"This author consistently writes a very good book and readers will not be disappointed with this poignant story of parental love in the middle of chaos."
"Ms. Melton has woven a powerful story in Don't Let Go and her attention to detail is noteworthy. There are plenty of "hold your breath" moments to keep you wondering if everything will turn out OK. Ultimately Don't Let Go is all about second chances in life and love. I would suggest you grab this one off the book shelf and Don't Let Go until you've turned the last page."
"What we love about Marliss Melton's loosely connected SEAL series is that they aren't just action junkets - though they certainly do pack a punch - she focuses equally on the emotion and features tormented characters that you take to heart."
"Add in all the fear and terror of Venezuela and you have an action-packed drama that combines love, loss, excitement and hope. Ms. Melton tackles this complex plot well. A good read."
Given the odor rising out of the cellar, those in hiding had been down there for days. Solomon
knelt, pulling out his penlight. Gus peered over his shoulder as they strobed the area below.
At the base of a run of rickety steps, they counted three Caucasian adults and four indigenous children all blinking into his light.
"Jordan Bliss?" Solomon asked, centering his light on the adult male.
"No, sorry," answered the man, who was obviously a Brit. "I'm Father Benedict. Miss Bliss, our teacher, is there." He nodded.
Miss? He should have guessed.
The beam of Solomon's penlight revealed a woman in her early thirties--reddish-brown hair, pretty features, eyes that braved the beam to regard him with suspicion. "Who are you?" she demanded in a voice rusty from disuse, as she hefted a boy child in her arms.
"Navy SEALs," he answered curtly. "I'm Senior Chief McGuire. This is Lieutenant Atwater. We're here to extract you and the British citizens."
"Praise God," exclaimed an older female.
"Did you hear that, ni ñ os?" Jordan Bliss whispered to the little ones. "These men are going to help us."
"Just adults, ma'am," Solomon corrected her, gruffly, in a tone that brooked no argument. "No children. Let's go"
She looked at him like he'd shot her in the heart. "No," she protested, on a note as obstinate as his. "We can't leave the children here."
Solomon glanced up at Gus as he fingered the flexicuffs in his vest pocket. It was standard operating procedure to cuff and even gag, if necessary, the recovery targets to keep them from jeopardizing the operation.
"We are under orders to extract you , ma'am, and these two British citizens. No one else," Gus explained, saving Solomon the trouble.
"Take them, then," she retorted, her knuckles white as she backed away, drawing the children with her. "I need to go to Ayacucho anyway."
"They're orphans," the priest explained, sending Solomon a look that held great power to influence. "They've no one to look after them. And the rebels are a vicious lot according to Pedro."
Solomon sneaked a peek at his watch. He thumbed his mike. "Status check." He did not have time for this.
"No movement in the courtyard," answered Haiku, "but we can hear what sounds like reinforcements coming, one klick out. Copy."
"We have the targets sighted," Solomon reported, weighing his options. Gus, though an officer, lacked experience in search and rescue. This was Solomon's call.
"I won't leave without the children," Jordan Bliss repeated.
He wanted to snap back that he was going to grab her, will she or nill she, but with the priest gazing at him so expectantly, he heard himself say, "We'll take the children as far as the landing zone. No farther. Everyone out."
As he helped them up the stairs, Gus flexicuffed the older children to each other to decrease the chance that one or two might get lost in the rainforest. He left the youngest child in Jordan 's arms.
"Listen to me," Solomon growled, inspecting them quickly, "and make sure the children understand this. We are going to hike six miles to the Landing Zone, moving fast, with no time to stop, for any reason. There will be no talking. No crying or whining. Do I make myself clear?"
"Very," said Jordan with equal heat.
He glared at her. "Let's go," he said.
" Vayan con Dios ," murmured the youth as they left the nave, heading for the chapel doors.
Jordan 's arms ached. She had a permanent kink in her spine, but she would not put Miguel down to be swallowed up in Las Amazonas's dense foliage. The older children, latched together, struggled to keep pace, as it was.
Senior Chief McGuire, Lieutenant Atwater, and two heavily armored SEALs escorted them out of La Misión into the pathless rainforest at a pace just short of a jog. They were joined by two more SEALs, who startled a gasp out of Jordan as they materialized without warning.
Miguel echoed her gasp with a disoriented wail.
"Hush, baby, hush," she soothed, terrified that the senior chief would demand that they ditch the children. Even in the murky forest, she detected the frown he cast over his shoulder.
Heartless man. Did he even care that she was carrying thirty extra pounds? The mud sucking at her boots felt like glue. The air was so wet she could scarcely draw enough oxygen out of it to feed her aching lungs.
"How're you doing, ma'am?" inquired one of the SEALs drifting alongside her. Bristling with weaponry and carrying a pack, he hardly sounded winded. Unlike the other four SEALs, he didn't wear special binoculars, either. He peered, instead, through the infrared scope mounted to the top of his rifle.
"You want me to carry him for you?" he offered, kindly.
"No, thank you," she replied, laboring on. "Miguel's afraid of strangers."
As well he should be. His shadowy history had taken shape at the end of last summer, six months after Father Benedict had discovered him in the care of the older street children. Small for his age, with enormous brown eyes that reflected innocent confusion, Miguel would not speak, other than in whispered words to his companions. It took Jordan 's tireless devotion to coax even a heart-felt giggle out of him. The last thing she wanted was for some stranger to man-handle him and send him scuttling back into his shell.
Leaving him at the mission last summer had nearly broken her heart. Miguel had become her second chance to give love and be loved in return. She'd immediately taken measures to adopt him, which Venezuela 's new government had made possible. But with the Moderates now struggling to keep a foothold, she feared the laws would revert back, putting an untimely end to the painful process of home-studies and document gathering, all requirements to securing his dossier.
She had to convince these SEALs that she'd adopted Miguel already, while, in fact, she awaited the court in Ayacucho's approval. Praying the priest and the nun would understand the purpose behind her lies, Jordan hurried to the front of the pack. A frond slapped her wetly in the face. She stumbled over a root. "Excuse me," she called, to slow down the senior chief.
He swung his masked face around, reminding her of Darth Vader--evil aura and all. "What now?" he demanded, curtly.
"I have to tell you something," she panted. "I've adopted this child, Miguel," she lied. "He's my son, and I won't leave him at the Landing Zone. He's coming home with me."
"Show me his adoption papers," he demanded.
"They're in Ayacucho, being held by the adoption agency. I have to pick them up," she explained without exactly lying.
The SEAL ignored her. Glancing at the compass on his watch, he adjusted their direction and pushed on.
Panic made Jordan 's extremities tingle. "I won't leave him," she said again. "This isn't even the way to Ayacucho. I need to go east."
"We'll talk about your options when we get to the LZ."
He was implacable. "What's wrong with you?" she demanded with maternal fervor. "Were you raised by wolves? Did you never have a mother?"
He rounded on her, so swiftly, so abruptly that the others bumped into them.
"Do I need to cuff and gag you?" he threatened, startling Miguel awake. The boy loosed a wail of fright.
"Hush, baby," Jordan immediately sought to quiet him. "It's all right."
But the stress of being locked up for four days only to be rudely awakened in the jungle, terrorized by a stranger toting a submachine gun was too much for Miguel. His cries grew in strength, rising up through the dense vegetation to echo beneath the jungle canopy.
Senior Chief McGuire went rigid. "Make him stop," he ordered hoarsely.
"You're the one who frightened him with your threats," Jordan retorted. "Don't you know how to speak in a civil voice?"
"Jordan ." Father Benedict stepped between them. "Please don't argue with the senior chief," he pleaded. "I've decided to take all the children to Puerto Ayacucho. I'll collect your dossier from the agency there and keep Miguel safe until you can return for him."
She refused to hear the offer, let alone consider it. No. This was the summer she was going to bring her baby home with her.
Turning away, she drew all the children in her wake, soothing Miguel as she went. "Hush, baby. Hush. You're safe now. You're safe. No one's going to hurt you." She prayed she was right. If she left without him, she risked losing him forever in a country ripping apart at the seams. It was unthinkable. She couldn't survive another separation.
They came abruptly on the LZ, a clearing hatched out of the jungle and burned weekly to keep Mother Nature from taking back what was hers. Solomon spied the silhouette of a Chinook helicopter, back-dropped by a sky now the color of pewter. Its rotors spooled lazily at their approach, stirring up a breeze that smelled of mud and rotting fruit.
With a glance at his watch, he thumbed his mike. "Put the women on the helo," he said to his men. "The children stay with the priest." He spoke loudly enough for Jordan Bliss to overhear him.
She drew up short, causing all the children to bunch up behind her.
"It's nothing personal," he called, turning his head to intercept her horrified look. "My orders don't allow for extra passengers. Through his thermal-sensitive NVGs, he saw that she glowed more green than red, as if the blood in her veins had drained right out of her, leaving her cold.
"I won't leave Miguel!" she insisted, a tremor in her voice, as she gripped the boy fiercely. "I'll go to Ayacucho with Father Benedict."
The priest stepped over to intervene. "Give him to me, Jordan," he persuaded, holding out his hands. "It's time for you to leave. You shouldn't have stayed this long in the first place."
She clutched the boy harder, shaking her head in silent, vehement refusal.
Solomon sent Teddy and Vinny a surreptitious signal. In the next instant, they descended on Jordan and wrested the boy from her arms.
"No!" she shrieked, kicking and flailing as Teddy hoisted her off the ground, carrying her into the chopper's wind. Vinny handed off the wailing child to the priest and followed.
With a bad taste in his mouth, Solomon nodded at Father Benedict and turned away. He watched in amazement as Jordan wriggled like a cat out of Teddy's arms and sprang free. In the next instant, she was racing for Miguel, her arms outstretched, screaming out his name.
The indigenous boy cried back, his face wet with tears, mouth agape with confusion and terror, as he struggled in the priest's hold.
With a whispered curse, Solomon intercepted Jordan 's path. With a lunge and a hook, he caught her up from behind, coiling her in a hold that no amount of twisting or kicking could compromise. "No!" Her cries of raw pain ricocheted inside his head, reawakening memories of his own loss.
Like a lioness, she fought him, knocking askew his helmet, raking his face with her nails. The heels of her boots pummeled his shins as she writhed in his grasp and, still, he managed to wrestle her to the thundering Chinook, where Vinny and Gus contributed hands to haul her, screaming continuously, into the cabin.
No sooner were they inside, than the helicopter rose, racing the sunrise as it bore them up, up, up into the brightening sky. The lush terrain rolled beneath them like a dark ocean, and still Jordan Bliss fought with every ounce of strength to claw her way to the open door.
"Hold her down!" Solomon yelled, closing the hatch.
With the noise of the rotors muffled, the woman's anguished cries seemed to come from inside his own head.
"You son-of-a-bitch!" she screamed, directing her fury at Solomon, even as both Vinny and Gus struggled to keep her from attacking him. "Make them go back!" she ordered, with hoarse desperation. "Make them go back!"
Solomon set aside his gear and helmet. "Let her go," he said, tired of watching her useless struggles.
The instant the two men released her, Jordan dropped to her hands and knees, obviously spent. She pinned Solomon with eyes that brimmed with tears. "Please, take me back," she pleaded, groveling now.
"I can't," he said, hating the words coming out of his mouth. "It's not up to me."
With a moan of despair, she lowered her head onto the grooved, metal floor, drew her knees up in a ball, and sobbed--deep, rasping sobs that drove Solomon to the cockpit to share a word with the crew.
By the time he rejoined his men, Jordan was strapped into the bench, her head lolling, limbs splayed and limp. Sunlight streamed into the cabin's windows, sparking red highlights in the hair that hung over her pale, fatigued face.
"I gave her a shot of Lorazepam," Vinny confessed, seeing Solomon's startled look. "I couldn't take it anymore, Senior Chief."
Solomon nodded. He didn't blame Vinny one bit.
He eased down onto the bench between Jordan and the praying nun. Gus flipped through a manual in the corner seat. Haiku and Teddy took inventory of their arsenal. Harley, who manned the mounted M-15 machine gun looked up from his position on the floor.
"What?" Solomon demanded, reading disapproval in the bald chief's stern expression. "You would have done that differently?"
"Yes, I would have," said the sniper, disdain in his eyes and voice.
"Then you would have had to turn right around and dump the kid off again," Solomon predicted.
"Maybe not," said Harley, with a challenging glare. "What do you think, sir?" he asked Gus, who glanced up from the manual he was reading.
"It's the senior chief's call," said Gus, taking a neutral position. "Life's not all black and white."
Solomon glowered out of the window. He didn't need Harley's disapproval or Gus's philosophizing. He'd made a decision based on regulation, expectation, and discipline. At the same time, he knew how it felt to have a child ripped out of his life, out of his future. He hated what he'd done.