Excerpt 2017-05-12T14:30:03+00:00

The Admiral’s Bride

Sergeant Matthew Lange had been left to die.

His leg was badly broken and he had shrapnel embedded in his entire right side. It hadn’t hit anything vital. He knew, because he’d been hit hours ago and he wasn’t dead yet. And that was almost a shame.

His morphine wasn’t working. He not only hurt like hell but he was still alert enough to know what was coming.

The soldier next to him knew, too. He lay there, crying softly. Jim was his name. Jimmy D’Angelo. He was just a kid, really — barely eighteen — and he wasn’t going to get any older.

None of them were.

There were a dozen of them there, United States Marines, hiding and bleeding in the jungle of a country too small to have been mentioned in 5th grade geography class. They were too badly injured to walk out, but most of ’em were still conscious, still alive enough to know that sometime within the next few hours, they were going to die.

Charlie was coming.

Probably right before dawn.

The Viet Cong had launched a major offensive yesterday morning, and Matt’s platoon had been one of several trapped by the attack. They were now God knows how many clicks behind enemy lines, with no chance of rescue.

Hours ago, Captain Tyler had radioed for help, but help wasn’t coming. There were no chopper pilots insane enough to fly into this hot spot. They were on their own.

But then the bomb dropped — close to literally. Well, at least it would be dropping literally, come morning. The captain been ordered out of the area. He was told that in an attempt to halt the Viet Cong, the Americans would be napalming this very mountain in less than twelve hours.

There had been twenty injured men. They’d outnumbered the uninjured by more than two to one.

Captain Tyler had played God, choosing the eight least wounded to drag out of there. He’d looked at Matt, looked at his leg, and he’d shaken his head. No. He’d had tears in his eyes, not that that helped much now.

Father O’Brien had been only one to stay behind.

Matt could hear his quiet voice, murmuring words of comfort to the dying men.

If Charlie found them, he’d use bayonets to kill them. He wouldn’t want to waste bullets on men who couldn’t fight back. And Matt couldn’t fight back. His right arm was useless, his left too weak to shoulder his weapon. Most of the other guys were worse than he was. And he couldn’t picture Father O’Brien picking up someone’s machine gun and giving Charlie a mouthful of lead.

No, bayonets or burning. That’s what their future had come down to.

Matt felt like weeping along with Jimmy.

“Sarge?”

“Yeah, Jim. I’m still here.” Like Matt might’ve walked away.

“You have a family, don’t you?”

Matt closed his eyes, picturing Lisa’s sweet face. “Yeah,” he said. “I do. Back in New Haven. Connecticut.” He might as well have said Mars, it seemed as far away. “I got two boys. Matt, Jr. and Mikey.” Lisa had wanted a little girl. A daughter. He’d always thought there’d be plenty of time for that later.

He’d been wrong.

“You’re lucky.” Jimmy’s voice shook. “I don’t have anyone besides my ma who’s gonna remember me. My poor ma.” He started to cry again. “Oh, God, I want my ma…”

Father O’Brien came over, but his calm voice didn’t cover Jimmy’s sobbing. The poor bastard wanted his ma.

Matt wanted Lisa. It was the stupidest thing. When he’d been there, back in that stifling little crummy two bedroom apartment in one of the worst neighborhoods in New Haven, he’d thought he’d go absolutely mad. He hated working as a mechanic, hated the way his money was already spent on groceries and rent before he even brought home his paycheck. So he’d re-upped. He’d told Lisa he’d re-enlisted for the money, but the real truth was he’d wanted to get the hell out of there before he suffocated. And he’d left, even though she’d cried.

He’d married too young — not that he’d had a real choice about it. And he’d liked it, at first. Lisa, in his bed every night. No need to worry about getting her pregnant, since he’d already done that. He’d loved the way she’d grown heavy with child, with his child. It made him feel like a man, even though at twenty-two, fresh out of the service, he’d been little more than a child himself. But when the second baby had come right after the first, the weight of his responsibilities had scared him to death.

So he’d left. He’d come here, to ‘Nam.

It was much different from his first tour, when he’d been stationed in Germany.

And right now all he wanted was to be back in Lisa’s arms. He was the stupidest fool in the world — he didn’t realize how much he had, how much he truly loved that girl — his wife — until he was hours away from dying.

Bayonets or burning. “Dear God.”

Father O’Brien’s soft voice had quieted Jimmy, and he now turned to Matt. “Sergeant — Matthew. Would you like to pray?”

“No, Father,” he said.

Not even prayer could help them now.

* * * *

“Their captain just left them there?” Lieutenant Jake Robinson kept his voice even, kept his voice low, even though he absolutely could not believe what his chief had just told him. Wounded marines, left behind by their CO, in the jungle to die. “And now the good guys are going to finish them off with friendly fire?”

Ham nodded, his headphones still plugged into the radio, his dark eyes grim. “It’s not as heartless as you’re thinkin’, Admiral. There’s only a dozen or so of them. If Charlie isn’t stopped before he gets to the river, we’ll have casualties in the thousands. You know that.” He spoke in a barely audible voice, too.

The enemy was all around them tonight. And well they should know. Jake’s team of “Men with Green Faces,” of U.S. Navy SEALs, had spent the past twenty-four hours marking the Viet Congs’ location in this target area. They’d radioed the info in, and now had exactly four hours to get out before the bombing raid began.

“Only a dozen men,” Jake said. “Or so. Any chance of giving me an exact number, Chief?”

“Twelve wounded, one priest.”

Fred and Chuck materialized from the jungle. “Only nine wounded now,” Fred corrected him in his soft southern drawl. “We found ’em, Admiral. Near a clearing, like they hoped a chopper would be able to come in and grab ’em. Didn’t approach — didn’t want to get their hopes up if we didn’t think we could help. What we could see, three of ’em are already KIA.”

KIA. Killed in action. It was one of Jake’s least favorite acronyms. Along with POW and MIA. But he didn’t let his aversion show on his face. He never let anything like that show. His men didn’t need to know when he was shaken. And this one had shaken him, hard. The commanders in chief knew those men were there. U.S. Marines. Good men. Brave men. And those commanders had given the order to proceed with the bombing regardless.

He met Ham’s eyes and read the skepticism there.

“We’ve pulled off some tough missions before,” Jake said. His words were as much to convince himself.

Ham shook his head. “Nine wounded men and seven SEALs,” he said. “Against thirty-five hundred Viet Cong? Come on, Lieutenant.” The chief didn’t need to say what he was thinking. This wasn’t just a tough mission, it was insanity.

And the chief had called Jake by his true rank, a sign of his disapproval. It was funny how accustomed he’d become to the nickname this team of SEALs had given him — Admiral. It was the ultimate expression of respect from this motley crew, particularly since he’d gone through BUD/S cursed with the label Pretty Boy, PB for short. Yeah, he liked Admiral much better.

Fred and Chuck were watching him. So were Scooter and the Preacher and Ricky. Waiting for his command. At age 22, Jake was one of the two old men of the team — a full Lieutenant having served three back-to-back tours of duty in this hell on earth. Ham, his chief, had been there with him for the last two. Steady as a rock and, at 27 years of age, as gnarled and ancient as the hills. But he’d never questioned Jake’s authority.

Until now.

Jake smiled. “Nine wounded men, seven SEALs and one priest,” he pointed out lightly. “Don’t forget the priest, Ham. Always good to have one of them on our side.”

Fred snickered, but Ham’s expression didn’t change.

“I wouldn’t leave you to die,” Jake quietly told the man who was the closest thing to a friend he had in this armpit of a jungle. “I will not leave those men out there.”

Jake didn’t wait for Ham’s response, because frankly, Ham’s response didn’t matter. He didn’t need his chief’s approval. This wasn’t a democracy. Jake, and Jake alone was in command.

He met Fred’s eyes, then Scooter’s and Preacher’s and Rickie’s and Chuck’s, infusing them all with his confidence, letting them see his complete faith in their ability as a SEAL team to pull off this impossible task.

Leaving those poor bastards to die was not an option. Jake couldn’t do it. Jake wouldn’t do it.

He turned back to Ham. “Get on the radio, Chief, and find Crazy Ruben. If anyone’ll fly a chopper in this deep, it’ll be him. Pull in all those favors he owes me, promise him air support, and then get on the wire and get it for him.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jake turned to Fred. “Go back there and get their hopes up. Get them ready to move, then get your ass back here on the double.” He smiled again, his best picnic-in-the-park smile. The one that made men under command believe they’d live to see another sunrise. “The rest of you gentlemen get ready to cut some very long fuses. Because I’ve got one hell of a plan.”

* * * *

“They musta parachuted in!” Jimmy had real excitement in his voice. “Listen to that, Sarge! How many of ’em do you think are out there?”

Matt painfully pulled himself up, trying to see something, anything in the darkness of the jungle. But all he could see were the flashes in the sky from an enormous battle just off to the west. Deep in VC territory. “God, there must be hundreds.”

Even as he said the words he couldn’t believe it. Hundreds of American soldiers, appearing out of nowhere?

“They had to’ve dropped ’em in,” Jimmy said again.

It seemed impossible, but it must have been true — because there came the air support, then, big planes screaming overhead, dropping all kinds of nasty surprises on Charlie.

Two hours ago a big, dark-skinned man had appeared, rising out of the jungle like an apparition, his face savagely painted with green and brown, a cammy-print bandanna tied neatly around the top of his head. He’d ID’d himself as Seaman Fred Baxter of the U.S. Navy SEALs.

Matt had highest rank among the men left behind, and had asked what the hell a sailor was doing this far inland?

Apparently there a whole group of sailors out there in the jungle. A “team,” Baxter had said. Jake’s Team, he’d called them, as if that meant something — whoever the hell Jake was. And they were going to get Matt and Jimmy and the rest of ’em out of there. Stand ready for extraction, Baxter had said, and he’d disappeared.

Matt had been left wondering if the entire conversation hadn’t been some weird morphine hallucination. SEALs. Who would name a special forces group after a circus animal? And how the hell were an entire team of them going to get out of the jungle with nine wounded men?

“I’ve heard of the SEALs,” Jimmy said, as if he’d somehow been able to follow Matt’s drug-hazed thoughts. “They’re some kind of demolitions experts. Even underwater, if you can believe that. And they’re kinda like ninjas — they can move right past Charlie — within feet of Charlie — without being seen. They go miles behind the line in teams of six or seven men, and blow stuff up. And I don’t know what kind of voodoo they use, but they always come back alive. Always.”

Six or seven men. Matt looked up at the flashes of explosions lighting the sky. Demolitions experts… No. Couldn’t be.

Could it?

“Chopper!” Father O’Brien shouted. “Praise our Lord God Almighty!”

The roar was unmistakable. The hurricane force wind from the blades felt like a miracle. Holy Jesus, they actually had a chance.

Tears were running down the padre’s round face as he helped the medics lift the wounded men up and into the chopper. Matt couldn’t hear him over the roar, over the sound of weapons discharging as the men with green faces suddenly appeared, keeping Charlie back, away from the clearing. Matt didn’t need to hear O’Brien to know that his mouth was moving in a continuous prayer of thanks.

But Matt wasn’t Catholic, and they hadn’t made it out yet.

Someone lifted him up and the sudden knifelike pain in his leg made him scream.

“Sorry, Sergeant.” The voice held the quiet confidence of a seasoned officer. “No time to ask where it hurts.”

And then the pain was worth it, because he was inside, his cheek pressed against the olive-drab U.S.-made riveted metal of the chopper floor. And then they were lifting up and away, on an express flight out of hell.

But fear cut through his waves of relief. Dear God, don’t let them have left anyone behind!

He forced himself over, onto his back, and the pain nearly made him retch. “Head count!” he somehow managed to shout.

“We got all of you, Sarge.” It was the steady voice of the man who’d carried him aboard. He was crouched by the open doorway, a grenade launcher in his arms, aiming and firing even as he spoke. He was younger than Matt had imagined from his voice. He wore no insignia, no rank, no markings on his camouflage gear at all. Like the other SEALs, his face was streaked with green and brown, but as he turned to glance over his shoulder at the wounded men, Matt could see his eyes. They were an almost startling shade of blue. And as he met Matt’s gaze, he smiled.

It wasn’t a tense, tight grimace laced with fear. And it wasn’t a wolfish expression of adrenaline-induced high. It was a calm, relaxed “let’s get together and play softball sometime” kind of smile.

“We got everyone,” he shouted again, no room for doubt in his voice. “Hold on, Sergeant, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, but we will get you out, and we will get you home.”

When he said it like that, as if it were an absolute truth, even Matt could believe him.

* * * *

The hospital was the pits, filled with pain and stink and death, but Matt knew he was only going to be there a little while longer.

He’d been given his orders, his medical discharge. He was going home to Lisa.

He was going to walk with a limp, probably for the rest of his life, but the doctors had managed to save his leg. Not bad for a guy who’d been left for dead.

“You’re looking much better today.” The nurse that stopped by his bed and checked his leg was a pretty brunette with two deep dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. “I’m Constance. You can call me Connie for short.”

He hadn’t seen her before, but he’d only been here about forty-eight hours. He’d spent most of that time in surgery and recovery.

“Oh, you’re one of Jake’s Boys,” Connie said as she checked his chart, her Georgia peaches and cream accent suddenly hushed with respect.

“No,” he said, “I’m not a SEAL. I’m a Sergeant with–”

“I know you’re not a SEAL, silly.” She dimpled up again. “Jake’s SEALs don’t turn up in our hospital beds. We sometimes have to give them extra penicillin, but perhaps I shouldn’t mention that in mixed company.” She winked.

Matt was confused. “But you said–”

“Jake’s Boys,” she repeated. “That’s what we call you — the wounded men that Lt. Jake Robinson brings in. Someone started keeping count here at the hospital about eight months ago.”

At his blank look, she tried to explain. “Jake has developed the habit of resurrecting U.S. soldiers from the dead, Sergeant. Last month, his team liberated an entire prisoner of war camp. Don’t ask me how, but Jake and his team came out of that jungle with seventy-five POWs, each one looking worse than the last. I swear, I cried for a week when I saw those poor souls.” She shook her head. “I think there were ten of you this time, weren’t there? Jake’s up to let’s see… I think it’s four hundred and twenty-seven now.” She dimpled again. “Although if you ask me, he should get extra points for the priest.”

“Four hundred and…”

“Twenty-seven.” Connie nodded, taking his blood pressure, her touch businesslike, impersonal. “All of whom owe their lives to him. Of course, we only started counting eight months ago. He’s been in-country much longer.”

“A Lieutenant, huh?” Matt mused. “My Captain couldn’t get even get one single chopper to fly in to pull us out.”

Connie bristled. “Your Captain is a word I will not use because I am lady. Shame on him for leaving you boys that way. He better not come to this hospital for his annual check up. There are a dozen doctors and nurses who are dying to get a chance to tell him to turn his head and cough.”

Matt laughed, but then winced. “Captain Tyler tried,” he said. “I was there. I know he tried. That’s what I don’t understand. How could this lieutenant make things happen when a captain couldn’t?”

“Well, you know Jake’s nickname.” Connie looked up from her gentle but methodical checking of his shrapnel wounds. “Or maybe you don’t. His teammates call him Admiral. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he made it to that rank someday. He’s got something about him. Oh, yes, there’s something very special in those blue eyes.”

Blue eyes. “I think I met him,” Matt said.

“Sergeant, you wouldn’t just think it if you’d met him. You’d know it. He has a face like a movie star and a smile that makes you want to follow him just about anywhere.” She sighed, then smiled again. “Oh, my. I am getting myself worked up over that young man, aren’t I?”

Matt had to know. “So how did a lieutenant manage to get all those soldiers dropped into the area? There must’ve been hundreds of them, and–”

Connie laughed but then stopped, her eyes widening as she looked at him. “My goodness,” she said. “You don’t know, do you? When I heard about it, I didn’t quite believe it, but if they managed to fool you, too…”

Matt just waited for her to explain.

“It was a ruse,” she said. “Jake and his SEALs rigged a chain of explosives to fool the VC into thinking we’d launched a counter offensive. It was just a distraction so he could get Captain Ruben’s chopper in to pull you out. There weren’t hundreds of soldiers in that jungle, Sergeant. What you saw and heard was solely the handiwork of seven U.S. Navy SEALs, led by one Lt. Jake Robinson.”

Matt was floored. Seven SEALs had made him believe there was a huge army out there in the darkness.

Connie’s dimples deepened. “Gracious, that man might be more than an Admiral someday. He just might go all the way and become our President.” She raised her eyebrows suggestively. “I’d give him my vote, that’s for sure.”

She made a note on Matt’s chart, about to move on to the next bed.

“Connie?”

She turned back patiently. “Sergeant, I can’t give you anything for the pain for another few hours.”

“No, that’s not… I was just wondering. Does he ever come around here? Lt. Robinson, I mean. I’d like to thank him.”

“First off,” she said. “As one of Jake’s Boys, you and he are on a first name basis. And secondly, no. You won’t see him around here. He’s already back out there, Sergeant. He’s sleeping in the jungle tonight — that is, if he’s sleeping at all.”

Copyright 1999 by Suzanne Brockmann

The Admiral's Bride
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