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Her Fierce Warrior (X-Ops #4)

By:Paige Tyler

Her Fierce Warrior (X-Ops #4)
Paige Tyler

       Prologue


Fort Bragg, North Carolina, May 2000

Angelo Rios slowed down when he got to the gate, and held out his  military dependent ID card for the MP standing guard. The guy barely  glanced at it before giving him a "hooah" and waving him through. Angelo  had been driving his old beater car through the Fort Bragg gates  several times a day ever since he'd gotten his learner's permit two  years ago, when he'd turned sixteen. He knew all the MP and civilian  guards by name and they knew him. Fort Bragg might have thirty thousand  military personnel and three or four times that many civilians, but in a  lot of ways, the base was like one big extended family.

"Hey, Angelo! When do you report?" one of the younger MPs, Private First  Class Spencer, shouted from the traffic lane beside him.

"About three weeks," he yelled out the window as he drove his old Monte  Carlo through the serpentine pattern of concrete barriers placed there  to make sure no one sped through the gate too fast.

Angelo grinned as he made a right at the next road and headed toward the  housing area. On an army base, everybody knew everybody's business,  including the fact that he'd be leaving for Basic Training at Fort  Benning soon. He couldn't wait. He'd wanted to be a soldier like his  father ever since he could remember, and now he was finally going to be  able to put on a uniform.

But while his dad was thrilled with his career choice, his mom was a  different story. She absolutely hated the army and everything about it,  especially life at Fort Bragg. Angelo could understand why. His dad had  been deployed almost constantly over the last half-dozen years or so.  Not only did that mean his mom had to take care of the family on her  own, but also that she had to do it while living in terror that  something might happen to his dad.

After twenty years, she thought he was finally getting out, but now his  dad was considering staying in. Angelo didn't blame him. The way his dad  saw it, there weren't a lot of civilian jobs out there for a man who  only knew how to shoot, kill, and blow things up.

It hadn't helped that Angelo picked the same weekend to tell her that  Dad had signed the delayed-entry paperwork, so Angelo could join early,  then ship out as soon as he turned eighteen and graduated high school.  But seriously, what did she think he was going to do? He wasn't going to  get a job at the local Walmart or one of the nearby textile mills, and  he sure as hell had no shot at college. He was done with sitting in  classrooms. He was born to be Army Special Forces, just like his dad.

Even so, he felt a twinge of guilt as he pulled into the driveway of  their ranch-style housing unit. He wished he could make his mom see that  she didn't have to worry about him, that he'd be safe, just like Dad  had been all these years. But Angelo knew she'd worry anyway. And cry a  lot. She did that every time Dad deployed, then again every time he  called from whatever crap hole in West Africa or the Caribbean he was  in. Angelo hated to see her cry.

He climbed out of the car with a sigh. Maybe Dad would change his mind  and retire. Then maybe Mom could finally be a married woman who actually  saw her husband.

Angelo unlocked the front door and walked into the house as quietly as  he could, not sure if his mom was asleep. She slept like crap these  days, and at odd hours. When she wasn't waiting for a phone call from  his dad, she was glued to CNN, praying nothing was going on in whatever  part of the world Dad was in. Whenever she did get some rest, it was  usually with the help of sleeping pills-but more often with the aid of  alcohol.

He didn't need to look around to know his two younger sisters, Venus and  Lydia, weren't home. The house was never this quiet when they were  around. No doubt they were at a friend's house. And since the television  wasn't on, that meant his mom was almost certainly sleeping. Just in  case she wasn't, he should let her know he was home.

He walked past the living room with its Native American meets Mexican  decor and down the hallway that led to the back of the house. The door  to his parents' room was ajar, so he stuck his head in. It was just as  he thought. His mom was asleep, her back to the door, blanket pulled all  the way up over her shoulder.

He turned, about to head to the kitchen to grab something to eat, when  something stopped him. He couldn't say quite what it was, but something  was … off.

He walked back into the room and slowly circled around to the other side  of the bed. That's when he saw the empty wineglass and the equally  empty brown plastic bottle his mom's prescription sleeping pills came  in.

Angelo's stomach clenched.

Please, God, no.

He might have called out her name, but he wasn't sure. He shut  everything out and focused on his mom's face. Her hand was tucked under  her cheek and her eyes were closed, like she was sleeping. For a  fraction of a second, he thought she was. But the blanket wasn't rising  and falling with her breathing like it should have been.                       
       
           



       

Angelo yanked off the blanket, so he could roll his mom onto her back.  He'd worked a few summers as a lifeguard at the base pool, and he  automatically started prepping her for CPR.

He froze the moment he touched her shoulder. She was as cold as ice and  already stiff. He put his shaking fingers along her neck to feel for a  pulse, knowing he wouldn't find one but needing to check anyway.

His mom was gone.

Angelo dropped to his knees beside the bed and closed his eyes.

He didn't know how long he knelt there. He wanted to cry, but the tears  wouldn't come. So instead, he stared down at the floor and wondered whom  he should call first. Dad's A-team was somewhere in West Africa, but he  had the phone number for the first sergeant and sergeant major  memorized, and the MP station was the first number on speed dial on  every phone in the house.

He decided to go with the MPs.

He was reaching for the phone on the bedside table when he saw the piece  of folded notebook paper sticking out from under the handheld's base.  Fingers numb, he plucked the paper from under the phone and unfolded it.  He wondered briefly if he should touch something that could be  evidence. But this wasn't a crime scene. This was his house.

His dad's name was at the top of the page, and in handwriting that got  harder to make out as it went down the page, his mom apologized for  leaving them and said how much she loved all of them. But she couldn't  live this way anymore, waiting for the call to come saying her husband  was dead and knowing she would now have to wait for the same call about  her son.

She asked his dad to keep the girls safe and promise never to let either  of them marry a soldier. There was something after that about Angelo  and how proud she was of him, even if she wished he hadn't chosen to  join the army, but tears blurred his vision so much he couldn't read  anymore. He wiped them from the letter where they'd fallen, hoping he  hadn't smeared the writing too much. Then he folded it and slipped it  back under the phone.

Angelo wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his T-shirt, then reached for the  phone and punched the number one speed-dial button. As it rang, he  mentally prepared himself for what he would have to do next, starting  with finding his sisters, then getting a message to his dad. It might  take a while for his dad to get home, so Angelo and his sisters would be  on their own until then. But he would take care of them. It was what  his mom would want.

It was the least he could do for her.





Chapter 1


Southern Tajikistan, Present Day

It was early morning, the sun barely peeking over the mountains.  Darkness still clung to the deserted, dilapidated buildings around Minka  Pajari as she slunk through the village. She was only one rugged  mountain pass away from home. Four or five hours of walking, and she  would be back with her family and this terrible nightmare would be over.

But when she heard the men who had been following her for the last ten  minutes break into a run, part of her realized that the nightmare wasn't  over yet. Another part insisted the nightmare would never be over. Not  for her. Not after what she had become.

Minka wanted to run, but the beast inside her demanded that she turn and  fight. She was so tired, and really didn't want to do either of those  things. She'd been going for so long without food and barely any water.  All she wanted was to be left alone.

Instinct told her they wouldn't leave her alone.

Minka had escaped her captors weeks ago, or at least it felt like it had  been weeks. Getting home to her village had been much harder than she'd  thought it would be, though. It had taken her many days to even figure  out where she was, then many, many more days to slowly traverse the  mountainous terrain between where she'd been held and the small farming  village near Khorugh where she lived with her parents. This part of the  country-the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region-was very rugged and  rural. Strangers, especially women traveling without male companions or  money, weren't treated with kindness, and she'd been forced to dig for  food scraps in piles of garbage and sleep in caves or abandoned  buildings. What she'd endured during her captivity taught her that she  no longer had to fear these minor, momentary forms of discomfort,  though.

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