For the last two months, the family has been getting ready for the move to New York where I'll be instructing at West Point. It's an exciting career move for me but involved a LOT of work beyond grad school. We had to tear down the pool, put in fill dirt, lay sod, paint, pressure wash the house...you get the idea. Suffice to say, it's been a very busy few months but we're settled now and mostly unpacked.
I like my office in the new house, though it was very much a work in progress.
Here's what happened the day the movers left.
A little later that day, some progress had been made.
Gotta love Ikea and the Billy bookshelves. Easy to assemble and they look nice, too. Though after assembling 8 and a few other peices, I was a little tired.
Two days later, the final space is done. Well, as done as it's going to get. I'm a messy office kind of person so this is cluttered but feels right now.
It's a little attic nook so it's kind of perfect for me to get away from everyone to get stuff done. Unfortunately, that leaves Puppy Magic unsupervised.
THE NEWEST FAMILY MEMBER
Carmen joined us last month because what else does a family getting ready to move up the East Coast need but another dog.
In this case, an Anatolian Shepherd puppy. She's actually blending into the family quite well. Also, I may be a teeny bit biased because she's kind of a mamma's pup, which is nice. She's cute but man when she gets going, she gets fired up. It's funny to watch the big dogs with her. She's learning from them, that's for sure so I have hopes that she'll be a good dog in a few years.
Signing information at RWA in NYC!
I'll be signing books at the Indie signing at RWA at the Marriott Marquis in Time Square Thursday July 23 from 3-430. There will copies of all my Homefront books available. I will NOT be at the literacy signing because like an idiot, I somehow forgot to sign up for it. I'll also be signing at the Grand Central signing on Friday July 24 from 945 - 1145. Hope to see you there!
FORGED IN FIRE IS ON SCHEDULE!
Last month, I wasn't really sure if I was going to get Sal and Holly out on time. With the move and everything, I probably should have shifted it further to the right to take some stress off but hey, I thrive on stress.
Anyway, I'm excited to announce that FORGED IN FIRE will be out on June 30th. If you all haven't been sucked into the vaccum that is the new 50 Shades of Grey book, you can preorder it at all retailers.
iBooks | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Google Play
Forged in Fire is most likely the final installment of the Homefront series. I've spent most of my writing career writing the books centered around Fort Hood and my fictional Fifth Brigade Combat Team. I won't say there will never be another one but as of right now, I don't have anything planned. So if you've been waiting for the series to be finalized before you started it, now's a safe time.
I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has hung around for the entire journey with these characters. This series will always mean a lot to me and I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to tell these stories.
Rest assured that I'm not quitting writing nor am I about to start a lucritive career in writing dinosaur erotica (it's a thing, I swear). I'll probably always write about soldiers and coming home from the war, the books will just take a different form as I branch out away from what got me started. I'm just taking some time to figure out what comes next as I make the transition to West Point and back to Army life. There are a few other projects in the works but it will be a few months before I have another new release.
Thank you so much for coming along for the ride with these books and making them possible.
Keep reading for the first two chapters!
Lieutenant Sal Bello stood at the edge of the t-wall barrier and watched the sun sink below the cement barricades that were the only thing protecting his tiny little outpost from the wild west of Fallujah and the men who wanted to slit their throats.
Beside him, his platoon sergeant, Sarn’t Louis Delgado spat into the dirt. “This has got to be the dumbest fucking thing we’ve ever done.”
“Mutiny isn’t really on the menu of options right now,” Sal said. He wasn’t sure how he felt about his new platoon sergeant. Delgado had been on the job a week. A week since his old platoon sergeant Murph had been evac’d back to the States for a ruptured appendix of all things.
Delgado made a noise. “So we’re just sitting here, waiting for what?”
“For orders from higher.”
Another noise followed by a thick silence. Sal flipped his father’s lighter through his fingers, the metal hot from being tucked in his pocket and the hundred plus-degree heat.
Lieutenant Sal Bello closed his fist around the lighter, concealing it from his platoon sergeant. “Nothing.”
He couldn’t say why he carried his father’s lighter with him to war beyond the fact that his mother had asked him to take it. Maybe it would bring him more luck than it had brought his father.
But he wasn’t comfortable sharing his mother’s superstition with his new platoon sergeant. It felt weird to think about his mother when he hadn’t eaten a solid meal in four days and his MRE crackers were running thin.
The adhan rang out over the cement barriers. Sal stiffened, holding his breath until the last note of the call to prayer echoed over the city and the inhabitants that were just waiting for the opportunity to slit an American throat or two.
He couldn’t say he blamed them. He’d be ready to fight if an invading army took up residence in his hometown.
There was a sudden burst of energy from the tiny gate where their one Humvee provided heavy weapons coverage down the main avenue of approach. He frowned, then walked toward the truck to listen to the radio chatter.
“Roger, Warhorse Main.” Private Baggins finished scribbling his note as Sal walked up. “Sir, we’ve got to send in accountability of all our boys.”
Sal paused, a sick feeling unfurled in his gut. “Didn’t we just do that?”
Baggins nodded as he pulled out a granola bar. Damned hobbit always had food stashed. “We’ve got two guys missing over in Second Platoon’s AO, sir.”
The radio crackled again. Delgado leaned on the door of the truck. Sal’s skin was slick and cold as the command post sent orders to secure the area and started mustering troops to start the search for their missing boys.
He grabbed the hand mike from Baggins. “Warhorse Main, this is Chaos Blue. We’re close to the area. We can secure the main approach.”
“Negative, Chaos Blue.”
“Warhorse Main, I say again, we are the closest element to the objective.”
“Stand down, Chaos Blue. Your mission is to hold your position.”
He looked at his platoon sergeant. Delgado met his eyes and said nothing.
“We’re missing two of our boys.” The lighter was hot in his hand, heavy as lead.
He looked down at the inscription. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
He looked back at his platoon sergeant. It burned in his belly to be told to stand down when they were literally two blocks from where the soldiers had been taken.
Delgado pulled the charging handle on his weapon and released it, loading a round into the chamber. “You’re talking about mutiny, sir. At the very least, disobeying a superior officer in a time of war.”
He didn’t know who was missing. He’d find out later. All that mattered was that someone from their formation was gone. Most likely taken. And if they didn’t move fast, they were going to have a repeat of the bridge in Fallujah where the insurgents burned the Blackwater contractors.
Over Sal’s dead body.
He looked up at his platoon sergeant.
“We’re going.” There was steel in his voice.
A slow smile spread across Delgado’s face. “Roger that, sir.”
He looked down at the lighter once more. For I am the meanest motherfucker in the valley.
He wasn’t supposed to hate the enemy. He was supposed to be here winning the hearts and minds.
But that kind of thinking got men killed. And Sal had little room in his heart for anything else. Hate was easy. Hate was power.
Hate wrapped around his heart and coated it in fire and steel and kept him from thinking about the families that lived in the neighborhood or the fathers that would likely die because of merely being in the wrong place and wrong time.
And as they rolled off their base toward the checkpoint where their boys had been snatched, rage toward the whole stupid, pointless war burned itself into the fiber of who he was.
Four years later
Captain Sal Bello sat in command and staff, his fingers seeking out the lighter in his pocket, and wondered when the meeting from hell was going to be over. The sergeant major's voice was distant and far off. Sal struggled to pay attention. Something about missed appointments and too many soldiers on sick call.
Sal would have given anything for his first sergeant to be in this meeting instead of Sal, but Delgado was picking one of their superstars up from jail. Again.
And damn it if it wasn't one of the platoon sergeants this time. For some stupid incident at a bar last night. Pizzaro was pretty much on his last leg with Sal, but Delgado was determined to convince him Pizzaro was just going through a bad spot since his divorce had been approved last week.
Delgado always had Sal’s back. If he said Pizzaro was going through a rough spot, then that’s what it was.
He just wished this meeting would end so he could be done dealing with this stupidity and get back to what was really important.
Training his men for war.
The lighter was smooth and warm beneath his fingers. It calmed him. Gave him patience for the bullshit that garrison life involved. Crap like these meetings, where they went over every single missed appointment instead of training men to put rounds on target.
Half the time, Sal felt like he wasn’t even in command. He just sat in meetings all day.
Because that was what God had intended for him, right? He was a warrior, not a personal assistant. If someone couldn't make it to a appointment, why was that Sal’s problem?
Sal paused where he was turning the lighter over in his hand. “Sir.”
Lieutenant Colonel Gilliad’s voice penetrated Sal’s focus on the lighter. “What was my guidance regarding missed appointments?”
Sal ground his teeth and refused to look up at his battalion commander. It was borderline disrespectful but Sal just about out of fucks to give. And that was saying something considering he’d been in command for less than ninety days. “That if we have any more missed appointments, we’re going to have to personally explain each and every one to the brigade commander.”
It burned on a fundamental level that as a company commander, a man who was supposed to be a leader of men, he was reduced to little more than glorified babysitting in garrison life.
They should be on the range, blowing shit up. Learning how to control hallways and buildings with two- to four-man teams.
But they couldn't even get to the goddamned doctor's office on their own.
Sal ached for the war. The simplicity of it. The madness and the dirt and the evil chaos.
It was at least a devil he knew. This garrison life…he didn’t know how to do this.
“You disagree with my guidance, captain?” Gilliad asked.
For a brief instant, Sal imagined there was a good angel on one shoulder that slapped her hand over his mouth and kept him from speaking.
But the devil on the other shoulder shot her before she ever lifted her hand.
“Yes, sir, I do.” Sal finally looked at his battalion commander. “Sir, we’re wasting our time with this stupidity. Appointments? Really? Next thing, you’re going to tell me that someone won’t deploy if they don’t have their government travel card.”
Gilliad’s eye twitched. Beside him, Sarn’t Major Cox looked like he wanted to throttle someone. Probably Sal.
Silence ticked by. Another moment and an uncomfortable cough from one of the lieutenants who worked in operations.
The lighter in his hand was smooth and warm. The letters reminded him of what he was. And what he wasn’t.
Finally, LTC Gilliad spoke and the calm in his voice was razor thin. “While I appreciate your candor, Captain Bello, it behooves you to remember rule number one in this battalion.”
Sal knew rule number one all too well. Do what the boss tells you. Sal ran his thumb over the well-worn words engraved into the stainless steel in his palm. “Roger that, sir,” was all he said.
The meeting continued dragging on as LTC Gilliad went up one side of Headquarters Company for having the worst stats in the battalion. Sal almost felt sorry for Captain Martini but then he remembered all the reasons why he hated officers like Martini.
And no, hate wasn't too strong a word.
Officers like Martini lived inside the lines. They didn’t wipe their ass without first checking it with the boss. Even when his first sergeant was arrested, Martini refused to color outside the lines.
The meeting was almost over. He just had to keep his mouth shut for a few more minutes. Sal turned the lighter in his hand, focusing on the strength in the words etched beneath his fingertips.
They all stood when the boss left the room and Sal was halfway down the hall before he could no longer pretend he didn’t hear Sarn’t Major Cox calling his name.
He closed his eyes and stopped.
Because of all the senior leaders in the battalion, Cox was the one person Sal actually respected.
And that was a rare, rare thing these days.
“Walk with me, sir,” Cox said, falling into step with him.
So Sal walked.
Because good NCOs were next to god and even wiseass captains with bad tempers listened to them if they were smart.
They stepped outside into the brilliant Fort Hood morning sunlight. It was blinding, reflecting off Cooper Field across the street at the Division Headquarters.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Sal had been around long enough that he knew Cox would speak when he was ready.
Cox sighed heavily. But he shocked the hell out of Sal when he reached out and gripped his shoulder. “I’m not sure what your malfunction is, sir, but I strongly recommend you figure it out. Go to therapy, start drinking. Get a puppy. Something. The boss is losing his patience with you.”
“Roger, sarn’t major.” He really wasn’t in the mood for a pep talk about getting his attitude in check. He knew this already. Hell, everyone knew this.
He just didn’t care. He was tired of dealing with all the drama of garrison life. He was not a counselor. He was not a divorce attorney and he damn sure wasn’t a personal finance manager. And yet, garrison life seemed to assume that he was all of those things.
Sal frowned. “Picking up Pizzaro from jail.”
Sal bit back a smart-ass reply. “Roger that, sarn’t major.”
“And how long before I see that packet on my desk?”
Sal stiffened. He’d been waiting for this conversation. Hoping to avoid it, honestly. He had misgivings about Pizzaro but Delgado wasn’t wrong. “I need platoon sergeants, Sarn’t Major. I can’t have lieutenants running around Fort Hood unsupervised. God only knows what trouble they’ll get into.”
“Partying isn’t the problem, commander, and I think you know that. It’s the getting arrested part that’s causing problems.” Cox let the silence hang.
Sal finally couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “Sarn’t Major, you know this is bullshit, right? We’re wasting time in meetings over missed appointments and you’re busting my balls over one of my platoon sergeants in a bar fight?”
“Captain Bello, I like you. But if you don’t figure out really quick that there is more to commanding soldiers than teaching them to shoot a motherfucker in the face, you’re not going to be commanding soldiers very long.”
“What else is there?” Sal asked. Yeah, he was feeling belligerent. He hated the idea of having to break in a new first sergeant and he damn sure didn’t like feeling like this was going to be a permanent change instead of a temporary one.
“Leadership is about preparing your men for war.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do, Sarn’t Major. That’s why I need men like Pizzaro on this next deployment.”
“I’m not going to tell you how to run your company, sir, but I think you need to take another look at what’s happening inside your formation. Pizzaro is a symptom of a larger problem.” Cox jammed his finger in Sal’s general direction. “If you want to take these boys downrange, get on board with what the boss wants. You might command your men but don’t forget that your job is to execute his commands. That’s the way the army works, son.”
Sal slipped his hand into his pocket and felt the cold comfort of the worn out steel lighter.
It reminded him of what he was.
And what he wasn’t.
And reminded him that men like Cox, men who understood what the war would demand of them, were rare. They were not the enemy.
First Sergeant Holly Washington knocked on the battalion sergeant major's door. Her stomach was in knots but not because she was afraid of him.
No, it was something much more personal.
She'd served with Sarn't Major Cox many moons ago. And today, standing outside his office, the memories were piling up, beating against the wall she'd carefully constructed to keep them at bay.
One day they were going to break free and she was going to have to have a come-to-Jesus with her past.
But today was not that day.
“Get your sorry ass in here, First Sergeant,” came Cox’s reply.
She sucked in a deep, bracing breath and stepped into his office.
He’d aged. It had been almost ten years since she’d seen him last. His hair, what was left of it, was whiter now, graying at the temples. His face more lined and darker from the sun.
But his eyes. His eyes were still the same. Glittering and dark and filled with an intensity that most people found downright terrifying.
She had been one of those people, once upon a time.
Until the night her world had gone to hell and the only person standing by her side when the debris had been cleared was then First Sergeant Cox.
He ignored her. Kept typing whatever he’d been working on before she stepped into the office.
She didn’t move. Not one inch.
Finally he removed his hand from the keyboard and clicked the mouse. “Close the damn door.”
She kicked it shut with her boot.
And found herself buried in an enthusiastic hug that lifted her off the ground and crushed the air from her lungs.
But it did nothing to tear away the smile that spread across her mouth.
“Holy shit it’s good to see you, kid,” he said when he finally put her down. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Good to see you, Sarn’t Major,” she said. And it was. Too damn good.
“Really glad you told me you were coming here,” he said after a while. “Sit down, tell me about things. You in-processed?”
“Out at Stillhouse.”
She braced for the inevitable family question and was grateful, so damned grateful when he skipped it.
He remembered. He knew.
And he was as good a man as she remembered for not bringing it up.
“Well, I’ve got a hell of a job for you.”
“So I gathered from your e-mail,” she said, sitting on the small, dingy couch in his office. “You know I like a challenge.”
“Oh you’re about to get the challenge of a lifetime,” he said, and his grin was pure evil in the way that only a sergeant major’s could be. “You’re taking my support company. The support battalion still can’t seem to find me some leadership so I’m finding my own.”
“I thought we were friends,” she said dryly. Support companies had a dangerous mission no matter where they were in country. They were always on the roads, making sure the front line fighters had the beans, bullets, and bandages they needed to keep fighting.
They also came with their fair share of problem soldiers.
He shook his head. “I wanted you in my ops cell but I need your ass in one of the line companies.” He leaned forward, his expression shifting. “I had a first sergeant arrested a couple of weeks ago for threatening to kill his kid. Another one just had a heart attack.”
“Sounds like you’ve been having a blast,” she mumbled.
“Never a dull moment around here, that’s for sure.”
Holly nodded and said nothing, the situation hitting far too close to home.
“Anyway, you’re going to have your hands full. You’re my senior first sergeant now that Sorren went and had a heart attack.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure the boys are just going to love that.” She didn’t try to restrain her sarcasm. Not around Cox.
“You’re probably going to get into a dick-measuring contest on day one but it’s nothing you’re not used to.”
Holly raised both eyebrows and smirked. “I think I’m offended.”
“No you’re not,” Cox said. And he wasn’t wrong. She’d known him too long. And more importantly, he’d known her too long. He knew exactly what she was likely to do when someone tried to break bad with her.
It was always fun to watch the shock when the guys realized she wasn’t going to take their shit.
“Anyway, I need your help. The other first sergeants can’t seem to get their legal packets done. I need you to help me there. We’ve got some real pieces of work that I need out of my Army.”
Holly shook her head. “I think I’m supposed to have some obligatory remark about how you’re being sexist by assigning me to work on paperwork.”
He flipped her off and she almost choked on the laugh. “God, it’s good to see you,” she said when she stopped laughing.
“And you know why I need your help. We’ve got to clear out the formation. And I think Delgado in Diablo Company is deliberately shielding his men.”
Holly lifted one eyebrow and fought the wave of anger that rose quickly from the dark recesses of her memory. She was used to the feeling. It was her constant companion these days, as the officers around her seemed to care more about numbers than the men and women they led.
And that caring meant putting bad soldiers out of the force. Soldiers who could not or would not soldier needed to find another job.
“Do you need proof?”
“I need the packets done, Holly. We’ve already fired the entire chain of command in every company. We’re going to war with the Army we have. We’ve got to make the best of it.”
Holly nodded and folded her hands together, leaning forward. “So are any of the commanders worth a damn?”
“You’re going to have fun with Diablo Company. Bello is a loose cannon depending on what day of the week it is. He’s chafing under garrison life and the way the commander wants to run things. And his first sergeant…I’m not sure I trust Delgado.”
“And you can’t fire him, huh?”
Holly couldn’t help the wry look that she knew called bullshit on Cox’s statement. He didn’t miss it because a slow flush crept up his neck as he laughed.
“Nice,” she said.
“I need your help with Delgado and Diablo Company. Captain Bello thinks his first sergeant is right about everything; he doesn’t listen to but a very few people. And he’s got some baggage.”
“Don’t we all?”
“His is a little unique. Ask him about it sometime.”
Holly sighed. She loved Sarn’t Major Cox like a father but the man really liked putting her in tough situations. “Couldn’t you just tell me and be a pal?”
Cox shook his head. “Nah. What would the fun be in that? I’m going to love watching you put him in his place.”
“I shall endeavor to make a scene, if only for your enjoyment, Sarn’t Major. But understanding his psychological trauma and hang ups doesn’t affect whether or not I get to do my job.”
Cox didn’t smile. Instead his mouth got that twisted half grin that told Holly she was already in over her head. The only question was how deep.
“You’re not going to tell me about this guy, are you?”
“I think Sal Bello is someone you have to experience for yourself,” he said.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, Sarn’t Major. You need me to run two companies with one potentially crazy-eyed captain, I’ll do it. But only because it’s you asking me to,” she added after a moment.
“I knew you’d be a sport.”
“How much am I going to regret what you just signed me up for?”
“Not sure. But it’s going to be fun to watch. I’ve wanted to see you in action since I first found out you got promoted to master sergeant.”
“I live to keep you entertained.” She stood, recognizing the gauntlet for what it was and started toward the door.
Cox may have been there when her life had gone to hell but he’d never babied her. He’d never held her to a lesser standard. He’d pushed her harder after that night. Never let her quit even when she wanted to.
She turned back to face him, bracing for his next words.
“I’m glad you didn’t let the son of a bitch win,” he said quietly. “We need leaders like you. Now more than ever.”
Her throat tightened and she nodded briefly. “That’s why I’m here,” was all she could manage.
Sal was contemplating throwing his computer out the front window when his first sergeant knocked on his office door. Sal had been nervous when he’d been told he was taking command in a unit where the entire chain of command had been fired, but when Delgado had been assigned as his first sergeant, Sal knew he’d be able to focus on command instead of having to babysit his first sergeant.
NCOs like Delgado were rare, too rare.
Delgado walked into the office and toed the door shut.
“So does Pizzaro at least have a good story?” Sal asked.
Delgado shook his head and braced his hands on his hips. “Not really. Something stupid about a fight at Ropers again last night.”
Sal leaned back and braced his hands on the top of his head. “We need him when we go downrange, Top. You know that. But this is getting out of control.”
Delgado shifted and his sleeves inched up, revealing a glimpse of the tattoos that he knew extended to full sleeves and then reached across Delgado’s upper back.
Delgado shifted. “I’ve got this, sir. I’ll get his ass in line. We can’t go downrange missing a platoon sergeant because we decided that NCOs doing what NCOs do is suddenly upsetting to the higher ups.”
Delgado wasn’t wrong. Raising hell was part of being a soldier. Sal leaned forward and slid a sheet of paper toward his first sergeant. “Then what are we going to do about this?”
It was the blotter report—the official notification by the civilian police to the military that a soldier had actually been arrested last night. Pizarro’s name was highlighted in yellow at the top of the block of text. “It’s in official channels now. We’re not going to be able to protect him.”
The muscle in Delgado’s jaw clenched. “I’ll get it taken care of.”
“Do I want to know how you’re going to get this taken care of?”
“It’s better if you have plausible deniability, sir,” Delgado said.
Sal grinned. “Roger that, Top.”
He had an idea that the blotter report was going to turn up missing and Sal honestly wasn’t worried about it. Pizarro hadn’t killed anyone, hadn’t gone on a drunken rage. He’d gotten in a bar fight. Sal had been in so many he’d lost count.
If Pizarro’s report turned up missing, then so be it. It didn’t matter if Pizarro was blowing off steam or how so long as no one got hurt—it mattered that he was on a plane in six months heading back to Iraq and the simple chaos that was the war.
Sal needed warriors. “Get his shit locked in tight, Top. This needs to stop. If the boss decides to get involved, I’m not sure how much interference I’m going to be able to run.”
Delgado nodded sharply. “Got it, sir.”
“Good. Now what’s going on with the range next week?”
“We need to get the support company to get their soldiers in line. Can you talk to their commander? I’m liable to choke their acting first sergeant.”
“I’m afraid to ask why my XO hasn’t handled this.”
“He’s too busy getting some pussy from one of the platoon leaders in the special troops battalion. Needs some damn salt peter in his energy drink to get his head back in the game.”
Sal grunted. “I’ll take care of that one.”
“Worry about the XO after you kick the support company in the balls first. We need that ammo lined up sooner rather than later and if I go back over there, I’m going to drop-kick someone in the teeth.”
Sal stood and grabbed his headgear. “I’ll take these files to battalion then head over there and see what I can’t get straightened out.”
“Roger that, sir.” Delgado paused. “Are we really only shooting from the prone, sir? We’re going to be kicking in doors in six months. We need to be shooting on the move, not knocking down paper targets.”
Sal stilled and tried to come up with a diplomatic answer. Tried and failed. “The boss wants our stats up before we deploy. Our stats involve paper targets.”
The rage burned beneath his heart and it was matched by the anger in Delgado’s eyes looking back at him. “Those stats aren’t going to bring our boys home, sir.”
Sal paused, knowing his first sergeant was right and hating the feeling of impotence that circled his guts for not doing more to fight the entire stupid range. They were wasting ammo on shooting paper targets when they needed to be doing more, so much more, to prepare for the war. “I know, Top. I’m working on alternatives but unless we get more ammo, we’re screwed.”
They were going downrange undertrained and unprepared and there was nothing, nothing Sal could do about it. For a commander in the world’s most powerful army, the sense of helplessness tore at him.
They stepped into the main office. Pizarro stood at parade rest near Delgado’s office. His black t-shirt sported a white skeleton with a sombrero and was ripped across the chest. Pizarro’s black hair was shaved close to his scalp in a cut that matched Delgado’s—a high and tight that was just inside of authorized.
A small blond female stood next to him, also at parade rest.
“Who’s this?” Sal asked Delgado.
“Sergeant Rachel Freeman. From the support company,” Delgado said. “Not arrested, most likely because she lacked a penis,” Delgado said dryly.
“Why did you pick her up?” Sal asked.
“Because she was there and part of our battalion,” Delgado said.
It didn’t quite pass the sniff check—Delgado didn’t do things like that out of the goodness of his heart. Which meant there was more to the story. Sal would get it out of him later. Delgado was too good at staying one step ahead of the soldiers and their fuck fuck games.
Sal didn’t have to question Delgado’s methods. He knew they worked. There was no one better at kicking ass and getting young soldiers ready to face the crucible of combat. “Send her back to her company and let her commander deal with her.” Sal paused, wishing his life was less soap opera and more combat training, but every time he turned around, there was some new drama unfolding.
And half of it was coming from his battalion commander. Things were getting ridiculous. It was like the senior leadership was already pretending they were back to being a peacetime army instead of an army still at war.
“I’ll be back,” Sal said.
Pizarro said nothing as Sal walked past him. The female sergeant avoided looking at any of them. He couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed or pissed or a mixture of both.
Or at least it was while Pizarro’s divorce had been processing. Amanda Pizarro hadn’t been the kind of woman who put up with her husband fooling around. Which was probably why Delgado had to pick Pizarro up from jail as opposed to him calling his now ex-wife and posting bail. Now the fact that a sergeant first class was hooking up with a sergeant didn’t really matter to anyone unless there were other problems.
Sal sighed and headed to battalion.
Maybe someday, he’d get to go back to war. It was so much easier than pretending he was even remotely qualified to deal with the kids, marriage, and family problems.
Oh, he'd do it. But only because it would get him one day closer to getting on the plane and going back to the only thing he was good at: war.
“First name, Top?”
First Sarn’t Holly Washington looked down at the skinny private in the admin office. It was a sad commentary on her life that she had to think about her first name. It had been Sarn’t or Firs’ Sarn’t so long sometimes she forgot.
“Holly,” she said after a moment.
“Date of rank?”
“Can’t I just fill out the form and you enter it after I leave?” She had other things to do than sit here and wait while the skinny admin clerk hunted and pecked her name, social security number, and boot size into the personnel database.
“It’ll be easier if I just add it with you here, Top,” the private said.
Holly bit the inside of her cheek and prayed for patience as the ungodly slow soldier continued to enter her information into the database one agonizing key strike at a time. Didn’t they teach typing in high school anymore?
She pulled out her government-issued Blackberry and pretended to check her e-mail while scanning the new soldiers in the personnel office. A private first class sat in the office, looking guilty as all get out. Of what, she had no idea, but she definitely recognized the signs. “What’s the deal with that guy?” she asked the private.
“He was AWOL as of yesterday.”
Holly turned back around. “Why?” Soldiers usually went AWOL for a reason. It wasn’t usually a very good reason but they all didn’t just decide not to show up on a whim.
“Not sure, Top,” the private said.
Then it could be anything from porn addiction to gambling, to just not wanting someone to yell at you. “Is he flagged?”
“Not yet,” he said.
She had no clue about any of these guys or what the unit culture was like. She’d heard it was in a shit-ton of trouble and trying to get things straightened out but she couldn’t get a good read on things from just seeing how the brigade admin office worked.
She stood there and felt her frustration rising as the private hunted and pecked his way through her form. If she was ever the acting headquarters company first sergeant, that kid was going to a typing class. How the hell did he work in admin and not know how to type?
Holly turned at the voice that boomed through the admin office. The five soldiers who’d been shooting the shit at the counter stiffened visibly at the sound. Two slithered out the side door and the other three made themselves scarce. Kind of like roaches scattering in the light.
“What the hell? Is the Antichrist about to enter the building?” she muttered.
But Quetto was busy typing away, his shoulders hunched. He had the look of a mouse in the corner of a cage holding very still so the snake wouldn’t see him.
’Course, that plan didn’t work when the snake had heat vision and could see the very visible pulsing of the mouse’s heart beneath its fur.
Kind of like the cold sweat on Quetto’s neck right then.
She expected to see General Patton himself walk through the door the way the soldiers were acting. Holly turned, more than a little curious about the kind of man that would inspire this much panic in young troopers.
Instead, a tall, broad captain with wide shoulders stalked into the admin area. His hair was shaved close to his scalp and really, did she expect anything less in this unit?
But it was his eyes that she noticed more than anything. Piercing brown, they were dark around the edges and lighter in the middle.
Dark black letters stitched above his heart told her the captain’s name was Bello. So this was the infamous Diablo commander.
She watched him approach and holy hell, was this one well put-together captain. Which didn’t help the situation at all—that her hormones stood up and took notice.
She yanked her thoughts off that detour and focused on work. If Cox was right, the big captain needed to be pushed back a notch and be reminded that he was not running this battalion. And, well—since Sarn’t Major Cox had asked for her help and all, there was no time like the present to get started.
He scanned the admin office until his gaze landed on his prey. She found herself wondering if Quetto knew that’s what he was right then.
Bello dropped two packets on the counter in front of Quetto’s desk. “Hey, I need you to process these two packets for the lawyer like ASAP.”
Quetto stood sharply. “Roger, sir. I’ll get right on that as soon as I get Firs’ Sarn’t Washington in-processed.”
Bello’s eyes narrowed and he looked down at her. Literally looked down at her from a vantage point that was a good four inches above her.
She felt the weight of his visual inspection and lifted her chin. He was going to make it easy, huh?
“You don’t happen to be taking over the support company, do you?” he said.
Holly raised both eyebrows, ignoring the question and focusing instead on the blunt rudeness of the way he’d just looked her up and down. She wondered if this was going to be the guy she got into it with him to prove she wasn’t going to take shit from any of them.
It was like prison rules: find the biggest, baddest dude and pick a fight. This guy looked like a prime candidate. She just wondered if he’d also be the guy to knock her teeth in.
Maybe today. But she damn sure wasn’t going to take his looking her over like she was one of his soldiers. “Wow, are you always this charming or do you just have a bad case of the Mondays?”
Bello scowled and wow was it a fierce look. Had she been a little bit younger or maybe a little bit wiser, she might have been intimidated. But she’d been around guys like this too many times. They looked like assholes but you just had to get past the sandpapery exterior. “It’s Wednesday.”
She flattened her lips into a dry line. “Sense of humor AWOL?”
Oh he was special.
“So is that your acknowledgment grunt or a fuck-off grunt? I’ll have to start writing down translations of the grunts, if this is your major form of communication.”
He looked at her like she had a dick growing out of her forehead, then shook his head and turned back to the private who was pretending to type.
“Let me know when those are processed? I need to meet with the lawyer before the end of the week.” His gaze flicked to the combat action badge over her heart before he turned his attention back to the unsuspecting Quetto. Quetto nodded quickly and went back to his typing. His hunting and pecking was all that much more peckish as he tried really hard to focus. “Are you the support company first sergeant or not?”
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.”
Bello sighed. "Jesus Christ, if you’re going to be a pain in the ass about things…”
Holly bristled but kept her cool. “Wow, you really are cranky. Sarn’t Major was right.”
Bello turned to go, paused, then turned back to her. “I need the damn ammo delivered to the range. I need your company to stop smoking all the goddamned weed in Killeen and do your damned jobs. Is that polite enough for you, First Sergeant?”
Holly arched one brow. “Oh, aren’t you just a bright little ray of sunshine?”
Bello ground his teeth and jammed his hands in his pockets but not before she didn’t miss them clenching by his sides. “I’m not really sure where you’re coming from, Top, but in case you missed the memo, you’re taking over a unit that’s going to deploy in less than six months.”
Oh hell no, he didn’t just imply that she didn’t give a shit about the impending deployment. “I assure you that I am very much aware of the timeline.”
Bello swore and stormed out of the office.
Holly looked at the empty space where he’d stood a moment before.
Working with him was going to be a real treat. And Holly was definitely up for the challenge.
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Until Next Time! Have a great summer.