Here are the ‘lost’ two opening chapters of FALLEN COMRADE – these were cut after the first round of querying was not successful, so many years ago! Feedback suggested that, while good, the first two chapters delayed the “meet-cute” too long and the book would be better off without them. I’m still darn proud of these two chapters – they were the source of some contest wins along the way!
Happy reading! – Jillian
Nothing good came from a knock on the front door after 9 p.m.
Kiera McNeill froze, halfway down the vacuous hallway of her suburban Atlanta home. She shivered, and not from the cool March air or lower house temperature required ‘to keep equipment running at optimal levels.’ Before she stepped onto the cut stone pavers of the spacious foyer, her pretend husband for this undercover operation, Mateo, bolted out of a back room, flipped off the hall lights, and grabbed her wrist, yanking her back.
“Stop,” he hissed. “The silent alarm triggered a few seconds ago. Damn it.” He pressed the side of a fist next to a fake photo hanging on the cream-colored wall. “We’re technically still in the field. Not yet sure who’s out there. Or how many.”
True. She hadn’t heard any car doors close. Whoever knocked was either quiet or had left the vehicle doors open.
The fact that whoever was outside the house must be a threat? Testimony to how bizarre her sheltered world had become.
An imaginary hand tightened around her neck. On instinct, she brushed her fingers over her swollen belly, and the nudge in response from Little Bit made her palm jump. This baby always surprised her. Figured. Then again, being pregnant hadn’t been part of Kiera’s plans.
Nor had she planned on Mateo, her partner in this unofficial mission, pretending to be the baby’s father.
Low voices filtered through the front door.
Her mouth went dry.
“Wait,” he whispered, stepping past her. He inched down the wall to the end of the hallway and eased the bottom of a fake picture frame to the side, revealing small screens that relayed images from the front stoop and around the house. “Too many of them. Shit. One is at the back door.” He pushed the frame back over the monitor with a secure click.
She jumped at a louder bang on the front door.
When Mateo whirled back around, sweat dotted his forehead. He never sweated.
She stared at him. No way.
Nearly a year of work completed and vengeance for her brother’s death rested in her grasp. They had maintained their stories long enough to get the data. Tonight their cover had just been blown.
“We’re going to be okay.” He frantically dug in his cargo pants, utility attire he changed into after each day’s corporate costume he wore.
Nothing about the way the whites of Mateo’s eyes shone in the dim light embodied ‘okay.’ Air rasped between her lips as she fought to fill her lungs.
His brief grip on her forearm came and went. “I’ll be right behind you, got it?” He spared her a quick grin and a shrug. Like it was an average Tuesday for Mateo.
More pounding rattled the beveled glass on the front door. At least whoever was out there had knocked. This suburban Atlanta estate sat on an acre of land. It was a large enough parcel to avoid nosy neighbors, but with enough homes in the vicinity it would prompt whomever was out there to stick with genteel decorum, at least for the time being.
Decorum might buy her and Mateo enough time.
Or buy the person at the back of the house time to use less decorum. Damn it, that back patio door was their fastest exit route.
Her heart slammed against her ribs. So did Little Bit’s frantic kicks.
Mateo gripped her upper arms. Pale lines formed at the corners of his grim mouth. He walked her backwards into the master bedroom. “You remember the plan?”
“Yes, but—” They had been on a mission, but Kiera never truly believed she would ever use the contingency plan. If so, she never would have participated in the first place—or continued in her current condition. The objective of their operation was revenge and justice, plain and simple. Nothing official. The work had been financially supported by a group Mateo was affiliated with, but the mission had not been sanctioned. Mateo and Kiera would collect information and then pass it along to the group where the data would be put to good use. Like blackmail or payback. A group who was good at things like vengeance.
This nearly year-long infiltration had been a big commitment, but provided a supposedly safe way to prevent injustices to other veterans like her brother.
Never in a million years did she truly believe she would need the escape plan Mateo had drilled into her mind and body. The plan she practiced, even a few weeks ago, at nearly nine months pregnant. What made this strategy even worse was that it required Kiera to find the one person she never wanted to see again –the feeling was likely mutual.
This one person had the means to keep her alive long enough to transfer the damning information.
“You can do this. You have to.” Mateo’s harsh whisper commanded her attention. “Follow. The. Plan.” He glanced down. “Please.”
Her shoulders sagged. Sure, she carried this baby small, but she was still close to term. Could she move fast enough to execute the evacuation route? What about the baby? What about Mateo? Too many thoughts jumbled up in her mind.
Stiffening her spine, she stared at him. Her quivering nerves sparked to livewire action. The muscles in her legs tensed. This mission had just escalated far beyond simple data collection.
A metal clang reverberated through the walls.
He was right. It didn’t matter what she wanted. Her fear didn’t figure into the equation. All that counted was this baby and the information. “Don’t care how I do it, Mateo. I’ll get away from here.”
“Good.” He pressed a thumb drive into her palm and closed her fingers around it. “This has the rest of the information.”
“What?” He hadn’t mentioned additional data. Then again, there were large pieces of the operation he simply kept to himself. Safer that way, he’d said.
“A year of work. Our revenge for Brady’s death. And some bonus information for the team to play with later. Whatever happens, do not let anyone but the team get this data.”
“There was more than what I found?”
“Mm hmm. And now you have it all.” In the walk-in closet, he rolled back a rug and yanked up a two foot square of hardwood.
She shoved on tennis shoes and threw a jacket over her knit maternity top. With shaking fingers, she secured the drive in a zippered jacket pocket.
The pounding at the front door became more persistent.
Then stopped. A faint creak sounded from another direction.
“Damn it. They’re coming in the back door. Go!” he gritted out.
“What about you?”
He glanced over his shoulder. “I have to take care of a few things first. Run the route exactly how we practiced.”
Before she could protest further, he pushed her toward the dark opening in the floor. She felt with her feet for the first few rungs of the ladder and angled so she would fit through the small space. They had drilled on the plan a few weeks ago, but she had grown since then. Nothing easy about what she would have to do tonight.
Her hand slipped off a rung and she clung with the other hand, her legs swinging in the darkness. Thank God Mateo had led her through regular strength exercises during this entire time they were undercover. With a bit-off cry and a flex of her arms, she rotated back and shoved a foot back onto the ladder, clutching the supports.
The last thing she saw was Mateo’s serious face as he shut the trapdoor. The thick fwap of the rug laying down over the trapdoor preceded footsteps fading away.
Complete darkness pressed in around her. The confined space amplified her rasping gasps. She tucked her mouth into her arm to stay silent.
She lumbered down the ten-foot ladder until her feet finally touched the dirt floor. Leaning against the cool wall of the small earthen room, she pressed her hand to her abdomen, drawing in a deep breath and willing her body to stop shaking. She suppressed a cough in the thick, damp air. The urge to claw her way out of the underground tomb swamped her. Suffocated her. No. She would keep going for the baby.
This baby—the result of a moment’s lapse in judgment and an unlucky condom break.
Mateo, her fake husband in this operation, had watched over her. She didn’t love him, but they had developed a comfortable partnership during this mission to get justice for her brother and expose the Fallen Comrades fake charity. Kiera and Mateo had discovered far more than simply a greedy CFO siphoning veterans’ donations. The corruption went far deeper than anyone had guessed.
Which was why the stakes had skyrocketed tonight.
Mateo. He was all that stood between Kiera and her baby and impending death.
Footsteps returned, louder above her and then followed by hard bangs. She bit her lip to stay quiet.
Kneeling, she patted the ground to her right, per the plan, and brushed against a nylon backpack. In the darkness, she unzipped the top and found the flashlight with the cloth-covered lens. She clicked it on, and the small space around her glowed in the muted light.
Low voices, then groans and thuds, filtered down into her hiding spot.
Time to leave.
She heard a rapid series of impacts, like someone battering a punching bag.
Sweat prickled her chest.
A loud bang, and then a dull thud, like a body hitting the ground, sounded over her head.
Her pulse pounded in her chest. Was Mateo okay? She had to do something. Maybe she couldn’t rescue him, but she could at least get help. Fumbling with trembling hands in the backpack, she fished out a cell phone and turned it on.
Slow footsteps began, right above her head.
She held her breath.
The sound of that confident male chuckle was all too familiar. The skin on her neck prickled. She could picture her boss, Beau Lequire, with his perfectly gelled hair and an entitled sneer on his face.
Damn it, she had to get out of there. Preserve the information contained in her brain about the Fallen Comrades veterans charity. She had become an invaluable asset … or target. Mateo had drilled it into her: Do not let them capture you.
He’d helped her become strong enough to escape, so Kiera had no choice but to try and help Mateo in return.
The phone beeped, the shrill noise slicing through the damp air, until she muffled the device under her arm. Squinting against the bright phone light, she punched in numbers.
“911. Do you need police, fire, or ambulance?” the dispatcher said, voice static-y, thanks to poor reception underground.
Kiera whispered, “Ambulance? Police?”
“Yes. Hurry.” She relayed the address and turned the phone off, cutting the person off mid-sentence and dropping the phone on the floor. One less way for someone to track her.
She looked up.
Blinking back tears, she swallowed a lump in her throat and rolled her shoulders.
Ingrained training kicked in. Licking her dry lips, she stood up and used the flashlight to illuminate the earthen walls. There, in front of her, she spied a small, round metal door.
Kiera slung the backpack on her shoulder. Time to go. Per the sequence she’d memorized, she punched in a combination on the keypad. A bolt slid back, producing a noise far too loud in the tiny, dark room.
Holding perfectly still, she listened, but could only detect the slow, deliberate footsteps coming through the ceiling above her.
Tap, tap, thud. Dull and sharp sounds, as Beau tread on and off the rug. Scuff-pivot. Repeat. The same pacing as when he dictated a letter. Heck, he probably wore the same shiny Louboutins. Only instead of outlining a memo, he was outlining her demise.
Easing the metal door open, she winced at the fine creak from the hinges.
Her heart pounded in her chest, and the baby reacted, wiggling all over the place. With the kicks, Kiera’s belly clenched up tight, and she breathed through the cramp.
Calm down, Little Bit. It’s going to be okay.
Too bad Kiera no longer believed her own words.
Backing into the small tunnel, she tugged the heavy door closed until the lock clicked. All outside sound ceased.
From a military vet’s sister to a fake executive secretary working undercover and now to a pregnant woman escaping through a crawlway, Kiera never thought her twenty-six years on this earth would lead to this moment. Silence deafened her spinning thoughts. A soft blap of sweat dropping on metal snapped her out of the stunned inertia.
Recalling Mateo’s instructions, she started the countdown timer on her watch. Two minutes to get out.
In the four-foot diameter corrugated metal tube, she couldn’t stand up, and kneeling hurt as the ridges dug into her knees and shins. Belly crawling wasn’t an option either. Obviously.
The walls pressed in on her.
No. Keep going.
He had made her practice this route over and over, as recently as a few weeks ago. She knew what to do. She could do it even while pregnant. She would do it.
She half duck-walked and half-crawled on hands and knees through the hundred-yard conduit. Hip and thigh muscles burned. Light bounced from the flashlight in her hand. The tight metal space amplified her harsh panting, and she had to stop several times to rest. She checked her watch. One minute.
Too slow. Go faster. No time.
Twenty-five yards ahead, the tunnel stopped. End of the line. Literally.
Behind her, a loud clank sounded. Like a hammer on solid metal.
The noise reverberated down the tube and conducted into her palms where they were pressed to the metal walls. Her ears rang. Sweat dripped off her forehead as she pushed her unbalanced frame to hurry.
An explosion rattled the tube around her, making her ears ring. She glanced back, then studied the pipe. How close was that explosion? Would the door behind her hold?
Her calves cramped as she lurched the last few steps to reach another small metal hatch. Jamming buttons on the pad, she hit Enter.
A red light blinked.
Her heart stopped. Wrong code. Not possible.
Then another bang, even louder, vibrating the metal tube beneath her feet. She shook her head to clear the ringing in her ears.
Concentrate. Blanking her roiling thoughts, she used her eidetic memory and mentally thumbed through the reams of images until she found the exact one with the door’s combination.
Tamping down panic so she could focus, she inhaled and exhaled, exactly as she had been taught.
She raised her hand, squeezed it into a fist, and extended a trembling finger and pressed the buttons in the exact sequence.
Green lights flashed.
She yanked open the door.
A wave of heat buffeted her as pieces of metal through the tunnel.
With a desperate heave, she shoved herself through the hatch, yanking it closed behind her. Shrapnel pinged against the solid metal.
Pain sliced through her left calf and lower back. She reached down to her throbbing leg. Warm and wet. The flashlight’s glow revealed dark blood on her hand.
Wincing as she probed another injury on the side of her back, she traced the still-burning path to what felt like an exit wound on the side of her abdomen. Oh, God. Her head swam. The baby?
Panting, she hit the button to relock the door. Whimpering as every movement shot searing pain through her leg and side, she slowly clambered up twenty rungs to reach the access at the top of the ladder.
Below her, bangs sounded on the door she had just exited.
She glanced at her blinking watch. Fifteen seconds.
She shoved the slab up and to the side. With a stifled yelp of pain, she heaved through the grass-covered opening and rolled on the ground. Loamy, dew-covered earth and fresh evening air smelled like heaven and freedom, cooling the achy, hot spots on her leg and flank.
After sliding the hatch back into place, she tossed her flashlight into the brush. This exit put her ten yards outside of a wooded area behind the house.
She winced when she staggered to her feet and checked her watch. It blinked zero.
A rumble under the ground threatened her balance. Far behind her, glass shattered. An ear-splitting howl came from the house. A roar and wave of heat hit Kiera in an inferno blast, knocking her onto her knees. She looked back, hand shoved against her mouth to keep from screaming. Flames exploded out in all directions from the house. White-orange light momentarily blinded her.
A cloud of acrid smoke choked her.
Oh, God. Mateo was still in the house somewhere. No one could have survived that blast.
Follow the plan, he’d said.
A metallic clunk and a bang transmitted through the ground to the soles of her feet. Someone was coming through the hatch and up the tunnel.
Turning her back on her house, her fabricated marriage, and the brave friend who had sacrificed his life to buy her time to escape, she took a big breath and fled.
Per the plan etched in her memory, she ran twenty yards into the trees and found the small creek that bisected the south section of the woods. Adrenaline amped her heart rate into the high triple digits, stiffening her back but making the muscles in her legs shake.
At least the partial moonlight provided some illumination. The creek rushed with the recent spring rains, and she limped upstream in the numbingly cold water another two hundred yards.
With a wounded leg and her off-balance frame, she stumbled often. Her palms and knees took most of the impacts—anything to avoid hitting her belly—but terror kept her fighting to get back up to her feet as Kiera pushed her bruised and chilled body to continue. Every jarring step spiked agony through her leg and back. No time to stop and assess the injuries.
Spying the fallen tree that indicated the next marker in the escape plan, Kiera crawled out of the creek bed, pushing past the pain. Another fifty yards through thick woods was like running through fiery sludge with her leg dragging on every step.
Finally, she reached a tall wooden fence. Just in time, too, judging by the bright lights bouncing through the trees. Smoky shadows sliced toward her. Crunches of leaves and sounds of male voices drifted to her location.
Sweat prickled on her chest. She couldn’t push her cold, injured body fast enough.
With numb fingers, she unlatched the gate and stepped through the opening. Maybe the people following her would continue up the creek. She could hope.
What looked like another upscale suburban home in this large-acreage residential area was yet another front. The sole purpose of this particular well-kept property: hide the getaway vehicle. It had seemed like so much trouble and expense when Mateo purchased it. Everything he had done for security had seemed like overkill with this so-called “low-risk” mission.
Until this moment.
Money had bought a fancy house and the means for an escape, but in this situation, money couldn’t make her fast enough.
After pulling the gate closed, she staggered through the backyard of the empty home. She glanced back over a shoulder. Flashlight beams from her pursuers shot through the tight wood slats like fingers of light, clawing for Kiera and her baby.
On the grass, her footsteps stood out: dark patterns breaking up the yard of dew-covered blades. Damn.
Yanking the back garage door open, she dashed through the garage and slid behind the wheel of a five-year-old, gray, nondescript, four-door sedan. Exactly the vehicle she needed so she could disappear.
After punching the garage door opener on the visor, Kiera turned the key and sagged with relief when the ignition caught on the first try. She glanced at the dash indicators: tank full, tire pressure normal. She might have teased Mateo for his rigid schedule, but his weekly maintenance was paying off.
Paying off for one of them. Her chest ached.
With a shaking hand, she drew the seatbelt on, then eased the vehicle out of the garage and toward the long circular driveway, moving at a slow, casual pace, not willing to draw attention from any neighbors.
The faces of a seething Beau Lequire and two other men filled her rearview mirror as the men raced through the back door of the garage, guns raised. Fifty feet away. They’d caught up to her, and then some.
She no longer cared about drawing attention.
Jamming the pedal down, she spun tires down the driveway and onto the street as a hail of gunfire battered the back of her car. Praying hard, she blinked and called up a mental picture of the area map to guide her to State Route 360 and then onto I-75.
Then she drove like demons chased the back bumper.
After an hour of twists, turns, and driving in the opposite direction as her destination, she pulled into a run-down and dark gas station on a deserted route three counties over and dropped her sweaty forehead onto her hands. She took slow, deep draw of air. The scent of smoke on her clothes clogged each breath. Her eyelids burned. Mateo. She clenched the steering wheel. No. Don’t lose control yet.
The night wasn’t over. She choked on a sob of pain, but managed to get out, hobble around the back of the cinder-block building, and retrieve the first cache, per Mateo’s instructions. Back in the car, she flipped on the dome light, memorized the new directions to the second cache, then pulled onto the highway and wound her way to the onramp for I-575 north.
Toward the mountains. Toward her ugly past. Toward Jake.
Would he help her? Mateo had promised Jake would be solid, but her mission partner didn’t know the history between Kiera and Jake, because she never thought she’d ever need to find him. Their past and painful history was just that – the past.
Last time she and Jake had truly spoken, was when she had asked him to keep her brother safe in combat. Little good that request had done. She swallowed down the bitter taste in her mouth.
If nothing else, that strained history made Jake the ideal first stop on her escape route. No one would ever expect her to visit him. According to Mateo, Jake had been terra incognito for the past year and a half. Jake hadn’t made contact with the underground group that had funded this mission. Hell, she didn’t even know the name of the organization that had supported her vendetta against Fallen Comrades. She had been happy to trade ignorance for the chance to avenge her brother. If she were captured, there was no way for her to accidentally out anyone. Besides, no one knew she was here.
Her vision dimmed at the edges. No one knew she was here.
If she got captured or hurt, no one would know. No one would come for her or the baby. Nausea churned, and she clamped her jaw tight.
Just drive. Get to help. For the baby. Keep going.
She groaned as she steered the vehicle and shifted in the seat. Injured skin throbbed on her side and leg.
Next step: find the second cache, which should provide more specific directions to Jake’s location.
God only knew.
Author, daydreamer, and practitioner of trying very hard to duct tape folks together and help when I can.
July 2023 June 2023 April 2023 December 2022 November 2022 September 2022 August 2022 June 2022 May 2022 February 2022 January 2021 November 2020 August 2020 July 2020 May 2020 January 2020 November 2019 September 2019 August 2019 July 2019 March 2019 November 2018 October 2018 September 2018 July 2018 June 2018 May 2018 April 2018 March 2018 January 2018 December 2017 November 2017 October 2017 September 2017 August 2017 July 2017 May 2017 April 2017 March 2017 February 2017 January 2017 December 2016 November 2016 October 2016 September 2016 August 2016 July 2016 June 2016 May 2016 April 2016 March 2016 February 2016 January 2016 December 2015 November 2015 October 2015 September 2015 August 2015 July 2015 June 2015 May 2015 April 2015 March 2015 February 2015 January 2015 December 2014 November 2014 October 2014 September 2014 August 2014 July 2014 June 2014
All Adventures With Hubby Airports Author Interviews Cats Fastdrafting Funny Medicine Hell's Valley Series Hell To Pay Series Medicine Potpourri Star Trek Top 10 Lists Writing Writing Vs Medicine