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On Your Mark by M. L. Buchman (1)

Chapter One

Malcolm was happier than a horned toad at a mayfly festival.

And when his English springer spaniel was happy, Jim was happy.

It was one of those impossibly clear days that Washington, DC, dished out like dog treats in February. The chill winter days were probably behind them. In another month, even the occasional below-freezing nights would be nothing but a memory. Now it was an hour past sunrise, the temperature was already above forty, and the maples and beeches along the White House fence line looked as if the tips of their branches had been dusted with just the tiniest bit of bright green. The ornamental cherry trees were already glowing bright pink with the promise of the spring to come.

The air smelled fresh and vibrant with possibility. He loved the way that every city had its own smell. He’d now been in DC long enough that each season wrapped about him like fireflies on a summer evening with its own special particulars. Most of his life had been lived on the road in one way or another, but three years here just might be enough to anchor him in place for a lifetime.

He often wondered what Malcolm smelled on such days. The freshening grass? The latest civilian dog pee-o-gram on a tree trunk? The track of the other US Secret Service PSCO explosives-sniffing dog currently on patrol?

Handling a USSS Personnel Screening Canine—Open Area, also known as a friendly or floppy-eared dog, around the White House perimeter was the best duty there ever was. He and Malcolm had been walking this beat for three years now, putting even the mailmen to shame. Just because a blizzard and a hurricane had ripped through last year, each shutting down the city, didn’t mean the security at the White House put its feet up—at least not these six paws. The only things that had been moving in the whole area during either event were emergency services, the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier out at Arlington Cemetery, and White House security.

The snowstorm had been a doozy by DC standards, almost as deep as Malcolm’s legs were long. The next morning had been a surprisingly busy day at the fence line as tourists had trudged through a foot of heavy, wet snow to get photos of the White House under a thick, white blanket. Most of the crazies had the good sense to stay warm in their beds that day.

Not even the worst of the crazies came out during the hurricane.

Today it was the sunshine and the madness that drew people to his patrol zone along the White House fence. Delineating the two before Malcolm picked out the madness-motivated ones had become one of his favorite games to occupy the time. He figured the visitors to the fence fell into five distinct categories, only two of which Malcolm was trained to give a hoot about.

The True Tourist. They would just stand and stare though the steel fence. It had been formed to look like the old wrought iron one, but was far stronger—a Humvee that hit this fence would just bounce off. These people were often the older set. They were easily marked at a distance by taking pictures of the White House rather than taking selfies of them at the White House.

The Clickbait Tourist. They’d barely glance at the magnificent building. But even if they never actually looked at it, everyone inundated by their social media feeds probably more than made up for the lack.

The Squared-away Vet. The ex-military who arrived to see the representation of everything they had given. Whether standing tall or rolling along in a wheelchair, they came to see, to try and understand. He liked talking to them when he could. Jim had done his dance. Nothing fancy—a “heavy” driver for three tours hauling everything from pallets of Coca-Cola to Abrams tanks.

The Mad Vets and the Crazies. These guys were damaged. The less toxic ones just wanted to tell their story to the President so that he “really” understood. But there was a sliding scale right up to the ones who wanted retribution. These were the fence jumpers. They might have a protest sign, an aluminum foil hat, a .45 tucked in their pocket, or a load of righteous wrath strapped to their bodies. No real plot or plan, they were solo actors and had to be stopped one at a time. He and Malcolm caught their fair share of those—maybe more because Malcolm was such an awesome explosives detection dog. These were the main target of the fence patrol.

The Terrorist. Bottom line, that’s why his team and all of the others were here even with them all knowing they were, at best, no more than an early warning of any concerted attack. They’d all seen the movies White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. It was amazing how much Hollywood could get wrong and still scare the crap out of you—definitely not entertainment to anyone who worked guarding the White House. They discussed worst-case scenarios all the time. And he sure prayed that it didn’t happen until after he was dead and buried—though he’d wager that he could be pissed just fine from the grave if someone attacked his White House. Three years of walking around its perimeter, keeping it safe, made it at least partly his.

It was still early enough in the day that the fence line was almost exclusively the top three categories. The Mad Vets and the Crazies category typically didn’t kick in hard until later in the day when their morning meds wore off.

He saw a Squared-away Vet standing at the fence. The officers were particularly easy to pick out. They liked everything in order and would instinctively find the exact centerline—at either Lafayette Square to the north or the curving line of the President’s Park to the south like this one. As predictable as sunshine on a clear day, they would come to a halt at precisely the twelve or six o’clock positions and simply stare.

Normally they didn’t notice him or react if they did. This one stared at him…no, at Malcolm, with eyes so wide it was a wonder that they remained in his head.

Gute Hund,” he instructed Malcolm—training him in German avoided confusion with an alert word accidentally spoken in a sentence. He’d met a dog once trained with the numbers in Japanese: Ichi—sit. Ni—stay. San—down. Shi—heel… Pretty darn slick. He’d thought about retraining Malcolm to be bilingual for the fun of it, but it seemed a dirty trick to play on a perfectly nice dog.

Gute Hund—good dog—told Malcolm he was off duty and could relax and be a dog for a moment rather than a sniffing magician.

It also gave Jim an excuse to let Malcolm approach and really check out the veteran up close just in case he was a Crazy-in-disguise. Even “off duty” Malcolm would respond if he smelled something dangerous.

Nope, guy was clean.

Jim glanced back at his patrol partner and nodded to indicate he’d be stopping for a moment. PSCO dogs never worked the fence line alone. Sergeant Mickey Claremont followed five to ten meters behind him. He was a big guy, looking even more so because of the bulletproof vest over his warm coat clearly labeled USSS Police. The AR-15 automatic rifle that he carried across his chest was part of his primary duty of being backup in case Malcolm did alert to someone. His second job included making sure that nothing slowed Jim’s and Malcolm’s progress. But Claremont had learned that there were certain types of guys that Jim always stopped for.

“You handled dogs?” He asked the wide-eyed vet hovering uncertainly at the fence.

All he managed was a nod back.

“Been out long?”

Head shake…then a grimace.

“Don’t worry about it, brother. The words will come back eventually.”

“You sure?” Barely a whisper and now the guy was watching him.

“Three tours in the Dustbowl. Nothing fancy. A heavy driver on the Kandahar and Kabul run.” A fellow soldier would know what that meant. Hauling heavy loads, desperately needed by the in-country teams, from the port at Karachi, Pakistan, across a thousand kilometers to Kandahar, Afghanistan, or another five hundred klicks to Kabul. And every millimeter past the southern Wesh-Chaman border crossing or the Torkham one to the north had been run in constant fear of being a giant target on a known road. They’d lost a lot of guys, but he’d made it out in one piece.

“Two tours in Baghdad. One in Mosul,” the guy at the fence was back to staring at Malcolm. He reached out a tentative hand as if he was seeing a ghost, but pulled it back before he could test the theory.

“That’s some hard shit, brother,” Jim wouldn’t have wanted that tour any day. “Just give yourself some time.”

The guy nodded, almost desperately.

“Hit the support groups,” Jim dug out a card from the stack he always carried and handed it over. “These guys saved my ass. Gotta get back to work now. Good luck, buddy. Such!” Like soock with a guttural German ck—Seek! And Malcolm went back to sniffing his way along the fence line. Even letting the guy know that there was such a thing as “getting back to work” would help.

Claremont folded in behind him and worked the second part of his job as they passed more tourists.

“Yes, he’s a bomb-sniffing dog.” “No, you can’t pet him because he’s working right now.” “Yes, it’s okay to take his picture but, no, he can’t pose for a picture because he’s working right now.” And so on in an unending litany.

Jim was so used to it that the silence always seemed wrong after the crowds thinned out at night but the patrols continued.

They were nearing their one-hour limit. A dog’s nose only went so long without a break. One hour on, half-hour off. Which was good, that gave him enough time to do the paperwork that was part of being a PSCO handler: patrol reports, daily security briefing, studying the faces of known risk agents and recent threats. A letter writer was usually just that, someone dumb enough to threaten the President’s life. Some even put their return address on the envelope. A single visit from the Secret Service was usually enough to scare those dummies back under the wire. But it didn’t hurt to have studied their faces in case they transitioned to The Crazies category.

That’s when he spotted the sixth type of visitor to the White House fence—The Newbie.

Reese Carver stood at the White House fence and tried to figure out what had changed.

Actually, she knew exactly what had changed, but she couldn’t reconcile how different it felt. Two years driving for the Secret Service—mostly in San Francisco, LA, and New York. Six months ago she’d grabbed the brass ring and been accepted for the Presidential Motorcade.

When she first came aboard, she’d waited outside the gate in one of the escort vehicles.

Then they’d started bouncing her around: press corps van, support vehicles for carrying the staff who didn’t rate a ride in the President’s car or one of the spares, then Command and Control while the guys in the back handled route logistics on the fly, and even the front Sweep Car that checked the route out ahead of the Motorcade.

Hazmat had been hard on her nerves because she knew nothing about what those guys actually did.

Watchtower—the ECM or electronic countermeasures vehicle—was capable of suppressing remote explosive triggers. It could also detect incoming threats that used radar or ones that used laser-targeting and jam those as well. It had made her feel like she was constantly the precise target of the attack—even if there’d never been one. Roadrunner was also a mobile cell tower, satellite uplink, and everything else communications oriented, which convinced her she was being constantly irradiated. When she asked, the guys manning the vehicle hadn’t said the feeling was completely wrong.

She’d even driven Halfback—the lethal Chevy Suburban that carried the Presidential Protection Detail immediately behind the President’s limo. She’d liked that one. The agents were armed to the gills, including a pop-up-through-the-roof M134 Dillon Aero Minigun. Could have used that back on the NASCAR racetracks a few times on some of the assholes who thought ganging up to shut out a female driver was good sport.

With all these different assignments, it had gotten to the point where she’d driven every vehicle except for Stagecoach—the Presidential monster itself, also nicknamed The Beast for a reason—and the ambulance that always trailed along behind.

She’d liked driving the unimaginatively named Spares. The two identical copies of the Presidential limousine played a constant shuttle game with Stagecoach so that a terrorist would never be sure which of the three Beasts carried the President and which were the decoys. Any Spare driver worth their salt dreamed of Stagecoach breaking down and the President shifting into their vehicle—which had happened only five times in the last two decades, so the chances were low.

The Secret Service had hundreds of elite drivers, from the San Francisco SWAT team to the Capitol Police of the Uniformed Division. The competition to reach the Presidential Motorcade had been fierce.

Then she’d crossed the Motorcade drivers’ “finish line.”

Stagecoach.

Just this morning she’d gotten a wake-up call from the head of the Presidential Protection Detail, Senior Special Agent Harvey Lieber.

“Bumping you to driving Stagecoach, Reese. Get your ass in here.” With Harvey, that wasn’t some slur because she was a black woman with an ass that she’d been complimented on far too many times. All it meant was for her to get her ass in there. From him she’d take that, but not from any other asshole.

That call had changed the world.

A part of her was ready to do a victory dance.

Reese Carver—the first woman to drive Stagecoach. And a black woman at that. She wanted to do her dance on the heads of every male idiot who said a woman couldn’t do it. Every jerk who’d tried to put her down—even after she’d smeared them off the NASCAR track…or maybe especially then. She’d learned the hard way to keep it all inside. Men were expected to brag, but one little smile out of place and it tagged a woman as a bitch. Fine. Whatever.

But the other part of her could only stand and stare at the White House. Next time she drove onto the grounds, it wouldn’t be a matter of escorting the President. Next time he’d be riding in her car. She’d have his life in her hands.

“What am I supposed to feel about that?” She didn’t have a clue.

“First days are always like that,” a deep baritone said from close beside her.

“What?” She turned and looked up at the bright-eyed UD smiling at her. The Secret Service Uniformed Division guys always struck her as a little foolish. Didn’t they get it? United States Secret Service meant Special Agent. Secrecy. Not parading around Washington, DC, dressed like a cop. They really should be called something else. Maybe—as they were standing on the edge of the National Mall—they should rename them mall cops. She liked that. She’d didn’t come up with funny things on her own very often, but that wasn’t half bad.

“Your first day?” He nodded toward the White House in a friendly fashion. His smile said that he was completely assured of his own charm. She’d never yet met a man like that who actually charmed her.

“Not even close,” she warned him off.

“Oh,” his smile didn’t diminish. “You have the look.”

“What look?” She didn’t have a look. No one was supposed to be able to see what she was feeling. She’d learned that lesson the hard way a long time ago. “Like some lost fem in search of a big, strong, handsome man to protect her?”

He laughed. “Like you can see the White House, but it’s spooking the crap out of you worse than a mouse at a cat convention. See that a lot on Newbies.”

“Not.” Keep it short. Make him go away. Nobody saw through her shields—ever. So not allowed. She looked away and down into the big brown eyes of a smiling springer spaniel. He was standing there looking up at her with his tongue lolling out. She reached out to pet him.

And he sat abruptly.

Reese froze.

It was the signal that explosive-detection dogs used to alert their handler that they’d found something. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the backup man shift his grip on his AR-15 semi-auto rifle as he moved for a better angle. Tourists continued streaming by as if nothing was amiss.

She straightened very slowly, keeping her hands in clear view.

The handler was still smiling, though his hand was now resting casually on the butt of his taser. “Been at the range recently? Malcolm will alert to the gunpowder residue on your sleeves and hands.”

“Every day before work.” She was a driver, not a shooter, but if it came down to it, she’d be ready. “An hour workout, then five magazines at the range.”

“I do my workout after my shift.”

He definitely had a very nice workout build—powerful without being overworked. But she wasn’t real interested in yet another guy staring at her in her workout gear.

“Maybe I need to switch over to mornings. Though Malcolm here likes to start his mornings right off, then nap at the end of the day while I hit the weights.”

So, he’d identified her as Secret Service and figured they’d be using the same gym under the nearby headquarters building. Not a giant leap. Despite what some people thought, protection agents’ jobs weren’t to be undercover in their suits; it was to be so obvious that no one would think of testing their resolve.

She gave him a little credit for not looking away from her face, despite his comment. So he wasn’t a complete low-life. His accent said Oklahoma, his smile said self-proclaimed lady killer, but his light brown eyes, with hair to match, were definitely watching her slightest motion in a way that said professional.

“How about handing me your ID slow as a rattler on a winter day.”

She unbuttoned her winter coat, then eased open the lapel of her suit jacket. She reached past her FN Five-seveN 5.7mm primary weapon and slipped out her leather Secret Service ID holder. Despite it having her badge and ID, he called it in. That was good—she liked that he was being doubly careful. When he also confirmed her signing time in and out at the range this morning, she was actually impressed. It was far more than she’d expected from a “mall cop” who flashed his charming smile as if it was all the ID he needed.

“Nice to meet you, Clarice Carver. Sorry for the trouble,” he handed back her badge holder. The backup guy eased his AR-15, but not completely.

“Reese.” She heard the soft click as the backup reset the safety on his weapon. She’d missed it coming off.

“To your friends?” and that smile was back. Asshole apparently thought it was beneath him to introduce himself.

“And my enemies.”

“Good to know. You headed in or planning to stand and gawk a while longer?”

“Headed in,” she hated that she’d been caught in a moment of weakness and just wanted to get away from him.

“Well, that’s fine then. Me and Malcolm, we’re at the end of our hour on the fence. we’ll go in with you.” And he nodded toward the gate another hundred meters down the sidewalk.

Reese tried to figure out how to shed the guy, but couldn’t come up with anything.

He tossed a treat to his dog, then scrubbed his fingers into the dog’s fur as it crunched happily. “Gute Hund. Sehr gut!” He said it in a squeaky high voice that the dog clearly enjoyed, but it made the man sound totally ridiculous—and actually a little charming.

Then he spoke to his dog softly. Such.”

And the dog changed; they both changed.

The dog rose to his feet and began sniffing his way forward through the crowd. The UD officer stepped out smoothly and the two of them were suddenly all business. His eyes scanned the crowd ahead of his animal, both of them on watch.

The change was almost shocking.

He was still the same guy. Even though she was looking at his back, she could tell by the way the crowd reacted to him and his dog that he was projecting the same easy-going demeanor ahead like a radar sweep. But by the way he moved—just enough on his toes to be ready for a quick reaction, scanning not where his dog was, but looking out and ahead—spoke of a highly trained professional. Even the positioning of his non-leash hand; it swung close beside the taser on his hip with every stride.

“I’m Claremont, by the way,” the backup man was on the move as well and was now passing by her.

She fell in beside him.

“Reese Carver,” she offered in return, but he just tapped his earpiece. Right. He would have been listening in on the same frequency that the dog handler had used. “Is he as good as he looks?” Reese nodded to the team ahead of them.

“Better. Three years on the fence line. Jim and Malcolm have the highest identify-and-capture ratio of any team by a factor of three times.” Claremont smiled at her as if he was answering a very different question about just what kind of quarry the handler identified and captured.

Ladies’ man. Didn’t matter as it had nothing to do with her. It was his three years patrolling the fence that surprised her. If he and his dog were such hot shit, why were they still doing the beat cop routine out in the weather?

Jim wondered at just how stupid he’d been. He’d never even introduced himself—as if his mama hadn’t raised him right. And now Claremont chatted up the hot Special Agent Reese like they were old pals. He couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but there was no mistaking Claremont’s smooth Southern accent that slayed so many of the ladies.

That’s when he identified Reese’s accent. It was well masked, like she’d worked on it hard, but she was from the Carolinas just like Claremont.

Redneck trucker from Oklahoma didn’t stand a chance.

Too bad. Special Agent meant she was good. But there’d also been a small code on her ID that said she was a member of the Presidential Protection Detail. He almost hadn’t called in to confirm her identity because it was so unlikely for that to be forged. He finally had, just to see if he could learn anything else about her. No joy. The main desk had merely confirmed she was USSS and even pushing through to the range officer only confirmed that she had indeed logged five twenty-round magazines that morning. But that little code on her ID said that she was beyond exceptional in more than her looks.

Just two inches shy of his own six feet. Pitch black hair that fell straight to scatter over strong shoulders. Her deeply brown skin was smooth and creamy. It was her dark-dark eyes that had been so hard to look away from. There was something about them that both hid and revealed the woman at the same time.

And when she’d pulled back her jacket, he saw her trim waist with enough of a figure to not make the big Five-seveN handgun look ridiculous in her shoulder holster. The weapon said even more about her. What he could see of the handle had the shine that only came from being held for thousands of rounds.

As he’d returned her ID, he’d spotted the shooter’s calluses thickening the web between her thumb and forefinger. She looked like everything a man could want and he’d messed it up something awful.

Sadly, it wasn’t the first time. Maybe he was losing his touch. When Linda and her dog Thor had joined the White House team last month, he’d done nothing much about it. At least not right off. That had seemed like a good idea.

She’d been cute as hell, and he’d entertained a few thoughts. But while he’d been taking his time, she and her dog had gone on to save over sixty lives, including the President’s. It was a Secret Service agent’s wet dream—making that once-in-a-career save. Then, while he wasn’t watching, she’d gone and fallen in love with the chocolate chef, which seemed a little unfair. It was like the Big Guy upstairs was smacking him in the face and shouting, “Wake up, dude.”

The last girl to make him even think about wanting the long-haul had been Margarite of the sleek body, long red hair, and a laugh like Christmas sleigh bells. Though she’d hung with him for almost a year, she’d made no secret that her aim was always set higher. “You’ve walked that fence so long, there’s a rut there with your name on it.” Margarite had finally latched onto a Congressional aide who—with her street smarts at his side—was now in the running as a Virginia state senator.

He’d had a lot of time to think about it while walking the fence line. The sex had been good and the companionship great. But they’d been on such different tracks. He’d always been content to be who he was and she’d…never been. In the end he’d wished her well, though what he’d really wished was that she was still there beside him when he woke up in the mornings.

Oh well. He figured that, just like Malcolm, he’d keep patrolling ahead and someday he’d catch a scent and track the right lady.

Pity about Reese Carver though. She was quite something. He wondered what it might be like waking up next to her. It was a very nice image.

At the security booth, he and Reese stepped through the door while Claremont waited for the next dog team to come out.

They both showed their IDs and were waved through easily.

So Reese was known. Of course she was known. Her code said Presidential Protection Detail. That was a very small, very elite group. Strange that he hadn’t seen her walking around. There was no way not to notice her.

If Jim the dog handler was arrogant, Reese decided that his backup security was perhaps the least subtle guy on the planet. Pleasant, well-trained, and just about everything he’d said could be taken as sexual innuendo. He always said it as if it was a joke—no way to quite take offense despite her sensitivity being set on ultra-high. But it was getting old by the time they reached the entrance to the grounds. What the guy really needed, she decided, was new material.

Once through, Jim waved to a Uniformed Division woman headed out to take his place. She was preceded by a small, brindle-colored mutt. They looked as if they both belonged in suburbia somewhere, but he wore the harness of a USSS dog and his handler was vested and armed.

“Hey, Malcolm,” the woman called out to the springer spaniel.

“Hey, Thor,” Jim did the same to her dog. The two of them traded smiles as they passed.

Thor? Reese could only shake her head in wonder. That little mutt was the one who’d caught a potential bomber outside the fence and then saved the President’s life just last month? Never judge a dog by its stature, she supposed. The female handler followed Thor as he trotted happily out the gate and joined up with Claremont before heading off on patrol along the other side of the fence.

She looked down at Malcolm and silently asked, Anything you want to be telling me?

He just wagged his tail at her.

Reese turned for the White House and almost ran over a teen standing there.

“Hi!”

How did some tourist and her Sheltie dog end up on this side of the fence?

Malcolm almost took Reese out as he and the Sheltie rushed to greet each other in the area usually reserved for her knees.

“Hey, Dilya,” Jim said from so close over Reese’s shoulder that it was all she could do to not jump.

“Hi, Sergeant Fischer.”

“You don’t call me Jim and I know you’re up to something.” He sounded just a little too relieved at having an excuse to say his name in front of her. At least he knew he had been a jerk.

“Doesn’t replace a proper introduction, Sergeant,” she muttered at him. Southern politeness said that you introduced yourself properly when meeting. And, in her experience, it was a bad sign when a guy couldn’t be bothered to do that.

He might have blushed at being caught but he recovered fast, making it hard to tell. “Right. Sorry. Reese Carver, this is First Dog Zackie. Zackie, this is Reese,” he addressed the Sheltie. Which explained what the dog was doing here.

“Hey,” the girl protested.

Jim just grinned. “And this pint-size piece of trouble is Dilya Stevenson.”

“Not the introduction I meant,” but Reese could see that he knew that. She turned to the kid, “Hi.” She never knew what to say to kids.

They would come up when she used to do publicity for her NASCAR sponsor. The boys were easy—they were either young enough to have a crush on her car or old enough to have a crush on a woman who won races in one. The young girls were tricky. They were either some weird mix of shy and tongue-tied that she’d never understood, or chatty-beyond-belief, which she’d both never understood or had time for. A lot of them idolized her as a symbol of all women or all African-American women or

She was just a girl who’d grown up in a racing family outside Charlotte, North Carolina. They’d lived a five-block walk from the Charlotte Motor Speedway rather than out in the McMansions along Lake Norman with most of the other pro drivers. As a young girl, if she wasn’t watching Pop or her brother racing, she was timing their competition or hanging out in the garage or the pits. The school bus never dropped her at home—it had always dropped her at the Speedway’s back gate.

This Dilya was the first teen Reese had been near since she’d left racing and joined the Secret Service. Without even racing as a guide, she had no calibration for what the kid could want.

She was mid-teens, with that strung-out look of hitting her growth, though she’d never be tall. Her skin was about half as dark as Reese’s own but the tone was different, so not African heritage. Her hair fell in a thick ruffled wave almost to her elbows, but that wasn’t her standout feature. It was her eyes. Impossibly green, they assessed Reese as thoroughly as Reese was assessing her. Except she had the feeling that those green eyes could see far deeper into her than the kid was letting on. Or than Reese was comfortable with.

Her parka was bright blue. Her jeans stonewashed. Her boots red cowboy. She also wore a beautiful, hand-knit scarf of brilliant colors.

The three of them—the five of them counting the dogs frolicking up and down the wide, secured street between the EEOB and the White House—headed toward the entrance to the West Wing. Left with no choice except to draft along, she fell in behind them.

Jim wasn’t doing a lot to impress her so far.

“Are you on the New York shopping trip?” Dilya slowed down to ask her.

“What trip?” Reese hadn’t heard anything about New York.

“Oh. Never mind.” Her smile was pleasantly enigmatic.

Staffers were hurrying past. Dilya and Jim walked as if there was all the time in the world. Reese considered moving by them, but that seemed rude, even for her.

She scanned behind her to the fence line and saw nothing out of place. Thor and his female handler, with Claremont in tow, were just disappearing behind a large beech tree, still devoid of leaves. To her right she could catch glimpses of the grounds through the screen of trees: the children’s garden, the basketball court, a hint of blue of the swimming pool, and the white facade of the south face of the White House.

When she turned back, Dilya was eying her closely. A Marine in full uniform had come up beside Jim. It sounded as if they were talking football scores. Didn’t they get that it was February and the season was over?

“Maybe you both got off on the wrong paw,” Dilya must have noticed the direction of her glare. “You know, I just read Pride and Prejudice. They hated each other at first but it was just because they didn’t know each other.”

Reese swallowed hard. She barely knew the story, but it was a romance novel and they only ended one way. No way was this Presidential dog walker going there.

“You better not be saying what I think you’re saying.”

“What would that be?” The girl practically batted her eyelashes at her in all innocence. Inside the door, Dilya pulled out her security badge, swept it through the turnstile, then flipped the lanyard over her head.

Reese noted that it was an “All Access” badge: Residence, the Oval, Air Force One, even the Motorcade. She knew for a fact that neither the President nor the VP had kids yet, though both wives had just recently been reported pregnant—the security briefing beating CNN by less than an hour.

“Where did you come from?”

“Uzbekistan. At least I think so. I don’t really know. I can still speak Uzbek, so I’m guessing I grew up mostly there.”

“How did you end up here?” Reese was finding the conversation more than a little surreal. They stepped through the lobby and past the Situation Room entrance, where the Marine peeled off. There was a solid flow of people around them now, all moving fast and with purpose. Normally she’d be in perfect sync with them, but now she was with these slow-moving dog people and felt out of step with herself.

“I walked.”

“You walked from Uzbekistan to the White House?” Reese only roughly knew where that was. North and west of Afghanistan?

“No, silly. I would have had to swim the ocean. I only walked to Pakistan.”

Jim stopped so abruptly that Reese slammed square into his back. It was like walking into the SAFER barrier that encircled racetracks. The man was impossibly solid. She stepped back, but her nervous system felt as if she’d just been hit with a taser charge. No man should feel so real.

“You walked to Pakistan?” Jim was staring down at Dilya.

The teen shrugged.

“Is that hard?” Reese actually made the mistake of engaging him in conversation despite her plan to never waste her time on him again.

“You walked across the freaking Hindu Kush?” Jim ignored her and kept his attention on Dilya. “That’s worse than surfing in a Texas hurricane.”

Reese had heard of those mountains. Okay, that was hard. Beyond hard.

“With my parents, before they were killed. Then by myself until Kee found me.” Dilya winced—perhaps at the memory, perhaps at talking about it at all. “Not fun.”

“Not fun?” Jim’s eyes were wide. “I drove that road nigh on a couple hundred times. It’s the worst place I’ve ever seen to cross.”

Reese looked at him again. More change. He’d driven the Hindu Kush a couple hundred times? That meant he’d been in the military, part of the war effort there. So, he wasn’t just some dog handler, not if he’d done that.

“We didn’t follow roads much,” Dilya took a sudden interest in the First Dog, kneeling to comb his fluffy brown-and-white fur with her slender fingers.

“You really went all the way across those mountains?” Jim missed the teen’s desire for a subject change.

“To Bati.”

“The soccer stadium? The one converted into a US Special Operations fort?”

Dilya stopped fooling with Zackie and looked up at Jim abruptly.

“I delivered some loads there,” he explained. “Fuel and food, mostly. Hauled out some pretty shot-up helicopters too.”

“I lived there for over two years with my new parents,” Dilya’s voice was small.

“You were embedded with—” Jim glanced at Reese and snapped his jaw shut.

Dilya shrugged. “They rescued me from the middle of a firefight…and then they kept me.” She jolted to her feet and was gone so fast it was as if she’d never been there.

“Bati?” Reese asked as Jim gazed down the crowded hallway in the direction Dilya had disappeared.

“Forward operating base,” he spoke as if he stood ten thousand miles away, looking at the scene. “Spec Ops. Very hush-hush. Home to the best team and best pilot of the entire Night Stalkers—that’s Army airborne.”

Hard to have grown up in Charlotte and not know about the Night Stalkers. They flew overhead all the time on their way between their base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the Special Operations teams stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They’d done numerous demos at the Speedway before big races. Once even delivering the pace car from one of their big black helos.

“What was the pilot’s name?” She wasn’t sure why she asked. She’d only ever met one pilot years before, but the woman had left an indelible impression. A female Army helicopter pilot. Reese hadn’t even known there were any. Reese had spent a really fun one-week stand with her gunner—a macho Latino named Tim Maloney—but it was the woman who stuck in her memory.

“Emily Beale. Most impressive woman I’ve ever met.” Then Jim turned to face her and that Mr. Charm smile was back. “So far.”

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