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Excerpt - The Soldier's Mission by Lenora Worth

Camy here: Because I know you're not yet tired of Christmas stories, make sure you get this before it's no longer on the shelves!

The Soldier's Mission
Lenora Worth

Counseling is more than Laura Walton's job—it's her calling. So when Luke Martinez hangs up abruptly after calling the hotline where she works, Laura won't let it go. She tracks Luke to the Grand Canyon, little knowing she's walking into a heap of trouble. Laura's not the only one tracking Luke, and while she came to help him heal, his other pursuer has murder in mind. Luke thinks he has nothing left to lose until Laura makes him believe—and love—again. Just in time, too, since he'll need all his faith to face this last enemy.

Excerpt of chapter one:

He'd had the dream again.

The stifling desert air burned hot, dirty and dry. The acrid smell of charred metal and scorched wires mixed with the metallic, sickly sweet smell of blood all around him. The sound of rapid-fire machine guns mingled with the screams of pain as, one by one, the men in his unit fell. He saw the horror of a landmine exploding against the jagged rocks of the craggy mountainside where they'd been penned down for forty-eight hours. One misstep and three of his men gone in a flash of searing fire and ear-shattering explosions. The others were taken out as the insurgents fought to the finish.

Then, the eerie sound of a deathly silence as the shooting stopped…and even after all of Luke's efforts to save his wounded men, the moans and cries for help eased away…until there was nothing left but scorched dust lifting out over the rocks.

He was the only man left standing. But he wasn't alone on that mountain. And he knew he'd be dead before dusk.

He'd jolted awake, gasping for air, a cold sweat covering his body, his hands shaking, grasping for his machine gun.

Luke "Paco" Martinez sat up and pushed at his damp hair then searched for the glowing green of the digital clock. 6:00 a.m. Old habits died hard. And a good night's sleep was always just beyond his reach.

Barefoot, his cotton pajama bottoms dragging on the cool linoleum of the tiny trailer's floor, Luke went straight to the coffeepot and hit the brew button. And while he waited for the coffee, he stared at the lone bottle of tequila sitting on the window seal.

Stared and remembered the dream, the nightmare, that wouldn't let him find any rest.

Looking away from the tempting bottle of amber liquid, he instead focused on the distant mountains. The desert and mountains here in Arizona were a contrast against the rocky, unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan. Even though this high desert country was harsh and brutal at times, he could find comfort in the tall prickly saguaros and occasional thickets of Joshua trees and pinon pines growing all around his home. Here, he could run toward the mesas and the mountains and find solace, his questioning prayers echoing inside his head while his feet pounded on the dirt, his mind going numb with each step, each beat of his racing heart. Why was I spared, Lord?

In the dream, Luke screamed his own rage as he moved headlong into the fray, his M4 carbine popping what seemed like a never-ending round on the insurgents hidden in the hills.

In the dream, he always woke up before they killed him.

And because he did wake up and because he was alive to relive that horrible day over and over, he stared at the liquor bottle while he drank his coffee and told himself he could get through this.

Focus on the mountains, Paco.

That's what his grandfather had told him the day he'd come here to wrestle his soul back from the brink. Focus on the mountains.

He was better now, six months after coming home to Arizona. He was getting better each and every day, in spite of the nightmares. He'd even gone on a few short-term missions for CHAIM, the secret organization he'd been a member of since before he'd joined the army.

He was better now. No more drunken binges, no more fights in restaurants and bars. Not as much pain. The army might not believe that, but his fellow CHAIM agents did, thankfully.

He'd be okay, Luke told himself. He just needed a little more time. And a lot more prayers.

So he drained his coffee and put on his running clothes and headed out into the early morning chill of the ever-changing desert, away from the little trailer that was his home now, away from the nightmares and the memories.

And away from that tempting bottle of golden relief.

She couldn't get his voice out of her head.

Laura Walton thought about the man she'd come to the desert to find. The man everyone was worried about. The man who, a few weeks ago, had called the CHAIM hotline in the middle of the night.

"My father died in Vietnam," the grainy, low voice said over the phone line. "My brother was wounded in Desert Storm. He's in a wheelchair now. And I just got back from Afghanistan. Lost my whole unit. Lost everyone. I think I need to talk to somebody."

Laura had been on call that night, volunteering to man the hotline that CHAIM held open for all of its operatives, the world over.

But only one call had come to the Phoenix hotline on that still fall night. One call from a man who was suffering a tremendous amount of survivor's guilt.

Laura understood this kind of guilt. She didn't have survivor's guilt, but her own guilt ate away at her just the same. She'd lost a patient recently. A young patient who'd taken his own life. She'd failed the teenager.

She didn't want to fail Luke Martinez.

The soldier's tormented words, spoken with such raw pain, had stayed with her long after the man had hung up.

Which he did, immediately after confessing that he needed to talk.

It hadn't been easy convincing her CHAIM supervisors in Phoenix to let her go through case files and match the man to the words, then come to this remote spot near the Grand Canyon to find Luke "Paco" Martinez. Nor had it been easy taking time away from the clinic where she worked as a counselor to Christians suffering all sorts of crises.

But this crisis trumped all the rest. This man needed help. Her help. And somehow, in her guilt-laden mind, Laura had decided this was a sign from God to redeem her. She had to find this man. So she'd traced his cell number to this area.

So here she sat in a dump of a roadside café called The Last Stop, hoping she'd find the illusive Paco Martinez, also known as "The Warrior". Fitting name, Laura thought now as she dared to take another sip of the too-dark, too-strong coffee the stoic old man at the counter had poured for her. While she relied on the tip she'd received about Luke coming here every morning for breakfast, Laura went back over his file.

The army neither confirmed nor denied it, but Luke Martinez was reported to be some sort of Special Forces soldier—a shadow warrior—as they were often called. And while the elite Delta Force didn't put a lot of emphasis on rank, preferring to use code names or nicknames instead of stating rank, from what she could glean Martinez was a hero who'd been the lone survivor of a highly secretive mission to rescue two American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan.

Everything about the mission had gone bad. Luke's team of men had been dropped by helicopter onto the mountain with orders to find the two soldiers and bring them home. After taking one outpost and locating the two badly beaten soldiers, Luke's team had made it back to the pickup spot to wait on a helicopter out. But the enemy had advanced behind them and taken out all of Luke's men, including the two his team has rescued. Things got fuzzy after that, but according to the rumors swirling around, The Warrior had managed not only to escape the men who tried to take him hostage, but he'd killed all of them in the process. And he refused to leave that mountain until the rescue team had recovered all of his men.

Except the one who'd seen all of them die. Luke Martinez had survived and for that, he was suffering mightily.

So he'd come home an unknown hero—that was the code of Special Forces—but Martinez didn't want to be a hero, didn't care that most would never know what he'd tried to do on that mountaintop. He was still in pain, still reeling from losing his team members. Deep inside, he was having a crisis. Post-traumatic stress over losing his men and for what he considered his failure—not bringing the stranded soldiers back safely.

That had caused a bout of serious drinking and many hours spent in jail cells and later with stress counselors and army specialists.

As well as CHAIM counselors such as Laura. His CHAIM team had stood by Luke, with one stipulation. He had to go to their remote retreat center in Ireland— Whelan Castle—for some serious debriefing and counseling sessions. And hopefully, to find some peace.

Luke had agreed. And he'd improved after his three months in Ireland. Then he'd come home to Arizona to rest. But he'd been called out on a mission in Texas to help Shane Warwick, known as The Knight, guard and protect prominent Texas socialite Katherine Atkins.

According to the official report, Luke had done a good job backing up Warwick and they'd brought down not only the woman who was trying to kill Katherine, but a ruthless oil-smuggling cartel to boot.

But this late night phone call had come after Luke had returned from Texas.

Which brought Laura back to the here-and-now. And this stand-on-its-own-legs coffee.

Laura motioned to the old man behind the counter, finding the courage to ask him the one question she'd come here to ask. "Excuse me, sir, do you know a man named Luke Martinez?"

The old man with the silver-black braid going down his back didn't respond to her question. Instead he just stared at her with such opaque eyes, Laura felt as if the man could see into her very soul. "Sir?"

Finally the man shuffled up to the counter, his tanned, aged skin reminding Laura of one of the craggy mountain faces beyond the desert. He wore a white cotton button-down shirt that hung like a tunic on his body, giving him the look of someone on their way to a fiesta.

Before she could ask the question again, he leaned forward, his frown as stand-up as the coffee. "Would you like some pie with that coffee?"

Surprised, Laura shook her head. "Ah, no thanks. I had a granola bar in the car. About the man I'm looking for—"

"Can't help you there," the old man replied, turning before Laura could finish the sentence.

But the old man didn't need to help her. The rickety screen door flapped open and she felt the hair on the back of her neck rising, felt his eyes on her even before she looked into the aged mirror running along the back wall and saw his reflection there. Completely paralyzed with confusion and doubt, she lowered her gaze then heard that distinctive voice without turning to face him.

"I'll take some pie, Grandfather." He advanced toward Laura. "And while you're getting my pie, I'll ask this pretty lady why she's trying so hard to find me."

Luke stood perfectly still, his senses on edge while he analyzed the woman sitting at the counter. Her brown hair fell around her face and shoulders in soft waves. She wore a sensible beige lightweight sweater, a faded pair of jeans and hiking boots. Interesting. He could smell her perfume, a mixture of sweet flowers and vanilla. Nice.

Then she turned to face him and Luke's gaze caught hers, the deep blue of her eyes reminding him of a mountain sky just before dusk. The look in those eyes amused him even while it destroyed him. She was afraid of him. And she probably had good reason.

"Mr. Martinez?"

Her voice was soft but firm. She quickly recovered from her first glimpse, Luke noted. She got points for that, at least. Most people just ran the other way when he scowled at them.

"Paco," he replied. "That's what everyone around here calls me."

She reached out a dainty hand, her nails clean and painted with a clear sparkle of polish, her fingers devoid of rings. "I'm Laura Walton."

Luke took her hand for a second then let it go, her perfume warming his fingers. "Okay. You already know me and now I know your name. Why are you here?"

She leaned in then glanced around the nearly empty diner. "I'm… from CHAIM."

He liked the way she pronounced it—"Chi-Im", with the CH sounding more like a K using the Hebrew enunciation. He did not like that she was here.

Luke pushed a hand through his hair and sat down beside her, the weight of his body causing the old spinning stool to squeak and groan. "Coffee, Grandfather, please. And two pieces of buttermilk pie."

"I don't want pie."

Luke didn't argue with her. "Make that one piece and two forks, Grandfather." He waited for his pretending-not-to-be-interested grandfather to bring the requested food. Then he shoved one fork at her and took his own to attack the creamy yellow-crusted pie. "Eat."

She looked down at the plate then picked up the fork. "I don't eat sweets."

"Try it."

Luke took his time eating his own side of the pie. Then he sipped the dark brew, his gaze hitting at hers in the old, pot-marked mirror running behind the cluttered counter. "Now, why are you here?"

She chewed a nibble of pie then swallowed, her eyes opening big while she slanted a gaze toward him. "One of your friends was concerned."

"I don't have a lot of friends."

"The Knight," she said on a low whisper.

"Just saw him a few weeks ago."

"I know. He wanted to make sure you were okay."

Luke knew she wasn't telling him the whole story. He'd talked to Shane Warwick two days ago. The man was crazy in love and making big plans for his upcoming Texas spring wedding. Shane was going to repeat the vows he'd spoken in England—to the same woman he'd married in England. He'd called Luke to invite him to the wedding but Shane had asked Luke how he was doing. Polite conversation or pointed inquiry?

"Who are you?" he asked, this time all the smile gone out of the question. "And don't lie to me, lady."

Laura swallowed down more coffee, hoping it would give her more courage. "I told you, I'm from CHAIM."

"Who really sent you?"

Laura couldn't hide the truth. "I…I came on my own. I mean, I got clearance to come but I asked to come and see you."

His smile was so quick and full of stealth, she almost missed it. But if he ever did really smile, Laura believed it would do her in for good. The man was an interesting paradox of good-looking coupled with dangerous and scary. His dark hair, longer than army regulations allowed since he was usually undercover, sliced in damp inky lines across his scarred face and around his muscled neck. His eyes were onyx, dark and rich and unreadable. His skin was as aged and marked as tanned leather. It rippled over hard muscle and solid strength each time he moved. He wore a black T-shirt and soft-washed jeans over battered boots. And he smelled fresh and clean, as if he'd just stepped out of a secret waterfall somewhere.

His gaze cut from her to the mirror, watching, always watching the door of the diner.

"Why did you feel you had to come and see me?"

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