Above and Beyond – Kathryn Shay

“I need you to go to Catasaga, Nick. Indefinitely. Isabelle is getting threatening notes. She could be in grave danger.” Special Agent in Charge Nick Marino stared over at the president of the United States, trying to hide his shock. The Oval Office felt hot all of a sudden, though the cool rain dribbled down outside the open window facing the Rose Garden. “Seriously?” From behind the big oak desk, the president gave a small smile. Nick’s reaction was inappropriate. He shook off the emotion. “Excuse me, sir, but I’m surprised. Of course, I’ll do this willingly.” Tall and built like a football player, James Monroe Manwaring snickered. “You’re probably furious as hell with me. But there are a couple of perks to the assignment. I’m sending Agent Dwyer in with you.

” “Ah.” He’d never worked with his cousin Whitney, who’d become a legend of her own in the service. Manwaring would know her presence in upstate New York sweetened the pot. “And in a year, when your time on the presidential detail is up, I’ll see what I can do for you. I hear one of the deputies to the director might be leaving then.” Nick would move heaven and earth to get in line for the agency’s head job, and the president knew it. Since Nick had joined the Secret Service eighteen years ago, his sole aspiration was to fill the position. Every single career move he’d made had been calculated with that in mind. “But there’s more to why I chose you.” The president frowned.

“The agency has had too many screwups lately. I need someone I can trust up there.” In recent years, several incidents had blighted the reputation of the service big-time. Agents had allowed the White House to be breached. They’d been drunk and disorderly on the grounds. And most reprehensible, they’d behaved abominably on advance travel visits. His own brother had been a victim of one of these events, though there were extenuating circumstances. “I understand, Mr. President. And I apologize for my initial reaction.

” “I appreciate your cooperation Nick.” “Do we have any leads on who’s threatening her?” “No, we don’t. My gut says that it’s me they’re after, through Isabelle. I’ve alienated people, even before I became president.” He had. As attorney general, he’d busted up a ring of dirty cops, been responsible for a myriad of drug arrests and even taken on two corrupt senators and one judge. Because of all that, when he was elected POTUS, he’d been given the code name Pit Bull. Sighing, Nick tried to accept that he was going to be a babysitter for several weeks. The very thought of it frustrated him. Because there was nothing more that Nick Marino wanted than to be in the kill zone.

Chapter 1 The sun shone down on Catasaga Lake making its surface glisten like gold filament. Quiet, except for the buzz of a boat a few miles away and the cheerful chirping of birds in the trees near the house, the setting was idyllic. If Nick wasn’t still annoyed by the president’s request, he might be able to appreciate his surroundings. But he wasn’t a happy camper. No way. And really, he’d had no choice. Periodically, Nick had to say no when James Manwaring wanted to do to something unsafe—like walk a rope line where there had been no advance work done or change the route of a motorcade—but this wasn’t one of those occasions where he could have objected. So Nick had come here to this little lake in upstate New York, to this stiflingly little town of Catasaga, to follow his boss’s directive without complaint. The place was even smaller than the village he’d grown up in, Lakeville, only an hour away. When this assignment was over, he was taking some furlough to visit his parents.

“Agent Marino?” The soft voice came from behind him and he circled around. Raising his dark sunglasses, he anchored them on his head. “Hello, Mrs. Barton.” Out of habit, he made a quick study of the president’s sister. He’d met her before, of course, as he’d been on the PPD for three years, but she’d changed since the last time he’d seen her. Her light brown hair had gotten longer and was streaked by the sun; the bangs she wore were new. Her eyes were startling green, just like those of President Manwaring, but there were lines around them that hadn’t been there. And she was thinner than she’d been at Christmas. Of course, death threats could do that to a person.

“And you should drop the agent and Marino part. I’ll be Nick Martin while I’m here.” To make the situation even harder for Nick, the woman had insisted on being guarded surreptitiously, necessitating an elaborate ruse. The president told Nick they had heated discussions about protection, but she absolutely refused to have a contingent of the Secret Service standing post at her house and accompanying her openly. The president had reluctantly accommodated her, mainly because there were advantages to protecting her on the QT. If they came out full force, and if people were really trying to hurt her, they’d just go into hiding and wait until she was alone again. In some ways, this was the best option. She shifted the bags she was carrying. Since they were overflowing with groceries, he covered the distance between them and reached out to take the sacks from her. “I can do this.

” Her tone—curt and cold—irked him even more. “Give me one.” It wasn’t a request. Better to establish now who was in charge. And since they were slipping from her grasp, she nodded. He grabbed a sack and followed her up the embankment to the bottom of the steps. She didn’t need the second deck he’d be adding on the ground level, though she did require the storage units he would make for her rare-book business. But any real carpenter could have done both. Still, that was the cover chosen as a ruse for Nick to be around so much. She climbed the steep stairway in front of him, her gait steady, her hips swaying in that innately feminine way some women had.

Up top, the deck sported curved railings, built-in seating and wooden boxes filled with red and white flowers. His mother had the same kind, but he could never remember their names. Umbrella tables and chairs provided seating. They entered the house through French doors. “Nice,” he said, glancing around. “Thanks. It belonged to Michael’s parents. He inherited it before we got married.” “I know.” “Oh, of course you do.

By now, you must know everything about me.” Instead of answering, Nick catalogued his surroundings. On the left, a huge glass-and-screened family room with cedar walls and stuffed red-and-white furniture. Green plants in every corner. To the right, a large kitchen, painted a soft yellow with red accents. A breeze floated through the myriad of windows in the back of the house, making the interior pleasantly cool. “Where are the boys?” he asked. “At school.” “Oh, sure, I forgot. I grew up around here, but I’m not used to this lifestyle anymore.

” “The pace will probably kill you. It would my brother.” “But the object is to keep someone from killing you.” The color leached out of her face, accenting the few freckles across her nose. She crossed her arms protectively over her chest. “I didn’t mean to be so blunt, but that’s why I’m here.” She went all soft and feminine on him, and, man, if it wasn’t a transformation. “You have a plan, right, Agent…Nick?” “Of course. Let me set this bag down and I’ll go to the car and get my stuff.” Composing herself, Mrs.

Barton nodded. “I’ll put the groceries away while you do that.” “Out that way?” He pointed to the foyer. “Yes.” The front of the house was spacious and airy, too. He memorized the location of the room, with hardwood floors throughout, a staircase to the second story and one leading down to a so-called inlaw apartment, which had been built on to the house for the president’s mother when she visited. Outside, he grabbed his duffle and another suitcase from the fully equipped SUV that Manwaring had sent for his sister to use. Nick slammed the door and retraced his steps. He left the larger baggage in the foyer and went back to the kitchen. Mrs.

Barton was staring out the window. “I’m back,” he said quietly. Despite his tone, she jerked. “Oh,” she said as she turned around with her hand on her heart. “I’m skittish, I guess.” She crossed to the coffeepot and asked, “Want some?” “Black, please.” He took a seat at the table, fished out papers from his bag and dropped it on the floor next to his chair. When she joined him, he asked, “Where would you like to start?” “With the maniac that’s after me.” She shook her head. “I always hated being the sister of a politician, but this clinches it.

” * * * Isabelle watched disapproval etch itself out on Nick Marino’s face. His expression had been neutral up until now—the iconic mask of a Secret Service agent, the one she’d never seen change when she met up with him through the years—but at her quip, his features hardened. He looked menacing. Too bad. She was none too happy about this mess, either. If she wasn’t so scared for herself and the twins, she would have refused Jimmy’s offer. As it was, she’d worried about the parameters she’d put on her protection, but she couldn’t bear causing a scene in town. Not that it was exactly an offer. He was the president and he simply took charge, even with his own family. He always had.

When she was growing up, he assumed the role of a Victorian-novel father. He scared the hell out of the first boy who kissed her at twelve and, when she was eighteen, he threatened to beat up a guy who wanted to go to first base when Isabelle didn’t. And he’d given her away at her wedding to Michael, his best friend since they were roommates at Yale, with a caveat that if her new husband didn’t treat her right, he’d answer to Jimmy. But she loved her brother dearly, and overall, the good memories outweighed the bad, not the least of which was how he’d dropped everything five years ago and came to stay at the lake with her for almost a week when Michael fell victim to a congenital aneurysm. “Are you ready for this?” All business, the agent laid out a sheaf of papers in front of him. Though they were upside down from her angle, she could make out the presidential seal on the letterhead. “As ready as I’m ever going to be.” “First, we have our top team at the Threat Assessment Center analyzing the notes you received. Written threats almost never go unidentified, so we’ll find this guy.” The messages from the first three were branded in her memory.

The initial one read, Do you like your life, Isabelle? Would you like to keep the status quo? The second, Nothing is as it seems. But it was not until after the third, where Jimmy had been mentioned, that protection had been mandated. Beware, sister of the Prez, all is not right in your world. Shaking off the chill from those cryptic missives, she straightened. “Jimmy mentioned that this”—she waved her hand to encompass the room—“could be over quickly because of the lab’s expertise.” “Our agents will need time to analyze the handwriting, trace the paper and ink and check them against our database.” “Oh.” Not so quickly, she guessed. She pointed to his list. “What else?” “We’ve also alerted the local police to our plans and they’re providing an extra plainclothes officer to drive by.

” One already checked on her on a routine basis, but she knew Burke Olsen, so that practice wouldn’t bother her. “The police were instructed to keep my situation quiet, right?” “Yes. In fact, only the police chief and Sergeant Olsen are aware of who I really am and why I’m here. But no one else will know, as you requested.” That was true. She’d never forget when Jimmy was a controversial attorney general, she and her mother were victims of a kidnapping by an extremist group that disapproved of his policies. The capture had only lasted a day, but Isabelle’s life back in Catasaga had turned into a living hell when the Secret Service was sent in and the paparazzi swarmed the town. Another attempt to snatch her a few years later, but was unsuccessful, resulted in more agents called in to guard her and had the same consequences for her and Michael. “Your tone suggests you disagree with protecting me this way. But you weren’t here the last time some of your ilk came to Catasaga.

The press followed us around and intruded everywhere. They tried to take telephoto shots of Michael and me through our bedroom window, for God’s sake! I won’t have the boys subjected to that.” She took a breath to calm herself. “In any case, Jimmy said there were some advantages to doing the surveillance this way.” “That’s what he told me, too.” “I understand you won’t be responsible for the boys?” “I will for a few days. Then a female agent is coming to pose as a summer nanny.” “I know. I haven’t told them.” She refolded the red linen napkin on the table as she talked.

“They’ll be mad. They’ve always hated babysitters.” She sighed. “But there’s an upside to this, too. With their father gone, they’re too attached to me and they need to develop some independence.” “I know the agent. She’s top-notch.” Isabelle had to be better about all this or the boys would pick up on her feelings. “Okay.” “Somebody’s coming later today to check the house security system.

And add a door camera so we can see who’s approaching the house at all times.” Again, she nodded. He reviewed more details, sipping his coffee as he talked, and Isabelle observed him. When Jimmy said he was sending in an agent, she never expected his top guy to come. She’d thought she’d get more of a brooding Heathcliff, but instead she’d gotten an Ian Fleming–James Bond type. His chestnut-colored hair was cut short and he had the brownest eyes she’d ever seen, reminding her of dark chocolate. From what she could tell from his jeans and loose white shirt, he sported a weight lifter’s build. After an hour, he sat back and studied her. “Let’s stop now. This is a lot to take in.

And I’d like to get settled.” “Oh, sure. The B&B is only a few houses down. You can probably walk there.” “B&B?” “The bed-and-breakfast where you’ll be staying.” “There must be some confusion. The nanny will stay there, but your in-law apartment will be my quarters.” “What?” “I’ll be living here for the duration of my assignment, Mrs. Barton.” “Oh, no, Agent Marino.

You’re the one who’s mistaken. You are not staying in this house with me.” * * * “Put her on speaker phone.” Isabelle’s brother had been in an important meeting when Agent Marino told his secretary to get him. Part of their agreement, she knew, was that Nick be given a direct link to the White House anytime, day or night. “Belle.” Only he and Michael called her that. “What’s up?” “You know very well what’s up. It’s why you didn’t tell me Agent Marino was staying in in the in-law apartment.” “Guilty as charged.

” He was trying to tease her out of her anger, as he often did. “Not funny, Jimmy!” “I’m watching out for you, honey. Like I always have.” “Can’t he stay in the B&B?” “Your comment makes me think you don’t know the seriousness of this whole thing.” He used his presidential voice. “I do know. But this part was totally unexpected.” “And you hate surprises.” A pause. “I should have told you earlier.

Hashed his lodgings out with you. But you objected to having my men there at all and I’ve been so worried, I’ve bulldozed you.” Which happened once before. After she’d been kidnapped, he’d also insisted on several upgrades to the house. She’d given him hell but eventually capitulated. “Yes, you should have.” Despite her words, her anger was dissipating. “How will I explain letting a stranger in my home? Anyone would guess that the president’s sister wouldn’t allow that.” “You can tell people the same story for why Nick’s there in the first place. His brother was a close friend of mine and Michael’s from college.

Nick himself is a contractor from out of town, and I asked him to do me a favor since you needed work done at home and at the bookstore. In return, he gets to stay in Mom’s apartment.” “This keeps getting more and more complicated. And intrusive.” “Threats are intrusive, Belle. In any case, it’s nonnegotiable.” A heavy sigh from her. “How are you, really?” His voice pitched lower, infused with concern. “Anything else happen?” “No.” “Fine, then.

Take it easy on Agent Marino. Nick, keep me updated.” “Yes, sir.” “I love you,” the president said to Isabelle. “I love you, too.” * * * When the call ended, Nick stared over at her. The resignation in her eyes unsettled him. “I hate this.” She raked her hair off her face with both hands and leaned on the oval oak table where they sat in the kitchen. “Especially being the center of attention.

My life here is so calm. Nobody in Catasaga cares anymore about me being the sister of the president.” Somebody cared. “A lot of people would use that status. Think of how your bookstore would flourish if you advertised that the only sibling of the president of the United States owned Barton Books.” “The business partner I took on when Michael died suggested that, too. But I’d despise it. I’ve always managed to keep a low profile and I like things that way.” Best to change the subject. “What do the boys know?” Now worry invaded her eyes, flecking them with some gray.

“I didn’t tell them who you are, of course. They can’t keep secrets. And they’ve only seen you once or twice. They think someone’s coming to add on another deck and put in the storage unit for my rare books.” “As your brother said, we’ll tell them that my room and board is partial payment for the handyman chores I’m doing.” As if on cue, a door banged out front. “Mom! We’re home.” Nick heard what sounded like the rumble of baby elephants across the hard wood of the foyer and hallway. Two bundles of energy screeched to a halt at the entrance to the back of the house. Two identical bundles, dressed in jean shorts and different-colored shirts, ball caps on their heads, sneakers on their feet.

They resembled President Manwaring. “Who’s he?” one asked. Mrs. Barton arched a brow. “Where are your manners, guys?” An impish grin from the boy who’d spoken. “We left ’em in the bus.” With the sideways glance to the jokester, she said, “This is Mr. Martin.” “You the guy who’s gonna do the deck?” the same one asked. “Uh-huh.

” “We seen you before?” the other said quietly. Nick started to answer, but Mrs. Barton spoke first. “No, you’ve never met Mr. Martin. But he reminds me of somebody, too. Maybe an actor on TV. Come in so I can introduce you properly.” When the six-year-old twins rushed over and took turns hugging their mother, something shifted inside of Nick. He and his brothers had always been affectionate with their mom—at this age and now.

Mrs. Barton patted one boy’s shoulder. “This is Jamie.” She ruffled the other’s hair. “And this is Ryan.” “Hi, guys.” Nick shook hands with each child. “When you gonna start the deck?” Jamie asked. He had more freckles than Ryan. “Very soon.

” “School’s out tomorrow. Can we help?” Jamie again. “You have to stay out of Mr. Martin’s way, boys.” “No worries. I’m sure I can find jobs for you to do and stay safe.” He leaned over and spoke in a false whisper. “And get paid, too.” “Holy cow, that’s great. Right, Mom?” Ryan looked to his mother for approval.

He was clearly the one who wanted to please her, though he seemed to defer to his brother. “I agree.” Jamie asked, “Is that your car out front, Mr. Martin? It’s cool.” “Uh-huh.” They’d never know the vehicle was one of several black cars the president used. Not visible to the naked eye were bulletproof windows, wheel inserts in case the tires were shot out and a self-healing gas tank. “How about a snack?” Mrs. Barton stood and went to the counter, removed shiny red apples from a bowl and cut them as the boys chattered about their day. When the slicing was done, she put the fruit on the table with a bowl of almonds.

The kids dug in. “No cookies?” Nick asked, remembering his mom having his favorite kind ready when he got out of school—oatmeal raisin. The scent had greeted him and his brothers as soon as they entered the house. Again, Mrs. Barton smiled, this time more genuinely. “If they want one after this, they can have one.” Jamie did. Ryan didn’t. The boys finished eating and left to go watch some TV. “They’re great,” Nick said truthfully.

“They’re like their father.” “I thought they looked like your brother.” “Oh, they do. So did Michael. People always thought they were related. What I meant was Jamie has his father’s devilishness and Ryan his sensitivity.” “Sounds like a perfect guy.” Her eyes were sad now, even though her husband had died five years ago. Not that Nick knew much about love, other than for his family. The Secret Service was the death knell for romantic relationships.

Every single woman he’d dated said she could handle the long stretches away, the secrecy and the brotherhood that developed among agents. Every single one couldn’t. Most people didn’t realize that protective detail wasn’t a job, it was a way of life. “Michael was the best man in the world.” For some reason, Nick wondered if she had a boyfriend. She was pretty in a wholesome kind of way, especially when she let down her guard. He was an expert at reading people and loyalty emanated from her. She was probably a one-man woman. He’d be happy if that was true. Protecting a person on a date was hell.

He was already privy to more intimate knowledge of the president and his family than he wanted to be. Hazard of the job. He shot a quick glance at the boys, perched on the couch in the family room, then back to Mrs. Barton. Maybe this whole thing wasn’t going to be that bad. These were genuinely nice people who’d been dealt a bad hand. It wasn’t their fault he’d been exiled to watch them for the duration. * * * He’d culled out a space in the oak trees on the left side of the house. Lucky for him the Barton family had dough and could afford prime property on Catasaga Lake and a home three times the size of the one he grew up in. His resentment made it easier for him to do this fucking job.

So did the heat, which had shot up enough to make him sweat like a pig. His stupid employers had kept him late at a meeting, but he’d still gotten here today when the boys came home from school. They’d be easy targets, if those employers wanted to include them. So far, they’d said no. A man came out the back door. Shit! Who was this? He walked along the deck like an inspector. Then took something out of his pocket. A measuring tape. What the hell? The guy descended the steps and began marking off the grass below, taking notes on a pad he’d pulled from his jeans pocket. “Don’t tell me…” he whispered.

She was having a new deck built? Son of a bitch. Putting the plan in place had twice been delayed and he wanted to get this over with. How could the powers-that-be have missed this? Taking out his cell phone, he punched in a number. One ring, then, “Yes?” “You aren’t gonna believe this. Seems like she’s getting an addition to the back of the house.” “She doesn’t need an addition.” “I think maybe a deck.” “She already has a deck.” “What do you want me to do?” “Hold off on the next step. I’ll make some calls and get the scope of this first.

I’ll be back in touch.” “Should I keep her under surveillance?” “What do you think?” The line went dead. “I think you’re a goddamned asshole,” he said into his phone. But he’d do what he was told. The consequences of the alternative were too great.

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