Authors: Gennita Low
Liam dodged behind a metal container and watched as Ella slid under a parked vehicle to avoid falling debris. That woman was going to give him a heart attack.
“I’ve informed Hawk’s men. They’re right here behind my M-ATV,” Cookie’s voice interrupted.
“Good job, Charlie.”
“Almost running out of ammo, though,” Cookie said.
“You keep low,” warned Liam. “I’ll be there soon to help you out.”
Cookie couldn’t run fast and Liam knew he wouldn’t just leave the other SEALs by driving off, even for his own good, since his vehicle was their shield right now. The rounds of gunfire were deafening as they drew nearer to where most of the fighting was concentrated. They hadn’t carried in much ammo and with the unexpected high number of hostiles, they would all be running out soon. Grenades at close quarters were not an option, but these assholes were known to just blow themselves up, so Liam wanted this to end quickly, before that possibility came up.
As soon as the thought left his head, a man peered around the breezeway across from them and started shooting at the
fighters. Another lobbed a familiar object at them.
Oh, shit, here it comes.
It landed right next to the vehicle where Ella was.
Four seconds. That was the textbook explanation of how a grenade worked and how long it took to explode upon impact.
Four fucking seconds. He couldn’t run up there in four seconds.
He saw Ella crawling out.
He saw men diving left and right.
There was no time. She couldn’t fucking outrun a grenade. He stretched out a hand at her, as if it could cover that distance to pull her back to him.
Then, in a split second, he saw one man calmly snatch Ella’s Kevlar helmet off her head, place it over the grenade and dropped his body on top of it.
“Nooooooooooo!” Ella screamed.
The muffled explosion rocked the man’s body. The vehicle nearby shook and rattled.
Four seconds, and Liam felt every second of it.
* * *
Ella choked on the name of one of the commanders who had trained the recruits. He was a big, hulking man, with a big belly laugh. She had liked interviewing him.
His body lay still on top of her helmet. Blood began pooling under it. She let out another choked sob. Horror filled her. She didn’t have to check to know he was dead. No one could survive that. She hadn’t known the man for long, yet he hadn’t hesitated to save her life and those around him.
Everything was happening so quickly. The imploded explosion and aftermath took less than ten seconds and already, the fighting around her was resuming.
Rage filled Ella’s whole being. She wouldn’t allow Calak’s death to be meaningless. She shifted her weapon upwards, aiming toward the upper breezeway where the man who had lobbed the grenade had appeared. She could see him, his weapon aloft, hanging out the window, perhaps getting ready to do more damage.
Ella shifted her stance, taking aim. She had never killed a man before.
* * *
iam registered all the reaction and yet, none. His entire focus was on the lone woman staring down at the dead fighter’s body at her feet. A stream of curses around him. Grunts from men fighting hand-to-hand. Dead bodies. Blood. Debris. Maybe even body parts. He didn’t care. Didn’t stop to look. All he cared about was Ella Fitzgerald looking shocked and bewildered, rooted to the same spot.
Move, baby, move!
A few seconds of pause was deadly out in the arena. Any enemy could pick off a target standing still.
As if Ella heard his urgent plea, she jumped on the back of the truck. Liam was close enough to catch the fire in her eyes before she turned from him. She shifted position and realization dawned as he reached the vehicle. She was looking up and aiming at a target above.
He opened his mouth, tried to stop her. Too late. The shot rang out and he lifted his head and watched as a body toppled down from to the ground. Like Zainab had said earlier, Ella was an excellent shot.
He climbed up onto the vehicle. She stood frozen in the same position. He pulled the weapon out of her stiff hands gathering her into his arms, jumped off the truck bed and started running. He sped down the length of one wall, dodging fighters. Near an archway, a familiar face spotted him and waved him through, firing at some target behind him.
He jumped over a body and stumbled. Ella who had been quiet in his arms came to life.
“Let me down,” she said. Her voice was soft, wooden.
“Is she all right?” The SEAL protecting them asked. He was a big man, the tallest SEAL Liam had ever met.
“She’ll be okay,” Liam answered. “Who’s here with you, Cucumber?”
The man kept firing his weapon as he replied calmly, “Me, Mink, Dirk and Jazz.”
“That explains the nice hole in the wall.” Jazz was an explosives artist. He could detonate anything without destroying anything but the target. “Good to know the Stooges and he are here.”
“Should be over soon. Your freed prisoners are slowly but surely surrounding the hostiles. Take a breather, man. The lady looks like she needs it. I got you two covered. Mink is helping the brother in the M-ATV.”
“Thanks, man.” Liam slowly put his bundle down. There was just enough light that he could see the shimmer in her blue eyes. “Hey, don’t cry.”
“I’m o...kay,” She bent over and gagged. She put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, my God, I killed a man.”
Liam understood. He’d tried to stop her but failed. Automatically shooting at someone, even during a fire fight, wasn’t something that came easily for anyone, much less a person who had only a couple months’ training. The first kill stayed with you forever. And Ella had done it with deliberate choice, like a sniper. She didn’t have the mental training of one and it worried him how the experience would affect her. But this wasn’t the time to deal with this and he knew it.
“Look at me,” he ordered. “Straighten up and look at me.”
She slowly did so. Her mouth trembled slightly.
“You did good,” he told her.
He shook his head. “You did exactly what a good soldier does in a unit. Just as Calak had done for his team. If you hadn’t done so, the hostile would have thrown another grenade. So, you did what a good shooter would. Do you hear me, Fitz?”
“Yes.” She swallowed again. Closed her eyes for a second. When she reopened them, her expression was calmer. She took a deep ragged breath, then asked, “Did you just call that big guy Cucumber?”
* * *
n hour and a half later, Ella looked around her. They were in one of the mess halls where there were enough chairs and tables to accommodate them all. The “hostiles,” as the SEALs called them, had been secured and put onto the arriving helicopters to be taken to another base. The injured were either being attended to by medics or being readied to be transported. The border fort was mostly in ruins and had to be repaired. Liam had told her the Iraqis were sending in laborers, and American engineers would be arriving in a few days to assess the damage.
But none of that mattered right now. Everyone who had been in the battle was here and that was what counted. They had just finished prayers for the dead, including the Canadians, and everyone was still in a solemn mood.
Then, Wolf, her
commander, Noor, and the SEAL in charge of Liam’s friends, Jazz, went up to the front and stood together. They waited until the room quieted down.
“Everyone must be accounted for,” Lieutenant Noor said. “We have to be vigilant of traitors in our recruits from now on.
, we’re safe, thanks to these men.”
Wolf leaned forward. “We wouldn’t be here without Miss Fitzgerald’s and Miss Zainab’s actions. Thanks to them, we’re all here now. Thank you, Ella and Zainab.”
Everyone turned and voiced their appreciation. The women nearby came over and gave her a hug. She hugged them back fiercely.
Then Jazz said, “Mission accomplished. At ease.”
A cheer rose and there was much rattling and thumping of tables and chairs. It was a good way to release some of the aggression they all still felt. Ella exchanged more hugs and handshakes. Lieutenant Noor came over.
“Any time you want to really join the
, you’ll be welcomed,” she told her. “You’ve been an exceptional recruit. From now on, you’re an honorary member of our team. We’ll take you into battle any time you want.”
Ella smiled. The praise felt good because she had really put 100 percent in her training. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m honored.”
“A hell of a good shot,” Jazz said.
“You should have seen her climb the wall,” Mozart chimed in. “Like a regular monkey.”
“Oh, we saw her,” the big SEAL she’d met earlier said. “We were waiting for your signal and watching with the night scope.”
“We haven’t been introduced,” Ella said. “I’m Ella Fitzgerald. Do you have a name besides Cucumber?”
The big guy grinned. “Lucas, but you can call me Cumber for short. This is Mink and Dirk. And you’ve met our commander, Jazz.”
The journalist in her started buzzing questions in her head. “How did you get your nickname? And I heard Liam called the three of you The Stooges. Is there a reason?”
“Guys, be careful what you say in front of her. Not only is she a journalist, but she’ll psychoanalyze the shit out of you, including your names,” Liam said.
“Hey!” Ella poked him in the arm. “That’s not true. I was just interested in how everyone got theirs because I don’t have a nickname.”
“Oh, but you do have one,” Abe said.
Ella frowned. “I do? What?”
“Legs!” Abe, Wolf, Cookie and Mozart said in unison, and then all four snickered.
“Why would you call me that?” She looked at them, puzzled.
“Ask him. He’s the one who called you that first. Several times.” Wolf pointed at Liam.
She glanced at Liam. He was leaning against a shelf, lazily perusing her, a drink in his hand. He was scruffy and looked like he’d been rolling in mud all day. And she still wanted to jump his bones.
“I could call you Bounce,” he offered.
“Oh, bet I could psychoanalyze that,” Cookie said, with a chuckle.
“Don’t or I’ll hurt you,” Ella warned.
“You better watch it, Cookie,” the SEAL named Mink said. Liam had told her he was a medic and she’d seen him working on Cookie. “She might shoot you in your other cheek. One painful ass is enough and I sure don’t want to look at your ass twice in one night.”
There was much bantering about Cookie’s injury after that, for which Ella was grateful. These SEALs were unmerciful with their teasing and she didn’t want the ‘Bounce’ nickname to stick.
Liam’s hand curled around hers. “You okay?”
She nodded. “I don’t know about tomorrow, but right now, yes.” It was going to take some time to get over her actions today. She pulled him away slightly and told him quietly, “I don’t want to be alone tonight.”
He looked into her eyes for a long moment, then said, “We’ll be on the next chopper out of here. I’ll get Sean to book us a suite.”
* * *
iam shook hands with the SEAL team he’d been part of. He liked all the men and knew they would keep in touch. Wolf slapped him on the back.
“Come visit if you get back to the States,” he urged.
“Will do,” Liam said. “Maybe we can meet on Hawk’s island where there’s no possibility of being shot at.”
Hawk had a private piece of property that Liam had visited now and then. It was the perfect place for down time from everything. Come to think of it, it was the perfect place to get to know a woman better.
“That son-of-a-bitch owns a fucking island?” Wolf’s eyes narrowed. “What did he do, win the lottery?”
Liam laughed. “Nah. He inherited it from one of his grandfathers.”
“Let me guess. Grandpa Steve,” Abe said, dryly.
Jazz, standing nearby, chuckled. “So you all know about the Steves.”
Jazz was Hawk’s best friend and had spent a lot of time with the McMillans, so Liam knew him well. Being Cajun and from a family of mostly women, he’d once told Liam it amused him to be with a macho Irish family like the McMillans because they knew nothing about women. Which was so not true. Hawk, Liam always pointed out, had only to wag his finger and women would appear. Jazz always just gave him one of his odd half-smiles and shook his head.
“Not all the Steves, God, no. There are too many of them running around, including Liam here. At least most of them have an alternate name so we could tell which one we’re talking to. One day, we’ll have a navy song about all the Steve McMillans who were sailors,” Wolf said.
“I’ll be sure to tell Hawk what you suggested,” Jazz said.
“Yeah, and thank him for sending you guys to help us out. My team will do the same for yours some day.”
They snapped a salute to each other.
“Where’s Legs?” Cookie asked.
“She’s saying goodbye to Zainab and the other recruits,” Liam said, looking in the direction where a crowd of women had gathered. “She’ll be here to say goodbye, I’m sure.”
“You’ll take care of her, right?” Abe asked. “You know what it’s like.”
Liam nodded. Abe was talking about a soldier’s first kill. The men were worried about Ella and how she was handling it.
“Yes. I’ll take care of her,” Liam replied. In more ways than one. In fact, he planned to take care of that woman in so many ways, she’d only have time to call out his name. Over and over.
“She’s tougher than you think,” Wolf said. “I have a good feeling about you two. Here she comes.”
Liam turned and watched as Ella approached, hair tumbling untidily, her top with missing buttons. Her graceful strides had his full attention. Yeah, those legs were going to feel good wrapped around his waist.
“I hope you’re right, Wolf,” he said, softly. For the first time in a while, he didn’t feel empty inside.
iam turned on the shower. Hot water. Life was good.
It was also good to have top-notch connections. Hawk had somehow gotten them a direct military flight out of the country to Paris, France, which was where Sean wanted to meet Ella. He suspected the location had something to do with the Big Four, the
leaders for whom the hostiles were looking. Certainly, something was going down.