It's always when we least expect it. Or long after we stopped thinking about it (no matter how much our hearts longed for it to open wide). We're stunned, we don't trust that door not to slam shut again. And yet the lure of it beckons us like a sea siren. "Give me one more try. One more chance. Just one more..." That's the heart of the challenge between Emma and Mason. And boy do they see the folly of their ways! I loved the way their relationship twisted and turned, and hope you do, too!
1440 (2:40 PM)
Why do weathermen and women stand outside in near hurricane-strength winds, blowing snow and ice, to relay Emergency Weather Alerts, reporting dangerous weather conditions, and urge residents to stay indoors?
Emma Miller stood in a cluster of stranded travelers staring up at the TV screen in the Portal Airport terminal unable to think of one good reason for a person to put themselves through that misery. From Darcy Keller’s involuntary twitches, the ice pelting her stung through her heavy red coat and the hood covering her head. Worse, she was clearly pregnant. A couple standing near Emma questioned the wisdom of Darcy Keller being out in the storm, risking a fall or injury. Silently, Emma agreed. The ice was slick. The heavy scarf at Darcy’s neck draped down the front of her coat, and she wore a hood and gloves and boots so the only exposed skin was on her face, yet the cold air fogged her breath to the point viewers couldn’t clearly make out her features.
From the advisory, it didn’t appear Emma or any of the other passengers diverted from Denver to Portal were going anywhere anytime soon. Figured. At least the plane had landed before the airport shut down.
Emma had been exhausted before getting on the plane, though the adrenaline rush had gotten her this far on the long flight. When taxiing in, she had spotted a hotel attached to the last terminal by a long breezeway, but odds were it was already booked or there wouldn’t be so many people staking out sections of floor in the airport terminal itself. Every seat was taken and most of the floor, too.
She searched her jacket pockets. Found her phone and half a tin of cinnamon Altoids. No purse, no money, nothing but the clothes on her back and the ticket and ID she’d had the foresight to stash in her slacks’ pocket before making the rescue attempt. Darcy Keller had been right. It was going to be a rough couple of days.
Emma walked on from the gate area, looking for a less populated spot with at least semi-privacy to phone in a report to Home Base. The second terminal was as crowded as the third had been, and the first, Terminal A, was even worse than B or C. The din of voices droned a constant hum that hung in the air. She pressed on to the northern end of an area identified by signs as “the Main.” It was a broad and expansive opening defined by overhead, tented awnings, a food court and clusters of shops. Midway through it, she spotted a blessedly empty alcove and ducked into it, then retrieved her phone and contacted Home Base.
“Silencers. Liz speaking. How may I direct your call?”
Seeing the young redhead in her mind, Emma spoke softly. “Liz, it’s Emma.” Why was the Director of Operations answering the phone rather than the receptionist, Billie?
“Are you on the ground?”
“Yes, but not in Denver.”
“They diverted you to Portal, correct?”
“Yes. And as soon as we were wheels down and landed, they shut the airport.” Emma scanned the crowd rushing the food court. “Any chance you can get me some transportation out of—”
“None,” Liz said, cutting her off. “You’ve been diverted.”
Spotting an older silver-haired man with a thick briefcase and stooped shoulders, Emma visually followed him from an outlying sportswear store to the food court. Definitely browsing. “We’ve established that, Liz.”
“I don’t mean the flight. I mean, we—Silencers—have diverted you.”
Surprise streaked through Emma. They were reassigning her to another security detail assignment already? She hadn’t yet gotten home from the last one, and it had been grueling. Hostage rescue operations were always rough. “To where?”
“You’re there. Portal International Airport.”
“Seriously?” More perplexed than anything else, Emma inhaled deeply and caught the scent of lemon. She looked up and sure enough, there was a vent overhead. Why anyone, especially in an airport, would mask scents, she had no idea. It was a prime violation of protocol and an opportunity for unsavory types to insert bio-contaminates.
“Seriously,” Liz said. “Look at it this way. You’re stuck there anyway. At least you’ll be busy during the storm.”
“There are thousands of people crammed into this facility, Liz. Surely PIA has its own security team.” Every international airport did these days.
“It does,” she agreed. “But your assignment isn’t to secure the facility or the people.”
That disclosure made Emma’s mission as clear as mud. Briefcase Man reappeared with coffee and a pretzel. “What am I securing then?” Emma couldn’t imagine.
“Just let me tell you, okay? I’m slammed here today—Billie is out until God knows when with the flu—so I need to streamline for efficiency.”
Emma didn’t sigh. She wanted to, but she didn’t. “Fine. Go ahead.”
“Use your same cover. Investigative journalist for American National Reporters—and no Loeb Award nominations this time. The director is still freaking out over the notoriety on your first mission.”
Emma nearly had been booted from Silencers’ training program over that. Security Specialists were most effective if forgettable and unnoticed. According to Liz, Emma’s looks were Strike One against her. The award nomination, a huge Strike Two. If she got a Third Strike, she would be kicked out of the program. It was that simple. Everything she’d been working toward these past three years would be gone in a snap. No discussion. No reprieve. And no exceptions. Her fingers curled tightly around the phone. “I understand.”
“Stay put under the tent in The Main. That’s an area with stretched canvas overhead in the main terminal.”
She’d seen the signs. “I’m there now.”
“Good.” Liz sounded relieved further explanation was unnecessary. “Apparently, a lot of construction’s going on there.”
“Noted that on the way in. Looks especially comprehensive on Levels Three and Four.”
“It is, or so we’re told. Heavy renovations. Fortunately, you’ll be located elsewhere in the facility, so it shouldn’t be an issue.”
Regardless of where you were located in the facility, those open construction areas created worrisome vulnerabilities. Emma refrained from saying so.
“Your point of contact will retrieve you in fifteen minutes. Six-two, one-ninety, blue eyes, hasn’t shaved in a few days, but he’s a good-looking guy. His name is Dr. Gregory Martin.”
Checking her watch beneath her black coat sleeve, Emma stilled. “Dr. Gregory Mason Martin?” Her throat thick, she waited for Liz’s response. Dread churned with curiosity in her stomach.
“Yes, that’s him.”
A shiver coursed up Emma’s backbone. Of all the people in the world, why him? The entire mission just wrapped up had been like this. She hadn’t been able to catch a break with both hands and a net.
“Bio-containment expert. He runs the high-containment facility there that only a few know exists.”
Emma frowned into her phone. “There’s a high-containment lab here, in this airport?” What genius did that? Airports being terrorist targets had required they be hardened, but, good grief. Bio-contaminates in an airport? That was just insane.
Stranded in a wicked storm in a facility under heavy construction. Five thousand souls at stake, and now this. Bio-contaminates and Mason Martin. The news tumbled straight through bad and into worse. If not to protect the facility or people, why was she being diverted? “What’s my job here?”
“Keep the lab secure,” Liz said, then dropped her voice. “You know this doctor, correct?”
Another shiver coursed through Emma. “I do, yes.”
“From a prior mission?” Liz asked, though she knew the answer already. Liz never asked a question she couldn’t already answer.
“Actually, no. We grew up together and went to the same college. He knows me, Liz. My cover isn’t going—”
“It will hold as much as is needed. His headquarters will see to it. This acquaintance could be helpful. If the doctor knows you, he is less apt to expose you.”
“That’s an assumption.” Emma frowned. “He may be more apt.”
“What?” The scent changed to cinnamon rolls. She sniffed. Coming from the vent.
“That change in your tone. I only hear it when something is personal.” Liz hesitated but when Emma remained silent, she added, “Were you engaged to him?”
Naturally, that’d be the first thing to occur to Liz. “No.”
“Ah, so he must be the one who got away.”
Surprise rippled across Emma’s chest. “How do you know one got away?”
“Reasonable deduction. Anytime we talk about relationships, it’s written all over your face,” Liz said. “More accurately, it appears whenever we talk about the breakup of another of your relationships.”
Emma clamped her jaw shut. Okay, so she’d been engaged a few times and had never made it to the altar. So what? Wasn’t that better than a string of divorces? She opened her mouth to fire back a snarky retort, but fortunately good sense intervened. If she wanted to get out of training and off probation and be permanently hired at Silencers, Inc., the last thing she needed to do was to cross Liz and lose her support. “No, he isn’t the one who got away.” Oh, Emma hated admitting this. “Speaking honestly, he’s the one I never got.”
“I see.” Liz’s tone held empathy, proving she did see. Too much. “Well, hope springs eternal.”
That remark pricked deep enough to obliterate Emma’s restraint. “Shut up, Liz.”
“Ooh, Touchy.” Liz sounded amused. “Significant sign.”
Emma couldn’t deny it. She was touchy about Mason. She always had been. “I’m sorry. Habitual response. He’s totally insignificant to me now,” she reminded herself as much as Liz. “All that happened a long time ago.”
“Evidently, not long ago enough.”
Emma bristled, stuffed her free hand deeper into her black jacket’s pocket. “Excuse me?”
“The wound is still wide open, Em. It’s in your voice.”
Was it? Probably was. She denied it anyway. “It’s not.”
“It is. It’s evident,” Liz insisted. “But let’s don’t waste time arguing the point. Either way, never kick an opportunity to the curb. That door is opening again for a reason.”
“Yeah, right.” Emma rolled her eyes back in her head, stared at the white ceiling, blanking out old memories she thought she had forgotten. “He’s probably married with a couple of kids by now.”
“Mmm, maybe. Want me to take a look?”
“No!” Emma cringed at having elevated her voice and then lowered it. Fortunately, others hadn’t crowded into the alcove, so no one had overheard her. “No, I do not.” Liz bent the odd rule when it was essential to mission success, but to violate his privacy on a personal interest? That was unexpected. So was the temptation to let Liz look. Not that Emma would give in to it.
“Okay, then.” Liz sounded unaffected, as if the offer had been a test. “Well, if you change your mind…”
Definitely a test. Thankful Emma had tamped curiosity and refused, she assured Liz, “I won’t.”
“Fine. But if you do—”
“I won’t, Liz.” Emma sniffed. “Some opportunities need to be kicked to the curb and some doors are best left shut.”
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