Author: Tal Bauer
Publisher: Self Published
Release Date: April 26, 2018
Page Count: 951
Reviewed By: Tosha
The truth is complicated.
On September 11th, 2001, Kris Caldera was a junior member of the CIA’s Alec Station, the unit dedicated to finding and stopping Osama Bin Laden.
Ten days later, he was on the ground in Afghanistan with a Special Forces team, driven to avenge the ghosts that haunted him and the nation he’d let down. On the battlefield, he meets Special Forces Sergeant David Haddad. David – Arab American, Muslim, and gay – becomes the man Kris loves, the man he lives for, and the man he kills for, through the long years of the raging wars.
David Haddad thought he’d be an outsider his whole life. Too American for the Middle East, too Arab for America, and too gay to be Muslim. It took Kris to bring the parts of himself together, to make him the man he’d always wanted to be. But the War on Terror wreaks havoc on David’s soul, threatening to shatter the fragile peace he’s finally found with Kris.
When a botched mission rips David from Kris’s life, Kris’s world falls into ruin and ash. A shell of the man who once loved with the strength to shake both the CIA and the world, he marks time on the edges of his life. The days bleed together, meaningless after losing the love of his life.
After being captured, tortured to the edge of his life, and left for dead by his comrades, David doesn’t know how much of himself is left. He vanished one day in the tribal belt of Pakistan, and the man who walks out almost a decade later is someone new: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.
But strange rumblings are whispering through the CIA. Intelligence from multiple sources overseas points to something new. Something deadly, and moving to strike the United States. Intercepts say an army from Khorasan, the land of the dead where the Apocalypse of Islam will rise, is coming.
And, at the head of this army, a shadowy figure the US hasn’t seen before: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.
David is coming home.
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… “I told you we were going to find Bin Laden, and I meant that. We, the people in this room,” George said, nodding to each and every man, in his team and in Palmer’s. “And we have a new mission. We are the team charged with hunting down and capturing Bin Laden, wherever he is, no matter how long it takes. And we’ll capture every other high-value al-Qaeda leader, too.
“Which means we’re moving shop. Al-Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan anymore, at least not in any real presence. They fled, or they’re trapped in Kandahar, which means the Marines are going to smoke them out. Most of the high-value leadership made it out of Afghanistan overland to Pakistan. They’re either hiding in the tribal areas, or they’ve made their way to Peshawar or Kashmir. So, we’re on the move. In two days, the entire team is moving to Islamabad station.” He took another sip of his beer, cringing as he swallowed. “The next two days are yours. I’m sorry we can’t give you a better Christmas vacation. But the Army has set up some facilities at Bagram for their soldiers. There’s the theater, showing Bollywood’s finest from a decade ago. And there’s plenty of beds, hot chow, and secured internet here. Sleep, eat, and call home.”
“Sounds great, sir.” Palmer held out his hand. George shook it. Jackson and Warrick were already cheering, talking about plans to eat until they puked and then sleep until they couldn’t physically sleep another minute. Jim and Phillip had their heads together, muttering about Bagram and the facilities there. Ryan stayed in the corner, his arms folded, staring at the ground.
David’s gaze met Kris’s.
Two days, all to themselves.
Visions tumbled through Kris’s mind, dreams he’d nurtured through the scant few minutes he’d slept at base camp, always clutching the radio close in case David or the team radioed in. Finally, after all this time, after everything. He could see his own eagerness reflected in David’s eyes.
“Kris, Sergeant Haddad.” George stopped in front of them as the rest of the team peeled away, off on their own adventures. “I… wanted to say something to you, Kris.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple rising and falling. “I am very proud of you. You proved everyone wrong. Really rose above all of the challenges you faced.” He smiled and held out his hand.
Never let anyone else define your life, Kris. Never let anyone else define who you are. They will always get it wrong. David’s words came back, slamming into his skull like gongs being struck, like fireworks shooting off into the night sky.
“George, the only real challenge I faced here was you. And Ryan.” Kris felt that fire that had always burned in him reignite, felt the flames grow larger. Something had slipped, between the boy he’d been, who’d refused to hide, and the man he’d become, who had let other people set barriers for him. When had he given up? “The only thing I had to prove wrong was your prejudice. I knew what I was doing. I was confident in myself. I didn’t struggle with what I could do. No, George, I am proud of you for finally seeing that I was working my ass off, that I was doing everything I could. That I knew what I was talking about and really was put on the team to be the subject matter expert.”
George stared. His jaw hung open.
Kris put the cherry on top. “I’m proud of you for finally seeing the real me, George.”
“That’s… one way to put it,” George said slowly.
“It’s the right way to put it.”
George’s gaze darted to David. David stood beside Kris, silent and sentinel. He stared at George, daring him to disagree.
“I think I was right about one thing, at least,” George finally said, his voice low. He stared pointedly at them both, holding each of their gazes for a long moment.
David straightened. Kris heard his vertebrae crack, felt his muscles tighten until they started to tremble.
“Which brings me to my next question.” He cleared his throat. “State wants to reopen the US Embassy in Kabul after the new year. They want someone to go through it first, get an assessment of the damage. I… was wondering if you two would be interested. It’s a big, empty building. Might take two days to go through.”
Kris’s head swam, like he’d been plunged into the ocean, tossed on waves after falling from a high cliff. George was… giving them space? Privacy? Calling them on their fledgling relationship, and, inexplicably, enabling it? In all of Kabul, in all of Afghanistan, was there any place he and David could possibly be together without any fear of discovery or of reprisal?
“We’d be happy to,” David rumbled. “We’ll start immediately.”
“Good.” George looked like he’d just shit his pants. “I expect you back here in two days.”
The doors to the embassy had barely shut behind them when David first pressed Kris against the wall.
David’s body surrounded him, covered him completely, devoured him. David pressed his forehead to Kris’s, lips hovering microns apart. Their breaths shook, tiny gasps keeping the last of their bodies separate.
“You want this?” David breathed. “You want me?”
Kris saw the spark of hesitation, of fear, in David’s eyes. He reached for David, his hands on David’s hips, pulling him closer, tighter, as if they could melt into each other’s bodies then and there. “I want you, David.”
David shuddered, his eyes squeezing shut as he drew in a breath, as he pressed into Kris. Had anyone wanted Kris before? Truly wanted him, like everything in David wanted him?
Finally, David’s lips brushed Kris’s, a tentative kiss, so unlike their bruising clash at the base of Tora Bora. Their lips caught, stuck, clung together. David tasted him slowly, like Kris was made of honey and David was tasting his soul. Kris had had hundreds of first kisses in his life, from high school to college and beyond, hundreds of kisses at parties and before one-night stands, with men he’d wanted and men he didn’t care for. No one had ever kissed him with the tenderness of David’s touch, the intensity of his desire. Kris shivered, shook. His knees went limp.
David caught him. Their bodies aligned in just the right way.
“The ambassador used to live here,” Kris gasped. “His apartment is on the top floor.”
They kissed their way up the stairs, bouncing from wall to wall, pushing each other back and molding their bodies as one. Hands cradled faces, jaws, wrapped around waists. At the top floor, they started stripping, shedding mud-spattered jackets and dusty sweaters. In two months, they’d never seen each other’s skin, had never seen beneath the contours of a thick sweater. Kris’s bare skin puckered as the cold air hit him, his thin chest contracting. David was there instantly, wrapping his arms around him, pressing his furred chest to Kris, a primal connection completed when David closed his lips over Kris’s again.
Their bodies had changed. Kris had come to Afghanistan slender and waifish, his strength always of the lean variety. Weeks of mountaineering and combat missions had molded his upper body, given him strength where he’d never had any. David’s strength had ebbed thanks to the weeks in Tora Bora, the deprivation and harshness eating away at his reserves. Bruises and scars marred his skin from impact blasts, slides down the mountain, times when he’d had to duck for cover when al-Qaeda had fought back, sent their artillery raining down near David’s position. His body was a map of the war. Kris’s hands roamed, covering every mar, every battle, as if he could heal him with his touch alone.
The ambassador’s apartment had been left unused since Dubs’s assassination. They kissed their way into a time capsule, a replica of the late ’70s, dust-covered and forgotten. The windows were slim, near the ceiling, only to let in light. No one could see as they shed the last of their clothes, boots, pants, and briefs. No one saw Kris pull David on top of him, into the ambassador’s bed. No one saw David slide onto Kris, cover him completely, begin to rock against him, like he wanted their atoms to merge, like he was trying to disappear within Kris’s being. Like he was the ocean, coming in for Kris’s shore…
Tal Bauer is an award-winning and best-selling author of LGBT romantic thrillers, bringing together a career in law enforcement and international humanitarian aid to create dynamic characters, intriguing plots, and exotic locations. He is happily married and lives with his husband and their Basset Hound in Texas. Tal is a member of the Romance Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America.