By Susan Wiggs
Harlequin Enterprises Limited ISBN: 0-7783-2190-8
Washington, D.C. Christmas Eve
The ambulance backing into the bay of Building One looked like any other rig. It appeared to be returning from a routine transport run, perhaps moving a patient to the stepdown unit, or a stabilized trauma victim to Lowery Wing for surgery. The rig had its customary clearance tags for getting through security with a minimum of hassle, and the crew wore the usual crisply creased navy trousers and regulation parkas, ID tags dangling from their pockets. Even the patient looked ordinary in every respect, in standard-issue hospital draping, thermal blankets and an O2 mask.
Special Forces Medical Sergeant Jordan Donovan Harris wouldn't have given the crew a second glance, except that he was bored and had wandered over to Shaw Wing, to the glassed-in observation deck on the mezzanine level. From there, he could view the ambulance bays and beyond that, Rock Creek Park and Georgia Avenue. The trees were bare and stark black against a blanket of snow, ink drawings on white paper. Traffic trundled along streets that led to the gleaming domes and spires of the nation's capital. A fresh dusting of powder over the 147-acre compound gave the Georgian brick buildings of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center a timeless, frozen, Christmas-card look. Only the activity at the intake bays hinted that the campus housed the military's highest level of patient care.
Although there was no one around, Harris knew he was being watched. There were more security cameras here than in a Las Vegas casino. It didn't matter to him, though. He had nothing to hide.
Boredom was desirable in the life of a paramedic. The fact that he was idle meant nothing had gone wrong, no one's world had been shattered by a motor-vehicle accident, an unfortunate fall, a spiking fever, an enraged lover with a gun. For the time being, no one needed saving. Yet for a medic, whose job was to save people, that meant there was nothing to do.
He shifted his stance, grimacing a little. His dress shoes pinched. All personnel present wore dress uniform today because the President was on the premises to visit ailing soldiers and spread holiday cheer. Of course, only a lucky few actually saw the Commander-in-Chief when he visited. His rounds were carefully orchestrated by the powers that be, and his entourage of Secret Service agents and the official press corps kept him walled off from ordinary people.
So Harris was a bit startled when he saw a large cluster of black suits and military brass exiting the main elevator below the mezzanine. Odd. The usual route for official visits encompassed Ward 57, where so many wounded veterans lay. Today it seemed the tour would include the in-processing unit, which had recently undergone renovations courtesy of a generous party donor.
The visitors flowed along a spotless corridor. Instinctively, Harris stiffened his spine and prepared to snap to, not that anyone would notice whether or not he did. Old habits died hard.
He let himself relax a little. From his glassed-in vantage point, he craned his neck for a glimpse of the world leader but saw only the press and bustle of the entourage, led by the sergeant major of the army. A moment later, a civilian administrator greeted everyone with a wide smile. She looked as gracious and welcoming as a Georgetown hostess. Apparently, her domain was on the itinerary and she appeared eager to point out its excellence.
Harris knew that her name was Darnelle Jefferson and that she had worked here for a quarter of a century. She was fond of telling that to anyone who would listen. Looking at her, you'd never guess what the regulars here knew - that like many civilian administrators, she tended to spend her entire day being a pain in the ass to all personnel and creating a mountain of paperwork to justify her own existence. Still, she looked cheerful and efficient in a Christmas-red dress with the requisite yellow ribbon pinned to her bosom, and the wattage of her smile increased as the impossible occurred. The President separated from the pack and stepped forward for a photo op.
Then, even more surprisingly, Mrs. Jefferson took charge of the tour, leading the group along the wide, gleaming corridor. Two cameramen trolled along beside them, the big lenses of their cameras capturing every movement and nuance for the nightly news. The party stopped off at the first intake room, where a wounded soldier had arrived from another facility. Harris knew that the official photos and film would portray the President with the soldier and his family in an intimate circle around the hospital bed. The pictures wouldn't show the vigilant Secret Service, or the booms and mikes hovering just out of sight.
That's showbiz, thought Harris. He didn't understand how anyone could put up with public life. To have everyone's scrutiny on you was a peculiar sort of torture, as far as he was concerned.
The entourage was on the move again, down the scrubbed hallway toward the Talbot Lounge, one of the newly renovated waiting areas, where a twelve-foot noble fir stood, decked in splendor by one of D.C.'s finest florists. They stopped for more photos. Harris could see flashes going off, but he'd lost sight of the President.
Elsewhere in the same wing, the recently delivered patient lay in an intake room flanked on two sides by wireembedded glass walls. The transport crew had gone to the main desk to fill out their report, and no hospital personnel had arrived yet to in-process the newcomer. The staff members on duty were probably just like Harris, slacking off as they tried to get a look at the President. The patient lay alone, no family member or friend standing by to comfort him in this strange new world. Some people just didn't have anybody. Harris himself might be a prime example of that, if not for Schroeder. He and Sam Schroeder had been best friends for years, since meeting in a battle zone in Konar Province, Afghanistan. Sam and his family made up all that was important to Harris, and he told himself it was enough.
He took the stairs down to the main level, hoping to get a look at the President's face. He didn't know why. Maybe it was the fact that he'd spent a decade serving this country and another four years at the hospital, keeping people from dying. He sure as hell ought to be able to catch a glimpse of the President up close. A memo had advised that there would be a reception later at the hospital rec center - with the Gatlin Brothers performing - but that was sure to be a mob scene.
A pair of marines in dress blues stood sentinel at the double doors to the unit. Harris gestured with his clipboard and flashed his ID, projecting an air of brisk efficiency. Once inside the unit, he had to act busy or they'd know he was loitering in order to see the President, a practice that was frowned upon.
Excerpted from Lakeside Cottage by Susan Wiggs
Excerpted by permission.
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