The Winds of Fire

an excerpt



Prologue

Five years previous...

Usually Mario da Vinci became invigorated when his orders came in. He loved being a soldier. However, this time, when they received their orders, he did not like the sense of unease the directives gave him. Victoria Teare, his fiance, teased him about it.

"You just want to take the rest of your furlough," she said, turning her head to give him a flirty look over her shoulder as she started to dance away.

He grabbed her waist and brought her butt up against him, nuzzling the back of her neck. He stood at only five ten, and their bodies fit together like strawberries and chocolate. He loved her scent. He breathed her in as he prepared himself to tell her something that could bring ridicule.

"No, Vicki," he said, using his pet name. Absolutely no one else was allowed to call her Vicki, except maybe her dad, and then only rarely--okay, her partner Erica was known to pull that stunt of shortening her name. Partners liked to get under your skin like that. She laughed at herself for being so easily sidetracked. Their vacation had certainly helped her relax. However, Mario continued, still serious.

"Although I'm devastated at the thought of cutting our vacation short, I'm worried. This doesn't feel right."

Victoria folded her arms around his which he'd wrapped around her stomach and tipped her head back. "What do you mean?" She listened intently. Her life had been saved more than once because something didn't "feel right" to her or Erica. She chalked it up to training. As soldiers, the army trained them to see the enemy. To ferret out secrets, to sense danger. If trained right, it became ingrained in you to recognize danger. Victoria believed it was your subconscious telling you to listen up when "something doesn't feel right."

"I don't know, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I read my orders. That only happens before something bad is about to occur. I've a sixth sense about these things. You can't go. We can't go. I have to talk to my Sergeant right away and see what he says. Please find a way to get out of this."

However, neither one of them were able to get out of their assignments. Victoria was at the end of her enlistment so couldn't back out, and Mario was career military. The sergeant was unable to convince his superiors that they should cancel it based on the "feelings of a scared helmet head." Which was a not-so-polite way of calling him a dickhead with no brains or influence.

So they went to Russia, each with their own group.

**

Russia...

Erica Smith swore, and Victoria knew how she felt. Mario had been right. They'd all walked into a trap set up by the terrorist group, Project Mostov, to get their hands on American personnel and equipment. A very well set trap. They were in Russia, with the government's permission, to arrest the terrorists of Project Mostov who had been blowing up diplomatic vehicles in Russia and other countries. For unknown reasons, Russia had been hardest hit.

They went in, standard formation. She and Erica were stationed up high on one side of the thin walkway between houses left over from a time when the they had been built one on top of the other. Another team of snipers was on the other side, searching for trouble. The rest of the team marched with Mario and the foot soldiers.

Victoria had been uneasy ever since they had left Texas, and now her instincts were screaming at her to get out of there. However, she could not. They could not. She would not leave the troops, and she knew they could not leave until they had acquired the target. Therefore, she stayed.

Victoria watched the troops below her, trepidation and adrenalin flowing through her. Something was not right. She could feel it like ants crawling across her skin making her want to itch. She held her rifle at the ready as the troops neared the end of the alley. Maybe she was imagining things because of her apprehension about her baby. Finding out a few minutes before being put on the plane hadn't helped her apprehension. It was too late to replace her, so she'd had to come. Her superiors weren't even aware of it, yet. Only Erica and her doctor. But it was her last active until after the birth. One hand reached for her stomach while she looked for Mario's form. She knew him intimately so easily recognized his walk. She smiled as she imagined what he would say when he found out about their baby.

She glanced over to Erica. "Maybe I was wrong," she whispered.

Erica did not respond verbally, but looked at Victoria intently before shaking her head and again peering through the scope on her rifle.

Erica's unease accelerated Victoria's heartbeat. Erica felt it as well then. Something was wrong. She looked through her own scope, scanning the opposite buildings again, searching for whatever it was that had signaled to her subconscious. A bright flash of light nearly blinded her as an explosion rocked the alley.

It threw Victoria and Erica back, down on their knees, so they missed the actions below. What happened above was quite enough to deal with. Victoria barely made it to her knees and shook her head trying to clear it. Out of nowhere, she was kicked hard in the gut.

She grabbed her gun, turned and fired. Erica's grunt testified to an attack on that front as well so would likely be unable to do much but defend herself. However, teamwork, so vital to what they did, came to their rescue, and Erica fired at the same time as she did. They kept firing until the assailants went down, but it was too late. One of the assailants' shots had hit Victoria in the stomach. Erica threw Victoria over her shoulder in a traditional fireman's carry and ran the preplanned route in case of emergency. Victoria assimilated all this through a haze of pain and fear.

No, no, no! Not her baby. Their baby. Oh God, Mario. I'm sorry, she thought, fighting the need to black out. She had to stay conscious, to fight, to try to save their baby. She should have told him. She should have demanded to stay home even if they couldn't replace her. She should have...her eyes drooped as thoughts became harder to articulate and pain again ramped through her as Erica's shoulder dug into her injury. What had she done?

**

Erica knew Victoria was losing consciousness. She prayed that was all her best friend would lose. She hoped that having Victoria's wound pressed against her shoulder would help staunch the flow of blood, but she was more concerned with getting her friend to the hospital. Stomach wounds might normally have given her more time to get Victoria out in a more dignified matter, but nothing about this was normal. Victoria believed she carried Mario's baby, and he didn't even know yet. To hell with dignified.

Victoria was barely conscious and unable to help herself at this point, much less the baby she carried. Erica wanted to yell at the doctor who had told Victoria about the baby. His bedside manner had left a bad taste in her mouth. Not to mention Victoria technically should have been pulled from the assignment. They'd been medically checked literally minutes before leaving, and no time to replace her.

Erica had been in the doorway waiting for Victoria to finish her last minute medical, so had found out the same way she did. The doctor told her if her hormone levels were correct, than she could be pregnant. Further tests would be required, as they hadn't ran a pregnancy test, specifically. There was no time. If Victoria backed out, and she wasn't pregnant, she'd be in trouble, especially as she'd already tried to get out of the mission. It had made Erica grit her teeth to keep from baring them at the doctor so callously handling Victoria.

Victoria had been speechless, only nodding her head as she looked over at Erica, silently pleading for her silence. She understood why. Now was not the time to tell Mario. Even as they prepared to leave, Mario already boarded his plane, as they would be boarding theirs as soon as they left the medical. He needed to concentrate on what lay before them, not be worrying about his pregnant fiance and their child. Erica had nodded in assent. Under other circs, the look on Victoria's face would have been amusing.

All of this flashed through her mind as Erica ran down the metal flight of steps and toward the meeting point; Mario remained busy trying to save as many lives as he could. She had to take care of Victoria and quit worrying about Mario and the rest of the soldiers. Once at the drop site, she put Victoria down and attempted to soothe her friend, running her hand across her forehead and pushing Victoria's red hair back away from her face, while waiting for the medic to come help put her in the Blackhawk rescue helicopter.

**

On the ground...

Mario looked around him as they walked. Everyone wore their night vision goggles and held their weapons at the ready. They were able to walk three abreast comfortably and still use their weapons. The back of his neck itched, and he felt like a walking target. He ordered the ground lookouts to be on high alert. As if they needed his orders. All on high alert, the troops barely made a sound, keeping watchful as they marched. No one liked the situation they found themselves in. He gave a brief glance to where he knew Victoria hid and said a prayer.

Mario kept moving and hoped Victoria was okay. He had a broken arm. The mine blast had thrown him into the concrete wall with enough force to do serious damage, probably multiple fractures. Judging from the pain, he knew he was in for months of physical therapy to gain full use of his arm back--if he did--but he kept moving. He couldn't let the pain stop him. Too many lives were at stake.

Chaos ensued as the blast blinded them, the effect made worst by their night goggles. No one had expected the land mines in the middle of a public street. Because Mario was ahead of the blast, he was not as harshly affected as the others. He went back to the melee and grabbed soldiers and half carried, half dragged them with his good arm.

Mario saved another fifteen lives before they all met back at the rendezvous point. At least, that was what they told him. At the moment, he did not care about the numbers. He wanted, needed to see Victoria, or get news of her. However, no one knew what had happened to her. He had been hustled into a chopper and flown to the base in Germany, the rest of the troops following. Everyone except Victoria and Erica.

He could not get a straight answer out of anyone about her condition. Since he was not married to her, they would not release information regarding her. He was stuck in the military hospital recovering from his own wounds, leaving him no cell phone and helpless to find his own answers. Finally, he pleaded with a friend to help him locate Victoria and bring him a phone.

Only fifty of the more than hundred soldiers who went, returned home, many with severe injuries. There were twenty unofficial POWs. The rest had died in the mine blasts.

**