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Book 1: Warrior Series
Copyright ©2013 by Laura Taylor
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9893204-0-5
All rights reserved. No portion of this book, regardless of its format, may be duplicated or transmitted without prior written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright ©1994 by Laura Taylor
“Laura Taylor writes with the power and sensuality that characterizes the best authors in the romance genre.”
About the Author
Laura Taylor’s romance writing awards include 6 Lifetime Achievement, Reviewer’s Choice, and Career Achievement Awards and Certificates from ROMANTIC TIMES, 2 MAGGIE Awards from GRW/RWA, a Golden Rose Award from the Gold Coast Chapter of RWA, an RWA Golden Heart Series Romance Finalist Award, and an RWA RITA Finalist Award.
ROMANTIC TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“…a firecracker of a book from Laura Taylor! In the beautifully written DESERT ROSE, a downed pilot imprisoned in the Middle East learns the true meaning of love when a lovely humanitarian relief worker is thrown into the next cell. Ms. Taylor brings more than one tear to the eye as she brilliantly depicts the very high price sometimes asked of individuals in the name of higher causes. But it is the joy of her lovers’ triumph over their adversity that will linger with you always.”
Awards for Laura Taylor & DESERT ROSE
Reviewer’s Choice Certificate of Excellence for Best Series Romance Novel – Romantic Times
Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Bantam Loveswept Novel of the Year – Romantic Times
Reader Praise for DESERT ROSE
“I absolutely loved this book!”
“If you like patriotic, tough as nails military guys with a sensitive side, read this!”
“Loved the book … I look forward to reading more from Laura Taylor!”
“Great writing style by the author.”
“I loved this story!”
“Yet another winner by Laura Taylor!”
“They found true love in the most terrifying place.”
For dear friends, thriller writer Andrew Peterson
DAVID WINSLOW dreamed with all of his senses engaged. He craved the heat and willingness of a sensual woman, a rare steak, and a six-pack of ice-cold American beer – just a few of the pleasures he’d been denied during the endless days and nights of isolation, hunger, and torture that he’d endured since his captivity and imprisonment.
Sprawled on his back atop a rank-smelling pallet that failed to accommodate his large-framed body, he shifted restlessly. He groaned in his sleep, the ache in his empty belly nearly as severe as the ache in his loins.
Reaching out, David sought comfort where none existed in his nightmares. He found nothing more substantial than air. Disappointment and frustration made him groan a second time. A volley of rifle shots suddenly exploded in the courtyard adjacent to his cellblock.
He jerked upright into a seated position. He crossed his arms in front of his face and upper torso, an instinctive defensive posture against any and all threats. His chest heaved, the air raging in and out of his body scalding his lungs even as he scanned the shadowed corners of his small cell through narrowed eyes.
David scowled and brought himself under control. He stilled his body, and he slowed his breathing as he listened for the subtlest hint that he might no longer be the sole occupant of the cellblock.
Several tense minutes passed.
Finally convinced that he was still alone, he pushed himself up to his feet and prowled the cell like the caged animal he knew he’d become. He remained in motion for nearly an hour, the exercise tiring but also an integral part of his morning ritual.
David eventually paused in front of his makeshift calendar. He simmered with renewed fury as he stared at the grooves he’d already made in the wall with a metal tab removed from a zipper on his flight suit. Digging into his pocket, he fingered the sharpened tab and resigned himself to making the fifty-seventh mark.
Fighting the despair that fought for dominance in his mind as he completed his task, David returned to his pallet. As he sat, spine rigid and fists clenched so tightly that they began to ache, he fought for a mental state somewhere between self-pity and hopefulness.
He longed for the luxury of companionship and conversation, just as he craved decent food, a hot shower, and clean clothes. He whispered a prayer for freedom, but he couldn’t keep himself from wondering if anyone even knew he was alive and if they would ever respond to his fervent entreaty.
David closed his eyes, bowed his head, and massaged the back of his neck. He calmed himself with steadying breaths. And in the silence of his cell, he once again vowed to survive this Middle East hellhole in spite of the odds stacked against him.
An objective observer would understand and empathize with his frustration, his loneliness, and his constant fear of being executed without a trial. But his captors would never permit an observer, not even one from the International Red Cross. The Geneva Convention meant nothing here.
Instead, David Winslow, a defiantly stubborn thirty-five year-old aviator, American citizen, and officer in the United States Marine Corps – the same man who refused to succumb to starvation or to surrender to the other acts of violence inflicted upon him by his guards – consciously and steadfastly endured.
An unexpected sound jarred him from his thoughts. He surged to his feet and moved into the shadowed corner of his cell. Tension tightened every muscle in his body when he heard more than one set of footsteps rushing down the cellblock’s center aisle.
Squaring his shoulders, David worked at mastering his anxiety over the prospect of yet another torture session with his interrogators. He counted each second that passed. A fine sheen of perspiration covered his face, and he grimaced as he recalled the beatings he’d experienced during two long months of captivity.
Raking a hand through his dark hair, David froze when the barred door of the cell next to his was shoved open. One of the guards shouted in an Arabic dialect, his ire evident. David took a shallow breath, then another.
Another prisoner? he wondered.
The shouting continued, and then something – or someone – landed on the cell floor. The barred door slammed closed, the squealing resistance of the rusty tracks a lingering punctuation mark in the otherwise silent cellblock. The guards quickly departed without even glancing in his direction.
Bewildered, he gave into his curiosity and cautiously emerged from the shadowed corner. He slid along the wall, but the sound of sobbing brought him up short. He exhaled as compassion and comprehension blunted his surprise.
Understanding the man’s need for privacy, he remained silent as he stood there. He would give his fellow prisoner time to compose himself, time to come to terms with the shock and horror he felt. David leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes, and wondered if they spoke a common language.
“This cannot be happening.”
David stiffened, unable to believe his ears.
“This is not happening to me,” the female voice groaned again through her weeping.
A woman? An English-speaking woman?
He shook his head in denial. He was losing it, he realized. He’d dreamed nightly about the soft, welcoming embrace of a woman, and he’d finally been reduced to fantasizing that one now occupied the adjacent cell.
He tried to speak, tried to verify her existence, but each time he opened his mouth, words failed him. Disgusted with his own uncertainty and afraid that he’d manufactured a companion out of desperation, he retreated to his pallet.
Her sobbing eventually abated, and he welcomed the respite from her shattered emotions. His own emotions, he realized, were unsettled enough. Still, disbelief and doubt lingered within him, and he felt compelled to make certain that he hadn’t imagined her.
“Are you alright?” David Winslow asked in a voice ragged from lack of use.
“ARE YOU alright?”
The question came out of nowhere, starling Emma so thoroughly that she dropped the tote bag she’d been clutching against her chest. Certain she’d imagined the masculine voice, she groaned, “Oh, God.”
“Can you hear me?” the man asked. “Are you alright?”
Wondering if she’d crossed the fine line that separated sanity from insanity, she tilted her head to one side and listened as she knelt on the filth encrusted floor of her narrow cell.
“Okay, we’ll try this one more time.”
Emma found the mellow resonance of his deep voice oddly reassuring, but she still didn’t quite trust her own ears.
“Are you alright?”
“Who’s there?” she whispered, finally willing to believe she wasn’t alone.
“David Winslow. Major, United States Marine Corps.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Don’t I wish,” he responded.
“What … how … I don’t understand.”
“Try to stay calm, miss,” he advised. “When you can manage it, I want you to tell me your name.”
“Emma … Emma Hamilton.”
“Are you alright, Emma Hamilton? Have you been injured in any way?”
She didn’t even attempt to varnish the part of the truth she was willing to reveal. “My pride’s dented, I’m scared out of my mind, and I’d kill for a shower, clean clothes, and a way out of this nightmare I seem to be having.” Emma swallowed against her rising panic. “It isn’t a nightmare, though, is it? I’m really in a prison cell.”
“I’m afraid so.” David paused. Then, he asked, “Where are you from?”
“San Diego,” she replied, relieved to be asked a question she could actually answer, and even more relieved that this man sounded so … so normal.
“A California girl, huh?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I left my bikini at home and my hair’s jet black.”
“I am mortally wounded.”
Laughter burst out of her, and she briefly forgot that she might never see her family again. “What about you? Where are you from?”
“Billings, Montana. Born and bred.”
Amazed, she said, “A cowboy?”
“A Marine, miss.”
She heard his pride and found it endearing, but a wisp of suspicion unexpectedly filtered into her consciousness. “This isn’t some kind of a trick, is it? Did the secret police put you in here to test me?”
She waited for him to answer, but his silence made her start to wonder if he would ever speak to her again. She urged, “Please don’t stop talking to me. I’m … I’m holding onto my wits with my fingernails right now, and I really need to believe you’re real.”
“I’ve been thinking the secret police might have put you in here,” David admitted.
Emma nodded and tried to sound in control of her emotions. “I guess that’s understandable.” Curious, she asked, “So, what are you really doing here?”
“Counting the days,” he quipped, but the anger edging his voice made his attempt at levity fall flat.
“Americans aren’t exactly welcome in this part of the world,” she said, “unless, of course, we happen to be providing food, medical supplies, or money for weapons.”
“That much I’ve figured out.”
“Please don’t tell me you work for the CIA.”
He laughed then, the sound blessedly normal and possessed of no small amount of seduction. “Now I know you aren’t a plant. You’re too blunt.”
Emma didn’t appreciate his observation, having been accused for years, especially by her diplomat brother, Sam, of having little or no tact. Nor was she prepared for the underlying sensuality of his laughter, which made her fumble for her next comment. “I guess you aren’t allowed to discuss your … mission, are you?”
The humor remained in his voice. “Reconnaissance isn’t considered a secret when routine visual recon missions are agreed upon by both sides.”
“Then you’re a pilot?”
“Second seat of an F-18D.”
“Behind the pilot. I’m a Weapons Systems Officer,” David clarified.
“I know almost nothing about military airplanes.”
He chuckled. “Most people don’t, but I won’t take it personally.”
A door squeaked open and slammed against a wall at the far end of the corridor, followed by footsteps advancing toward her cell. Emma, jerked back to the reality of imprisonment, stiffened with apprehension.
“David?” she whispered.
“Stay calm and don’t speak to the guard, Emma. It’s the safest thing to do with these people.”
She felt pure terror at the possibility of additional interrogation – and the rubber hoses. Dear God, not another beating with those rubber hoses as she writhed on the floor while her interrogators jeered at her and called her a whore. “I don’t expect to ever feel safe again, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever feel anything but fear.”
David muttered a harsh word, but he didn’t say anything more to her. She remained motionless on the floor in the center of her cell. And as she knelt there, her mind filled to overflowing with images of cruelty and violence, Emma suddenly wondered how long David Winslow had been incarcerated.
A uniformed guard paused in front of her cell. Her heart thundered against her ribs as she kept her eyes fastened on the scuffed surface of his boots. Hugging her tote bag, she said silent prayers and kept her head bowed.
The guard finally moved on, paused in front of what Emma assumed was David’s cell, lingered there for a long silent minute, and then retraced his footsteps. She began to breathe normally again only after she heard the cellblock door at the end of the hallway slam shut.
“Yes?” She loathed the quiver she heard in her voice, but she couldn’t stem the tide of anxiety that threatened to engulf her. The consequences of imprisonment in a Middle East country considered renegade by the rest of the world were almost too shocking to fully grasp.
“The guards check the cells nearly every hour. You’ve just experienced routine rounds. That guy’s one of the regulars in this cellblock.”
She managed, “I’ll have to trust you.”
He hesitated before cautioning, “We’ll have to trust each other as long as we’re in here together.”
Her mouth went as dry as dust. She began to shake. She couldn’t stop the violent trembling of her body or the sudden chattering of her teeth.
“Talk to me, Emma,” David ordered sharply. “It’ll help you deal with the stress.”
“Can’t!” she gasped.
“If you’re having the shakes, get up and move around your cell. You can walk off the tension you’re feeling. It’s normal, so don’t start thinking that you’re cracking up, because you’re not. I experienced the same thing you’re going through right now when I first checked into this hotel from hell.”
She heard compassion in his rough voice, but she lacked the strength to move just yet. “I think I’d rather listen for now, if that’s okay with you. I’m still a little too shaky to do much chatting or hiking.”
“My legs feel like rubber bands right now. Soon, though,” she promised. “Just give me a few minutes.”
After a brief silence, he seemed to accept her decision. “Alright, Emma. You need to know the rules around here. I’ve discovered that these guys aren’t real patient if you don’t observe them. Understand?”
“Yes. Tell me the rules, David.”
“Don’t ever initiate conversation of any kind, not unless you’re prepared to confess to whatever crimes they’re accusing you of having committed. Always keep your eyes averted unless ordered to do otherwise. Study a shoulder or a spot on the wall when they speak to you or if you have to answer a question. These guys consider prisoners of war and women about ten notches down from second-class citizens.”
“How enlightened,” she croaked.
“Have you … have you been interrogated?” he asked in a somber tone that revealed his familiarity with the experience.
She nodded, forgetting for a moment that they couldn’t see each other.
“Sorry. Yes. I’ve been interrogated.”
“How long did it last?”
“They started around dusk yesterday. They hammered at me all night long and then for most of this morning … ” Her voice splintered, and it took her several silent minutes to slow her racing heart.
She vividly recalled the angry smack of a hard rubber hose as it snapped against her legs and arms when they’d wanted to rouse her after she’d fainted, the further humiliation of being allowed to stand before being knocked to the floor for another round with the rubber hoses, and the endless questioning by a series of interrogators who possessed less humanity than a pile of rocks.
And then there’d been the constant threat of rape. Never stated, of course, but it had been there like a separate entity in the hard eyes of the leering men who’d questioned her. She suppressed a shudder, refusing to fall apart. She’d be damned if she gave those bastards the satisfaction.
“Your breathing’s calmer now.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I still don’t understand why they think I’m some kind of a spy. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You’re tired, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Tears welled in her eyes at the concern in his voice, but she blinked them away.
“And you’re more frightened than you ever thought you could be.”
“You don’t sound scared.” And he didn’t, she realized, suddenly jealous of his composure. “In fact, you sound very calm and collected.”
“I’ve just had more practice at this. Fear and fatigue work in their favor,” he reminded her. “The secret is to use their system against them. Never overtly challenge your captors, simply undermine their tactics.”
“You’re trained for this, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t always … ” He broke off, not bothering to complete the sentence.
“It doesn’t what?”
Silence followed, stretching out into a tautness that seemed to speak volumes. He finally said, “It doesn’t always matter.”
“Have you been tortured?” she asked.
“Part of the package.”
Hard, dismissive, clipped-sounding voice. Matter of fact tone. She felt more chilled than before. She didn’t ask what they’d done to him. It was enough that she knew what they’d done to her – their cruelty would be much worse for a man – especially a man in uniform who represented a foreign power.
“Emma, your innocence is your best defense.”
“I hope so.”
He resumed his guidance in a measured deep voice, and she slowly responded to his patience and rational advice. She would try, she promised herself, to imitate his calmness even though she felt anything but calm.
“Your training was thorough,” she observed sometime later.
“Survival school. It’s mandatory for all aviators.”
He paused. She sensed that he was carefully weighing his words. She wondered why, but she didn’t press him. She also wondered about David Winslow, the man. Because she couldn’t see him, she gave into the impulse to speculate. His voice implied that he was a large man. Not a pretty man, she decided, but rugged and big and broad shouldered. Emma sighed. She felt safer somehow with his sturdy image forming in her mind.
“Look, I’ll teach you as much as I can, but I doubt you’ll need the lessons. Keeping a woman in this hellhole isn’t real bright, but then I’m not too impressed with their concept of military behavior. Half of the people I’ve encountered here are inept or inexperienced. The rest are just plain mean, and they’re the ones you’ll need to survive.” David exhaled, the sound weighted by the experience of his own captivity. “But it’s more likely that they’ll just feed you poorly for a few days, try to intimidate you, and then release you to one of the embassies on good terms with the U.S. Probably the Canadians or the Brits.”
She flashed on what they’d already done to her. “What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me.” His voice sounded flat. “There’s no percentage in it.”
“But I know you exist. If they put us next to each other, perhaps they have other plans for us. Maybe they intend to use us as the star attractions in some horrendous media event.” She made a choking sound. “These people televise beheadings, for God’s sake!”
“Don’t anticipate the worst. Just plan for it.”
“An old Montana saying?” she snapped.
“Just common sense.”
She relaxed incrementally. “I’ve been told that I lack that particular characteristic.”
“Yes. Sam thinks I’m hopeless, but then I suspect he believes that all women are hopeless.”
“The bane of my existence.”
“Sounds like a strange relationship,” he observed.
“Your typical love-hate, but I secretly adore him.”
“I don’t like the guy already.”
Emma laughed with soft affection. “He’s alright, just opinionated.”
“You deserve better.”
Startled by his sharpness, she pointed out, “You don’t know me well enough to know what I deserve. Sam’s like any…”
“You’re right,” he cut in, “I don’t know you at all.”
“… big brother,” she finished in a whisper as she shrank back from David’s sudden brusqueness. She felt tense and frightened again. What had she said to provoke such an abrupt change in him?
“Try to rest, but don’t use sleep as an escape from what’s happening in here. When you’re awake, get up and move around your cell. Exercise is crucial for a positive state of mind. Keep your circulation flowing and your body strong, even if you aren’t given decent rations. It’ll help to distract you when the hours drag.”
“I’m hungry,” she admitted in a small voice as she absently smoothed her long black hair away from her face.
“Ditto. Don’t expect too much. The menu is limited to boiled vegetables in a watered-down broth, crusts of bread, that kind of thing. I’ve had rice a few times, but not with any regularity, so don’t count on it, either. Service is erratic, but someone usually shows up with what passes for food around here at least once a day. I’ve lost some weight. You probably will, too, unless your people can get you an early release. Who are they, by the way?”
“Child Feed. It’s part of the Samaritan Foundation. We focus on humanitarian issues that impact children across the globe, especially if there’s a situation involving warfare or natural disaster population displacement.”
“I know the outfit. One of the few organizations that actually uses all of its donations for the people it serves, which is saying something in this day and age.”
“That’s why I work for them.”
As they talked she worked her hair into a loose braid that trailed down the center of her back to her waist, appreciative of the information he provided in his steady, matter-of-fact voice. She found herself liking him and his willingness to share his strength.
“How long have you been here?” she asked when he finally fell silent.
“Too fucking long!”
She flinched. “How long, David?”
Stunned by his reply and amazed by his endurance, she released a ragged sigh. Nearly two months of captivity, and David Winslow still possessed courage and the ability to be compassionate to a total stranger.
Emma finally found her voice. “Have you been allowed to speak with anyone from a friendly embassy?”
He didn’t respond.
“No,” he ground out. “They haven’t let me speak to anyone. You’re the first … ” An odd sound escaped him. “ … the first person I’ve spoken to since I was captured and brought here.”
She smiled. “For being so patient with me. You could have ignored me, and I wouldn’t have blamed you.”
“Not my style, Emma.”
His gruff voice made her want to hug him. She promised herself that she would someday. “I’ve already sensed that about you. You’re a … ”
“Christ! Not the N word.”
She laughed, and then she clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. “No, not the N word. Actually, decent was the word that popped into my head.”
She heard him clear his throat, then the sound of his footsteps as he paced back and forth in his cell. Uncertain what to say next, she shifted and tried to find a comfortable position while she waited for him to speak to her again.
Because her jeans and blouse were already filthy, Emma didn’t dwell on the grime embedded into the cell’s floor. Instead, she tugged her cape around her shoulders like a shawl to ward off the damp winter chill. And she reminded herself to take deep breaths each time she felt a wave of fear start to crash over her.
“They didn’t … you weren’t…”
She understood what he was asking. “I wasn’t raped, although … although for a while I expected to be. As things stand, I know the possibility still exists. I won’t pretend it doesn’t. The guards just tried to terrorize me by hauling me around like a sack of grain, slapping me, or knocking me off my feet when I wasn’t tied to a wooden chair in the interrogation room.”
She heard him exhale. Relief? Worry? She couldn’t quite define the sound, but she definitely understood the crude word he uttered a heartbeat later.
“What about you? Did they hurt you?”
“Of course, it matters!” she exclaimed despite his dismissive comment. “Tell me the truth. Were you mistreated? I heard other people being tortured during my interrogation. So don’t think lying to me will make me feel any better, because it won’t.”
“They used me for a punching bag during the early days, but I’ve pretty much healed.”
His negligent tone served to arouse her concern. “What did they do to you?” she pressed.
”What you’d expect in this type of a situation … just the usual shit.”
“The usual,” she echoed in disbelief. “Perhaps it’s ‘the usual’ with some back-alley criminal element or terrorists, but not among civilized people capable of talking to each other. I don’t care how different cultures are,” she insisted heatedly, “violence isn’t necessary and shouldn’t ever be condoned. Were you given medical care?”
“Emma, relax.” His voice reflected his amazement at her outburst. “You can’t change what’s already happened. Besides, a medic took care of me. He reset my dislocated shoulder, sutured the worst of the cuts, and gave me some pills. Hopefully, they were antibiotics.”
“How are you now?” she questioned in the determined tone she used on intransigent government officials when they tried to thwart her efforts on behalf of refugees.
“Fine, so change the subject.”
She sensed that he’d suffered far more than he was willing to admit. And she also sensed that she had just entered into an oddly intimate relationship with David Winslow, despite the fact that they couldn’t see or touch each other.
“With a little luck, the scars will fade and I won’t scare all the kids in my neighborhood when I get home,” he muttered.
She laughed at the wry note in his voice. “I like your attitude.”
“Self-pity won’t cut it in here. I figured that out right away.”
“Remind me of that if I start to act like a big baby.”
She shivered, suddenly aware that the old adage – only the strong survive – would undoubtedly be tested in the hours and days ahead. Emma offered a silent prayer that she would find the strength within herself to endure the hour to hour uncertainty of imprisonment.
“You may be untested, but you don’t strike me as the baby type. Besides, if you’ve survived the hotspots I think you have, starvation rations and filth won’t take you down.”
“I hope you’re right.” She rubbed at the gooseflesh on her arms, shivering beneath her cape. “I really hope you’re right, because I certainly wouldn’t want to become the weak link on this team.”
UNABLE TO sleep despite the late hour, David listened to the sporadic bursts of gunfire from automatic weapons and the periodic grenade explosions that punctuated the night. He no longer felt alarmed by the sounds of violence, just a weary kind of resignation at what passed for normal in so much of the Middle East.
He suspected that the skirmishes between troops loyal to the government and the various political factions that controlled segments of the capital would continue until the country’s dictator was overthrown and replaced by elected officials. Until then he expected to remain a prisoner, a potential bargaining chip to be used, or perhaps eventually disposed of, depending upon the ever-shifting political winds of this part of the world.
He exhaled heavily and closed his large hands into fists, frustration gnawing on his nerves as he racked his brain yet again for a means of escape. Barring a minor miracle, he already knew that no successful route existed. Diplomacy would be his sole savior, even if he preferred and prayed for a covert military op. But nothing could happen unless someone even knew he was still alive.
Restless and on edge, David abandoned his pallet and paced. He allowed himself the luxury of thinking about his family for a few moments, although he understood how self-destructive it was to linger on the emotional stress his missing-in-action status had to be inflicting on his mother and sister. Deeply concerned about them, he knew they wouldn’t give up hope and wouldn’t stop praying for his safe return.