If you've studied Shakespeare's plays in college, you know he was one of the original users of comedic relief. In the middle of a heavy, emotional scene when all of the spectators were on the edge of their seats, good ol' Bill would insert a couple off-color characters to suddenly have the audience rolling with laughter. He knew they needed an emotional break--and when. William Shakespeare taught me a lot.
So when my editor at Random House Loveswept called me about my next series, I had a few ideas lined up. I never got a chance to voice them. Ms. Enthusiasm pounced on me with, "I want you to write a series on wounded warriors who are also suffering with PTSD, set it in or near a small town, preferably in Texas. I'd like them to be former SEALs. I don't care how many points of view you use through-out the book, just give me two at a time. And here are the titles: HER SURVIVOR, HERS TO HEAL, and HER FOREVER HERO. I'm so excited about this! I know you'll do a fabulous job." The velvet steamroller promptly hung up.
I'd been taking notes as quickly as I could and just stared at my phone blaring a dial tone.
But...but....crap! Oh, fudge and buttermilk.
This was the last kind of series I wanted to write. I'd been doing bear shifters and, also, firemen, for HarperImpulse. How was I to turn men suffering from PTSD into the romantic heroes readers would swoon over?
How many men suffer to the extreme that Joshua does? Is his case mild or severe? To grandma, it's severe, but I might be wrong. So I bought books on the subject. I found an excellent one focused on PTSD and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and also a study done at Cornell University. I knew only the basics about SEALs, so I bought books on that branch of Special Forces. No one loves doing research better than I. This old broad was in heaven.
Then came the time to plot. Yes, this dyed-in-the-lycra pantser was going to have to plot, to lay out my little town, to create townsfolk (ah, my chance at some humor--thank God!), and the lives before and after SEALs for my veterans.. Decide on the book's main plot so it can be a stand alone and the strong thread running through them all, linking them together.
I had to show their physical injuries and their emotional traumas--and still make them lovable. I needed a couple unifying factors...their former Commander, their service dog, Nance, and their SEAL brotherhood.
In book one of Black Eagle Ops, HER SURVIVOR, Dustin Franks in still in the military hospital in San Antonio, Texas. He's in bed. Mail call has just gone through and he's received a box from Eagle Ridge Ranch, owned by his former Commander Zane Quinlan, or ZQ. The language is salty. These are warriors.
A muted “Set Fire to the Rain” drifted from the box. What the hell? That was the team’s theme song they sang as they drove away from a fight. What was his old Commander—or Officer in Charge—from SEAL Team Five up to now? Dustin ripped open the box only to find a cell phone and a note. “If you don’t call me ten minutes after receiving my awesome, one-of-a-kind gift, I’m calling you, you candy-assed bastard. And I’ll keep calling until you answer. ZQ.”
The music stopped, and Dustin sighed. Thank God. When he arrived here eight months ago, ZQ was waiting and sat with him for the first three days. He talked to Dustin when he wanted to be left alone and read him poetry by Walt Whitman, which he liked but was too stubborn to admit. ZQ’s actions only reinforced what Dustin had always known; he cared for his men.
The song started again. Ah hell, ZQ. Give me a f__kin’ break here. He swiped his index finger across the phone’s screen only to find a picture of Nance, her tongue lolling crooked from her mouth. Her one ear missing after being shot off. The day it happened as they fought their way through Al Hasakah in Eastern Syria, her handler JJ—Jerryl Jacoby—had nearly lost his mind. Hell, they all had.
They’d grown somewhat accustomed to the screams and moans of wounded men, but to hear their furry girl’s yelps ripped at what goodness remained intact within their souls.
On the cell’s photo, a sign hung around Nance’s neck that read, “Call me! Press 2.”
“Damn you, Zane Quinlan.” Dustin muttered as he shook the phone in frustration. The Commander always did know his men’s weak spots and played them to his advantage. He claimed Dustin’s was his curiosity, which it wasn’t. Still, just how had ZQ gotten ahold of Nance?
Dustin pressed two and, after a couple rings, Nance barked a response. He talked to her a minute, teasing her like he always had. “Dance for me Nance! Dance.” Evidently recognizing his voice, she whined and howled. There was some slurping, and Dustin smiled for the first time since forever. The damn, sweet dog was licking the phone to get to him…and he lost it.
Neither realizing the explosion had taken his leg from the middle of his calf down, nor seeing his mother’s tears when he initially reached Walter Reed Hospital or finding out he’d missed his dad’s funeral… Not even his wife’s—hell, ex-wife, now—revulsion when she saw his damaged body tore at him so deeply as this dog’s reaction. Why the hell was that?
JJ’s firm voice in the background calmed her, while Dustin wiped his damp face.
Then ZQ took over the conversation.
“Hey, Dust, I knew if anyone could get to you, it would be Nance. Took you long enough to call me.” His team leader sounded like he’d just finished gargling with razor blades. Shit, Dustin wouldn’t be surprised if he had. The old man was hardcore. Not that he was really ancient, but any officer who’d survived fifteen years or more in an official capacity in Special Forces was respectfully labeled as “Old Man,” just not to his face.
“Is she at the ranch or are you visiting JJ?”
“Hell, they’re here at Eagle Ridge with me. Have been for over two months. JJ adopted her when his enlistment was up. The dog still had some time to serve but, having lost an ear, the big wigs gave her an early retirement.”
“I figured JJ would do his best to keep her, as tight as those two were. Nance trusted JJ with her life.”
“Still does. I was coming from the stables when this god awful racket echoed on my dirt lane. A man rode a vintage Harley with a sidecar, of all things. The dude wore a black leather vest a few shades darker than him and a black brain bucket for a helmet. And who was sitting in the sidecar, strapped in and wearing a matching black brain bucket with “War Vet” and a Trident decal on the front? Ol’ Nance. Pretty as you please.”
Ice cubes rattled in a glass, and the sound of his sipping and swallowing filtered over the phone. ZQ was probably into his treasured double-malt Scotch. He hacked a laugh. “Soon as our pup saw me, she damn near went berserk. JJ stopped the bike and unhooked her. She cleared the side and ran like hell for my outstretched arms. I ain’t ashamed to admit I was already on my knees, crying like a damn fool baby. There was always something extra special about our Nance.”
There was a deeply inhaled breath and then a slow exhale. “I’ve got plenty of rooms here and I offered one to JJ and Nance, but both are happier sleeping outside on the ground. Some nights they sleep near the house and others they walk off to Lord knows where with a sleeping bag under JJ’s one arm and a jug of water and dog kibble under his other. Kid seems to need his space and I give it to him as long as he helps with a few chores around here. A man has to stay busy. Far as I’m concerned, he can stay as long as he wants. He doesn’t say much.” ZQ sipped at his Scotch again. "Got room for you, too, if you want it."
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