It’s hard to believe that Reza & Emily’s book is only about three weeks away! I’m so so excited for you to read this one. It was a tough book to write but I love it in so many ways.
Here’s a sneak peak at the Prologue & Chapter 1 of ALL FOR YOU.
Preorder your copy today!
Camp Taji, Iraq
Sergeant First Class Reza Iaconelli had seen better days. He closed his eyes, wishing he was anywhere but curled up on the latrine floor in the middle of some dirty, shitty desert. The cold linoleum caressed his cheek, soothing the sensation of a billion spiders creeping over his skin. He had to get up, to get back to his platoon before someone came looking for him. Running patrols through the middle of Sadr City was so much better than being balled up on the bathroom floor, puking his guts out.
He’d sacrificed his dignity at the altar of the porcelain god two days ago when they’d arrived in northern Baghdad. It was going to be a rough deployment; that was for damn sure. Dear Lord, he’d give anything for a drink. Anything to stop the madness of detox. Why the fuck was he doing this to himself? Why did he pick up that godforsaken bottle every single time he made it home from this goddamned war?
The walls of the latrine echoed as someone pounded on the door. It felt like a mallet on the inside of a kettle drum inside his skull. “Sarn’t Ike!”
Reza groaned and pushed up to his hands and knees. He couldn’t let Foster see him like this. Couldn’t let any of his guys see him like this. “You about ready? The patrol is gearing up to roll.”
Holy hell. He dry heaved again, unable to breathe until the sensation of ripping his guts out through his throat passed.
After a moment, he pushed himself upright and rinsed out his mouth. He’d definitely seen better days.
He wet his brown-black hair down and tucked the grey Army combat t-shirt into his uniform pants. Satisfied that no one would know he’d just been reduced to a quivering ball of misery a few moments before, he headed out to formation, a five- to seven-hour patrol through the shit hole known as Sadr City in his immediate future.
He was a goddamned sergeant first class and he had troops rolling into combat. They counted on him to do more than show up. They counted on him to lead them. Every single day.
Maybe by the time he reached thirty days in-country, he’d stop heaving his guts up every morning. But sick or not, he was going out on patrol with his boys.
The best he could hope for was that he wouldn’t puke in the tank.
Fort Hood, Texas
“Where the hell is Wisniak?” Reza hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and glared at Foster.
Sergeant Dean Foster rolled his eyes and spat into the dirt, unfazed by Reza’s glare. Foster had the lean, wiry body of a runner and the weathered lines of an infantryman carved into his face, though at twenty-five he was still a puppy. To Reza, he’d always be that skinny private who’d had his cherry popped on that first run up to Baghdad. “Sarn’t Ike, I already told you. I tried calling him this morning but he’s not answering. His phone is going straight to voicemail.”
Reza sighed and rocked back on his heels, trying to rein in his temper. They’d managed to be home from the war for more than a year and somehow, soldiers like Wisniak were taking up the bulk of Reza’s time. “Have you checked the R&R Center?”
“Nope. But I bet you’re right.” Foster pulled out his phone before Reza finished his sentence and started walking a short distance away to make the call.
“I know I am. He’s been twitchy all week,” he mumbled, more to himself than to Foster. Reza glanced at his watch. The commander was going to have kittens if Reza didn’t have his personnel report turned in soon, because herding cats was all noncommissioned officers were good for in the eyes of Captain James T. Marshall the Third, resident pain in Reza’s ass.
Foster turned away, holding up a finger as he started arguing with whoever just answered the phone. Reza swore quietly, then again when the company commander started walking toward him from the opposite end of the formation. Reza straightened and saluted.
It was mostly sincere.
“Sarn’t Iaconelli, do you have accountability of your troops?”
“Sir, one hundred and thirty assigned, one hundred and twenty-four present. Three on appointment, one failure to report, and one at the R&R center. One in rehab.”
“When is that shitbird Sloban going to get out of rehab?” Captain Marshall glanced down at his notepad.
“Sloban isn’t a shitbird,” Reza said quietly, daring Marshall to argue. “Sir.”
Marshall looked like he wanted to slap Reza but as was normally the way with cowards and blowhards, he simply snapped his mouth shut. “Who’s gone to the funny farm today?”
The Rest and Resiliency Center was supposed to be a place that helped combat veterans heal from the mental wounds of war. Instead, it had become the new generation’s stress card, a place to go when their sergeant was making them work too hard. Guys like Wisniak who had never deployed but who for some reason couldn’t manage to wipe their own asses without someone holding their hands abused the system, taking up valuable resources from the warriors who needed it. But to say that out loud would mean agreeing with Captain Marshall. Reza would drop dead before that ever happened.
Luckily Captain Ben Teague approached, saving Reza the need to punch the commander in the face. The sergeant major would not be happy with him if that happened. Reza was already on thin ice as it was and there was no reason to give the sergeant major an extra excuse to dig into his fourth point of contact.
He was doing just fine. One day at a time, and all that.
Too bad guys like Marshall tested his willpower on a daily basis.
“So you don’t have accountability of the entire company?” Marshall asked. Behind him Teague made a crude motion with his hand.
Reza rubbed his hand over his mouth, smothering a grin. “Sir, I know where everyone is. I’m heading to the R&R Center after formation to verify that Wisniak is there and see about getting a status update from the docs.”
Marshall sighed heavily and the sound was laced with blame, as though Wisniak being at the R&R Center was Reza’s personal failing. Behind him Teague mimed riding a horse and slapping it. Reza coughed into his hand as Marshall turned an alarming shade of puce. “I’m getting tired of someone always being unaccounted for, Sergeant.”
“That makes two of us.” Reza breathed deeply. “Sir.”
“What are you planning on doing about it?”
He raised both eyebrows, his temper lashing at its frayed restraints. His mouth would be the death of him someday. That or his temper.
Right then, he didn’t really care.
He started ticking off items on his fingers. “Well, sir, since you asked, first, I’m going to stop by the shoppette for coffee, then take a ride around post to break in my new truck. I’ll probably stop out at Engineer Lake and smoke a cigar and consider whether or not to come back to work at all. Around noon, I’m going to swing into the R&R Center to make sure that Wisniak actually showed up and was seen. Then I’ll spend the rest of the day hunting said sorry excuse for—”
“That’s enough, sergeant,” Marshall snapped and Teague mimed him behind his back. “I don’t appreciate your insubordinate attitude. Accountability is the most important thing we do.”
“I thought kicking in doors and killing bad guys was the most important thing we did?” Reza asked, doing his damnedest not to smirk. Damn but the man tried his patience and made him want to crack open a cold one and kick his boots up on his desk.
Except that he’d given up drinking. Again. And this time, it had to stick. At least, it had to if he wanted to take his boys downrange again.
The sergeant major had left him no wiggle room. No more drinking. Period.
“Sir, I got it. I’ll head to the R&R Center right after formation. I’ll text you…” He glanced at Foster, who gave him a thumbs-up. Whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Wisniak was at the R&R Center, Reza supposed?
“You’ll call. I don’t know when texting became the army’s preferred technique for communications between seniors and subordinates. I don’t text.”
Reza saluted sharply. It was effectively a fuck off but Marshall was either too stupid or too arrogant to grasp the difference. “Roger, sir.”
“Ben,” Marshall mumbled.
“Jimmy.” Which earned him a snarl from Marshall as he stalked off. Teague grinned. “He hates being called Jimmy.”
“Which is why you’ve called him that every day since Infantry Officer Basic Course?”
“Of course,” Teague said solemnly. “It is my sacred duty to screw with him whenever I can. He was potty trained at gunpoint.”
“Considering he’s a fifth generation army officer, probably,” Reza mumbled. Foster walked back up, shaking his head and mumbling creative profanity beneath his breath. “They won’t even tell you if Wisniak has checked in?”
“I practically gave the lady on the phone a hand job to get her to tell me anything and she pretty much told me to kiss her ass. Damn HIPAA laws. How is it protecting the patient’s privacy when all I’m asking is if the jackass is there or not?”
Reza sighed. “I’ll go find out if he’s there. I need you to make sure the weapons training is good to go.” Still swearing, Foster nodded and limped off. Too bad Foster wasn’t a better ass kisser; he’d have already made staff sergeant.
But Marshall didn’t like him and had denied his promotion for the last three months because Foster was nursing a bum leg. Granted, he’d jammed it up playing sports, but the commander was being a total prick about it. It would have been better if Foster had been shot.
“Damn civilians,” Reza mumbled, glancing at Teague. “I get that the docs are only supposed to talk to commanders but they make my life so damn difficult sometimes.”
“They talk to you,” Teague said, pushing his sunglasses up on his nose and shoving his hands into his pockets.
“That’s because they’re afraid of me. I look like every stereotype jihadi they can think of. All I have to do is say drka drka Mohammed jihad and I get whatever I want out of them.”
“A Team America: World Police reference at six-fifteen a.m.? My day is complete.” Teague laughed. “That’s so fucking wrong. Just because you’re brown?”
Reza shrugged. Growing up with a name like Reza Iaconelli had taught him how to fight. Young. With more than just the asshole kids on the street. He’d learned the hard way that little kids needed a whole lot more than attitude when standing up to a grown man.
“What can I say? No one knows what to think of the brown guy. Half the time, people think I’m Mexican.” He started to walk off, still irritated by Marshall and the unrelenting douche baggery of the officer corps today. They cared more about stats than soldiers. It was total bullshit. The war wasn’t even over yet and it was already all the way back to the garrison army bullshit that had gotten their asses handed to them from 2003 on.
“Where are you heading?” Teague asked.
“R&R. Need to check up on the resident crazy kid and make sure he’s not going to off himself.” He palmed his keys from his front pocket. Reza slammed the door of his truck and took a sip of his coffee, wishing it had a hell of a lot more in it than straight caffeine.
He ground his teeth. Things would have been different for Sloban if they’d gotten things right. If he’d gotten sober sooner. But no. He’d dropped the ball and Slo had paid the price.
He’d rather have his balls crushed with a ball peen hammer than deal with the R&R Center. He hated the psych docs. They were worse than the bleeding heart officers he seemed to find himself surrounded with these days. Just how he wanted to start off his seventy-fourth day sober: arguing with the shrinks.
“I don’t really think you understand the gravity of the situation, Captain.”
Captain Emily Lindberg bristled at the use of her rank. The fact that a fellow captain used it to intimidate her only irritated her further.
Add in that he was standing in front of—no, he was leaning over—her desk trying to back up his words with a little threat of physical intimidation and Emily’s temper snapped. Captain Jenkowski was built like a snake—tall and solid and mean—and he was clearly used to bullying his way through docs to get what he wanted.
Well not today.
She inhaled a calming breath through her nose and spoke softly, deliberately attempting to keep her composure. “I’m sorry, Captain, but I’m afraid you’re the one who doesn’t understand. Your soldier has experienced significant trauma since joining the military and his recurrent nightmares, excessive use of alcohol to self-medicate, and inability to effectively manage his stress are all indicators of serious psychological illness. He needs your compassion, not your wrath.”
“Specialist Hendersen needs my size ten boot in his ass. He sat on the damned base last deployment and we only got mortared a few times. He’s a candy pants wuss who has a serious case of I do what I want-itis and now he’s come crying to you, expecting you to bail his sorry ass out of a drug charge.” Emily could practically see smoke coming out of the big captain’s ears.
Once upon a time she would have flinched away from his anger and done anything to placate him. It was abusive jerks like this who thought the army was all about their ability to accomplish their mission. The mouth breather in front of her didn’t care about his soldiers.
It was up to folks like Emily to hold the line and keep the army from ruining yet another life. There had already been more than fifty suicides in the army this year and it was only April. “What Hendersen needs, Captain Jenkowski, is a break from you pressuring him to perform day in and day out. My duty-limiting profile is not going to change. He gets eight hours of sleep a night to give the Ambien a chance to work. And if you don’t like it, file a complaint with my boss. He’s the officer in charge of the hospital.”
“You fucking bitch,” he said. His voice was low and threatening. “I’m trying to throw this little motherfucker out of the army for smoking spice and you’re making sure that we’re stuck babysitting his sorry ass. Way to take care of the real soldiers who have to waste their time on this little weasel instead of training.”
The door slammed behind him with a bang and Emily sank into her chair. It wasn’t even nine a.m and she’d already had her first go round with a commander. Good times.
A quick rap on her door pulled her out of her momentary shock. “You okay?”
She looked into the face of her first friend here at Fort Hood, Major Olivia Hale. “Yeah, sure. I just…”
“You get used to it after a while, you know,” Olivia said, brushing her bangs out of her eyes.
“The rampant hostility or the incessant chest beating?” Emily tried to keep the frustration out of her voice and failed.
Emily smiled grimly. “Well that’s helpful.”
Moments like this made her seriously reconsider her life in the army. Of course, her parents would be more than happy for her to take the rank off her chest and return home to their Cape Cod family practice. The last thing she wanted to do was run home to a therapy session in waiting. Who wanted to work for parents who ran a business together but had gotten divorced fifteen years ago? At least here she was making a difference, instead of listening to spoiled rich kids complain about how hard their lives were or beg her for a prescription for Adderall so they could stay up for two days and prepare for their next exam.
Here she could make a difference. Do something that mattered.
Her family wouldn’t understand.
Then again, they never had.
“Can I just say that I never imagined that I’d be going toe-to-toe with men who had egos the size of pro football linebackers? Where does the army find these guys?”
“Some of them aren’t raging asshats,” Olivia said. “There are a lot of commanders who actually care about their soldiers.”
An Outlook reminder chimed, notifying her that she had two minutes. Emily frowned then clicked it off. “It must be something special about this office then that attracts all the ones who don’t care.”
She’d recently moved to Fort Hood because it was the place deemed most in need of psychiatric services. They had the unit with the highest active-duty suicide rate in the army. She was trying her damnedest to make a difference but the tidal wave of soldiers needing care was relentless.
Add in her administrative duties on mental health evaluations and sometimes, she didn’t know which day of the week it was.
“Does it ever end?” she whispered, suddenly feeling overwhelmed at the stack of files on her desk. Each one represented a person. A soldier. A life under pressure.
Lives she did everything she could to save.
Olivia shrugged. “Not really.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got a nine o’clock legal brief with the boss. You okay?”
She offered a weak smile. “Yeah. Have to be, right?”
Olivia didn’t look convinced but didn’t have time to dig in further. In the brief moment she had alone, Emily covered her face with her hands.
Every single day, Emily’s faith in the system she’d wanted to help weakened. When officers like Jenkowski were threatening kids who just needed to take a break and pull themselves together to find some way of dealing with the trauma in their lives, it crushed part of her spirit. She’d never imagined that confrontation would be a daily part of her life as an army doc. She’d signed up to help people. She wasn’t a commander, not a leader of soldiers. She was here to provide medical services. She’d barely stepped outside her office so all she knew was the inside of the clinic’s walls.
She’d had no idea how much of a fight she’d have on a daily basis. Three months in and she was still shocked. Every single day brought something new.
She wasn’t used to it. She doubted she would ever get used to it. It drained her.
But every day she got up and put on her boots to do it all over again.
She was here to make a difference.
A sharp knock on her door had her looking up. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the single most beautiful man she’d ever seen. His skin was deep bronze, his features carved perfection. There was a harshness around the edge of his wide full mouth that could have been from laughing too much or yelling too often. Maybe both.
And his shoulders filled the doorway. Dear Lord, men actually came put together like this? She’d never met a man who embodied the fantasy man in uniform like this one. The real military man was just as likely to be a pimply-faced nineteen-year-old as he was to be this…this warrior god.
A god who looked ready for battle. It took Emily all of six-tenths of a second to realize that this man was not here for her phone number or to strip her naked and have his way with her. Well, he might want to have his way with her but she imagined it was in a strictly professional way. Not a hot and sweaty way, the thought of which made her insides clench and tighten.
She stood. This man looked like he was itching for a fight and darn it, if that’s what he wanted, then Emily would give it to him.
It was just another day at the office, after all.
“Can I help you, Sergeant?”
Reza glanced at the little captain, who looked braced for battle. She was cute in a Reese Witherspoon kind of way, complete with dimples and except for her rich dark hair and silver blue eyes. If Reza hadn’t been nursing one hell of a bad attitude and a serious case of the ass, he would’ve considered flirting with her.
Except that the sergeant major’s warning of don’t fuck up beat a cadence in his brain, so he wouldn’t be flirting anytime soon. Besides, something about the stubborn set of her jaw warned him that she wasn’t someone to tangle with.
She didn’t look tough enough to crumble a cookie, and yet she’d squared off with him like she might just try to knock him down a peg or two. This ought to at least make the day interesting.
Reza straightened. She was the enemy for leaders like him, who were doing their damnedest to put bad troops out of the army. People like her ignored the warning signs from warriors like Sloban and let spineless cowards like Wisniak piss on her leg about how his mommy didn’t love him enough.
This wasn’t about Sloban. He couldn’t help him now and that fact burned on a fundamental level. He released a deep breath. Then sucked in another one. “I need to know if Sergeant Chuck Wisniak signed in to the clinic.”
“I’m sorry but unless you’re the first sergeant or the commander, I can’t tell you that.”
Reza breathed hard through his nose. “I’m the first sergeant.”
Her gaze flicked to the sergeant first class rank on his chest. He wasn’t wearing the rank of the first sergeant, so his insignia was missing the rocker and the diamond that distinguished first sergeants from the soldiers that they led.
Sergeants First Class were first sergeants all the time, though.
Her eyes narrowed. “Do you have orders?”
Reza’s gaze dropped to the pen in her hand and the rhythmic way she flicked the cap on and off. He swallowed, pulling his gaze away from the distracting sound, and struggled to hold on to his patience.
“First sergeants are not commanders. We don’t have assumption of command orders.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Ma’am, I just need to know if he’s here. Why is this such a big deal?”
“Because Sergeant Wisniak has told this clinic on multiple occasions that his chain of command is targeting him, looking for an excuse to take his rank.”
“Well, maybe if he was at work once in a while he wouldn’t feel so persecuted.”
The small captain lifted her chin. “Sergeant, do you have any idea what it feels like to be looked at like you’re suspect every time you walk into a room?”
Something cold slithered across Reza’s skin, sidling up to his heart and squeezing tightly. “Do you have any idea what it feels like to send soldiers back to combat knowing they lost training days chasing after a sissy-ass soldier who can’t get to work on time?”
A shadow flickered across her pretty face but then it was gone, replaced by steel. “My job is to keep soldiers from killing themselves.”
“And my job is to keep soldiers from dying in combat.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Silence hung between them, battle lines drawn.
“I’m not leaving here without a status on Sarn’t Wisniak,” Reza said.
Captain Lindberg folded her arms over her chest. A flicker in her eyes, nothing more, then she spoke. “Sergeant Wisniak is in triage.”
“I need to speak with him.”
Lindberg shook her head. “No. I’m not letting anyone see him until he’s stable. He’s probably going to be admitted to the fifth floor. He’s extremely high risk. And you’re part of his problem, Sergeant.”
Reza’s temper snapped, breaking free before he could lash it back. “Don’t put that on me, sweetheart. That trooper came in the army weak. I had nothing to do with his lack of a backbone.” Reza turned to go before he lost his military bearing and started swearing. She’d already elevated his blood pressure to need-a-drink levels and it wasn’t even nine a.m.
He could do this. He breathed deeply, running through creative profanity in his mind to keep the urge to drink at bay.
Her words stopped him at the door, slicing at his soul.
“How can you call yourself a leader? You’re supposed to care about all your soldiers,” she said, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.
He turned slowly. Studied her, standing straight and stiff and pissed. “How can I call myself a leader? Honey, until you’ve bled in combat, don’t talk to me about leadership. But go ahead. Keep protecting this shitbird and tie up all the counselors so that warriors who genuinely need help can’t get it. He doesn’t belong in the army.” He swept his gaze down her body deliberately. Trying to provoke her. Her face flushed as he met her eyes coldly. “Neither do you.”
Emily sucked in a sharp breath at Iaconelli’s verbal slap. In one sentence, he’d struck her at the heart of her deepest fear.
It took everything she had to keep her hands from trembling.
Her boss Colonel Zavisca appeared in the doorway, saving her from embarrassing herself.
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?”
Sergeant Iaconelli turned and nearly collided with the full-bird colonel, who looked remarkably like an older version of Johnny Cash.
Sergeant Iaconelli straightened and his fists bunched at his sides. “You don’t want me to answer that. Sir.”
“I don’t think I appreciate what you’re insinuating.”
“I don’t really give a flying fuck what you think I’m insinuating. Maybe if your doctors did their jobs instead of actively trying to make my life more difficult, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
“What brigade are you in, Sergeant?” her boss demanded.
She watched the exchange, her breath locked in her throat. The big sergeant’s hands clenched by his sides. “None of your damn business.”
Colonel Zavisca might be a medical doctor but he was still the senior officer in charge of the hospital. Emily had never seen an enlisted man so flagrantly flout regulations.
“You can leave now, Sergeant. Don’t come back on this property without your commander.”
The big sergeant swore and stalked off.
Emily wondered if he’d obey the order. She suspected she already knew the answer.
Her boss turned to her. “Are you okay?” he asked. Colonel Zavisca’s voice was deep and calming, the perfect voice for a psych doctor. It was more than his voice, though. His entire demeanor was something soothing, a balm on ragged wounds.
His quiet power and authority stood in such stark contrast to Sergeant Iaconelli.
Men like Sergeant Iaconelli were energy and motion and hard angles. And he was rude. Colonel Zavisca was more like some of the men at her father’s country club except without the stench of sophisticated asshole. He was familiar.
“I’m fine, sir. Rough morning, that’s all.”
Emily stood for a long moment, Sergeant Iaconelli’s words still ringing in her ears. He had no idea how much his comment hurt. She didn’t know him from Adam but his words had found her weakness and stabbed it viciously.
In one single sentence, he’d shredded every hope she’d held on to since joining the army. She’d wanted to belong. To be part of something. To make a difference. He’d struck dead on without even knowing it. Her family had told her she’d never fit into the military. She fought the urge to sink into her chair and cover her face with her hands. She just needed a few minutes. She could do this.
The big sergeant didn’t know her. His opinion did not matter. Her parents’ opinions did not matter.
If she kept repeating this often enough, it would be true.
Her boss glanced at the clock on her wall. “It’s too early for this.”
She smiled thinly. “I know. Shaping up to be one heck of a Monday. Is triage already booked?”
He nodded. “Yes. I need you in there to help screen patients. We need to clear out the folks who can wait for appointments and identify those who are at risk right now of harming themselves or others.”
“Roger, sir. I can do that. I need to e-mail two company commanders and I’ll be right out there.”
“Okay. Don’t forget we have the staff sync at lunch.”
Even this early, the day showed no sign of slowing down and all she wanted to do was go home and take a steaming hot bath. She’d been trying to work out a knot behind her left shoulder blade for days now and things just kept piling up.
She needed a good soak and a massage. Not that she dared schedule one. She’d probably end up cancelling it anyway.
“There’s that smile. Relax. You’re going to die of a heart attack before you’re thirty. The army is a marathon, not a sprint.”
“Roger, sir.” She waited until he closed the door before she covered her face in her hands once more. She could do this.
She just needed to find her battle rhythm. She’d get into the swing of things. She wasn’t about to quit just because things got a little rough.
Her cell phone vibrated on her desk. Oh, perfect. Her mother was calling. Not that she was about to answer that phone call. She couldn’t deal with the passive-aggressive jabs her mother was so skilled at. Besides, she was probably just going to press Emily to give up on—as she put it—slumming in the army and come home.
She’d worked too hard to get where she was and she damn sure wasn’t about to go limping home. How could she? Her parents had looked at her like she was an alien when she’d told them about Bentley. As though she had somehow been in the wrong for her fiancé’s betrayal. As though, if she’d been woman enough, he never would have strayed.
If she ever went home again, and that was a really big if, she would do it on her own terms. She’d walked away from everything in her life that had been hollow and empty.
She was rebuilding, doing something that mattered for the first time in her life. Every day that she avoided calling home or being the person her father and his friends wanted her to be was a victory. No one in her family had supported her when she’d needed them. She might not have found her place yet in the army but just being here was a start. It was something new and she wasn’t about to give up, no matter how much Monday threw at her.
Tuesday really needed to hurry up and get here though, because as Mondays went, this one was already shot all to hell.
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