Monday, January 30, 2012

Faithful Service, Silent Hearts excerpt by Lynette Mae

Faithful Service, Silent Hearts by Lynette Mae is the story of Devon James, a bright young military officer, dedicated to serving her country. She soon learns that finding love under any circumstances is difficult, but when your love is forbidden by military regulations and a relentless zealot pursues you, it can seem impossible. Following an investigation that destroyed her first lover's career and their relationship, Devon hopes her new assignment will allow her a fresh start.

Devon is reunited with an old college friend, and together, they form an impressive intelligence team and red-hot couple. When their assignments take them to the war-torn Middle East in the early days of terrorists targeting Americans, then things really get interesting. She returns home a decorated veteran with numerous physical and emotional scars. Devon soon discovers that the battle for her own integrity and faithful service has only begun.

Faithful Service, Silent Hearts
Regal Crest Enterprises (7/10/2011)
ISBN: 978-1-935053-49-1


Chapter One

March, 1982

THE ARMY DRILL instructors stalked across the blacktop toward the formation of thirty women all dressed in camouflage fatigues and standing stiffly at attention. Twenty-one-year-old Devon James watched their approach from her position on the end of the first row. The DI team was a study in contrasts. Senior Drill Sergeant Jackson, a towering man of six foot six, possessed dark chocolate skin and black granite eyes. Staff Sergeant Collins was a fierce woman whose fair features reminded Devon of a Viking warrior. Her hard blue eyes were nearly translucent and she wore a constant scowl.

Devon cringed inwardly. That woman hates me, she thought.

The sun had not even broken the horizon; the faint promise of light was just beginning to soften the dark edge of the night behind the DIs’ imposing forms. Devon blinked back tears brought on by the cold morning wind that was noisily snapping the flag overhead.

The instructors moved with mechanical precision and clicked their heels to a stop, casting a familiar glare on the group. Devon felt Staff Sergeant Collins’s icy stare on her, knowing the day was already looking bleak. She couldn’t fathom why Collins didn’t like her. Devon tried to achieve every goal the DI set for the group and for Devon individually, but no matter what she did, it never seemed to be enough. She pulled in a deep breath, focusing on the male sergeant. Only two more days.

Devon’s position at the end of the first row made her stand out. When they marched, she was either the “guide on” for the straight lines or the pivot point when the formation swung into a turn. She stood five feet ten inches tall and weighed in at one hundred and forty pounds of pure muscular power. She didn’t mind the responsibility of her position in the formation. In fact, she relished the leadership role. She wasn’t sure when that had happened, mentoring her peers in the platoon. Somewhere along the way, she had started helping the other women with their marching and achieving the best spit shine on their boots. To her surprise, she found she enjoyed it.

“Private James.” Jackson said her name flatly, without a hint of feeling, although they had been together for nearly three months and the platoon was set for graduation in days. He looked her up and down and, apparently satisfied, snapped a left face and moved to the next recruit in line.

Staff Sergeant Collins now stood directly in front of her. They were about the same height and her glacial eyes bored into Devon. Holding her neutral expression firmly in place, Devon kept her eyes trained straight ahead, looking at nothing and praying Collins would move on. No such luck. She reached out to pull at the corner of Devon’s outer shirt pocket.

“What the fuck is this, James?” she held up an imaginary string. Devon knew it was imaginary because she had meticulously checked her uniform, as always. She knew there was no string. Before she could catch herself, her eyes slid to the sergeant’s empty hand and then to her eyes. Big mistake.

“Are you eyeballing me, Private?” Collins bellowed.

“No, Drill Sergeant.” Devon stared at the horizon beyond her.

“Drop and give me twenty, James! Twenty for the string…and twenty for eyeballing me.”

Devon hit the ground and counted aloud as she shoved herself repeatedly off the blacktop, grinding out her unwarranted discipline with swift, jerking movements while the rest of the platoon stood solidly in line. The near-freezing overnight temperatures made the pavement feel like ice against the bare skin of her palms, and little bits of gravel dug in painfully. Stubborn pride was always her weakness, and she tried to corral her emotion, but Collins stood close enough that the tips of her boots were in Devon’s peripheral vision. When she reached thirty, the sergeant squatted next to her.

“James? Are you pissed off?” Devon continued counting. Concentrating on the push-ups was the only thing keeping her from spouting off. Which would only make things worse. How many times had she gotten an extra lash with her mother’s belt for failing to shut her mouth?

“Did you hear me, James? You are, aren’t you? You want to take me on?”

“Forty,” Devon growled. She remained in the plank position, balancing on her hands and toes, waiting for the DI’s next instruction. Collins squatted only a couple of inches away. Knowing that the sergeant couldn’t see her face, Devon flicked her eyes in that direction, only to realize the vee of Collins’s crotch was dangerously close. Without warning, the scent of the sergeant’s cologne registered in Devon’s consciousness, and an odd tingle spread through her gut. She forced her eyes back to the ground.

“Recover, Private,” Collins snapped, her face so near that Devon felt her breath on her cheek. She struggled for air and prayed the sergeant would assume it was only from the push-ups. When she swallowed, it was so loud in her own ears, she was certain the whole platoon heard it. Collins stood but didn’t back away.

“I should’ve made it forty for each transgression. You made that look too easy.” The warmth in Collins’s voice took Devon by surprise, prompting her to steal a glance at the sergeant before she had time to think about it. Collins was smiling. Not sneering. Genuinely smiling at her, and the effect was disorienting. Heat burned in Devon’s cheeks. She returned her eyes forward at once, bracing for the rebuke she knew was coming for the eye contact. Instead, the agonizing silent appraisal dragged on.

Mercifully, Collins looked away, and her next command pierced the air. “Everyone get your asses upstairs and put your PT clothes on. You’re down to two days but you can still fuck this up. Be back down here in five minutes. We’re gonna see just who’s ready to call themselves a soldier.”

THE DRILL INSTRUCTORS marched them out to the grassy field, and Devon had a feeling that today was going to be all about the survival of the fittest. They stood in formation awaiting instruction with a brisk wind swirling around them, stubbornly reasserting winter’s chill. Devon shivered. The brilliant sunrise in the cloudless sky promised to warm the day considerably, but for now the wind cut easily through her cotton t-shirt, raising goose bumps on every area of exposed flesh.

Collins stood several feet in front of the formation, conferring with the other sergeant. Devon wondered about her. The brief glimpse of humanity that had slipped through earlier was so stunning she couldn’t help replaying the scene in her mind. Collins had definitely smiled at her in a genuinely kind way, as though she had lifted away her mask to allow Devon to see her, if only for a moment. Now, she couldn’t stop trying to envision what the woman was like behind the cadre persona.

Sergeant Jackson spoke. “I was going to take it easy on you today, but Drill Sergeant Collins says James challenged her this morning. It seems James believes Sergeant Collins’s record time in the O course is slow.”

Devon prayed a hole would open in the ground and swallow her up. The DIs loved to dig at someone in the platoon, just to screw with them and create dissension in the ranks. Getting recruits fired up over some manufactured bullshit they blamed on another recruit was entertainment for the DIs. Devon couldn’t help but feel that she was one of their favorite targets.

Someone in the formation grumbled, “Thanks for pissing her off, James.” Collins, standing next to the senior DI, stared at Devon with an expectant look on her face.

Fuck me, Devon thought.

“Move out,” Jackson ordered.

They marched around the next bend to the obstacle course, “O” course for short. As the sun began to coax a hint of warmth into the day, the platoon broke formation and gathered at the start of the course. This exercise required each platoon member to complete two rounds. Today’s first score counted toward a combined team total, and the second run for individual times.

Having come into this in better physical condition than most of the women, Devon enjoyed the physicality of the O course. She liked being challenged to overcome the beliefs regarding limitations. Devon ran the first leg for the platoon. She worked her way methodically through each obstacle and sprinted the last fifty yards to the finish. Staff Sergeant Collins waited at the finish line with a stopwatch to capture individual times.

When Devon crossed the finish line, Sergeant Jackson looked over Collins’s shoulder and chuckled. “Better watch out, Collins, she might smash your record today.”

Collins glared at him. “Then, we’ll just run it head to head. Nobody is beating my time.” Devon moved away, trying to pretend she didn’t hear them, but Collins called out, “James?”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.” She hustled over and snapped to parade rest.

Amusement played across Collins’s features and the hint of a smile touched the corner of her mouth. “Hell of an effort, but don’t count on that time being enough today.” Devon watched the sergeant’s eyes sparkling with challenge in the morning sun. Without waiting for an answer, the DI spun on her heels and shouted at the next recruit attempting to scale the wall.

Devon couldn’t keep the grin from sliding over her face. A compliment from Collins was like a rare jewel, and she savored the swell of pride she felt inside. Collins’s reputation was that of the taskmaster, always pushing, demanding, forcing the recruits in her charge to improve by the sheer force of her will. Only one other time had Devon heard the sergeant praise anyone, and she certainly never expected to be on the receiving end of a kind word from the woman the platoon nicknamed The Terminator.

Someone yelled, and she shook off her momentary bliss. Her bunkmate, Sharon, was struggling at the wall. Sharon, in her late twenties, had three kids back home in Kentucky. She carried a few extra pounds and was a bit out of shape, but she had heart, and Devon had become extremely fond of her.

Devon ran to help, not wanting her friend to complete basic without accomplishing this task. Hesitating, she stopped at the sideline with the others to shout encouragement, wishing she could enter the course to assist. Hell, she’d run the course in Sharon’s place if she could. When it became painfully apparent Sharon was not going to make it over the wall, Devon became desperate to help her. She ran to Collins, who was peppering the poor woman with expletives about her inadequacies.

“Excuse me, Drill Sergeant.”

“What, James?”

“Permission to assist Private Smith, Drill Sergeant.” Devon watched Sharon’s hapless effort. She didn’t possess the upper body strength to pull herself up the rope, and each time she tried, it only resulted in making her swing side to side in a slow, awkward arc.

“Permission?” Sergeant Collins turned her critical stare to Devon. “Private, was the instruction not that this is a team exercise?”

Devon looked at her in confusion.

“If you were on a battlefield, James, and a member of your platoon needed help, what would you do?”

Devon sprinted to the wall past the other platoon onlookers. She braced her back against the wood and laced her hands together in front of her. “Sharon, put your foot here. I’m gonna boost you up.”

“But Devon, I don’t think we’re allowed—”

“Yeah, James,” someone yelled from the group, “you’re gonna get us all in trouble again. I ain’t running no extra miles for your ass today.”

“No shit!” another voice called out. “The last time you decided it was okay to do things your way, we all got killed in the training exercise and had to hump back to the barracks in freezing rain, while Charlie Company got a lift back in the cattle cars.”

Devon ignored them. It didn’t matter that she’d overheard the team of drill sergeants laughing about how they used the drill corporals to find out which direction the platoon was heading and, if not for that, the band of privates would have beaten the cadre team. She already understood that basic training was about persevering against all odds, no matter the outcome. In fact, Sharon was the one who had told her that. Now it was time to remind her friend.

“Sharon, just do it and don’t argue. If we get into trouble, I’ll take the punishment, but you’re going over this wall today.”

Sharon stepped into her hands. Devon pressed herself into a standing position, effectively lifting the woman high enough to grasp the top of the wall. “Now, step up onto my shoulder and climb over the top. You can do this, Sharon.” And, miraculously, she did. After that, Devon completed the rest of the course with her friend, yelling verbal support to keep her moving until they crossed the finish line.

Sergeant Collins clicked the stopwatch. “No team record today, ladies.”

When Sharon hung her head, Devon hugged her shoulder. “Hey, the important thing is that everyone finished. Remember? It’s about not giving up.” Looking past Sharon, she saw Collins favoring her with a pleased smile.

Eight weeks ago, this moment wouldn’t have been possible. Oh, Devon would have wanted to help Sharon, but she would have stood on the sideline, feeling helpless, stubbornly clinging to her childhood fears. She had always been this odd combination of brash tomboy and timid little girl who no one ever understood, and that made her mostly withdraw from people. Somehow, this experience was changing her, making her a doer, awakening some long-repressed desire to test her boundaries, to let loose the real Devon, the one who smiled at Sharon the first day of basic training and made a friend instantly. She was now determined to silence every ridiculing, teasing, taunting voice that had ever taken up space in a child’s head and show them all what she was really made of.

Devon was still shaking herself free of her meandering mental journey when Sergeant Jackson approached.

She quickly readied herself for her turn at the individual O course run. The rest of the platoon had already finished, and she was the last one to have a go at it.

“Do your best, James.” His eyes were full of challenge as he held up the stopwatch.

“I will, Sergeant.” Devon stepped up to the starting line. She drew several deep breaths and toed the ground to ensure good traction for a fast start. Her concentration was already focused on the first wall.

“Hold up.” Sergeant Collins dropped her outer uniform shirt and hat a few feet away. She jogged over to stand next to Devon at the line. Jackson nodded at her as though he had expected her to join Devon.

“I figured you and I should just get this over with, James.” Her lips curved into an evil smile that was arrogant and disturbingly sexy at the same time. “Ready to get your ass kicked?”

The whistle sounded and they were off. Devon hit the ten-foot wall first. Attacking the thick, coarse rope, she ignored the small tears she could feel in her palms from her previous climb and charged up the vertical face. The wood was slick from years of weather and thousands of soldiers’ feet wearing the surface to a shine. She nearly lost her footing midway. At the top, she threw her legs over and dropped to the ground on the other side. Collins landed next to her a second later. They ran side by side through the tires, zigzagging past the pylons to the low crawl beneath the razor wire. Devon stole a quick glance sideways. She caught sand in her eyes as it flew up from the churning of their arms and legs in the pit.

On the other side, they ran to the low rails. Devon’s lack of balance cost her, and Collins nimbly crossed the narrow poles to take a slight lead. The rope climb was next, and Devon’s upper body strength served her well. She shimmied up the rope with precision-like movements, pulling with her arms and pushing with her legs. She reached the top a second ahead of the sergeant and descended with the rope wrapped loosely around her ankle. Her foot controlled the speed as she descended. She had Collins by a full body length at the bottom of the cargo net. They both scrambled skyward, the nylon netting swaying and shifting with each woman’s movements.

Collins took a chance and leapt from the netting only halfway down the climb on the opposite side. This gave her a head start on the final fifty-yard dash to the finish. The entire platoon was yelling. Some encouraged the sergeant, but most were shouting at Devon not to let her get away.

Devon jumped, stumbling slightly in the soft sand at the base of the obstacle. Recovering quickly, she broke into a full sprint toward the finish, intent on overtaking the sergeant. Arms and legs pumping furiously, muscles straining, both women pushed their bodies to the limit. Devon’s field of vision narrowed to nothing but the flag marking the finish line. In the final ten yards, she kicked in her last boost of reserve adrenaline and crossed the line half a step ahead of Collins.

The platoon erupted into a chorus of cheers from the sidelines.

Devon slowed to a walk and kept moving so her overtaxed muscles wouldn’t cramp. She ignored the screaming agony in her chest. As she reversed direction, she saw Collins doing the same. They circled one another like proud lionesses protecting their territory, assessing each other, chests heaving, sweating, and watching each other’s every movement. The sergeant finally bent and put her hands on her knees, breathing hard. She looked up, met Devon’s eyes, and held them fiercely for a moment before breaking into a wide, admiring grin. “Outfuckingstanding, Private James. Outstanding!”

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Victor J. Banis said...

You're right, Eric, this is totally engrossing, makes me want to see where she's going with it. Good stuff.

Lynette Mae said...

Victor, I cannot thank you enough for your kind words. Thanks for the opportunity, Eric!