Free Fiction on the 14th: Emily’s Christmas Gift

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EMILY’S CHRISTMAS GIFT
by M.L. Buchman
-a Henderson’s Ranch Big Sky story-

Major Emily Beale (retired—mostly) keeps her hand in the Black Ops world remotely from the family horse ranch on Montana’s Front Range. Her husband, Major Mark Henderson (fully retired), has settled comfortably into his new role as father and ranch operator.

Years ago, she helped rescue a young girl. But when Emily’s childhood friend, the former President of the United States, comes to visit, he raises doubts about the girl’s safety. No longer so sure of herself, Emily must reach deep into the White House’s secret library to find the answers. Little does she know the true location of Emily’s Christmas Gift.

And don’t miss the companion story: Dilya’s Christmas Challenge, a White House Protection Force story. (info below this story)

Chapter 1

Emily watched Mark being as calm as could be and tried not to resent it. When the heavy Montana snowstorms of December kept them indoors at the main ranch house, he was content to slouch low on the couch and watch a Disney movie with the girls in the cozy family area off the kitchen.

If they wanted to build a fort—Emily always thought of it as a fort, though the girls kept insisting they were tents—Mark would reconfigure the family sitting area off the kitchen no matter what inconvenience it caused the adults.

Between the three of them, they made sure that each construction looked unlike any prior effort. A tropical paradise one time, decorated mostly with one of the ranch hand’s awful Hawaiian shirt collection. Another time, a Cheyenne teepee built with Mark’s mother’s lovely weavings. She’d particularly liked that one. Being in Montana, and especially if Julie was around to help, Western themes were common, often with horse tack or some of her rodeo trophies for decoration.

In the summers Mark lived to fly tourists around in his helicopter and fish, but in the winter his one joy was keeping his girls happy.

That she herself was one of “his girls” always made their daughters giggle with delight. And she was happy. All she had to do was watch her daughters and she let their constantly bubbling joy wash over her. They might build their forts—tents with their father. But it was never considered complete until she had joined them for the final tour. Mark often left some final task for her to do so that she’d at least feel included. Then they would all lie in it together—Mark at the center with all three of “his girls” clinging happily to him.

Those were the best moments of her life. Perhaps a close second to waking in his arms on the long quiet winter mornings before Tessa and Belle sprang to life like a pair of Jill-in-the-boxes.

She’d known he was a good man and a great commander, but his daughters had never met “The Viper” who used to scare the shit out of everybody, including her. His steel gray eyes had rarely been revealed from behind his mirrored shades. He’d even proposed to her while wearing them—after dark. Which was perhaps the only thing that had kept her from turning into a complete empty-headed mush in that moment.

But his daughters only saw the sky gray that his eyes shone when he was happiest—and the mirrored shades were now worn only in the strong Montana sun. It was impossible for her not be happy while she watched the stern, taciturn, demanding Major Mark “The Viper” Henderson (retired) have no compunction about acting as the total goofball with his girls. He was a better father than she was a mother, but she didn’t know what to do about that. When they were upset, it was her they came to, so she still had something. But it often meant she got the tears and Mark earned all the cheers.

Emily didn’t resent it…much. She mostly just wished it was somehow different.

She turned to the fire and watched what she could see of the flames. They were partially blocked by a great bulge in this week’s fort, which was huge by any previous standard.

This room was where the family lived during the day when they weren’t out on the ranch. The high-timbered main room and the dining room with its forty-person pine table was for the guests. In the long, bitter, off-season months, it was also where all the locals gathered for the occasional party to break the monotony of winter.

That was for others. The family lived in the kitchen. The kitchen itself was a full commercial setup, decorated like in ranch-house warm timber and cool granite stone. At the near end stood a large plank table of Douglas fir where the family and the ranch hands ate their meals together.

This sitting area to the side had a big stone fireplace, and a scattering of couches and armchairs enough for the entire staff…or there had been until the kids started showing up. Once they graduated from lap-sized, they would have to squeeze in some more furniture. The bookcases that lined the river stone walls already had more shelves added to accommodate the girls’ picture books.

Of course more furniture couldn’t happen with their latest fort in place—she could only see half the fire from her favorite end of the couch.

It was like a mighty Christmas igloo, its walls built high with pillows raided from all of the guest cabins that were closed for the winter. Mark had waded out into the freezing dawn this morning to cut down and drag home a ten-foot larch to stand at its center. Now, with the tree up and their pillow-wall built, the three of them were madly working away inside. Only the tree’s single uppermost branch was visible above the domed roof, like a wide smoke hole escaping the dome of pillows.

Whenever there was a newborn about, either Chelsea’s or Julie’s boy, their father was instantly abandoned without further thought—which made her feel a little better. Of course, then Emily had to keep a close eye so that the girls didn’t smother the two infants with affection. How in the world she’d raised two such…girls was a mystery to her. At five, Tessa was an utter extrovert who had all the ranch hands completely wrapped around her tiny pinkie. Belle at three was the steadier one, but only by comparison.

Emily didn’t pace when the heavy snow and the biting cold winds forced them to remain indoors, but she wished she’d taken up watching sports on television or something. But after a career of flying helicopters first to war and then to wildfire, watching a bunch of guys chase a football up and down a chunk of AstroTurf in little one- and two-yard spurts couldn’t be called exciting.

“I’m absolutely hiring Mark for the next seventeen years,” Chelsea plummeted down into the big armchair beside Emily’s end of the couch, then had to drag her fingers through her long hair to toss it over her shoulder so she could see. Her cheeks were brilliant red after crossing the snow from where she and her husband, the ranch manager, lived on the other side of the barnyard. Maybe Emily should grow her gold-blonde hair as long, the way Mark kept hinting, but it had been chopped dead straight to her shoulders for her entire life.

Emily saw Mark now sitting on the braided rug with Chelsea’s three-month old boy Christopher cradled in his arms—whose hair was already as red as his mother’s. Tessa and Belle were leaning on his thighs from either side and reaching over to inspect the infant who watched with such wide, serious eyes. Her own fair hair hadn’t been passed on to either daughter, having no chance against Mark’s genes from his brown-haired father and Cheyenne mother.

“Or maybe I’ll just knock you off and get two husbands, keep Doug for me and have Mark for the kid.” Chelsea extended her feet toward the fire.

“I’m notoriously hard to kill.” Emily’s specialty had been black-in-black missions. Black ops so sensitive that they were talked about with no one, ever. And so dangerous that each one was a curse of its own. Mark accompanied her on or referred vaguely to four—she’d stopped counting as she neared ten.

“Oh, don’t worry, Emily,” Chelsea slouched lower. “I’d like, uh, get Julie to do it for me. She was raised a cowgirl and knows how to do the icky stuff.”

“I’m a horsegirl now. And do what?” Julie settled very slowly on the couch beside Emily, careful not to wake Jared asleep in her arms. Like her own children, Jared had his father’s dark hair and eyes rather than Julia’s wheat blonde and blue. If he’d slept through the snowy trek down the hill from their cabin, then it would take far more than a small bump to wake him, but Emily knew better than to say such a thing to a new mother. She had to smile at her own worries about Tessa in the beginning.

She did scoop up Jared and hold him while Julie shed her thick coat and tossed it over a maple wood chair. Then she settled back on the plaid sofa and took Jared back, again with infinite care.

Like the toddler-magnets they were, Tessa and Belle appeared on either side of Julie. Tessa sat on Julie’s far side, but Belle pushed and squirmed—with plenty of bumps that Jared never noticed—until she was sitting between Emily and Julie. Emily looped an arm around her daughter, not as if there was anywhere else to put it, and kissed her on top of the head.

“I need you to…uh,” Chelsea glanced at the two young girls before answering Julie, “…remove Emily for me. Kinda permanently so I can have Mark as a full-time babysitter.”

“Too late,” Julie gently blocked Belle reaching over to wake Jared. Belle was completely enamored of Jared’s big eyes and the two of them could stare at each other for hours. “I’ve already got dibs. Besides, I thought we liked Emily?”

“We do. But where has that gotten us?”

“They grow, you know,” Emily decided it was time for a subject change to something other than her demise. “Far too quickly, I might add.” She pulled one of Ama’s Cheyenne blankets off the back of the couch—this one she’d loved from the first moment, so rich with warm golds and dark reds in a geometric pattern. Spreading it over Julie’s and the girls’ laps earned her contented smiles.

“See?” Julie looked over at Chelsea. “She knows things. I vote that we keep her.”

“Well, she is out there ahead of us,” Chelsea finally agreed. “So, what are the good bits waiting for us?”

“We’re almost done with diapers.”

“Oh God,” the two women moaned in unison. “Can’t happen too soon.”

“Thankfully, Mark is okay trading off on that duty.”

“That does it,” Chelsea declared. “Sorry, Emily. We really like you, but you’re totally toast.”

“I’ve still got dibs on Mark.” The threat didn’t seem too serious as Julie was looking down at her sleeping son with a big smile on her face.

Mark was bent halfway over from placing the now-sleeping Christopher into Chelsea’s arms when he finally clued into the last comment. He paused, inspecting all of them carefully.

“Why does this sound like a conversation I want no part of?”

“Because you are a very smart man who loves his wife above any other woman on Earth.”

“It’s true,” Mark shrugged happily before stepping around the back of the couch and leaning down to kiss her from the side.

Emily could feel her internal compass slowly returning to True North. It wasn’t often she flew off course, but with Mark’s lips on hers, she managed to rediscover her rudder control.

“Oh man,” Chelsea groaned in envy.

“Chelsea’s right,” Julie agreed. “You’d better watch your back, Emily. We’re ganging up on you and you’re going down. Soon.”

“By Christmas.”

Emily ignored them both as Mark drew out the kiss to tease them. No complaints from her.

“Where are your men?” Mark asked when he finally let her surface for air, leaving her heartrate up about Black Hawk rotor speed. “Two such beautiful women with babies in their arms shouldn’t be sitting here unkissed.”

“They abandoned us.”

“Left us destitute.”

“They may have mumbled something about feeding the horses.”

“So here we sit.”

“In our prime.”

“Unkissed,” they finished in unison and both aimed ridiculous puckers at Mark and batted their eyelashes. Well, Chelsea did. Julie tried but mostly looked down and blushed for being so forward.

“Feeding the horses, huh? I’d better go check on them.” He didn’t leave at a run, but he definitely used his best ground-eating stride.

“Ooo,” Chelsea cooed loudly. “Looks good from behind too. All mine.”

Mark double-timed it out as the three of them shared a laugh.

When he was gone, there was a long silence. Long enough for Belle to slip into a nap against Emily’s side and for Tessa to yawn broadly before curling up at the end of the sofa and resting her head on Julie’s thigh while Jared wrapped his tiny hand around her pinkie without quite waking.

“What’s up with you, Emily?” Julie asked softly.

“There’s something up with you?” Chelsea peered at her in surprise.

“Nothing.” Emily ignored the slump that Mark had only temporarily lifted. She toyed with the blanket’s fringe for a moment before she caught herself at it and tucked her hands out of sight. “Besides, since when can either of you tell what I’m thinking?”

“Since forever. We’re your best friends,” Julie spoke softly.

“Yeah. Maybe we aren’t all experienced and old like you, but we know shit.”

They’d both found the love of their life and reproduced in their early twenties. It had taken her until thirty to find love, then more years of service, finally the first kid…and that had been five years ago. Forty wasn’t here yet, but it was incoming—fast. She closed her eyes. This was December. She’d been born in… Yep, really fast.

“Is forty bumming you out?”

Emily sat with it for a while. “No, I don’t think that’s it…”

“Told you something was up with her,” Julie whispered to Chelsea.

“Of course, you two youngsters are enough to make a grown woman a little nuts.”

“But you love us both anyway, huh?”

Emily looked at Chelsea and couldn’t deny that truth.

“Like daughters?” Julie’s voice was slightly wistful. Her family life hadn’t been real fun. Just the hard life of a cattle ranch with a strict father, a silent mother, and three older brothers, but none of the joy she’d discovered when she’d fallen in love with the man who was now Henderson’s Ranch’s head chef.

Daughters?” Emily winced. “Now you’re just trying to make me feel old. How about younger sisters?”

Julie actually nodded fiercely. As if it was important.

Chelsea too was blinking hard. “If I wasn’t afraid of waking this little terror, I’d come over there and give you major kiss.”

Curiously, Emily caught herself in mid-sniffle, but managed to take a deep breath to cover it.

“It’s just,,,” She honestly didn’t know.

“Pre-Christmas blues?”

“Year-end blahs?”

“Desperate need for a third child?”

That earned them a bark of laughter that made all four children stir in their sleep.

They all held their breaths until the kids had resettled and the only sounds were the fierce Montana winds struggling vainly to rattle the solid house.

“Not a chance,” Emily kept her voice low just in case they weren’t fully asleep again. “I don’t think Mark would mind, but having your kids late means all sorts of strange things. I’ll be sixty before this one graduates from college.” She could feel Belle so warm and safe against her side. What would it be like when Belle was a woman grown like Julie or Chelsea and maybe with a child of her own? Out in the world where Emily couldn’t protect her?

At Tessa’s age, she herself had already had a crush on Peter Matthews—the perfect older boy next door. But he’d married and become President of the United States. She’d gone to West Point and become the first woman of the Night Stalkers. By Julie and Chelsea’s age, she’d been flying helicopters on her second tour into war zones with the 101st Airborne.

“Sixty? Shit, you are old, sis.”

“Go to hell, Chelsea.”

“Not gonna happen. I’ve got you for a big sister, means I’ve gotta being doing something right.”

Emily knew Chelsea had earned a laugh, but she couldn’t seem to find it. She lay her head back on the couch and wondered what was wrong with her. Maybe it was just the season. Or that Night Stalkers helicopter pilots, unlike most Special Operations Forces, could fly well into their fifties—if they hadn’t reproduced. It wasn’t some rule that had kept her out. Instead, her own fears for her child’s safety had cost her that finely-honed edge that made a true Spec Ops pilot. Maybe it was that…

Something was wrong, and she had no idea what.

She heard a soft gasp from Chelsea that made her open her eyes.

And looked up directly into Peter’s. Mark and Peter were grinning at her—upside down over the back of the soft, brown-leather couch.

“Surprise, Squirt.”

“You’re supposed to be in Washington, D.C., Sneaker Boy.” Her childhood nickname for the former President of the United States. Except he wasn’t anymore. He was the Secretary of State. His nickname was still Sneaker Boy.

She heard a deep, guffaw in the background.

“Hi, Frank.”

“Good afternoon, Major Beale,” the head of Peter’s Secret Service Protection Detail sounded as formal as ever. Yet another reminder of what she’d left behind.

Then she looked over at Mark.

“You seemed kinda down, Emily. So I invited Peter out for Christmas as a surprise. His wife, kid, and maybe a few others will be out next week.”

“You’re feeling down?” Peter suddenly sounded worried. Just exactly what she didn’t need—the Secretary of State and former President flying to Montana in the middle of winter to hover. There’d be no point trying to explain it to Mark; he’d never be convinced he’d overreacted.

“You’re what?” “What’s wrong?” Apparently done with the horses, Chelsea’s and Julie’s husbands chimed in from somewhere out of view.

Emily sat up and looked at her younger sisters. “Don’t bother killing me, just take Mark for yourselves, please. Now.”

“Do you really change diapers?” Chelsea turned to Mark, who shrugged a yes.

“Dibs,” Julie said again.

 

Chapter 2

“Seriously, Em. What’s wrong?”

She’d led Peter through the bitter cold out to the horse barn, because no matter what Mark thought, the Secretary of State didn’t fly to Montana just because a friend was feeling sad. Though she had to give Mark a few points for noticing how she was feeling when she’d barely realized it herself.

She stopped at Chesapeake’s stall. The barn was warm with the scent of horse and hay. The light was dim beneath the blowing storm, making it feel almost as cozy as the kitchen—as long as you were wearing a jacket or a horse blanket.

She hadn’t had the clarity of mind to remember to grab a treat from the house, but Chelsea kept a bag of carrots in her office and Emily had grabbed one as she walked by.

Breaking off a piece, she palmed it to her horse. The big chestnut mare lipped it off her palm and crunched it down. She leaned her cheek against the horse’s and felt her chew.

“Mark’s right. You are looking down.”

“Which isn’t why you’re here.”

“Well, not all of it, but—”

“Why are you here, Sneaker Boy?”

Peter laughed, then startled when Julie’s black-and-white painted horse, Clarence, stuck his head out of his stall to see what was going on and almost knocked Peter over.

Emily gave him a chunk of Chesapeake’s carrot as a reward.

“I don’t know as I’d have come for either reason separately, but when Mark called to invite me out and…” he shrugged. “It’s about Dilya.”

She spun to face him, but he only looked concerned, not afraid.

“What about her?” Emily barely managed to keep her voice steady. Dilya was the war-orphan adopted daughter of her best friend Archie and his wife Kee, the first woman to qualify for the Night Stalkers after she herself had. That terrified and starved ten-year-old was now a lovely seventeen-year-old, living in the White House as nanny to the First and Second children.

“She’s…” Peter’s face showed that he really didn’t know as he stumbled to a halt.

“Okay. Not sick. Not in trouble. What?”

Peter finally shrugged. “She reminds me too much of you.”

“Of me?” She showed him how to hold some carrot to feed to Clarence before she fed the greens to Chesapeake. Why on earth would that be?

“Remember when we first met?”

“No. I think I was about three days old. My memory is good, but even I have limits.”

“I mean when we re-met.”

“You mean when I slammed the head of your Protection Detail onto his ass on the White House’s main staircase?” She raised her voice enough to make sure Frank Adams could hear her as he returned from checking that there were no four-legged assassins lurking in the horse barn.

“Are we really back to this, Major? You just gotta keep bringing that up, don’t you?”

“It was memorable.”

Frank grumbled as he moved by to check the other end of the barn.

“Yes,” Peter waited until Frank was again out of earshot. “I’d been following your career for some time by then. And I was horrified at the dangers you were going into.”

“Because I was a woman.”

Peter looked down and scuffed one of his perfect leather shoes at the dirty straw. For all his supposed sophistication, he was still a guy—which meant she’d never understand him.

“That,” he admitted, “and because you were my friend. You were the little girl next door who was suddenly flying thirty-million-dollar helicopters straight into harm’s way.”

“What has this got to do with Dilya?”

“You know that girl’s nose for trouble?”

“You don’t know the half of it.” In her first month after they’d rescued her, Dilya had identified two men so intent on revenge that they didn’t care if it could start the next World War. Then she’d stowed away on a clandestine insertion deep into Uzbekistan to stop them. A detail that was never included in any action report.

“And I’m guessing I don’t want to. But now? I’m getting worried for her, Em.”

Emily glanced up at her secure office within the stable. Her Tac Room (short for Tactical) had been built directly over the Tack Room (filled with saddles and bridles). It had been finished with the same, aged wood, so that it didn’t stand out at all. Its windows were dark—with special glass that appeared opaque even when lit from within. The only clue from the outside that it was anything special was the very sophisticated lock mounted out of sight from below. From there, at Peter’s behest, she’d created the White House Protection Force. The WHPF had proven to be immensely successful, saving the new President’s life on three separate occasions and averting any number of other minor disasters.

And despite Emily’s best intentions, Dilya had several times ended up far too close to the action for comfort. The last time, nearly being shot down over Canadian soil.

“So, what do you want me to do? Scare her straight?”

She could see Peter’s face brighten.

“You know that’s not going to happen, don’t you?”

And he looked worried again.

“She’s an incredibly bright kid. And she’s grown up with the elite Night Stalkers company for companions, a sniper mother, a strategic consultant father, and essentially unlimited access to your and now Zachary’s White House. You think she was just being cute all those times she ‘hung out’ in the Oval with you? I guarantee you that Dilya was never an innocent child—at least not since we found her. Watching both your parents be executed right in front of you will do that to a kid.”

Peter leaned sadly against the stall door. His idea of casual was a two-piece suit rather than a three-piece under his heavy black wool coat. Clarence snorted in his ear and made him jump away in alarm. Out of carrot, she made a point of scritching the horse’s cheek with her fingers until he huffed out a happy sigh.

“If we can’t keep her out of trouble, how do we teach her to judge when she’s in too deep or at least to cry for help?”

Emily leaned back against Chesapeake’s neck. Her childhood friend had been Peter, who was six years older than she was. Julie had been right, Emily knew things because she was out ahead of them…but Belle was two and Tessa was five. That wasn’t seventeen. She knew nothing yet about anything after age five. Her only solution had been to treat Dilya as a small adult…one who wasn’t so small anymore.

But it was a crucial question. Peter was right, Dilya’s well-being depended on it. And she knew just who to ask.

 

Chapter 3

Convincing Peter that there were some things he didn’t want to know had proved just as hard as usual, but Emily had practice at it. With Frank’s help, she soon had him shooed back over to the main house.

Mounting the stairs to her Tac Room, she keycoded the door, offered her eye for retinal scan, then locked the door behind her.

The one-way glass gave her a long view of the horse stalls, their occupants lazing through the cold winter day, happily napping and munching on hay. Chelsea came into the barn at the far end of the stalls. She waved up as she always did in case Emily was watching, and headed into her own office. As the ranch’s horse manager, she was meticulous in the care of her charges and the recent vet’s visit to give all of them a checkup had probably left a pile of paperwork.

Emily liked the company when they were both working out here, even if they were isolated in separate offices. Chelsea didn’t have the security clearance to ever be inside this room.

Emily had already done her check of the public world news this morning. Now, in her secure space, she flipped through today’s briefing documents from the various agencies. No real surprises—hot spots were still hot, but nothing abnormal. She’d be paged if there was a real crisis calling for her attention, but it wasn’t the sort of day where that seemed likely. The First and Second families were having their typical White House workdays without travel. Which also meant Dilya would be rattling around the White House.

She tapped in a coded signal and settled in to wait while she read up on that latest internal status reports from NATO.

Her Tac Room assistant, Lauren, had proved herself immensely capable when dealing with military contacts. But the other side of Emily’s information network—the one that reached deep into the White House itself—no one knew about except herself. With Lauren honeymooning at Disneyland over the holidays, Emily didn’t have to worry about shooing her out to place this call.

“Hello, my dear.” Her central screen lit with the face of one of the White House Protection Force’s primary assets. Her gray hair framed an ageless face. Sometimes it seemed she’d aged past old crone and gone straight on to wizened. At other times, her face was clear enough that the gray hair was a shock. Today, she simply appeared what she was—a beautiful woman in her seventies (probably).

Behind her ranged the most unusual library in Washington, DC—which was saying something. Emily knew from her one visit there that it wasn’t large. Her office felt even smaller because every inch of wall space from floor to ceiling was packed solid with books. Also on display were some of the more clandestine tools of the spy trade, which the shadows hadn’t afforded her a chance to study. It was also perhaps the most accurate library on spies and spy craft ever assembled. There were less than a dozen people who knew where it lay—behind the door of Room 043-Mechanical in the White House Residence’s deepest subbasement. And the woman in charge had been one of the greatest spies, including undocumented ones, of them all.

A blurred red-and-green glow stood to one side of the camera’s view—too close to be clearly seen. A desktop Christmas tree perhaps? What did a master spy’s Christmas tree look like? Probably a cone of stacked red-and-green code books used over the last half-century.

“Hello, Miss Watson. How are you today?”

“Oh, I’m good my dear. Very good. Thank you for asking. Is there something amiss that I’m unaware of?”

“Not likely,” Emily sometimes wondered if Miss Watson was helping her keep the White House safe or if she was helping Miss Watson.

Miss Watson offered one of her grandmotherly smiles, “I don’t know that you’ve ever made a social call before.”

And at Emily’s wince, Miss Watson clearly understood that this one wasn’t either.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, it was that she never thought to. Not a single one of those fine skills that her mother, one of DC social queens, had struggled to cultivate in her only offspring had stuck.

“Emily, dear child…”

She almost laughed. She now had two younger “sisters” and all of them had children, yet—

“Tell me the reason you called, then we can talk about why you should have called earlier.”

Emily tried looking at the books behind Miss Watson. Was there a guide to mindreading tucked away somewhere on those shelves? Unsure quite what Miss Watson meant, she described Peter’s concerns about Dilya.

“That child was never young. Such potential.”

Emily suddenly wasn’t sure that Miss Watson’s influence on Dilya was a good thing. What little she knew of Miss Watson’s exploits told of the immense risks a woman could take in the name of the Cold War. It had been inevitable that Dilya’s natural inquisitiveness had brought them together. Unfortunately what happened at the White House was outside of her control. Emily could protect, but she couldn’t control.

Instead, her skill had always been in locating and cultivating exceptional talent. The President’s new driver, one of his dog handlers, and others she’d helped put in place kept the President safer far beyond anything the Secret Service would understand—or ever be told about.

The White House Protection Force did not include Dilya, and yet she seemed to end up in the center of every problem—even when those problems became life-threatening.

“The girl is so independent. Perhaps too much so.”

“Too much?” Emily had always prided herself on her own independence. It was what had let her succeed in a male world—absolute self-reliance.

“Yes. She knows a great deal more about depending solely on her own judgment than even you, my dear child. Despite your deservedly decorated career. And don’t we both know about some of the decorations you can never admit to.”

Emily kept her best neutral expression on her face, but Miss Watson merely winked. No one, but no one other than the former President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff should know about her medals from black-in-black operations. Even Mark didn’t know about those. No more than he’d know that she was technically still on active duty as a consultant.

“Dilya has carefully positioned herself to know more than everyone around her here at the White House,” Miss Watson continued blithely. “I even hold a hope that someday she— Well, never mind that now. I believe that you’ve raised a valid question and I shall give it some thought. It is Christmas soon. Perhaps I shall give her a Christmas gift after all.”

Emily considered what that might mean and suddenly wished she hadn’t placed this call in the first place. Perhaps she should call Dilya and warn her away from Miss Watson. Actually, she could think of no faster way to drive Dilya directly into the fray. In that, she and Dilya were much alike.

Before Emily could open her mouth to protest or perhaps even try to call Miss Watson off, she continued so smoothly that Emily never managed a word.

“Now, my dear. Let’s talk about what’s troubling you.”

“Nothing’s troubling me.”

“It isn’t age,” Miss Watson ignored her fib. “No woman as beautiful as you with two lovely children and such an exceptional husband can doubt that she is in the prime of her life.”

She sighed.

“And I must compliment you on the fine job you did helping your husband transition to retired life. You are much better with people than you think you are. You picture yourself so austere and remote, yet people are drawn to you anyway.”

Emily opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. She had just acquired two younger sisters this morning. Miss Watson couldn’t know about them, could she? At least not yet? But she was right, the emotions on their faces had been no lie. Emily had always built team loyalty by being the best—no matter what it cost her. By being the best, she’d attracted the best. Yet it wasn’t by outperforming anyone on the team that Julie had asked, I thought we liked Emily? And Chelsea had agreed, We really do.

“I remember such a time of reflection shortly before I died.”

“You…died?”

“Oh yes, dear. Any number of times.” She nudged a finger against the Christmas tree that was just a blur on the edge of the screen. It moved, so it wasn’t books. Maybe it was better if she didn’t know. “It is an easy way to cover your tracks in an on-going operation. But I’m referring to when I let the CIA believe I had died.”

“How did they take it?”

“Oh, it was a lovely funeral. I have a star up on their wall, which is quite an honor in my business.”

“And they still don’t know about you surviving?”

Miss Watson shrugged, “There comes a time in a woman’s life where one must move closer to the heart. We aren’t men, after all.”

Emily felt that was rather obvious.

“You’ll want to think about that, child. You are a woman grown. You’ve fought for the right, and done the duties that a man does. For great achievers like us, struggling within a society not ready for us, we must now come to terms with being…ourselves.”

“How did you do it?”

But Miss Watson’s ghost of a smile demurred.

How had she done it? From what little Emily knew, Miss Watson might have always been in the White House subbasement. Yet apparently she’d also been a spy in the final years of the Vietnam War and had a Soviet two-star general as a lover. Emily, too, heard things.

She’d first met Miss Watson years before during her brief residence at the White House as the First Lady’s personal chef. She’d thought nothing of it at the time—some elderly White House staffer she’d chatted with about the war she was fighting in Afghanistan. In hindsight Emily could see that things had changed for her from that moment. She’d— “Oh, I became your weapon.”

Miss Watson offered her a slightly surprised expression.

“All those additional black-in-black ops. The toughest missions—”

“—Came to you because of your supreme confidence and exceptional abilities. Don’t try to make me the wizard behind the curtain of your career, Emily. You are tactically an exceptional woman. It is the bigger picture that slips by you. Dilya is beginning to see her own bigger picture, which is why you worry about her—we fear what we don’t understand.”

“But—”

“Oh, my dear child,” Miss Watson was gently shaking her head. “In the later years, you are still yourself. But the challenges are new. You must learn who you, yourself are. Rediscover or, if that fails, discover for the first time, the amazing woman you are.”

“That’s your advice?”

“The voice of experience.”

Emily couldn’t help but remember Julie leaning forward just this morning, She knows things. I vote that we keep her.

Man oh man, did she ever have them fooled.

“What did you—”

“Oh no, child. It would be cheating to tell. Besides, Dilya is far more my daughter than you are—at least in how she thinks. You must discover your own woman.”

“Why doesn’t that feel helpful?”

“Because you’re still thinking as if you live in a man’s world, challenging the status quo.” Then Miss Watson shook herself lightly, glanced at her bookshelves somewhere out of sight, and suddenly appeared much older.

“Miss Watson, are you—”

“It is time I sent for Dilya.”

“Miss Watson?” Emily could think of nothing else to say.

“Go see your family, dear.” Then she was gone.

Emily sat in her small Tac Room and looked at blank screen, she tried not to feel sadder than before the call. Did the poor woman even have any family? Did she even have someone to spend Christmas with? Not that Emily knew of, and yet here she was dumping her own doubts upon Miss Watson.

She knew she could trust Dilya to Miss Watson’s care and she’d hear soon enough what had happened. Emily had forgotten how much she liked Miss Watson and promised herself that her next call would be strictly social. Or when she needed a break from the Montana winter, she’d visit her parents in DC and arrange to drop in on the White House subbasement personally.

As for herself, none of it felt like a solution to anything.

 

Chapter 4

“What are you up to, babe?” Mark slid down on the couch beside her. He flipped up the edge of the big Cheyenne weaving she’d thrown over herself hours before while she’d watched the fire burn. There were only a few embers left, dying from lack of tending.

“What time is it?”

“Way early, but I missed you in bed.” He pulled her into his arms and kissed her on the temple.

A week had passed and she was no closer to understanding any of Miss Watson’s life lessons. Now she was out of time and simply had to shake it off.

Later today the ranch house would become much more lively. Vice President Daniel Darlington and his family had decided to fly out for Christmas along with Peter’s wife and child. The local ranchers’ potluck was going to get a big surprise tonight—for security’s sake, no one would be warned ahead of time. Of course surprises were fair on both sides of the coin—she also hadn’t forewarned the Secret Service just how many rifles would arrive tonight, hanging in the back windows of Montana pickup trucks.

The girls’ pillow igloo fort would have to come down—or it should. Knowing she’d lose that battle, she decided to leave well enough alone. Julie’s husband Nathan and Mark’s mom Ama would be awake soon and the three of them were planning to cook throughout the day. All week, Peter had practically taken over her secure Tac Room in the barn, doing Secretary of State things, so at least he’d been out from underfoot.

With the ease of long practice, Mark had eased her into his lap with her barely noticing until her head lay on his shoulder and his hand cradled her behind underneath the warm blanket.

“This isn’t like you, Emily. Got me worried some.” She’d always enjoyed feeling the deep rumble in his chest when he spoke.

“That makes two of us.”

“You missing the action?”

She shook her head. At first the adrenaline-junkie withdrawal had been hard, but she’d expected that. Besides, she hadn’t gone straight from Spec Ops to civilian—the years flying to wildfire and her occasional calls to consult had eased the transition.

“Sick of the cooking?”

No. She loved that. Mark’s mother Ama had run the kitchen for over a decade, but cooked much less now. Nathan, a world-class chef who’d stumbled into love with Julie, had taken over the kitchen with such zeal that Emily could come play whenever the mood struck her, but she didn’t have to worry when it didn’t.

“Nothing about the kids?”

“I couldn’t love Belle and Tessa more if they were part of me.”

“They were part of you.”

“Exactly my point.”

As if on cue, the two girls appeared, still rubbing their eyes sleepily. In moments, they were all curled up together under the warm blanket. It was awkward, a little uncomfortable, and amazingly perfect.

“Not…us?” Mark whispered against her ear once the girls were settled. They were huddled under the blanket, mostly on her lap, whispering back and forth.

In answer, she managed to twist around enough to kiss Mark. He made it as thorough and perfect as their very first kiss—and she felt no desire to smash his face into an aircraft carrier’s table as she’d done the first time.

“Then what?” Mark asked as she once more lay her head upon his shoulder and tightened her arm around Tessa’s waist earning a happy giggle from beneath the big quilt.

For the life of her, she hadn’t a clue.

 

Chapter 5

The mayhem had started even sooner than she’d anticipated.

Belle and Tessa, finally coming wide awake under the blanket, had found their father’s one ticklish spot and completely undone him. To escape, he’d finally fallen off the couch. Turning it into a roll, he regained his feet and moved over to stoke the fire. The girls knew about not interfering around the flames. By the time she and the girls were dressed, Ama had breakfast on the table. Nathan was eating as he worked, assembling the ingredients for Emily’s dry rub on the massive roast they’d planned for the potluck.

Second Lady Alice had arrived with their newborn, and Peter’s wife Geneviève brought their little girl. At four, she had all the poise and elegance that her mother embodied and Emily’s own daughters completely lacked. Belle and Tessa practically transcended on the spot with the additional playmate. She didn’t know if she hoped her girls rubbed off on Adele Gloria—simply to harass Peter—or perhaps the other way round and her own girls might become more comprehensible to her. Either way, kid heaven had taken over much of the floor space in front of the fireplace with Mark often in the fray.

Her mood kept lifting through the day.

She’d never thought of herself as a particularly social or even approachable woman, but there were only so many welcoming hugs and joyous smiles that could be aimed her way before that belief became undeniably foolish.

Thankfully, the storm blew out and all that was left were achingly clear starlit skies and bitter cold. But Montanan ranchers had never yet been stopped by mere cold and soon the house was packed. The local ranchers soon shed their awe of the Washington elite—helped in part by all of the children in their pre-Christmas excitement. As more local children had arrived, they’d strained Tessa’s and Belle’s “dress up” wardrobe to the limit, but Christmas fairies and elves had abounded.

The big afternoon puppy-pile nap on the kitchen’s couch had averted most of the exhaustion meltdowns.

And somehow, through the whole thing, the Christmas igloo fort had survived—no mere “tent” could have made it through the constant stream of children in and out of it. Of all the adults, only Mark had been allowed admittance.

As the evening wound down and the ranchers drifted back home through the chill darkness, the family and Washington guests slowly gathered once more in the kitchen. Chairs and benches were dragged over until everyone was packed in close to the fireplace. Hot cocoa, laced with brandy for the grownups, was served all around.

Emily could only look around the circle in wonder. Julie and Chelsea sat nearby with their husbands and babies. Her childhood friend Peter and his lovely Geneviève sat with her friend Vice President Daniel and his cheery wife. All around the room, there wasn’t a person here whose life she hadn’t touched, and who hadn’t touched hers.

How had she not known this? Why was she just seeing it now?

These were her friends. Her family. Just as surely as the action teams of the Night Stalkers 5th Battalion D Company and the firefighters of Mount Hood Aviation had been her family.

She…belonged.

Is this what Miss Watson had been talking about? That somehow, this was her “woman’s” role after having lived in the “man’s” world for so many years?

Maybe it was. Maybe—

“I think it’s time, girls,” Mark called, loudly enough to silence all of the conversations.

With a squeal of delight, they launched to their feet in a mad swirl of excitement and fairy wings. Adele Gloria—Peter’s and Geneviève’s daughter had devolved only a little under Tessa’s influence and Tessa had settled (a little)—was rapidly recruited and the three kids disappeared into the Christmas igloo fort.

“Now it’s your turn, honey,” Mark rose and held out his hand to her.

Emily was terribly conscious that everyone was watching her as she rose to her feet. She should have gone and locked herself in her Tac Room—nobody would dare to disturb her there. Then she certainly wouldn’t be the center of attention.

Once she was on her feet, Mark knelt before her, something he hadn’t even done while proposing. What was he—

“Up,” he patted his shoulder.

“What?”

He hooked one of her knees and dragged it over his shoulder. “Climb aboard, Emily.”

“No. I—” she resisted his attempt to grab her other leg.

“Here, Mommy,” Belle came out of the igloo and handed her a package wrapped in Christmas paper before racing back in.

Mark took advantage of her momentary distraction and got her astride his shoulders. Then he stood quickly before she could escape. He faced the Christmas igloo and called out.

“Ready, girls?”

A high chorus of “Yes!” was their answer as she hung onto Mark’s forehead with one hand and the wrapped present with the other.

“Go!” Mark roared out like commanding a fleet of weapon-laden helicopters into battle.

The igloo wavered as if hit from the inside. Then it wavered again.

The assembled crowd was absolutely silent in anticipation.

Another impact and one pillow fell off the top of the wall.

Then there was a shout of little girls joining forces in some supreme effort. The three of them, with their arms locked together, burst clean through the side of the pillow igloo, which fell and scattered in every direction.

Emily joined in everyone’s gasp of wonder.

The larch tree, that had stood so long in hiding, was revealed. It had been decorated with hand-made ornaments, lights, popcorn-and-cranberry strings, and everything else that little girls and her husband could think of. People were pulling aside the tumbled pillows until a great mound of them had been piled up behind the couch and the tree stood fully revealed.

“It’s beautiful,” she barely managed a whisper but somehow Mark heard it through all of the applause and general chatter.

“Not finished yet.”

“No, it’s perfect.”

But he stepped up to the tree, giving her the feeling that she was floating along in a helicopter once more. She considered tugging on his ears to see if they acted like rudder controls, or maybe a cyclic to get her down from here. But his big hands were clamped over her thighs, pinning her in place.

“Emily, open your present.”

At a loss for what else to do, she unwrapped it as she teetered high in the air. And discovered a golden star.

The bare top of the larch, the only part of the tree that had ever shown above the pillow igloo, was right at eye level. By reaching out as far as she dared, she was just able to slip it onto the top of the tree.

A fresh round of cheers and applause broke out as Mark stepped back and helped her down to the pine floor. The tree was glorious with its wild decorations and brightly colored lights set off by the golden warmth of the fire’s flickering glow.

With Mark’s arm around her waist, and the girls’ hanging on to either side, they all admired the tree.

Or at least Mark and the girls did.

Emily instead heard the joy and the laughter of her friends gathered around her. So many. So true.

“You’re my star,” Mark whispered—absolutely the romantic one in their relationship.

This right here, this moment was who she truly was.

And Emily could feel that gift all the way to her heart.

You can buy it here if you want to own it: 
If you enjoyed this story, you’re going to LOVE the White House Protection Force companion story:
Dilya’s Christmas Challenge

Dilya’s Christmas Challenge

She’s always been a loner. It was a matter of survival. But that’s no longer sufficient in the White House this Christmas season.

More info →

Copyright © 2018 by M.L. Buchman
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2018 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

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