The sand was thick in the air while the sweltering, stagnant atmosphere hung around them. Mark, Derek, and Keith were tucked into a rock cave on the side of a mountain. The sun began its descent from the sky as it neared five in the afternoon, but it didn’t ease the heat. Once the sun went down, the ground would give away its heat into the air, dropping temperatures nearly thirty-five to forty degrees.
The red and tan stone of the surrounding terrain of Kirkuk, Iraq, allowed the trio to blend in with their camouflage of brown, tan, and khaki. The way the heat danced off the ground would frequently create a mirage that messed with what one saw, creating a haze that was difficult to see through once on ground level. Mark knew this could make their job that much harder.
A layer of dirt coated each man. When the sweat dripped off their forehead, it left long streaks on their face.
Derek wiped the sweat off his forehead. “Man, it’s hot.”
Mark sighed as he pulled out his binoculars. “Yeah, the Colonel is enjoying camping in a cool seventy-five-degree mountainside, while we’re sitting in the stifling, ninety- seven-degree, blistering heat.”
Keith raised an eyebrow at Mark. “Are you jealous of the Colonel camping or the person he’s watching?”
Mark shot him a dirty look before turning back to the binoculars.
Derek looked from Mark to Keith in confusion. “Wait. What did I miss?”
Keith huffed. “You couldn’t tell?”
“Shut up!” Mark snapped, as he was sandwiched between Derek and Keith.
“Man, don’t you see how he looks at her?” Keith said, satisfied of the accuracy of his assessment. “They also talk...a lot.”
“What do you mean?” Derek asked.
“They meet every night he is on and she is off from the station, and talk for hours.”
Mark narrowed his eyes. “How do you know?” “Did I ever tell you what I do for a living?”
“Did I ever tell you that you need to get a life?” Mark shot back.
“Is he right?” Derek asked, stunned. He did not see that one coming.
Mark shrugged it off. “She’s interesting. That’s all.”
“Interesting?” Keith chuckled. “Is that the best you got?”
“I’m warning you.”
“Come on,” Derek pressed. “Look, she’s a sweet kid.”
“Kid?” Keith’s jaw dropped. “Open your eyes, brother! She’s no kid. She’s a woman.”
Derek nudged Mark. “And a pretty one at that.”
“You two can shut up now,” Mark grumbled.
“Just sayin’. Ya might wanna open your eyes,” Keith pointed out, adjusting to a better position so he could use his sight tool. He had made a plan on where to place the charges once he got his opportunity within the compound below.
“She just lost her fiancé. What makes you think she’s even looking?”
“By the way she looks at you.”
“She does not.”
“Focus. Movement.” Derek slapped Mark’s arm when he saw a couple people walking in the camp below through his binoculars.
Mark put the binoculars to his eyes and groaned. “They’re moving Harrison to interrogation again.” Mark got a knot in his stomach, knowing they were going to torture Harrison within an inch of his life. They would have to sit there listening to his screams, not being able to do anything until the sun went down. “They don’t deserve this,” Mark said, disgusted.
“They know what they signed up for – same as us,” Keith pointed out. “While we hope we make it out alive, we know the possibility of not coming out is realistic. It’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”
“But to go like that?” Mark cringed as they heard shrieks of pain in the distance. He dropped his head onto his hands, feeling sick to his stomach. He didn’t want to listen to it anymore. He really didn’t want to have to wait until sundown to pull them.
“We need to wait,” Derek said as he read Mark’s body language. “You know there is a better chance of success if we do it in the dark.”
“What time is evac?”
Keith swore before he said, “You mean we have to wait that long to get them out?”
“It’s the best Keller could do. The fact that we have any evac is a miracle. They’re only going to wait ten to fifteen minutes, so it has to go off without a hitch. There’s not a lot of room for error here,” Derek warned them.
A bomb went off in the city about a half mile away. The debris shot into the air, spraying portions of the cement building all over while a vehicle spun over on top of itself. Mark sighed. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“Was that them or us?” Keith asked.
Mark put the binoculars to his eyes and adjusted for the distance. What he saw made him angry. “Ours. It was an IED verses a Humvee,” Mark said, referring to an Improvised Explosive Devise.
“How many?” Derek asked.
“At least three.” Mark swallowed hard, knowing three more of his fellow brethren had fallen. He wanted more than anything to be able to go get the three currently in danger.
Derek grabbed his arm when Mark went to get out from under their rock alcove. “No. Not yet.”
“We have to do something!”
Keith tugged him back into the alcove. “We can’t. The evac is set for 2145. Just wait.”
Mark settled back down in his position, visibly agitated. “I don’t understand. Why is it that all we can do is watch?”
“This is what we were sent here to do,” Keith said. He sighed before he continued, “Look, I don’t want it to end here. Harrison, Miller, and Matthews don’t want it to end here. If that God of yours is looking out for us, it won’t. We have to wait in order for all of us to make it out though.”
“What’s holding you back?” Mark asked, referring to past conversations between Keith and him about God.
“In looking at all of this,” he gestured toward the blown-up countryside, “You need to ask? Why would a God of love ever let this happen? Why would He let war even exist? War is evil. It takes men, women, and children alike with no mercy. Why would this God of yours, who is supposed to love everyone, let Harrison go through that?” He pointed at the building in the compound where Harrison was being tortured. The trio heard him screaming again before an abrupt silence.
Mark thought through his answer. As he did, he saw through the binoculars where they moved a bloody Harrison back to his cell. He knew at that point the answer to Keith’s question. “Free will.”
“That’s your answer? Are you kidding me?”
“That’s the only answer I can give you. Free will affects the choices we make...that they make. It’s their choice to torture for information. It’s their choice to treat other humans with such distain and disrespect that it propels others to fight to get them their freedom. It’s our choice to step in and fight for their freedom...for the continued freedom of our families and friends. It’s our choice to stand up for what is right when others run the other way or duck behind orders. We’re not supposed to be here. According to the orders these men were given, they will not be acknowledged. They knew the risks but did what they felt was right. They were rewarded for it by being left behind. However, God had a different plan in mind. That’s why we’re here. That’s why I’m here.”
Keith let out a string of swear words under his breath.
“Easy,” Derek said, trying to calm down both men.
“What about the other Angels you’ve met over the years? Didn’t you learn anything from them?” Mark questioned Keith. “You know this is bigger than any of us. Sacrifices need to be made.”
Hearing the jets in the distance, Derek instantly recognized their unmistakable roar. He was the ears of the team because his range was better than the rest of them. Over the years, the sounds of war had taken its toll on their bodies, hearts...and souls.
“F-18s,” Derek said.
“What are they doing here?” Mark looked over to Derek for an explanation, as it was Derek’s mission.
“No idea. No one is supposed to know we’re even here. I wasn’t expecting company until around 2130.”
The men ducked further into the shadows of the rock alcove as the jets neared their position. A surface-to-air missile shot into the air from inside the camp below them. The lead jet answered the missile with a stinger that hit its target on the first shot, but not before the missile smashed into the mountainside. The mountain shook near the trio. They ducked to cover their heads as the rubble cascaded down onto them.
Keith swore. “We need to pull them now! They’re going to kill them!”
“They’re early, but are you ready?” Derek asked Keith. Keith’s job was to get C-4 explosives ready to use as a distraction so the others could escape.
Keith grabbed the bag containing the explosives, offering a nod before the men scrambled out of their protective hideout and ran toward their mission. Running and sliding down the hillside while ducking gunfire and debris as the F-18s distracted their targets, the elite band of men went to work, diving into the hornet’s nest of what only minutes before was a calm camp.
Mark knew exactly where they were holding the men. While the members of the camp were distracted by the F18s, Mark and Derek went after the men. Keith set the C-4 charges before retreating to a safe distance behind a tall boulder for his own cover six hundred yards outside the camp where he would cover the escape.
In losing the element of surprise, Mark decided the first rally point, set for a half-mile away near the base of the mountain, was out of the question. The second rally point would be their goal – set out a mile away from the camp. With all the debris flying around, the helicopters would need to land at the further rally point.
Watching the camp through the day, he knew the men would be injured, so a secondary way of escape to clear the compound would also be in order. He tapped Derek’s arm as they crouched next to a building on the edge of camp and pointed toward a couple of vehicles near the building where the prisoners were being held.
Derek nodded in response. That would be their way out.
The men were well armed for their mission. Keith carried the C-4 explosives, along with an MK-25 with laser site and silencer. And he also carried an M-4 with an underslung M203-grenade launcher. He was on his own until the trio met up at the Blackhawk. In the meantime, Derek and Mark each carried an M4A1 with silencer and laser site as well as the same MK-25 system Keith had for backup. They each also carried a Socom knife and hand grenades to use if push came to shove or if they ran out of ammunition.
Derek and Mark moved silently through the tiny camp as clean as they could amidst the firefight that raged around them. The strategically placed missiles of the F-18s hit their targets all around them, clearing the way, but the dirt and debris in the air made it thick and hard to breathe.
When the men turned the corner near the building where the prisoners were being held, two men with AK-47s awaited them. Running on the instinct and adrenaline that propelled them forward, Mark and Derek fired their M4s, leaving the guards mangled bodies in the dust. Hearing the yelling and men from the camp running in their direction, they bolted for the building. Mark kicked the wooden door in while Derek stayed outside to keep watch.
The three prisoners squinted up at the bright light of the setting sun that suddenly penetrated their dark, cement cage. “Time to go, boys!” Mark grabbed the arm of the man nearest to him.
Harrison didn’t resist when Mark pulled him out of the windowless concrete building that was their holding cell. Matthews and Miller quickly followed, now knowing the explosions that rattled around them meant their freedom.
When they ran toward the vehicles of escape, a building they ran past exploded from a grenade thrown by one of the insurgents of the camp to slow them down. The men hit the ground with a thud while debris blew out the windows and rained down on them.
“GO! GO! GO!” Derek shoved Miller and Matthews forward.
They stumbled to get their feet under them as adrenaline coursed through their bodies. Mark threw Harrison’s limp body over his shoulders, knowing the now unconscious Harrison didn’t have much left in him.
In the meantime, Keith had set charges in several key areas. Hearing the building blow up, he looked through his binoculars to see the men scrambling to their feet. He set off a charge that exploded the ammunition storage for the camp first before setting off another that blew up one of the buildings on the other side of camp away from where he knew Derek and Mark to be, as to pull attention away from them. The explosions allowed the men to get to one of the insurgent’s vehicles within the camp. While Derek covered the bodies of the three prisoners in the back of truck with his own body to shield them from further injury of the soaring debris, Mark hotwired the vehicle and threw it into drive with his foot down on the gas as fast as the truck would go.
Tucked away outside the camp, Keith took a moment to look around the boulder when he heard the gates open, hoping it was Mark and Derek. To his dismay, it was a jeep that contained a man with a RPG-7, along with two other guys with AK-47s. They came to a halt about forty feet from Keith, who ducked behind the boulder so they wouldn’t see him. He loaded the grenade launcher while the men within the camp slammed the wooden doors shut behind the jeep, leaving the three to defend the stronghold from the outside.
The man with the RPG aimed at the F-18s. Keith took aim, and with a high-explosive powered round, fired a grenade at the jeep and then ducked the flying debris of the jeep as the round blew up on contact. The explosion propelled the men’s bodies into the air, flipping the jeep on top of one of them. As the two thrown from the vehicle landed, they twitched for only a moment before they stopped moving.
The more charges Keith set off and targets the stingers from the jets blew up, the thicker the air around him became. From his position, Keith heard the wonderful sound of the extrication crew. He knew the helicopters were on the way, so it wouldn’t be long. He set off two more of the charges inside the camp, watching as Mark and Derek crashed the truck through the closed wooden gates of the compound before spinning the tires in the direction of the second rally point. He took that moment to run as fast as he could, knowing he would have to sprint about three-quarters of a mile to the safety of the helicopters.
He stopped about halfway between the rally point and the camp and set off four more charges, sending the camp into a fireball. He thanked Mark and Derek’s God when he finally saw the two Blackhawks and four Apache helicopters silhouetted against the setting sun. For good measure, he spun around and set off the final three charges he had set up in camp, making sure there would be no trouble for the extraction crews.
In the distance, he saw the two Blackhawks waiting with engines rotating. He saw Derek enter one with Miller, dragging Harrison in with them, while Mark and Matthews climbed into the second one. Seeing that, he knew he was targeting to jump into Mark’s Blackhawk.
The Apaches rained down a round of Hydra 70 rockets and a Hellfire to give Keith the chance he needed to get to the Blackhawks. He looked toward the blazing inferno behind him to see a truck spin out from the encampment. He couldn’t believe anyone had survived the firestorm from the air support and the fireball he created.
Keith ran in zigzag patterns as fast as he could toward the Blackhawk. He heard the bullets whizzing by his head from the incoming truck and dove for the ground with only a precious hundred yards to safety as he felt the searing heat of a bullet graze his arm. He couldn’t help the shout of pain he released. He then pushed himself up and grabbed his arm while he sprinted the remaining distance toward safety.
Mark jumped out of the Blackhawk to cover him, spraying the area as the Apaches sent another barrage of Hydras toward the truck, creating a wall of fire as the truck exploded.
“MOVE!” Mark roared as he emptied his M4 in case anyone got away from the explosion.
When Keith dove for the helicopter, two of the Apaches sent in another round of the Hydra 70’s and a Hellfire for good measure, finishing off what was left of the camp. Mark reached out and yanked Keith into the safety of the Blackhawk.
Keith looked up to see relief on the faces of the co-pilot, and two crewmen of the Blackhawk at seeing him alive, while the pilot concentrated on getting them out of danger. He quickly buckled himself in and the Blackhawks took off in the opposite direction they had come as one medic worked on Keith’s arm, and the other worked feverishly on Matthews, who was looking horribly abused at best and suffered from malnutrition. Matthews had also gotten shot in the leg in the escape as well.
The four Apaches flanked the Blackhawks with the F-18s overhead. When they were cleared and headed toward safety, with a tip of the wings, the F-18s broke off. The helicopters finished the journey on their own.
Lost in their own thoughts, neither Keith nor Mark said a word the entire flight. That was too close for Keith. He might have resisted this God of theirs for the last time. Seeing his life flash before his eyes when he dove for the ground may have pushed him over the edge. He and Jack were the last two holdouts of the Angels. They did what they could to support the unit, but seeing everything they had over the years made their hearts hard. When Jack came to Christ, he pleaded with Keith to listen. By that point, Keith was done with the world. His heart was jaded. He looked toward Mark who was lost in his own thoughts. Even in the midst of the chaos that ensued, he could still see the peace Mark had on his face. Mark reached in his pocket, pulled a photo out, and gently rubbed his thumb over it.
Keith could see the camp in the distance as the medic bandaged his left arm. Knowing they would be landing soon, Keith made a decision. He didn’t want to die without God. He had already been through Hell on Earth. From what he understood over the years, he would have that forever if he didn’t make a decision to follow this Jesus. It was his understanding that Jesus was the one and only way to eternal safety.
Matthews rested his hand on Keith’s leg. “Thanks, man.” “Anytime, brother. You would do the same.”
“Anytime, anyplace,” Matthews agreed. “Gotta ask,” he said, as the helicopters lowered to the ground, “what unit are you guys?”
“We’re Angels,” Mark said as he hopped out of the helicopter. “We were never here.”
“You guys are real?” He looked at him in shock and awe. “I thought you were a myth. I’ve heard stories, but had no idea you were real.”
“We were never here,” Mark reiterated with a stern tone.
He nodded in understanding and appreciation. “Yes, sir.”
Mark and Keith met Derek in between the two Blackhawks as medics pulled the three rescued soldiers from the helicopters. “We lost Harrison on the way back,” Derek said somberly.
Mark nodded in understanding. “I figured as much. There wasn’t much to him when I flipped him over my shoulder after the building blew.”
“I think that’s when we lost him.”
Keith swore again. He couldn’t help it. Situations like this made him angry. Harrison was so close to safety. He was so close to getting to see his wife and children again. Now, however, that wasn’t going to happen. “We were so close! Why didn’t that God of yours save him?”
Mark’s heart broke at seeing the struggle within his friend. “You know we did our best.”
“That wasn’t good enough!” Keith snapped.
“It was good enough for Matthews and Miller.”
Derek took the moment to excuse himself from the conversation, “I need to meet with Keller. They came too early and almost got all of us killed.” Derek was angry, yet relieved at the same time. He wondered if things played out according to plan, if Harrison would still be alive.
“Go get showers. I’ll meet you at the mess hall. We’re scheduled to leave in the morning around 1030.”
“Yes, sir,” they said and headed one way while Derek headed another.
Mark and Keith were quiet during their showers. It carried over to when they sat at the table, eating. Finally, Keith looked up at Mark and asked, “Who’s the picture of?”
Mark raised an eyebrow. “What picture?”
“The one in your pocket. Who is it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You were looking at a photo in the helo. Who was it?”
Mark froze for a minute before he set down his fork. After a couple of moments, he reached in his pocket and reluctantly pulled out the photo. He glanced at it one more time before he passed it to Keith.
Keith looked at it in wide-eyed surprise. “When and where did you get this?”
Mark gave him a knowing look. “This is recent. About a month after Jack passed.”
Mark wasn’t sure he could explain it. He thought of how to answer his question before he said, “She is why I’m here.”
He handed the photo back to Mark, who tucked it safely into his pocket. “I don’t understand.”
“Casey was at the station one day, and you know the crap they play on each other.”
“Yeah.” He chuckled. He had witnessed several of the practical jokes himself.
“She had pulled one over on a couple of the guys, and the smile that lit her face....” He sighed dreamily. “I just wanted to remember what I’m giving my life for. What I’m sacrificing for.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“John 15:13 says, “‘Greater hath no love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’” Casey is more than a friend. She’s family. When it comes to doing what we do, there is a bigger picture. It’s more than just my own life at stake.”
“I get that. That’s why we’re here...to protect freedom.”
“I don’t want to die, but I’m willing. However, I’m here for a greater purpose than those men we rescued today.”
“The most I can do is give my life for my country, but Jesus gave His life for the world – past, present, and future. I’m here to do His will.”
Keith shook his head. “I don’t get it. How can some guy who died thousands of years ago help me today? That doesn’t make sense.”
“John 3:16 and 17 says, “‘For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.’” God sent Jesus so we, meaning you and me, can enjoy Heaven when we die. As you said earlier, we’ve seen the evil this world has to offer. Do you want that for all eternity?”
“Uh, no thank you. Hell on Earth for this lifetime is more than enough for me.”
“Well, hate to tell you, but you’re on track to face that for all eternity too.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Not an option. Let me explain it this way...there are two teams in play. You have to pick one or the other.”
“What if I don’t want to play the game?”
“It’s not an option, brother.” Mark shook his head. “You’re already on one team. You actually have to choose to leave it to go to the other one. You’re playing whether you want to or not.”
Keith scoffed as he crossed his arms. “How is that a choice?”
“We’re all born into the team headed to Hell for all eternity. God, gracious as He is, gave us another option through the blood Jesus shed on the cross. You don’t have to stay on that team anymore. You can opt out and go to the other team – the team the Colonel, Derek, Jack, Casey, and I are on.”
“And if I don’t?”
“You’ll end up in a firestorm like you set today...forever.”
Keith shook his head, upset. After a long minute, he looked up at Mark. Knowing what he had to do, he asked, “How do I do that?”
A pleased smile crossed Mark’s face as he said, “Matthew 7:7 says, “‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.’” All you have to do is pray and ask Jesus to be your Savior. You need to ask Him to forgive you of your sins, and to show His purpose for your life.”
“I have a purpose.”
“Right now your purpose is to put your life on the line for others. When are you going to do something for yourself?”
He shook his head in confusion. “I do stuff for myself all the time.”
“What about your eternal security?” Keith sighed, knowing what he meant. “Now, don’t do it just for fire insurance.”
“Ha!” Keith chuckled. “That’s a joke! I’m the pyromaniac of the unit. Fire doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, it fascinates me. However,” he held his hand up to stop Mark from interrupting, “I understand what you’re saying.”
“I don’t want to die at all, but I really don’t want to die without this Jesus of yours.”
* * *
“Can you lead two different lives?”
Casey gasped as she sat up straight in her sleeping bag. It took her a moment to remember she was camping with the fire company in the woods. She dropped her head into her hands as she braced her elbows on her knees. The argument between Brennon Hanson, and her best friend, Jesse McFadden, ran through her mind...then she remembered the dream she had of Mark English.
Mark was one of the Angels from her brother’s squad. The Angels had been looking out for Casey since she was thirteen. She remembered the long talks she and Mark had on the nights she was off work over the last two weeks. While Jesse helped Casey work through the deaths of Jack and Mac, Mark took on a different roll. He reminded Casey as to why she trusted God in the first place. He reminded her why Jesus was so important to her and why she treasured the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
“Wow.” She sighed, remembering what Mark looked like in the woods earlier that day. He was in camouflage from head to toe. His brown eyes blended with the face paint colors of green, brown, and black, while his blond hair stood out on his six-foot frame.
Then it hit her. The dream. The kiss. The passion. Her face flushed in embarrassment as she reprimanded herself again. Mac meant the world to her. How could she be dreaming of another man? This was too soon. She wondered if the dream had any element of truth to it. Did Jack and Mark ever talk about the two of them?
“Stop it!” she whispered, angry with herself.
She couldn’t shake the dream, so she left her tent in hopes that the coolness of the night would clear her mind. She was surprised to see Jesse sitting on a log next to what was left of the fire. She sat down beside him. “What are you doing up?” she asked as she picked up a stick and played with the embers that still burned among the coals.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Were you and Brennon able to work things out?”
“We worked things out enough to put up with each other until we can return to the station and talk to Chief. If you can’t trust the person watching your back not to stab you in the back, it makes it extremely difficult to go into a burning building with them.”
“This is true.”
“If we can’t work together, Chief may change our shifts.” He watched her for her reaction. When he saw the shock on her face, he quickly added, “I don’t want to though.” Turning his attention back to the coals, he picked up a stick to play with a piece of charcoal that escaped the cluster and sighed. “The people on ‘A’ shift are like family to me.”
“If we have a vote, Brennon is the one who gets transferred,” Casey said, as the anger that was an almost constant as of late, surged through her once again. “I don’t want to lose you on my shift either. I would quit first.”
“What? You can’t!”
“You have to stay on my shift. If you’re not there, it’ll be a nightmare.”
“I’m serious. I’ll quit if Chief transfers you. You’re right. You have to trust the men who have your back on a fire scene. I don’t trust Brennon. If Chief leaves him and transfers you to another shift instead, I promise you I will quit.”
“Don’t do that. You’re too valuable.”
“So are you. Give yourself credit.”
He shook his head.
“Jess, you have to stay on our shift. I’m going to talk to Chief about it too. This is something I feel strongly about.”
“All right.” He sighed. “I know better than to argue with you when you’re this emotional.”
“Good.” She stood. “Then go back to bed. I know I am.” “Case?”
“No problem. I know you would do the same for me.”
Casey fought most of the night to sleep. She tossed and turned while the feelings left over from Brennon and Jesse’s fight intermingled with Casey’s feelings regarding her dream of Mark. The emotional mixture brought up her struggles to work through Mac’s death. How long would it take her to move on? Could she move on?
She finally decided the only thing she could do about her feelings was pray. That made her angry again. She was angry with God about taking Jack and Mac in the first place. She didn’t want the anger in her body anymore though. It wore her out. She would often wake up exhausted. All of the emotional turmoil gave her a headache.
She took a couple aspirin before she went to bed. She prayed to God in her head as she cleared her mind, heart, and soul. She knew the first step in moving forward was to repair her relationship with her Father. She longed for Him and missed His presence in her life.
* * *
The next morning, things were still tense between Brennon and several of the firefighters. They could not believe Brennon had an affair with Jesse’s girlfriend, Kara – you don’t mess with a fellow firefighter’s mate. Trust was critical within the firefighter community. Working side-by-side for long hours each week formed a strong bond. Sometimes that bond was stronger than an average family, which was why
Brennon’s betrayal cut so deep. The equivalent of Brennon’s crime would be one brother sleeping with another brother’s wife in a real family.
The ‘B’ shift guys came in at about ten that morning. Before they arrived, as a group, ‘A’ shift decided to keep silent about what happened between Brennon and Jesse. If someone asked about the tension, they agreed to say they had a fight, and it was between them. No one was to give details.
Hunter sat down next to Casey as she ate her early lunch next to the fire pit. He put his arm around her and asked, “So, how about a hike after lunch?”
“Well, I think we need to talk.”
She reached around and took his arm off her shoulders. “Well, I don’t think we do.”
“Now, why are you going to be like that? There is an obvious attraction between us. Why are you denying it?”
She shook her head in irritation. “Hunter, are you really going to start this again?”
“Why are you fighting it?”
“Because I don’t want it.”
“Sure you do.” He grinned. “How could you not?”
“Could you be any more arrogant?” she snapped.
He looked at her for a minute before he leaned back in his seat, folded his arms, and tried a different tactic. He learned in working with her that she was different from most women. This made his assignment more difficult than he had anticipated. He knew people were counting on him to get certain information. He had a perfect track record, and he wasn’t about to let one woman destroy that record. He had to figure out a way to get her to trust him. “So, what’s going on with Hanson and McFadden?”
“They had a fight.” She shrugged. “That’s between them.”
“You need to ask them.” She took the last bite of her burger.
He let out a frustrated breath of air. “Oh, Casey, Casey, Casey.”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye as she chewed her burger.
“You know you want me.”
She shook her head.
Matt snuck up behind her. “Boo!”
Casey gasped as she jumped, and what was left of her burger lodged in her throat, blocking her air. Her hand immediately went to her throat. She swallowed in an attempt to get the bite down while she strained to breathe.
Hunter sat up in his seat in alarm, but tried to contain himself in case he was wrong. “Casey?”
“What?” Matt came around and knelt in front of her. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head ‘no’ while she tapped her throat to signal to him that she wasn’t getting any air.
“Casey.” Hunter put his hands on the arms of his chair ready to spring when her face turned red.
“Is it blocked? Are you chokin’?” Matt asked her.
Casey nodded, so Hunter jumped up out of his seat. He pulled Casey out of her chair and wrapped his arms around her in the Heimlich maneuver to release the food.
It shifted with the first abdominal thrust, but it didn’t release. Casey fought the black cloud that tried to consume her. A crowd started to form as her face shifted to a reddish purple. Since they were mostly paramedics, they stood back and let Hunter and Matt handle it.
“Did it work?” Hunter asked Matt.
Matt shook his head ‘no’ while he watched Casey’s face. As Hunter did another abdominal thrust, the bite of hamburger and bun flew out of her mouth and hit the ground about five feet from them.
Casey sunk into Hunter’s arms. She felt weak and her head pulsated with each pound of her heart. She was mortified, yet relieved at the same time.
Hunter lowered them to the ground while Matt coaxed, “Come on, you’re startin’ t’ get some more color there. Take deep breaths...not too fast now.”
Casey took a few minutes to get her breathing under control. “Gettin’ better,” Matt encouraged, as people dispersed.
Jesse knelt down next to Hunter, who still had Casey in his arms. “What happened?”
“I scared her, not realizin’ she had food in her mouth. I’m sorry, Casey.” Matt felt horrible. She could tell by the look on his face.
“You didn’t...know,” she said in between breaths.
“So, why is it that I keep finding you in my arms lately?” Hunter looked down at Casey. He winked at her with a grin on his face.
Casey’s head pounded, but Hunter had aggravated her one too many times. She glared at him while she moved her arm forward, then jabbed her elbow back into his mid-section as hard as she could.
* * *
The Colonel watched the scene from a distance and just about spit his water out of his mouth as he laughed when he saw Casey elbow Hunter. He decided to check into Hunter’s background some more when the others got back, because he reminded the Colonel of someone from his past. He knew it couldn’t be him though because that man was old enough to be Hunter’s father, but could it be the sins of the father were passed down to the son?
* * *
Hunter wasn’t expecting Casey to elbow him, and he immediately doubled over in pain. “Oww! What was that for?” He scowled, holding his ribs.
Casey slid over near Jesse. He put his arm around her as he looked from Hunter to Casey in shock. After a moment, he asked, “What did you do to her?”
Matt watched what was going on in front of him, stunned. He didn’t expect that from Casey. When he worked with her, she was laid-back and easygoing.
“Do to her! I just saved her!” Hunter growled, rubbing his ribs.
“Casey?” Jesse asked her.
“He won’t leave me alone,” she defended herself.
“You are so not worth this!” Hunter held his side as he got up and left them sitting there.
“What did we miss? Why is everyone so tense around here?” Matt asked Jesse. “You an’ Hanson look like you’re ready t’ punch each other out, an’ Carter jus’ got Morgan in the ribs.”
Jesse sighed, shaking his head. “It’s a long story.”