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Cherry Blossom Capers
By Gina Conroy, Frances Devine, Cara C. Putman, Lynette Sowell
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Lynette Sowell
All rights reserved.
Just before Jack Courtland entered 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue, he adjusted his tie and tried not to tug on the cuffs of his jacket.
"You're sure about this?" he asked fellow FBI agent George Clements. "Here, the White House?" His pulse thrummed in his ears. Once, on a grade school field trip, he'd toured the executive mansion. Now, he'd get to see areas off the main tour.
The older man with salt-and-pepper hair nodded. They walked toward the office of the chief usher. "Yeah, you lucky stiff. The intel's good, and you're the one they're going to want on the inside."
"It'll make our job easier if I end up here. We need eyes on the inside."
Their first contact, Chief Usher William Kanaday, had been part of the White House staff for several administrations, and had agreed to cooperate as much as possible, so long as it didn't interfere with any of the day-to-day functions of the executive mansion.
"Good morning, gentlemen," said Kanaday as he rounded his desk after shaking hands. "Now tell me exactly why you think there might be a planned attack on the White House."
"Attack is a strong word, Mr. Kanaday. We don't have actual word that the house will be under attack. However, we've encountered warnings of an imminent threat within the next two weeks."
The chief usher folded his wrinkled hands and leaned on his desk. "Any threat to the house is a threat not just to the current administration, but to the great line of safety that's surrounded this home. We've made sure that it won't be attacked and burned again."
No, it wouldn't. But today's enemies often worked more subversively, unlike during the War of 1812, when Washington fell and the White House burned. And today's enemies were out for blood, not just destroying real estate.
Jack glanced at George before continuing. "We believe the main target is the State Dinner on February sixth."
"We'll be your main points of contact during our investigation," said George.
Kanaday nodded. "I'll count on you for help, but I know every detail of the dinner, and I know every person who has a role, from florists to chefs."
At the word chef, a face immediately sprang to Jack's mind. Hazel eyes framed by dark hair, a messy cut that made its owner's slightly upturned nose and sprinkle of freckles all the more appealing.
Where was Tara now? Somewhere on the ground floor of the White House below him, maybe? George once mentioned her promotion to assistant executive chef at the White House.
"Hey, didn't you run around with her when we were in Paris?" George had said.
Run around with. Like a casual acquaintance. In the end, he'd treated her that way, tossed her heart to the side like a book he'd grown bored with.
Live and learn, Jack Courtland. Live and learn.
With the more than one hundred workers associated with the executive mansion, not counting the First Family's staff and appointees, Jack figured the chance of seeing Tara would be extremely slim. He was here to do his job and remind his superiors that giving him a position in the DC bureau was a wise move. He deserved to be here.
"Right, Agent Courtland?" George was asking. Both he and the chief usher eyeballed him.
"I'm sorry, Agent Clements?"
"We're ready for our tour. We need to walk the layout, especially of the ground level and State floor." George rose from his chair.
"Of course we do." He hadn't seen Tara in three years, but even now her memory rattled his brain like a jackhammer.
The chief usher escorted them from his office and back into the hall. "Just past this entrance hall and to the right is the State dining room." The soles of his shoes swished on the red carpet that led them through the Cross Hall and into the State dining room.
"Here we have the dining room, where the State Dinners are held." The man walked the perimeter of the room. "We expect to have at least fifteen eight-tops here."
Jack didn't care about table setup at the moment. He strode to the nearest long window that stretched nearly to the ceiling, and pushed a tied-back drape farther back for a better view outside. No one would have a good chance at a shot into the room. If there was a particular target, they couldn't know the seating arrangement. "I don't think anyone will take a shot. It wouldn't be impossible, but there would be more effective ways of attacking."
"You're right, especially with extra security for the event." George trailed along in Kanaday's wake, reminding Jack of one dog trailing another.
"Chief Usher Kanaday," Jack said as he looked the man straight in the eye, "I don't believe the attack will come from the outside. It'll come from within. Someone will bring something into the building, something that doesn't belong yet could look extremely routine."
Kanaday nodded. "I'll show you the ground floor next. Deliveries come through there, near the kitchen."
Once on the ground floor, the atmosphere changed. The belly of the executive mansion hummed with life.
"Here's the kitchen, this way," Kanaday said.
"One moment, Mr. Kanaday," said George. "I need to converse with my colleague here."
"Certainly," he replied, and stayed a discreet several paces away.
"Courtland." The force of George's gaze struck him, but he didn't flinch.
"Clements." Jack returned the look.
"I need you one hundred percent here. Right now."
"You've worked in Europe. You've seen dignitaries before. You choke on this, they'll shuffle you to the bottom of the pile here in the Washington bureau. You won't have time to get a lungful of air before you go down."
"It's not being around dignitaries. I'm fine with that. I'm not going to choke on this." Even as he said the words, a lump threatened to lodge itself in his throat. At the end of the hall, by what he assumed to be the kitchen entrance, a lone figure clad in dark pants and a chef jacket stared at him, arms crossed in front of her.
* * *
Tara Whitley felt the air leave the ground-floor hallway with a whoosh. Every nerve ending on her arms tingled, and she rubbed the sleeves of her chef's jacket.
"So after we meet with the First Lady, we need to talk with the distributor about a delivery date for the beef. I'll let you do that," Adelaide Montanez said. The chief executive chef, in her usual bundle-of-energy manner, buzzed away from Tara and into the White House kitchen.
All thoughts of the upcoming State Dinner prep had flown from Tara's brain. Instead, she felt the cold iron railing of the Eiffel Tower under her fingertips again, the wind on her face, and the hollow laughter and chatter from tourists echoed in her ears once more.
Jack Courtland. Ten yards away, standing with the chief usher and another guy in a suit. One of Jack's fellow agents, probably. Agents had a look about them, even when standing in plainclothes at a barbecue. Now, wearing their dark suits, standing in the ground floor hallway of the White House? Something was up.
"Jack," she heard herself say. She almost cringed at the sound of her voice, sounding almost as pathetic as poor Rose did on the movie Titanic, as she released Jack's frozen form to the depths of the North Atlantic. Her own heart had released Jack Courtland years ago. She'd had to.
Maybe Jack didn't hear the squeak in her throat. He had no reason to speak to her, and she had no reason to approach him. Those six months in Paris might as well have been a lifetime ago.
She'd been kidding herself to believe the whispered promises would mean anything now. People changed. People moved on. So had she, until now. Jack had moved on a long time ago, in Paris.
Tara fled to the security of the kitchen, its usual hum of activity, pans clattering, the voices of sous chefs and prep cooks bouncing off the walls. She caught up with Adelaide who was already at her computer, plugging in the rough menu for the State Dinner in two weeks.
"Tomorrow we have the Governors' Lunch," said Adelaide.
"I'll pull the list and make sure the prep work is under way." Tara reached for a folder on Adelaide's desk. Finally, the head chef had included Tara into more of the planning and supervising. She loved coordinating the meals. Not that she wanted her knife skills to suffer, but there was something to be said for orchestrating a meal for governors and other heads of state. Her job involved simpler events, such as planning a birthday party for one of the president's sons, who celebrated his tenth birthday on the South Lawn last summer. The day had made her miss her nephews in Texas.
"Yes. Mr. Kanaday has already confirmed the table setup for eleven tomorrow morning." Adelaide looked up from the computer. "Hey, you here with me?" She moved her hand in a slow wave.
"I'm here." Tara opened the folder. "I got distracted for a second. So the barbecue's already been pulled?"
"You bet. Maybe I can finagle a seat for you at lunch." The head chef's tone held a teasing note. "You want to meet the Texas governor?"
Tara shrugged. "It might be fun. I wouldn't dream of crashing the lunch, though."
Adelaide glanced past Tara. "Excuse me, may I help you?" Tara turned to see Jack strolling into the kitchen. He pulled out his badge in a fluid movement. She used to tease him about the stance.
"Chef, I've been working with Mr. Kanaday on the State Dinner preparations." He nodded at Adelaide. "I need to speak with Chef Whitley." He stared at Tara, who bit her lip and pulled a strand of hair over her right ear.
"I think I can spare her for a few minutes." Adelaide's eyebrows shot up, her eyes full of questions. "Go ahead, Tara."
Tara wanted her to say, "I'm sorry, we're busy. I can't spare Tara right now. We have a lot to do." Moments were ticking by, and they'd end up on the prep line themselves making up time for the Governors' Luncheon tomorrow for twenty-five. Then there was the president and First Lady's anniversary dinner. Just the two of them, candlelight, with pizza for the kids in their room.
"I'll be back as soon as I can. You can count on that." Tara ground out the words and followed Jack from the kitchen. No one else seemed to notice them leave, and Adelaide had already turned her focus back to the computer. People came and went all the time from the White House, and whoever came through the halls had a good reason to be there. So why was the FBI talking to Chief Usher Kanaday?
They entered the hallway, and Jack faced her. "We need to talk."
"I don't think there's much we have to talk about. You told me what I wanted to know in Paris."
She couldn't help but take in the sight of him. He still kept his dark hair trimmed close. Salt-and-pepper strands mingled at his temples. Stress did that to a man, turning his hair gray before its time. How old was he now? Thirty, with fine lines etched around his eyes. Jack, all business. The Jack she used to laugh with was gone forever, and he'd become the man he once told her he feared he would.
Now, he looked at her with those tired eyes and continued. "This isn't about Paris, Tara. It's about now. I need your help."
"Aren't you one of the experts? I'm a chef, not an investigator." Her words came out more sharply than she intended. Really, if she was over the man, his being here shouldn't affect her one bit. Someone she used to know, like receiving a friend suggestion on Facebook of someone from the good old days. Jack wasn't part of her life now, and she didn't need to show him anything but cooperation.
He reached in his pocket, pulled out a card, and handed it to her. "As I said, I need your help. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."
She nodded slowly. Her remark about Paris hadn't helped any. She wished she could take back the words, but then, you couldn't put toothpaste back in the tube once it was squeezed out. She studied the card, giving his address at the Washington, DC, bureau.
"All right, what is it?"
"We're investigating a possible threat to the White House, specifically at the upcoming State Dinner." His glance snapped up and down the hall, then back at her. His dark eyes held a once-familiar expression. She cleared her throat.
"I don't know how I can help. Chef Montanez has asked me to provide a backup role for her, but as far as a guest list or anything, I don't have that information." Her ire had cooled just a bit. Time to remember where she was and that this current situation had nothing to do with the past, nothing at all.
"Can you come to my office? We can talk more freely there." He touched her arm, causing a shock of static electricity. Both of them stepped back simultaneously.
Tara rubbed her sleeve again. "Why not here, now?"
Jack moved closer and lowered his voice. "If this is an inside job, we don't want to alert anyone to our investigation. We want to catch them, to show people that you can't plot to strike the White House and get away with it."
"Inside job?" Now he was making her cranky again. "The idea is ludicrous. I've been here for three years, and the staff is almost like family to me."
"Well, they're not family to me," said Jack. "Right now, only you and Chief Usher Kanaday and the Secret Service know about this threat. No one else is to know."
"I don't like it. I don't like it one bit." Tara shook her head. "A threat? On the White House dinner?"
"What time are you off tomorrow?"
She had the Governors' Lunch, but after that she was free. "About two, I believe."
"Come to the bureau, and we'll talk."
"All right. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Thanks, Tara." He gave her a nod accompanied by a half grin, and he walked off down the hallway.CHAPTER 2
Tara detested that dimple now, as much as it used to drive her crazy way back when. Its memory followed her home that afternoon. She nibbled on her lip, exited the Metro train car, and entered the white-and-gray world outside. January snow held little of the magic of Christmas snow. After the latest snowstorm, Tara was ready to book a plane ticket to Florida for a good week. Or two. Maybe she'd job-hunt in the Sunshine State.
Then she thought of her dream job, right here in the DC area. She remembered the first day she'd walked the halls, feeling the weight of history made and still being created. And how proud her parents had been when they learned about their only daughter's appointment to the White House kitchen.
Back in Bastrop, Texas, they ran a legendary diner, the Blue-bonnet Café. Tara still remembered the pride in Daddy's voice when she told him about her new position in Washington, DC.
"Baby girl, God has rewarded your hard work. Like in Proverbs, where it says, 'Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings.' And so, now you are. For such a time as this. What an honor."
She'd been nervous then at the idea of preparing food eaten by leaders from around the world, as well as her own country's president and his family. She smiled at all the "helpful" letters she received from relatives, begging her to give the president advice on how to set the country right.
Her cell phone buzzed as she crossed over the pavement and headed for the Metro parking lot. A text, from her neighbor Ciara Turner. WE STILL HAVING MOVIE NIGHT?
Ack. Movie night. She'd forgotten, sort of. She had some leftover salmon puffs, an experimental recipe she planned to run by Adelaide for a future White House event. Plus, she had enough hot chocolate mix and tea for the three of them. Every day, she thanked God for her neighbors Ciara and Susan Holland. Her parents had never liked the idea of a young woman living alone and working in major cities like New York, where she attended culinary school, then Paris, and now DC. Each time, God had answered their prayers by sending Tara friends who made her feel as if Texas weren't fifteen hundred miles away.
She found her car, started the vehicle, and let it warm up. She peeled off her gloves before she replied to Ciara's message. Yes. Is 6 too early? Ask Susan, too. Thx.
During the wave of snowstorms they'd had since Christmas, the three women had taken to having a movie night each week, classic films of the silver screen. They would take turns scurrying across the courtyard lined with cherry trees and over to one of their condos. Tonight's movie was a surprise, Susan promised. Last week's treasure from the film vault had been North by Northwest, starring Susan's heartthrob, Cary Grant.
Excerpted from Cherry Blossom Capers by Gina Conroy, Frances Devine, Cara C. Putman, Lynette Sowell. Copyright © 2011 Lynette Sowell. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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