HERO Force Series, Volume 7
All of the HERO Force books can be read as standalone stories.
Navy SEAL Noah Ryker thinks he’s prepared for anything when he goes to his sister’s condo on Hilton Head Island to deal with her death. But he stops to be a good Samaritan and finds himself in desperate need of medical attention in a town that’s been evacuated for an approaching hurricane.
Dr. Hannah Fielding just wanted to get her son Brady home before the storm when a last minute stop at a corner store throws her life careening into the desperate SEAL’s. But their paths are about to collide on a much grander scale, one that will threaten both their lives and everything they believed to be true.
Noah Ryker stood on the fourth-floor balcony overlooking the Atlantic, staring into the eerie purple abyss that had taken over the sky. If he had any sense, he’d be anywhere but Hilton Head Beach, South Carolina, dead center in the eye of the storm.
Sense is over-fucking-rated.
He hadn’t had any good sense in weeks, might never have it again. Funny how that worked when your world came crashing down around you, bringing you to your knees with a guttural cry. The things that used to mean everything became transparent wisps of nothing, no longer strong enough to tether you down.
Nothing could hold him down anymore.
This moment, this place, this face-off with reality. This was where he needed to be, in his sister’s apartment high above the waves, the last place he’d seen her alive just a few months ago. His mother’s voice on the phone would haunt him until the end of time.
Oh, Noah…READ MORE
He closed his eyes, the whipping wind carrying the faint taste of saltwater to his tongue. Those words had sliced his world in half, excising everything that mattered from the flesh and blood left behind.
His baby sister was gone.
In his mind she was eight or nine, clinging to his back as he carried her, lanky colt-like legs wrapped around his hips, barefooted as always, her laughter bubbling over his shoulder like a babbling brook.
He lifted his beer to his lips, taking a long pull deep into his gut. The brew tasted better than any ever had before it, his brain knowing this concoction held the magic that would take him to a place where he could grieve.
Rolling thunder had him opening his eyes, staring into the swirling darkness as if he were staring into the eyes of God himself, and in that moment he hated Him with a fiery passion that was mirrored only in the violence of the storm.
It was a category five named Oscar, about to make landfall right where he was standing, and all Noah could think was, Bring it on, you fucking bastard.
He was going to need more beer.
He drained the last of the bottle and walked inside. There were sheets of plywood for covering the glass and bags upon bags of groceries, enough to last him weeks if need be. Even an inflatable boat he’d snagged from HERO Force. As always, he was prepared for any eventuality, figuring the worst that could happen was he’d miss a week or two of work. But after his parting words with Cowboy, that wouldn’t be a problem.
I can’t even think about that shit right now.
He bent and opened the refrigerator, peering inside, hopeful Lizzie had kept a stash. No beer, damn it. He wasn’t much of a drinker and hadn’t bought any at the store in Atlanta, thinking getting drunk was a bad idea. Now he knew better.
Getting drunk was a fantastic idea.
He closed the fridge. There, on a magnet in front of him, was a newspaper clipping.
Joseph Fielding, age 34, died unexpectedly on December 18. A pediatrician, Joe received his M.D. from New York University…
Noah narrowed his eyes. Who was this man to his sister? A lover? A friend? As far as he knew, Lizzie wasn’t seeing anyone. He scanned the obituary.
…survived by his wife, Hannah (Grimes) Fielding, and loving son, Brady.
Not a lover, then. At least he sure hoped not. He read the piece more carefully, noting Dr. Fielding previously worked at the same hospital his sister did.
Mystery solved. A coworker, then.
He wondered briefly if Dr. Fielding’s family was dealing any better with his death than Noah was with his sister’s. Probably not.
He grabbed his wallet and keys. He’d passed a little bodega a few miles up the road on his way in that still had its lights on. He hoped it was open. They were bound to be out of bread and milk—hell, probably beer, for that matter—but when a man was dying of thirst, he had to check any riverbed, even if it might be dry.
He turned toward the door and stopped in his tracks. There was a stretch of hardwood in the living room where carpeting should have been. He hadn’t noticed it on his way in, his arms laden with supplies. But now all he could do was stare at it, the idea of Lizzie lying dead setting his imagination on fire.
He pushed out of the apartment, slamming the door on that picture and the reality he refused to accept.
Definitely need more beer.
He took the stairs two at a time to the parking garage beneath. The elevator was an unnecessary risk, one he hadn’t even taken while hauling the plywood. The power was going to go out, it was just a question of when, and he sure as fuck didn’t want to be trapped in a little box while all of Hilton Head Island was under a mandatory evacuation.
Not that the authorities had the power to make people leave. It was a free country, and he could wait the storm out here if he wanted to. There just wouldn’t be any emergency services available if he needed them. He’d heard on the radio on the way in the hospital was closing soon, police and EMTs having already gone off duty. Fortunately for him, he could take plenty good care of himself.
Even if I couldn’t save my sister.
It was raining hard and his wipers worked as quickly as they could to keep the windshield free of water, but it was an impossible task and he squinted at the road beyond. Palm trees bent precariously in the wind, their silhouettes against the stormy sky like harbingers of terrible things to come, but all he could think was it should always look like this, every moment of every day since his sister died, the outer world finally matching the turmoil inside him.
Through the rain he glimpsed a white commercial truck pulled to the side of the road. He slowed to a crawl to see if assistance was needed, belatedly realizing a police car sat in front of the truck with its lights off. Several men were climbing in and out of the truck, and he imagined they were abandoning the vehicle and attempting to get their inventory out of it.
He pulled in behind them and stepped into the rain, his head and body instantly soaked with water. “You guys need a hand?”
One man turned and stared at him just as a flash of lightning illuminated his face. Wide forehead, receding hairline, heavy beard.
Noah turned to see the others facing him in a small line, another flash of lightning like someone turning a light on and off. The men wore uniforms—three matching blue with dark pants and one policeman, but it was their expressions that had the hair on the back of Noah’s neck standing up.
They wanted him to go away.
Noah held up his hand in a curt wave and turned back to his car. Maybe the men had stumbled upon the abandoned truck and were looting its contents. Mother Nature’s tantrums brought out the best in most people, but the underbelly of society was always on the lookout for a quick buck. Or maybe he had it all wrong—one was a cop, after all.
He pulled back onto the road, continuing toward the lights of the bodega in the distance, but only got halfway there before he saw police lights in his rearview mirror. He sighed heavily and pulled to the side of the road, prepared for the inevitable discussion of the mandatory evacuation orders in place and his own right to stay wherever the hell he wanted to weather the storm.
I just want a goddamn beer.
He put his window down, the monsoon-like rains cold on his already soaked body. “Is there something I can do for you, officer?”
“License and registration.”
He took them out of his wallet and handed them to the cop, who turned and walked back to his vehicle. Noah’s mind went to the five firearms in his pickup truck. There was one in a holster at his waist, another under the seat, and three rifles in cases in the back. All registered, and of course he was licensed to carry, but a simple traffic stop had the potential to get a hell of a lot more complicated if he needed to disclose they were here.
The light returned to his window. “Get out of the car, sir.”
“I have a firearm holstered at my waist, officer.”
The sound of the cop pulling his weapon and releasing the safety was like a drum roll in Noah’s head. A prelude to what, he had no idea.
“Keep your hands where I can see them and get out of the truck.”
Noah lifted his hands and got out, the wind catching the truck door and slamming it past its natural open angle.
The cop shined the flashlight in Noah’s face. “Hands on the vehicle.”
He complied, the officer quickly taking his weapon. “What seems to be the problem, officer?” he repeated calmly.
“You are aware that this area is under mandatory evacuation order from the governor?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve chosen to stay in my home.”
“According to your license, your home is in Atlanta.”
“I have a condo here.”
Noah rattled off the address as thunder cracked and rolled. “I thought the precinct closed more than an hour ago.”
“How about you tell me why you stopped back there?”
“I thought somebody might be in trouble.”
“So you were just being a good Samaritan, is that right?”
“Trying to be, yeah.”
“You can turn around now, sir.”
“Thanks. I thought maybe that medical supply truck was having mechanical problems or something. With the storm coming, I just figured it was better to stop than keep going.”
Thunder rolled and the rain came down harder, the drops now covering his skin constantly like a faucet. He stared at the lights of the bodega. Any second now this douche was going to stop pulling his chain and let him get back in his truck, and Noah could only hope that store would still be open when he did.
“The medical supply truck,” said the officer. “Did you get a good look at the guys?”
“Just one, and you.”
The officer was quiet a beat too long, one single moment for Noah to realize something was wrong. Lightning flashed, illuminating the sky and the officer’s face once more. This time, a chill went through Noah’s body. He had seen too much. “Look, I didn’t see anything. You’ve got nothing to worry about from me, okay?”
He pictured the gun beneath the truck’s bench seat. If he opened the driver-side door, this guy would have his firearm pointed at Noah’s brain before he had one hand under the seat. Right at that moment, lightning struck over the officer’s shoulder, catching Noah’s attention. With a moment’s inspiration, he called, “Look out!”
The officer turned to look behind him and Noah ran behind the truck, opening the passenger-side door and grabbing his weapon from beneath the seat. The pop of the officer’s gun had Noah instantly in combat mode, experience and memories of wartime fire focusing his senses on the situation at hand. “What’s the matter?” asked Noah. “I wasn’t supposed to see that?”
“You should have left when you were told to go.”
He clucked his tongue. “I’m well within my rights to stay.”
“Then you should have minded your own damn business.” He fired again, the tire next to Noah instantly deflating.
Noah considered firing back at the officer, but the implications of such a shot were screaming in his brain. He hesitated. This wasn’t a war. It wasn’t even a HERO Force assignment. It was plain old real life with real-life implications for attacking someone in law enforcement.
He didn’t want to hurt this guy, and he sure as hell didn’t want to kill him. The officer was shooting out his tires, making it so he couldn’t escape. He hadn’t taken a shot directly at Noah.
“Damn shame what happened down in Hilton Head, did you hear?” asked the cop. “Some dumb-ass white tourist pulled a gun on a cop during a routine traffic stop.” He laughed and fired again. A burning took over Noah’s left thigh. He’d been hit.
His third gunshot wound. One in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, now this. A fucking traffic stop in the middle of Hilton Head Island. He wasn’t just trying to keep Noah from escaping.
This cop wanted him dead.
Killing a cop would make him an enemy of the state. One pull of his trigger finger could change his entire life. There’d be no more HERO Force. There would be jail time, or worse. South Carolina had the death penalty and there wasn’t a damn thing at this scene to back Noah up if the cop went down.
Do you want to live, or do you want to die?
Another bullet whizzed by his ear. Running would make him an easy target. He needed to act, no matter the consequences. Decision made, he concentrated on aiming his weapon, a careful shot into the other man’s shoulder that would be extremely painful but wasn’t likely to kill. But the cop moved quickly, coming around the vehicle, firing his weapon, and Noah’s focus shifted to a kill shot.
He pulled the trigger.
The cop fell to the ground like he’d tripped over a wire.
Noah’s breath was coming hard, the sound mixing with the rain pummeling the asphalt. He stood, moving to the cop and checking his neck for a pulse.
His eyes raked over the stormy landscape, nothing in sight but that damn same bodega. He was standing in a torrential downpour in fifty-five-mile-per-hour winds, about to go through a hurricane, and now he was a cop killer.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He went back to his truck and grabbed a flashlight, then unbuckled his belt and pulled his pants down to his knees. A hole in the top of his thigh was bleeding profusely. He reached around back, finding a matching hole four inches below where his thigh met his ass. He’d never be able to stitch it himself.
He grabbed a length of paracord from the glove box, tucked neatly between nineteen other carefully chosen items that could be used in a multitude of situations. He tied it as tightly as he could just above the entry and exit wounds. It would buy him some time, but not much of it. He was losing blood quickly and needed his injuries repaired.
He sat in his truck. His eyes closed a beat too long before he pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. Surely someone was answering emergency calls, even if they couldn’t dispatch someone to his location. He tried not to let himself consider what would happen to him now as he dialed.
He squinted at the bars in the corner of the screen. NO SERVICE. He threw the phone hard against the dash. “Goddamn it!”
He had no transportation and a bullet wound to his leg. His eyes went to the police cruiser. He could take it, but for how long? The next passerby could come at any moment or not for days, but when they did, whoever was driving that cruiser would be public enemy number one.
How far would he have to go to find an open hospital? Maybe a hundred miles. He’d be dead by then.
He turned his head in the opposite direction, the lights of the bodega standing out against the storm like a beacon. Someone was inside. Someone who might be able to help instead of him dying alone in the rain. He considered taking the cruiser to the bodega but dismissed the idea. He didn’t want the worker at the bodega to go on high alert.
He moved to the back of the truck and grabbed his go bag, slinging it over his shoulder. Inside were the medical supplies that could fix his injury—if only he could reach it—along with everything he needed to survive virtually any situation, at least initially.
It was important to be prepared, but sometimes life threw you curveballs all the preparation in the world couldn’t fix.
He limped off toward the bodega in the rain.
Dr. Hannah Fielding had just finished up an unprecedented thirty-seven-hour shift at Hilton Head Hospital. Pitching her body forward into the wind, she made her way to her car, her scrubs wet and plastered to her body. The microscope she carried was heavy in her arms. She was bone-tired, a weariness like she’d never before experienced suddenly replacing the adrenaline rush that had kept her going for the last day and a half.
She’d been responsible for the well-being of every patient in that hospital, for getting them transferred somewhere inland capable of weathering the storm that could handle each person’s individual problems. She sighed heavily. Director Patel should have taken on more responsibility, but instead he’d placed it all firmly in Hannah’s lap. And while she was proud of everything she’d accomplished at work, she was overwhelmed by her own lack of preparedness at home for the storm that had been growing outside the hospital windows.
She had to get to her son, Brady. Guilt clawed at her for leaving him with her in-laws for so long, but what choice did she have? Her phone was full of messages and voice mails from her mother-in-law, Theresa, not-so-patiently waiting for her to leave work.
The rain pelted her face and body, a moment’s weakness making her wish so desperately her life had turned out differently. If she’d known she was going to be a single mother, she never would’ve gone to medical school. Joe had encouraged her, even after she had the baby, but it wasn’t a job that let her be there for her son, and now she was all he had.
The close crack of thunder made her jump. She hated storms and would have liked nothing better than to evacuate during this one. But she was a healer, her occupation requiring she run toward danger instead of away from it.
Just let me get Brady home safely. That’s all I ask.
She envisioned empty grocery store shelves and cursed as she climbed into her little car. She was sure she had enough dry and canned goods to get them through, but the window of opportunity to buy bread and milk had long since passed.
The dashboard lit. She had less than a quarter tank of gas.
Enough to make it to her in-laws’ house across the island and back home, but talk about being unprepared for a disaster. She wanted to cry, fatigue bearing down, but didn’t have the energy to waste on self-pity.
All she had to do was stand her ground, camp out in the condo she shared with Brady while Oscar passed overhead, and hope for the best. She drove slowly through the empty streets of Hilton Head, the roads littered with branches, until she pulled into the circular drive of her in-laws’ house and ran to the door.
Back in the day they had loved her.
Joe’s parents had welcomed her into their family with open arms. Theresa in particular had been wonderful, so proud of her new daughter-in-law, the doctor. But their dynamic had become terribly strained after Joe died, with Theresa becoming more and more critical of Hannah and the choices she made raising Brady.
They loved their grandson and took good care of him, and for that Hannah was grateful. And if it meant she was on the receiving end of a lot of flack from her mother-in-law on a regular basis, then she would take Theresa’s snide remarks with a smile to keep her son happy.
Theresa pulled the door open as if she’d been standing there, waiting for Hannah to arrive, which she probably had. “I was starting to think we wouldn’t have time to evacuate. We almost decided to go and bring Brady with us.”
She wouldn’t take the bait. “I’m here now.”
“The eye wall is only forty miles offshore, Hannah. You could have given us a little more time.”
“Oh, leave her alone, Theresa.” She turned to her father-in-law, Tom, his features so much like Joe’s she sometimes found it hard to look at him. Brady was right on his heels. “Mama!”
She dropped down to his height and opened her arms, her heart seeming to take a deep breath as her sweet little boy pressed against her. She kissed his hair, smelling his head. He was hers. The most important thing in her life now and forever, and she wondered again if she should find a different career.
But she was in so much debt from Joe’s company — start-up debt that he would’ve dealt with over time had he lived — she couldn’t afford to take a position that paid less than her current one.
They hadn’t gotten around to increasing his life insurance since he opened shop—a stupid mistake that made his death that much more difficult to deal with. They’d been so busy, him trying to get the new company up and running before he’d even quit his job at the hospital.
“Brady, baby. I missed you so much. Were you good for Grandma and Grandpa?”
“We played Play-Doh and made forts.”
He had chocolate around his mouth, and she dabbed at it with her thumb. “Sounds like fun.”
“I missed you.” He tucked his head under her chin. “How come you have to work all the time?”
Five years old already. Where had the time gone? She was missing her son growing up and she felt like the worst mother in the world.
It’s just because you’ve been at the hospital so much this week, getting ready for the hurricane. It’s not always this bad.
“I don’t suppose you got to the grocery store?” asked Theresa.
Touché. If Hannah kept a list of everything she hadn’t done to get ready for the hurricane, she’d have one hell of a stack of paper. “We’ll be okay.”
Teresa shook her head. “You should come with us. There’s plenty of room in the RV and it isn’t safe for you to stay here.”
“I need to be close to the hospital in case they reopen. My place will be fine. It has hurricane glass and everything.”
“But the storm surge alone is going to be fifteen feet. You don’t understand what that’s going to do to the island, Hannah.”
“The building is steel. It’s more than sound enough to weather the storm, and I can wait out the storm surge as long as I need to. Please, let’s not fight about this again.” She moved to the table and dug through Brady’s bag, looking to see if he had everything. “Where’s Mr. Bojangles?”
“In my room,” said Brady, who went upstairs to grab his stuffed bear.
Theresa crossed her arms over her chest. “It isn’t safe for him to stay here.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“Stop.” Hannah held up her hand. “Just stop.”
Theresa inhaled loudly. The women faced off.
Tom cleared his throat. “We should get a move on.”
“I just need to finish up a few things, then we can be on our way,” said Theresa. She left the room.
Tom opened his arms and Hannah gratefully stepped into them. “She’s just worried about you,” he said. “She loves you. You know we both do, honey.”
“I know.” She pulled back.
“Be safe. Call us if you need anything.”
“The phones probably won’t be working.”
“How far are you going?”
“Up to Richmond. They still don’t know which way Oscar’s heading, and Theresa doesn’t want to have to move again once we get settled.”
Brady ran back downstairs. “Guess what, Mom? The weatherman said we might even get a tornado.”
She inwardly cringed. “Wow, that’s exciting. Say good-bye to Grandma and Grandpa. We’ve got to get home before the storm comes.”
She settled Brady in his booster seat.
“I can do it myself,” he complained.
She climbed back into her car, the water falling off her body like she’d just turned off the shower head. She felt better now that he was with her, her shoulders relaxed and her soul much calmer. She could deal with anything as long as she had her son by her side.
Through the rain-slicked glass, she saw her in-laws loading the last of their belongings into the camper.
You should go with them.
The thought caught her off guard.
It would be so easy to change her mind, to gather up Brady and his things and let Theresa and Tom drive them away from this place, leaving the storm behind. It would feel nice to be taken care of, to know she was safe without needing to slay any dragons herself. She wouldn’t need to be afraid.
She wouldn’t need to be alone.
Her in-laws climbed into the RV and closed the doors, the brake lights shining in her eyes. She started her car.
“I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, sweetie.” She backed out of the driveway.
Her condo was seven miles across town back by the hospital and tonight those miles were harrowing. She couldn’t remember ever seeing the island so deserted, and she found herself again questioning her decision to stay. It seemed everyone with any sense had left Hilton Head Island in their dust, leaving Hannah and her little son alone to face the storm.
She thought of the tornadoes Brady mentioned and shuddered.
The last thing I need right now is a freaking tornado.
Her shoulders were stiff and tight from driving through debris when she saw the lights of the corner store where she bought coffee on her way to work. With a grateful sigh she pulled into the parking lot. A big hand-painted sign read no gas.
Oh, well. Maybe she’d get lucky and find milk after all.
“Can I get gum?” asked Brady.
He sounded so cheerful, so childish, so unconcerned with the doubts that plagued her, and she loved him so much in that moment she felt her heart might burst. This was fun to him, an adventure, and she decided to do her best to play it off that way. “Sure you can, baby.” She unbuckled her seat belt, turning to face him with a smile. “Are you ready to get wet?”COLLAPSE