Colorado Springs, Colorado
“So this is hell? Very scenic.” Claire shivered and slouched over a steaming mug of coffee, wishing it were a bathtub she could crawl into. The lobby of the Evergreen Lodge was polished ski-lodge elegance and pretty much guaranteed to give the budget overlords coronaries. A huge stone fireplace in the middle radiated a welcoming heat from all four sides. Overstuffed chairs were intermixed with coffee tables and potted plants. Tiny white lights decorated the rafters and looked like diminutive stars against the dark oak. The dining room took up half the lobby, and dozens of windows let the wild mountain view in while keeping the cold out.
Across the white tablecloth, Claire’s oldest friend and fellow army captain Sarah Anders laughed and stirred her hot cocoa. “You know, if you stopped complaining for a second, you’d realize that it’s called the Garden of the Gods for a reason.”
“There is not enough cold-weather gear in the entire army inventory to make me stop complaining. I’ve never been so cold in my life,” Claire grumbled. “I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’d rather be in Iraq right now. At least I’d be warm.”
“It doesn’t help that you get to stay in this beautiful ski lodge because the budget people screwed up?”
“Not a bit. They could have us at the swankiest place in Colorado Springs and I’d still complain about the cold.”
“But you love me, which is why you’re here.” Sarah’s flip remark belied the serious edge to her words. Claire had been friends with Sarah far too long to miss the fact that she was, in fact, deeply worried.
“I’m here because my brigade commander ordered me here,” Claire said as she cradled her coffee mug. “The only good thing about it is being stuck with you. Why did you have to be the one tapped for this mission?”
Sarah shrugged and sipped her hot chocolate. “I’m the only company commander who hasn’t deployed recently. It’s my turn.” A shadow fell across her friend’s face and Claire reached across the table to squeeze her friend’s hand. “We’ll get your team ready, Sarah.”
In truth, nothing they did in training could prepare Sarah for the mission she was about to command. She was leading a logistics company into the tail end of the Surge, the buildup of American forces designed to stabilize Iraq. As someone who had recently returned from Iraq, Claire knew Sarah’s mission intimately.
Nothing was going to help take a company of combat-inexperienced soldiers and turn them into steely-eyed killers inside of a month. But Claire said none of that. It was the dead last thing that Sarah needed to hear right now.
Sarah tucked a stray lock of hair behind one ear and slid her water to one side of the table to make room for a briefing folder. “Okay, so let’s talk about the mission, because I’m in way over my head and I could use your expertise.”
Claire mirrored Sarah’s movement and leaned forward to look at the timeline of events Sarah had slid in front of her. “Inspections, mission briefings, ranges,” Claire read. She glanced over at Sarah. “What’s the problem?”
“Look at the first three days.” Sarah flipped the page over. “We’re shipping our equipment in exactly five weeks. We have a sixteen day training exercise to get our crap together because at the end of this exercise, we are shipping out our equipment, then we’re going on leave. All told, five weeks start to finish. And the brigade commander . . . Claire, he doesn’t understand our mission.”
Sarah glanced over Claire’s shoulder and perked up. Claire twisted in the plush leather chair and groaned.
“Who is that?” Sarah murmured. Claire sighed. “You’re just like every other female on the planet,” Claire said, ignoring the flip of her stomach. Evan Loehr was giving her an ulcer. Lovely. One kiss and it would freaking haunt her forever. She regretted ever touching him.
“Sarah Anders, get ready to meet Captain America himself.”
“You know him?” Oh yes, she knew him. Many a long night in the tactical operations center downrange had been spent fantasizing about those shoulders, along with other parts of his anatomy.
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BIO: Jessica Scott is a career army officer, mother of two daughters, three cats, three dogs and two escape-artists hamsters, wife to a career NCO and wrangler of all things stuffed and fluffy.
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