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Carrie Mitchell had made the biggest mistake of her life. And if she had it to do all over again, her actions would be exactly the same.
"Ready?" the dark-haired man waiting ramrod straight at the bottom of the stairs asked.
She dragged in a breath and let it out before speaking. "As ready as I'm going to be."
"Then let's get it over with."
He stepped outside and motioned for her to wait as he looked around the exterior of the safe house where she'd been staying for the past week.
Really, the visual inspection was unnecessary, she thought. Nobody could get past the electric fence and the motion detectors, or through the main gate without the proper security codes.
Still, he made her linger inside before motioning her out the door, then led the way toward the black town car they were taking into D.C. The car was bulletproof, a precaution Carrie wished they could have done without. But her father, Douglas Mitchell, was rich enough to make his own rules when it came to his daughter's safetyor anything else. An ordinary man would have relied on the FBI to protect his only child. Dad wanted an armored car and an elite private security team to keep her safe. The driver was already behind the wheel, a guy named Joe Collins, who was one of the guards who had been with her for the past week.
The man who held the car door open was Wyatt Hawk, the one in charge. Carrie didn't like him much. Maybe that wasn't fair, because she couldn't really say she knew him. He kept himself so closed up that she'd had little chance for an in-depth conversation with him.
He was tall and muscular and good-looking in a kind of tough-guy way that she might have admired from a distanceif she'd had the choice. You could imagine him as the bodyguard for a mob boss, although that wasn't his background. He was supposed to have retired early from the CIA, but he never talked about his former life.
The other security men at the safe house were much more open about their backgrounds. They were all ex-cops, and they'd been friendly, perhaps to counteract Wyatt's aloof demeanor. Gary Blain was a black man in his fifties, with a shaved head and broad shoulders. Hank Swinton was around the same age, with a bit of gray invading his sandy hair. And Rodrigo Garcia was a little younger, with classic Hispanic features.
They'd made her feel protected as they'd tried to lighten her isolation. In contrast, Wyatt always had an open book in front of him at the dining table, probably to discourage conversation. One of the few things she knew about him was that he liked World War II spy novels.
She'd joined him a time or two in the basement gym. He'd stuck to his routine of weight machines and hard-driving pumping on the elliptical trainer to the sounds of classic rock.
She never pushed herself as far. For her, exercise wasn't a religion. It was just a way to keep in reasonable shape so she could crawl around in the woods taking pictures of wildlife.
Which was how she'd gotten into the worst trouble of her life.
Last Thursday she'd been practicing her profession, happily eavesdropping on an eagles' nest in D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, the sprawling wooded area that ran through the northwest section of the city. She'd been using her telephoto lens to capture the family life of the parents and their two babies, photographing them off and on since before they'd hatched.
The photos were to illustrate a piece she was doing for Wildlife Magazine on raptors in urban areas.
She was creeping through the underbrush out of sight of the eagles' eighty-foot-high, thousand-pound nest when she spotted three young Midwestern-looking men in jeans and T-shirts in a nearby picnic area.
She could see they hadn't come for a meal. They were sitting at one of the tree-shaded wooden tables, speaking in low voices. Two of them were chain-smoking and littering the ground with the spent butts. Every so often, one of them would look around nervously.
At first she'd paid them only minimal attention. Then, as she moved to get a different angle on the nest, she started to get the gist of their conversation, and the back of her neck began to tingle.
She heard the words bomb, Capitol Police and best place to inflict maximum damage. Her heart was pounding as she swiveled cautiously in her hidden position, switching her camera's focus from the eagles' nest to the men. After taking their pictures, she wanted to flee, yet she knew that just their faces might not be enough to identify them. Her every move stealthy, she made her way back toward the road, intent on getting their license plates, as well. Her own car was parked on the other side of the picnic area, because it was a better approach to the eagles' nest.
Finally she was on the verge of pressing her luck too far. The men were still talking as she circled back the way she'd come, knowing she'd better get out of the woods before they spotted her.
But she realized it was already too late when she heard a shout of alarm.
"Hey, somebody's spying on us."
Her heart in her throat, she started running flat out for her car, hearing the crack of twigs and the rustle of underbrush behind her. She fumbled in her bag for the car remote, clicking the lock as she pelted through the woods.
She was only seconds ahead of them as she jumped into the driver's seat and started the engine. As she pulled away, she heard the sound of gunfire.
The back window and a taillight shattered as she sped away. But she made it onto Military Road and out of the park, and they didn't pick up her trail because they'd had to double back and circle around to get to the other parking area. She'd made it to the nearest police station, and the rest was history.
Her attention snapped back to the present when Wyatt spoke.
"You okay?" he asked.
"The Federal prosecutor has the pictures you took of the men. All you have to do is tell him exactly what you heard and exactly what happened."
"Then I suppose I'll have to show up in court for Bobby Thompson's trial." He was the only one of the men who had been identified and arrested. He was locked up in a maximum-security facility while the others were still at large.
"Not for months."
"Does that mean we're going to be together for months?" she asked, sorry she couldn't keep the snappish tone out of her voice.
"Not necessarily," Wyatt answered. Not if he could help it. He wanted out of this situation, but not until he got a suitable replacement.
He slid Carrie a sidewise glance, noting the way she was twisting her fingers together in her lap. He wanted to reach over and press his hand over hers, but he kept his arms at his sides because he knew that touching her was a bad idea.
His gaze traveled to her short-cropped dark hair. When they'd first met, it had been long and blond, but he'd made her cut and dye itto change her appearance. She hadn't liked it, but she'd done itthen refused contact lenses that would change her blue eyes to brown. And there was no way to disguise her high cheekbones, cute little nose or appealing lips. She was still a very attractive woman, even with the change in her hair and the nondescript clothing he'd purchased for her. As they rode into town, she looked like a Federal employee who'd come in on a Saturday to catch up on her work.
They made the rest of the trip into the District in silence, a silence he'd tried to maintain since he'd first met her. She probably thought he didn't like her. The problem was just the opposite. He liked her a lot. She had courage and determination, and she wasn't like a lot of rich women who thought that the world owed them special consideration. She was hardworking, smart and good at her job. She had all the qualities he admired in a woman, which was why he couldn't allow himself to get close to her.
To his relief, the long ride was almost over. At least they wouldn't be confined to the backseat of a car for much longer. While she talked with the prosecutor, he could wait in the reception area.
"The building's just ahead," he said in a low voice, breaking the silence inside the sedan.
Beside him Carrie sighed. "I guess the sooner I get this over with, the sooner I get my life back."
"Makes sense," he answered, wondering if she ever would get her life back. Would she ever feel safe again tramping around in the woods by herself, photographing the subjects she loved to capture in their natural environment? For just a moment he pictured himself going on those expeditions with her, carrying her equipment, making sure that nobody got out of line with her and no wild animals attacked her. Then he ruthlessly cut off that avenue of thought before it could go any further. He and Carrie Mitchell were from two different worlds. She had had every advantage growing up. She could have lived off her dad for the rest of her life, but she was trying to make a name for herself in a difficult profession. He was an ex-spook who came from a family in Alexandria, Virginia, that was barely making it. His dad drove a cab. His mom was a waitress, and he'd known he wanted a different life, which was why he'd joined the army and then the CIA. He'd seen a lot of the world, but he was home now and working private security. And even if their backgrounds matched better, he was too damaged to even think about a relationship with someone like heror anyone else, for that matter.
They were meeting Skip Gunderson, the Federal prosecutor, in a yellow-brick government building as nondescript as Carrie's clothing. Five stories tall, with a security barrier at the entrance. As a precaution, it wasn't the building where Gunderson normally worked. The meeting was at another facility that was off the radar of the D.C. press corps.
That was one of the unfortunate aspects of this whole situation. Although Carrie's identity was supposed to be confidential, somehow a cable news reporter had gotten wind of her name. Now everyone and his brother knew that she was the woman who had foiled a major terrorist plot. At least they hadn't been able to ferret out the location of the safe house where she was staying. Or photograph her disguisehe hoped.
"Showtime," Carrie murmured, as the big car made a right turn and pulled up at the metal stanchions that blocked the entrance to an underground garage. Next to the barrier was a guardhouse, where a man in a blue uniform and policetype cap stood as if he had an iron pipe rammed up his butt.
Wyatt watched him. Usually these guys were relaxed, but the guard's posture pegged him as being on edge.
As their car stopped, he stepped out.
Wyatt hadn't seen him before, but then, he hadn't seen a lot of the men assigned to security duty at this place.
"Identification, please," the guard said to Joe Collins, the driver, who rolled down his window and reached into his pocket for the papers.
Wyatt had heard the request every time they'd arrived here, yet today something was just a bit offperhaps the hint of edginess in the man's voice or the way he had his cap pulled down low. That thought had barely crossed Wyatt's mind when the man raised his arm, aiming an automatic pistol toward the open window of the car.
Acting on instinct and experience, Wyatt pushed Carrie down, blocking her body with his as he pulled out his own weapon and wrenched himself around to face the guard.
He was a split second too late to prevent disaster.
Joe went down in a spray of blood. Wyatt fired at the bogus guard, striking him in the chest and knocking him backward into the glass booth. But undoubtedly, he wasn't the only threat. Before the man hit the ground, Wyatt lunged across the car and opened the opposite door, pushing Carrie out ahead of him.
She gasped as she came down on the hard cement of the driveway.
"Sorry. We've got to get the hell out of here, but not onto the street."
Looking up, he confirmed that assessment as he saw eight armed men racing down the driveway toward themmen who didn't look like cops or security guards.
Carrie followed his gaze, gasping as she took in the situation.
Grabbing her hand, he helped her up, leading her toward the right and behind a row of cars in the garage, giving them some cover. But he was badly outnumbered and outgunned. He wasn't going to shoot it out with these guys in the garage if he could help it. "This way."
He'd studied the layout of the building, and he hurried her along the wall and around a corner to a service door and was relieved to find it unlocked.
"We have to call the police," she whispered when the door closed behind them.
"No. We can't trust the police or anyone else. Somebody gave up the meeting."
As he spoke, he considered their options. Going down would trap them in the lower floors of the garage. Which left only one alternative.
"We're going up."
They had just reached the third level when Wyatt heard gunfire blasting below.
He led Carrie through a door into the building, then pulled out his cell phone and speed-dialed the safe house.
Gary Blain answered. "Wyatt? Is something wrong?"
"Yeah. We're in the building where Carrie was supposed to meet the prosecutor. Somehow the terrorists knew we were coming."
"Is she all right?"
"Yes. But there are shooters in here."
"Where are you?"
"Near the south stairwell. Armed men were blocking the garage entrance. Can you pick us up on the roof?"
"Negative. Unless we get clearance for a helo flight into D.C."
Wyatt answered with a curse.
A burst of gunfire from below interrupted the conversation.
He led Carrie down the hall to another stairwell then up two more levels. He was pretty sure the attackers had thought they'd get him and Carrie in the garage, which meant they probably hadn't stationed anyone up here. Yet.