Thirteen months after a solar event and government sabotage crippled most of the world’s electronics, Mina and her family endure on their farm. At first, the return of her brother-in-law and the remaining members of his Army platoon is cause for celebration, but it doesn’t take Mina long to discover he has brought a dangerous man into their midst. Determined to claim Mina for his own, Shane’s pursuit is relentless. She finds solace in Cooper, but knows she can’t act on her attraction if she wants to keep everyone safe from Shane. When Coop discovers Shane’s true nature, a violent confrontation ensues that splits the group and brings more danger to the farm, leaving the group fighting not just to survive, but to keep their haven intact.
This is a full-length genre-blending novel, approx. 95,000 words, that contains scenes of violence and events that might trigger some readers. There is romance, along with a HEA, but the content is gritty and action-focused, with controversial themes.
A commotion woke Mina Marsden from a sound sleep—or as soundly as anyone could sleep these days. Over the past thirteen months, it had become second nature to reach for the shotgun by her bed as soon as she woke up, but especially when the rumble of engines had shattered the quiet of the farm, followed by the bang of car doors and several voices.
Her stomach tightened with anxiety as she hurriedly lit the lamp and slid on her clothes. She knew of only a handful of people in the area who had running cars since The End had crippled most electronic devices, including vehicles, thirteen months ago. None of them were likely to be out visiting after midnight, especially with the new reality of up with the light and in bed shortly after dark.
Though she knew it was pumped and ready, Mina still double-checked her shotgun before sliding on shoes and creeping out of her room. She could hear laughter from the yard, and it lessened her anxiety a bit, though she didn’t drop her guard. As she drew closer, she recognized her oldest sister’s happy chatter and excited squeals. She shifted the way she’d held the weapon, but didn’t completely let it rest against her side as she stepped out onto the wraparound porch of the big house her grandfather had built with the help of her father and uncles.
The scene that met her eyes was pure chaos. At first, her fingers tightened on the gun when she saw two camouflage-painted Humvees sitting in the yard. The sight of the soldiers standing around filled her with fear, especially when she saw their guns, considering how bad looting had gotten within months and often included former military or other positions of power. At second glance, she realized none of the soldiers were holding their guns at the ready. All were slung over their back, and the men and women looked relaxed.
Then her gaze fell on Lia, who held her husband in a tight embrace. Mina set her gun on the porch swing and ran down the stairs to greet her brother-in-law. Her other two sisters, her parents, and her brother were all waiting to do the same. She paused by her mom, asking softly, “Where’s the baby?”
“Ty’s sleeping, and we thought he’d be safer there while we checked out what was going on.”
She nodded, hoping she would be able to see the first meeting between Tony and the baby he’d never met. Ty had been born eight months after Tony’s deployment, which had happened one month before the solar storm that had taken the power. Lia had been frantic for the past thirteen months, having no contact with her husband and no idea where he’d been.
Mina had started to believe they would never see Tony again, so it was a bit of a shock to see him standing in their front yard, along with several other soldiers. He continued holding and kissing his wife until her father cleared his throat a bit loudly.
Lia and Tony both looked a tad embarrassed when they moved slightly apart, though still touching. “Sorry.” Tony pushed back his overgrown black hair, which had been cropped short to his head when he’d left more than a year ago. “I’ve just missed you so much, Lia.” He looked away from his wife and briefly at the rest of them. “I’ve missed you all, of course.”
Her father stepped forward, holding out his hand. “It’s good to see you, Tony.”
“You too, Winn.” Tony shook the hand before pulling her gruff father in for a big hug.
Mina couldn’t hold in a small giggle at her father’s flummoxed expression that quickly faded to one of warmth as he hugged him back. Her father wasn’t the most demonstrative man, and he’d always been disapproving of Tony’s military career taking him away from Lia on a regular basis, but apparently he had eased up during the time his son-in-law’s fate had been unknown.
After an awkward moment, Winn extricated himself. “Who have you brought with you, Tony?”
Her brother-in-law turned to face the soldiers surrounding him, while keeping Lia plastered to his side. “This is what’s left of my platoon, sir. We were in Germany, preparing to ship out to Afghanistan, when the Pulse hit.”
“The Pulse?” asked her brother, Finn, who was an inquisitive fifteen-year-old. “Folks around here it mostly call it The End…as in, the end of everything.”
Tony nodded. “That’s a good name too. We’ve heard it called the Pulse in Europe, though some are calling it America’s Parting Gift.” He must have interpreted his brother-in-law’s confusion correctly. “There is some suggestion that our government took an active role in making sure the rest of the world was completely crippled in the same manner as us.”
Mina gasped, accidentally catching eyes with a handsome brown-haired soldier standing nearby. He didn’t seem surprised by the revelation, so she figured it must be common knowledge, or at least speculation, in military circles. Looking away from his green eyes, she returned her attention to Tony and Finn.
“How’d you get home?” asked Lia, clutching his jacket as though she couldn’t bear to let go ever again.
“Ingenuity,” answered a dark-haired man standing behind Tony. He stepped forward to nod at Winn before giving Lia a smile that seemed too friendly. “Hello, Lia.”
Mina frowned when her sister paled, not liking how she swayed. Perhaps shock and reaction were catching up to her. “Lieutenant West,” said Lia very formally, with a nod, before turning back to her husband. “How’d you get across the ocean?”
Tony looked a little pained. “The truth is, baby, we had to do some questionable things. There are still some governments, and even some individuals, with hardened equipment, including planes and boats. We stole a plane, and Shane flew us home.”
“Too bad I crashed us in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Lieutenant West with a humble chuckle. “It took a while to get to shore, and even longer to make our way here. Tony offered us all shelter if we helped him get home, but of course, that’s up to you, Mr. Marsden.”
Winn frowned. “And Mrs. Marsden. Janie, what do you think?”
Mina’s mom smiled. “Of course you’re welcome. More hands make lighter burdens for everyone.” She gave Shane’s gun an appraising look. “And better defense.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Shane grinned.
“It’s late, but y’all can bed down in the barn tonight, and we’ll figure out more permanent lodgings tomorrow,” said Winn. He nodded to the two women who were part of the military group. “You ladies are welcome to the guestroom.”
Both of the women looked at Shane, who shrugged. “Like I told you weeks ago, I’m not your commanding officer anymore. You make your own decisions.”
“I’d be thrilled to have a real bed again,” said the girl with the dark skin and kinky black hair.
“It seems a bit sexist though,” said the freckled redhead, who then shot a look at Mina’s dad. “Not to imply you’re a chauvinist, sir. I just don’t feel right leaving the rest of the unit to the hay while I have a bed, just because I’m a woman.”
Winn shrugged. “Suit yourself, miss. I imagine one of the guys would like a bed, if the other girl doesn’t mind.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Dana,” said the soldier with whom Mina had briefly locked eyes before. “Take the bed while you have a chance. One of these bastar—bums will steal it out from under you if you leave it unclaimed for too long.”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant Tidwell.”
“Coop,” Shane corrected. “He’s not in charge of you any longer either, Dana.”
Mina yawned, quickly losing interest in the discussion of who would sleep where. The excitement was fading, and exhaustion was catching up. She knew she wouldn’t have a chance to privately greet Tony that night, so she slipped inside, going to Lia’s room to check on Ty. She thought about taking him in her own bed for a while, to let her sister have privacy with her husband after their separation, but figured Tony would want to see his little boy, even if he was asleep for the first meeting.
She left him sleeping soundly and returned to her room. Mina undressed to her undies and slipped back into bed, returning the shotgun to its resting place on the nightstand. They had all been working hard to keep the place going, having to revert to manual labor for so many of the tasks they’d once considered easy, or no more than inconvenient. Her muscles always seemed to burn after the day’s exertions, and she looked forward to every bit of sleep she could get. As she drifted back to sleep, she wondered how the new additions would change the family’s routine. For some reason, the sparkling green eyes of that soldier—Coop?—stayed with her until she slipped into dreams.
Breakfast was a crowded affair. Mina had slept a bit later than usual, but no one had knocked on her door to hasten her along. Even coming down about forty minutes past her usual time, the kitchen was still crammed with people jammed around the circular table. Others sat against the wall, plates balanced on their laps. She could just imagine how much her mom hated allowing that, since Janie Marsden prided herself on being an exemplary hostess. But what could one do with nine extra mouths to feed and not enough seats, she asked herself with a small shrug.
Mina opted to grab her breakfast and go, wrapping a couple of sausage links in a pancake before slipping from the kitchen. The hot August sunshine was already beating down, even a little past eight, and she grabbed her hat from the rack on the porch before venturing down the steps and out onto the farm.
Her first stop, as always, was the chicken coop. Ever since Mina was a little girl, it had been her job to collect the eggs every morning. That hadn’t changed when she graduated from high school, and it hadn’t changed after The End two months later. On autopilot, she entered the large building. “Morning, ladies,” she said to the clucking girls, before crossing paths with one of their three roosters. “And Lionel.” The fat black bird strutted on without acknowledging the greeting, and she went to work collecting the eggs in a wicker basket Mina had woven in a high school art class.
“You chickies are lucky to have the shade.” The cement and wooden building was a few degrees cooler than the outside. “Otherwise, we’d have boiled eggs before I even got them to the house.”
The door creaked, and she looked up, surprised to see the green-eyed soldier. “Um, hello,” she said a bit awkwardly. Shyness was something she had battled all her life.
He nodded. “Good morning, Ms. Marsden.” Hovering in the doorway, he seemed a bit uncertain. “I was walking by and heard voices.”
She blushed, hoping he would assume it was the heat. “Just the one, I imagine. The girls don’t answer.” Lionel chose that moment to crow. “Though he does upon occasion.”
He grinned. “Just you and the chickens, huh?”
Mina returned to checking the nesting boxes. “It makes getting the eggs easier if you’re friendly with them.”
There was a note of skepticism in his laugh. “That’s funny. My gran always said chickens were so stupid that they wouldn’t know you were stealing their beaks until ten minutes after you’d made off with them.”
She laughed a bit before stifling it. “Shush, you’ll hurt their feelings, Mr….?”
He came closer, holding out his hand to shake hers, which had unfortunately just picked up an egg covered with chicken poop. She hoped that was the reason for the slight grimace. “Cooper Tidwell, but just call me Coop.”
“I’m Mina, Coop.” She tilted her head slightly, eyeing his Army greens. “It seems wrong to call you by your first name when you’re in uniform, sir.”
He tugged at the collar of his T-shirt, as though unconsciously. “This isn’t really a uniform anymore, Mina. There is no Army and no real government, though the last vestiges are still fighting the inevitable. It’s pretty much every man for himself these days, so Coop will do just fine.”
She nodded, hating to hear him confirm what she’d suspected about the state of their world. Part of her had clung to the idea that it was only a matter of time before their government, or one somewhere in the world, got things back to a semblance of normality and started providing aid to the citizens and other crippled nations. Her sister Kelly, a twenty-one-year-old expert on everything, had mocked her hopefulness. “Darn, that means my sister was right. She’ll be insufferable,” she said, interjecting a bit of lightheartedness she was far from feeling.
She shook her head. “Kelly. She’s the one with the long blonde hair and the annoying attitude. Thinks she knows everything, since she finished college two years early.”
He grinned. “Okay, let me see if I can keep track of everyone. Kelly is the long-haired brat with a bad attitude. I already know Lia has the wildly curling blonde hair, and you have the golden hair that makes your blue eyes pop. Who is the other Marsden girl?”
Her face heated with another blush at the offhanded compliment, though she doubted it held true significance. He probably didn’t even mean it and was just trying to be charming. “Emme, with the straight platinum hair she curses every time she tries to do anything with it besides shove it in a ponytail.”
Coop’s smile widened. “I doubt I’ll be anywhere near her when she’s doing her hair, but I’ll keep that in mind.”
She giggled, wincing at the annoying teenage sound escaping her. “Don’t worry, you’ll hear her. For someone who looks like she should be quiet and calm, she can be loud as hell.”
He leaned against one of the nesting boxes, maintaining a respectable distance between them that in no way sent off any sort of indicator that he found her attractive. Unfortunately. “And what about you, Mina? Are you loud as hell?”
She shook her head. “I’m pretty quiet. Shy even.”
He lifted a brow. “You don’t seem shy.”
She shrugged, not meeting his gaze. “It’s weird. Usually am.” Abruptly realizing she had just gone through the same nesting box for the third time, she straightened fully. Having gone through the other boxes, there wasn’t any reason to linger. Still, she was reluctant to end her conversation with Coop and briefly wondered if he’d stick around while she shoveled chicken shit. Probably not, and since she’d just done it yesterday, her time could be better spent in other ways.
“Well, it was nice talking to you, Coop, but I have to get these back to the house and start on my chores.”
He stood up. “The lieutenant—I mean Shane—has called a meeting of our group with your father in a few minutes, to figure out the logistics of us all staying here.”
“It’s nice to have more people.” She gave him a quick smile and a wave, suddenly having the urge to flee before she blurted out something embarrassing, like admitting she was glad to see some men around the place, even if none of them ever had a smidgeon of interest in her.
In the house, she went straight to the pantry, pulling out the salvaged cardboard containers they used to store the eggs. Even in the heat, they would be well preserved in the cool, dark pantry for at least a month.
“Are you okay?” asked Janie, who was tidying the kitchen. “You’re flushed.”
“It’s hot out there,” she mumbled, rotating the newest eggs to the back of the stacks. A few deep breaths helped get rid of the jittery feeling that had invaded her, and she hoped she looked close to normal when she turned to face her mom. “I’m not looking forward to weeding today.” It was a tedious job in a backyard garden, but practically overwhelming on a working farm, especially with only seven adults available to help. “I sure hope some of those Army guys step up and volunteer to help.”
Janie’s expression firmed. “Volunteer, my fanny, Mina. Your father is going to insist they all carry their weight around here. We’re glad to have extra hands, and more defense, but only if everyone involved is worth the extra expenditure of food.”
She nodded, pained to hear her mom speaking so pragmatically. Once upon a time, her mother was the type who would have taken in anyone in need. A couple of times of being burned by the wrong people in the days following The End had left them all a lot more wary and cynical about providing a helping hand.
There was one lone pancake left, and she rolled it up, taking a large bite before saying, “I’d better get to it. The weeds won’t pull themselves.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, girl. You were raised better than that.” Janie waved her away, but with a smile to soften the rebuke.
She finished stuffing the pancake in her mouth before joining her brother and sisters already in the field. Lia wasn’t present this morning, but she wasn’t annoyed. Most days, her sister strapped Ty on her back and was there alongside everyone else doing whatever work needed to be done. Mina supposed if her husband had come home after being missing for thirteen months, she’d want a day with him to herself too, and she didn’t begrudge her sister the privilege.
She had to admit her heart ached with the concept of having a husband, or at least someone important in her life, almost as much as her lower back and fingers hurt after an hour of pulling weeds. A few months shy of nineteen, she should have been dating a host of boys in college and getting ready for the next phase in her life. As she’d given up on those dreams, one by one, Mina found herself searching for new dreams and new ways to make this new version of life enjoyable. Inevitably, she’d found herself drawn to the idea of a partner. Not just someone to share her body with, but her fears, doubts, happiness, and burdens too.
Of course, the body sharing part was of particular interest. She was still a healthy young woman with the normal urges. Unfortunately, the choices were slim these days, with her world mainly consisting of her family and the very occasional passing stranger her parents allowed to stay for a night or two. None of them had been men anywhere close to her own age, and a couple had made her downright nervous. They were always denied the option of staying around, even for a meal, as though her father had a good sense of who was dangerous and who wasn’t, with the notable exception of a couple of thieves who had stolen from them in the beginning of the turmoil. Maybe that sense came from having four daughters and being an overprotective daddy.
She found herself starting to sing as the excitement of having new people fizzed in her veins. As she belted out a song, feeling cheerful for the first time in a while, she ignored her brother’s gagging sounds.
“For pete’s sake, Mina, it’s bad enough we have to be out here in the sun, but your caterwauling is making it that much worse,” said Finn.
She paused briefly to stick out her tongue and fling a clod of dirt at her little brother. “You wish you had my talents, baby bro.”
“Sure do. I could lure all the bullfrogs from the pond, and we could have a delicious supper.”
She rolled her eyes at her brother, but still laughed. It had been a good comeback. To please him—and because the arrival of the soldiers to help out inhibited her off-key singing—she let the melody lapse and focused on weeding the garden. All the while, she was conscious of Coop working two rows ahead of her. When he paused to strip off his T-shirt, using it to wipe his sweating face and brow, her mouth fell open, and she almost forgot how to breathe. Only Kelly laughing beside her snapped her attention back to the plants and away from his seriously toned body.
“Do you have a little crush?” teased Kelly.
Mina ignored her sister, making a conscious effort not to look at him again. Her sister couldn’t stifle the mental image still in her head, and she savored it as she worked. The droplet of sweat that had streaked down his abdomen insisted on repeating over and over in her mind, and she couldn’t resist imagining what it would be like to run her tongue down the same path. That led to imagining his stunned reaction, which quickly aborted the fantasy, though she was sure she’d break it out again later and replay the moment in her mind when she had some privacy.
She was mildly surprised to see Coop in the coop again the next morning. He leaned against the wall, watching her work, and she found herself surprisingly at ease. “So, you mentioned your gran?” she asked as she gently scooted Lionel with her foot so she could move past him.
“Yeah. She had a farm in Iowa, and I used to spend most summers with her.”
She nodded. “She had chickens?”
“A bunch, though I don’t think she felt at all maternal toward them.”
Mina blushed slightly. “I still think friendly is the best approach.”
“Your girls certainly seem fat and sassy.” He bent down to pick up Trudie, who had been pecking around his feet. She clucked at him, but settled against him like a froufrou dog.
“That’s Trudie. She likes you to stroke her wings.” She pushed back her short bangs with her forearm, already hating the morning heat. “I miss air conditioning.”
“And hot running water.” Mina sighed. “I know we’re luckier than many, with having the farm and the artesian well, but I sure miss how easy life was before The End.”
Coop returned Trudie to the floor before coming closer. He moved to the nesting box beside her, reaching in like he’d done egg collecting a thousand times before. “It’s bad out there. Several times, I was sure we wouldn’t make it here. Wyoming seemed a million miles away when we were in Germany.”
“I’m glad I’m not out there. We’re pretty isolated here, but we’ve still had some scary times. A few people have tried stealing from us. One rough-looking group of men offered to trade my father a generator and a working tractor for one of us girls.”
He drew his breath in raggedly. “How’d Mr. Marsden handle that?”
“We all showed them our guns and told them to leave—then spent the next couple weeks worrying about if they’d come back to try to take one of us.” She shrugged. “Thankfully, they must have moved on. I just hope they didn’t come across any women traveling alone or who were vulnerable.”
Coop looked haunted. “Yeah. We saw some…things that are burned in my head. Lots of violence out there. People are desperate and starving. Of course, it brings out the worst in everyone.”
They had collected all the eggs, and she realized they were just standing by the boxes talking, but she didn’t try to rush away despite a busy day. “I can’t really blame someone for doing what it takes to feed your family or take care of your kids.”
“Yeah, I know, but some of the things people did…killing for things they didn’t need. Raping—” He broke of abruptly. “Well, I have to get started. Your pop has a laundry list of chores for me.”
“For us all,” she said with a silly grin, finding it difficult not to smile in his presence.
It was two mornings later before he joined her again. They spoke about superficial things for a bit, until she asked about his family. “Gran died the summer I was fifteen. My mom was Air Force, so we spent most of the time traveling. Pop died last year, and I haven’t heard from my mother since before the Pulse…End.”
He shook his head. “Just me. I’m not entirely sure if I was a peace offering for my dad, who wanted a son, or if I was a complete accident.” He must have interpreted her frown correctly. “Not that they made me feel that way. My parents loved me, but my mom was definitely not a kid person. If this hadn’t happened, she probably would have been heading the whole Air Force before retirement. She was an airman first and family person second.”
“Do you think she’s okay?”
He shrugged. “I hope so, but realistically, probably not. She is tough, but also a stickler for rules and order. I don’t think she would adapt very well to the current state of chaos.”
“It’s kind of adapt or die these days, huh?”
Coop sighed. “There seems to be a lot more of the latter than the former.”
In two weeks, the soldiers had settled onto the farm. In some ways, it was almost like they had always been there. After a supply run, where they had unfortunately lost one of their group to a fall from a fourth-floor window, they had spent the first few days erecting a small bunkhouse that would be serviceable for most of the group. Dana and Chelle had remained in the guestroom, which was more or less their room now. Mina knew Coop had a spot in the bunkhouse, but he ended up stretching out on the screened-in sun porch most nights, complaining about the heat inside the small bunkhouse and lack of privacy.
So far, everyone was productive, and to her knowledge, neither her father nor Shane had needed to tell anyone to pull their weight. Mina was enjoying the lightening of the workload, which actually left a bit of free time for everyone at the end of the day.
This evening, she was taking leftover dinner scraps to the chickens before planning to go to the pond for a quick dip to cool off. As she rounded the corner, she froze at the sound of angry voices. Mina peeked around warily, surprised to see Lia and Shane standing a few yards away, their body language suggesting an intense discussion. She couldn’t hear their words, but they seemed angry.
She started to back away, but hesitated. Not knowing the man, she couldn’t be sure Lia was safe with this stranger. Mina almost approached them when Shane grabbed her sister’s arms, but Lia shrugged him off, slapped his face, and turned to stride away.
Shocked by the display, and realizing Lia knew Shane on a deeper level than just her husband’s commanding officer, she backed away. For just a second, he looked in her direction, his brown gaze pinning her to the spot. Eyes wide, she shook off her paralysis and turned back toward the house.