I am not a victim, Mari Dalton silently whispered then gasped for air as she tightened her grip on the .22-caliber pistol. But she couldn’t see, she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t think past the fear. In her mind, Frank Dugar still had her hijab wrapped like a noose around her throat.
Nausea churned and a choking darkness closed in on her and her unborn child.
She had to escape.
Allah, forgive me. Hands trembling, she lowered the pistol and snatched off her headscarf before she fainted. She gasped again, drowning in the memory of Dugar’s attack, but refused to give in to it. Dugar is not here. He hasn’t been seen in weeks. The panic is all in my mind. Senior Airman Holly Gear is just a few feet away. Roger has men hunting Dugar. My baby is safe. She knew all of this in her head, but in her heart, she knew she was only safe for the moment.
Cool air reached her face and neck—especially her neck—and she sucked in oxygen. The panic enclosing her like a casket eased. Beneath the black folds of her abaya perspiration drenched her from head to toe and her heart hammered hard. She drew in more air and set her palm against her stomach. This wasn’t good for her baby; she had to do better.
Holly came up, clearly worried. “Are you all right? You’re ghost white.”
Mari steadied herself, inwardly groaning at her weakness. “I’m fine. Just a wave of nausea. The doctor said it is expected.”
“You’re sure it’s just morning sickness?”
“I’m sure.” She forced a smile. She had hoped self-defense lessons would ease her panic attacks and her growing sense of impending doom. Instead, both were worse, burying her deeper and deeper under layers of fear…and memories. It was especially bad at night, when she was all alone in the one place she shouldn’t be—Roger’s bed. Lt. Col. Roger Weston’s bed. Neil’s commanding officer. When Neil was alive.
She loved Neil.
She missed Neil.
And she resented her mind for allowing thoughts of Roger to intrude on her grief, just as much as she hated herself for the thoughts she’d had of Roger when Neil was alive. But she didn’t even dare think about that right now. She focused on the paper target up ahead. She could do this. With Neil gone, she could learn to take care of herself and her child.
“Let me try again,” she told Holly and lifted the pistol. She blinked at the target just thirty feet away, still feeling as if Dugar was at her throat. Her body had healed in the weeks since his attack. The stitches were out, the bruises were gone, the red scars on her hands and knees were fading, and she could move her broken fingers with minimum pain.
It was her mind that suffered and it wasn’t necessarily because Dugar had assigned himself as her executioner, either. It was because he made her realize she couldn’t escape her past. The fate decreed by her father years ago in Afghanistan would find her, no matter where she went. She’d been marked for death and death would follow. Her hope was to bear her child before death caught her, and to keep Roger from sacrificing his life trying to save her. Those were the only two things that mattered. Keep your eyes on the target. Let everything else go. Breathing deeply, she re-aimed the .22 and fired, absorbing the slight recoil and aiming again and again until the bullets were gone.
“Excellent.” Holly brought the target forward.
Mari winced with dismay. “How can you say that? One bullet hit the man in the arm. The rest are all in the white space.”
“It only takes one bullet to stop an attacker. You’ve made good progress. You kept your eyes open. You’re consistently hitting the paper and with each practice you tighten the spread of your shots.” She pointed to the clustered bullet holes just above the man’s left shoulder. “You did well, considering. I know how nausea destroys a girl’s aim.”
“You’ve had a child?” Mari had been so focused on learning self-defense over the past few weeks that she knew little about Holly’s personal life. Holly was from Georgia, an expert sniper from the National Guard, and she was at Fort Bragg to teach soldiers how to think like a female sniper.
“Heavens no. Marriage and kids aren’t even a gleam in my eye yet. I got the flu during a sharpshooting competition once and refused to quit. I was up against fifty men and wasn’t about to wimp out.”
“How did you do?”
Holly grinned. “Kicked butt. Came in third.”
“You’re amazing.” Mari envied Holly’s independence and confidence.
“No. Just stubborn. And you’re too pale for my piece of mind. Are you sure you’re all right? Roger would never forgive me if something happened to you on my watch, especially with me taking you off base.”
“It doesn’t help that I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Thinking about Neil?”
Mari lowered her gaze, guilt eating at her. Her tears flowed less and less now. Yes, she thought about Neil. Almost every minute of the day she had to remind herself that her husband, her friend, the man who’d saved her from death in a windowless cell and had loved her despite her shame, was gone. But at night, when she was alone in Roger’s room, when she lay in Roger’s bed, it wasn’t Neil on her mind.
Surely Allah would never forgive her. Two years ago Roger had walked into her and Neil’s house and she’d met him for the first time. His blue gaze had pierced all the way to her soul in one look and no amount of prayer had wiped him from her mind. From that moment on she’d avoided Neil’s commander as much as possible. Only Allah knew how Roger affected her.
She truly had to be as unworthy inside as her father had believed. Otherwise, how could she love and miss Neil, yet be so deeply drawn to Roger? How could her pain-filled heart race when Roger walked into the room? How could her aching-for-Neil self want to lay her head back on Roger’s shoulder and feel his arms around her again?
Roger had carried her to the ambulance and had held her comfortingly close after Dugar’s attack when she’d feared she was losing her baby. He’d eased her pain, reassured her that it was going to be all right, and had left her no doubt he’d protect her with his dying breath. She wanted to feel that enveloping comfort again, but she couldn’t let that happen. With her fate, it would surely sign his death warrant.
© J.L. Saint
Silent Warriors, Book 2
Author: J.L. Saint
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Genre: Romantic Suspense, Men In Uniform
One tormented soldier. One woman. Eight snipers. Someone’s going down…
Silent Warriors, Book 2
The fallout from the team’s failed mission to Lebanon is still chewing Lt. Col. Roger Weston’s butt. God help them all if the media get wind of the real story. Worse, guilt is eating him alive over a decision that left a fallen warrior’s wife without a husband…and exposed to danger from her radical family.
No matter what, Mari Dalton’s safety and wellbeing—and that of her unborn child—come first.
Mari is certain God is punishing her. She loved the man who rescued her from a windowless cell in Afghanistan, and never betrayed their marriage. But she has never been able to forget her body’s reaction to Roger. The pounding heart, the burning senses, sinful thoughts run wild.
Now she is the target of terrorists bent on destroying the heart of America. As Roger lays his life on the line to protect her, they uncover a plot already in motion to assassinate the President. As the world teeters on the edge of chaos, any hope for a future rests in Roger’s already bloodstained hands…and the quietly faithful woman who holds his heart.