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Five years after her husband's death, Tess Donovan still sometimes imagined that she heard the sound of his laughter in a crowd. Whenever she saw a marine in dress blues, she remembered Joe standing at attentionso handsome with his perfect profile and fine features. If he hadn't been involved in so many secret operations, they could have used his gorgeous face for recruitment posters.
Her cab drove along Constitution Avenue, and she peered through the rear window, trying to see the National Christmas Tree in the Ellipse outside the White House. During the holiday season, she missed Joe like crazy. They had always attended the ceremonial lighting of the tree. They'd shopped together for presents, danced together at dozens of holiday galas. Their Christmases had been all about silver bells and snowball fights and hot buttered rum in front of the fireplace.
That was then. This was now.
She sank back in the seat. Starting with the New Year, she vowed to get on with her life. Not that she'd been standing still for five years. As the single mother of a four-and-a-half-year-old son, she seldom got the chance to sit down, and her small catering business had grown into a successful event-planning enterprise. When it came to mothering and working, she was holding her own. It was her personal life that sucked. In five years, she'd only been on a handful of dates, none of which had turned out well. None of those men were Joe.
This year would be different. She'd give herself the chance to meet a special man. It shouldn't be that hard; she was only thirty-two and not bad looking, with black hair and blue eyes. She deserved a mate. And her son deserved a father.
Exiting her cab outside the National Museum of American History, she heard a group of strolling carolers. The tenor sounded just like Joe; he had loved to belt out a rock-and-roll version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
Dusk came early in December. She glanced over her shoulder toward the towering Washington Monument, already lit and gleaming. Then she saw something that made her look twice. Her eyes were lying. This couldn't be. She looked again.
There he was. Joe was walking toward her. She recognized his square shoulders and long stride. In spite of the chill, his trench coat was unbuttoned. He had never minded the cold.
The rational part of her mind told her that she was wrong. Joe was dead, buried at Arlington. But she couldn't control her imagination. Her heart skipped. Her fingers lost their grip on her briefcase.
She wanted to run to him and throw herself into his arms. He'd lift her off the sidewalk and twirl her in a circle. And they'd be happy again.
As he came closer, she staredknowing that he wasn't Joe but hoping for a miracle. He was less than ten feet from her. Their gazes locked, and she saw him clearly. His was the face of a strangera young man in his early twenties. Joe would have been thirty-eight by now. Clearly, she was losing her mind.
The stranger smiled politely, picked up her briefcase and placed it in her hands. "Merry Christmas," he said. "Same to you."
Not Joe, he wasn't Joe, of course, he wasn't. Though she felt like melting into a weepy puddle on the sidewalk, Tess pulled herself together. She straightened the lapels on her burgundy wool winter coat, tucked her shoulder-length hair behind her ears and firmly grasped the handle of her briefcase as she ascended the stairs into the museum. With every stride across the marble floors, the heels of her sensible black pumps clicked, and she gathered herself. She couldn't afford to act like a delusional, sentimental mess. This was business.
In less than a week, on Christmas Eve, Tess was responsible for a sit-down dinner for three hundred in the second floor Flag Hall. The sponsor of this eventGovernor Lila Lockhart of Texaswas celebrating the donation of several artifacts to the Smithsonian as well as thanking some of the top donors to Texans in Congress. Tess had never handled such a prestigious event, and she wanted to get every detail right.
In the waiting area outside the office of the Special Events Coordinator, she greeted the governor's aide, Stacy Giordano, with a hug. A curvy brunette with incredibly long legs, Stacy was glowing in her first trimester of pregnancy. Her wedding was scheduled for New Year's Eve in Texas, and Tess had used her contacts to arrange for a fabulous five-tiered cake.
"How's your little boy?" Tess asked.
"Doing better than I am. Morning sickness is no fun."
The last time they'd met, she and Stacy had talked about their kids, who were almost the same age. Stacy's son was autistic. "Did you bring him along on this trip?"
"He's here. We're staying with Lila's family at the Pier-pont House in Arlington."
Tess's home and office were in Arlington, and she was familiar with the Pierponta Colonial-style mansion used by visiting dignitaries. The house came with its own maids and cooks. "Nice place. Has Governor Lockhart arrived?"
"Not yet. She won't be here until the day before the event. I came with Harlan." When she spoke the name of her fiance, Stacy's cheeks flushed a bright, happy red. "He's setting up security at the Pierpont and for the event. His concerns are the reason for this meeting."
"He wants blueprints for the museum so he can check all entrances and exits, including the basement storage areas."
This request might be difficult to fulfill. Homeland Security got very nervous when it came to protecting national treasures like those that were housed in the museum. "I'm not sure if we can get clearance."
"Not even for Corps Security and Investigations?"
"If it was up to me, no problem."
Tess respected the reputation of CSaI, a private security firm based in Freedom, Texas. All the operatives were highly-trained, former military men. For the past several months while protecting Governor Lockhart, CSaI had dealt with death threats, bombings and snipers. From what Tess had heard, their actions had been competent and skillful.
The real reason she held CSaI in high regard was their founderBart Bellows. The 75-year-old Bellows was a Vietnam vet, a former CIA agent, a billionaire and the kindest man she'd ever known.
When Joe first went missing, Bellows had contacted her. Though he couldn't tell her Joe's assignment, he'd given her the impression that her husband had been vital in disarming a terrible threat to national security. Joe was a hero. But she'd already known that.
Instead of merely offering sympathy, Bart had stayed close to her for several days. In spite of his wheelchair, he'd helped in her catering kitchen. It was Bart who had notified her of Joe's death and arranged for him to be buried at Arlington. He'd also sorted through the mountains of paperwork to make sure she received the proper benefits and the payouts from other insurance policies. Bart had been with her in the hospital four months later when Joey was born.
She thought of him as her guardian angel, but he wasn't all sweetness and light. More than once, he'd dragged her out of depression and forced her to stand on her own two feet.
While acknowledging her grief, he encouraged her potential. Her move from catering into the more lucrative field of event planning came as a result of his contacts. In fact, he was the person who'd recommended her to Governor Lockhart.
For the past several weeks, Bart had been missing. When she thought of what might be happening to him, she shuddered. He was such a good man. Life truly was unfair. "Any news on Bart?"
"The guys have a couple of promising leads. If anyone can rescue him, they can."
Tess hoped and prayed that Stacy was right.
Nolan Law peered through his infrared, night vision goggles at an isolated flat-roof metal warehouse located eighteen miles outside Austin. A big, black Cadillac pulled up and parked outside the building. The Caddy cut its lights. Nobody got out.
From his surveillance position on a low ridge under the spreading branches of a live oak, Nolan could see a long way down the two-lane road leading to this warehouse. Another vehicle approachedan SUV. He parked behind the Caddy. Four armed men emerged and dispersed, setting up a perimeter at the four corners of the small warehouse with only one loading dock.
Through his ear bud, Nolan heard the smooth, calm voice of Wade Coltrane. "Is that everybody that's coming to the party?"
"Don't know." Nolan glanced to his left. He knew Coltrane was out there, but the man was invisible. "I didn't send out the invites."
The third man in their attack group, Nick Cavanaugh, said, "If we'd gotten here sooner, I could have set up some explosive charges inside."
"I should think you had enough of bombs," Nolan said. Last month, Cavanaugh and his lady had nearly been blown to bits by an explosive device in her son's day care center.
"I'm just saying," Cavanaugh muttered. "More time would have made this easier."
"Couldn't be helped." Nolan had gotten his intel from their CIA contact less than an hour ago. They'd been short on time, lucky to beat the Caddy and hide their Jeep in a gully behind the ridge.
The doors to the Caddy swung open. Two more bodyguards in dark windbreakers emerged from the front. From the back came a man in a suit with a white shirt that gleamed in the moonlight. On his arm was a blonde woman in a short, tight, red dress. Her presence was unexpected and would require an adjustment in strategy.
The suit and the woman went up the concrete stairs to an office door beside the loading dock and went inside. A single light over the door went on, casting a glow on the two men in windbreakers who stood directly outside.
"Hold your positions," Nolan said. "Let's give them half an hour to settle down."
The man in the suit was Robby Jessop, a shady defense contractor, who was likely using this warehouse to stash contraband weapons. Locating Jessop was the best lead CSaI had uncovered in their search for Bart Bellows, and Nolan didn't want to blow this opportunity.
He lowered himself to the ground and stretched out on his belly. On a night like this when the moon was half full, he wouldn't be seen with the naked eye. His dark cargo pants, jacket and dark knit cap blended into the shadows. But he wasn't taking any chances. One of the bodyguards might be smart enough to have night vision goggles of his own.
If it was the last thing he ever did, Nolan would find Bart Bellows. Over a month ago, the old man and his handicapped van had disappeared without a trace or a clue. His driver had been shot and killed, leaving no witness.
Nolan believed the old man was still alive. If Bart's enemies wanted him dead, they would have acted long before this. They'd kidnapped Bart for a reason and would hold him until they got what they wantedwhatever the hell that was.
The lack of apparent motive made CSaI's search intensely complicated. Bart had lived a long life and had ticked off a lot of scary people. Operating under the assumption that his abduction was related to his former career in the CIA, Nolan and the rest of the men in Corps Security and Investigations fought their way through a tangle of bureaucratic red tape to get secret documents declassified. They tracked down dozens of agents who could brief them on current situations that stemmed from Bart's former cases.
Nolan's best contact turned out to be a spy named Omar Harris who had his Irish-American father's sense of humor and his Afghani mother's courage. Omar gave him Jessop's name and told him that the defense contractor was involved in smuggling weapons and the opium trade in Afghanistan. It was Omar who arranged for Jessop to be at the warehouse outside Austin tonight. The defense contractor thought he was meeting with a warlord who would pay a cool million for their next deal.
Instead, Jessop was going to run into the three-man offense of Nolan, Coltrane and Cavanaughthree former military men who had served with pride and distinction until they'd been recruited by Bart Bellows for his elite security company.
Poor little Robby Jessop didn't stand a chance.
Through his night vision goggles, Nolan scanned the area. The guard at the north side of the building was smoking a cigar. Both of the men nearest the warehouse door were texting on their cell phones.
None of them were paying attention.
All were distracted.
Taking them down would be cake.
"Are we ready?" Cavanaugh asked.
"I'll take the two men on the north side of the building," Nolan said. "You boys take care of the other side."
"What about the two by the door?"
"We'll use a flash-bang to get their attention, and then converge on them."
Nolan rolled onto his back and checked his weapons. The most dangerous part of this mission would be when they entered the warehouse. They were all wearing Kevlar, but Jessop would be waiting for them.
"Use your stun guns," Nolan said. "We're not here to kill anybody. We came to talk. Okay, let's rock and roll."
He crept through the night. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, heightening his senses and masking the ever-present ache from old wounds. He'd learned to endure the physical pain from injuries he'd suffered five years ago in Afghanistan, when his platoon was hit by a chopper strike and a roadside bomb. The emotional hurt was deeper, more intense, unrelieved by the passage of time.
Five years ago, Nolan Law had been a different man. Handsome and strong, his life had been filled with promise. His beautiful, loving wife had been pregnant. God, he missed Tess. He missed the son he'd never held in his arms, missed the life he should have had.
Nolan shook his head, pushing aside the regrets and the memories. There was no going back. He wasn't that man anymore. Joe Donovan was dead.