "You can talk to me, Mark. I'm here and I'm listening."
"Are you trying to make me tear up?" he said, forcing a lightness he didn't feel, not by a long shot.
"We can joke and laugh if you want. But if you need to get it off your chest"
"He'd lost both legs. Bled out in the helicopter. We couldn't get him to a hospital in time. It sucked. Just plain sucked." He rubbed his hands over his face. He'd been kidding about crying, but now he wasn't so sure.
"We can wait and talk next week," she said. "If you need to clean up. Rest."
"No, my shift's over, and I've been looking forward to catching up. The shower will still be waiting for me when we're done," he said. "But I can grab a shirt."
She shook her head. "No. Don't worry about it. I was just surprised."
There was a long pause. Mark wondered if the screen had frozen. But then Jango, the dog that had served with his best friend, appeared in the background. The Belgian Malinois was technically retired after years of working alongside navy SEALs, sniffing for bombs and weapons in war zones, but Jango didn't act like a senior citizen adjusting to a life of chasing balls. Years of training, combined with natural instincts, might always prevent the dog from relaxing. Instead, Jango followed Amy as if she was his new handler.
Mark cleared his throat. "In your email, you said you had something to tell me. Big news."
"I do. And you're the first one outside of family to know about this." Her face lit up like a kid's on Christmas morning, and he damn near fell off the couch. He hadn't seen her that excited in years.
"I'm opening a military war dog breeding and training facility. It will mean shutting down my current K-9 training business and remodeling the kennels, but in the end, it will be worth it." Amy spoke quickly, her fingers drumming the side of her coffeecup. "Darren's mother and his brothers support the idea. In fact, they're donating a few acres of their land. I'll be able to expand the training grounds and, in time, build another kennel. If I have the funds.
"The Department of Defense offered preliminary approval. They have their own breeding programs, but they'll buy my pups, too. Provided the dogs fit with what they're looking for. And they will. I've already bought a pair of Belgian Malinois from Denmark, both from top bloodlines. In the past, the DOD has been sending someone over there to purchase puppies. Now they will be born and receive their basic training right here in Oregon."
She paused and lifted her coffee to her lips, then lowered it. "So, what do you think?"
For the first time in months, Amy sparkled. She looked like her old self again. Sure, turning her business into a military war dog program sounded cool, but she could have told him she was joining the circus, and he would have supported her 100 percent if it made her this happy.
"One more thing," she said. Was it his imagination or had the light in her eyes dimmed? Shit, maybe she'd been looking for more enthusiasm. This was huge for hera way to move on with her life. And he wanted that for her.
"I'm planning to open in three months and hold a dedication a few months later, probably in early March, when some of Darren's brothers are expected home for a visit," she continued. "Nothing big. Just family and friends. Maybe a few members of the community who express interest. Do you think you can come? You can stay in the spare bedroom."
Heart's Landing wasn't a place he'd planned to visit during his brief time stateside. But the thought of seeing Amy again, in person, pushed against his reservations. This time, when he returned to his hometown, it would be for her, 100 percent. She was his closest friend now. And if there was anything he could do to help her, he was on board.
"I'm done here around then. So, yeah, I'll be there," he said. "You can count on it."