Isabelle Markham was filthy, her body smeared with dirt and blood. Jake immediately focused on the worst of it, a large mass of bruises on her left side, where she’d indicated the broken ribs. It looked like she’d been kicked and he sucked in air between his gritted teeth and wished he could find the men who did this to her. All of them.
She stared up at him as though she could read his mind and he reached out and buttoned the jacket, covering her body.
The jacket only reached mid-thigh, but she’d already relaxed. Then Jake pulled a clean t-shirt from his bag. One of the only things he had left since they’d been forced to drop nearly everything but their first line gear to hop and pop their way to the border.
“Dr. Markham, I’d like to put this on you,” he said. She looked at him, slightly confused. “I don’t have any pants for you, but I can put this on so you’re covered.”
“Name?” she asked.
“I’m Lieutenant Junior Grade Jake Hansen,” he said. “And this is Ensign Nick Devane.”
She nodded and Jake wound the shirt between her legs, tying it firmly around her hips. She didn’t take her eyes off him for second, and he maintained as much eye contact as he could.
“You need to try to drink something,” he told her, once he’d pulled the jacket down again.
“Yes,” she said.
He eased her onto her right side and she braced herself with her right arm under her head. Then he offered her water from his canteen, which she took down in small sips, her breath coming faster as she attempted to hydrate.
He was going to have to run an I.V. He could give her a light dose of morphine too, for the pain, if she’d help him rule out abdominal injuries. She’d need something if they were going to move her even the shortest distance, because there was no way she was walking out of here on her own two feet.
“Dr. Markham, we’ve got to get you out of this place, at least,” he said.
She shook her head no. Dammit.
Nick had walked toward the door to try to make contact with the team and to assess just how much time, if any, they had to get out of range of the next skirmish headed their way. For right now, it was suddenly all quiet, which worried Jake more than if there had been major fire. Too quiet always equaled trouble.
Nick motioned for Jake to come to him.
“I’ll be right back,” Jake told her. She grabbed his wrist. “I’m not leaving – just moving to that corner. You can watch me the whole time,” he assured her, and she did just that.
“No comms,” Nick said. “One of us is going to have to go on ahead and bring back help, unless you want to build a board.”
It was an option – the easier one, probably, but not the best solution for Isabelle. They’d end up jostling her too much and if they got caught along the way, covering her would prove difficult.
“I’ll stay,” Jake said, and his best friend and brother looked at him. “Come on man, this is no time to play big brother on me. Besides, I outrank you.”
“Asshole,” Nick muttered, but he didn’t argue. They were on limited time. Rendezvous with the helo was at 0500. Three short hours away. Keeping Isabelle here was the path of least resistance – it was the safest place, since the rebels thought she was dead already.
“At least move her to the side, out of view of the doorway,” Nick said.
“I’ll do that myself. Go now, before you lose the dark,” Jake said. For a second, the men clasped hands, fist over fist in the familiar ritual they’d been performing since they were eight years old. Nick edged out the doorway and within seconds, Jake lost sight of him.
He immediately turned his attention back to Isabelle.
“I’m going to run some fluids and then give you a small dose of morphine. Then I’m going to lift you – carry you over to the corner,” he told her when he crouched down beside her again.
She nodded, continued watching him prepare the IV and find a strong vein in her forearm. Once he got the bag running, he pinned it to his own shoulder to keep it the correct height and flowing, and then he injected the morphine.
“That should work quickly,” he said. She nodded, and within five minutes she was telling him that he could attempt the short move. He picked her up carefully, ignoring the burning pain in his own arm, watched her face carefully for signs of major discomfort as he transported her five feet to the corner on the right side of the door. The corner where he’d have the best element of surprise if someone came knocking.
When he laid her back down on her right side, he checked her color, her breathing. Labored, but no worse.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” he asked as he attached the I.V. bag to the thatched wall behind her.
“What day is it?”
“Tuesday. 0200 hours – close to two in the morning civilian time.”
“Not long. Maybe since this morning.”
Good. That was good. Nick and the others would hump it back within an hour at most, and if Isabelle had made it this long, she could make it just that little bit longer.
He cradled the M4 in his right arm and sat next to her on the floor.
“Why did the other man leave?” she asked.
“He’s going to get help.”
“I thought you were help.”
“Dr. Markham, everything’s going to be fine. You just rest,” he said. But the morphine, mixed with her nervousness made her more talkative.
“I think we’re on a first name basis,” she said. “You said you were Navy?”
“I didn’t think they sent sailors out to rescue hostages.”
“I’m with the SEALs, Isabelle. This is the kind of mission we’re built for. You’re going to be fine.”
She nodded slowly. “When will my mother know I’m all right? That I’m alive?”
“She’ll be notified as soon as we can get you out of here. You’re our first priority—not your mother,” he said.
“She wouldn’t be happy to hear you say that.”
“Then it’s a good thing she’s not here.”
“A very good thing…don’t need to hear, I told you so, Izzie…”
Sometime during her last sentence, she’d fallen asleep. He waited until her breaths grew even before spending the better part of half an hour getting familiar with her legs, putting antiseptic on the larger lacerations and getting angrier with every bruise he encountered.
His reaction was visceral, on a level so deep he couldn’t explain it or shake it and he had to force himself to cover her legs when he was done. The jacket’s sleeves reached mid-palm on her, but despite the heat, her skin still felt cool to his touch. Shock, probably.
Her dark hair had fallen loose, and as he brushed some of it off her cheeks, his fists tightened on seeing the fingerprint-sized bruises along her neck.
She’s going to be fine.
He forced himself to leave her for a few brief minutes. Staying low to the ground, he checked the door, spent a few minutes assessing the new pattern of gunfire that started up suddenly. The sound came from the opposite direction Nick had run to, and Jake calculated that his teammate should be at the convergence point by now. The problem they’d run into was getting a vehicle, but his teammates were nothing if not resourceful.
When he returned to Isabelle’s side, he found that she’d opened her eyes at the staccato of the now-steady machine gun fire. It was definitely drawing closer. She automatically reached a hand out for his free one, and he let her take it, twine her fingers through his.
“We’re all right,” he said.
“Have you killed a lot of people?” she asked.
“And you have enough ammo to kill more?”
She thinks we’re going to die. And hell, she might be right, but it wasn’t a possibility he allowed himself to dwell on once he’d written his letter and got on the helo. Death was always a stark and sobering reality and he’d be a fool – and dead long before this—if he didn’t acknowledge that reality every single time he took a trip.
“The gunfire sounds a lot closer than it really is,” he said.
“Normally, a good one.” That got a small smile out of her, but it faded quickly. “The rebels are more interested in each other than us.”
“I’m not worried about the rebels. I’m just not sure…he said he was coming back to get me.”
He’d assumed that the rebel soldiers did this to her, took her from the village she’d been working in and dragged her to this remote hut. But something in her voice told him that wasn’t true and coupled with his earlier suspicion of just where the intel of her location originated from, the warning bells in his head rang louder than ever.
“Who did this to you, Isabelle?” he asked. She shook her head and he wondered if he should press further. She’d be questioned by the FBI and CIA and various other agencies because of who her mother was anyway, and she didn’t owe him any kind of true confession. It would be enough for him if he could get her out of here safely.
“He wouldn’t be stupid enough to come back here,” she whispered. “If he does, you won’t let him near me, right?”
“He won’t even get close. Tell me who did this to you.”
“Sometimes admitting it the first time’s the hardest,” he said.
“And sometimes it’s the worst thing you can ever do,” she shot back.
He didn’t argue, because he couldn’t. Admissions had never been high on his list of priorities and he’d always been more of an, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission but I’m not planning on asking for either, kind of guy.
A small sob caught in her throat. Her face contorted in pain and she held her side and winced.
“It’s okay. Just try and relax. You don’t have to tell me anything at all,” he said, stroked her cheek with his thumb. “I’ll give you some more morphine.”
She didn’t argue as he sent another dose through the I.V. line. In a few minutes, her eyes got that hazy look again and her breathing was better, but she still wasn’t content.
He realized why almost immediately, as smoke and dust rose in his nostrils. The rebels were burning down this part of the jungle, cutting a swath so refugees and the opposing army couldn’t hide from them.
He and Isabelle were directly in that path.
“Rebels are smoking out the survivors,” she whispered and damn, he wished she didn’t know that. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
He was backed into an impossible situation – moving Isabelle now, at the rate he’d have to evac her…
“I know the risks,” she said, and he didn’t have time to second guess either of their decisions. Instead, he cut a piece of the blanket away and tied it over her mouth and nose, stopped the IV for the time being and tucked it against her. Then he marked the floor so Nick would know his next position, if his team was able to make it close to the hut at all.
Bag slung over his chest, he picked Isabelle up and he ran, a different route than the one he and Nick had taken an hour earlier. The foliage was thick, and he tried to stay on the main path as much as he could, prayed that no one would come running from the opposite direction.
He ran until the smoke wasn’t heavy, until the shots sounded more distant, until he knew he couldn’t risk jostling her any longer than he already had.
“How…far?” she asked when he laid her down between some overgrown brush that held just enough coverage from both the road and the field to camouflage them.
“Two miles,” he said.
She opened her eyes and stared at him steadily. “I thought you’d be faster.”
He fought a smile. “Stop talking. Just breathe.”
They were out of the way for now, maybe a mile west of what was being burned. If no one came for them in the next half an hour, he’d move them again.
He got down low, lay on his side parallel to her body and put his face close to hers. “Just try and relax. My team will find us soon. They’ve never let me down. And I’m not going to let you down.”
She nodded, like she wanted to believe him.
“Are you going to keep fighting, Isabelle? Or am I in this alone?” he asked, and the way she answered caught him off guard.
“Tell me the worst thing you’ve ever done,” she said suddenly. “It doesn’t matter what you say. You can’t top me.”
“Somehow, I really doubt that.”
She stared at him, and for just a second her face was illuminated by the overhead flares set off by the local soldiers — a cry for help. From anyone. She looked beautiful, despite the cuts and bruises. Beautiful and strong, and he wondered why the hell he could notice that now.
“I slept with the man who held me hostage. Willingly. I seduced him, because I wasn’t about to be a victim. I stayed in control. I made my own choices,” she said, her teeth gritted at the memory of what she’d done. “I wasn’t forced. They’re going to say that I was and I’m going to have to agree. But that’s a lie.”
What she’d just told him was something she’d never reveal to anyone else. And now she needed the same thing from him. She was daring him, really, and he’d never been one to back down from a dare in his life.
She’s not going to remember any of this, so just tell her.
“I killed my stepfather,” he told her. “Self-defense. He tried to kill me first.” Nothing more than the rules of engagement.
He paused. “I was fourteen,” he said, was about to tell her he didn’t want to talk about this anymore, couldn’t really.
She was asking so much of him – things he’d never willingly give away. He didn’t do submission well, and she was nearly tearing his heart right out of his chest with every question.
And when she took his hand in hers, he wondered what the hell to do next. “Tell me what else I can do for you,” he said.
“Kiss me,” she whispered, and he figured she must be zoned out on the morphine and the pain and there was no way she realized what she asked him.
But his own eyes had finally adjusted to the dark, and one look in her eyes, clearer now than they’d been minutes earlier told him that she was in full control of her senses.
“I don’t want to die knowing that the last man who touched me didn’t care about me.”
“We’re not going to die.”
“Can you promise me that?”
“I don’t make promises. But I know what my gut tells me.”
“Please, Jake. Don’t make me beg for this,” she whispered and, ah shit, he’d already leaned down toward her involuntarily.
He put his mouth on hers, the taste a welcome relief from the dust and stifling heat. How she could taste so sweet in the middle of all this hell was a mystery.
Her arm curled around his neck, holding him there in a sudden burst of fierce protectiveness and passion that bonded them more strongly than he would’ve thought possible.
When he pulled back, her breathing was faster. He couldn’t tell if it was her injury or the kiss or both, but she murmured, “put your hands on me,” in his ear. And he did, lightly through the jacket, the way a man would touch a woman he wanted – caressed her arms, her breast, her belly, let his hand linger on her hip and thigh as if his touch could heal everything.
He watched her face carefully while he caressed her, in case it was too much but she didn’t stop him. And when he finished, he brought a hand to her cheek and rubbed a thumb over the bruise on her forehead.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her voice tight. “I know, after what I told you – I know that couldn’t have been easy.”
“I don’t do things out of pity. Never did,” he said, pressed his lower body against hers carefully, so she’d know the effect she’d had on him. Because the most important thing right now was to make her smile.
And when she did smile, he forgot about her injuries and the fire and the gunshots. He was going to have to run with her again, and soon, because he refused to let this be the end of the line. And he couldn’t help but kiss her again, a long deep kiss that wasn’t ever going to be enough. His hand rested on her hip and her hand closed around his for the second time that night.
He pulled back when he heard the low hum of a motor over the riot of gunshots.
Saved. Fucking finally.
“Is that for us?” she asked. He turned to her to tell her yes, but she’d already drifted off to sleep. Actually looked peaceful, her fingers still twined through his.
He knew it would be a long while until he found peace again.