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Raven Pierre eyed the small girl clutching the baby doll in one grubby hand and growled in the back of her throat. It figured her supervisor, Walter, would give her kid duty just because she happened to be the only female translator on this job. She didn't even like kids.
Why did the president of the newly formed African nation Burumanda bring his daughter to the United Nations for his first address anyway? The General Assembly was no place for kids. Even Raven knew that.
Raven's gaze shifted back to the little girl whose liquid brown eyes wandered between the closed-circuit TV screen and the impassive Secret Service agent parked in the chair across from her, sipping a soda. The girl's small tongue darted from her mouth and swept across her lips.
Was the kid allowed to drink soda?
Raven pointed to the can clutched in the agent's hand and said in the girl's native dialect, "Do you want one?"
The girl nodded, her pigtails bobbing vigorously. "My name is Malika. What is your name?"
Raven raised her brows. Sounded like pretty good English to her. Maybe Malika, who looked maybe eight, didn't even need a translator. "My name is Raven. Your English is good."
Malika snapped her fingers. "English is easy language. Official language of Burumanda now. Your Chichewa" she wrinkled her nose "is fine."
Just fine? Raven narrowed her eyes. Maybe Malika was eighteen instead of eight. Raven never could guess kids' ages anyway. "Do you want a soda? I can ask one of your guards out front to bring us a couple."
As Raven pushed back her chair, the agent reached for his own can and knocked it to the floor where it fizzled and bubbled.
Raven snorted. "Smooth move, Garrett."
The agent slumped forward, banging his head on the table. With her heart thumping, Raven stumbled to his side. She clutched his forearm through the dark material of his suit jacket. "Garrett?"
Was he fooling around? Raven swallowed hard. Secret Service agents didn't fool around, especially Garrett Hansen.
"Is he sick?" Malika hugged her doll to her chest, her eyes round with fear.
Raven's gut twisted. Malika had lost her mother in the war to establish Burumanda. The kid had witnessed a lot of death and destruction in her short lifetime.
Death? Garrett had probably just eaten something that didn't agree with him.
Raven slid her hand to his wrist, where she felt a pulse pumping away. "Garrett, are you okay?"
She patted his clammy cheek and his head rolled to the side, his mouth gaping open. With shaky fingers, Raven fumbled in the pocket of her slacks for her cell phone. Should she call 911, Walter, the Secret Service?
Closing her eyes, she blew out a breath. She'd start with the bodyguards standing sentry on the other side of the doorway.
She tripped to the door of the anteroom and swung it open. The two burly Burumandan guards were carbon copies of Garrett, slumped sideways in their chairs.
Adrenaline zinged through Raven's system and she backpedaled away from the empty hallway leading toward the General Assembly. Unless the three men had all eaten the same lunch, this was no coincidence.
Noise from the closed-circuit TV erupted, and Raven spun around to see Malika clap one hand over her mouth. Gunfire.
"They are shooting at my father."
Raven peered at the screen and the frantic figures darting around the General Assembly. She glanced at the doorway gaping open, and clenched her jaw. Shots fired in the General Assembly at President Okeke. His daughter's bodyguards passed out cold. She loved shoes but didn't plan to stick around and wait for the third one to drop.
Raven strode back toward the door, slammed it shut and locked it. Crouching next to the inert form of Garrett, she slipped her hand inside his jacket. She lifted the gun from his shoulder holster and released the safety. She gave silent thanks to her ex-fiance and his buddies from the covert ops team, Prospero, for teaching her how to shoot. She'd been great at target practice, but she'd never had to shoot at a moving target and never once to save her life or someone else's.
A cacophony of voices and a stampede of footsteps echoed on the other side of the door. Raven froze, her gaze glued to the slowly turning door handle. Finding it locked, somebody rapped on the door. With what sounded like the butt of a gun.
At this point, she had no idea whom to trust. She swept her handbag from the back of the chair. She nudged Malika, rooted in front of the TV, her doll dangling from her fingers. "Let's go. And get a grip on that doll."
Malika whimpered and folded her arms across her belly, shooting a glance at the door, still under assault from someone on the other side.
"Don't worry. We're not going that way. Why do you think they put you in here in the first place?"
Raven crept across the room and pressed a panel with her palm. She felt the spring give beneath her hand and she slid the panel to the side, where an opening yawned in the wall. She turned and gestured at Malika.
The girl tiptoed toward the wall and jumped at a particularly loud thump on the door. Raven grabbed her arm and pulled her through the opening. She slid the panel back into place and tucked Malika behind her. Pressing her ear against the wall, she put a finger to her lips.
Malika wrapped one arm around Raven's waist and trembled against her back. Raven straightened her spine to give them both a little confidence.
The door on the other side burst open with the sound of splintering wood. Raven held her breath as the blood pounded in her ears. Friend or foe?
"Where are they? I thought you said they were in here."
Raven flinched at the sound of a sickening thud of flesh against hard wood. Garrett's head?
"Obviously they were in here. That's why he's here." Accents. One German, one French. "Maybe they're still here."
Malika's grip tightened, squeezing the breath from Raven.
"We don't have time to search. Once the pandemonium subsides and they try to raise their comrade here on his radio, they'll be crawling all over the place."
"We can't afford not to search. We need the girl."
With shaky hands, Raven slipped her high heels from her feet. She tapped Malika on the head with the toe of one shoe and pointed toward the set of stairs that disappeared into the darkness.
If the two men started banging around out there, Raven had no intention of waiting until they discovered the hollow cavity in the wall. She didn't have a clue as to the meaning of this assault, but she knew danger when it stared her in the face. Two years working as a translator with Prospero in the Middle East had taught her that.
She laced her fingers with Malika's and guided her down the steps. She had to hand it to the little girl. The minute Raven had given the command to go, Malika had performed like a champno tears, no tantrums, just flight.
They crept down the stairs and reached a door. "Hold it." Raven held up her hand. Turning the tarnished metal handle, she eased open the door and peeked into the deserted hallway. She crooked her finger at Malika to follow and then tiptoed into the open space, feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Raven hated feeling vulnerable.
Her grip on Garrett's gun tightened as she pulled Malika close to her side. They sidled along the wall. Raven had spent plenty of time in this building and knew exactly where they were. She also knew the location of a janitor's closet nearby.
She had the overwhelming sense that she needed to keep Malika under wraps. Anyone could be out there now. She didn't even know if President Okeke was dead or alive.
Reaching the closet door, Raven pulled it open and shoved Malika inside the small space crowded with brooms, mops and buckets.
Raven whispered. "We're going to stay here for a while until I can figure out what's going on."
In the darkness, Malika scooched in closer to Raven, who could feel the trembling of the small girl's body. She slipped an arm around Malika and squeezed her shoulder. "It's going to be okay. Do you understand?"
Malika nodded, tickling Raven's chin with her hair. Then she slipped her sticky hand in Raven's. Why did kids always have dirty hands? Raven curled her fingers around Malika's.
Despite the recent turn of events, maybe President Okeke had the right idea bringing his daughter along. It beat stashing her with some nanny or shoving her into some boarding school. Raven knew all about that.
She'd vowed never to do anything like that to her children. And the best guarantee against that was to skip motherhood altogether. Of course, that decision had cost her Buzz, her ex-fiance. Second time she'd thought of Buzz today, not that she didn't think of him every week, or dream about him, or.
Must be all the high-octane excitement.
"Now that we're in a safe place, I'm going to get us some help." Raven slipped her cell phone out of her pocket where she'd dropped it after discovering the comatose bodyguards. Walter should know the status of events. She called him, only to have her cell phone inform her that a closet in the middle of the U.N. was no place to get reception.
Malika tapped the phone. "Help?"
"Not yet. We'll stay here for a little while longer. Police and security should have this building secured shortly, and then we can just walk out." Raven patted her oversized handbag, where she'd stashed Garrett's weapon. "Besides, I have protection."
Malika emitted a puff of air from her lips. "My mother had a gun, too."
A knot tightened in Raven's chest. This little girl had been through too much already. When would it end? Raven's own childhood had been no picnic, but privilege, wealth and distant parents couldn't compare to revolution, gunfire and death.
"D-did you see it happen?" Raven bit her lip as Malika stiffened beside her. Any idiot knew you didn't ask a child questions like that. You should change the subject, pretend it never happened, stuff down those feelings.
Raven should know better. That's how every adult had treated her as a child, even after her little brother had drowned in the family pool.
Malika drew in a noisy, wet breath. "Yes. The rebels broke into our home. They got past our security forces. My mother had her gun" Malika lifted her shoulder "but they got her first."
"I'm sorry, Malika. That must have been horrible." What an inadequate word. The kid must think she's some kind of monster for asking her to dredge up that moment.
Malika increased the pressure of her fingers around Raven's hand. "My father never asked me about it." Raven glanced down, trying to discern the expression on Malika's face in the dark. Maybe Raven hadn't been crazy for wanting to talk about her brother, Jace, after he'd died. But nobody would allow her to talk about him. Instead they'd politely avoided the topic and studied Raven's every word and expression for signs of trauma. Her parents were big on opening up to a bevy of therapists, anyway.
A footstep fell in the hallway, and Raven's body jerked.
Malika pressed her head against her knees, her entire frame tensing. Raven slipped her hand into her handbag and withdrew the gun. She released the safety and pointed it toward the closet door. She didn't plan to go down without a fight. And she didn't plan on allowing anyone to snatch this brave girl beside her.
A door opened and closed, and Malika rolled her head to the side, resting her cheek on Raven's knee. "They are coming. They always come."
A twist of fear spiraled up Raven's spine and she shook it off. No time to panic. It could be the police or U.N. security or even Burumandan security forces.
Yeah, like the ones who killed Malika's mother?
A bead of sweat rolled along her hairline. With her finger poised on the trigger of the gun, Raven braced her stockinged feet against the door. She knew the door swung outward, giving her an advantage over their stealthy attacker. She could hit him with the door first and then the bullet if it became necessary.
Then they'd just have to chance it and run helter-skelter out of the building, throwing themselves on the mercy of the first uniformed person they encountered.
Raven coiled her muscles as the footsteps drew nearer. Target practice had nothing on real-world situations.
Another door snapped shut. Click, click. Dull clicks, not women's high heels but a man's dress shoes or some kind of heavy heels. Not the soft soles of a security guard or cop. Secret Service?
Her legs ached with tension, trembling with the effort to stay poised for action. Click, click. Pause. The handle of the door turned.
Raven flattened her feet against the door and coiled her thigh muscles. A slice of light appeared, and she shoved her legs forward. The door hit resistance. Raven sprang to her feet and charged out of the closet, clutching the gun in front of her.
A man in a dark suit staggered back, cursing and reaching beneath his jacket.
Raven steadied her weapon and took up a shooting stance, just like Buzz had taught her. "Don't move or I'll blow a hole in your gut."
The man dropped his hands and jerked his head up. A slow smile spread across his handsome face.
"If it isn't Raven Pierrecity girl turned gun-totin' vigilante. And you already blew a hole in my gut, girl."
Raven choked as she scanned the tall figure in front of her dressed in a tailored suit and cowboy boots. Her gaze traveled back up, all six feet three inches, until she met the blue eyes, brimming with laughter, of her ex-fiance and former weapons instructor, Buzz Richardson.