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"Sure you wanna do this, Montgomery?" Fellow U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumper Nolan Briggs asked above the engine hum.
"I'm sure." Joel shifted away from the window as the luxury jet broke through wispy Southern Illinois clouds on descent to the one place on earth he never wanted to see again.
Refuge. The irony made him snort.
Nolan leaned close enough for Joel to inhale toxic doses of mafia-strength garlic. "'Cause if you don't, we'll handle it."
Teammate Manny Peña joined Nolan in the passenger aisle. "Yeah. Nobody'll know if you don't make the jump, dude."
Joel fastened a gaze on his well-meaning friends and fellow PJs, and aimed a thumb at his sternum. "I'll know."
And so would that kid. "It's gonna be tougher than you think," Nolan said. Hardest mission of his life. Especially on a cold Friday in September.
Joel laced his boot. "Nah. Piece of cake."
"Right. Like running a catering service with an Easy-Bake." Manny clicked the overhead bin open.
"No sweat." Joel tugged his chute pack from under the seat.
"Not a drop," Nolan agreed. "But the offer still stands."
"He asked for me. I can't let him down, guys." Joel retrained a determined gaze on the small town peeking up at him. Recognition of his old neighborhood clogged his throat. He clenched his jaw against a surge of unwanted emotion. He looked away from familiar landmarks. "I'll be fine."
As long as he steered clear of that house, and the uncle who'd destroyed his family, he'd be fine.
A chorus of unconvinced faces stared back at Joel when he looked up.A torrent of vulnerability rushed through him at their perception. He torqued his gaze out the window. True. They could do this without him and spare him the pain.
Except for one thing.
He tugged the letter out of his chest pocket. Unfolding it, he eyed the elementary attempt at cursive.
My name's Bradley. I'm eight and I have cancer. My teacher called Dream Corps who said I should write a letter about my wishes since doctors say I might not get a transplant in time. I want to meet a Special Forces soldier more than anything. Well, almost anything. Having a family would be nice. I heard a PJ grew up in my town. It would be awesome if he'd come see me but I know he's kinda busy with wars and rescues and all. Anyway, if you find him, tell him he's my idea of a hero
Words blurred. Joel blinked, refocused and read: Thinking of soldiers who fight terror helps me be brave and fight mine. If me and God win our cancer war, I promise to plug my nose and eat my stinky call of flower so I can grow up strong and come help the soldiers win theirs. Love, Bradley Tennyson. Refuge, IL U.S.A.
Joel folded the letter Dream Corps had forwarded to him. He crimped along the crease and came back with blue fingertips, probably from one of those messy erasable pens. He rubbed fingers on a hanky, but the ink didn't come off. Weird, since it had transferred from the paper with no trouble.
Ink imprinted his hand, but scribbled wishes stained his heart. Family. The very word stung. Joel couldn't help the little guy with one, but he could make the other a reality. No matter how hard the next hours proved to be, Joel's discomfort in coming back to the site of his most painful childhood memories would be a speck of dust compared to the earth of hurt this kid faced.
Joel pressed thumbs into the corners of his eyes and lifted his face. He swallowed, but his voice box didn't seem to want to loosen and let him speak.
"I appreciate you guys offering me an out, but
" He met and held each man's respect-filled gaze, drawing courage from the admiration in each one. "I need to do this."
Grins erupted all around, revealing to Joel they wanted him to conquer this every bit as much as he did.
Nolan tossed Joel his goggles. "Don't tangle up on a power line before you hit the ground, Montgomery. It wouldn't bode well to fry your fanny in front of a load of little kids."
Joel smiled back at the grinning faces before refastening his gaze on strings of pinpoint runway lights rising to meet the Dream Corps aircraft. "All right, you platoon of goons. As soon as we hit tarmac, load the choppers while the pilot flies me back up into a holding pattern. I'll jump when you hover on the school lawn. Fastrope down when I flare my canopy. Let's go make this little guy's dream come true."
A chorus of "Hoorah!" shouts punctuated the end of his sentence, and a dozen fists shot up.
He'd parachute in, spend a few hours with the kid, then get away from Refuge for good. It would be as easy as that. What could possibly be simpler?
"What on earth is that?" Special needs teacher Amber Stanton grasped the desk and held her breath.
Her best friend and co-teacher, Celia Muñez stared at Amber as if she'd morphed into a snail. "What?"
"You don't feel that?" Amber whispered.
Ebony eyes waxed blank and oblivious. "Feel what?" Leave it to her zippy friend to be in the middle of a natural disaster and not know. Had Amber imagined it? No. The rumbling vibration beneath her feet strengthened. Ripples pulsed across the surface of the water in the small fishbowl on her desk. "Shh" Amber leaned in. "Listen." The windows gave a faint rattle. "That!" Amber clutched Celia's shoulder in a pinch grip.
"Cool it with the claws, will ya?" Celia peeled fingernails from her blouse. "It's only"
"I know. Let's get these kids outside."
"You know?" Now Celia looked properly stricken.
"Shh. I don't want the children frightened. Let's go." Celia tuggedAmber back. "Hold on. They all know except Bradley. If you keep yapping, you'll ruin the surp"
"Class" Amber moved from Celia's grasp. Why didn't Administration ring the bell? "Line up at the door please."
Celia yanked Amber hard back behind the desk. "Not yet!"
"Sit!" Celia waved the class down with choppy arm motions. Children sat, giggling as crayons jittered off slanted desks.
Amber's chest tightened. She turned a fierce gaze on Celia. "Obviously you have no idea how dangerous they can be."
Celia screwed up her terra-cotta–toned face. "They?" Amber helped children from seats, then leaned close to Celia's ear. "Do not panic or react outwardly to what I am about to tell you, but I think we are having an earthquake."
A sharp laugh yelped from Celia, causing Amber's face to jerk back. Celia slapped a hand to her mouth.
Amber glared at her and ushered the class down the hall like a kiddie cattle drive. "Stay together, guys. Good." Amber kept her teacher voice calm and helped stragglers along, including Celia.
"Though this is frightening, it's only minor and should stop any moment. I moved from California to get away from these things," Amber said out of student earshot.
"Looks like they followed you here." Celia spoke in a wry voice. Amber's pulse spiked. Did Celia forget Refuge sat atop the New Madrid fault? Amber pushed her feet against fear that weakened her knees. Please, Lord. Not now. Not here. Not even a thousand years from now. Not these children. Not on my watch. Celia maneuvered Bradley up to Amber as she flung open the double doors and stepped outside into
A war zone? Talk about shock and awe. Bradley gasped and froze beside her as a blast of cheers erupted. She grew cognizant of little hands shoving them forward into a sea of noise and green. Military stuffeverywhere. Amber and Bradley moved down concrete steps to grass where the entire school, sans her class, waited. A bugle charmed the air with a patriotic tune, and drums danced a rhythm with Amber's pulse.
Mouth agape, she peered at Celia, who winked. "Whoa!" Bradley's voice cut through the chaos. Amber realized the roaring vibrations were military helicopters hovering above the school, fumigating the air with a sharp exhaust smell. Camo-fatigued men slid from ropes hanging out. One after another, they dropped to the ground. Helicopters lit on the lawn like twin gigantic metal grasshoppers. Thunderous chopping abated as the blades slowed to a halt.
Bradley drew in a sharp breath. "Look! Look at him!" Amber followed the trajectory of the finger Bradley jabbed at the sky. She gasped. A uniformed man dangling from a white parachute etched with a blue USAF insignia penetrated clouds above them. How could a person jump from such heights? Amber tugged Bradley's shoulder to move him back but a large hand halted her. She turned.
A wide grin peeked at her from a dark face painted in calico earth tones. "Don't worry, ma'am. He's never landed on a lady's head. Yet." The camouflaged man chuckled then directed her class to join with others as if this were
Planned. Suddenly she knew. Her phone call. The letter. Dream Corps. Bradley's wish coming true in a spectacular way.
Slammed with a tidal wave of emotion, Amber sprawled fingers over her lip to smother a tremor.
Celia's hand circled her wrist, tugging it back down. "It's okay to cry happy tears, chica. You've shed enough sad ones for him. Don't quench the enormity of this moment. Revel in it." Tears glistened in Celia's eyes, too, though she prided herself on never crying. She pressed paper in Amber's hand.
Celia peeled the backing off a flag sticker and placed it on Bradley. Amber lifted hers and read the preprinted font:
Welcome to Refuge. My name is Ms. Stanton. Faith Elementary, along with Dream Corps International, wish to thank you for your service to our country.
Chills marched down her arms as the words took hold of her.
"Oh!" Her head snapped up and her shoulders back as the parachutist landed mere feet in front of them. Bradley stumbled backward.
The soldier grinned, took three steps forward, dropped to one knee, putting him nose to nose with Bradley, and saluted.
Bradley sliced a clumsy hand to his forehead, causing his glasses to topple. The soldier righted the lopsided frames on Bradley's nose.
Amber laughed, recalling her earnest prayer the day she'd called Dream Corps. "I asked for one, and you sent
fifty." She roamed a deeply thankful look over each soldier who'd answered this very special call.
But it was the one brandishing a heart-seizing grin, the most piercing blue eyes, and parachute material falling around him in billowing waves, whom she couldn't extract her gaze from.
As Joel knelt on clean-shaven lawn, Bradley's eyes widened through bottle-thick glasses perched haphazardly atop his nose. His eyes traveled up Joel's body.
His mouth gaped like the nine-pound bass Joel hooked yesterday. "Whoa! Dude! Who're you?"
Joel offered his hand. "Senior Airman Joel Montgomery, little sir. You must be Bradley."
Awe and trepidation flowed over the child's gaunt face. "H-how do you know my name?" He shook Joel's hand, pumping as if it were the handle of a water well.
Joel grinned, tapping the patriotic sticker on the boy's bony chest. "Says so right here."
Bradley's gaze hit the sticker the way heat seekers locked on target. He lifted his shirt, twisting material to view it. "A flag tag! With my name!" His gaze skittered to Joel's shoulders. He stuck a tiny finger out and poked his bicep. "Are those real muscles?" Poke. Poke. Poke. "They are! Dang!"
"This is a private Christian school, kiddo. You sure you're supposed to be saying that kinda word around here?" Joel asked.
Bradley jerked his head around, rapidly scanning the perimeter as if they'd just come under heavy enemy fire. "N-no. I ain't supposed to. Good thing the playground patrol's not"
"Right behind you, Bradley?"
Bradley stiffened as if stabbed in the caboose with a bayonet. The sweet-timbred voice belonged to a very attractive woman with night vision–green eyes. He flashed his best grin and offered a hand to her. "Joel Montgomery."
She reached forward. "Amber Stanton."
From the air, he'd mistaken her for a student because of her petite frame. Closer observation confirmed she was all woman. He continued the handshake past the edge of proper, enjoying the flush that crept up her neck.
"Pleasure to meet you, ma'am. How do you know this brave guy?" Joel tousled Bradley's hair, which lay unusually sparse in places.
"I'm his teacher."
So this is her.
Joel rose to face the reason he was here today. Her phone call had deployed six military units to a hundred-student school in a middle-of-nowhere town.
"So, you're the one."
She started at his words. He wondered about the blush invading her cheeks until he realized how his statement could have been misconstrued. He dipped his chin to his chest, laughing at himself. Half-embarrassed, he looked back up. "You're the one
who called Dream Corps?"
She laughed then nodded. "I am." She smiled again. Cute mouth. Nice teeth. The kind that spoke of parents who'd forked over some hefty dough to orthodontists.
"Miss Stanton, you knew about all this?" Bradley's words rode out on the winds of an awe-induced whisper.
The riot of auburn curls framing her ivory face bounced as she looked from Joel to Bradley. Childlike mischief frolicked in her eyes as she surrendered a secret wink to Joel. "Not exactly."
He admired the way she pretended not to notice how hard Bradley attempted to simultaneously push his shoulders up and his chest out as far as Joel's. The jerky movement came out looking more like a barnyard bird with Parkinson's.
Joel watched her study Bradley, enthralled with the level of loving care in her eyes.
Eyes that seemed to glow with interest when they came to rest on Joel. He bit down on his cheek to keep from grinning over the possibility of the attraction being mutual.
Pink infused her cheeks when he didn't break his focus except to travel lazily down to her left ring finger before returning to her face again. The gesture was far from covert, as he'd intended to gauge her reaction.
Her blush deepened. Butterfly-delicate hands fluttered across her forehead before coming to rest atop Bradley's shoulders. "Shall we walk?"
Bradley clasped her hand, then Joel's. He had the feeling she'd wanted to slip out from under his assessing gaze but Bradley trapped her. He grinned. This couldn't have worked out better had he planned it himself. The threesome trekked past soldiers talking with huddles of enthralled students.
Around the east side of the school Bradley led them through a garden gate to a huge oak tree. An anklet of yellow flowers surrounded it. Bradley pointed to one whose color seemed muted. "That's mine. Planted it myself."
"Each student in class planted one," Amber explained. Another teacher motioned Bradley to the gate.