"Janjaweed! They come!"
Angelique Vernet bolted upright, looking wildly around the room, a scream lodged in her throat. "Fuck." She muttered the curse as softly as possible so as not to wake her companion. Whoever he was. Arnaud something or other. She could never remember their names. He was just another in a line of pretty French boys meant to distract her from the nightmares. Nightmares that were almost as real as the actual atrocities she'd witnessed in that small village in northern Darfur. Before the expulsion of international aid organizations. Before the brutality of the refugee camps. She slid out of bed and crossed to the window looking out over the city, arms wrapped around her middle, and let the memories come flooding into her. Even now, she could still hear the screams of the children that died that awful day.
They'd swarmed into the village on camels, on horseback, and in trucks with machine guns mounted on top, dust swirling around until a choking cloud hovered over everything. Screams continued to emanate from the village even as a battered truck rammed gates not meant to withstand a collision with a motor vehicle. Guttural cries filled the air as people waiting for medical attention scattered among shouts of, "Death to the Nuba!"
But the horror was just beginning. Babies were ripped from their mother's arms, bayoneted before their eyes. The men screamed at the women and girls, laughing gleefully as they held them down. As dozens lined up. It was the same for the female teachers, for the nurses. Angelique had been dragged from the clinic, along with Carla Able. One of the militiamen grabbed the front of the nurse's shirt, tore it. Before he could do more, Angelique screamed, "No!" and shoved him away. The savage lust of the conqueror shone in his eyes, and he likely would have killed her but for his commanding officer. She and Able were forced to witness the destruction of the villager's lives. The commander grasped her jaw in his hand and backed her up against the hospital wall with a fierce growl. "Tell your American friends this is what is waiting for them if they continue to come to Darfur to help the black slaves. They will all die like dogs!"
The sounds and smells of that day were never far from her consciousness. The wailing of parents held at gunpoint, forced to listen as their children cried and begged for their lives. Shit and urine, semen and blood. Some of the younger girls wouldn't survive the attacks. The focus of the militia soldiers changed, and the Janjaweed leader shouted new orders to his men.
And then more men arrived, American men dressed in civilian clothes carrying military weapons. Angelique recognized him from across the dusty courtyard. Mitch Acosta, and with him his friend, Seth Boudreaux. Older now but still looking very much like the young soldiers she'd spent a wild Mardi Gras with so many years ago. What the hell were they doing in Darfur? US participation in the country was supposedly limited to logistical and technical backup. Did they know she was here? She shook her head. No, not possible.
As dangerous as the situation was, a sense of calm enveloped her, and she pulled herself together and began to triage the injured, directing the able-bodied to get stretchers and start taking the most seriously injured into the field hospital. By the time the fighting wound down, much of the hospital had been wrecked and Angelique was up to her elbows in blood and despair.
Everywhere she looked dazed people were trying to clean up broken vials of valuable medication, the women were crying, some holding girls as young as five, who would be forever scarred by what transpired. Angelique was too busy to be angry. That would come later, in the privacy of her hut where no one could see her. Exhaustion would drag her into the depths of sleep where the dreams would come, along with the guilt--guilt that she'd been spared, that she was relieved to have been saved from the fate of so many of the women in the village.
Hours felt like days, but the last of the wounded were cleaned and stitched. Those who were able had taken picks and shovels and trudged outside the compound to bury the dead. Angelique was just stripping off a pair of bloody gloves when a young boy entered the room.
"Doctor Angel." The boy looked up at her, an adoring smile on his face. "There is another here. A white man shot during the fighting. He say it is not anything, but his friend, he say that is...bullshit...and he must see the Angel doctor. He tells me, if her feet not dead, please may they come in." He looked down at her to make sure her feet were still attached.
Angelique sighed, offered up a tired smile. "Still on my feet. Tell them it's okay to come back." She wasn't surprised to see Mitch Acosta come into the exam room supporting a bloody Seth Boudreaux, followed by the boy. "How are we set for beds, Nijam?"
"No beds, Doctor Angel. We got the mattresses the churchman sends. You want Tahir and Nijam to open the schoolrooms?"
Angelique smiled. "That's an excellent idea, Nijam. I don't know why I didn't think of it myself."
The boy shuffled his feet, smiling broadly. "You sew up American soldier; Nijam will see to the women and children."
Angelique poured water into a clean basin and washed her hands. "Thank you, Nijam." The boy scurried away, and she turned to Acosta. "Let's get him up on the table." While Mitch got Seth settled, Angelique went to a curtained doorway. "Able, I need you. We got a wounded American here."
A loud groan emanated from the darkened room. "On my way." Moments later the diminutive redhead bustled in from behind the curtain. "Nurse Ready Willing and Able reporting for duty, Angel Doctor."
Angelique snorted. "Bite me, Tinker Bell." She grinned as Able washed up and donned gloves. She gave her patient a wink. "We depend on Nurse Able to be a bright spot in an otherwise dull day."
The elfin nurse stuck her tongue out at Angelique and grabbed a pair of scissors to cut the leg of Boudreaux's cargo pants. With a snip and strong pull, the pants leg ripped up to the crotch.
"That's some grip you got there, beb," Boudreaux said, laying on the thick Cajun accent. "I do like a woman with strong hands."
Angelique suppressed a smile and glanced up to meet Acosta's gaze. She knew he was thinking about their time together in New Orleans when the two of them had gotten her so worked up that she'd all but ripped Boudreaux's pants trying to get his zipper unstuck.
"I'll just bet you do, soldier," Able cooed as she examined his leg. She looked up at Angelique. "Didn't quite go all the way through, but I think you can get it with a local."
Angelique nodded. "Okay, let's get him on his side and get the bullet out." When Able grasped his arm to help him onto his side, he hissed in pain. That was when Angelique saw the blood seeping from his torso. "What the fuck, Boudreaux? You didn't think you should tell me you were hit twice?"
Seth grimaced. "Aw hell, Ange, it's just a little knife scratch. I stuck a bandana over it and kept fightin'."
Angelique shook her finger at him. "Don't you try that Cajun charm on me, Boudreaux. Let's get this shirt off."
Angelique moistened the bandana so she could get it off without causing him undue pain and cleaned the wound with saline solution before exploring the gash to make sure no tendons or large blood vessels were damaged. "I need more light," she told Able, who adjusted the surgical light. "I need two percent lidocaine and skin prep solution." Seth grunted when she probed deeper with a hemostat to remove a deeply embedded pebble. "Okay, I've got them all." She gave Seth a disapproving look. "One would think you'd know better than to roll around in the dirt with an open wound."
Seth grunted. "Seein' as how some dude was on top of me tryin' to pin me to the ground with his big-ass knife, I didn't have much choice." He cast his own disapproving look over his shoulder. "I seem to remember you had a better bedside manner stateside, cher."
"Huh, is that right? Anything's possible." Able applied the surgical skin prep, then filled a syringe with lidocaine. "Had a tetanus booster in the last ten years, Boudreaux?"
"Hell yes," he groused. He looked over his shoulder at Angelique. "Your buddy, Acosta, here took every opportunity he could to make sure my arm bumped into every doorway I passed through." He grinned up at Acosta. "I still ain't paid you back for that, dickweed."
Mitch laughed. "You gonna be all right, man? The doc sent a couple of kids off to set up some mattresses in the schoolroom. I figured I'd go lend a hand. You know I can't stand to see you cry when the needles come out."
Seth snorted. "Asswipe, you're the little girl when comes to needles. Fuck off and go help those boys."
"All right, you two, that'll be enough of that. Acosta, go make yourself useful." The skin prep was dry, so she placed a sterile sheet with a precut hole over the wound and tucked it under Seth's arm, then picked up the syringe. "You're gonna feel some pinching, then it'll go numb."
Seth chuckled. "Yeah, I know the drill, Doc, but it's more like somebody jabbing a steel spike in you than a pinch."
"Uh-huh," Angelique said, smiling at Able. "You want Able to hold your hand, big guy?"
Seth grinned, eyes sparkling with mischief. "Could she?"
Able rolled her eyes, but she took his hand anyway. "Anything for the troops."
He grinned again. "Yeah? Anything? I sure could use a sponge bath."
"Ah jeez." Angelique groaned. "That's original."
"Hey," Seth protested, "I'm not operating at full steam here, Doc. Give a guy a break."
They kept up the banter while Angelique stitched the eight-inch knife wound and dug the spent bullet from the back of his thigh. He was, she told him, very lucky. The bullet had barely missed the femoral artery.
He'd come to her hut that night, Acosta had, softly calling her name. She heard a sharp intake of breath as the curtain fell closed behind him.
"It's good to see you again, Angel," he murmured, crossing the space between them. And he was literally seeing all of her as she stood there in a large plastic basin, sponge in hand. "Shall I wash your back?"
She couldn't speak for fear that he'd hear the despair in her voice, that he'd know she'd been crying. She turned her back, held out the sponge, more than willing to accept what he was offering...the human touch, the warmth of a body against hers in the chill African night, and, yeah, sex--hot and hard and physical, just the way she liked it. She remembered that about him, that her physicality had really turned him on.
Angelique sighed as soapy hands smoothed across her back, stroking, massaging. He seemed to sense that she didn't want words, so he remained quiet, rinsing her, patting her dry, lifting her and carrying her to the raised platform and the pitiful lump that passed for a mattress. But none of that mattered because Mitch Acosta of the wild Mardi Gras weekend was with her. He laid her down on the mattress and set her legs wide apart to feast.
"Ah, Acosta," she whispered, curling her fingers into his too-long hair. "I need you to fuck me."
He lifted his head, his gaze clashing with hers. "Oh, I'm gonna fuck you, Doc. All night long. But right now? Right now I'm fixing to make you come with my mouth."
She came hard and fast, with a lusty cry. Acosta rolled on a condom, flipped her onto her belly, entered her with a hard, deep thrust, and she came again. "Yeeesss," she hissed. "Ah God, Mitch!"
"Ah fuck, Angel, I can't--" Four hard thrusts and he came with a shout. He was still inside her when he wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her up so they could both stretch out on the bed. He spooned her, one hand stroking her belly as they floated on the edge of sleep.
A shout woke her, and she leaped from her bunk, only vaguely recognizing it came from her.
"What?" Mitch barked, coming off the bed, weapon at the ready. Her harsh breaths allowed him to locate her in the pitch-blackness of the hut. "Angel. It's okay. No one's here; you're all right. It's all right."
A sob escaped her, and he reached for her, wrapping her in his arms even as she struggled to pull away.
"Talk to me, Angelique." He lifted her off her feet and carried her back to the bed, then crawled in beside her. "What happened here today, it was horrible. We tried to get here in time, but we...we didn't and I'm sorry you had to live through that. But you can't keep it inside, honey. Do that, and it'll eat you alive. You gotta feel it and move through it."
Her breath caught in her throat. Was he serious? She didn't want to feel anything. She gave him shrug and sat up. "I need a fucking drink." She got up and fumbled in a small metal cabinet for a half-full bottle of vodka.
"That's not the answer, Angel, and you know it."
Angelique found a lighter and lit a candle, casting the room in a soft glow. She poured two fingers of vodka into a cup and walked over to slump into a worn camp chair. A sigh escaped her as she took a sip of vodka, the distinct taste of Anjou pears sparkling across her tongue. She poured another and looked at Mitch. "I don't want to feel this, Acosta. This despair. This anger. It burns in my gut like a hot coal, and I'm afraid if I give it a voice, it'll catch fire and burn this goddamn place down. Those children, those innocent little girls..." Her voice cracked. "I want to kill those motherfuckers. I want to shove spikes in their dicks so they'll know what those little girls felt. I want us to drop a fucking nuke on this whole godforsaken continent and watch it burn and burn until all the evil is burned away. That's how I feel. The doctor who took an oath to do no harm would happily castrate every one of those bastards with a dull knife." She raised her glass in salute. "Here's to the Hippocratic oath." She downed one more shot, capped the bottle and put it away, and then crawled back into bed.
"I'm sorry, Angel. I'm sorry we didn't get here in time. But we're here now, and we're going to help you get the injured to Nyala to the Amel Center. The doctors are expecting us, and then we have to fly your people out of here."
"Shit," he said. "I guess Shepherd wasn't able to get through. Bashir has ordered all aid workers out of the country. If you don't go--"
"They'll kill us all. That bastard." She pulled him in for a kiss. "I need you, Mitch. Please."
Nearly five years had passed since that awful day in Darfur. Would she never get past it? She heard the rustle of bedding behind her.
"Why are you awake so early? Come back to bed, cherie," the pretty French boy said.
She turned and gave him her patented smile. "I wish I could, darling, but I have an early meeting; then I have to catch the train to The Hague." She glanced pointedly at the door.
He pouted a bit, but when she remained unmoved, he sighed and reached for his pants. "Will I see you again?" Her negligent shrug earned her a frown. "You're a cold one, aren't you?"
Her laugh sounded as bitter to her own ears as it must have to his. Her voice was frosty when she spoke. "I'll tell you what, my pretty young thing, when you give up your designer clothes and lavish lifestyle for the poverty and brutality of East Africa, you can call me all the names you want. Until then, don't presume you know anything about me. Especially after what can only be categorized as an adequate roll in the hay."
That last bit had been uncalled for, and she knew it as he slammed the door behind him. But the clarity of the dream had taken her back to that hellish day. Back to a defining moment in her life when she'd finally understood the meaning of man's inhumanity to man. As a species, humans were capable of a savagery she'd understood only on an intellectual level. She'd witnessed it, and it had marked her. Unalterably. For better or worse. She wondered where Acosta and Boudreaux were and what they were doing now. She sighed and picked up the phone to order breakfast. That was something else she'd learned as she watched people starve to death in horrible conditions at the refugee camps. Eat whenever possible, because the next meal might not come before you die.
A discreet knock and a heavily accented, "Room service, madame," had Angelique pulling on the thick terry cloth robe the hotel provided its guests.
Sunrise in Paris was something she would carry with her forever. The purples and pinks had disappeared while she was insulting Arnaud, leaving a glowing ball of white, surrounded by a warm, gold halo that peeked through the opening above the arched base of the Eifel Tower. The coffee was dark and rich, the bacon crispy, the eggs scrambled to perfection. While she did appreciate French cuisine, nothing compared to a good old American breakfast. The French could turn up their noses all they wanted. That was another result of her time in Darfur. She no longer gave a rat's ass what anybody thought. If she wanted to get laid, she was going to get herself laid. If she wanted bacon and eggs, she'd, by God, have bacon and eggs.
She settled into the chair, propped her feet on the balcony, and raised the cup to her lips, savoring the rich, dark coffee and steamed milk. It was good, but she missed the bitter bite of chicory that was the hallmark of New Orleans cafe au lait. The bitterness offset the sweet powdered-sugar coating of the traditional beignet. She closed her eyes, thoughts going back to a Mardi Gras years ago, when she was a college girl in med school at Tulane. Had she ever been so young and wild? Mitch Acosta and Seth Boudreaux were two soldiers on leave from Kosovo. She'd met them on Bourbon Street at the height of Mardi Gras. One dark; one light. Colombian American and a native New Orleanian. They'd danced and drank all night, sandwiching her between them, then laughing and stumbling to Cafe Du Monde in the morning light. Three huge cups of cafe au lait and a sack of beignets later, they'd lured her up to their hotel room. Seth had been creative with the confectioner's sugar.
"J'ai une envie de toi, cher," Seth had murmured, licking her nipples. I got a craving for you. Yeah, she'd had a craving for him too. For both of them, and she'd been wild enough in those days to indulge those cravings.
Acosta was the one who really set her pulse to racing. When he'd knelt at the foot of the bed, she'd watched as he skimmed her jeans and panties off while his partner in crime had tormented her breasts until she was panting. Then he'd skimmed his hands up the insides of her legs and spread them apart.
"Knew you were a natural blonde, querida." There was a slight Spanish lilt to his voice when he spoke, a gentle rolling of the r, and she'd wondered if that roll of the tongue would translate when he went down on her. It had.
Dear Lord, the things they'd done together. Her first and only menage a trois. Hands and tongues all over her body, touching her everywhere. Two cocks filling her, taking her places she'd never been before. Orgasms so intense all other pleasure paled in comparison. They'd spent the entire two weeks with her before returning to their base and their next assignment. Then they'd found her again in Darfur, but there'd been no repeat of their time in New Orleans because Seth had been wounded in the assault on the village. But Acosta had stayed by her side. He and his men escorted them to Nyala; then she was off to the refugee camps in Chad, and Acosta was off to his next assignment.
Her next assignment was already set too. She was off to the wilds of Ecuador to work with the people impacted by the drug and arms trades on the border with Colombia. Not only did they have the cartels and FARC to worry about, but gold had been discovered in them there hills and more and more Colombians were being run off their own land as the guerillas and militias sought to fill their coffers and increase their personal wealth and power. Still, it would be a walk in the park compared to her last posting. She was testifying before the International Criminal Court on Darfur.