Everything is on track for my new novel, The Capture, to be released at the end of the month. I've worked so hard on this one and am excited to have you read it! I thought it might be fun to give you a sneak peek into the second chapter. Tell me what you think!
(You can read the FIRST chapter here)
by Julie Coulter Bellon
All Rights Reserved
Julian sat at the makeshift command center at the now-deserted Bastion Air Base. Not long ago, thousands of British soldiers had made this their base of operations, but now it was more like a ghost town, except for the team Julian had brought in. They were all holding their breath as they listened to the rescue team’s radio transmissions. Augie, their computer tech, sat next to him, chewing on his thumbnail and glancing nervously at Julian every few seconds. The normally chatty computer tech knew better than to talk right now. Julian’s heart was in his throat. He wanted to be there in that prison, rescuing Zaya himself, but knew he was too close to her emotionally. Letting himself near the people who had taken her would not have been a good idea. And he couldn’t risk anything that would blow the mission to get her back.
The radio was pressed to his ear, though, and he strained for any information about her condition. She’d been gone six months and eighteen days. Vanished as if she’d never existed. Nazer had taunted him with the knowledge that he was holding her captive, saying that if Julian and his task force didn’t back off, he’d send Julian footage of Zaya being murdered in a horrific way. Even with that threat, Julian had done everything he could to find her and, at the same time, try to stop Nazer from hurting anyone else. But every time Julian got close to bringing him down, the more he worried that Zaya would pay for this cat-and-mouse game with her life.
In the end, it was a money trail that led them to her. Julian followed all Nazer’s accounts himself, meticulously picking through the transactions to shell corporations and known government officials. He’d found a financial rabbit hole that finally linked a large payment to Saif Taraki, Nazer’s known enforcer. After that, it had been easy to find his whereabouts and follow him to the makeshift prison in Musa Qala, Afghanistan. Located in a desolate desert area mostly populated by native Pashtun tribes had made it harder to run covert ops, but Griffin Force had managed to get it done. When the intel came in that a female prisoner was being held there, Julian had the first glimmer of hope that they might have located Zaya.
His stomach clenched as the transmission crackled over his radio. The only words he wanted to hear were “the package is secure.” But it was too soon for that. Too soon to hear anything.
“Heading for the exit point. Coming under fire,” Jake’s voice said, his breath coming in huffs. “Make sure Bones is waiting for us.”
Something must be wrong if they were calling for Bones. That was their nickname for the team medic Elliott Burke. Zaya’s injuries must be bad. The thought squeezed Julian’s chest until he couldn’t breathe. Part of him had expected as much, but he’d held out hope that Nazer wouldn’t hurt her, that she was merely a bargaining chip. He should have known better. Nazer al-Raimi and his men had no problems hurting anyone who got in their way.
“Sir, can I get you something?” Augie asked tentatively, his fingers paused over his keyboard.
“No.” Julian paced the small room, needing to burn off his anxiety. He hated feeling helpless. The months he’d spent searching for Zaya had been the worst of his life. He’d stopped sleeping for any significant length of time, reduced to closing his eyes for power naps when his body finally succumbed to exhaustion. But no matter how long he closed his eyes, the nightmares were always there– Julian running after her, hearing her scream his name, but never being able to catch up, to save her. The dreams got to be too much, so he’d lived on black coffee to stay awake as much as possible and prayed to find her.
Even with that, he knew nothing he’d gone through would compare to whatever Zaya had suffered. His mind often jumped to worst-case scenarios until he thought he’d drive himself crazy. His fists clenched. He shouldered all the blame for her capture, and he’d never be able to forgive himself for not being there. It was his new– and only– goal in life to do everything he could to earn Zaya’s forgiveness.
If they could get her out of there alive.
The radio crackled again, and he sucked in a breath. Nate, Jake, and Colt were three of the best men on Griffin Force. That’s why he’d sent them after Zaya. But a small extraction team had its risks, especially when Nazer was on his home turf. He seemed to move about Afghanistan as if it were his own kingdom. Stealing Zaya back would be a huge coup, and Nazer would most likely come after them even harder if they succeeded. Julian couldn’t care about any of that. He just needed the words that she was safe.
He pressed the radio to his ear, not wanting to miss any part of the incoming transmission.
“Package is secure.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. Had he dreamed them? But then they finally registered. Zaya was on the helo. Safe. He sagged against the wall, finally slumping to the ground, unable to stand the mountain of relief pouring over him.
“Your plan worked! They got her out.” Augie slid down the wall next to Julian, pointing at the blue plaid shirt he loved to wear when they were on ops. “Commander, I’m telling you, every time I wear this shirt, the mission ends in success.”
“Never take it off.” Julian could hardly speak. His mind was racing ahead. Getting Zaya back would only be the beginning. Dealing with what had happened would take a lifetime. What had she been forced to endure? Could she come back from it?
Suddenly the air in the command center was stifling. He had to get out. After pulling himself up, he jerked open the door. The air outside wasn’t any more breathable– its dryness made his throat itch– but he sucked in a few breaths anyway and tilted his face skyward. It was too early for any sign of the rescue helo, so all he got was a faceful of sun. Temperatures had been more comfortable with winter coming, but the days could still be hot. He wouldn’t be sad to leave Afghanistan behind.
Thinking back, his last day with Zaya had been warm and bright like today– and full of so much hope. Late spring in Morocco was beautiful, and when he knew he’d be there with Zaya, he’d contacted his jeweler friend, Nabil– not because he would help with their assignment, but because Julian was ready to choose an engagement ring for Zaya. They’d been discussing marriage, and Julian was planning the perfect proposal. The Moroccan mission was supposed to have been a quick pickup of one of Nazer’s associates to take him to a black site for questioning, so there should have been plenty of time to pick out a ring. They should have been to Morocco and back within seventy-two hours, but Julian hadn’t considered the idea the pickup was a trap. He’d been too preoccupied with the ring, how he would propose, and what her answer would be.
Their last movements together that day ran through his mind on a loop as they had thousands of times before. That last morning when they’d left the hotel, on their way to the counter-terrorism facility where Nazer’s associate Mbarek Bahnini was being held. Laughing and chatting about the little man on the sidewalk who’d tried to cheat them out of eighty dirhams to be their “tour guide.” Julian had held her close, glad she was his to love, and excited to make his proposal.
They’d been a little bit early to the counter-terrorism facility, but it hadn’t taken long before Bahnini was brought out of the holding cell and secured in the transport vehicle. Julian told Zaya he’d meet her at the airport since Nabil’s jewelry shop was five minutes away, and he wanted to have her ring in his pocket before they got on the plane. Zaya had raised an eyebrow, but smothered her curiosity, just nodding. Looking at her trusting, beautiful face, he’d wanted to drop to one knee and ask her right then, but there was no way he would have lived down the utter lack of romance by proposing marriage to her in front of a Moroccan counter-terrorism office. Instead, he’d kissed her goodbye and watched her get into the back of the van.
That was the last time he’d seen her.
As near as he could guess, the motorcade had been attacked at the same moment he’d put her emerald engagement ring in his pocket. He’d been on his way to the airport in a little blue taxi when he saw the smoke just ahead. Blindly, he’d jumped out and ran for the scene. Bloody carnage everywhere. No one had been spared. Their prisoner was shot execution-style, still handcuffed in the back of the van. The driver and first guard were obviously dead, but the second guard from the back of the van had been lying half in and half out of the door. When Julian approached, he’d still been alive. Julian held his head, knowing from the rattling breaths, he didn’t have much longer.
“Zaya?” Julian had asked, praying she wasn’t dead.
“Taken,” the man had whispered. “Nazer.”
It was a small relief, but those two words shook him to his core. From that moment on, the ring box in Julian’s pocket was like a cannonball of regret. There was no doubt Nazer had been after him, as the head of Griffin Force, and Julian would have been there if not for the ring. Instead, one of the most wanted terrorists in the world had gotten Zaya. The guilt was crushing.
Julian had been driven in his hunt for Nazer before, but from that day on, he was relentless. He called in every favor he was owed and used every penny at his disposal to find Zaya.
And now he had.
It was impossible to stand still. He strode back and opened the door to the communications building he’d exited. Augie was at the computer, monitoring the helo. Judging from the little blip on the screen, Zaya was about ten minutes out and they had the all clear. Good.
“I’m going down to the landing zone,” Julian said to Augie, pushing down his jitters. After all these months of waiting, Julian needed to make sure he was there the moment she touched down. Augie nodded absently, and Julian walked away. Several Griffin Force soldiers who were guarding the perimeter eyed him as he passed by, but no one approached. He was glad. Explanations, or small talk, were beyond him right now.
Camp Bastion had a lot of empty space, but as soon as he’d received the go ahead to use the buildings on the far edge of the camp, the first thing he’d done was secure a makeshift airstrip. His steps slowed, and he began to pace the length of the landing zone, waiting for the helo. Finally, he heard it. Shading his eyes, he watched the descent. Sand briefly obscured the aircraft as it landed, and Julian took a step forward, letting the rushing granules sting his face, reminding him that this was real. She was here. His stomach was in knots as he waited for the aircraft to be safe for approach, and then he was running, needing to see her.
The helo door opened, and Jake Williams, still in tactical gear, put up his hand. “Wait. Give her a minute.”
But Julian had waited six long months. He pushed Jake to the side and climbed aboard. Elliott was there in the middle of the floor, his entire focus on the woman lying very still before him. A woman that looked nothing like the Zaya he remembered.
Her long, brown hair was now short and matted. She looked filthy, but underneath the dirt, it was obvious her skin was pale and waxy-looking, as if death had claim on her, but hadn’t quite received its due. Her cheekbones were more prominent than they had been six months ago, and her one visible wrist was bruised and looked like it could be snapped in two with only a touch. His heart wrenched hard, twisting his insides and making it difficult to breathe.
He looked at Elliott, whose eyes were full of compassion. “Y-you probably have a lot of questions, but r-right now we need to get her inside,” he said just loud enough for Julian to hear. “She needs t-treatment for an infection in her foot.”
“Her foot?” Julian held on to the edge of the door, trying to steady himself. Standing there, frozen in place, wasn’t how he imagined their reunion. He wanted to be strong, to be able to comfort her, but it was as if his body could only stare dumbly and try to process the scene in front of him.
“Some d-deep lacerations that haven’t h-healed properly. She’s got a f-fever, and we need to get that under c-control.” His tone was brisk as he started to move the stretcher into position for transport. “Once she’s s-settled, we can t-talk about where to go from here.”
Julian nodded. That was reasonable. But he didn’t feel reasonable. He wanted to take her in his arms. To tell her how sorry he was. To beg her to forgive him for sending her in the van alone. Instead, he stepped back and watched as they lowered the stretcher from the helo. She didn’t move. Was she unconscious? Sleeping?
As if Zaya had heard his unspoken question, she opened her eyes, squinting at the sun. Julian leaned over and took her hand carefully in his, feeling the raised skin of scars on her palms. What had they done to her?
“Z, it’s me, Julian.”
For one brief moment, she squeezed his hand and brought it to her cheek. But then her brown eyes locked on his, and he couldn’t hide his shock at her obvious pain and misery. His breath seized at how naked and raw the emotions swirling between them were.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, not knowing what else to say, but needing to say something and hear her voice. “So very sorry.”
She gave a slight shake to her head, then turned away without a word, her light tugging on his hand forcing him to release her.
“We’ve g-got to treat her now,” Elliott said, as they moved her into the triage area. “You’ll have t-time to talk later.”
Julian folded his arms and watched them take her into the hospital, trying to calm the feelings inside him. It felt as if his soul had been raked over the coals, the hot trail of guilt and regret leaving a path that burned through his body. The agony of being separated from her had multiplied at seeing the result of her captivity. And from her reaction, she blamed him, just as he blamed himself.
He started toward the hospital, but quickly detoured back to the command center where he’d spent the morning waiting for news. He wrenched open the door. Augie was inside, engrossed in whatever was on his computer screen. He glanced over to see who’d come in, a puzzled look on his face.
Julian managed to get eight words, “I need to be alone for a minute,” past the lump in his throat. Augie didn’t ask any questions, just closed his laptop and scurried past him immediately.
Once Julian was alone, he locked the door and slid to the floor again, his head in his hands. A groan escaped from deep inside, and, after that, he couldn’t stop the anguish flooding over him like an avalanche. Silent tears coursed down his face. He knew he would need to be strong for Z in the days ahead, but he needed a window of time to mourn for what she’d suffered and the fact that nothing would ever be the same again. For either of them.
He didn’t know how long he sat like that, but a knock at the door and Augie’s plaintive voice jolted him back to the present.
“Sir? Sir, you’re needed at the hospital. They’re calling for you to come immediately.” He was agitated, more so than usual. That meant trouble.
Julian scrambled to his feet. The only reason the hospital would call was if something had happened to Zaya. Remembering how fragile she’d looked, alarm raced through him.“On my way,” he said, as he pulled the door open. She wasn’t going to die now. Not if he had anything to say about it.