Not wishing to invite attention or conversation, she stood alone, adrift from the crowd—vulnerable. Dressed casually in fitted jeans and an emerald green cardigan, she was tall and a little on the slim side. Her tousled blonde waves were tied in a careless knot at the nape of her neck as though she hadn’t given it a second thought, yet the effect was effortlessly beautiful. Shivering from the cold, she wrapped her arms around her body, hands moving up and down to keep warm. Green eyes remained focused on one thing, her watchful gaze never deviating from its direction. Some followed her line of sight and smiled indulgently. One man, after seeing what caught her attention, changed his mind about approaching her.
All of a sudden she smiled, wide, vibrant. The way it lit up her face drew the attention of those around her. It was like you’d been given the gift of seeing the sun radiate brilliant rays through dark clouds. It changed her demeanour completely and was enough to take your breath away. Her arms unfolded, the golden flecks in her eyes sparkling with life, and she appeared less isolated and more approachable. It made you wish it was you she was smiling at. That you were the one she needed to light up her entire soul from the inside out.
“Mummy, mummy!” yelled a little boy.
People turned at his shout seeing a toddler starting to lose his baby fat and heading towards lean, his windblown, dark brown hair curling softly over his ears. His cheeks were rosy from the cold, and his brown eyes were filled with delight as he ran towards the beautiful, solitary woman. You wouldn’t have picked the resemblance until she smiled. Her profile and the same delight in her eyes told you how much they belonged together.
“Hey, my baby.” She laughed, leaning down to catch him as he jumped into her arms.
“Tell me again, Mummy,” he demanded as she stood back up, the little boy happily settled on her hip, his place in her arms firmly and familiarly established.
He wriggled impatiently. “Pease, Mummy. Wanna hear ‘bout Daddy.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
She shifted over to a nearby seat and sat down, the little boy settling on her lap. Patiently while he fidgeted and squirmed before getting comfortable, she took the time to tuck a loose wave behind her ear and breathe deeply to calm the racing of her heart.
At his nod her smile dimmed, turning from indulgent to bittersweet, and a light sheen of tears stung her eyes. She closed them for a brief moment, composing herself, before blinking them back open to begin the tale.
“Your daddy was an SAS soldier with the Australian Army. Now these soldiers aren’t just your ordinary, everyday soldiers. These are the toughest, strongest men that ever lived. They—”
He interrupted with the same question he’d asked the last time she told her tale. “Stronger than SEALS right, mummy?”
“Yes, honey. The very best,” she replied at the interruption. This time, she expanded a little further. “Not just strong of body, though, sweetheart, but strong of mind...” she pointed to her temple “...and strong of heart.” She pointed to her heart. “But your father always said that being a soldier is never just about strength. It’s also about knowing what you want, how hard you’re willing to work for it, and what you’re willing to sacrifice for it.” She choked over the last words and faltered.
The little boy placed a chubby hand on her cheek. “You ‘kay, Mummy?”
She swallowed the sadness that formed a lump in her throat and forced a smile for her son. “Yes, little man, Mummy is okay. In fact, Mummy is going to be just fine.” She ran a loving fingertip down the soft, precious skin of his cheek. “Your father wanted to be an SAS soldier so much. More than he even wanted to breathe.”
“What’s breathe, Mummy?”
“See this?” She drew in a deep breath and exhaled noisily into his hair so he giggled. “That’s breathing. Breathing helps keep your heart beating, sweetheart.”
His big, dark eyes peered up at her intently, and her heart ached. “Did Daddy’s heart beat too, Mummy?”
She swallowed another lump at the memory of the words forever etched into her heart. “Your daddy once told me that his heart only beat for one thing.”
“What was that?”
“I’ll tell you.”
She began the rest of the story …
Approximately 5 years earlier
Forward Operating Base (FOB) Khost
“Yo, Kendall!” Jake called out.
Ryan turned and gave him the finger. Jake hadn’t shut up the entire afternoon. He’d been trying to tune him out, but Jake was a relentless bastard. Always had been.
Jake shook his head in mock disgust. “That all you got, mate?”
Ryan chuckled and turned back, continuing behind their Troop Commander, Paul “Monty” Montgomery, as he set the pace along the Pakistani border. Monty was enough to inspire confidence in any soldier—fit and experienced with uncanny instincts. He’d proven himself numerous times under fire. Relying on Monty to make split-second decisions—whether to fire or hold ground, push forward or retreat—was reassuring as fuck.
Twenty-five long days they’d been in the field now, finishing up their final patrol before heading back to base. Their SAS team was tasked with reconnaissance. Gathering intelligence on the Taliban in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan was notoriously dangerous.
The air was dry and hot, and the mountains rocky and a pain in the ass to navigate under the cover of night. And the dust—fuck, he was over it. It got in his hair, his clothes, and even his ass crack, making the trek that much more uncomfortable.
“Is that all I got?” Ryan raised his brows at Jake as they kept up the punishing pace. “It’ll hold you for now.”
“I need more than that to hold me. I need a drink and something to f**king eat.”
Ryan’s stomach grumbled in reply, rolling over with a loud, queasy thump. Rations had been depleted two days ago, and he’d been pushing away visions of thick steaks and hot chips ever since. “Don’t talk about food.”
“How much further ‘til we hit our extraction zone, Monty?” Jake called out quietly.
“Two k’s,” Monty replied without allowing his focus on their surroundings to waver. Despite the talk, the hunger, and the exhaustion, his entire team remained alert and vigilant. The thought of an action being the cause of an injury or death was their worst nightmare—simply unthinkable. But that shit happened, and when it did, Ryan was just that much more determined to keep being a soldier. They all had more to fight for than a war—they were fighting for those they’d lost too.
“I can handle that,” Jake replied. “Not so sure about Kendall here. He’s looking a bit weak and tired. Maybe we need to stop so he can have a nanna nap.”
With a back aching from the heavy weight of his pack, Ryan turned and rolled his dark brown eyes at Jake.
Jake grinned in reply, his teeth white against the filthy camouflage covering his face. Jake was a good looking sonofabitch—choppy blond hair, green eyes, and a movie star smile. It fooled most because he was a tough, determined bastard with more drive in his pinky finger than any other as**ole that made it through SAS selection. Jake could out-run, out-shoot, and out-lift all of them. He was only one of a handful that made it through the hell that was SAS selection.
“Good one, asshole,” Ryan muttered. “Why don’t you quit eyeballing my ass and keep your mind to the f**king terrain.”
After a few moments of peace, a loud thunk broke the silence and a quiet “fuck” was muttered. They turned and laughs rang out at their team sniper, Chris Galloway, on his hands and knees, palms no doubt bleeding from the sharp rocks. He stood and dusted his hands on his Army issue fatigues.
“Go f**k yourselves,” he said with a rueful grin.
“Christ. No talk about f**king. I’m horny,” Kyle moaned.
“You’re a sick bastard, Brooks,” Jake told Kyle.
Kyle grinned and grabbed his crotch. “No sicker than you.”
Ryan tuned them out for a while, concentrating on keeping his feet moving, until Jake’s voice filled the silence again. “Gonna Skype Fin when we get back. You should say hello to her, Kendall. You never do.”
The old familiar ache at the mention of Jake’s sister taunted him, and he shoved it away. “Why the f**k would I want to do that? You Skype enough for all of us combined...” he shook his head “...chattering like a f**king girl.”
Ryan had no intention of talking to Finlay Tanner, and he was desperate to keep it that way. Six impossibly long years had passed since he walked out of her life. Despite not having seen her since, Ryan thought of her constantly, the ache of missing her hurting a little more each day. The never ending loneliness he felt had been his choice, and he forced himself to live with it. Being a soldier like his grandfather had been Ryan’s dream for as long as he could remember. Like blinking or breathing, it was just there, living inside him, giving his body a reason to function. He couldn’t let anything stand in the way of it. Yet Fin almost had, without him even realising it until it was almost too late.
Jake interrupted his thoughts. “Too bad. I’ll drag you there if I have to. Maybe Fin might be able to get a smile out of you, considering my jokes are wasted on your sorry ass.”
“I can smile.” Ryan turned and bared his teeth, locking his thoughts of Fin into the box of precious memories tucked inside him—an almost impossible feat with Jake being her older brother. They looked so much alike, down to sharing the same cheeky sparkle of life in their matching green eyes. “Besides, I told you to quit eyeballing my ass. Next thing you’ll be getting a boner over it.”
“Fuck. I’m trying to get you to smile, not get all impressed over my monster dick.”
“Jesus, your sister is f**king hot. I’d do more than Skype her,” Kyle called out from the back of the pack with a grin.
Ryan opened his mouth, ready to tell Kyle to keep his hands to himself, but Jake beat him to it.
“Fuck you, Brooks,” Jake called back. “My sister is too smart for your fat, ugly ass, and if you ever got anywhere near her, I’d chop your tiny f**king dick off.”
Kyle Brooks, made up of nothing but rock solid muscle, laughed. “Tiny? You’d need a magnifying glass to see yours. And I wish it was f**king.”
“Keep it in your pants,” Connor, the final member of their six man team, told him. Connor was their patrol signaller and went by “Tex” to the troops because he’d been born in Texas. Tex had moved to Australia when he was five to live with his aunt and uncle after his parents, both Australian expats, died in a car accident.
Eventually they reached their extraction point, and hearing the woomph, woomph, woomph of the Black Hawk helicopter, Ryan set off a small smoke grenade to reveal their position.
Once inside the big camouflaged beast, the chopper lifted off and he held on, his stomach lurching as they launched hard right into the sky. The wind fluttered his short, dark hair, and he lifted his head, revelling in the rush of the ride.
On their way back to base, Ryan’s thoughts once again returned to Fin and the day he’d met her.
He’d been ten years old and even at that age his dream of being a soldier had already taken hold. Life at home was a nightmare he couldn’t wait to escape from. His parents fought constantly, and he was always getting caught in the crossfire. His dad was an as**ole and a drunk. Most kids his age got grounded, but Ryan wasn’t that lucky. He got the belt, and if his dad was drunk enough, he got a fist. He did his best to hide it—the bruising, the fractures, and the painful welts—because he had a plan. He was going to get out and see places. He would become someone that would make a difference. At school he’d been popular, excelling at sports and grades. None of it came easy. Ryan wanted to close himself off from the world, yet he persevered, working hard at all of it, slowly building his escape.
Then Fin stumbled into his life, and he almost lost focus. It had been the first day of the school year. Ryan and his friends were congregated in front of the school, leaning against the red brick building or sitting by the top of the stairs, unwilling to give up their last moments of freedom by going inside.
A young girl, blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders in messy waves, approached the stairs and caught Ryan’s eye. Having never seen her before, he watched curiously. Her steps were awkward, timid even. His eyes fell to her hands. The knuckles were white where they gripped the shoulder straps of her bag. She took the first step on the stairs, stumbled over her shoelace, and fell to her knees.
Teasing laughter rang out behind him as her hands planted hard on the steps to catch her fall. She lifted her head, wide green eyes looking right at him. His chest tightened at the sweet vulnerability in her face. Something about her had him wanting to reach out and hide her behind his back, like the world would have to get through him before anything could touch her.
“Shut up,” Ryan growled over his shoulder to his friends and made his way down the stairs to help her.
Reaching the second step from the bottom, he held out a hand, palm up, and waited. Her eyes moved from Ryan’s face to his hand before reaching out and taking it in hers. Her hand was tiny, disappearing when his fingers closed around it.
“Th-thank you,” she stammered as he helped her to her feet.
“Maybe you should keep your shoelaces tied in the future,” he told her sharply, hiding his confusion behind a frown. The immediate attachment he felt left him unsettled.
“Fin!” The girl turned and around the corner came a boy who looked just like her, except taller. His eyes fell on their joined hands, his brows drawn. “What’s going on?” Ryan let go hastily as the blond boy turned his focus on him. “Who the hell are you?”