Wounded Warrior – 3 book set

This three book Military series will capture your heart and break it at the same time.
A story of two brothers and one friend who go off to war, and come home broken. It’s also a story about three strong women who help these wounded warriors heal.

Available from Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooks

CHAPTER ONE
“Kari, can you come into my office?” Tom Delaney spoke in a hushed tone that Kari Winslow knew meant trouble. He stood behind her desk, looking none too happy.
Kari worked for the Palm Beach News as the morning and noon anchor, and Tom was one of the producers. That meant that along with editing the news, deciding on content, and doing numerous other tasks, he was also in charge of hiring and firing his staff. 
“Yes, sir,” Kari said. “I’ll be right there.” Her stomach jumped and her palms were damp, but she smiled at Tom, putting on a brave front. 
She stood up, straightening her jacket and smoothing her skirt. She wore a lemon-colored Armani suit that she’d bought on sale at the end of the season last year. At least she still had enough pride to look like a competent TV news anchor, even if she didn’t sound like one.
She followed Tom into his office and closed the door behind her. 
Tom whirled on her. “What’s going on with you, Kari? This is the third time this week you’ve flubbed a line. You’re a professional, for Christ’s sake!”
Her jumpy stomach did a butterfly kick. She looked into his eyes, hoping to see a little compassion. If it was there, it was well hidden. She considered her options: attack or defend. “I don’t know what to say. Except that Jeremy—”
“Jeremy what?” he growled. “You can hardly blame him if you screwed up. All you have to do is deliver the lines. If you can’t do that, we’ll find someone who can.”
Dammit, she needed this job, and if Tom fired her, what would she do? 
On the other hand, she had blown her lines and deserved whatever happened to her. Not that it had been her fault. Not entirely. When Max Hammond, their evening anchor, had suffered a fatal heart attack, Tom had brought Jeremy Chandler in to replace him. Everyone in the news station had known she wanted Max’s job. She’d been around the longest and deserved the promotion, but it had been offered, conditionally, to Jeremy instead. He’d moved from Chicago to join their network, and according to Tom, they were lucky to have gotten him. 
Kari knew he’d committed to only a one-year contract to try out the market, but the network hoped to extend the contract to five years. As of now, the terms had not been agreed upon, so she had a limited time to convince her boss that she was the better person for the job. Trouble was, around Jeremy, she wasn’t stellar. He unbalanced her, threw her off her game, and she had no idea why. For her to stammer and mispronounce a word was unthinkable. Unacceptable. She’d better shape up fast if she hoped for even a chance at the nightly news.
“All I can say is I’m sorry.” Her chin went up, and she met his gaze head-on. “Jeremy stopped by to deliver a personal message to me—right before my noon report. I know he was trying to upset me.” 
“I don’t care what he said. You can’t let your emotions affect your work.” Tom’s ruddy face grew even redder, and she suspected his rising blood pressure was brought on by stress—a.k.a. her. “You’ve been here long enough for me to know that you’re a professional, but something or someone is distracting you. Have you and Jeremy got something going on that I should know about?”
“Holy crap, Tom. No! I don’t even like the man.”
“Well, what is it, then?” He settled into his chair, folding his large, freckled hands over his wide girth.
“He’s an ass. He thinks I’m an amateur who doesn’t belong in the same room with him.” Kari sat down in the chair opposite him, acting nonchalant, even if her heart hammered like a woodpecker on speed. She crossed her legs and leaned back too. “I miss Max. He got along with everyone; the newsroom had this easy, relaxed atmosphere. With Jeremy, it’s just different. He rubs everyone the wrong way.”
“You need an attitude adjustment. The station’s offering him a five-year contract, and it’s in your best interest to get along.” Tom’s bushy brows furrowed, and he glared at her. “Get your act together, Kari. I can’t have you stumbling over your words anymore. And that’s an order.”
“I know. It won’t happen again.” 
She’d make sure it didn’t. It wasn’t like there were dozens of TV networks in the vicinity aching to hire her. It was a small community of professionals, and the competition was tough. That was part of the reason she wanted the evening anchor job; it would give her better job security and a higher salary. Plus, it would provide greater visibility, more exposure. And maybe one day, her sister might see her and come home. 
“One more thing,” Tom said in a gentler voice, as if he’d read her mind. “This missing-children series of yours. You know I’ve always been a big fan, and it boosted our ratings at the beginning, but people are tired of it. They want a feel-good story.”
“A feel-good story?” She felt sick inside. That was exactly what Jeremy had told her right before the broadcast—that the station was axing her special half-hour show. She’d thought he’d only said it to upset her. 
“Come on, Tom.” Her gladiator spirit rose to the occasion. She knew when to pick her fights, and this was one of those times. “I’m doing something really important here. I’m bringing attention to missing children and runaways, closed cases that the authorities have given up on.” She fought back the feeling of panic. He couldn’t do this. Her sister was still missing.
“Please reconsider, Tom. This series has done a whole lot more than boost our ratings. We’ve actually found a few missing kids since we started this show.” 
He shook his head. “Sorry. George and I talked about it, and we’re in agreement. It’s done.”
“George? He never said a word to me.” George Collins was Tom’s boss, the executive director, and he’d even congratulated her on a good show after her weekly broadcast last Friday evening. 
Her temper flashed. “This isn’t right. We’ve brought children home. How ‘feel-good’ is that?”
“Look, I know you have a personal motivation to keep this series alive, but we can’t let our emotions get involved with our decision making. The show has lost its oomph. We need something to engage our viewers, and it’s not stories about runaways. Nobody gives a shit anymore.”
Kari’s already bouncy stomach plummeted, and a dull but familiar pain spread inside her. She held on to the edge of the desk to steady herself. Gladiators didn’t buckle. They held their ground. “You really mean this.” She stared straight at him, letting him see her determination, but her mouth trembled. “Don’t you? You’re really cutting the show?”
“I’m sorry.” Tom looked away. “I know how much this means to you, but yes. We’re starting something new the first of the month.”
Kari said nothing, deflated beyond words. Tom stood and opened his office door, signifying that she was free to leave. 
She headed to her desk, sat down for a moment to check her computer for messages, and ignored the curious glances from her coworkers. She kept her head averted, not allowing them to engage her in conversation. Let them think what they wanted—she wasn’t going to give them fuel for gossip. Determined not to show any weakness, she kept her chin high as she walked past the reception area and out the door. 
Once she was inside her car, her chin quivered. Her hands shook. Her entire body trembled. How could he do this? She had to keep her show on the air. She had to find more runaways so that the parents, the families, could finally rest. They had to know. She had to know.
After several minutes, she’d calmed down enough to start the car. She had learned long ago that some things were out of her control, and dwelling on them did no good at all. If the show was cut, if she was fired, life would still go on, whether she ever found her sister or not. 
She’d figure things out. She always did.
Passing a Publix on her way home, Kari decided to make a quick stop. The lack of food in her refrigerator didn’t matter, but she was almost out of wine, and if she had ever needed a glass, it was today.
She pulled into the parking lot, grabbed a cart, and raced up and down the aisle, mindlessly tossing in frozen meals, a package of skinless chicken breasts, a steak, and a salmon fillet. Since she hated taking time out to shop, she tried to make this once-, sometimes twice-a-week experience, as painless as possible.
Strolling over to the produce, she added asparagus, a head of broccoli, and a couple of packages of prepared salads to the cart. Passing the fruit, she grabbed a pint of strawberries and a small bag of cherries, then made her way to the wine counter. She picked up a couple of her favorite bottles, one red and one white, then checked out and headed home.
She lived on the fourth floor of a relatively new building in CityPlace, West Palm Beach, which had nearly every convenience imaginable, except concierge service. After parking in the garage, she entered the lobby and was dismayed to see only one elevator available—the other in service for someone moving into the building.
Balancing the bags and her handbag, she watched the numbers as the elevator crept downward from the eighteenth floor. Patience was not one of her strong suits, especially not today. She punched the elevator button again, as if that might hurry it along. Just then, the occupied elevator reached the lobby level and the door opened.
“Hold that elevator,” she heard a man shout.
Before she could move, he rushed forward, wheeling two suitcases, one balanced on the other, and a dog carrier. The dog was one of those small yippy things, and it barked ferociously when Kari tried to slide past.
The man’s suitcase bumped into her, and the bag holding the wine slipped out of her hands, hitting the ceramic tile. Both bottles broke, splashed her legs, and coated her new Manolo Blahnik heels.
“Oh my God!” She let out a small cry. Could her day get any worse?
“I’m so sorry. Did I do that?”
“Your bag bumped into mine.” She glanced up from her once-beautiful shoes and met the eyes of the man who’d ruined them.
Her heart sped; her mouth went dry.
There was a churning in her stomach, and a yearning so intense it shook her to her core. Her hands released their grip, and the remaining grocery bags fell to the floor. Her mouth opened once or twice, but no words came out.
Jake. Back from war.
Not only had he ruined her shoes, he’d ruined her life.
“Kari.” His eyes registered shock. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same.” Anger surged through her. “This is my building, my home. You’re not welcome here.”
He didn’t say a word, just arched his brow and gave her a hint of a smile.
His amused expression made her realize how foolish she seemed. She stiffened her spine and lifted her chin. He couldn’t hurt her. Not anymore.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said, offering his hand.
She didn’t take it, which didn’t seem to faze him at all. He gathered up her groceries and handed her the bags. “I’ll get the mess cleaned up.”
Bitterness choked her. She’d always wondered how it would feel to see him again, but she’d not been prepared for this. Not today. Not ever.
“When did you get back?” The last she’d heard, he was in Iraq. She’d figured that was a good place for him to stay.
“I was at Walter Reed for several months, but here in Palm Beach, only a few weeks.”
“So you were injured, then?” For many years she’d wished him a painful death, but obviously he’d survived in spite of her.
“Yes. I was luckier than most.”
“I see that. You look…” She was at a loss for words. He was still as beautiful as she remembered, dammit! Why couldn’t he be missing a piece or two? “So are you visiting someone?” she asked hopefully. “You wouldn’t own a poodle.”
“No, I’m moving in. And yes, by default, I guess, Muffin is mine.”
“You can’t.” A feeling of panic rose in the pit of her stomach. “I live here.”
“And now so do I.” He smiled once more, and Kari blinked, feeling the oxygen sucking out of her. His devastating good looks, his natural charm, the ease and grace that he’d inherited at birth, were still as intact and powerful as they’d been in his youth. Those same qualities that had once attracted her now infuriated her.
It had taken her years to stop hating him and only a few minutes to bring it all back.
“You owe me a new pair of shoes.” She knew it was a ridiculous thing to say, but it was better than the terrible words she longed to hurl at him. Silent accusations had been her bed partner for years. Like, why had he moved on so quickly—how could he have stopped loving her so fast? And the one that stubbornly teased her brain—what if she had confronted him that day and told him the truth?
“They’re Manolos and they’re ruined.”
“I’ll be happy to buy you a new pair. Although I think I prefer you in flip-flops.” His gaze roamed over her. “When did you cut your hair so short? I liked it long, bouncing around on your shoulders, or up in a ponytail.”
“I haven’t bounced in a long time.” She glared at him, remembering how happy they’d been until her world fell apart. “That girl’s gone.”
“Maybe we can work on that.” He picked up the soggy bag that had once held two bottles of wine. “I’ll replace your wine too.”
“Forget it. I don’t want anything from you. Not now. Not ever.” She lifted her chin and stared into his eyes. “I don’t want you here, Jake. I’m not comfortable with you around.”
“That’s too bad, because I’m not going anyplace.”
“Why the hell not? You’re good at moving on.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean? You’re the one who wouldn’t answer my calls.”
Her fingernails dug into the palms of her hands. How dare he? He knew nothing—nothing—of what had happened to her. “Don’t go there.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be your neighbor whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t.” Her shoulders went rigid, and her entire body fought for control. She wanted to lunge at him and beat her fists against his chest, but if she went anywhere near him, her fragile hold on her emotions might snap.
He ran a hand over his face, shaking his head. “Listen to the two of us. We’re acting like a couple of kids.” His eyes crinkled with his smile. “Remember how we used to go at it when we were young? Always fighting and making up. Let’s put our grievances behind us and agree to be friends.”
“Impossible.” She stepped around the broken glass, needing to put distance between them until she got her breathing under control. “I’ll get someone to clean this up.”
“Hold Muffin. I’ll get someone.”
She eyed the quivering snowball with little pointy teeth, snarling at her. “Thought you hated small dogs.”
“Long story. I just figured he had a right to live.”
“I didn’t say he didn’t. But with you?”
Someone from security had heard the commotion and showed up with a bag and a broom. “We’ll take care of this,” he said, then proceeded to do so.
Jake held the elevator door for her. “Go ahead. I’ll take the next one.”
She stepped inside. “Good idea.”
“What’s your apartment number?”
“Don’t call me. I live with someone.” She pushed the elevator button and leaned back against the wall, whispering, “You and I are done.”
The elevator door slid closed.
Oh God, oh God, oh God! Jake! She couldn’t bear it, but what could she do?
The idea of living in the same apartment building, being near him, was unthinkable. Not with the history between them, and he didn’t even know the half of it. He had no idea why she’d suddenly cut him out of her life, and she didn’t plan to tell him either.
As she entered her apartment, her knees buckled, causing her to sink into a chair, then put her head in her hands. The pain came crashing back. It swept over her in one long, undulating tide—the highs, the lows, years of loving him and losing everything that mattered.
She got up from the chair and went to the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of white wine from the near-empty bottle in the fridge, kicked off her shoes, and sat down on the sofa. She took a big sip of the chardonnay, hoping it would take the edge off yet knowing one sip wouldn’t cut it.
Why, of all the places in this city, had Jake ended up here? Had he sought her out? Did he know she worked for PB News? Perhaps he’d seen her when he’d been home on leave, or his father might have mentioned it. Had he hoped that they might pick up again where they had left off? Could he really think it would be that simple?
Probably not. And if he had, he certainly would know better now. He’d rattled her so badly that in a matter of minutes, she’d been reduced to a snippy, unsophisticated, immature child, telling him he couldn’t live here, that it was her home and he made her uncomfortable. It made her sound so silly and weak, even territorial, and she was none of those things—just protective of her space, as well as her heart.
In fairness to him, some of the terrible things that had happened had not been his fault. But Jake had changed who she was and helped make her what she’d become. Her youthful joy, the hope of a bright and happy future, had been ripped out of her, and she’d been left with nothing.
How could she pretend indifference when she felt so much?
Today, in the lobby, it had been his fault she’d made a fool of herself. His fault she had to live with her guard up, always wary that someone might get too close and shatter her mended heart.
After sucking down the remainder of her wine, she sniffed back her tears, picked up her ruined shoes, and tossed them in the bin. She’d made a big deal out of ruining her precious shoes, but in reality, she didn’t give a damn about them or any of the designer merchandise she surrounded herself with. It was all a front, her entire persona, hiding the real Kari from the world.
She opened her patio doors and stepped outside. Her two-bedroom condo in CityPlace sat across the bridge from the glorious mansions in Palm Beach. She loved the fact that outside her door were several restaurants and bars, a big movie theater, shops and boutiques, all situated around a lovely and quaint town square.
Many people were milling about during the predinner hour. For several minutes, she mindlessly watched the activity, trying to distract herself from the flood of memories threatening to overtake her fragile state of mind. She spotted a few couples heading out for dinner, a group of young women apparently having a girls’ night out, and several teenage boys with their hats on sideways, pants falling down, waiting in the square where musicians were setting up for a local show.
She went back inside, heading for the bedroom, unzipping her skirt, when the telephone rang. The caller ID showed it was Sean, so she eagerly answered it. He was the perfect boyfriend: intelligent, interesting, charming, and absent most of the time. She was proud of the fact that he was an award-winning freelance photographer, and thrilled that his career was as important to him as hers was to her.
“Sean! Where are you?”
“Hunan, China, but we leave tomorrow.” His New Zealand accent accentuated when he spoke quickly, as he did now. “We’re doing some shots on the Mengdong River, and then at a place called the Fairyland of Peach Blossoms. It’s been really crazy for the past few days; that’s why you didn’t hear from me.”
“Tell me everything. I miss the sound of your voice.”
“No time. I’m rushing right now, but I’ll be in Beijing in a few days and can call again then.”
“Sean. Don’t hang up just yet. Can’t we talk a little longer?”
“Sorry, honey. I’ll have more time in a couple of days.”
“Okay.” She whispered, half to herself, “I need you tonight.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” For just this once, she’d like to unburden herself, but she knew and accepted the fact that he lived with one foot out the door, as did she. “When are you coming home?”
“I can’t say for sure, but it’ll be within the next couple of weeks. Maybe sooner.”
“Good. I have so much to tell you.” She hesitated for a second, then blurted, “I miss you.”
“Glad to hear that.” His voice deepened. “When I get home, we have things to discuss.”
“Like what?” she said, suddenly on guard.
“Things that should be discussed in person.”
“Sean. Tell me.” She wondered if he wanted to change the relationship. End it or step it up a notch. Neither prospect appealed to her.
“You’ll know soon enough.”
“Okay. Be mysterious. See if I care.”
“I miss you too.” His voice sounded different, almost romantic, and it made her heart yearn.
“Give my love to Beijing,” she said, keeping things light.
He laughed, and they said good-bye.
She headed for the bathroom to take her shower, feeling more unsettled than ever. Sean was a darling, but they spent so little time together that she never completely knew where they stood. They were lovers, but were they in love?
While the warm water washed over her body, her thoughts returned to Tom’s sudden decision to cut her runaway series. Every instinct in her wanted to fight him on this, but management had made a decision and there was not a damn thing she could do about it. She would get him his “feel-good” stories. Hell, if Tom wanted her to bend over and show her backside to the world, she’d do it. Whatever it took to make the boss happy.