Anomaly Defense and shapeshifter Bert Blackfeather doesn't need a boss with no experience. So what if she's beautiful or gives him a jolt when she shakes his hand? He never plans to get seriously involved with another woman—not in this lifetime.
Phoebe Wagner, an empath with psychometric abilities and an advocate for the deaf, gets more than she bargained for with Bert. One touch and she relives his IED injuries. So what if he's handsome and hot? She doesn't need to add his secrets to her own. Phoebe's are bad enough.
When his niece goes missing, from Hotel LaBelle, Bert goes to Montana to help, and Phoebe decides to go with him. Can these two hard-headed people share their darkest secrets in order to work together? It may be the only way to save an endangered child—and their own hearts when Bert's past rears its ugly head.
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Homeland Security Headquarters
Bert Blackfeather stared at the email on his screen, re-read it for the tenth time, and shook his head in disbelief. A political appointee — a woman with absolutely no background in Homeland Security or any other intelligence matters — was now his new boss, the Under Secretary for Management. Unbelievable. Third in command of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), assistant and advisor to the Secretary and Under Secretary on all administrative, financial, and personnel matters — and not a blessed thing in her bio indicated she was fit for the position — except the fact that her mother was the highest-ranking member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Not that he disliked Senator Ruth Wagner. She asked good questions, some so penetrating he wondered if she had a few psychic powers of her own. Her willingness to reach across the aisle and her impeccable integrity meant she accomplished more than many of her male colleagues who had served in the role. Senator Wagner's husband, a member of the senior leadership team of the U.S. State Department, had died in a mysterious boating accident on the Chesapeake Bay. His unoccupied twenty-two-foot power boat had run aground on Tilghman Island, and the Coast Guard recovered his body two days later. The Medical Examiner said he died from drowning in brackish water, combined with hypothermia. Arguing that the bay was salt, not fresh or brackish water, rumor had it the senator had demanded the case be reopened, but neither the Talbot County Police, the Maryland State Police, nor a private investigator could find evidence of wrongful death. Case closed, Ruth Wagner soldiered on, raising her daughter on her own, without the live-in help she could have well afforded. If Senator Wagner had been the political appointee, he would have been fine with the placement. But accept her unqualified daughter as his equal, much less his superior?
The previous Under Secretary's management style had been much more hands off, seldom interfering with his division — unless he ran over budget. This one, on the other hand — can you say micro-manager? Already, without even asking him if he wanted to do it, with not so much as an email, the new Under Secretary had appointed him to the intra-agency and inter-agency committee to combat human trafficking, the Blue Campaign.
He had attended one session in person and found nothing of substantive value for him to contribute or learn. Besides, he had no desire to sit in face-to-face meetings while his wet-behind-the-ears boss sat with the head honchos in the enormous meeting room. In this case, maintaining a low profile was his best strategy. Rather than wasting his time watching the other directors and assistant directors vie for her attention, he chose to attend the monthly meeting by conference call. At least that way, he could get some work done and say "Bert Blackfeather, Director of the Anomaly Defense Division" when the chair asked who beeped in on the call. No one ever questioned him not attending the meeting in person, one of the few perks of being in a wheelchair. Most people had little understanding of what he could or could not do. He allowed them to assume his disability kept him away from the face-to-face meetings — not his lack of interest in the committee.
It wasn't as if he didn't care about human trafficking. He did. Passionately. DHS was doing good work — between the committee meetings — not during them. The Anomaly Defense Division, however, had more than enough on its plate pursuing leads on terrorist plots. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or the other divisions needed his help, they knew where to find him, even if they didn't know exactly what he and his agents did. That information was on a need-to-know basis. And they didn't need to know.
Irritated, he shrugged his shoulders, opened the fists he'd unconsciously been squeezing, and shook his arms to release the tension. He should have gone to the gym this morning. Thirty-three laps in the pool, some bench presses, pull-ups, biceps curls, and he'd be loose and relaxed.
His eyes strayed to the computer monitor again. A stunning champagne blonde smiled at him from the photo. Maybe he read the announcement too fast. He prided himself in considering all the facts before making a judgment. He took a deep breath, and reread the email in the hopes he had missed some indication of her management expertise:
Born and raised in Washington, DC, Phoebe Wagner attended Gallaudet University and obtained a B.A. in International Studies. Ms. Wagner continued her education at Georgetown Law and earned a JD, specializing in International and Comparative Law. A fierce advocate for deaf children, she won a coveted Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research on economic disparities at the Mexican Institute for the Deaf in Mexico City. Ms. Wagner is excited about the opportunity to apply her international expertise and diversity initiatives as part of her role as Under Secretary. When not volunteering her time as a legal consultant for the Deaf Community, Ms. Wagner can be found walking her miniature dachshund, horse-back riding, or practicing her martial arts.
"International expertise and diversity initiatives? Is she going to have us sitting around in sensitivity training sessions, asking us to reveal our deepest, darkest prejudices," he wondered out loud. "Fat chance."
Rolling his wheelchair to the dust streaked window overlooking the parking lot of the Nebraska Avenue complex, Bert stared down at the cars moving in and out and wondered which luxury vehicle belonged to the new Under Secretary.
A knock pulled him out of his reverie. He wasn't expecting anyone. He moved his chair to behind the desk and folded his hands — his "official" pose. "Come in."
The door opened and two women walked in, the first an attractive African American woman with salt and pepper hair, the second a breathtaking blonde.
"Mr. Blackfeather, I'm Jean Johnson, and I'm a member of the DHS team of Interpreters for Under Secretary Wagner," the first woman announced, positioning herself so the tall woman at her side could see her easily. She signed as she spoke. "I will speak when interpreting for Ms. Wagner and sign when interpreting for you, Mr. Blackfeather. Everything said in our conversations will be kept confidential. Also, I have a top-secret security clearance, should you need to discuss such matters. I will be using the first person, but you should keep your focus on Ms. Wagner, and not on me. This signal —" she held her hand up like a traffic cop, "— means I'd like you to pause so I can keep up with the interpretation. Everything said in this room will be interpreted. There are no side conversations with me, this is your conversation with Ms. Wagner."
Phew. Had the room temperature risen ten degrees? Or was it him?
Bert tugged at his suddenly too tight shirt collar. The photograph did not do her justice. Ms. Phoebe Wagner was even more beautiful in person than on the computer screen. Tall, lean, and leggy, dressed in a navy-blue pants suit and a white blouse accented with a black pearl necklace, she looked like she belonged on a catwalk in Milan, not in a rundown building with windows in desperate need of cleaning. Long, dark lashes framed sky-blue eyes, and the cut of her hair accented her perfectly symmetrical face, as if gilding the lily. He held her gaze a beat too long and a flush crept up her cheeks. Adjusting her pearls, she straightened her back, and shifted the oversized purse on her shoulder — which began to shake and bark. A long-haired red dachshund's head popped over the edge of the bag, startling Bert into laughter.
"Does your dog go with you everywhere?" he signed in American Sign Language, or ASL. "Or just to meet your new employees?"
Surprise crossing her face, she smiled and signed, "Everywhere. Her name is Bisou." She made the ASL sign for the letter b and waved it back and forth like a dog's wagging tail, her descriptive sign.
"Well, hello, Bisou," Bert signed and spoke. "How many signs does she know?"
Do not stare at her. Focus on the dog, not her full red lips. She's your boss. Your unqualified, unprepared, politically appointed new boss.
"The last time I counted, one-hundred." Frowning, she pushed her hair behind her ear, revealing dangling pearl earrings and a neck like a swan's, long and graceful. She signed to Jean. "You didn't tell me he could sign."
Jean shrugged and shook her head. "I didn't know."
"You never know what talents are hidden in the Anomaly Defense Division." Bert motioned to his visitor chairs. "Have a seat. Please. What would you like to know about this unit?" The truth would probably send her running. Unless she was like her tough-as-nails mother, which he doubted. Living in D.C., he'd seen lots of beautiful women like her before. Haughty. Cold. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
She was nothing like his dearly departed, down-to-earth fiancée, Susan. Nothing. Except, maybe a little around the lips. And maybe the way she played with her hair. And her long, lovely neck. Otherwise, Susan and Ms. Wagner had nothing in common.
"What does the Anomaly Defense Division do? I couldn't find any paperwork describing its mission." Her gaze locked on his. "What's its charge? Really."
Time to get this attractive nuisance out of his office and his life — for good.
"There's nothing available because this Division performs improbable functions considered by many to be impossible. If an eager senator like your mother were to get her hands on documents describing what we do, there would be more questions than answers."
A frown furrowed her brow, and her full lips pulled down, ruining her flawless face. "My mother has nothing to do with this conversation."
"Okay." This is going well. Not. "Are you familiar with the history of the use of psychics and parapsychology by our government?" Eyes narrowed, she turned to Jean, sparks practically flying off her fingers as she signed. "Is this some sort of joke on the new kid? If it is, I'm not laughing."
The interpreter shook her head. "I have no idea what he's talking about."
Bert waited until the Under Secretary looked at him again. "Not a joke. History — but it's not really in the past." He paused. "In the seventies, the CIA had a program to see if certain paranormal methods would have intelligence applications. One of these activities was remote viewing. Researchers would ask someone to envision a place or object which a sender would be looking at. In other experiments, they would put a photograph into an envelope and ask the person to describe the picture. In addition to remote viewers, they had other people with paranormal abilities. You name the talent, they had someone with it." He paused. Had she flinched when he said the last part? "Is there something wrong? You look like you want to ask me a question."
"No." She shook her head, and rubbed her little dog's floppy ears. The dog grinned at him as if sharing a secret. "Please go on."
"The program continued for about twenty years. A large evaluation study found the results were positive. However, while the statistics were good, the intelligence wasn't detailed enough for practical uses in the field. The military picked up where the CIA left off. As far as the world was concerned, the Army, Air Force, and Defense Intelligence Agency discontinued their psychic soldier units a decade later. However, what really happened is they all went underground."
She leaned forward. "And?"
"After 9-11, based on the top-secret recommendations of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Committee on Homeland Security, those units were consolidated and moved under the Department you now manage."
You're in over your head, pretty lady. No one would fault you if you resigned. Then we could go for coffee. Or dinner. Whoa! Knock it off, man. She's your boss.
She studied him with a thoughtful expression. "You mean you're psychic?"
He shook his head. "Not me. But many of our Special Agents are — and much more."
She fell back into the chair. "I don't know what to say. This is most unexpected. I need time to process this." Glancing at Jean, who looked as if she'd had the wind knocked out of her also, she signed. "Jean looks like she could use a break." She turned her probing gaze back to Bert. "I want a complete inventory of your agents' talents, by end of business day Monday. Since today is Friday, it's plenty of time to pull it together."
He bit his lower lip. An inventory? Were his agents in cans stored on shelves, waiting to be taken down and counted?
Bert tried to make a joke. "Is there something in particular you're looking for? Lost keys perhaps?"
A line creased between her eyes. "I never lose my keys. I'm here to do a job, Director Blackfeather. As Under Secretary of Management for the Department of Homeland Security, I'm accountable for billions of dollars. I take my responsibilities seriously. Every division — not just yours — is being asked to provide me with details of what I won't see in the financial statements. The accountant's footnotes, if you will."
Rising, his new boss extended her hand and waited for him to return the gesture.
One beat. Two beats. Reluctantly, he reached out, accepting his small defeat. Maybe she's more like her mother than I thought.
She clasped his big hand with her smaller one — and an electromagnetic charge pulsed between them. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up — and downy feathers began to poke at his collar. Her gaze bore into him, her mouth opened in an o, and her large blue eyes widened. After holding his hand for a length of time most people considered polite, she jerked out of his grasp, stared at her palm and then back at him as if momentarily stunned.
First time he'd ever had that kind of effect on a woman. And the first time a woman had ever had that kind of effect on him.
"Something wrong?" he signed. "You okay?" The Under Secretary brushed her hair away from her face. "I'm fine." A slight tremble in her hand belied her assurance — but she continued, "One more question."
His cell phone blared. The song indicated someone was calling from Hotel LaBelle, either Lucius or Tallulah. That wasn't like them. They never called him during the day. He was busy and so were they. The country western music stopped after three rings, then started up with a second call, the song sounding more plaintive with each passing moment.
"I'm sorry. I have to take this."
"I'll wait." She clutched her bag with the bouncing Bisou, tilted her head, and fixed him with a thoughtful gaze.
He pressed the talk button and put the phone to his ear. "Bert Blackfeather."
On the other end of the line, someone sobbed, and Lucius spoke, his voice rough. "Bert — it's our baby girl, Miriam. She's gone. Out of her room. We were right upstairs. No idea what happened." He broke down. "We need your help. Someone grabbed her, Bert. Took her right out from under our noses."
Phoebe watched Bert's handsome face melt from an all business expression, into one of concern and almost palpable fear. Whatever the call was about, whoever it was from, it was bad news. And he didn't rattle easily, she could tell, and not just from her conversation with him. When they shook hands, the power and depth of the psychic link shook her. An empath, she experienced his most emotionally laden memories in a gut-wrenching burst. She'd almost doubled over in pain when they hit her.
It began as a normal day in his life as an Army Judge Advocate General, or JAG. His commanding officer, or CO, had asked him to come with him to an offsite interrogation to serve as legal counsel. A detainee suspected of masterminding the murder of a sheikh who had been friendly to U.S. troops was being held by the Iraqi in a remote area in the foothills. When they arrived at the outskirts of the village — just a few houses, really — Bert told his CO the place looked deserted. No kids playing in the square, no women drawing water from the ancient well, not even a goat — the national animal of Iraq — chewing its cud at the end of a tether. He opened the door of the armored vehicle, set one foot on the ground — and the world exploded in a flash of light, scorching heat — and pain. In the distance he heard screaming, realized it was him, and passed out. He woke up in a helicopter. Dazed, vision blurred, he looked down. Where his legs should have been, were shredded pants — and two bloody stumps. He lost consciousness and woke up in a field hospital, surrounded by moaning men.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eye of the Eagle"
Copyright © 2018 Sharon Buchbinder.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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