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Guardian of the Heart

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Blurb

-a Night Stalkers CSAR romance novella-

The most dangerous mission of all...CSAR. Combat Search and Rescue.

Noreen Wallace cares about only two things: saving lives, and her family. Following in her big brother’s path, she flies into battle armed with a stretcher and a med kit.

Xavier Jones only family is the Army. No point in believing anything more exists—until he saves the Guardian of the Heart.

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Chapter 1-1
Chapter 1

“Don’t be looking at her, Jones! Are you crazy, man?”

Master Sergeant Mason “The Jar” Buckley (he was kind of short and barrel-chested) yanked hard enough on Xavier’s safety harness to almost knock take him down on the hangar’s floor. They were buddy-checking their gear before saddling up onto a Black Hawk helicopter headed way out into hell-and-gone ISIS country. Even though the overheads weren’t very bright, the darkness of Iraq’s Balad Air Base was like a black door across the hangar’s maw.

The Jar yanked Xavier’s harness the other way. Maybe Mason didn’t like his sucky nickname (Xavier had one he hated with a passion and could only hope he’d finally left Stateside). Maybe Mason had it in for new guys to the unit; perhaps he was just trying to make his point.

Another possibility: maybe The Jar was an asshole.

“Why? She yours? Can’t hurt a guy to look,” Xavier didn’t appreciate the manhandling. There was no need to bust his a*s before he went aloft. Besides, the medic on the other side of the brightly lit hangar—shouldering a pack clearly labeled “Medical”—was well worth a second look, and a third. She was lightly built, but pulled on forty pounds of gear like it weighed nothing more than feather pillows. She wasn’t model material, more the hottest-girl-in-school type—the one so hot that no one ever stood a chance. Thick black hair that fell straight to her shoulders, coffee-and-cream skin, and an attitude like kick-ass sunshine after a long winter.

“Hell no!” Masson looked aghast. “She’s not mine. She’s not anybody’s. That’s the Guardian of the Night—the goddamn Angel of Death. You don’t want her evil eye on you. Bad luck, brother. Seriously bad luck.” Mason picked up the FN-SCAR combat rifle from the table and slammed it against Xavier’s chest.

Xavier slipped the strap around his neck and made sure it hung out of the way across his chest.

“Dude’s right, you know,” one of the pilots, also donning his kit, leaned over. “Something about her is way different.” Then he and his copilot jogged toward the darkness.

“You’re still lookin’.”

“Didn’t know they built women like her.” Where Xavier came from the women were either jovial mamas with the best kinda curves on the planet (even when they got all out of control they were still mighty good) or they were lean (like anorexic crackhead lean) and mean (big on the mean). This one stood five-eight on a tall day, athlete’s curves rather than a plus-size model’s, and was joking with another medic as they moved off toward the waiting helo, disappearing into the darkness.

“They don’t build women like her anywhere,” Mason continued but still wasn’t looking where she’d gone. “Nobody’s that scary.”

“What? The evil eye, Angel of Death crap?” When Xavier was done with crosschecking Mason, he slammed Mason’s rifle into his chest just as hard as Mason had into him.

Mason only nodded fiercely. Man looked spooked, which didn’t seem right on a master sergeant of the Night Stalkers.

Xavier tapped at each of the pouches on his own vest to make sure nothing was missing: magazines for his sidearm, mags for his rifle, small med kit of his own, spare batteries for his night-vision goggles and radio, the NVGs and radio themselves. He counted items but came up one short.

He did it again, then figured out what he was missing when he slapped his own head. Helmet. Sitting right there on the table. Damn! First day on the job, he seriously wanted to perform, not be some fresh-meat laughing stock. He’d had enough of that six years earlier on his first tour, enough to last a lifetime. However, after three full tours, he was the newest recruit again.

Transitioning from a seasoned regular Army grunt to a fresh-out-of-training Special Operations Forces Army grunt had probably reset a whole block of his don’t-mess-with-me privileges. Now, after the toughest application process outside of Delta Force and two more years of training, he was finally FMQ—fully mission qualified—for the Night Stalkers of the 160th SOAR.

Maybe Mason had a point on at least one count: the woman had distracted him. In a full vest, flightsuit, and Army boots, she still looked amazing. Just the way she walked: happy to be here, belonging-where-she-was, whole spring-her-in-step kind of thing. He guessed that alone set her outside the norm for central Iraq.

He grabbed his helmet and set off at a jog beside Mason, out of the brightly lit hangar and onto the night-shrouded tarmac toward the rescue bird.

Elsewhere across the field, other helos were roaring to life. Four Black Hawks, a massive Chinook, and a couple Little Birds. The Night Stalkers were going out in force tonight, which was so sweet for a first mission. And if everything went right, he’d be bored out of his gourd—because that’s what every CSAR flight wanted to be.

Combat Search and Rescue was about going into the guts of the fight and hauling out whoever had caught the worst of it. A CSAR’s ideal mission was when they circled for hours out past the five-minute hold line and never got the call.

But if the hot lady and her companion had to go in, he and Mason were there to keep them safe. Xavier liked running protection detail. He didn’t mind the battle when he was in it, but he preferred the far less glorious role of rescuing the wounded. He never gave it much thought, and jogging up to his bird for the first time wasn’t when a dude should start thinking.

The Black Hawk waiting for them wasn’t some standard Geneva Agreement-Red Cross bearing-and-no-mounted-weapons bird. It was ten tons of pitch black nasty with a pair of side-mounted M134 Miniguns that could lay down six thousand rounds of havoc per minute.

Army, Navy, Air Force’s 724th Pararescue—all those guys flew air ambulances that had to be marked clearly by international treaty and were f*******n to carry any but light personal weapons for protection only. It rankled that so many of the bad guys thought the big red cross was to make their targeting easier, but the US followed the rules in this even if many of the forces it faced didn’t. Of course there was no law against a pair of fully-loaded Apaches or Cobras hovering on close guard—which was standard operating practice for most teams.

Most of the Spec Ops teams depended on the 724th Pararescue to drag out the wounded. But for the Night Stalkers, they were typically so far past the enemy’s (or a supposed friendly’s) line that there was no way for the Air Force to get to them in time. So, of all the spec ops outfits, only the 160th SOAR lofted their own CSAR med teams.

As the helicopter transport team for Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, and the 75th Rangers—the Night Stalkers flew under different rules by definition. They always flew into the heart of the battle, well past the lines where anyone would pay attention to whether or not it was a medical flight.

Glory hounds never made it to the Night Stalkers and Xavier was good with that. Too many from the old neighborhood cared more about their “reps” than their lives. Doofuses.

So, instead of air ambulances ready to launch at a moment’s notice, SOAR sent their own well-armed warbirds—ones that just happened to carry medics. The medheads were soldiers first and wore no Red Cross armbands of supposed “protection.” But they had the training and carried enough gear that they could do almost anything, including open heart surgery if necessary. The Black Hawks went in armed just to make sure they stayed safe.

“What’s our op tempo?” he asked Mason as they secured their gear inside their bird.

“You like the ground?”

Xavier shrugged, not knowing what he was after.

“Better kiss it goodbye. Won’t be seeing it much until you rotate back stateside.”

“I don’t mean the regiment. I mean us, CSAR.”

For a guy who talked so much, Mason’s sudden silence was eloquent.

s**t!

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