Christmas at Peleliu Cove


-a Night Stalkers and the Navy romance-

NAME: Nika Maier

RANK: Petty Officer and hovercraft pilot

BELIEF: Merriness is against her religion, especially during the Christmas holidays

NAME: Clint Barstowe

RANK: Lieutenant, 75th US Rangers

BELIEF: There’s nothing in the world as sharp as a soldier in a Santa hat

Nika’s past lies safely buried in the bottom of her duffle, right down there with her interest in a lasting relationship.

Clint swore off serious women after his first marriage, but his feet are swept out from under him by the 110-pound sailor who flies a 180-ton hovercraft.

When a mission throws them together and they are cast onto a beach like driftwood in a storm, none of their training prepares them for what happens to their careful plans.

When her past and his present collide, they must fight the battle together to win a merry Christmas at Peleliu Cove.

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Chapter 1-1
Chapter 1 Striding up the wide steel bow ramp of the LCAC hovercraft, Petty Officer Nika Maier patted the ugly beast on its big black numbers—316—painted on the Navy-gray hull. “Morning, baby.” It was 1800 hours, an hour past sunset in the southern Mediterranean, the start of their day. Ever since the Night Stalkers had come to fly helicopters off their ship, operations had been done in a flipped-clock world of night. Even in their second year aboard, she really wasn’t used to sleeping through the day, but that choice was made way above the pay grade of a Navy enlisted woman. Despite the warm December evening, there was a familiar damp air-and-steel chill down in the bowels of the USS Peleliu where Landing Craft Air Cushion 316 was typically parked. “You got a soft spot in you,” Chief Petty Officer Sly Stowell’s deep voice echoed about the steel cavern that was the sea-level Well Deck of the ship. The Peleliu’s massive stern ramp was currently raised, blocking out both the sea and the last of the sunset. In the shadows of the worklights she hadn’t spotted him. The Craftmaster was perched in the window of the hovercraft’s starboard two-story control station, but after four years aboard his craft and four tours in the Navy, she’d lost her the ability to be surprised and simply waved a greeting. “Only before a mission,” she looked up at him. “Other than that…” “…hard as steel,” he finished for her. “In a mood to go kick some ass, Petty Officer Maier?” He offered his ritual start-of-shift greeting. “Two boots better than one, Chief Stowell,” her ritual reply before she climbed up into her Loadmaster’s portside tower to prep the hovercraft. Even on days with no mission or exercise planned, they always made sure their craft was completely ready. Sly dropped down the ladder and headed off to the evening briefing as she started checking over the LCAC—spoken like you were about to throw up—El-Cack! Some part of her warped Lower East Side Jewish sense of humor laughed every single time she heard it…or even thought it. The LCAC was homely as a New York bum, and so powerful that riding in it felt like an outing in the Lord’s personal chariot. The juxtaposition got her every time. Probably made her completely sophomoric, but since no one could hear inside her head she figured no harm—no foul. The portside lookout on Sly Stowell’s hovercraft had become Petty Officer Nika Maier’s favorite assignment since joining the Navy eight years before. In just another month she’d have been four years on old Lady 316. Her first tour had been aboard the USS George H. W. Bush—then on its own first tour—but a girl could get totally lost in the five-thousand person city that was a newly commissioned aircraft carrier. The largest ship afloat in any navy, and still the crowd was worse than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. She’d been a “red”—a red-vested serviceperson—in charge of loading and securing aircraft weapons and munitions systems. She was no aviator, but eventually grew sick of watching others burn into the sky on the hottest rides while she stood on the deck, ate exhaust fumes, and wished she was someone else. For a brief time, a very brief time, the length of a two-week training run, she’d switched over to a Cyclone-class patrol boat without an aircraft in sight—not even a helipad. The hundred-and-eighty foot boat got in close to the action, mostly on security patrols for bigger ships. She’d enjoyed that. And the weapon systems were exceptional—there were six major weapon systems on a boat commonly crewed by just thirty men and women. But that was the catch. On the USS Firebolt, a girl couldn’t get lost. With such a small crew, the pickings were painfully thin for friendships, never mind any other thoughts. And the Firebolt’s grapevine news network offered no privacy at all—you couldn’t switch from drinking ice tea to lemonade at lunch without raising comments and questions. Good people, just way too far into your life. Nika’s Loadmaster checklist on the LCAC was short until they had a load. It was still fifteen minutes to start of shift, so she grabbed Jerome’s checklist and began the mechanical inspection. She was the only one other than Sly who had cross-trained in all five of the crew positions; but it required constant practice to keep her skills fresh. Step one: Perimeter inspection. She headed down the bow ramp and began working her way along the spray skirt looking for untoward damage. The vague slit of light coming in over the Peleliu’s rear ramp was no help at all, but the big worklights shone down. She pulled a flashlight out of her thigh pocket to double-check in the shadows cast by the overheads. This, her third ship—three hundred feet shorter and half the personnel of the super carrier—landed right in the sweet spot. The USS Peleliu had serviced a Marine Expeditionary Unit for thirty-five years. Cobra helicopters and Harrier jets up on the flattop deck. Beneath that and the Hanger Deck were several decks carrying fifteen hundred gung-ho Marines and a third that many Navy to run the eight-hundred foot ship. Even though Nika had liked the size, she’d still felt disconnected. Most of her second tour had gone by and she’d been doubting the point of re-upping for a third. Then, four years ago, Sly had introduced her to heaven. She patted her baby-girl 316 again as she inspected the rear ramp gasket seal. She remembered the day with crystal clarity— It had been midday and the Indian Ocean heat had dehydrated her to the point of weaving, weighed down by her bright red fire-resistant gear. She’d just left the Flight Deck after double-checking the Zuni missile control connections on yet another SuperCobra helicopter when Chief Petty Officer Sly Stowell had pulled her aside. Everyone knew Sly, he was just one of those guys. Super competent. There were days it seemed the Peleliu would sink without him aboard. Other times people said that they didn’t need a command structure as long as Sly was around. “You look bored as hammered s**t, Maier,” were the first words he’d ever spoken directly to her. She hadn’t realized that he even knew her name. Sometimes you answered honesty with honesty. “Damn straight, Chief. If I never have to load another Hydra 70 missile tube, I’ll die a happy woman.” “Good, come with me,” and he’d walked away from her. At a loss for what else to do, she’d grabbed a water bottle and staggered after him. He’d led her down past the personnel decks. Even below the on-board Garage Decks filled with tanks, Humvees, and a dozen different land and amphibious vehicles. They were packed in so tightly that drivers used the roof hatches to get in and out of them once they were parked because they were jammed into the ship’s lower holds door to door. He led her down to the Well Deck. She hadn’t been down here but once or twice since her on-boarding orientation tour two years before. The air had been oddly fresher than up on the exposed burning plain of the Flight Deck, and thanks be to the Lord our God. Right at sea-level, the Peleliu sported a massive stern gate. When lowered into the water it formed an angled steel beach, opening the Well Deck directly to the sea. A variety of landing craft could be parked there. “Meet my baby,” Sly had sounded like a proud papa despite being from North Carolina rather than a good Jewish family. Or even a bad one like hers. It was an LCAC, about the ugliest sea craft ever built. No surprise that they named the craft so that it sounded like a cat choking up a hairball. Worse, its only name was the black numbers painted as tall as Nika’s torso. Aircraft, ships, even sailboats had names; El-Cacks didn’t even rate that. A Landing Craft Air Cushion was a ninety-foot-long by fifty-foot-wide rectangular platform with four jet engines down the sides—combined, they packed the same power as a Boeing 737 airliner. She sported two huge fans at the stern and two more that drove air underneath her big rubber skirt. There was a two-story control station at the starboard front corner for three people and a smaller tower for some loner to port. After the mayhem of the Flight Deck, that isolated tower had looked attractive. At the base of either tower was a narrow cabin for a total of thirty troops. Behind them, on each side, were two big gas turbine jet engines and then the two massive rear fans. Down the center was the broad deck that could hold an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank or a dozen armored Humvees parked in three tight lanes. She finished rounding the craft doing her start of day inspection and looked up at it. Four years later, she still liked the look of it. Every now and then someone would tease her about being the “fair maiden locked in a tower.” They didn’t understand that from up there she could watch the world go by and not have to worry that her every thought conformed to some unwritten set of her mother’s rules. Given the choice, she’d lock the door so that they could never drag her away. Even on that first day aboard four years ago, she’d felt a strange affinity for the poor beast of a machine. Neither boat nor aircraft, the hovercraft lay there on the Well Deck like a stuck pig with her rubber skirt deflated and the front and rear ramps laying open on the rough wood of the presently dry Well Deck. The LCAC looked like someone had slashed open either end of a giant steel shoebox and pushed the end flaps down. Nika had left the Flight Deck in broad daylight and fresh sea air—liberally laced with the kerosene bite of fresh-burned Jet-A fuel and echoing with the roar of turboshaft engines. The bowels of the ship were dark and quiet except for the beat of the sea against the outside of the hull and the low thrum of the big steam turbines directly below—more felt through the heels of her boots than heard. With the Peleliu’s stern gate up, only a narrow slice of light entered above the gate. Big worklights did little to chase away the shadowed cave that was the Well Deck. It was like a man-cave on steroids—without the bar and big-screen television. “Ain’t she a beauty?” Sly had asked in his lazy Southern drawl, which echoed about the vast compartment like a whisper in Temple Emanu-el, the massive synagogue that her mother always dragged her to for the high holidays. As if showing up ten times a year somehow made them Upper East Side New York Jews rather than the last of the Lower East Side holdouts against the encroaching Chinatown. Encroaching, hell. The Chinese had overrun the old Jewish neighborhood and most of Little Italy…but the Maiers would not be nudged loose from their appointed place in the world. Thankfully Sly didn’t wait for her to answer. “She needs a crew of five to fly and I just lost my portside spotter and Loadmaster,” he aimed a nod up at the slim one-person tower that she’d liked on first sight. “Something about falling in love with an accountant, wants kids. You want kids, Maier?” “Not yet, Chief. Haven’t found a man worth having them with.” “Good. You already have your boatswain’s rating. Welcome aboard.” And just that simply she’d been transferred to the LCAC crew—so fast that Sly might have sent in the paperwork before she’d ever descended the ladders and ramps to view her new posting. Her new world. The first part of her job was as weapons specialist to their pair of M2 .50 cal machine guns. Bit of a letdown from Harrier jets’ and SuperCobra helicopters’ vast array of heavy armament, but for the first time in her service, one of the machine guns was exclusively hers to control. Also, he’d tempted her with the word “fly,” because that’s what an LCAC did—mere feet above the water but it flew. Then Chief Stowell had followed up rapidly with Loadmaster training, assistant navigator, understudy engineer, and for her fourth tour he’d offered to start her on Craftmaster training, his own gig. She’d re-upped. And Sly was of course as good as his word, one of the main reasons she’d stuck with him for four years now. Men who weren’t trying to sell a girl something were an unusual commodity in her experience, in or out of the service. Sly didn’t sell anything. He actually believed. He was a lifer and was slowly convincing her that was a good thing. For lack of any clearer plan, she was starting to buy in. Then right after she’d re-upped, the Marines had abandoned the Peleliu and tossed her toward the scrap heap. The Navy crew that ran her had gone into a deep tailspin of ugly funk. The band would be split up and scattered across the Navy. All of the newer personnel were indeed gone within days of the Marines’ departure until under a quarter of her normal Navy crew remained. All of them who remained were old hands, not one below a rank of Petty Officer Second Class. Everyone assumed it was to oversee the decommissioning. “Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Sly had mused quietly when the others had shipped out. “This is about the finest crew I’ve ever seen left aboard a doomed boat.” They didn’t have to wait long to find out why. Just a few days later, in the dark of a long night the Night Stalkers of the US Army’s 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment 5th Battalion D Company had whispered aboard. With a full load, the Peleliu could carry thirty aircraft, the Night Stalkers brought seven. But whispered was the operative word. Most of the 5D’s helos were stealth-rigged, which Nika hadn’t known existed outside of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Instead of fifteen hundred Marines, the aging Peleliu shipped aboard the Night Stalkers 5D, six Delta operators, and thirty Special Operations grunts from the 75th Rangers. Since that night, the laughably small team had led them from crisis to crisis throughout Africa and the Middle East in a whirlwind which still wasn’t showing any sign of easing. She’d seen more action in the eighteen months since their arrival than in her first six years in the Navy combined. Her decision to join Sly’s team—of which she was still the newest member even after four years—had been the best of her life. A close second had been dodging Mom’s attempt to marry her off to Brian, soon to be Doctor, honey, Goldman. She’d have been better off with his younger brother Richie, a sweet geek, rather than that arrogant son of a b***h. Richie had eventually gone military and she’d lost track of him, not that it really mattered. Out of a million active soldiers in the US Armed Services she hadn’t run into him or any other person she’d known back in the neighborhood—definitely her idea of good fortune. Still no sign of Sly returning from the evening briefing by the time the other three of the LCAC crew arrived from “breakfast” just as the last of the sunset’s glow disappeared above the stern gate. She didn’t mention that she’d already done all three of their inspections; just enjoyed that they didn’t find a single thing to do on their rounds. They were soon gathered in a line at the head of the bow ramp. Nothing happened. “Five gets you a hundred we’re on our butts again today,” Tom Trambley, the craft’s Navigator, grumbled. “Maybe if you weren’t such a shrimp, they wouldn’t underestimate us so much and we’d draw more missions,” Dave Newcomb, the craft’s Engineer, looked down at his best friend. At six foot four of gangly North Dakotan, Dave was the tallest member of their crew, and the only one who could refer to Tom’s six-three as short. Nika’s five-six still left her a head shorter than any of them. Jerome Walker, the Deck Mechanic and Assistant Loadmaster, typically didn’t say a word. “Maybe if you were shorter,” Tom glared up at Dave, “you wouldn’t make us look so damn ridiculous. Jerome, you’re gonna have to cut us a hole in the control cabin roof just for Dave’s swollen ego. Course he spent all that height growing his head, means his pecker is the size of a bean.” “You’d know,” Nika was feeling good so she joined in the fray. The Chief’s evening mission briefing was running too long for an exercise. Jerome’s snort of laughter was as much as he ever said unless something was broken or some grunt didn’t park their vehicle exactly as he directed—he was the LCAC’s other Loadmaster. When that happened his Georgia came out thick and biting. No Marine or Ranger made that mistake again if they could help it. A clatter of steps on the ramp down from the Garage Deck cut off Tom’s sputtering response. They all recognized Sly’s confident stride, but there were more people behind him; a guaranteed conversation stopper. Yep! Nika kept the thought to herself about getting the last word. Timing was everything. Tom was such an easy target that teasing him wasn’t really fair, not that it stopped her of course. He was the only one of them other than Sly who sported a wedding ring. He had a wife and kid back home and almost never shut up about them—proud dad didn’t begin to cover it. Way too easy a target. Sly had hooked up with the ship’s Chief Steward last Christmas; hooked up permanently right down to the ring and a white wedding ashore with family and the whole nine yards. Nika had been invited and had worn her formal dinner-dress whites—with the slacks option. She didn’t even own the skirt option for her dress whites and absolutely not a damned gown. She’d sworn off dresses as soon as she’d grown old enough to face down her mother. And a wedding dress? Never gonna happen, even if Gail now-Stowell had looked completely amazing in hers. “Make ‘er ready,” Sly’s call echoed down the ramp before he made the last turn into view at the head of the Well Deck. It was the same words he used to start every live mission. A training exercise started, “Let’s go prove we still know how.” “Way ahead of you, Chief,” Nika replied as he swung into view at a quick stride. Then she couldn’t resist, “Had it all inspected and prepped before any of these jokers even showed up.” “What?” Tom exclaimed and Dave just looked bummed. Jerome nodded as if to say, “Of course you did.” She heard the distant sound of several small engines coughing to life up in the garages and her pulse picked up its pace. “What kind of heat are we packing tonight?” She and Jerome had to make sure that any vehicles were positioned so that the LCAC’s loading was properly balanced and she’d fly true. “Lots of little heat, Petty Officer Maier,” a deep voice wrapped in a soft Southern deeper and richer than Sly’s called out from the head of the loading ramp. “Fast and dirty heat. And a pair of RSOVs just in case.” Ranger Spec Ops Vehicles—they absolutely confirmed there was action tonight. Nika glanced up the ramp to see Lieutenant Clint Barstowe arrive close behind Sly. The commander of the 75th Rangers platoon was a big man, and loaded for bear. Combat uniform, armored vest, and enough magazines for his rifle to take out an entire platoon of bad guys himself. He looked incredible. Not overly handsome, just damned good looking. Strong shoulders on a powerful frame. But mostly he radiated power—dark and dangerous. It wasn’t that you didn’t want to meet him in a trashy alley; even in broad daylight you’d best pray he was on your side. His helmet was snagged on his belt, hooked over the butt of his knife. His service piece holstered on the other hip and a rifle over his shoulder. Then he totally spoiled the pretty picture by wearing a red Santa hat complete with white fur trim and pom-pom perched atop his Ranger-short black hair.

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