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"I thought that was taken care of." Cara Madison gripped her cell to her ear so tightly her hand ached as she hurried toward the foyer of her childhood home to answer the door. Exhaustion clung to her as though woven into every fiber of her being.
The bell chimed again.
"No, the State Department still has some questions," Kyra Morgan, her employer at Guardians, Inc., said.
"Hold it a sec. Someone's at the door."
She peered through the peephole, noting a deliveryman with a package and clipboard, dressed in a blue ball cap, blue shorts and white T-shirt. Probably another birthday present from one of Dad's friends. She thrust open the door and cradled the cell against her shoulder to keep it in place.
"So I have to make a trip into Washington, D.C., to see Mr. Richards at the State Department?" Cara asked her boss while she scribbled her name on the sheet of paper then took the box.
Stepping back into the house, Cara shut the door with a nudge of her hip and carried the package to the round table in the center of the dining room to put it with the multitude of othersall presents from people around the world whom her father knew.
"Cara, I'm sorry you need to go at this time. I know that last assignment was rough and now with bringing your dad home from the rehabilitation center, you don't need this complication. Mr. Richards assured me it's just a debriefing about the riots occurring in Nzadi."
She wished she could say that wasn't her fault, but what she did had set the protests off. Guilt swamped her. In protecting her client, a revered humanitarian in Nzadi was killed instead. "Don't worry. I'm tough. I'll survive. I'll call the man and set up an appointment after I get Dad home and settled."
For a few seconds she studied the plain brown box from Global Magazine with C. Madison on the label before peeling back the top flap on the carton. The sound of the tape ripping the cardboard reverberated in the stillness, exposing the top of a gift wrapped in black paper. Black? True, her father was turning sixty tomorrow, but wasn't black wrapping a little too macabre after he suffered a stroke eight weeks ago?
"I'm sure it's only a formality." Her boss's assurance drew Cara's thoughts away from the gift. "My impression from the State Department was you won't have to go back to answer any more questions from the Nzadi government."
The word Nzadi shivered down her length, leaving a track of chills even though it was summer. "I'll call you after I talk to Mr. Richards. Bye." Cara clicked off and stared down at the open box that nestled the new present, wrapped in black paper. Black like people wore to funerals. Black as the dress of the beloved lady who had been killed in the café. Cara shivered again. She wanted to forget Nzadi, but she didn't think she ever would.
The image of the beautiful woman, bleeding out on the floor of the café, nudged those last days in the African country to the foreground. She'd managed to push the trophy wife she was protecting out of the way of the assassin's bullet, only to have it lodge in the woman across from them. Again she heard the angry shouts from the crowd as she'd been driven to the Nzadian airport. The people's grief over the death of Obioma Dia had evolved into fury at Cara and the woman she'd been assigned to protect.
A shrill whistle pierced the air.
Shaking the image and the shouts from her mind, she glanced toward the kitchen. The water she was heating for her tea. The noise insisted on her immediate attention and grated her frazzled nerves. But the sound was a welcome reprieve from the thoughts never far away.
She quickly headed toward the kitchen and a soothing cup of tea along with a moment to rest and think about her father's situationthe reason she was in Clear Branch. She craved peace after the past couple of hectic daysafter her last disastrous bodyguard assignment in a country that fell apart around her. Nzadi was still suffering the worst unrest in decades.
Just inside the kitchen she pocketed her phone, wishing she could silence it like she could the teakettle's racket. But her cell was her lifeline, especially when she was on a job. And now also because her dad's homecoming celebration was cancelled because of a reaction to a new medication that made the doctor decide at the last minute to keep him a few more days. She'd planned a small birthday party for tomorrow and would need to finish calling his friends to tell them she'd have to postpone the festivity.
As steam shot out of the spout on the white pot, she snatched it off the burner and set it on a cool spot on the stove. Finally the loud, annoying sound quieted. She turned toward the cabinet behind her to get a mug.
Blissful silenceno angry people in Nzadi yelling words that still curdled her blood, no rehabilitation center
A boom rocked the foundation beneath her feet. She flew back and slammed against the edge of the counter so hard the air rushed from her lungs. Her momentum then spun her to the side, her hip clipping the corner. Her head swung back against the freezer handle then forward. Darkness swirled before her eyes as bits of wood and plaster rained down upon her, stinging her skin. Her ears rang, drowning out any sound except the thundering of her heartbeat vying for dominance.
She fumbled at her waist for the gun she wore on the job. Nothing. An urgency hammered her. Then scanning her surroundings, she realized it was on her nightstand in her bedroom. She looked toward what used to be the door from the dining room, trying to clear the haze in her mind. To figure out what to do.
Assess the situation.
Part of the wall was gone and gray smoke bellowed through the opening, carrying dust, wood chips and black bits. The wrapping paper? The stench of black powder assaulted her nostrils. She coughed, squinting to see through the ominous cloud invading every corner of the kitchen. She swiped at her gritty eyes but stopped in midaction, afraid to rub them anymore for fear of damaging them.
Need some kind of weapon.
She started toward the drawer a few feet away from her. Her legs gave out. Crumpling down the refrigerator to the tile floor, she grabbed at the dish towel hanging over the edge of the counter nearby and covered her mouth and nose with it. The room continued to rotate as though gravity were playing some kind of cruel joke on her. With a gong clanging against her skull from the concussion of the blast, she rolled over onto her knees and pushed up. The room swayed and she fell back.
She groped for her cell in her pocket and managed to slip it out, but her hand trembled so much she dropped it on the debris-covered tile.
Got to pull myself together. I've been in tough situations before.
To still the thundering of her heartbeat, she took a moment and inhaled steadying breaths through the filtering material of the towel. More coughs racked her.
Stay calm. Call 911.
She flipped the phone open while it still rested on the floor and began punching in the numbers. Drawing in another deep breath, she lifted it to her ear. The shrill ringing in her ears persisted. She doubted she could hear the 911 operator, but she needed help even getting up.
She waited a few seconds, hoping the 911 operator had answered, then said into the cell, "I can't hear you. I need help. CaraMadison." Panic began to worm its way into her mind. With her hand holding the phone quivering, she quickly finished, "Explosion. 218 North Pine. Hurry."
Did I get through?
The cell slipped from her nerveless fingers. Still connected to 911, she hoped, she left the phone next to her while she clutched the dish towel against her face. All she wanted to do now was collapse to the cold, dirty tiles and close her eyes to still the spinning. And wait to be rescued. Dust and debris from the dining room coated the floor, a reminder of what just happened. A thought nagged her.
As a bodyguard for the past four years, she'd had one assignment where an explosion had been involved. She tried to remember back to that job her first year, but her thoughts swirled like the gray smoke earlier. What if the blast wasn't the only one? What if it ignited a fire?
Trained to remain calm in chaotic situations, she shoved her rising panic down and crawled toward the back door. A stab of pain emanated from her hip that had hit the counter, making her progress laborious. The dizziness from her movement threatened to swallow her. She had to slow down her pace even more. The scent of sulfur hung in the hazy, smoked-filled kitchen. Another spasm of coughing assailed her. Every muscle tensed as the minutes ticked by, and yet she was still only halfway to her escape. A chunk of Sheetrock crashed to the floor near her, dust mushrooming into the air. Glancing up, she spied cracks in the ceiling. Her heart jammed into her throat.
"Well, as I live and breathe, Connor Fitzgerald here in my station." Sheriff Taylor pumped Connor's arm as he shook his hand. "What brings you down here?"
"Can't an old friend visit?" Connor grinned at the taller man, several years older than his own age of thirty-four.
"Come in and tell me how it's going." Sean Taylor waved his hand toward one of two chairs in front of his desk. "How's it going at Virginia's Criminal Intelligence Division?"
"Work's good. Busy." Connor folded his long length into the chair, resting his elbows on the padded arms. "I'm here for a week to spend some time with Gramps rather than my usual one or two days. He gets lonely. He claims all his contemporaries are dying off."
"Your grandfather continues to surprise me. He's eighty and still going strong."
"Yup, that's him."
"At least you aren't too far away in Richmond."
The door opened and a deputy stuck his head into the room. "Sheriff, there's been a 911 call from Cara Madison at her dad's. She reported an explosion at the house. I dispatched two deputies and called Doc Sims."
Cara's here? She's hurt? Connor sat up straight, his gut tightening. "Who's injured?"
"Don't know. All she said was there was an explosion and that she couldn't hear well. The 911 operator tried to get more information from her but couldn't."
Sean snatched up his keys. "Thanks." Turning toward Connor, he continued, "Want to come? I know you and Cara go way back."
Connor nodded and rose. He hadn't seen her in years, and the last time they hadn't parted on good terms. He'd wanted her to stay in Clear Branch and marry him. She'd wanted to see the world. She'd left the next day.
follow you in my car," Connor said as he strode with Sean toward the exit.
Cara's father knew a lot of important people in Virginia as well as Washington, D.C. If someone was after him, the Criminal Investigative Department of the Virginia State Police could be called in to assist with the case. Since Connor was an investigator for the CID, he might as well check on what happened. That was the only reason he was going. Yeah, right, as if you don't want to make sure Cara's okay.
In his Jeep Cherokee, Connor pulled out of the parking lot right behind the sheriff's vehicle. Although his gaze focused on the white car with the flashing lights and siren in front of him, his thought centered on Cara, the only woman who had captured his heart and then crushed it. If Virginia's CID was called in, that didn't mean the case had to be his problem. He could probably claim conflict of interest. He didn't need another problem on his plate.
Cara hadn't been his concern for thirteen years. So why was he going to the Madison house?
He couldn't shake the question: Was she all right? The last he'd heard anything about her she'd quit her job as an investigative reporter for a major TV network. But that was five years ago. Didn't Gramps say something about her becoming a bodyguard? Whenever his grandfather tried to talk about Cara, Connor had always changed the subject. Now he wished he'd listened for once.
Then another question popped into his thoughts as he turned onto Pine Street in Clear Branch: Why do I care?
A fire truck and two deputies' cars were parked in front of a sprawling ranch-style home with a gaping hole where a large picture window in the dining room used to be. Bits of that window and brick around it littered the yard. He'd wanted his detached, professional facade to slip into place, but the sight of the damage the explosion had caused shoved his concern to the foreground. Fear spurred his heartbeat.
Lord, in spite of our history, I don't want Cara hurt.
Climbing from his Jeep, he surveyed the quiet, well-to-do neighborhood. Several people stood on their lawns observing the commotion. His long strides ate up the distance between him and Sean, who had finished talking to a firefighter and was heading toward the gaping hole in the house.
Check to make sure she's in one piece. Then leave.
"A gas explosion?" Connor asked, taking a whiff of the air. Nothing hinted at that, but he did smell a faint odor of sulfur as though someone had recently shot off some fireworks. Alarm bells went off in his mind. "Since C.J. had his stroke, is he still working for Global News?"
"You smell it, too, don'tcha?"
"Yup, black powder."
"He's still at Sunny Meadows, but if I know C.J., he'll be back to his old desk as soon as humanly possible. He was supposed to be home today."
"Where's Cara?" What if she'd passed out somewhere in the house after she made the 911 call? What if there was another bomb? He quickened his steps toward the front door, which was barely hanging on its hinges.
A hand on his arm halted his progress. "I've called the tri-county task force's bomb squad. Also, ATF. I don't want anyone inside until they clear it. Even the firefighters will stay back unless a fire breaks out."
"But Cara?" Lord, she has to be okay.
Sean tossed his head in the direction of the side of the house. "My deputy has her. He found her out back. She's okay."
Connor turned and saw one of the deputies and Cara making their way slowly across the lawn. For a few seconds his heartbeat pummeled against his rib cage at the disheveled sight of heralive but hurt. He forced his emotions concerning her into a box and slammed the lid closed, searching for that professional facade so necessary for him to do his job.