Excerpt of Christmas Escape

"And the Light shines in the darkness…"
John 1:5

Chapter One

"I love my job," Rachel Fielding murmured, smiling. "Who wouldn't? I help brave members of the military and get all the free kisses from them I want." She chuckled and blushed, checking her surroundings to make sure no one had overheard her silly musings.

Her patients might have four paws and wagging tails but they were the dearest part of her job as a veterinary assistant. Sure, some could be hard to handle but very few had proved impossible in the years she'd worked at Canyon Air Force Base in Texas. Since a blissful marriage and raising her own children didn't seem to be in her future, she'd fill that void via her job. Thankfully, any time she got in a bind trying to tend to a sick or injured dog she could always count on fellow techs or Capt. Kyle Roark, DVM, her boss for two of the past four years.

Rachel got down on her knees to hug Stryker, a three-legged German Shepherd who had had his front leg amputated after being wounded overseas. For a tough, K-9 soldier who had taken down the worst of the worst in battle, he sure was a sweetie - once you gained his trust as she had.

The abrupt opening of a nearby door made them both jump. Rachel soothed the shepherd while looking over her shoulder to see who was there. She started to smile at her boss until she noticed his somber expression, so she offered an excuse. "I'll be in soon. I was just socializing Stryker a little on my break."

Captain Kyle Roark shook his head. "It's not that, Fielding. There's a personal call for you. They say it's important."

"Sorry." Rachel got to her feet. Since her K-9 buddy immediately started leaning against her, looking up and pleading with his beautiful brown eyes, she asked, "Can I bring Stryker with me? You said he needs more casual exposure."

"Fine." Roark held the door open for them. "Take your call on the phone in my office."

"Thanks." Barking echoed in waves along the corridors when Rachel and the big shepherd passed by. Now that winter had brought a cool-down, the dogs housed at the training facility and animal hospital were more active as well as vocal. "Did the caller say what this was about?"

The captain paused at the entrance to his small office and gestured instead of replying. To Rachel's surprise he followed her and the dog in, pulled out a chair and said, "Sit," as he handed her the portable telephone from his desk. "Please."

Both she and the obedient K-9 complied. Rachel was getting uneasy. Capt. Roark had always been a perfect gentleman with all the enlisted personnel but he had never, in her memory, acted so solicitous. Her hands were trembling and she used them both to grip the phone.

"This is Airman Fielding speaking."

A woman's voice captured and held her attention. "I'm with patient services at Municipal Hospital in San Antonio. I have had a terrible time locating you, Ms. Fielding. Is your first name Rachel and do you have a sister, Angela?"

"Yes. But I haven't seen…"

"Angela is here with us. She's asking for you, Ms. Fielding."

The unspoken meaning behind that statement weighed on Rachel's heart as if a boulder lay atop her chest, making it hard to breathe. Stryker sensed her tension and pressed his good shoulder to her knee. "My sister? Are you sure?"

"Yes, ma'am. If it's at all possible, I urge you to get here immediately."

"Angela's sick?"

"She's been injured. I'm not authorized to go into detail. Everything will be clear once you've visited and spoken with her. You are coming?"

"Of course." Rachel's stomach knotted and she tasted bile on her tongue. If her sister had been hurt in an accident there would be no reason to keep that information private. Therefore, there was a very good chance Angie's live-in boyfriend was to blame. The mere thought of having to face that horrible man again gave Rachel discernible tremors. She had to ask, "Is her, I mean, is a guy named Peter Vanhoven with her?"

"I'm sorry, I have no idea. I was told to contact you and relay your sister's message, that's all."

"All right. Where do I need to go?"

The patient services spokesperson was in the middle of giving directions when Rachel realized she hadn't taken in anything. "Wait. Please. I need…" With that she passed the phone to her captain.

Kyle Roark rose from his perch on the edge of his desk and circled it, picked up a pen and made notes. "Yes, I have it. Thank you. When are visiting hours?"

Although Rachel couldn't hear the other end of the conversation she read empathy and concern in the veterinarian's expression. His dark eyes were resting on her as he nodded and said, "Yes. I see. All right. Tell her sister that Rachel is on her way." He glanced at his wristwatch. "We should be there before fifteen-hundred hours. Thank you."

She stood as he ended the call, using the arm of the chair for added balance. "I'll need to get permission to leave the base and be gone for who knows how long. And I'll need to borrow a car."

"Leave that to me. When you put Stryker back in his kennel, tell Sylvia and Bob to cover your feeding and watering duties until further notice while I make a few calls and adjust staffing." He was stripping off his white lab coat to reveal a light blue shirt beneath.

Rachel was almost to the door when Roark stopped her by calling out, "Fielding. Change into the civvies you keep in your locker and grab a warm jacket in case we're still gone after sunset. I'm going to contact my commanding officer, Lieutenant General Hall, and explain the emergency situation so there won't be any misunderstandings about both of us being away."

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Absolutely. You're clearly in no shape to drive and I'm escorting you to the hospital to see your sister. Period."

"It's very kind of you to offer, Captain."

"You're welcome, Rachel. And please remember to call me Kyle while we're away from the base."

"Of course, … Kyle."

One corner of his mouth quirked as if he might be about to smile. Then he sobered again. "Get going. We need to hit the road in minutes, not hours."

So many poignant memories were whirling through Rachel's mind as she changed into jeans, T-shirt and a light weight jacket she hardly gave thought to anything but her sister.

Angela. Dear, sweet, clueless Angela. What a waste her life had been after she'd met and fallen for Peter. He'd been bad news from the beginning but Angie would never listen, never see him for what he really was, a mean, ruthless bully with a temper to match.

The difference between that man's psyche and that of the trained attack dogs in their program was self-control. A K-9 could be called off by his handler. Once Peter lost his temper and began to inflict suffering, there was no stopping him until he was physically spent. She knew him well. She'd been on the receiving end of his wild temper and vindictive actions more than once.

And beyond a few scars, the price she'd paid had been high. He had cost her the only family she had left in the world.
ically spent. She knew him well. She’d been on the receiving end of his wild temper and vindictive actions more than once.

And beyond a few scars, the price she’d paid had been high. He had cost her the only family she had left in the world.