Her Fierce Warrior (X-Ops #4)

By: Paige Tyler

Prologue


Fort Bragg, North Carolina, May 2000

Angelo Rios slowed down when he got to the gate, and held out his military dependent ID card for the MP standing guard. The guy barely glanced at it before giving him a “hooah” and waving him through. Angelo had been driving his old beater car through the Fort Bragg gates several times a day ever since he’d gotten his learner’s permit two years ago, when he’d turned sixteen. He knew all the MP and civilian guards by name and they knew him. Fort Bragg might have thirty thousand military personnel and three or four times that many civilians, but in a lot of ways, the base was like one big extended family.

“Hey, Angelo! When do you report?” one of the younger MPs, Private First Class Spencer, shouted from the traffic lane beside him.

“About three weeks,” he yelled out the window as he drove his old Monte Carlo through the serpentine pattern of concrete barriers placed there to make sure no one sped through the gate too fast.

Angelo grinned as he made a right at the next road and headed toward the housing area. On an army base, everybody knew everybody’s business, including the fact that he’d be leaving for Basic Training at Fort Benning soon. He couldn’t wait. He’d wanted to be a soldier like his father ever since he could remember, and now he was finally going to be able to put on a uniform.

But while his dad was thrilled with his career choice, his mom was a different story. She absolutely hated the army and everything about it, especially life at Fort Bragg. Angelo could understand why. His dad had been deployed almost constantly over the last half-dozen years or so. Not only did that mean his mom had to take care of the family on her own, but also that she had to do it while living in terror that something might happen to his dad.

After twenty years, she thought he was finally getting out, but now his dad was considering staying in. Angelo didn’t blame him. The way his dad saw it, there weren’t a lot of civilian jobs out there for a man who only knew how to shoot, kill, and blow things up.

It hadn’t helped that Angelo picked the same weekend to tell her that Dad had signed the delayed-entry paperwork, so Angelo could join early, then ship out as soon as he turned eighteen and graduated high school. But seriously, what did she think he was going to do? He wasn’t going to get a job at the local Walmart or one of the nearby textile mills, and he sure as hell had no shot at college. He was done with sitting in classrooms. He was born to be Army Special Forces, just like his dad.

Even so, he felt a twinge of guilt as he pulled into the driveway of their ranch-style housing unit. He wished he could make his mom see that she didn’t have to worry about him, that he’d be safe, just like Dad had been all these years. But Angelo knew she’d worry anyway. And cry a lot. She did that every time Dad deployed, then again every time he called from whatever crap hole in West Africa or the Caribbean he was in. Angelo hated to see her cry.

He climbed out of the car with a sigh. Maybe Dad would change his mind and retire. Then maybe Mom could finally be a married woman who actually saw her husband.

Angelo unlocked the front door and walked into the house as quietly as he could, not sure if his mom was asleep. She slept like crap these days, and at odd hours. When she wasn’t waiting for a phone call from his dad, she was glued to CNN, praying nothing was going on in whatever part of the world Dad was in. Whenever she did get some rest, it was usually with the help of sleeping pills—but more often with the aid of alcohol.

He didn’t need to look around to know his two younger sisters, Venus and Lydia, weren’t home. The house was never this quiet when they were around. No doubt they were at a friend’s house. And since the television wasn’t on, that meant his mom was almost certainly sleeping. Just in case she wasn’t, he should let her know he was home.

He walked past the living room with its Native American meets Mexican decor and down the hallway that led to the back of the house. The door to his parents’ room was ajar, so he stuck his head in. It was just as he thought. His mom was asleep, her back to the door, blanket pulled all the way up over her shoulder.

He turned, about to head to the kitchen to grab something to eat, when something stopped him. He couldn’t say quite what it was, but something was…off.

He walked back into the room and slowly circled around to the other side of the bed. That’s when he saw the empty wineglass and the equally empty brown plastic bottle his mom’s prescription sleeping pills came in.

Angelo’s stomach clenched.

Please, God, no.

He might have called out her name, but he wasn’t sure. He shut everything out and focused on his mom’s face. Her hand was tucked under her cheek and her eyes were closed, like she was sleeping. For a fraction of a second, he thought she was. But the blanket wasn’t rising and falling with her breathing like it should have been.

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