A few years ago, I was invited to write in Susan Stokers’ Special Forces: Operation Alpha World. Since then, I’ve written several books that combine my characters and adventures in Susan’s world with her characters and setting.

If you’re a fan of Susan’s miltiary romantic suspense books, you’ll enjoy PROTECTING MADDIE, Book 1 in my Protector Series, which is part of the Special Forces: Operation Alpha World.

Chapter One

“Jason. Why don’t we talk about this before you do something you might regret?”

Maddie Winslow made her voice as calm and steady as possible, a challenge as she faced the student standing at the back of her classroom, holding a gun pointed at the class. What looked like a huge gun. Jason Schroeder was both angry and nervous, two emotions that could create a very volatile situation.

The whole thing had happened so fast. One minute, she was standing by her desk, talking to the students, waiting for them to settle down so class could begin. The next, a girl walking to her seat in the last row of desks bumped into Jason’s backpack and screamed, “Ohmigod! A gun! He’s got a gun.”

Before she could get realistic control of her class, the girl had raced into the hallway. Jason jumped up from his desk and now stood at the back of the room, holding the gun menacingly pointed at everyone. The students in her freshman history class sat frozen in their seats, tension thick in the air, their fear a palpable thing. It was important she get Jason to relate to her. From where he stood, he could shoot anyone he felt threatened him. Any little thing could set him off. He might get tackled in the end. But how many kids would he take with him first? The last thing she’d expected was for this quiet boy to bring a gun to school and pull it in her classroom.

The girl had no doubt run to the principal’s office because, a few minutes later, Frank Altman, the principal had come to her door.

“He can’t come in.” Jason’s voice cracked. “He opens that door and I shoot as many people as I can. Make him leave.”

Maddie believed him. Okay, so help wasn’t coming any time soon. She mouthed, Don’t open that to the principal. Through the window she watched him take a step back. A quick glance at her students showed the fear stamped on everyone’s face. The same fright gripped her, but she didn’t have the luxury of showing it or giving in to it. This was all on her shoulders.

A knock on the door a few minutes later drew her attention to Jerry Danvers, the school resource officer, standing outside. She could see him plainly through the window, with the principal behind him. But so could Jason. The boy lifted the gun slightly, holding it in two hands, and Maddie shook her head at Danvers. She was sure someone had called the police by now, but what could they do? If they stormed the classroom, someone was going to get hurt. Maybe killed.

“Tell him to go away.” The boy’s voice was harsh and his eyes had a wild look. She could see it even from this distance.

“I’m doing it right now, Jason,” she assured him. “Watch.”

Maddie waved her hand at Danvers and gave a slight shake of her head, hoping he’d get the message. How ironic that just last month the school board had decided every teacher should get training for episodes like this. Better to be prepared, they kept saying. But she could tell them all the training in the world didn’t prepare you for the actuality of it.

Danvers hesitated a moment, dipped his head once, and took a step back from the door.

“Jason?” She repeated his name. “See? He’s gone. Can we talk about this, please?”

“There’s nothing to talk about. Except maybe to tell you I hate everyone, especially in this classroom. I just have to decide who to shoot first.”

There was such pain in his young voice, it hurt to listen to him.

One of the girls in the front row, Tina Weston, started to cry quietly. Maddie desperately wanted to go to her, but she didn’t want to do anything to antagonize an already unstable Jason. If she could somehow find out what had set him off….

“You’re frightening everyone,” she told Jason in a soft voice. “Why not let them leave, and you and I can discuss this, okay?”

“No.” He all but shouted the word. “No one leaves. Not unless I say so.”

Maddie knew by now the police had been called, hostage negotiators were on the campus or close to it. They’d be making plans to break this stalemate. Maddie felt it in her bones that if they did so, this was going to end badly. Jason’s voice was filled with such anguish. If only she knew what had set him off. Meanwhile, she had to protect her students while trying to talk him off the ledge.

“Jason, I’m going to have the students put their heads down on their desks. That way we can pretend there’s no one in the room except for you and me. Is that okay?”

He frowned, as if thinking it over, trying to find a trick in what she was doing. Then he gave one sharp, jerky nod.

“Okay, everyone.” Again she made sure her voice was level, even, no edge of panic. “Let’s all put our heads down while I talk to Jason. He and I are going to have a private conversation.”

Luke Farrell in the front row opened his mouth as if to argue, but Maddie looked at him, hard, hoping he’d get her signal to keep quiet. Soon, no one was looking at anyone except for her and Jason. With all the campus shootings popping up around the country, Frank Altman had asked the resource office to have someone give the teachers some basic instruction in what to do. She was more than grateful for that now.

“All right, Jason, it’s just you and me.” She leaned against the front of her desk, making her posture as nonthreatening as possible. “Maybe you can tell me what this is all about.”

“I hate this place.” His voice cracked with emotion. “I hate the city, the school, you, and everyone here.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” She slid her hands into the pockets of her skirt where she could clench them without being seen. Digging her nails into her palms helped remind her not to lose control. “Maybe, if you tell me why, I can help change some of those things.”

“Nobody can change it.” His voice held a tinge of hysteria. “Nobody can do anything.”

“You know, I used to think that about a lot of things, but I learned there is always an answer for everything. It might not be what you want, but it might be better than you think.”

“Can you move me back to Denver?” he asked.

“Is that where you were living?” Okay, he might have left good friends and a secure social situation behind. That often set people off.

Again he gave a sharp nod. “My dad,” he spat the words out, “wanted to come here for a big job. He didn’t care about the rest of us.”

“You know, I’m sure he’d be upset to hear you say that. I suspect he loves you and your mom a lot.”

“Oh, he loves her, alright.” The hand holding the gun wobbled a little. “She’s happy, and that’s all he cares about.”

“I’d like to think that’s not true. After all, you’re his son. Have you talked to him about it?”

Jason scowled. “He’s always busy.”

Maddie wished she knew more about him. The only information she’d been given at the beginning of the school year was he had recently moved to Tampa, was an only child, and had no black marks on his record from his previous school. Not much to tell you about a kid. She knew he didn’t go out for sports, but, beyond that, she had no idea what he did outside the classroom.

My bad. I need to take more interest in my students.

She glanced around the room to make sure all her other students still had their heads down on their desks. Tina Weston’s shoulders shook with repressed tears, but at least her sobs were silent. Maddie was grateful. The others seemed to be doing okay, nobody looking to be a hero, thank the lord. They were all basically good kids, even Jason, she was sure. You never knew what it took to push someone over the line.

“I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been unhappy,” she went on. “Want to talk about it? Maybe there is something I can do to help.”

“Can you tell Lisa to get back together with me?” The words just kind of fell out of his mouth, like rocks too heavy to hold.

“Lisa?” She dug around in her brain for a student named Lisa. Problem was, she could think of at least three or four.

“Lisa Froelich. She’s in my English class.”

Oh. Oh! Okay. So a budding romance had blown up in his face.

“I take it the two of you broke up.”

She broke up with me. I didn’t want to break up.” He had tears in his eyes, and a muscle ticced in his jaw. The gun wasn’t quite as steady in his hands.

Very slowly, Maddie began to inch toward him between the rows of desks.

“I know how much that sucks. I had the same thing happen to me.”

“You did?” Another scowl, as if he didn’t quite believe her.

“Uh-huh.” A few more steps closer. “I was the same age as you and so excited to have a great boyfriend. We went everywhere together. All my friends were jealous.”

“I bet you felt special,” he said.

Okay, they were getting even deeper into the heart of the matter. Young boy, uprooted, unhappy, his one bright spot a girl who he thinks makes all the difference in his life.

“I did.” A few more steps. “When he broke up with me, I was so unhappy I wanted to die.”

“See? That’s what I mean.” His eyes widened. “I can’t stand it without her. I mean, I hardly know anyone here. Everyone’s got their own friends. What do I have?”

Another point to remember. He had a hard time making friends. A fish out of water in a new environment. If they got out of this crisis, she’d talk to his parents and Frank Altman and the school counselor to see how they could help him piece his life back together.

“But you know what I discovered, Jason?”

“What?” Suspicion edged his voice.

Thank god, at least he didn’t seem to notice how close she was to him.

“I got past my broken heart, found activities at school I liked, and began to make friends again.”

“You did?” Suspicion changed to skepticism. Jason, like others who had felt the same pain, wasn’t ready to believe her.

“I did.” Only a few more steps now. If she could get just this close to him, keep him focused on her, she could get him to lower the gun. “But, at first, I thought my heart was broken. I wanted to hide somewhere and never come out.”

“What did you do?” The gun wavered a little, his hands less steady.

“Believe it or not, I had a teacher I liked a lot. She found me crying in the bathroom one afternoon, asked me what was wrong, and helped me through it. I never forgot her.”

One more step.

“She did?”

“Uh-huh. And I’m going to do the same for you, if you’ll let me. Why don’t you give me the gun, Jason. You don’t really want to hurt anyone, do you? That’s something you can’t undo.”

He blinked back tears then shook his head. “I-I guess not.”

She held out a hand, a breath of relief whooshing from her when he gave her the weapon.

“Everyone stay in your seats for a moment,” she ordered. “Please give us a second here.”

She put her arm around Jason, holding the gun at her side with the other hand, and walked him slowly through the door and into the hallway. She was more than happy to hand the weapon over to Jerry Danvers.

“Are you okay?” Frank Altman asked her. He stood with the resource officer and some cops she figured were from hostage negotiations.

“I’m fine, but can you please move everyone back? Give Jason some room here?” She kept her arm around him.

“His father’s on the way,” Altman told her.

“Good. I want to talk to him before he sees Jason. Can you please take him to your office, away from all this? He needs some privacy.” When he agreed, Maddie said to the boy, “You’ll be fine now, Jason. Go with Mr. Altman, and I’ll be down to see you as soon as I dismiss the class. Okay?”

He hesitated once before allowing the principal to lead him away. Maddie had come to the conclusion he really didn’t want to shoot anyone but hadn’t figured out another way to express his pain. She looked around and realized, startled, there was no one in the corridor except key personnel and the police.

“Where is everyone?”

“We evacuated as soon as we saw him with a gun,” Altman told her. “We had no idea if he’d burst out of the classroom or what.” He smiled at her. “You did an excellent job in there, Maddie.”

“Thank you, although it isn’t my first choice of classroom activity.” She drew in a deep breath and turned to Jerry Danvers. “I know you have questions. Everyone probably wants to talk to me, but I need to take care of my class, first. Please keep everyone out so I can release them in an orderly manner. They’ve had enough excitement for one day.”

And so had she, but she couldn’t afford the luxury of a collapse yet.

“Go ahead. We’ve got things under control out here.” He squeezed her arm. “Good job.”

“Thanks.” She watched as Jerry shooed everyone away from the door, two other men helping him. There was a babble of excitement, but she knew Jerry would handle things. Forcing a calm she didn’t feel, she walked back into the classroom and stood at her desk.

“You can lift your heads now,” she told them, although several were already stealing looks. “I want to thank you all for listening to what I asked of you and not making a problem. You were all a big help.”

“Did I hear right?” Luke asked. “He did all this because a girl broke up with him?”

“It’s really a lot more than that.” She gave him a sad smile. “I think Jason has had a hard time making friends since he moved here. Tomorrow, in class, we’ll spend a little time discussing how we can reach out to new students. For the moment, I think you all need to grab your things and get out of here, but please do it in an orderly fashion. Go home and let your parents hug you.”

To their credit, they did as she asked, despite the blatant curiosity stamped on their faces. They soon disappeared into the crowd of faculty and staff and what she was sure were the members of the hostage negotiations team in the corridor. Their parents would be arriving shortly, if they hadn’t already. She’d leave it up to the people in charge to deal with that.

Taking a deep breath, she leaned against the wall next to her door, praying her legs would hold her up so she didn’t collapse in a heap. She stood there, hands gripped together, taking slow, deep breaths, and trying to settle herself. She knew as soon as she stepped out into the hall she’d be surrounded and she’d need her wits about her.

Okay. Here goes nothing.

“Miss Winslow?” A man in dark-gray slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up approached her as she stepped out of her room.

“Yes.” She drew in a fortifying breath and let it out. She expected she’d have a lot of questions to answer.

“Captain Gerard. Arlo Gerard.” He shook her hand. “I’m in charge of the hostage negotiations unit. I wanted to congratulate you on a doing a damn fine job in there.”

“Th-thank you.” With the crisis over, the strength ebbed from her body, leaving her weak and shaky. She noticed the hallway was now jammed with people—teachers, staff, other cops—giving her a sudden attack of claustrophobia. “I, um, I think I need to sit down.”

“Of course you do. But let’s get you out of this mob scene.” He turned to the man standing beside him. “I’m going to take her down to Altman’s office where we took Jason. She needs to get away from this circus. You go ahead and start winding things up here. I’ll be back in a few.”

“I appreciate this,” Maddie told him. She smiled at the people giving her blatant looks of curiosity, letting Captain Gerard move her smoothly through the mob scene. As he guided her down the hall, hand firmly at her elbow, she noticed more men, along with Jerry Danvers, herding people towards the gymnasium.

Good. Get people out of the hallway and into a place where parents can pick up kids and teachers can talk to their students.

“No problem. It’s the adrenaline crash.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll need to interview you, but I want to get the rest of this stuff wrapped up first. Is there someone I can call to be with you?”

“I’m fine,” she told him, and realized, in fact, her nerves were settling down. “But thanks. If I could get some water and a quiet place to sit for a few minutes, I’ll be okay. How are my students?”

“They’re all fine. We’ve called everyone’s parents and we’re keeping your kids in the faculty lounge until they get here. Okay, here we are.”

He ushered her into Altman’s suite of offices, found her a place to sit, and sent someone to get her a bottle of water. She had just taken a long swallow of it when Altman himself came in.

“Maddie.” He sat in the chair next to her and took her hands. “I can’t begin to tell you how grateful we are for what you did today. You were incredible with those kids. We could see what was going on through the window in the door, and hear some of your conversation with Jason. You knew exactly what to do.”

She gave him a weak smile. “I hope I don’t have to do it again anytime soon.”

“Amen to that. Listen, Jason’s parents are here, and they’d like a word with you. Also, we have a media circus out there. The police are trying to contain them, but if you’d be willing to make a short statement, it would help.”

Talk to the press? Good lord! That wasn’t in her wheelhouse.

“I’m not sure I’m the best person to do that,” she began, but Altman interrupted her.

“I’d say you were the only person. You were there. You knew what to do.” He gave her a warm smile. “You’re a hero today. The public wants to see you.”

She frowned. “How did they hear about it so fast? The whole thing didn’t take thirty minutes.”

He snorted. “Are you kidding me? Besides the fact they monitor police calls, as soon as we evacuated the rest of the kids, they all began tweeting and texting and whatever else they were doing. Nothing is sacred anymore with social media.”

She gripped her hands together. “I’m not exactly sure what to say.”

“The superintendent’s office has someone on the way to help you with that.” He stood up. “He’ll be here in about ten. Do you think you’re up to meeting with Jason’s folks before then?”

Maddie nodded. “I don’t know if I have the answers they want, but I’ll do my best.”

The principal gave them his office, for privacy, and Maddie spent some of the most emotional minutes of her life. The Schroeders were bewildered and emotionally raw. Unlike some parents, who would have immediately wanted to punish their son for this, they berated themselves for not seeing the signs something was wrong.

“Jason’s waiting for you in the counselor’s office,” she told them at last. “I think it would help if you went on down there and you all had a good talk.”

“Yes, of course.” Evan Schroder rubbed his forehead. “You see things happen to other kids, but you never expect them to happen to yours. We’re indebted to you for a great deal, Miss Winslow. We’re going to see what we can do about repairing this situation.”

“He needs a lot of support right now,” she reminded them. “And we’ll do what we can from this end.”

One of the cops on the scene had no sooner escorted the couple out of the office and down the hall than the media rep from the superintendent’s office arrived. Mark Havilland was nice, he was polite, he was solicitous, but he was adamant.

“Face it, Maddie,” he told her. “They want to see the woman who saved her classroom.”

“All I did was talk a troubled kid out of doing something he didn’t want to do in the first place,” she protested.

“You did a lot more,” he assured her. “There are a lot of people waiting to thank you, including the mayor.”

Her jaw dropped. “The mayor? Are you kidding me?”

“Maddie—I can call you Maddie, right?—you did a phenomenal thing here today.” He cleared his throat. “And we have another opportunity here, also.”

The muscles in her stomach knotted. Now what?

“As I’m sure you are aware, a lot of teachers around the country have been lobbying to be allowed to bring weapons into the school for situations just like this. Here’s your chance to be the face of the situation, to show how it can be defused without weapons.”

Maddie frowned. “But the police who came here all had guns. Our resource officer carries a gun.”

“But not the teachers,” he reminded her in a soft voice. “Here’s a great opportunity to make your case.”

Frank Altman walked back into the office and caught the last sentence.

“He’s right, Maddie. We would all appreciate it if you’d do this.”

Maddie swallowed a sigh. She really didn’t want to, but if she had to, at least she could get her licks in for a good cause.”

“Okay.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “But you’ll have to help me figure out what to say.”

Mark smiled. “That’s what they pay me the big bucks for.”

In the end, it went off more smoothly than she could have expected. They set up a small platform in front of the school entrance and cordoned it off. The portable PA system with its wireless mic was hauled out, and Maddie stood on the platform between Mark Havilland and Frank Altman. She replied to the questions as best she could and kept her answers short and to the point, as she’d been told. She got in her licks about teachers and guns, but also about both parents and teachers paying closer attention to the kids.

Finally, it was over. Cameras stopped flashing, cell phones were put away, and the television crews scampered to head back to their stations to edit the follow-up piece in time to make the evening news. The principal guided her to his office where he pressed another bottle of water into her hands.

“You did great,” he assured her.

“Better than great,” Mark Havilland agreed.

“I guess I should have expected all those cell phone cameras, too.” She heaved a sigh. “I’m sure it’s all over social media by now. God. I never wanted to be a celebrity.” She looked from one man to the other. “Am I free to go? I have to get home.”

“You were very courageous,” Altman pointed out. “And you kept your head. That’s not something a lot of people could do.”

“Be prepared for the national news to pick it up, too,” Mark warned.

“Oh my god!” Maddie slapped her forehead. “My parents. I need to let them know about it. They’ll have a heart attack if I don’t give them a heads up.” She looked from one man to the other. “I guess it’s too much to hope I can slip out of here without notice.”

“Captain Gerard already thought of that,” Altman assured her. “Let me get your keys. He’s going to have someone drive your car away to a shopping center. We’ll slip you out the back way, and you’ll get a ride to pick up your car away from prying eyes.”

“Thank you so much.” Relief washed over her. All she wanted was to get home to her little house and lock herself in. Then she thought about Gretchen, her best friend. Had she heard about it already? Maddie would call her from the car and have her meet at the house.

And bring a big bottle of wine.

Get your copy of Protecting Maddie to keep reading.