Tatum tried to stand up. He needed to get to Draven, but his leg wouldn’t hold him. Through the terror of watching Draven drop to the ground, he was vaguely aware he’d been hit himself. He couldn’t hear the gunfire over the blood pounding in his ears—the explosions. Couldn’t hear any scream but the echoing of Draven’s own as he hit the ground. Couldn’t feel any pain other than what was squeezing his chest in a vice grip.
Well, if his leg wasn’t going to cooperate, he’d crawl. He took as deep a breath as he could manage through the smoke and driving wind around him and began to drag himself across the hot sand, not even caring that his camera was catching on rocks and brush and rubbing his neck raw. All he cared about was getting to Draven.
God, please let him be alive!
Tatum’s mind wandered to the day he met Draven as inch by slow inch he crept toward the man who had become everything to him.
“Shut up Lieutenant! He’s your responsibility, so suck it up.” Tatum watched the Captain stab a finger in the Lieutenant’s chest.
“And you keep him alive.”
Tatum tried not to cringe under the scowl suddenly directed at him from the Lieutenant as the Captain turned and stormed off. It’s not like he wanted to be babysat any more than First Lieutenant Draven Marshall wanted to babysit him. But Tatum Osborne hadn’t become a renowned war journalist by being stupid. And, as he avoided the Lieutenant’s frown and looked around at the hazy desert landscape, having a soldier with a gun attached to him was vital to his survival.
“Why the fuck would they send you here anyway?”
Tatum could hear the rhetorical tone in the low growl of the man next to him and didn’t bother answering. Tatum knew why he was here. He didn’t know exactly where “here” was of course, for security reasons, but he had an idea. The Kandahar Province, where he was currently standing, was one of the most volatile and insecure war zones. He was told that the camp he now occupied was several hundred miles in the southeast known as the Spin Boldak region and near the Pakistani border.
Just gazing at the camp was enough to tell him these men were nearly beaten down by heat, hunger and death. This regiment wasn’t scheduled to be withdrawn for a little less than a year from now. The time that Tatum would be spending with them. Switching his duffel bag from his left shoulder to his right he silently waited for the Lieutenant to get over his hissy fit and direct him to where he was to bunk.
“About time.” Tatum mumbled under his breath. He didn’t want to be on the bad side of the Lieutenant when the man was already pissed off. He was sweating buckets, though he was well aware of how hot the Sandbox was. He’d already had assignments in northern Afghanistan, parts of Iran and one in and out, messed up clusterfuck in Pakistan that had him almost quitting just from the nightmares. He shuddered as he picked up his large camera case and followed the soldier. He caught himself staring at the man’s ass and hastily slid his gaze to the side. Yea, that’s not the best way to get on the man’s good side either.
“You’ve been assigned to bunk with me.”
It was easy to hear that the Lieutenant was not happy about that. Probably because officers didn’t usually have to share. But there was nothing Tatum could do. He went where his assignment was and followed orders almost as if he were part of the unit himself. It had kept him alive so far. With the exception of what happened in Pakistan, this was the most unstable areas he’d been sent to, the military having a tenuous hold. He only hoped the ten and a half months went by quickly. He wasn’t a coward, he’d seen too much to let fear rule him, but he would be just as glad to get out of the line of fire, so to speak.
Even as he thought that, the rat-a-tat-tat of incoming fire assaulted his ears and he suddenly found himself on the ground, a large, hard body on top of him. He stifled the moan that wanted to escape and kept his eyes closed. No need to tempt fate. He’d not been laid in close to eighteen months. The war in the Sandbox put new meaning to having a “dry spell” and Tatum was as trapped by the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mandate as any soldier in the US Armed Forces. Tatum nearly rolled his eyes under his lids at his foolishness. Here he was, lusting over a man he just met in the middle of a war zone with bullets flying around. How sick was that? And, yet, his heart was racing for entirely the wrong reason. As the fire diminished and then ceased, the Lieutenant moved and Tatum could breathe again. Slowly, he opened his eyes to see the man looking down at him with an indecipherable expression.
Tatum hauled himself up and brushed off his clothes. “Thanks Lieutenant.” He was glad his voice didn’t sound husky and he hid the mild shaking of his hands. He looked himself over; satisfied he’d removed most of the dust and sand. He’d been in the Middle East too many times not to know the uncomfortable feeling of sand in all the wrong places.
“Draven. Just call me Draven.”