Finding Home: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 5)
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Welcome to the new world from USA Today bestselling author Alexa Aston—Maple Cove—a small town on the Oregon Coast where romance is heating up!
A journalist at a turning point in her career. An ex-Navy SEAL who has spent his entire life alone. An unlikely friendship which develops into a scorching-hot romance . . .
International correspondent Sloane Anderson has reported from all corners of the globe but is tiring of her nomadic life hopscotching the globe, especially since her closest friends have married and soon plan to start families. When she freed after being kidnapped by an African warlord, she is ready to change her lifestyle.
Loner Gage Nelson bounced around the foster care system until he aged out and joined the Navy, earning a spot on one of its elite SEAL teams. Having lost too many unit members, Gage leaves the military and lands in Maple Cove, where he is a fitness trainer. He has also found a close-knit group of friends and longs for more in his personal life.
When Sloane comes to town, she and Gage experience an instant connection. He helps her learn how to deal with her recent panic attacks, and their friendship moves into a physical relationship.
Will two damaged souls be able to shed the emotional baggage they carry and start a new life together—or will the demons that plague them both put up a roadblock that even love can’t conquer?
Find the answer in Finding Home, Book 5 in Maple Cove.
Each book in this contemporary small town romance series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
1 – Another Chance at Love: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 1)
2 – A New Beginning: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 2)
3 – Coming Home: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 3)
4 – The Lyrics of Love: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 4)
5 – Finding Home: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 5)
Release date: September 20, 2022
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
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Finding Home: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 5)
Somewhere over the Middle East
Gage Nelson closed his eyes, concentrating on his ritual, one he thought through on each mission.
Eight weeks naval recruit training.
Eight weeks naval special warfare prep school.
Three weeks basic underwater demolition orientation and SEAL training.
Twenty-four weeks demolition and SEAL training.
Five weeks parachute jump school.
Twenty-six weeks SEAL qualification training.
Graduation. Earning the Navy SEAL Trident.
Assignment to SEAL team.
Eighteen months pre-deployment training. Individual. Units. Air operations. Land Warfare. Maritime. Urban and special reconnaissance.
And six months squadron integration training.
Get in. Get out.
Remember the mission.
Gage repeated the phrase over and over in his head until the words blurred and had no meaning. He allowed himself to float, repeating it, the echo ringing in his head.
Then he cleared all thoughts. His focus became sharp as a knife’s edge. His body sensed they were drawing near.
He always thought back on all the training he had undergone in preparation for the task ahead. Fear, a natural instinct, had no place in the world of a Navy SEAL. They were among the most highly-trained soldiers in the world. Eighty percent of those attempting to become a SEAL washed out at some point.
That meant the men on this mission—his mission—had experienced rigorous, thorough training, developing the skills that would make them successful. Make their team successful.
Make their country proud.
A SEAL wasn’t in it for the glory. Many of their missions remained classified years after they occurred. But they did it because of their commitment to their country. To the man who stood on either side of them. Gage’s SEAL team was an elite unit. Failure was not in the vocabulary. They would follow orders. Complete the mission. Get in. Get out.
And make the world a safer, better place.
Opening his eyes, he studied the faces of the men across from him in the helicopter. Some he had trained beside. Others he had come to know as brothers—his unit was his family. For an orphan who was kicked around the foster care system from place to place, he had never had a family.
But he had had a dream. To be a Navy SEAL. Gage had wanted to serve his country. Push his mind and body to the extreme. Accomplish what few ever did. Make a difference in a world which hadn’t cared about him. He had fought for his place among the ranks of these men. He would give his life for the mission. For anyone with him on the mission.
Get in. Get out.
His gaze connected with MCPO Sawyer, the master chief special warfare operator who was head of this SEAL team. Sawyer gave an imperceptible nod. Gage returned it.
He had spent a dozen years as a SEAL and couldn’t imagine any other life. Men such as MCPO Sawyer had become an example to him of who and what a leader is. His unit had become his family. His life—his very identity—was wrapped up in being a SEAL.
And he and his fellow SEALs would kick ass today.
Sawyer stood, bringing every man’s eye to the front.
“You have your orders. You’ve studied the layout. You know the role you will play. We get it. We get out—with the subject. We need him alive. Anyone around him is collateral damage.”
“Yes, sir!” the men echoed in unison.
The helicopter, flying in silent mode, now hovered in the heavy darkness of night. Quickly, each Seal went to the ropes dropped and slithered down.
Into danger. Inside enemy territory. Into the unknown.
No matter how well they had been prepped, Gage knew not everything could be certain. Established patterns could change. Someone might be sick, changing a rotation. A person might not stick to a routine but act upon a whim, which could throw off the intel. Or the intel might be bad. Going into a mission was as if he voluntarily jumped through the Bermuda Triangle, into a black hole, into a place unfamiliar, strange, uncharted.
Gage touched the ground and moved forward, never hesitating, his night vision goggles making things plain as day. Weapon in hand, booted feet sure and steady, following McLaurrin, Tanner, and Jessop, bringing up the rear, watching their six.
They moved silently through the courtyard, sand at their feet, weapons in hand. His group moved to the right, blazing the way for those behind.
No one awake yet. No sentries. No noise.
And then gunfire erupted, the bright flashes of light blinding him. A bullet hit his flak jacket, knocking him a few steps back. Then lights were switched on. Immediately, he shoved his goggles up, blinking, gunfire still erupting. He saw fellow SEALs falling around him, along with others, the smell of smoke and blood mingling.
“Abort! Abort!” he heard in his earpiece, recognizing Sawyer’s voice.
Gage began fighting his way back the way he had come, ignoring the cries and grunts, concentrating on getting through the chaos. He sensed someone close and wheeled, seeing it was Sawyer.
“Go!” the commander shouted.
He whipped around, guiding them through the firestorm, down a long corridor, and back into the open courtyard in which they had dropped. Surprisingly, it was deserted, all the fighting occurring behind them.
The helicopter flew low. Gage yanked his goggles back over his eyes, seeing how the vehicle dropped the ropes, which would be their way to escape. He and Sawyer ran for them, scaling them. Glancing down, he saw no other SEALs followed. His gut churned, hating that they left behind so many. That the mission had obviously had bad intel. That it had failed spectacularly. And they hadn’t apprehended the criminal they sought.
A shot sounded, and Gage heard Sawyer’s grunt. His commander had been struck in the shoulder. Another shot and Sawyer’s right hand was simply gone, a howl erupting from the master chief that pierced the night.
Gage swung his rope and shouted for Sawyer to latch on to him. On the third swing, the commander did, both arms encircling Gage’s waist as he continued to scale the rope.
Then he was hit in his upper left arm. Another bullet punctured his left thigh. He fought to reach the top, sensing his own strength waning and aware Sawyer was losing his hold on Gage.
“Hold on!” he hollered hoarsely, feeling the pressure easing as Sawyer’s release weakened.
More gunfire sounded and Sawyer’s arms fell away, his body falling back to the courtyard.
He watched helplessly, seeing the operator’s broken body smash into the ground. A loud wail erupted from him, even as strong hands gripped him, pulling him into the helicopter.
“Anyone else coming?” a voice asked.
“No,” Gage said, the most bitter word he’d ever spoken leaving his lips.
“Get us out of here,” someone said.
The helicopter rose, the sound of bullets striking it pinging.
“He’s been hit.”
Gage felt his body being dragged and someone stripping him.
“Nelson, found a bullet hole. Left thigh. Any more on you?”
“Arm,” he managed to get out.
“Left bicep,” the voice said, poking him and then shaking him violently. “Nelson, two hits it?”
“Yes,” he said, floating away as a needle poked him, a delicious darkness swallowing him up.
Gage put in the time for rehab, a sour taste constantly in his mouth from the outcome. The failure of his SEAL team to apprehend the insurgent and gain the necessary intel had led to a bomb exploding at Game Seven of the World Series in Chicago moments after the final out was called and the winning team’s players flooded the field. Thousands had been killed in the explosion, with thousands more being injured.
He hadn’t seen the mission through. Because of it, all those deaths gathered at his doorstep. He had let his country down. He had lost a good portion of his chosen family. Fellow SEALs, with their high standard of perfection, looked at him with suspicion, as if he were a traitor. At least, that’s how he viewed it. His doctors, his unit members, and his superior had told him not to blame himself. The intel had been bad. His team had been set up.
But Gage’s guilt weighed heavily on him. He believed others looked at him as tainted because he got out and no one else did. He sat through physical and psychological evaluations. The physical injuries took a little time to come back from. He knew the right things to say for the psych evals. Yet he’d still been called in and questioned at length regarding his fitness to return to duty. One Navy doc told him he bore survivor’s guilt. That it was heavy noose about his neck. That his worry and doubt and hesitation could get himself—or a fellow SEAL—killed in the field.
That did it. The final nail in the coffin. Gage wouldn’t be responsible for getting another SEAL killed. And as miserable as he felt about himself for letting down his SEAL team members, he wasn’t ready to check out himself.
Instead, he asked to be discharged. He got a decent severance package, a clean slate of health, and had absolutely no idea where he might go. The military had been his home for so many years. His mom had died of a drug overdose when he was two. No father had been listed on his birth certificate. His grandmother, who had a bad heart and a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, had given Gage over to foster care. When he was old enough, he had looked her up and found the old woman died two months after she relinquished her grandson to the state. He had no living relatives. No home base. Nothing. No one.
Then he recalled the only vacation he had ever been on. He was ten and living with a foster couple who played fast and loose with the rules, the reason he—and four other children—were later removed from their care. But that summer they had set out from Wyoming for the Oregon coast, a place his foster mom had grown up. They were gone almost three weeks, stopping in little towns up and down the coast, playing on the beaches, eating ice cream for dinner. Gage had never forgotten the rugged beauty of the Oregon coast or the happiness he had known for a short time, swimming in the cold Pacific, running around on the sand, roasting marshmallows over an open fire on the beach.
If he had to go anywhere, it might as well be the one place he had decent memories of. He would rent a car and drive through those coastal towns, and settle in the one that called to him the loudest.
In the end, it was a place called Maple Cove.
Four years later—Government State Secondary Girls School, Africa
Sloane Anderson moved among the girls she had featured over the last four weeks. The African school boarded its students, and she had lived in the dormitory with them, getting to know these girls well. It reminded her of her own college days, when she had met Willow and Tenley at UCLA. The three women had remained roommates their entire time in college and still were close friends, though Sloane was usually thousands of miles away on assignment. She decided to call her friends tonight and try to catch up. They hadn’t spoken since a few days after Christmas, three weeks earlier.
Knowing both women were extremely early risers, she shot a quick text to them both, seeing if they had time to talk with her, figuring in the eleven-hour time differential. Both responded quickly, and they made plans to chat in two hours. It would be six in the evening her time, while in Oregon, it would be seven in the morning.
“Miss Sloane, come look at my poem,” Akachi said, her brown eyes large.
She adored Akachi, whose name meant God’s hand. It had been interesting putting names to the faces of all these girls when she had first arrived and then learning what their names meant.
“I’d be happy to.” She sat next to the girl. “Read it aloud.”
Akachi brightened. “Okay.”
The girl read her poem, which Sloane actually thought was quite good. She smiled, complimenting the twelve-year-old on her original work.
“And one day, I will be a writer,” Akachi promised. “I will write poems and novels and everyone will read my stories and love them.”
“That’s a wonderful goal to have. Perhaps I should get your autograph now before you become famous.”
Akachi looked blankly at Sloane, and she realized it was just another example of how cultures could be different. Of course, autographs weren’t nearly as popular now. Everyone in the US and many places abroad preferred taking a selfie with a celebrity. Even though she considered herself a serious journalist, Sloane had been stopped numerous times in airports and on location and asked if she would pose for a picture with someone. She doubted they were fans of hers. They merely recognized her from seeing her on television.
“It’s where you ask someone if they will sign their name on a piece of paper,” she explained. “It is something another person treasures, that contact with a person they admire and the physical evidence of the connection they made when they met.”
“Ooh, I like that, Miss Sloane. I will sign my poem and give it to you.” Akachi scrawled her name in pencil and handed the sheet of paper to Sloane.
“I don’t want to take your poem from you,” she protested.
“I remember it,” the girl said. “It is in my heart. I remember all the poems I write. You keep it.”
Sloane would and decided she would also read it on air in a few minutes. She checked her watch and saw her window to broadcast would open soon. Because of the time difference, she had made frequent live appearances, along with these students, on the network’s national morning show. The evening national news broadcast called for the taped segments Sloane had put together. All she had to do was a live bookend for the tape that ran, which meant being up to shoot that between two-thirty and three in the morning, African time. She would sleep a few hours before rising and getting as camera-ready as she could and then greet the anchor. The network would run her canned segment, and then she would chat another ten seconds or so with him or her at the end of the story.
Then it was back to bed for a little more sleep before she rose to spend the day with the students at the government-run school, which taught female students between the ages of twelve and sixteen. While she had loved her time with the girls at this school, the odd hours she had to broadcast were beginning to wear on her, physically and mentally, since she had been an international correspondent for close to five years. Part of the stress came from the stories themselves she covered, as well as the countries she broadcast from. Yes, being in her twenties and landing a national correspondent’s job at a major network had been thrilling and glamorous.
Until it wasn’t.
Everything was starting to get to her. The bad politics and cronyism in every nation she visited. The starvation and lack of basic human necessities she saw on a daily basis. The murders and kidnappings and acts of terrorism. She had lost thirty percent of her hearing in her left ear from a roadside bombing a year ago. All this was enough to have her eager to put in for a transfer. She no longer wanted to be an international news correspondent. She wanted regular hours and to wake up in her own bed most mornings.
But would they want to move her from the field?
Sloane was known for going after a story and keeping at it until she had the truth. She hoped her reputation for producing results and being a team player would help the network decide to let her return stateside. And if they didn’t? She might let her current contract run out and see what else she might find. Maybe an anchor job in a Top Ten market would be available. Or a gig on one of the morning shows, which constantly seemed to play fruit basket turnover with their anchors. They might have something open up. She would wait and see. No decision needed to be made just yet. But hopefully, she would get feedback from the network soon. She especially wanted feedback from Tenley and Willow and would bring up the topic when they talked later today.
Tomorrow would be her last day at this school. Sloane had done several general pieces featuring the school as a whole. How they selected their students. The curriculum being taught. What the students’ lives were like, both inside and outside the classroom. She had also spotlighted several of the girls, ones who had the greatest potential. She hoped someone out there watching her reports would give those special girls a chance.
Ted Chavez, her cameraman, appeared. “Ready to set up, Sloane?”
“Sure. Let’s take this corner of the classroom,” she suggested.
Sometimes, they shot outside for her intros, while other times they used the inside of the classroom, the girls working individually or in groups in the background. Since this was the end of the day, however, the students were in clean-up mode. Salana Owusa, their teacher, always stressed how the classroom was the girls’ home away from home, and that they should keep it neat and tidy at all times. She had seen this philosophy other places, with students even taking on janitorial duties at their schools, sweeping or washing lunch trays. She hoped when she had kids they would be as responsible as these foreign students were.
That was perhaps the biggest reason Sloane was ready to go back to the US. While her own childhood had been one of privilege and angry secrets, she had always wanted to have a family. The way she traveled, though, spending weeks at a time abroad, would make that impossible. What husband would like the fact his wife was gone five out of six weeks, leaving him as a single parent a majority of the time? Besides, she didn’t want to be that parent who walked through the door and found her kids didn’t even recognize who she was.
No, it was time to return home. Either coast would do. She had grown up in Santa Monica and gone to college at UCLA, but she was based on the East Coast these days. At least she had a miniscule apartment which she shared with a few other journalists. Basically, they parked their stuff in the sixth-floor walkup while they went to the far corners of the globe, wherever the job took them.
Sloane motioned to Salana, with whom she’d become friendly. The teacher came toward her.
“You need me?” she asked in her lovely, lilting voice.
“Tomorrow is my last day, if you recall. I was hoping to get you on camera today to say a few words. The piece the network will run tomorrow is pretty much completed, so if I’m going to get you live, it better be today.”
Salana chuckled. “I will never understand this American obsession with having people talk to a camera.”
“You make for great TV, Salana. You’re beautiful. Educated. Warm. You are a true role model for these girls you teach.”
Ted gave her a signal, and Sloane slipped her earpiece into her ear, listening for a minute as Ted passed her a microphone.
“Yes, I can hear you. Ready at your cue. I have the girls’ teacher, Salana Owusa. We’ll chat for a few, and then I have a poem to read which one of the girls wrote.” She paused. “Ted? Can you get Akachi over here.”
Two minutes later, Sloane was chatting with the group of morning hosts based in New York, describing her gratitude at having spent the past several weeks at the school. They had asked her to read the poem first and then interview the teacher, so she segued into it.
“I know our audience will be as eager as I am to see what path each of these girls travel in the future. With me now is Akachi, who is twelve and ambitious. She wants to be a writer, and I’d like her to share one of her poems with you.”
Sloane removed it from her own pocket, where she had placed the folded sheet.
“No need to give it to me, Miss Sloane,” Akachi said. “Remember, I know it by heart.”
The girl recited her poem, looking directly at the camera. Ted gave them the thumbs up when Akachi finished.
“Thank you for sharing your work with us, Akachi,” she told the girl, and the anchors did their typical ooh-ing and ah-ing.
Then Sloane turned to Salana, who moved into the frame. “Our viewers have already met Miss Salana Owusa, the teacher at the school. I’ve been fascinated with what the various African names mean. Could you share what yours stands for?”
Salana smiled. My first name is Salana, which means sun. My surname, Owusa, means strong willed and determined. My father told me my will was strong from the time I could crawl and that he never met a more determined person than I.”
“It would take determination—and vision—to lead this school,” Sloane said. “What are you most grateful for?”
Salana smiled wistfully. “That these girls have a chance when so many others in our country do not. That they are able to study and learn, and in turn, be an example to African girls everywhere.”
At that point, a barrage of shots rang out. Salana dashed away, her immediate reaction to protect her pupils. Sloane turned and saw the door flung open. Several men entered, Uzis held high, firing into the ceiling.
Girls began to shriek and scream. Some dropped to the ground, covering their heads protectively. Others tried to run. Still, others clung to one another, weeping profusely.
What immediately came to her mind was the Boko Haram kidnapping of almost three hundred girls at a similar school to this one. The Nigerian terrorist organization had taken the girls, using them as negotiating pawns in prisoner exchanges, offering to trade girls for captured Boko Haram commanders who were already in jail. While some of those girls had been released or even escaped, a majority of them had never been heard from again.
Sloane turned to the camera, her heart racing. “You are seeing live footage of men who have just entered this government school,” she said calmly, letting the journalist in her take over because the woman in her was too frightened to think. “They are heavily armed and rounding up the students, who range in ages from twelve to sixteen.”
Ted signaled her, and she glanced over her shoulder before turning back to the camera.
“It looks as if one of their leaders is coming to speak with us. Get everything, Ted,” she said, acknowledging her cameraman for the first time ever while on the air.
He nodded grimly at her, causing her to wonder how long either of them might have to live.
Had the network already cut away? Did executives make the decision not to show people eating their breakfast cereal and drinking coffee what would happen next? At least there would be photographic evidence of what occurred here, as long as Ted was filming.
Unless these terrorists burned the camera. And then them.
The man reached her. Sloane had to look up a good bit to meet his gaze. Since she was five-six, she guessed he was several inches over six feet. His build was strong. A long, white scar ran down his left cheek, stark against his dark skin.
“I’m an American journalist,” she said before he spoke.
That earned her a hard slap. She hadn’t seen it coming, and stars shone in her vision. Her face also stung painfully.
“You do not speak. I do the talking,” he instructed.
She nodded mutely, not wanting to draw his ire.
He looked into the camera. “We do not approve of this. Of this school. Girls should take care of their men. Be good wives. We will help them be who they should be.”
Sloane couldn’t help herself. “You mean you are kidnapping them. Forcing them into marriages they don’t wish to make.”
“Take me instead,” she offered. “I am a valuable prisoner. My parents are wealthy. They’ll pay to get me back.”
Actually, she was estranged from her parents and knew her father wouldn’t spend a dime for her return. Neither would the US government. But the network was a different story. There might be a sliver of hope that they would pay to see her released. Especially if they had stayed with the story unfolding.
“My men need wives. You cannot marry all of them.” Evil shone in his eyes. “One woman would not be enough.”
She swallowed. “But the money I could bring would help you, wouldn’t it? I will go with you—if you leave all these girls here. Please. I beg you.”
“No,” he said flatly. “We take you and them.”
In a casual movement, he raised his gun and shot Ted.
“No!” Sloane shrieked, diving to catch her friend as his camera tumbled from his hands and he fell to the ground.
She wrapped her arms around him. “Ted. Ted. Please,” she begged, knowing he was already gone, his frozen stare sending chills through her.
Sloane looked up to the man who had killed Ted and saw the butt of his gun flying at her. She turned her face away but the gun slammed into her temple. Pain rippled through her.
And then darkness came.
Sloane awoke to the swaying of what she guessed was a truck. She kept her eyes closed, trying to ascertain what she could about the situation before she let anyone know she had come around. She could smell the diesel fuel. Felt the press of warm bodies around her. Smelled the fear blanketing the air.
Opening her eyes slowly, she heard a voice say, “She is awake. Miss Sloane is awake.”
She looked to her right and saw it was Akachi who spoke. The beautiful tween with the large eyes and round face. The author of the poem Sloane had tucked into her pocket.
Blinking several times, she raised her hand to see the time on her watch in order to know how long she had been out. She discovered her wrists were bound together. Glancing around, she saw none of the girls had their wrists tied. That was a good thing. It might help some of them escape when they had a chance. The brave ones. The ones not paralyzed with fear.
She looked at her watch and saw it was over ninety minutes since she had started her broadcast report.
“How many trucks are there?” she asked.
Akachi squinted. “Five others. Six, counting this one.”
“Did anyone get away?”
“A few, I think. Right as they came in. Izara and Monifa had gone to the well for water. If they saw the men, they would have run and hidden.”
Nausea drifted through her, and Sloane tried to tamp it down. “Did they hurt anyone? Did anyone fight back when they loaded the trucks?”
Akachi averted her gaze. Sloane knew something terrible had occurred while she was unconscious.
“It was Miss Salana,” a voice to her left said.
She looked over and saw Kumani—whose name meant Destiny—sitting next to her. She placed her hand over Sloane’s and squeezed it encouragingly. At sixteen, Kumani was the oldest of the students at the school. She had told Sloane she had aspirations to be either a teacher or politician, emphasizing that she would be kind and fair no matter which occupation she chose.
“What happened to her?” Sloane asked, fearing what she would be told.
Kumani sighed. “They rounded us up and took us outside. Made us form a circle. Then the leader dragged Miss Salana to the center. He tore her dashiki from her.” Kumani’s gaze met Sloane’s. “She was afraid but did not show it. She stood proudly, even as he berated her, telling her she put nonsense into our heads. That girls should never be educated. That we are meant to serve men.”
Kumani paused. Her eyes fell to her lap. “That man hurt her, Miss Sloane. In front of all of us. Then he had other men come up. Kick her. Slap her. Rip out her hair.” Her voice grew quiet. “They... they defiled her. They made us watch. He said they would cut out our eyes if we did not.” The girl shuddered, her voice dropping to a whisper. “It was awful. They left her in the dirt. Broken. Bleeding. I do not know if alive or dead.”
Sloane was thankful she had not witnessed her friend being brutalized, especially after seeing Ted murdered in front of her. She squeezed Kumani’s hand.
“Thank you for telling me.”
Closing her eyes again, Sloane tried to think of where they might take the group. What they would do to the girls. What they would do to her. True, in their eyes she would have more value than the kidnapped girls, but if they had raped Salana, they would do the same to her, if only to break her spirit and keep her submissive.
Then she remembered the tracker. Steve Parsons, her immediate boss, had insisted upon it the last time she had returned to New York. She had almost been taken hostage during her last assignment in the Middle East, and Steve convinced Sloane that they would never lose her location if she would agree to the tracker.
The doctor explained it was similar to the birth control implant just beneath the skin in her upper arm, which the same staff doctor had also placed in her. That implant was a small, flexible, plastic rod that was one of the most effective birth control methods available. Being on the road and in remote areas for weeks at a time, she hadn’t wanted to rely on something such as a birth control pill. Not that she had sex all that often. Occasionally she did, when in cities where other journalists gathered. Those couplings were little more than one- or two-night stands, more to alleviate the immense loneliness that swelled within her than anything else.
She had agreed to the tracker, which was much smaller than her birth control implant—and wondered if this terrorist group and its leader knew about them, praying they didn’t cut it out of her. Praying that it could remain in her long enough to signal her location so that someone might be sent to rescue her and all these poor girls, huddled in the back of the truck as they continued to ride along the bumpy road.
They turned off and headed into the jungle. A small bit of hope died with that. The further away from the little bit of civilization they went, the harder it might be to plan a rescue mission. Still, she couldn’t let these girls know how frightened she was. She owed it to Salana to be a brave example for these students.
After another ten minutes, their vehicle began to slow.
“Help me sit up,” she told Kumani and Akashi.
They did, talking her elbows and helping her to become upright. Another wave of nausea ran through her. Gingerly, lifted her fingers to her temple, where the butt of the gun had struck her. A huge knot had formed. She wondered if she had a concussion or something worse.
The truck stopped, as did the ones behind it. A teenager no older than fourteen lowered the tailgate, a machine gun in his hand. Another boy close to the same age appeared, demanding the girls leave the truck. She could hear sniffling again, but no one was sobbing outright. They were probably too terrified to do even that.
Kumani and Akashi helped Sloane to her feet and from the truck, where one of the teens grabbed her elbow.
“Stay,” he ordered.
She didn’t like being separated from the others but had no choice. Akashi gave her a panicked look.
“It’s all right. Go with Kumani. She will take care of you. You both will take care of the others.”
Though twelve, Sloane always thought that Akashi had an old soul. The girl nodded respectfully and put her arm around two others, leading them away from the truck.
When it was empty, the young man nudged her with his weapon. She didn’t protest. Even when he came and stood behind her and jammed the gun into the small of her back, she did not utter a word.
“Mwangi wants to see you. Now. Walk.”
She did as asked, being directed to a large tent. Entering it, she saw it was barely furnished, just a few tables and chairs and a single cot. The leader of the terrorists, the one who had murdered Ted, sat in one chair, poring over a map on the table.
Sloane went and stood on the other side of the table. “You asked to see me?”
She took the chair opposite him, taking in her surroundings. A few tables held computers. She also saw some video and sound equipment, which made her wince, thinking of Ted being left behind. He had been a good friend to her over the years, always up for new adventures, and saving her ass a few times along the way. She vowed to get out of here and find his body and give him a proper burial at sea. He had always talked of being cremated, his ashes dropped into the waters of the ocean.
Glancing down, she tried to read upside down and figure out what this was a map to and why Mwangi was studying it. Suddenly, she sensed his eyes on her and not the map.
“What group are you with?” she asked him, ignoring the others who lingered on the perimeter of the tent. “Are you willing to exchange any of the students you captured for your fellow members who are imprisoned?”
His surly look did not bode well.
“I need to use a SAT phone. If you want to demand a ransom for me, I need to contact my network.”
Mwangi stroked his chin in thought. “You think you are that valuable? Worth so very much? You are not the typical American with the blond hair and blue eyes. You hair is dark as night. Your eyes green like gems.”
“I am very good at my job,” she told the terrorist. “I’ve been in the field a long time. The network values my work. They will pay for my safe return.” She paused. “I can give you a number to contact them. Or let me speak to them directly. If they see I am unharmed, it will go a long way in expediting matters. Greasing the wheel,” she added, seeing he understood that phrase.
Sloane placed her bound wrists on the tabletop. “You might as well have these removed from me. I’m not going anywhere. I have no idea where we are, and I’m not fool enough to take off into the jungle by myself. Besides, you don’t want me to be mistreated. My boss wouldn’t like that.”
Mawangi frowned deeply. “You sound like a boss, ordering me around. Telling me what to do.”
She winced inwardly, not wanting to show any weakness around this man. She knew she could come off too strong, but she had always had to hustle, being a woman in a man’s world.
“Forgive me, Mwangi. I will let you make the suggestions in the future.”
He nodded approvingly. “That is the way it should be. I will contact your people in a day or two. They need to be fully worried about you before I approach them. In the meantime, you will be my guest.”
Sloane glared at him. “And what exactly is expected of a guest?”
He laughed. “Guests are to make themselves useful. They are to keep me happy.”
She easily figured out what that meant. “I told you I should be unharmed. It won’t go well for you if you hurt me.” She gently rubbed her temple. “You already knocked me into tomorrow with that gun of yours.”
His eyes gleamed. “I have bigger guns than those.”
He was not talking about weapons, obviously, because he rubbed his crotch suggestively. She flashed back to a scene in Last of the Mohicans, recalling how Daniel Day-Lewis pleaded with Madeleine Stowe, telling her to submit. To stay alive. To be strong and survive. And he would find her.
Sloane had no way of knowing if anyone would find her.
Still, she was strong, both physically and mentally. She had trained in Krav Maga, developed in Israel as a fighting and defense system. It took the best of the most effective fighting styles, and she was more than proficient in it. If these other soldiers of Mwangi’s weren’t present in the tent, she would have already taken their leader out. With so many surrounding them, though, she might be able to kill this murderer—but she would never survive.
Instead she would bide her time.
Journalist were taught to think. To question. To imagine endless possibilities. To come at a situation from various angles. She only hoped Mwangi would leave her alone now so she could think. On how to escape. On how to bring help back for these girls who had come to mean so much to her in such a short time.
“Are you going to cut away the ties?” she asked softly, hoping by tempering her tone, it might convince him to do so.
“No. You are too dangerous. American women do not know their place. We will teach you yours tonight.”
He rose. “For now, you will stay here.”
The leader left, motioning for the others to follow. Only one soldier stayed behind. He stood at the tent’s flap. Unfortunately, he was on her side of the flap and not on the outside. It didn’t matter. The others were gone. She had quiet time to think. To plan.
Sloane had exhausted all her ideas. She had come up with more problems than solutions. And she knew time was running out. Darkness had come. The tent had one lantern lit. It sat on the table beside the map. She had wondered if she should knock it over, creating a fire, but worried that she might be burned alive if she couldn’t escape in time. She had run through endless scenarios in her mind, all coming to a dead end. She had to face facts. She wasn’t getting out of here on her own. No matter how courageous she was or how fast she could think on her feet, she was a hostage in the middle of an unfriendly jungle, surrounding by an unknown number of people who brandished weapons.
She would take Hawkeye’s advice.
Do whatever it took to survive.
A slight breeze drifted toward her. With the tent only having the one opening, that meant someone had created one somewhere else.
Maybe the cavalry had arrived.
Twice she had stood and walked about the tent. The guard hadn’t spoken a word to her. She decided to do so again and came to her feet, stretching her bound wrists high above her head, tipping off the fact she would have a little trouble helping if push came to shove. Of course, she still had her legs and feet and could use them to land some fairly powerful kicks. Her teeth, which could rip off a guy’s ear or lip. She would be willing to do her part if someone were here to rescue her.
Sloane turned and begin pacing, immediately seeing the military guy who had cut through the tent. Their gazes connected and since her back was to the sentry, she held up her hands and one finger, indicating who was in the tent. Her rescuer nodded.
Wanting to draw her guard’s attention away from this part of the room, she moved closer to him, coming to stand before him.
“Do you know when Mwangi is going to think about feeding me?” she grumbled. “I haven’t eaten all day. He said he was coming back. When will he be back?” she demanded.
He frowned at her. “I do not kn—”
His reply was cut off by the guy who had slithered behind him, springing to his feet and slicing the guard’s throat from ear to ear, catching him as he fell, gently placing the dead body on the ground.
Her jaw gaped and she forced herself to shut it as the soldier moved toward her. Sloane raised her wrists, and he sliced through the rope binding them.
He took her wrists and began rubbing them. As the feeling came back and the blood began circulating, they felt as if they were on fire.
“Petty Officer First Class Hill, ma’am. I’m a Special Warfare Operator for Seal Team 5. You must be Sloane Anderson.”
“I am, Officer Hill.” She sensed others behind her but kept her focus on this man. “I was covering a government secondary school. Terrorists invaded and took most of the girls. They killed my camera operator. Most likely the teacher is also dead.”
“We know, ma’am. Your boss gave our boss the ability to read your chip and track your location.”
“How did you put together a team so fast? We were only taken late this afternoon. Night only fell a short while ago.”
“We were in the area on training exercises. A joint operation with the local government. They gave us permission to come and bring you home.”
“And the girls,” she insisted. “I can’t leave them behind.”
“Yes, ma’am, the girls, too. I need you to come with me now. My team will take care of the rest.”
He caught her elbow in a firm grip and turned her. She now counted six other men in the room. Quietly, they spoke to one another in some kind of code she couldn’t begin to decipher.
All Sloane knew is that she was free—and going home.
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