Hallowed Ground

By: Mary Alford

Dedication

To all our military men and women who serve our country faithfully so that we can remain the land of the free and the home of the brave. All gave some. Some gave all. The sacrifices made by you and your family are something we can never repay. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.





Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

John 14:1-3





Forward

Dear Reader,

If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you know how crippling the loss can be. Even harder when their death comes suddenly and unexpected.

In Hallowed Ground, CIA Agent Erin Sandoval loses her partner to a terrorist attack that leaves her struggling to understand why. Erin would never have survived Blake’s death without the help of fellow Agent Jax Murphy. With no answers coming, and the trail going cold, everything is pointing to a possible mole within the Agency. Erin’s team is deployed back to Afghanistan to find the elusive terrorist the CIA believes responsible for taking Blake’s life, but the entire mission proves to be nothing but a set up.

As the only surviving members of an attack that wipes out their unit, Erin and Jax must stay one step ahead of the unknown danger stalking them if they stand a chance at finding the true identity of the killer. Cutting through a wealth of lies and misdirection, the biggest threat to their survival might prove to be their growing feelings for each other. Can they escape the shadow world determined to drag them under long enough to find their happiness together in the sunlight, or will the killer accomplish what he set out to do and silence them like he did the rest of their team?

I truly hope you enjoy Hallowed Ground, and that Erin and Jax’s story fills you with hope.

All the best,

Mary





PROLOGUE



The dust and debris from the explosion mushroomed in all directions, covering everything within a quarter mile in an ash-gray veil. Agent Erin Sandoval couldn’t see beyond her hand in front of her.

She’d lost visual of her partner in the confusion that had ensued seconds before the explosion propelled her backwards some ten feet in the air. The building—a safe house—was destroyed. Reduced to a pile of rubble in seconds. No one in the belly of the structure could have survived the blast.

“Blake,” Erin called out into the settling silence, breaking the first rule of an ambush. Never give your position away to the enemy.

Focusing through the silty haze was impossible. Her voice sounded disjointed. Frantic. She was frantic. Where was Blake?

Dear God, please let him be okay.

“What happened? Where is he?” Kabir, the team’s Pakistani guide, materialized next to Erin, weapon drawn.

There was only one place Blake could be.

“He’s in there.” She threw the words over her shoulder as she charged toward the carcass of the building. Before she’d covered more than a couple feet, someone grabbed both arms holding her in place.

“Blake!” Relief threatened to take her legs out from under her. “You’re safe.” She whirled only to find it wasn’t Blake at all. Jackson “Jax” Murphy, the commander of the Special Activities Division, the CIA’s covert paramilitary-operations unit, held her in a vise grip.

Frustrated, Erin struggled to free herself from Jax’s grasp. “Let me go. He’s in there and he could be hurt.”

With a curt shake of his head, Jax kept her close. “You can’t go in there. The building isn’t secure.”

She understood the danger. They’d all lost comrades to the war of terror. The insurgents had perfected the deadly “double threat,” as it was known. If the first explosion didn’t do the trick, the second one would.

“We can’t wait for help. He could be hurt. He needs us,” she insisted.

Jax shook his head, not budging. “You don’t know that. I’m ordering you to stand down, Erin.”

Out of the smoke and chaos, the marines attached to the mission appeared like a ghostly tribe. They were well trained in disarming this latest threat.

“Search the building. We have an agent missing.” Jax’s gaze held hers. “He could be injured.”

The squad commander gave Jax a quick nod, then motioned for the team to enter the remains.

Jax finally freed her. “What happened? How’d you two get separated?”

The sniper attack had taken both of them by surprise. Their intelligence had confirmed that the area was free of enemy insurgents hours earlier. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. The enemy was expecting them. A firefight between Erin and Blake, and possibly five enemy soldiers broke out followed by the explosion.

“We were ambushed. They were waiting for us, Jax. Blake and I ducked behind that burned-out vehicle over there. Blake was with me until…”

Blake had thrown away caution because he believed they were both sitting targets and he wanted to protect her. He made a break for it, determined to draw fire away from Erin. Before she could stop him, the explosion lit up the night sky and shook their world. The last visual she had of him was heading for the building.

She needed to know what had happened to her partner. “He’s in there, I know it. He needs me.” She didn’t wait for Jax to stop her. Erin ran into the building’s remains as the first marine exited it. The truth was obvious in his grim expression.

“Please, no.” Keeping the panic at bay was impossible.

No one attempted to stop her. The smoke was still thick in the air as she scanned the remains until she saw him lying on the dirt floor. Her partner since the day he’d first recruited her. She’d completed her first tour of duty with the second invasion into Afghanistan at Blake’s side.

Three marines worked on defusing the second bomb. The rest of the unit knelt around the man who’d been like a brother to her. Agent Blake Robertson.

“No,” she covered her mouth with a trembling hand and fell to her knees beside him. Two soldiers were performing CPR. There was a gaping and bloody wound in Blake’s left side, just below his heart. His eyes were open. Vacant. Lifeless.

Why’d you do it? Tears blurred her vision. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. “No,” was all she could get to come out. She gently touched his face. The vacant eyes staring into space would haunt her forever. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Someone knelt next to her. Jax. He’d been Blake’s best friend for longer than Erin had known her partner.

Jax reached over and closed Blake’s eyes, a muscle working in his jaw. The finality of the gesture was too much. Erin covered her eyes with her hands and fell apart. She’d lost her best friend to a war that felt impossible to win. To a group of people bent on their destruction, filled with hate. Justified by what they believed was “the cause.”

“We have to leave, Erin. Now. The marines can’t defuse the bomb. There’s something different about this one.” Jax grabbed her arms and all but lifted her to her feet.

“No.” She refused to leave Blake alone. Not like this.

“Now, Agent.” Jax half-dragged, half-carried her toward the safe area that had been set up some distance from the building.

Her thoughts wouldn’t come together no matter how hard she tried to make them. She couldn’t focus. Blake’s lifeless eyes were there before her wherever she looked. He’d died. She’d lived. Why? It didn’t make sense.

“Don’t stop. There’s no time,” Jax said when she turned to look back at Blake one last time. They were almost out of the ruins.

She barely had time to register the shock in Jax’s voice when the world around them rumbled and shook, then exploded into hell on earth.





CHAPTER ONE



One month later…

“You know I love you, don’t you, baby sister?”

She spun to see his face and laughed in spite of the sweltering heat of the day that stuck their clothes to their bodies. This had been a running joke between herself and Blake from the beginning. She was his sister and he was her brother. They clicked that way.

Blake was a big kid at heart. At thirty-five, he resembled a slightly taller, definitely more freckled version of Opie Taylor.

The day had been one of those rare occasions when they had nothing to do. They were embedded with marines outside of Kandahar. Blake squatted in the shadow of an outcropping of rocks. The heat on the desert surface reached a boiling point.

She shielded her eyes against the blazing sun. “Yes. I know you love me,” she assured him.

“Promise me, if anything happens to me, you’ll get out of this. You’ll leave the CIA.”

She studied his expression, her smile fading. They’d had this discussion a few times in the past, but recently it seemed as if Blake brought it up more and more. It had become an obsession with him. Today, there was something in his eyes. He looked haunted almost.

“Nothing’s going to happen to you, silly.”

He wasn’t smiling. His expression serious. Deep brown eyes searched her face as if memorizing every detail of it, and fear clawed at her heart. “I’m serious, Erin. I don’t want you to do this without me.”

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