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Natasha Bennington could vaguely see mile marker 26 through blurry eyes.
She prayed her legs would hold for the final two-tenths of the marathon.
Normally she loved the vistas of Ocean Beach that Great Avenue Highway in San Francisco provided. Today Tasha couldn't have cared less. All she could think about was reaching the finish line. She brought the water bottle to her lips, but no amount could quench her thirst.
The sun was so hot! She adjusted her visor again and hoped her body would keep moving. As a native of the cosmopolitan city on the bay, she couldn't remember the weather ever being this suffocating in early September. Was she imagining the heat? She could feel herself slowing as she trudged along the sweltering route.
Over the music playing on her headphones, she could hear the shouting and screaming from onlookers who lined the streets to cheer on their loved ones. It hurt to know there was no one yelling for her, let alone waiting for her at the finish line.
As the only child of United States Congressman George Bennington, she had spent all twenty-seven years of her life as a side note in his demanding schedule. Her mother, Genevieve Armstrong Bennington, was his perfect counterpart, ready at a moment's notice to attend parties, events and galas. Once he'd risen to power nothing stood in his way, especially not parental duties at home.
Rounding the last corner, Tasha could sense her mind becoming disjointed from her body. She'd heard marathons were ninety percent mental. Now she knew why. The only thing that kept her moving was the need to follow her fellow runners up Lincoln Way.
Why the pavement seemed hotter on this street than any other was beyond her ability to process.
And now her shoes were failing herthose trustworthy, failsafe, special pair of running shoes she'd bought three weeks ago. Her feet burned with every step she took. The heat was like venom, swiftly taking over her whole body.
As she passed the last water station, Tasha grabbed cup after cup to dump on her head in an attempt to cool herself off. She knew she looked like a disaster, but it didn't matter. She tried to remember why her coworkers, who'd become her close friends this past year, weren't going to be here. At this point it was difficult to remember any names.
Oh, yeah. Richard and Daphne.
Now, why were they gone?
She knew she needed to focus on something other than the pain so she wouldn't collapse.
The bill from Arizona. She took another sip from her water bottle.
Focus! The damned Bill SB 1070 from Arizona! That bill impeded her cause of helping illegal immigrants already in America. She hated the term "Illegal Aliens."
These were real people trying to get green cards and become citizens. It was because of bills like this one that she'd started her pro bono practice.
Her father had been furious with her for leaving the prestigious Bennington and Bennington law firm her grandfather had started with his brother. Tasha's desire to help the very people her dad was determined to keep out of the country through his power as a congressman made things even worse.
Now, what are Richard and Daphne working on?
Oh, yeah. The Mendez case!
At the thought of the name, she could feel another kind of fire burning inside her. If there was one person in all Northern California who was her nemesis, it was Fernando Mendez.
The workers in the fields of his famous Napa Valley vineyards were all illegal immigrants. Mendez and his men lured innocent men and women from Mexico and Latin American countries to his grape fields with promises of green cards, or better yet, citizenship!
Except it was all a lie.
Once the workers got here, they were stuck, left with no choice but to work and live under deplorable conditions, hiding from the law.
Now that Mendez was under federal investigation for running a drug cartel and participating in money laundering, as well as other criminal activities, Tasha knew Border Patrol would be involved in raids. People working in the vineyards without papers would be sent home.
An old roommate of Tasha's who worked the legal angle at Border Patrol had called her at ten last night. He'd warned there might be a raid at Mendez's vineyard this weekend. As a precaution, she'd sent Daphne and Richard to see if one did occur, and if so, who was taken.
At least ten families had come to her firm for help. They depended on her and her team to keep their members together. Tasha and her two trusted coworkers wanted to help these poor people whose only crime was to strive for a better life.
That was what her forefathers had wanted when they'd immigrated to America.
For the past year, Tasha's paralegal secretary, Daphne, had been like a sister to her. And Richard, the new attorney who'd come on board ten months ago, had been her biggest support in the courtroomas well as for this marathon. He'd been her jogging buddy, teaching her how to run properly and train. If he hadn't, she wouldn't have been fit enough to do this race.
He'd also introduced her to a new way of eating. It was amazing how a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet helped take the weight off, yet gave her lots of energy to train.
But right now she felt so alone. No coach, no friends and no Tim. Oh, don't think about him. It isn't allowed, Tasha. You have to move on.
At the finish line, marked by an arbor of balloons, the official timer was ticking. Just above it stretched the banner reading The Tim McGinnis Firefighters against Cancer Foundation Marathon.
Seeing Tim's name filled Tasha with renewed pain. One year ago today she'd lost him to cancer. He'd been her best friend since childhood, and the only man she'd ever loved.
Instead of wallowing in sorrow, she'd done all the legal work to put this race together. Tim was a person who'd lived life to the fullest. He was always running, biking, rock climbing and, of course, fighting fires.
Since she was five Tasha had been in love with him, even if he hadn't felt the same way about her. Deep inside she'd hoped that one day his feelings would change and he would love her back.
"Stupid girl," she muttered.
Drawing closer to the finish line, she saw several of Tim's fellow firefighters, who were volunteering on their day off. They were hard at work cutting timer chips off the runners' shoes and presenting them with medals.
Among them was Captain C. J. Powell, whom Tim had considered his best friend. She hadn't seen C.J. since the funeral.
Tasha had tried so hard to focus on moving forward with her life that she rarely looked back to mourn the man she'd cared about her whole life. But now grief unexpectedly swamped her. This was one aspect of the day she hadn't mentally prepared for. Reaching the finish line seemed impossible. As her mind began to shut down, her breathing grew shallow. It was just too much.
With only twenty feet or so to go, Tasha got a closer look at C.J. He hadn't changed one bit. A tall, broad-shouldered man in his mid-thirties, he had dark curly hair and intense blue eyes. Oh, he was a handsome devil, but she knew better than to be deceived.
"Just a few more steps," she muttered to herself through dry lips as her feet stumbled across the finish line. Her joy and relief were lost in a haze. She felt as if she was falling, and then as if she was being carried. It was a heavenly sensation.
The last thing she remembered seeing was the concern in a pair of blue eyes.
In honor of his late best friend, C. J. Powell had been handing out finisher medals at the end of the charity race. He would rather have spent the day at work, but this was for a good cause, and he was happy to help in some way console Tim's parents in their grief.
He looked up at the bright blue sky and adjusted his sunglasses. The extreme heat had him worried. Many runners crossing the finish line were exhibiting signs of dehydration. If temperatures rose any higher, they could have a disaster on their hands.
He was so deep in his thoughts it took him a moment to notice a woman coming toward him, weaving on her feet. She was clearly overheated, and he could see she was going to collapse.
Fear gripped him as he ran to catch her. Luck was on his side, since she almost seemed to reach for him.
Once he had her slim form in his arms, his EMT training kicked into gear. The woman felt extremely hot. What he could see of her face not blocked by her sunglasses was red and flushed. She needed help, prompting him to shout to one of his colleagues. "Adam?"
The stocky older man jumped up from cutting timer chips off shoes. "Yes, Captain?"
"It's too damn hot out here for these runners. Talk to Command. We may need to shut this race down."
"Yes, sir." The man looked at the woman in C.J.'s arms. "Do you know the patient?"
He glanced down at the willowy brunette and shook his head. "Afraid not, but I think she may have a case of heat exhaustion. I'll be in triage if any of you need me."
C.J. couldn't explain his reaction to the woman he held so close, but it seemed right that he felt oddly protective of her. She had reached out to him. It was his job to get her to the paramedics quickly, and if needed, to an air-conditioned hospital.
A soft moan escaped the woman's lips, interrupting his thoughts. C.J. hadn't realized how fast he'd been maneuvering through the crowds. He slowed abruptly, not wanting to cause her any more distress.
The makeshift hospital was located away from the finishers' corral, set up under some giant trees that offered a tiny bit of relief from the heat. Upon arrival he found a paramedic buddy of his from another station helping out.
"This runner may have a case of heatstroke." Jim eyed her legs, then lifted his eyebrows. "New girlfriend?"
C.J. was well used to his friend's jocular manner. Yet for the first time since he'd known him, he didn't like his teasing tone. C.J. held her closer and gave the other man a firm look that told him to back off.
"New patient." He knew he sounded surly, but didn't care.
"Let's get her comfortable." Jim led him to a makeshift cot in a shady corner. "By the way," he said under his breath. "On behalf of our station, I'd like to thank you for the wonderful gift of three live chickens in our lockers."
C.J. knew exactly what Jim was referring to, but kept his face stoic. "I have no idea what you're talking about." For years their respective stations had been notorious for playing pranks on each other.
Jim left to get supplies without saying anything else. C.J. smiled and carefully laid his mystery woman on the cot. When he bent over to remove her visor and sunglasses, he realized there was something familiar about her.
He pushed the thought from his mind and undid the bib she wore, knowing she needed his help, not his ogling. An eye check first. Hers looked normal, if you could call eyes that looked like emerald pools normal. Again he seemed to recall something from his past.
C.J. shook his head and went to work. After checking her pulse, he put ice packs around her body and head. Even though she was bright red, with strands from her braided hair plastered to her cheeks and neck, he could tell she was a looker. The streaks of dried salt on the sides of her face accentuated her high cheekbones and full lips.
Once he had her settled, he tried to read the sweat-soaked race bib.
The sound of footsteps told C.J. his colleague was returning.
"Captain?" Jim said. "Just want you to know it only took us two hours to get the chickens out of the station house." He laughed and chatted as he set up the IV.
It had been a long time since C.J. had laughed over a prank pulled at the station, which brought back memories of his old friend. Before Tim had died, he'd been a carefree man who'd laughed his way through life. If he were still alive, there was no way he'd have confessed to a practical joke they'd pulled.
C.J. and Tim had been known as the best pranksters the station had ever had. Now Troy, an EMT, and some rookies had taken over the job.
C.J. had lost any will to joke since Tim died, especially after he'd been made captain a year ago. But he'd allowed the pranks to continue as long as the boys didn't get distracted from their work. If they were caught, it meant kitchen detail for a week.
When Jim could see he wasn't making any progress in the teasing department, he said, "Have you read the patient's bib? We need the information."
"No," C.J. answered curtly. "It's wet. I've been trying to unpin it..
"We have to get her to a hospital right away. Her temperature's too high."
"Pardon?" His thoughts were still caught up in Tim.
"Her temperature's too high!" Jim repeated. "She needs more care than we can give her here."
"I feared it might be that serious." C.J. finally got the bib undone.
"Let's move her to an ambulance now." He took off to grab the closest paramedic with an ambulance on standby.
C.J. lifted the bib from her tank top, turning it around to find out the identity of the mystery patient. As he read the name, he did a double take, scanning the information three times to make sure his mind wasn't playing tricks on him. This explained how he'd known her. Natasha Bennington!
C.J. could see vestiges of the old Tasha. Sure, she'd always had a pretty face, but she hadn't looked like this.
Tasha had always been in love with Tim, the girl who'd never looked at another guy. No wonder those eyes had taken C.J. back in time. Natasha Bennington's eyes often flashed a brilliant green whenever she was laughing or debating.
He shook his head in disbelief at this twist of fate, this strange link to the past. Natasha had loved Tim unconditionally, even knowing he felt only friendship in return.
In all his life C.J. had never seen anything like it. He'd often wondered what it would be like to have a woman love you so completely.