ETWG First Chapter Award Winner: Saving the Children by Fran McNabb

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Saving the Children by Fran McNabb is the Second Place Winner in the Romance Category of Published Books for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

The Story

After losing her husband and unborn baby in a car accident for which she blames herself, Victoria Lafferty had devoted her life to helping South American children find homes in the United States, but her plans are thrown into chaos by a rebellion in the country.

After his mission is compromised and he is shot and captured, Major John Dawson is kept alive so the rebel leader can “take care” of John himself for killing his brother.

Together Victoria and John face the hostile jungle and the rebel leader, but will deep-seated guilt and a desire for revenge stand in the way of their life together?

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 Award-Winning First Chapter

The distant scream of a jaguar shattered the morning quiet of the jungle. Major John Dawson lay unmoving and imagined the beauty of the big cat stalking his prey in the last moments before the sun drove the animal into hiding.

Fran McNabb
Fran McNabb

John waited for another roar or scream from the thick underbrush—anything to help his mind escape the pain.

It didn’t come.

Finally he forced his eyelids open to face another day in captivity somewhere in the bowels of the tiny country of San Gabriel. Weak streams of light struggled through the hole in the thatched roof and fell on the dirt floor. The odor of lingering smoke and burned cornmeal sent his stomach muscles into knife-cutting contractions.

God, don’t let me vomit.

He covered his lower face with his hand then took several long deep breaths. Carefully he turned his head to the side to see how far the bucket of water sat away from him. He needed to wet his parched mouth, but getting to it meant moving, and moving meant more pain.

Bracing himself, he swallowed, lifted his elbow to begin the slide, but stopped. Talking and footsteps outside the door of his hut made him stop. His body went on alert. With a bullet still lodged somewhere in his left shoulder area and fever draining his body of every ounce of energy, there was nothing to do but wait for the makeshift door to be thrown open.

He gritted his teeth. He hated being helpless.

He prayed that if this was the moment they’d come to finish him off, he could die like a soldier his country would be proud of, but knowing what these men had already put him through, the best he could do was to pray for a quick end.

The door jerked open. At first he saw nothing but the barrels of two guns pointed at him. Two men then slid into the room then off to the side to allow another man and a woman to enter. John kept his eyes on the woman. An American? She didn’t look Latino, but if she were an American what was she doing with the rebels?

She wore a simple cotton shirt and khaki pants with splatters of mud on both. Her hair, as golden blonde as one of his friend’s kids, was pulled back in a ponytail, but long strands hung over her ears and on her forehead. Her eyes looked brown but the dim light of the hut prevented him from seeing their exact color. Tall and slender with an athletic build, she walked freely into the hut. She didn’t have her hands tied, but by the drawn expression on her face, John didn’t think she was one of them. In fact, it looked as though she’d put up a struggle. He clinched his fists.

He closed his eyes and inhaled to keep from passing out, then looked at her again. She stopped inside the door obviously letting her eyes get accustomed to the dim light and her nose to the sour smell within the hut. His smell.

“Get in,” one of the men said in broken English then shoved her forward. She jerked away from him. Her gaze darted from the man to John.

“He is the one.” The rebel shoved a sack into her arms. “You make sure he lives. Señor Lopez wants him alive when he gets here.” He nodded to John with a smirk on his face.

John stored that piece of information about Angel Lopez, or El Bárbaros as the locals called him. He and his soldiers in his army, Los Bárbaros, were playing havoc with the government and the locals of San Gabriel. They were the reason John and his unit were in the jungle again. Once more his unit was extracting another kidnapped civilian before harm could be done to him. This time, though, things went wrong. They had gotten the civilian almost to safety when John was wounded. He watched two of his men go down and now he was lying in this hut probably waiting for his own execution at the hands of El Bárbaros.

He was determined to find the person responsible for the botched up mission—that is, if he lived long enough. He wanted to spit out a string of curses, but that would’ve brought another kick in the ribs. No sense in putting the woman at risk too or to ask for another possible cracked rib.

The rebel stepped to the door, but turned back to the woman. “He dies. You will wish you had died as well.”

Again the smirk, then two of the men stepped out the hut. The third man propped his rifle against the wall, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

The woman stood a few feet away from John holding the sack up against her chest. She didn’t move even when the guard at the door told her in Spanish to do her job. With her shoulders thrown back and a calm expression on her face, she looked as if she were waiting for an invitation to sit at a bar, but even in the dim light, he detected a tremor in her hands.

He wet his lips. “Who are you?” He wondered if she heard his weak words.

For a moment he thought she wasn’t going to answer, and he wasn’t sure he had the breath to ask again.

“Victoria Lafferty.”

Still she stood unmoving with the sack pressed against her body.

“How’d you get here?” He thought those words were a little stronger.

“Those men picked me up. Left my children on the road.” Her gaze darted from one side of the hut to the other. “I don’t even know where I am.”

“Join the party,” he whispered. He tried to move, swallowed a groan, grimaced, then bit his lip.

A warm hand touched his face. “They want me to help you.”

John gripped her hand and opened his eyes. She’d knelt down by him. Even through the fog of pain he saw caring eyes. He held her hand close to his face. If he were about to die, at least he’d be next to this woman. Death might be better than the situation he found himself in now, but dying alone was the pits.

“Don’t move.” She pulled her hand away.

He heard the dip of the tin cup in the bucket of water. Felt her hand once more on his face. With her arm under his neck, she lifted his head just enough for her to place the cup to his lips. The water was warm, metallic, but wet. Wonderfully wet. He savored the liquid, but more especially he loved the feel of this woman’s body next to his.

* * *

Kneeling next to this soldier, Victoria Lafferty breathed easier for the first time since the jeep of armed men had pulled her out of their van leaving her six students from Sister MaryAnn’s orphanage stranded in the middle of the dirt road.

She squeezed her eyes and swallowed the scream that threatened to shatter the quiet of this horrible hut. Where were her children now? She’d been teaching the oldest boy to drive. Had he driven the children safely back to the orphanage or were they still sitting in the stifling heat waiting for her to return?

The not-knowing, the helplessness, the inability to do anything—all of these feelings wadded into a knot in her throat. Squeezing her eyes tightly, she pulled from a thin thread of sanity that remained in her body. If she collapsed now, her children would never get out of this country. They needed her and she couldn’t let them down.

She pulled her attention to the soldier. He was her immediate concern, and if he lived, maybe the two of them could figure out a way to get out of this place, but by the looks of him, she had her doubts. Stretched out on the hard floor, he looked to be about six feet tall, muscular and in good shape, but she knew what an untended wound could do to the body, especially in this primitive part of the country.

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