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Sky Pascal moaned, tossing in her sleep on the hotel bed. Her stomach was in knots, with the pain radiating outward. She flinched and drew her legs up toward her body. The vibration of the Black Hawk helicopter surrounded her. She could smell the sweat from the bodies of the air crewmen on this flight to Forward Operating Base, or FOB, Charlie. The odor of the kerosene aviation fuel was always present.
She'd been asked to fly along with Dr. Aaron Zimmerman to take a look at an Army soldier who was thought to have appendicitis. They had been over at a different FOB when the call came in. The FOBs were only forty miles from one another, and they were the closest medical team that could respond.
Now the vibration of the Hawk skittered through her. Sky was on the metal deck of the medevac helicopter as it raced through the darkness to reach the soldier.
She was an emergency-room trained R.N. and Zimmerman, who sat near the door, was a surgeon, specializing in internal medicine. Two other combat medic crewmen, whom she could not see, were nearby. The two pilots to her left were wearing night-vision goggles.
The tension was so thick it felt like a wet blanket around her hunched shoulders. Her mind raced.
She was assigned to the Army hospital at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, Afghanistan. A first lieutenant, she had three years under her belt in the U.S. Navy. It wasn't unusual for different military services to have personnel assigned to the huge, busy hospital. She loved her job in the E.R. Sky was good in a crisiscool and calm. That was why Zimmerman had asked her to go with him as he visited the outlying FOBs. If he had to perform surgery on the spot at the FOB, he wanted someone like her with him.
But now her mouth was dry, and her heart was skipping beats in her chest. She was dressed in Navy fatigues, the "blueberries" coloring standing out starkly against others who wore desert-hued uniforms. Glad to have the forty-pound Kevlar vest on, Sky lived for missions like this. They were exciting and scary as hell.
She knew there was danger with any helo flight. The Black Hawk Army pilots, who were from the black-ops Night Stalker squadron, were flying high enough so the Taliban couldn't send grenade launchers up at them. However, the Stinger missiles were always a threat. One could blow them out of the sky regardless of their altitude. Sky was a knot of excitement and fear, adrenaline leaking through her bloodstream.
She couldn't see through the darkness because she wasn't wearing night-vision goggles. Only the four crew members were wearing NVGs. The flight wasn't long to FOB Charlie, located three miles from the Pakistan border. There were only two platoons at the Army base.
Sky was told this particular FOB was an essential stopgap measure to halt or slow down the Taliban and al Qaeda soldiers trying to sneak into Afghanistan. FOB Charlie was an important deterrent.
Zimmerman had warned her beforehand that this would be a dangerous mission because of the FOB's location. Sky had leaped at the chance. Maybe she was bored. But that couldn't possibly be. She lived on the same dicey border of stress and pressure in the E.R. Night and day, men and women were brought in chewed up by the weapons of war. She felt no small amount of pride in being part of the E.R. team who helped save those lives. Now she was going to help a young soldier with appendicitis.
The sound of the engines changed on the Black Hawk. Sky felt a sudden lurch, the nose suddenly dropping. She inhaled sharply, throwing out her hand on one of the litters against the wall. Wearing a helmet, she heard the tense, short exchanges between the two pilots.
Something was wrong.
She caught a whiff of what smelled like burning oil entering the cabin. Her pulse ratcheted up.
A sudden shrieking, screaming noise blasted through the cabin of the Black Hawk. The bird banked sharply right and plunged downward. It happened so fast. The thumping of the blades. Being thrown up against the skin, striking her head hard on the bulkhead, nearly losing consciousness. Suddenly, they were upside down. She hadn't been able to wear the seat belt. The other crewmen were thrown around, as well. Yelling and sharp orders from the pilot filled the ears of her helmet.
They were falling out of the sky. The screeching of metal upon metal continued to shriek through the cabin.
Her mouth went dry. Sky bit back a scream. Oh, God, they were going to crash! It was some sort of mechanical malfunction. Her mind swam with terror. Where were they? She couldn't see out the window! Gravity was shoving her hard against the aluminum skin of the Black Hawk. She was scared. She was going to die!
Sky reared up in the bed, screaming. The sound echoed about the small hotel room. Sweat leaked down her temples. Her ginger, shoulder-length hair swung around her face, momentarily blinding her as she threw her hands out, as if to stop herself from falling. Her legs were entangled in the sheets. She breathed in heaving sobs as she opened her eyes, trying to get rid of the sensation of the plummeting helicopter she rode down in the crash.
Still reeling from her nightmare, Sky lurched jerkily out of the bed and fell onto the carpeted floor. Landing with an oomph, her head slamming into the floor, she snapped wide-awake. She groaned, drawing up her hands, covering her face, lying flat on her belly, unable to move.
If she closed her eyes, she saw the crash behind her eyelids. If she opened her eyes, she could still smell the burning oil in the cabin, feel the helo vibrating like a wild, wounded thing around her. She heard the terse commands and tightness in the pilots' voices up in the cockpit as they wrestled to stop the bird from augering into the Afghanistan mountains.
Her nostrils flared, and she felt the sweat running down her face. Her breath came out in explosive gasps. Her heart pounded. Oh, God
Oh, God . I'm here. Not there. I'm here. I survived
God, I survived
. And she kept up the litany in her head, unable to erase the coming crash. Or what happened after that.
Sky pushed her trembling fingers into the tight weave of the carpet, trying to orient herself to here and now.
Why wouldn't the images go away? Why wouldn't she stop feeling the Black Hawk shivering and whumping around her? Get up! Get up!
Sobbing for air, Sky forced her paralyzed body to move. Her nightgown was soaked with sweat. Shaky and unsteady, she got to her knees and slowly straightened her long fingers against her curved thighs. It was nearly dawn, the light leaking in around the drapes of the Wyoming Inn. Looking over at the bed stand, she saw the red numbers: 5:20 a.m.
Pushing the damp strands of her hair off her face, Sky hung her head, trying to steady her breathing. At the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, this was what they'd taught her when she'd get anxiety reactions or a full-blown panic attack. She'd been a broken shell of a human being when she'd been rescued by a SEAL team two weeks after being captured. They'd brought her fractured soul and tortured body to Bagram hospital, where she'd been an E.R. nurse.
Whispering her name, she held on to it. Skylar Pascal. First Lieutenant. U.S. Navy. She repeated her name again and again. She had to concentrate on her physical body. Damp palms moved down the soft cotton of her damp gown. She forced her attention to the temperature in the room on an early-June morning. Focused on any sounds she might hear, like the ticking of the clock. Finally
the sensations of riding the helo down into a crash left her. The terror of thinking she was going to die in that moment eased, as did the harsh gasps tearing out of her mouth.
Slowly, Sky lifted her hands, threading her fingers through her long, straight hair. She reveled in its silkiness. Feeling how soft and sleek it was compared to the nightmare's smells, sounds and sensations. Ground. Ground. Get back in your body, Sky. Her throat tightened, and tears jammed into her eyes. No longer did she see the movielike frames of the nightmare. Relief shattered through her as the hot tears fell down her cheeks.
Pulling her thick hair off her shoulders, the bulk of it falling between her shoulder blades, Sky didn't even try to stop the tears. Her therapist, Commander Olivia Hartfield, a specialist in PTSD at Balboa Naval Hospital, had told her they were good. It would help to cleanse her, help her emotionally stabilize. Above all, she'd told Sky, never fight crying. Let the tears flow. They were healing. Sky wiped the perspiration off her wrinkled brow. Gulping, her mouth dry, she wanted water.
Opening her eyes, Sky let the word filter through her and bring up the soul-destroying sensations and what they did to her. Water. Once, she'd loved water, loved swimming, loved walking in the rain, running outside to feel the fury of a thunderstorm as a child. Not anymore. Water was her enemy. Water had nearly killed her. But she was thirsty.
The nightmare was leaving her, and Sky looked around. She was in a small hotel room in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She had a job interview at 9:00 a.m. She frowned, and her heart began a slow beat, underscoring her trepidation. Sky absently touched her heart. She desperately needed this job. She'd gone through so many of them and had been either fired outright or let go with apologetic sympathy. Either way, she was unemployed when she had to find a way to survive and work like everyone else.
As she forced herself to stand, her knees felt wobbly. Sky sat down on the bed, understanding she was having an adrenaline crash. It made her weak. Made her unable to do much of anything until it passed. Her mouth felt dry and cracked. Thirsty. She was so thirsty. Sky couldn't stand to see a pitcher of water. Shaking her head, she forced herself to lie down. Usually, once she had a nightmare, she could go back to sleep. Since Afghanistan, since the Black Hawk crash, she was lucky to get two or three hours a night. Sky closed her eyes and didn't even try to pick up the sheets off the floor. All she wanted to do was escape into sleep. There, she didn't have to feel anything. There, Sky could go away for just a little while
The alarm startled Sky out of her badly needed sleep. She jerked up, the noise sending her into panic. Heart crashing, she quickly pushed the buzzer on the clock, and it stopped shrieking at her. Looking up, she saw sunlight around the curtains. She'd set the clock for 7:00 a.m.
I have to get up. Get moving
Glancing at the sheets and blanket strewn across the floor, she felt guilty. Sky got up and walked slowly toward the bathroom. She smelled of fear sweat. As she ran her hand down her cotton nightgown, she felt the dampness from the nightmare. She would wash her hair, as well. Today she needed to be presentable. Needed to look normal. Whatever normal meant.
She'd never be normal again. After turning on the water for a bath, she closed the bathroom door. This was the hardest thing to do: take a bath. Water meant suffocation and dying. It meant terror beyond anything she'd ever experienced. Olivia had worked long and hard with her that six months she was recovering. Worked to get her to take a bath. Sky would never take a shower again. Not ever. It would remind her of the torture she'd endured. At first, she'd wash only with a cloth and water in a steel bowl. In six months, she'd graduated from a bowl of water to taking a bath with a small amount of water in the tub. It was progress, Olivia said, congratulating her for her courage to challenge the very thing that had nearly killed her.
As Sky turned off the faucets and slowly put one foot into the tub and then the other, she got herself to focus on her coming job interview. She was to see Iris Mason, owner of the Elk Horn Ranch, at 9:00 a.m. This morning. Somehow, Sky would find the strength it'd take to gut through that interview. She needed the job. Would she get it? Or would Iris Mason see right through her and turn her down as so many other employers already had?
Grayson McCoy was walking from the main office of the Elk Horn Ranch after talking with Iris Mason when he saw a silver Kia Sorento SUV pull up in front. He'd settled his black SEAL baseball cap on his short brown hair and slowed a little. The early-June morning was near freezing, not uncommon at this time of year for this part of Wyoming. To the east rose the jagged, tooth-shaped Teton Mountains, their slopes glazed with white snow.
Because he'd been a SEAL for seven years, he was alert and watchful. Iris, the owner of the Elk Horn Ranch, had been excited about a woman named Skylar Pascal, who was coming to interview for a job. It wasn't just any job, either. Gray wasn't sure he wanted to work with a woman at the wildlife center. He'd been hired a year ago because his mother, Isabel McCoy, was a noted wolf biologist and wildlife expert. Iris had wanted to create a one-hundred-acre wildlife preserve on the Elk Horn for their dude-ranch families who came every year for a vacation.
Further, Iris, who always had an eye on saving the planet, wanted part of the refuge for timber wolves and to bring them back to the States. His mother had told him about this job, and Iris had hired him on the spot.
The green grass beneath his cowboy boots was thick with dew as he slowed. Across the dirt road stood the log cabin. He watched with a little more interest as a woman dressed in a tasteful, coffee-brown pantsuit with a white blouse emerged from the SUV. His eyes narrowed speculatively as he absorbed her.
Being a SEAL, he had the ability to see all the details, which was always important. She was young, mid-twenties, with long, beautiful, ginger-brown hair that swung gently around her shoulders. The way she squared them, the way she walked, made Gray think she had a military background. Military people walked a certain way: shoulders back and proud, a straight spine, the chin slightly tilted upward. This woman was probably around five foot ten or so. Long, lean and damned graceful. She had a white leather purse she pulled over her left shoulder. Another sign of being in the military. Gray smiled to himself. It left the right arm free to salute with, and women in the military always carried their purses on their left shoulder as a result.
He didn't want to be swayed, but when she lifted her chin and looked aroundlooked at himhis heart unexpectedly thumped once. It was a crazy reaction and surprising to Gray. He had been emotionally numbed out for a long time
ever since Julia's murder.