“What can we do?” Alexa tried to steady her voice. When she was in the heavily armored cockpit of her A-10, she felt protected. Even if she made low, slow passes to strafe and destroy Taliban trying to overrun an American position, she still felt safe.
Here? In an Afghan village? She felt like a target was on her back. Gage Hunter was placing himself between her and the world around them, shielding her. A fierce sense of gratitude rose in her chest.
She wasn’t wearing a protective vest. In fact, her only weapon was a .45 pistol in a holster on her right hip. Alexa hadn’t been expecting this at all.
She heard a hollow thunk from the area around the wadi.
“Incoming!” Gage suddenly yelled into his radio, alerting the other Marines. Instantly, he turned, savagely shoving Alexa down onto the muddy soil and dropping, trying to cover her. It was an RPG, fired from a launcher by their enemy.
Alexa screamed and slammed against the wall, her knees buried in mud, her hands covering her head. Gage landed hard on top of her, his arms gathering her beneath his wide, long body. She opened her mouth, knowing if an RPG was fired and it landed close, her lungs had to equalize with the pressure from the blast. If she didn’t, they would turn to jelly in an instant.
She heard Gage curse, and he embraced her, tucking her head against his chest. Oh, God!
An RPG landed just inside the front gate of the village, the resounding pressure waves from the blast tearing the gates off their hinges and sending them flying outward. A second RPG was launched, landing inside the village near the first one fired. Alexa felt the blasts like fists punching her body, and the sounds were so loud, it felt as if thunder had literally landed upon her as the ground shook all around her. It felt like an earthquake.
She heard Gage groan, and suddenly, he went limp above her, his arms loosening around her head and shoulders. No! Had he been hit? Alexa squirmed, her ears in such pain she couldn’t hear anything except the roar inside them.
“Gage!” she cried, trying to wriggle out from beneath him. He was so heavy! She wallowed in the mud and snow, trying to get out from under him to see what had happened.
But before Alexa could wriggle free, Gage was suddenly hauled off her. Her eyes widened as she looked upward. A man dressed in black Afghan clothing with a brown beard and hatred in his eyes stared down at her. He grinned savagely, reaching out and yanking Alexa to her feet.
Alexa got her first look at the aftermath of the attack and, to her horror, saw the chief and his wife lying at the entrance, unmoving, blood around their bodies. The young women of the medical teams had run screaming, utterly panicked, and there were men on horseback thundering after them. The male medical professionals with them had been shot. Chaos ensued.
Alexa yelped as the Taliban soldier slammed her against the wall, knocking the wind out of her. He grabbed her hands, quickly wrapping her wrists in tight ropes. Alexa fought, and he cursed in Urdu, the main language of Pakistan. He grabbed her .45 and tossed it away.
She heard screams and saw Taliban soldiers on horseback grabbing all of the female medical personnel. They each dismounted, jerking a woman to them, tying her hands, and then throwing her on their horse and mounting up behind them.
She was dragged past Gage, who lay unconscious on the ground. To her horror, she saw blood on the side of his temple. Oh, no! The blast had injured him! She dug in her boots, screaming and fighting back as the soldier dragged her toward his waiting horse, but he was wiry and much stronger than she was.
Alexa kicked out, trying to make him release her. He turned and raised his hand, as if to strike her, but she dodged his wide-open hand, falling to her knees on the ground. Behind her, she heard the other women’s shrieks and wails. Several riders galloped by, each with a woman in the saddle, her hands tied, the soldiers whipping their animals to go faster.
“Gage!” Alexa cried, scrambling to her feet. She dodged the soldier’s next slap, yanking him around. She wasn’t a small woman—maybe an inch shorter than her captor. Anger leaped to his eyes as he grabbed the reins of his horse with his other hand. The animal danced around, rolling its eyes in terror.
“Gage, help me!” she sobbed, hauling back.
The soldier suddenly released her, and Alexa fell to the ground as he came at her, slamming his boot down into her chest.
An ooofff of air ruptured from her lungs as he put all his weight upon her chest, glaring down at her. Alexa couldn’t move, the air knocked out of her. She tried to rise, but it was impossible to breathe.
The soldier was cursing angrily now, grabbing her by the hair, his fist wrapped solidly within it, and hauling her upright. The pain spread like hot needles across her scalp as she cried out, throwing her tied hands upward. Now he had full control of her. Pushing her to the horse, he forced her to mount. Once on it, he kept her head back against him, her throat exposed, putting her off balance. Kicking his bay horse, he whipped it around to leave.
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