Peter's Christmas - M. L. Buchman - ebook

“...kept me reading late into the night. PETER’S CHRISTMAS will please Nightstalker fans any day of the year.” -Fresh Fiction -a Night Stalkers White House romance- NAME: Kim-Ly Geneviève Beauchamp JOB: UNESCO World Heritage Chief of Unit for Southeast Asia MISSION: To protect a Cambodian temple NAME: Peter Matthews JOB: President of the United States of America MISSION: Stability in Southeast Asia They met at the United Nations, two people from different worlds. Peter Matthews, D.C. born and bred. Since the tragic death of his wife two years before, he ranks as the most eligible bachelor on the planet. Genny Beauchamp, a French-Vietnamese beauty, with an intelligence that dazzles Peter. Little do they know that both their hearts and their very lives will be at risk this Christmas season.

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Peter’s Christmas

M. L. Buchman

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To my fans.

Without you, I’d be writing in the Dark

rather than in the Light.

Chapter One

It was December first and Kim-Ly Geneviève Beauchamp of Vietnam stood not twenty paces from the base of the American National Christmas Tree on Washington, D.C.’s Ellipse. The slight fluttering of snow was captured in the streetlights of the park, enchanting for the news cameras, making the scene glitter like a fairyland. Her breath made small white clouds that softened the night even more.

She had come to the lighting of the tree every year that her UNESCO job placed her in D.C. or even New York at the right time of year. Something about this moment—the colors, the children filled with wonder, the spectacular music, the President’s message—had always filled her with a hope and a joy. It reminded her of so many good things in the world. She also attended the lighting of the New York tree in Rockefeller Center whenever she could. Though her tropical blood was never thick enough to convince her to join in ice skating with the holiday crowds who made it look so fun.

“Tu es un Christmas sap absolu, Genny,” her mother often accused her with a gentle smile; their family language a crazy mix of French heritage and Vietnamese homeland, overlaid with the ubiquitous English. And her mother was absolutely correct. She was.

But this year was different. Genny wasn’t shoulder to shoulder with mothers and children and small business owners and twenty thousand others who had braved the cold and dark of a D.C. winter night. She wasn’t blocked from a clear view of the tree by the fifty reporters, their cameras, and their lights.

This year she stood close beside cabinet members, White House staffers, and soon, the United States President and his phalanx of Secret Service guards who would be arriving at the podium for the lighting of the tree.

“What am I doing here?”

“At the President’s personal invitation,” a Secret Service agent standing beside her whispered back in response.

“Oh sorry,” she turned to face the female agent who looked neat and dangerous in her suit and long overcoat, with the telltale coil of wire leading up to her ear mostly hidden by dark hair. “I was actually speaking to myself. I do that.”

“No worries, ma’am,” the agent didn’t look the least put out or the least worried that she might have offended. “Always takes a bit of getting used to, your first trip to the White House.”

Of course, the Secret Service would know that about her. She wondered what else the agent knew about her life now that Genny was the President’s personal guest to the tree lighting ceremony. Did the woman know that five months earlier Genny had practically hijacked a meeting at the U.N. to convince the President to pay more attention to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia? That had been one of her most audacious acts, irritating the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian U.N. ambassadors in the process. Or that she’d since dodged three invitations to the White House prior to this one?

The towering tree was still unlit. A U.S. Marine Corps Band was playing Good King Wenceslas. And who would follow in this good President’s steps through the winter that seemed to chill the news headlines? She shook off the thought as being unworthy of a Christmas moment.

Most of the White House staffers were talking to each other as earnestly as if they were still inside their warm offices. A few of them had joined in singing carols with the crowd. She tried to sing along as she normally would, knowing she had a passable, if French-accented soprano, but she couldn’t even seem to mouth the words in a throat gone dry.

Some delay in the proceedings left her too much opportunity to wonder quite why she had avoided the invitations before, though two out of three times she’d been legitimately flying out of the country the next day.

So, why had she accepted this one? Because she’d be in Washington anyway for the tree lighting, though the President had no way to know that. And she’d been surprised. The call hadn’t come from some staffer as before, it had come from President of the United States Peter Matthews himself. She’d recognized his voice immediately despite only meeting him the one time. Though she’d certainly watched enough of his speeches since then, far more than could be justified by her passing interest in American politics. He’d charmed her into coming, made her deny that she’d been avoiding him, even though she had. And she wasn’t sure why she’d been doing that either.

She liked the President the one time they’d met. Enjoyed his sharp mind and insightful questions. Through the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., she’d begun receiving an uncharacteristic degree of cooperation. The United States had assisted her several times now with information and gentle political pressure. So, she’d decided her efforts had been successful and left it at that. She’d soon moved on to other avenues, to leverage her goals to protect Heritage Sites from desperate governments teetering on the edge of open conflict.

America’s relationship with the U.N., and by extension UNESCO, had always been a little dicey anyway and she didn’t see it as her mission to fix that. That would be far above her mandate, though the outstanding billion-plus dollars in arrears would have helped so much. Geneviève didn’t expect more than had already been given. The Americans’ interest in Southeast Asia had always been tinged with a combination of benign neglect for the present and deep-seated uneasiness based on the collective memories of the Vietnam War and what they’d perpetrated both in Vietnam and in the surrounding countries.

She had turned down the car that the White House had offered and taken the train down as usual. Then spent the three hours in transit worrying instead of enjoying the ride as she usually did. Agent Beatrice Ann Belfour had attached herself to Genny at the front gate, her guide and guard. That perhaps was partly to protect Genny, and partly to protect against her, regarding the President.

“Heads up, incoming,” Agent Belfour whispered to her privately.

She was about to ask what she meant, then realized she already knew, and steeled herself. Sure enough. At the end of the tale of the good king trudging through the snow to feed a poor but worthy man, the President of the United States strode down the lawn from the White House.

The Marine Corps Band broke into Hail to the Chief.

President Matthews, still immensely popular despite this being near the end of his second year in office, practically leapt onto the platform and called into the microphone for them to hush. He did it with a laugh and a smile that was easy for the crowd and even the band members to join in.

She found that she too was laughing despite herself. He exuded energy and hope with that simple gesture. Was it natural or calculated? She’d butted heads with enough politicians over the years to assume the latter, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt as if he meant everything he did.

He was tall and trim. His hair drifted down to his collar, befitting for the youngest President in history. His brown eyes sought hers, a smile lit his face as he spotted her among the crowd. He was also terribly handsome and clearly knew it. Before she could even think to respond in kind, he had turned away and then shouted to the crowd, “Merry Christmas, America!”

The crowd, obviously enamored of their leader, shouted back in near unison, “Merry Christmas, Mr. President!”

“Is he always like this?” Geneviève whispered to the agent.

“No, sometimes he’s worse. At least according to my husband.” She nodded to the massive agent who hovered close beside the President without appearing to. If Agent Belfour looked dangerous, the head of the Presidential Protection Detail looked lethal.

“What do you do when you’re not riding herd on some guest?”

“Oh, odd jobs.” Belfour’s simple evasion spoke volumes to Genny.

She rarely needed security herself, did her best to avoid it even if she really should have it in tow. She’d found that negotiations were much easier at World Heritage Sites if you weren’t totting along a personal militia. Even when the local warlords were, perhaps especially then. Still, she’d worked with security escorts enough to know that the really good ones played down their roles.

“So, Kim-Ly, did you enjoy the speech?” Peter knew it was a lame opening, but he didn’t know how else to start off. The tree was lit, the crowd had cheered, and America had been given both a colorful display and a happy Christmas message. Now, clear of the reporters and their cameras, his nerves had set in.

He’d managed to time his placement in the crowd for the five-minute walk back to the White House so that he’d be beside her through the Presidential Park. It would have been too much to have her walk with him down to the tree lighting, so he’d come up with them meeting at the tree itself as a comfortable place to begin. But now he didn’t know where to start.

“Geneviève. Only my Vietnamese grandmother calls me Kim-Ly as I was named for her.”

Okay, so she went by her middle name. He’d missed that somewhere.

He’d refused to let the Secret Service tell him anything more about her after that first meeting at the U.N. He didn’t want to take any advantage of his Presidential powers in this. Let the Secret Service do what was necessary to approve her for security, but keep it to themselves. It actually placed him at a disadvantage, as his own life was so public. But entering politics had been his choice, or maybe his first wife’s choice, but that didn’t mean it was Geneviève’s choice. Her name was a bit of a mouthful but it had a long elegance, much as she did.

After they crossed over the closed ‘E’ Street, they entered the Presidential Park by the Southwest Gate. They were in the lead, a dozen agents ranged about them, and the rest of the staff followed behind chattering among themselves. The waist-high concrete wall could stop a large truck and the spike iron fence mounted atop it kept all but the most suicidal out of the grounds. They crossed the lawn past the tennis and basketball courts, presently covered with a light sheen of snow.

She looked at him, as if she were peering around the corner made by the thick fall of mahogany hair beside her cheek. Hair that reached to the middle of her back. Her features were poised and aristocratic. Her skin reflected her mixed French and Vietnamese heritage—European aristocratic features, almond-shaped eyes, and golden skin. She looked splendid and exotic. But he recalled that it had been her passion in her beliefs that had captivated him at the United Nations building in New York last July. Though her stunning looks hadn’t hurt.

“As for your speech, it has its purpose served.”

“Ha. Well, that puts me in my place, doesn’t it?” Peter tried not to feel put out, but he did, no matter how childish the thought. “The speechwriters wanted a meatier speech, but I wanted to—”

“Keep it short, upbeat, and make people focus less on worry and more on good cheer.” Her voice was like a fifth player in a string quintet. Once you were used to the sound of four instruments, then a second viola begins to play, offering new and unique insights into the music the four others had been creating.

“Uh, yes. That’s exactly what I was trying for.” Not a single thing was missed by his guest’s sharp mind. Those had been his own guide-words for himself as he wrote it.

“Then, it has its purpose served.”

“Is that Ms. Geneviève Beauchamp’s form of high praise?” Was he so desperate for approval? For that, he could have talked to any of the dozen or more staffers and that many again service agents who accompanied him along the walkways back to the White House. No, it was her approval he seemed to be begging for. He’d convinced himself that it merely reflected a desire to engage and welcome her, but he did want her to like him.

“Staying and singing O Christmas Tree was a nice touch. I’m sure it played well to the public.”

“Do I detect a note of Christmas cynicism in my guest?”

She stopped in place, halfway to the White House, as if her feet had just frozen to the ground. Geneviève, lit warmly by the soft lights, stood amid the fluttering snow that graced her hair like momentary stars.

The Secret Service flowed smoothly around them. Within moments they were as good as standing alone. The agents circled about them, facing outward. The rest of the staffers continued on their way to warmer climes and hot coffee indoors.

“No,” she looked directly at him for the first time since last July.

Somehow, Peter had forgotten her eyes. Golden skin, elegant features, and rich brown hair that flowed down gloriously, practically to her elbows, were what drew your attention if you had even a hint of a Y-chromosome. But it was her green eyes that appeared to hide nothing that were her most startling feature.

“You misinterpret. I’m never a cynic about Christmas. You detect a note of caution because I don’t know what you want from me, Mr. President. I am the UNESCO Chief of Unit for Southeast Asia World Heritage Sites. I am not political, I am specifically not political. So, therefore I am cautious, as I do not understand why I am here.”

He smiled. He’d asked himself that exact same question. What had he been hoping for when he invited her. The fragment of an answer he’d come up with had influenced how he’d altered tonight’s speech.

“You are here because I truly enjoyed meeting you and I wanted to see you again. I’m only sorry it didn’t happen sooner.”

She studied him for several long moments, her expression unreadable. He remembered that from their meeting at the U.N. This was a woman in absolute control of her own emotions. Not to mention her facial expressions.

“And that is all that you are intending?” She didn’t radiate the doubt she must be feeling. She made it sound as if it were a simple question.

Peter nodded, “That’s all. That encompasses the vast extent of my nefarious hidden agenda.”

“Ah. I understand now, Mr. President,” her soft smile appeared for the first time since he’d lit the tree.

Peter always loved watching the crowd in that brilliant moment when he lit the National Christmas Tree. That shared held breath when the decorations were lit and the year’s design was revealed to the nation. He had worked with the designer and they’d created a red-and-white spiral of thirteen wide bands that swooped upward to a star-studded blue top, with a traditional golden star at the pinnacle. They’d overlapped the red and white strings between each stripe, wiring them into something called a “chase” unit, which caused the lines to shift slightly about the tree. The tree looked like a flag unfurling in the breeze.

No ornaments other than the fifty “stars” in the field of blue, each a shining image of the fifty states’ official mammals. If the news agencies didn’t catch onto that bit of whimsy in a day or so, the designer would tip someone off. His personal favorite was the Maine Moose with the Washington State Orca coming a close second.

But tonight Peter had watched only Kim-Ly Geneviève Beauchamp of Vietnam as he pressed the button that lit the tree. She had become glorious in that moment. Her smile radiating as brightly as the kajillion Christmas lights.

“If that is indeed the entire scope of your plan, Mr. President, what you should do is offer me a gentleman’s escort. Then perhaps we can start this conversation once again.” She made it sound as simple as that.

So he took her at her word and held out his arm for her. She slipped a hand about his elbow. He could feel her touch as if her thin red leather glove and his thick wool coat didn’t exist.

She turned with him and they and their circle of protectors progressed once more along the frosty roadway toward the main entrance to the Residence.

“Where did I begin our conversation?” Peter was distracted by her simple touch.

“With the speech.”

“Ah,” he tried to think of a better opening, but had little luck finding one. “That was a lame beginning.”

“It was, but the speech served its purpose.”

He did his best to suppress a groan, but didn’t succeed well. This was an improvement? Frank, the head of his Presidential Protection Detail turned to check that he was okay. Geneviève must have heard it, but she didn’t react. Rather, she continued talking as if he had made no interruption.

“It served its purpose in that it has made me glad that I accepted your invitation.”

It was a high compliment indeed. Peter had no response to it. He had again totally misread her meaning, which was very unusual for him. His gift was reading what people wanted, both as individuals and in groups. He’d then address everyone in their own worldview semantics in order to build agreement and accord. Yet, he’d misread her twice in under a minute. How had she done that to him?

“Now,” she pointed across the South Lawn. “Tell me how you make this fountain work when any water with the least common sense would be now frozen.” Her French juxtaposition of the verb made her sound even more charming.

He watched the central jet splash merrily despite their frosty breath and the snowflakes swirling gently down out of the winter’s night sky.

“Maybe it thinks warm thoughts? I have no idea.”

Genny had always wanted to see the inside of the White House, especially at Christmas. From the outside there were no great displays, no grand dressing of decorations. Perhaps, it was the woman’s role to decorate the White House. But the First Lady had died in that tragic helicopter accident two years ago, not even spending an entire year in the White House. Katherine Matthews had never had a chance to decorate a single Christmas. That was a great sadness, on top of all the others.

Still, Genny would be terribly disappointed if she found it wasn’t decorated on her first, and probably only, visit here.

It had been sweet of the President to invite her. But even if she were to trust that he had no ulterior motive, what possible reason could she have to be involved in any way with such a man? The American-proclaimed “Leader of the Free World” had much to answer for in many places. Though she had been pleasantly surprised that this one did not believe that a sound foreign policy was in direct conflict with a sound domestic one. So many of his predecessors had done just that.

They walked along the driveway that circled the South Lawn. Clearly uncomfortable, she let him play guide by pointing out the Putting Green, which he never used, the Swimming Pool, which he often used, though he noted that he did that only in warmer weather, and several trees which even she knew he named completely wrong, but the effort was rather cute.

The first glimmer of Christmas decoration hope came when she saw the two sweeping stairways leading up to the broad porch of the South Portico. White twinkle lights adorned the stair’s handrails and the porch’s stone balustrade. It was a delicate statement on such a massive structure but it cheered her nonetheless.

His attempts to play guide wholly collapsed as they climbed the steps. He clearly knew less about the building’s history than the grounds. He huffed out a great cloud of frustrated breath, then spoke quickly, waving an arm to encompass the entire structure.

“It was designed by aliens. The whole place. George and Martha Washington were pod people. Probably Dolly Madison too, though not James. At least according to the super-secret Area 51 files that the FBI did not give to me the day I was elected.”

“And what did they give you?” The frustrated rant had been the most human thing she’d heard from the man. It was the first time Genny wondered if perhaps he had spoken truth, and really had no political motive for inviting her.

“Frankly, they gave me a headache. It was a very disillusioning day. Do you know how many identified troublespots there are on this planet and how many of those are right in our country?”

“This is not my country, Mr. President.”

“Right, sorry. Of course it isn’t. Sorry. I really must learn to keep my mouth shut.”

They climbed up the Portico’s stairs in awkward silence for several moments. She finally could take it no longer and attempted to rescue him.

“The snow is so pretty. It was good of you to arrange that.” It would give him a chance to say, “Did it just for you.” Then she could dismiss the easy flattery and the man along with it. It was touching that he had been thinking of her when he’d altered his speech. Against expectation, he slowed and stared up at the fluttering flakes until a few began to accumulate on his cheeks and forehead for a brief moment before melting.

“Snow? I’d guessed that they were tiny crystalline alien spaceships, still cold from the depths of outer space, come to take back the White House that George built.”

Genny looked away to face the building so that he wouldn’t see her expression. She didn’t want him to know that he had confused her.

Most men had one of two reactions to her, three actually.

One, they assumed she’d made her career with her beauty and discounted her mind totally. A view they rarely maintained after even a single meeting in which they did not agree with her.

Two, they saw her as a target for the bastioning of their male egos, because of course they could easily conquer her. All of the men with this type of response, she had gladly disillusioned. Only two had required a brief personal demonstration of her self-defense training to permanently convince them.

The third type simply became tongue-tied around her which she never really understood, she had a mirror after all and knew she wasn’t nearly that level of extraordinary. But she had learned early on how to read and use all three reactions to her advantage. Genny occasionally felt guilty for doing this but, as she only used it to save precious Heritage Sites and not on her own behalf, she didn’t feel too guilty.

With President of the United States Peter Matthews, she had apparently found a fourth response. Her presence did not stun him to silence nor fill him with avarice nor knot up his tongue, but it certainly did fluster him. Again the word “cute” came to mind, but she rather doubted that he’d appreciate the observation, so she kept it to herself.

He also provided a wit and humor that he didn’t reveal to the nation. Charm? Yes. Quirky humor? Not that she had observed. He had more dimensions than Genny had anticipated.

He led her up to the center of the Portico. They paused at the balcony rail. The South Lawn was spread before them, and off in the distance, the patriotic swirl of flag-colored lights climbed the glowing three-story tall tree. Beyond it, the brilliant needle of the Washington Monument soared into the night sky, clearly stating, “Here lies the source of America’s power. Here is rooted her mighty spear.”

“Terribly phallic, no?” She teased.

“Maybe the Founding Fathers had an inferiority complex.”

He made it easy for her to laugh. “They did but you do not?”

“Not until I met you.” In the soft light of the Portico, Genny could see that he actually blushed. “Did I really just say that out loud?”

“Indeed you did.” Nor was she likely to forget it. While he wasn’t the first man she’d smitten, he was the first who was so honest about it.

“Come,” he cleared his throat. “There is something I think you will enjoy before we go up to the Residence for a small gathering.”

As he turned her by her hand still in the crook of his arm, she spotted the Secret Service agents, hers, his, and two others standing by the wall. The President did not appear flustered by their presence, so she did her best to not be as well. She’d felt alone with him for a moment, and been enjoying that feeling. Her attempts to hold onto that failed under the four agents’ roving gazes. Though they didn’t look at her, it was clear they were completely aware of her every move.

He led her to what appeared to be a large window in the center of the rounded wall behind the Portico that was the great signature bay of the White House. At some signal she didn’t see, two of the agents raised up the window sash until it was higher than her head. Then reaching down, they opened a pair of waist-high double doors. It was like a secret passage through a window and into an unknown world. She and the President were able to walk through the door or window or whatever it was and into…

Her breath caught in her throat. A stunning tree of massive proportions filled the center of the room. The room was oval, but she was pretty sure the Oval Office wasn’t located in the Residence, but rather over in the West Wing. And the Oval Office was decorated in white whereas this room was all decorated in blue. Then she remembered a broadcast on shelters for the needy that the President had given three months earlier. It had been from this room, the Blue Room. That was it. While the room was gorgeous, it was the tree that dominated.

“It must be six meters tall.”

“Eighteen feet this year. They delivered it by a horse-drawn wagon, can you believe that in this day and age? And, no, the decorations this year are not on your behalf. I didn’t even think about that until today.”

Genny focused on the ornaments, through the dazzle of the beautiful lighting. The lights themselves were flags, national flags. Made of Tiffany glass.

“The flags of the U.N.?” This was becoming a little creepy. Genny almost felt as if the President were stalking her.

“No. The League of Nations. I have been doing so much work with the U.N. this last year that it seemed appropriate to honor the first attempt to form a world government for peace. And it humbles me to remember that this nation, that worked so hard to create the League, was even then too divided to join it.”

“Do you remember the name of the room where we first met?”

“Not really. Wait, maybe I do. The Woodrow Wilson Reading Room.”

“Which is filled with the card catalog for the League of Nations.”

“Really? I guess this looks pretty bad?”

“It doesn’t look good, Mr. President.”

He turned back to inspect the tree. “I just meant it to honor the League.”

Genny studied the profile of the man studying the tree. Here stood a thoughtful man, but perhaps also a humble one. He had little of the arrogance she expected from the senior official of the United States of America. He had used his own tree to remind himself that he could do better if he just kept trying. How rare such men were.

She could feel this moment, this place somehow shifting around her. Genny always felt her way up to decision points, had learned to trust her instincts.

Many of her instincts said that the proper action was to remove her grip from his elbow and ask the nice Secret Service lady to get her out of this room, this building, and off these premises. Quickly.