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There was a sense of unreality to the day. It had been ten years to the day that they’d been rescued by the Delta Team, and sent home from Afghanistan, broken and bruised in so many ways.  

It seems only appropriate that she's involved in a devastating automobile crash. Sure. Why not? She’s injured, but she fights through the pain to rescue as many people as she can. In the midst of the drama, she meets a firefighter who sweeps her off her feet, so to speak.

Fire Chief Connor Kelly is more than just a pretty set of abs. He doesn't  have time for a new relationship because the Lockhart BBQ Fest is going on, but something draws him to Olivia. She has strength of heart, something he admires, and it isn't long until he's wondering if he can persuade her to stay in Lockhart.

She’s afraid that he’s with her out of pity, because of her amputation, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. They both serve the community and it isn’t until things start to get serious that they realize they have a tragic connection. 

Lt. Olivia Grant - Afghanistan- July 2012

They were losing the valiant young Marine.

Olivia could see Captain Rune McCullough’s eyes narrow, a sure indicator that the fight wasn’t going the way he wanted it to. This had been a bad one, though. The poor kid had survived an IED blast to his vehicle, then rescued one of his fellow Marines, dragging him from the wreckage. But when he’d stumbled out of the debris, a sniper had taken him down. The bullet had cut through the muscles of his neck, slicing through the jugular vein. Thankfully, the bullet angled enough to miss the spine. It was a tough repair under ideal circumstances, let alone during an Rebellion that was shaking the world around them.

There was a percussive blast as another device hit the exterior wall of FOB Nightshade. Olivia had no idea what the Taliban were using, but it was big, and she knew the Marines were doing everything they could to repel the attack. Machine gun fire echoed around them, too close for comfort. The Hesco bastions, the giant wire and fabric containers filled with dirt, were stacked around the base two deep and two high, and they repelled or absorbed bullets well, but bigger ordinance could blow them up. And it seemed like that was what the Taliban was trying to do. The Centurion Automatic Defense system was doing its best to respond to the attack, but they only had two of the big, trailer-sized weapons, and they couldn’t catch everything coming in from above.

If the Taliban forced entry…

It was why this young man was on their table. The base had been under attack for the past twelve hours, a constant barrage of small arms fire, then larger ordinance. The base commander, Forrest Trent, was doing everything he could to repel the attack, but it seemed as if the Taliban had pulled together to coordinate a targeted attack on several FOBs at once, country wide. They had reinforcements and a seemingly unending supply of ammunition. Trent had tried to call in air support, but there was none to be had. The northern, more populated part of the country was under attack as well, and the air support was needed there more urgently. Two other FOBs were reporting similar, coordinated, focused attacks.

Olivia ducked her head as the building rattled around them. Dust filtered down onto the plastic sheet they’d suspended over the patient. Rune didn’t even glance above him as he continued to operate to save the young Marine. 

They had one golden hour to try to reverse critical injuries. She could see by Rune’s face, though, that they were going to lose him. Maybe not at this moment in time. Rune would get him patched up to the best of his ability because he was a fantastic emergency surgeon, but they were a critical trauma team. Their job was to treat the immediate injuries and ready them for transport to longer term care, out of country. Their hallways were full of injured waiting to be transported, and the recovery bays were full as well. Until the Taliban let up on their attack, or the base got reinforcements, no one was moving.

Olivia glanced at the table a few feet away. Harcourt, one of the other surgeons, was shaking his head and backing away from the table. “This one’s too far gone. We need to preserve our blood supply.”

Olivia worried she was numb to death now. When she’d joined the Army directly after attaining her nursing diploma, she’d had inflated dreams of rescuing soldier after soldier, of making a difference. And if everything worked as it was supposed to, lives could be saved. Every wheel in the cog needed to work, though. Because they were cut off from air support and transport, men were dying needlessly. No trucks were arriving with fresh supplies. It had been a week now, and she was past the point of demoralization. It had been the better part of twenty-four hours since she’d slept, and she knew that was part of her issue, but even after sleeping, it was harder and harder to stay motivated.

They’d been on this base for three weeks, and it had been the longest three weeks of her life.

The ceiling shuddered overhead, and she closed her eyes and counted to five, holding her breath as she waited for more destruction to rain down. The modular held, though. It wasn’t the most sturdy of buildings, but it was a little better than a tent, which housed most of the rest of the base.

Rune began the arduous process of stitching the Marine up. She handed him instruments before he asked for them. He wasn’t happy with the job, but they had three more men out in triage waiting to be seen. Santana, one of the four surgeons on the team, was resting. Olivia doubted the woman was sleeping, but hopefully she was getting a little rest, and maybe some food. The entire surgical team tried to work together and watch out for each other, rotating off time.

Man, she would love a frosty diet-Pepsi right now… she didn’t even bother looking at the clock to see when her shift would end. There was no diet-Pepsi to be had, here, anyway, so she might as well not even think of it. She would be lucky to get a lukewarm bottle of water.

Myrna Lane, the admin for the surgical team, was rolling in the next gurney, mask tied haphazardly across her face. She also wore her helmet, though it kept slipping forward over her eyes. “We have a GSW to the upper chest, and another to the left calf. Bleeding was stopped in the field.”

Shit. Which meant there might be a tourniquet on his leg. How long had he been sitting in triage? This was a more emergent case. Then she thought over what had already come through. Okay, maybe he wasn’t as bad as what they’d dealt with today, but he definitely needed care quickly. 

Stripping off her gloves, she cleaned up as much as she could before re-gloving. Rune stopped beside her and heaved a sigh. “Ready?” he asked.

She nodded and they motioned Myrna forward.

The young marine looked up at her in fear as she walked beside the gurney as the assistant positioned it and locked the wheels. “Am I going to be okay?” he asked her, eyes wide in his pale face.

Olivia forced a nod, her body aching with tiredness. “We’re going to do the very best we can for you, Vincent,” she said, glancing at his mangled uniform name tag.

The ground rumbled beneath them as something huge shook the camp. Glancing at Rune, she saw he was as startled as she was. “What the fuck was that?”

He frowned, brown eyes shadowed as he glanced toward where he thought the blast had originated. “Not sure. Suicide bomber in a vehicle, maybe?”

Rune turned back to the Marine, forcing a smile as an assistant helped him snap on fresh gloves. “No worries, my man. We’re going to get you patched up.”

The repair wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, and Olivia heaved a sigh of relief as the man was wheeled away. There had been no emergency tourniquet, just a good bandage job, which meant the man got to keep his leg. If he had been sitting in triage for hours with a tourniquet, they would have been doing an entirely different surgery.

Rune looked heartened by the victory, and Olivia forced herself to smile to reinforce what he was feeling. They’d had so many losses over the past couple of days that every win needed to be celebrated.

Harcourt cursed in the next bay and Rune stepped through the curtain to help.

Myrna was passing by, clipboard in hand. Her bright red curls were in disarray under her lopsided surgical cap. She wasn’t medical, but she did have to wear PPE to be in here.

“Do we have another?”

Myrna blinked and shook her head. “He coded while you were in surgery, and we lost him.”

And just that quickly, the war kicked her in the teeth again. God forbid she actually relish in a win. Olivia snapped off her gloves and turned away, fighting the building tide of desolation inside her. They fought and fought and fought, and it wasn’t enough to save them all. She knew that. It hadn’t taken long for her rose-colored glasses to shatter and drift away on the desert wind.

Tears filled her eyes as she moved to the sink to do a proper cleanup, but she refused to let them fall. Tears didn’t do anyone any good. She scrubbed and scrubbed, using a brush to get underneath her nails. Yes, they wore gloves, but she still managed to get grime underneath. The pain was good. It gave her a focus. 

“Guess what I found,” a bubbly voice said, even as her body was hip bumped. 

Baylee Mitchell had the effervescent joy of a child, and she was one of the few bright spots in this hellish place. They’d enlisted at the same time and went through training together. They’d also been deployed at the same time, and Olivia was so glad to have her friend there with her. 

Those tears filled her eyes again at just seeing Baylee’s dry, mask-reddened, smiling face. Her honey blond hair was up in one of her haphazard buns, giving her a lopsided look.

“Oh, honey,” Baylee cooed, pulling her close for a hug. “It was bad today, I know, but Trent has decided not to send anyone out for a while. We’re fortifying our defenses and hunkering down.”

“That sounds ominous,” she murmured, just as another blast rocked the building. Why hadn’t the Centurion caught that?

Orderlies were cleaning up the mess from the multiple surgeries they’d just done, but sand was raining down. It was one of the hardest parts of their jobs, dealing with the sand. 

The glint of laughter had left Baylee’s bright green eyes, and her chapped lips went flat. “I think we’re in trouble, Liv.”

As if her words were a premonition, another blast rocked the base, almost knocking them off their feet. Chunks of rock and other debris rained down on the roof, and Olivia instinctively braced her arm over her head. That had hit inside the wall! “The patients,” she breathed. 

Baylee had already turned and run out the door, even as an alarm blared. There was a recovery bay where the patients who had been through surgery were monitored. Anesthesia took a while to wear off, and sometimes there were issues, so nurses had to monitor their vitals closely just in case they crashed. As they turned the corner into the adjoining tent, Baylee cried out. Part of the tent was fluttering in the wind and the heat of the fire blazing within it. People were scrambling to move gurneys, but so many of them were hooked up to machines. One patient on the far side of the room was alone, his linens burning on top of him. Thank God he was unconscious and couldn’t feel it.

Olivia ran across the tent and tried to smother the flames with a blanket. Reaching to the wall behind him, she turned off the oxygen valve. “Turn off the oxygen,” she screamed to the burning room, before turning back to the smoking man. 

Nurses in sand-colored uniforms and blue scrubs immediately moved and cranked valves, and she prayed they did it in the other recovery tent as well. Oxygen could be temperamental in a structured setting, let alone a war zone. They didn’t need any explosions inside the base.

The patient didn’t move as she cleared the embers from his body and shoved his gurney toward the door. If they could get them into the surgical ward, it had more structural reinforcement than these tents.

Rex, the only male nurse they had, grabbed her wrist in a hard grip. “Liv, I need your help.”

She turned and saw that the patient on his gurney was rousing from anesthesia, and he was fighting the ventilator. Since they’d turned off the oxygen, Rex had been breathing for him with a vent bag and trying to push him out of the burning tent at the same time. Baylee saw the issue and reached for Olivia’s gurney. “I’ll take your guy. You help Rex.”

The patient was thrashing on the bed, his eyes wide open with fear. Apparently, his body had reacted with a huge surge of adrenalin to what was going on around him. Enough to rouse him from the lingering grogginess. Normally, the staff made sure the patient recovered from the anesthesia, then they removed the vent once they proved they could breathe on their own. This guy was trying to rip his vent out.

She caught the Marine’s eyes as she leaned over him. “You need to chill out. We’re going to remove it, but we have to do it carefully. Do you understand?”

He blinked rapidly, but his hand lowered to the mattress. Despite the madness they had going on around them, she and Rex removed the tube from the man’s throat, then watched carefully as he coughed and began breathing on his own. 

“His name is Ryan Dickson,” Rex told her, flinging the tubing away and moving behind the gurney to push it out of the burning tent.

The chaos of the moment hit her then. They were extubating a patient in the middle of a fucking burning tent…

As they passed through the doorway, soldiers came through with fire extinguishers, but she had a feeling the tent was a loss. 

There was a backup in the hallway to the surgical building. Too many gurneys and equipment and not enough space. What the hell were they going to do? If the surgical building got hit…

Colonel Trent materialized out of the smoke and began screaming out orders. The mass of Marines and medical personnel began shifting to do as he bid.

“The Centurions are working as designed,” he called in his deep voice, “but we all know the system can’t catch everything being thrown at us. We’re okay. Care for your patients and know that we’re doing everything we can to protect the base.”

Baylee was right beside her, and she snorted. “You know, I like Trent, but he sounds like he’s worried.”

Olivia nodded, shuffling forward with her unconscious patient. “I thought so too.”

Eventually, by removing a lot of equipment, they were able to get most of the patients into the more secure surgical area. Hesco bastions were stacked around this building, in addition to the perimeter fence, so it was one of the more secure locations on Nightshade, but there wouldn’t be a lot of protection if something landed on them from overhead, like the tent. 

Even as they were settling the patients, the barrage of small arms fire continued outside. 

“Why won’t they just get tired of shooting at us?” Baylee demanded, a little petulantly. “It’s been more than twenty-four hours…”

Olivia felt the same way, but there was no way they could change what was going on outside. For two hours, they monitored the patients and did what they could to keep everyone calm and comfortable.

Then the barrage stopped. It took Olivia a moment to realize what had happened. Her ears were so used to hearing the constant thrum of the Centurions blasting stuff out of the air that the lack of the sound was deafening. For the first time, her ears relaxed, and it almost hurt.

She looked at Baylee. There was a painful hope in the woman’s eyes, and she grinned. “Do you think we beat them and they’re giving up?”

Olivia sighed and shook her head. “Doubtful. I have a feeling they’re resupplying troops and reloading.”

Santana arrived to relieve Rune, and Jessie Plank arrived to relieve Olivia. They were running 18 hours on, and six hours off, so that three nurses overlapped, while one relaxed. Olivia wasn’t sure she’d be able to sleep, but it would be wise to try to get out of here and freshen up a little. She had layers of grime on her body, and even a cold shower might feel good right now. If the Taliban was taking a break, she was going to take advantage of it.

She and Rune walked out into the sunlight together a little hesitantly. They’d been inside the ward for so long. They walked to the right, toward the medical personnel tents.

“Guess I’ll see you in a few hours,” Rune murmured, hand on his arching back as he headed inside.

Olivia turned for the female tent, on the other side of the men’s tent. A few things had been destroyed around them, and smoke still billowed from the recovery tent when she looked back. It was quiet, though, comparatively. Trucks were speeding by as troops moved to reinforce their defenses or reload the Centurions. They used a massive amount of ammunition. Olivia wondered how much they had on the base, and if they had enough to last, but she was afraid to ask any of the men rushing by her.

Inside her tent, she crossed to her bunk and sank down. As if some internal switch had been flipped, her body melted in on itself and she fell over to the pillow, more tired than she could ever remember being. Within seconds, she was out.

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