Historic preservation specialist Liberty Carmichael loves her position at the Library of Congress, caring for America’s oldest documents. So when she intercepts an inside threat by a radical group planning to steal part of Thomas Jefferson's original collection, she takes it to the highest authority--her father, the president. When he fails to take the threat seriously, she steals the books to keep them safe.
Undercover FBI agent Cole Harding is close to disbanding the group responsible for killing his father. Believing documents once owned by Thomas Jefferson hold clues to answering a two hundred year old question, the group's next target is the Library of Congress. However, he wasn't expecting the First Daughter to get caught in the middle.
Will Cole convince the president to trust his abilities? Can he keep Liberty safe without blowing his cover? Can either protect their hearts?
Liberty Carmichael had just committed her fifth offense against the federal government. She secured the latch on her leather carryall and hurried past the gilded mirror of the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. She couldn’t stomach the sight of herself right now. Like the Founding Fathers, Liberty had done what others considered wrong in order to stand for what was right. And she’d succeeded.
After all, who would suspect the president’s daughter of theft?
Inhaling a shaky breath, she walked on trembling legs to the stairs that descended to the first floor. If she could clock-out and make it to her car where her Secret Service Agent would be waiting, she would have accomplished her mission of protecting important pieces of American history, pieces no one else seemed a bit concerned about. Including her father.
But Liberty knew the threat was real, and she would prove it. Then maybe the world would take her seriously instead of passing her off as another privileged branch on the Carmichael political family tree.
She stepped into the Main Reading Room. The circle of desks, enough to seat two hundred and fifty, sat empty beneath the ornate dome, the lamps resting for the night. The view always gave her comfort, knowing she’d had a part in preserving books for future generations. Tonight, however, her squeaky boots on the tile echoed through the dome, seeming to draw attention to her and the priceless treasure stashed in her carryall.
As if they had eyes, the books peered at her from the stacks as she passed, making her quicken her pace. Which was ridiculous, because books didn’t have eyes, and no one else knew what she’d done.
Placing a hand on her stomach, she took a deep breath and exhaled her absurdity. She was a grown woman, not a child. Her parents had taught her to fight for what she believed in, and that was exactly what she was doing. This was a noble act, not thievery.
Liberty tugged at her loose flannel shirt, glad she’d chosen comfort over style. She started her exit again, breezing through the Bibles Gallery, guilt slicing through at the knowledge of breaking one of God’s commandments. Even though it held purpose.
As she neared the doors, a shadow converged with her own on the polished tile. She startled and whirled around, slapping a hand over her mouth to cover the scream. She dropped her hand to her chest. “Mr. Arnold, you…scared me.” Chest heaving, Liberty berated herself for such a dramatic reaction. So much for playing it cool.
The man stepped from the dark corner where a staircase led to the ground floor. He leaned against the long dust mop handle for support. “I’m s-sorry, Miss C-Carmichael.” His words released broken and slow.
Liberty wasn’t sure what type of mental handicap Mr. Arnold possessed, but he’d proved to be the kindest, most gentle person she knew, and she was honored to call him friend.
“That’s all right, Mr. Arnold.” She let out a nervous chuckle. “It’s my fault. Something has me a little spooked tonight. No more reading Frank Peretti during break.”
Mr. Arnold raised a bushy eyebrow that puckered the skin above his thick glasses. With stiff movements, he leaned the dust mop against the railing, noticing her carryall. His gaze lingered. Surely, he didn’t know. He’d come from the ground floor at the same time she’d left the second.
She was being paranoid.
Liberty cleared her throat and stepped away, holding up the badge attached to the lanyard around her neck. “I should go. You know how the government feels about overtime.” Her words were louder than intended. She winced at their echo. “Don’t work too hard tonight, Mr. Arnold.” She grinned at the black-haired custodian and before he could respond she swiped her badge to clock-out and then barged through the main exit.
The early October air relieved the sweat she didn’t know had beaded around her hairline. She breathed in the crisp scent of fall and stared across First Street to the U.S. Capitol Building, silhouetted by a pink sliver from the setting sun.
Liberty loved her country, the people. This city. She wouldn’t fail now.
Determination relaxed her tense muscles on the way down the granite steps to Neptune’s Grotto below. Water jets splashing in the shallow pool marked her halfway point. She’d just turned left toward the corner of Independence and First Streets when a large-framed man, dressed in black, blocked her path ahead.
“You’re supposed to wait at the car, remember? To give me the illusion my life holds some semblance of normalcy.” Though all things considered, Liberty was relieved to have her agent’s protection ahead of schedule. She tucked the lanyard in her carryall.
Ricciuti frowned. “Give us the book, Liberty.”
She halted. How did he know? “What book?”
“The book you stole tonight. It belongs to us. Hand it over.”
Not the library or the people. Or even the government. Us. The only ones with a personal interest in the book besides herself were the Truth Seekers. Surely Ricciuti wasn’t…
“Give up your bag and the location of the other books, and I’ll take you home safely as I do every night.”
Or what? He had to be working against her, or else he wouldn’t have threatened her safety. All confidence withered like the leaves littering the city. This man had been with her since she was seven years old. He was like a second father to her. He wasn’t capable of betraying her family after all these years of faithful service. Was he?
His steely tone contradicted the strong but gentle man she’d known him to be.
Tears pricked her eyes. “Ricciuti?” Bile burned a path up her throat. “You’re one of them?”
He held out his hand.
Betrayed. Anger churned with hurt and swirled inside her heart. “No.”
Ricciuti dropped his hand and straightened as if surprised by her boldness, which shocked her as well. “Then I’ll have to carry out orders, and I don’t want to do that, Liberty. You’re a good kid.”
“I’m not a child.” A stupid fact to argue over in such a predicament, but she wanted him to know she was well aware of the gravity of his betrayal. “Your orders come from my father. Not a group of cowards who slink around the country defacing history, people trying to push their own agenda.” Her voice grew in intensity with each word.
Ricciuti’s gaze darted over their surroundings, checking for dangers, memorizing details. The natural precautionary gesture she’d always taken comfort in now put fear in her bones.
“Give me the bag.”
“How could you, Ike?” Liberty let her tears fall, knowing how much he hated them. Ike grunted, the way he always did when she got emotional around him. His iron features twitched. In that second, Liberty sprinted the direction she’d come, back up the library steps.
Ricciuti yelled her name. If she could make it back inside, she could lose him in the maze of materials, then turn him in to the authorities. Liberty pulled at the door handles.
Heavy footfalls slapped the stone behind her.
She weaved through the archways on the piazza and descended the steps on the other side. She told herself not to play the stupid female victim and glance behind her, but the temptation was too great. She misjudged the last step and hit the cement with a whack. White-hot pain shot through her forehead and elbows. The metallic taste of blood registered on her tongue.
Ike’s steps grew closer, breaths louder. Scrambling to her feet, Liberty raced down the sidewalk that stretched the northeast side of the library along Capitol Street to the employee parking lot.
Ricciuti was never without a weapon.
Liberty expected to dodge bullets any second. If God had mercy on her, another human would be nearby to call on for help.
“Liberty!” Ike’s labored tone filled the void between them. His heart attack two years ago immediately filled Liberty’s mind. No one had suspected such a crippling event, especially since he’d had the stamina and muscle mass of a twenty-year-old. His cholesterol, however, was every day his fifty-six years. For months Liberty had fussed over him. How could he betray her like this? Her family? Their country?
Her lungs burned, and her legs threatened to give out, but she refused to quit now. Not even if Ike was in trouble. She darted into the employee parking lot. Two more men wearing black emerged from a small cluster of cars, obviously prepared to take what they wanted. The normally busy streets were empty tonight. Had everyone evacuated the city since lunch?
As Liberty neared the Folger Library, she spotted a figure across the street, barely visible from the dim lamppost, straddling a motorcycle in front of the Lutheran Church.
The man, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, went on full alert. “What’s wrong?”
She reached him and nearly collapsed.
He steadied her, his gaze zeroing in on the men giving chase.
Her lungs were so strained she didn’t know if she could even manage the words. “Men…” She wheezed, her vision growing dark at the edges. “Attacking me…help.”
He gave her upper arms a firm yet controlled shake that kept her focused. “Get on and hold tight.”
Liberty obeyed, her brain fuzzy with exhaustion and shock. Before she realized what was happening, the bike roared up Second Street, surrounded by the spark of bullets on pavement.
Cole Harding flinched as a bullet zinged past his head and shattered the rear window of a car parked along the curb. He swerved to avoid the glass shards and to keep their heads from being the next round’s target. A muffled whimper mixed with the air rushing past his ears, and his passenger’s arms went lax around his waist. Keeping his eyes on the road, Cole twisted his neck enough for the wind to carry his voice. “Are you hurt?” he yelled.
A sob. “No.” The woman’s head dropped where his neck and shoulder met, and her grip weakened further.
“Don’t pass out on me.” Cole grabbed her arm and yanked it tighter around his waist. “I need you to hang on.”
If she lost consciousness and tipped the bike, they’d be eating pavement into eternity.
The hold around his middle tightened. Relieved she hadn’t been hit, he opened the throttle and zipped past houses filled with families settling in for the night. A stoplight glowed yellow up ahead. They blew around an SUV and a black sedan yielding the intersection and turned right onto Maryland, not slowing until they reached Stafford Park.
Cole braked beneath a copse of trees and killed the engine. He tried to lean back, but the woman plastered to him restricted his movement. “You all right?”
She shuddered. “Yes.”
The woman was long-legged. With her limbs wrapped around him, her knees reached him mid-thigh. Of course, she was sitting as close as she could get. He’d wanted her to hold on, not permanently attach herself.
“Do you think you can stand up?” He needed to find out why the Seekers were after her, and fast. They weren’t safe here for long.
She trembled against him. “I’m…so…cold.”
He wasn’t likely to get answers until she settled down. Cole unlatched her vise-like grip from his abs, maneuvered off the bike, removed his jacket, and draped it over her shoulders. She grabbed the lapels with her left hand and pulled it closed. Polished nails. No rings. A half-inch leather bracelet on her wrist. He kept his ears tuned for any approaching sounds. So far, only typical city noises and shadows. “Who were those guys?”
“I’m not sure.”
“OK. Then why were they chasing you?”
She straightened and dabbed her cheeks with her sleeve. The park was somewhat secluded, and with leaves still covering most of the trees it was hard to get a good assessment of her in the moonlight.
“I…have something they want.”
Obviously, but was she a Seeker gone rogue, or an innocent bystander?
The woman sniffed and then sighed. “Thank you so much for your help.” She wriggled from his coat and folded it across the seat. “I don’t know what I would’ve done otherwise.” Pushing against the bike, she swung her leg over and stood. Swayed.
Cole steadied her by the shoulders. A strap crossed the front of her body and attached to a bag resting at her hip. “You’re welcome.” Five-foot-seven. One hundred forty pounds. Medium-brown hair, ending three inches below the shoulders. Brown eyes?
Cole released her and shifted in hopes the moonlight penetrating through the trees would allow him a good glimpse at her face. “Whatever you have in that bag must be important if men with pistols are hunting you down in a city swarming with law enforcement.”
“It is. But it’s important to me for an entirely different reason. Thank you again.”
She spun to leave but Cole caught her by the elbow, catching the scent of peachy perfume. “Where’re you going?”
“Who are you?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me.”
She jerked away. “I need to go.”
“My head could resemble Swiss cheese right now because of you. At least tell me your name.”
She crossed her arms. Hesitated. “Libby.”
“I’m Griff. At least let me take you where you need to go.”
“I can’t.” She retreated a step.
“Because…” She looked left to right. “I don’t know who I can trust and who I can’t.”
Cole didn’t miss the hitch in her voice. He was the best person to trust at this moment, but she didn’t know that yet. “You said I saved your life. Don’t you think you can trust me?”
He felt more than saw her battle between instinct and rationality. Cole pegged her as both naïve and highly intelligent.
After a long pause, Libby shook her head and backed into an area highlighted by the full moon. A single tear dripped down her face. “Nothing is as it seems anymore.”
Recognition burst Cole’s mission to smithereens. He gaped at the American icon before him.
Liberty Carmichael—First Daughter.
About the Author
Candice Sue Patterson studied at The Institute of Children's Literature and is an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers. She lives with her husband and three sons in a restored farmhouse overtaken by books. When she's not tending to her chickens, splitting wood or decorating cakes, she's working on a new story. Candice writes Modern Vintage Romance--where the past and present collide with faith. For more on Candice and her books, visit www.candicesuepatterson.com.
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