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“...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 3-book romance bundle- Daniel’s Christmas The White House Chief of Staff finally meets the woman of his dreams. The only drawback? She’s a CIA analyst who insists he fly a life-or-death mission into hostile territory. Frank’s Independence Day The head of the President’s Protection Detail never expected to fall for a woman he’d tried to carjack years before. Now her life is in danger and only their shared past can save her. Peter’s Christmas As President, Peter Matthews can’t afford the dangers of falling love. Especially as “the right woman” might be leading him to his death.
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The Night Stalkers White House: Books 1-3
Frank’s Independence Day
byM. L. Buchman
To my lady who taught me thatthere is no place like Christmasespecially when spent with those you love.
Daniel Drake Darlington III pushed back further into the armchair and hung on for dear life. Without warning the seat did its best to eject him forcibly onto the floor. Only the heavy seatbelt, that was threatening to cut him in half he’d pulled it so tight, kept him in place.
“You never were the best flier.”
Daniel glared at President Peter Matthews as Marine One jolted sharply left. They occupied the two facing armchairs in the narrow cargo bay of the VH-1N White Hawk helicopter. The small, three-person couch along the side was empty. The two Marine Corps crew chiefs and the two pilots sat in their seats at the front of the craft.
“I’m fine,” Daniel managed through gritted teeth. “I just don’t like helicopters.”
President Peter Matthews sat back casually. Apparently all the turbulence that the early winter storm could hand out had not interfered with his boss’ enjoyment of Daniel’s discomfiture.
“And why would that be?”
The President knew damn well why his Chief of Staff hated these god-forsaken machines. Even if Marine One was probably the single safest and best maintained helicopter on the planet, he hated it from the depths of his soul along with all of its brethren of the rotorcraft category.
“My very first flight. I suffered—” a jaw rattling shake, “a bad concussion. Then we crashed.”
“Yes,” the President stared contemplatively at the ceiling less than foot over their heads.
Daniel kept his head ducked down so that he didn’t bang it there as they flew through the next pocket of winter turbulence.
“That was one of Emily’s finer flights.”
And it had been. If the helicopter had been flown by anyone of lesser skill than Major Emily Beale of the Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Daniel knew he’d have been dead rather than merely bruised and battered. Thankfully the Army trained the pilots of the 160th SOAR exceptionally well, even better than the four Marines flying the President’s personal craft. And Major Beale was the best among them, except for perhaps her husband.
The tape of that flight and the much more fateful flight a bare two weeks later had become mandatory training in the Army’s Special Operations Forces helicopter regiment. To this day he knew his life would have ended if he’d been aboard for that second fiery crash. The crash that had taken the First Lady’s life a year ago.
But that didn’t make him like this machine one whit better.
“There’s home.” President Matthews nodded out the window just like any tourist. Any tourist who was allowed to fly over the intensely restricted airspace surrounding the White House.
Daniel managed to look toward the window as the helicopter banked sharply to the left. Please, just let them land safely and get out of this storm. The White House did look terribly cheery. November 30th, she wasn’t sporting her Christmas décor yet, but she was a majestic building, brilliantly lit, perched in the middle of the most heavily guarded park on the planet. Another jolt and he squeezed his eyes shut.
He did manage to force his eyes open as they settled flawlessly onto the lawn with barely the slightest rocking on the shock absorbers.
In moments the door slid open and a pair of Marines stood at sharp attention in their dress uniforms as if the last day of November were a sunny summer day, and not blowing freezing rain at eleven o’clock at night.
Daniel stumbled out and managed to resist the urge to kneel and kiss the ground. For one thing, it would stain the knees of his suit. For another, the President would laugh at him. Okay, he’d laugh even more than he already was.
Both feet on the ground, Daniel found himself. Managed to pull on his Chief-of-Staff cloak so to speak. He grabbed his briefcase and kept his place beside the President as they headed toward the South Entrance. They each carried umbrellas of only marginal usefulness that the Marines had thoughtfully provided. Now that they were on the ground, Daniel didn’t mind the cold rain in his face. It meant he was alive.
“I’d suggest turning in right away, sir. We have an early start tomorrow.”
The President clapped him on the shoulder, “Yes, Mom.”
“Your mother is over in Georgetown.”
“Well, I’m not going to call you ‘dear’ so don’t get your hopes up there.”
Daniel had come to really like the President. Even at the end of a brutally long day, including a flight to Kansas City, then Chicago, and back, he remained upbeat with that indefatigable energy of his. He was easy to like. There’d now be no oil workers’ strike in Kansas City and his Chicago dinner speech had benefited the new governor immensely.
“You go to bed too, Daniel.”
“Just going to drop off this paperwork,” he held up his briefcase.
The President headed for the Grand Staircase and Daniel turned down the white marble hall and headed over to the West Wing.
Somewhere behind them in the dark, the helicopter roared back to life and lifted into the night.
The phone hammered him awake. Daniel came to in his office chair with the phone already to his ear.
Someone was speaking rapidly. He caught perhaps one word in three. “CIA. Immediate briefing. North Korea.”
He must have made some intelligible reply as moments later he was listening to a dial tone.
Daniel rubbed at his eyes, but the vista didn’t change. Large cherry wood desk. Mounds of work in neatly stacked folders that he’d sat down to tackle after the long flight. His briefcase still unopened on the floor beside him. Definitely the Chief of Staff’s office. His office. Nightmare or reality? Both. Definitely.
Phone. He’d been on the phone.
The words came back and, now fully awake, Daniel started swearing even as he grabbed the handset and began dialing.
Maybe he could blame all this on Emily Beale. In the three short weeks she’d been at the White House, Daniel had risen from being the First Lady’s secretary to the White House Chief of Staff and it was partly Emily’s fault. As if his life had been battered by a tornado. Still felt that way a year later.
Okay, call it mostly her fault.
As he listened to the phone ringing in his ear, it felt better to have someone to blame. He rubbed at his eyes. A year later and he still didn’t know whether to curse Major Beale or thank her.
Maybe he could make it all her fault.
“Good morning, Mr. President.”
“Is it morning?” The deep voice would have been incomprehensibly groggy without the familiarity of long practice.
Daniel checked his watch, barely morning. “Yes, sir!” he offered his most chipper voice.
“Crap! What? All of 12:03?”
“12:10, sir.” They’d been on the ground just over an hour.
“Double crap!” The President was slowly gaining in clarity, maybe one in ten linguists would be able to understand him now.
“Seven more minutes of sleep than you guessed, sir.”
“Yes, Mr. President?”
“Next time Major Beale comes to town, I’m sending you up on one of her training rides.”
“Sounds like fun, sir.” If he had a death wish. “Crashing in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is definitely an experience I can’t wait to relive.” The Major was also the childhood friend of the President, so he had to walk with a little care, but not much. The two of them were that close.
“Time to get up, sir, the CIA is coming calling. They’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll be there in ten.” A low groan sounded over the phone. “Make that fifteen.” The handset rattled loudly as he missed the cradle. Daniel got the phone clear of his ear before the President’s handset dropped on the floor.
Daniel hung up and considered sleeping for the another fifteen minutes. There was a nice sofa along the far wall sitting in a close group with a couple of armchairs, but he’d have to stand up to reach it. All in strong, dusky red leather, his secretary’s doing after discovering Daniel had no taste. Janet had also ordered in a beautiful oriental rug and several large framed photographs. Even on the first day she’d known him well enough to chose images of wide-open spaces. He missed his family farm, but the photos helped him when D.C. was squeezing in too hard.
If he didn’t stand and resisted the urge to seek more sleep, all that remained was to consider his desk. Its elegant cherry wood surface lost beneath a sea of reports and files.
Fifteen minutes. He could read the briefing paper on Chinese coal, review tomorrow’s agenda which, if he were lucky, might stay on schedule for at least the first quarter hour of a planned fourteen-hour day. Or he could just order up a giant burn bag and be done with the whole mess.
He picked up whatever was on top of the nearest stack.
An Advent calendar.
Janet, had to be.
Well, the woman had taste. It was beautiful; encased in a soft, tooled-leather portfolio and tied closed with a narrow red ribbon done up in a neat bow. He pulled a loose end and opened the calendar. Inside were three spreads of stunning hand-painted pictures on deep-set pages. He took a moment to admire the first one.
It was a depiction of Santa and his reindeer. Except Santa might have been a particularly pudgy hamster and the reindeer might have been mice with improbable antlers. One might have had a red nose, or he might have had his eggnog spiked; the artist had left that open to interpretation. A couple of rabbits were helping to load the sleigh. Little numbered doors were set in the side of the sleigh, as well as in a nearby tree, and in the snow at the micedeer’s paws. The page was thick enough that a small treat could be hidden behind each little door.
He shook the calendar lightly and heard things rattling. Probably little sweets and tidbits to hit his notorious sweet tooth.
The day Janet retired he’d be in so much trouble. Not only did she manage to keep his life organized, she also managed to make him smile, even when things were coming apart at the seams. Midnight calls from the CIA for immediate meetings didn’t bode well, yet here he was dangerously close to enjoying the moment.
He started to open the little door with a tiny golden number “1” on the green ribbon pull tab. The door depicted a candy-cane colored present perched high on the sleigh.
“Don’t do that.”
He looked up.
A woman stood in the doorway, closely escorted by one of the service Marines. A short wave of russet hair curled partly over her face and trickled down just far enough to emphasize the line of her neck. Her bangs ruffled in a gentle wave covering one eye. The eye in the clear shone a striking hazel against pale skin. She wore a thick, woolen cardigan, a bit darker than her hair, open at the front over an electric blue turtleneck that appeared to say, “Joy to the World.” At least based on the letters he could see.
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t open it early,” she nodded toward the calendar in his hands. “That’s cheating.”
He double-checked his watch. “It’s twelve-eighteen on December first. That’s not cheating.”
“Not until nighttime, after sunset. That’s what Mama always said.”
“And your Mama is always right?”
“Damn straight.” Though her expression momentarily belied her cheerful insistence.
He glanced at the Marine. “Kenneth. Does she have a purpose here?”
She sauntered into his office as if it were her own living room and an armed Marine was not following two paces behind her. More guts than most, or a complete unawareness of how close she was to being wrestled to the ground by a member of the U.S. Military.
“Remember what they say about the book and the cover?”
“Sure, don’t judge.” He inspected her wrinkled black corduroys and did his best not to appreciate the nice line they made of her legs.
She dropped into one of the leather chairs in front of his desk and propped a pair of alarmingly green sneakers with red laces on the cherry wood. At least they were clean. All she’d need to complete the image would be to pop a bright pink gum bubble at him. And maybe some of those foam slip-on reindeer antlers. He offered her a smile as she slouched lower in the chair. In turn, she offered him a clear view most of the way to her tonsils with a massive yawn.
She managed to cover it before it was completely done.
“Sorry, I’ve been up for three days researching this. Director Smith said I should bring it right over.” She waved a slim portfolio at him that he hadn’t previously noticed.
CIA Director Smith. Well, that explained who she was. Whatever lay in that portfolio was the reason he’d only had forty-five minutes of sleep so far tonight. And he’d spent that slumped in his chair. He did his best to surreptitiously straighten his jacket and tie.
“You’ve been researching.” Maybe a prompt would get her to the point more quickly.
“Yes, Mr. Darlington. I’m Dr. Alice Thompson, with dual masters in Afghani and Mathematics at Columbia. Which makes me a dueling master. PhD in digital imaging at NYU and an analyst for the CIA. Which means something, but I have no idea what. The reason you’re awake right now is to meet with me.”
“No, the reason I’m awake right now is to meet with both you and the President.”
“The President?” She jerked upright in her chair, her feet dropping to the floor. “No one said anything about that to me.” She twisted right and left as if seeking a place to hide.
“And it’s Dr. Darlington of Tennessee. Degrees in agriculture at University of Kentucky—”
“Go Wildcats,” she mumbled automatically without losing her somewhat frantic expression.
Daniel wondered how a New York girl living in D.C. would know that, but didn’t sidetrack to ask.
“Poli Sci at Yale, and socio-economics at Princeton where I had the great opportunity to study cooperative economic game theory with Dr. Nash.” And why he felt the need to brag to this lady once again settling in his office chair like she was hanging out in a college dorm room remained a bit of a mystery. He didn’t feel sleepy anymore watching her across the mess that he called a desk. Instead he found himself truly smiling.
“You didn’t really wake the President for this meeting, did you?” Her voice was little more than a whisper as she struggled to fight her body upright in the chair. She leaned forward far enough for the cardigan to fall open and reveal that the front of her turtleneck actually read “Oy to the World.”
Daniel offered her his blandest smile and would have admired how snugly the material clung to her frame, but he couldn’t look away from those hazel-green eyes.
“You did wake him?” her whisper more than a little panicked.
“I wish he hadn’t.” The President entered as she spoke. “Does this mean I can I go back to bed?”
# # #
Alice spun around to face the man who had come up beside her unnoticed. Tall, even more handsome than on TV. Stained sweat pants and a faded sweatshirt from Oxford didn’t detract from the image in the least.
The President held out a hand. She offered her own in some ingrained social response mechanism, like a trained puppy, only to find her paw shaken and released before she had a chance to do more than allow her arm to be moved up and down.
He settled into the chair beside her before she belatedly remembered you were supposed to stand when the President arrived. He propped his sneakered feet on the edge of Dr. Darlington’s beautiful cherry wood desk right where hers had been. What had she been thinking when she’d done that? Had she hoped to fluster the man and his immaculate three-piece suit behind the desk? Or had she felt so comfortable around him she hadn’t cared? Must have been the first but it felt like the second.
Daniel leaned forward, “Don’t worry. The complete intimidation wears off eventually. He’s not all that important really; it only feels as if he is.”
“Hey, I’m the one who they elected President. And I’m not a ‘he.’ I’m a POTUS to you.”
“Right, and I’m just the guy who makes sure that the all-important President of the United States doesn’t screw up at 12:30 in the morning.”
“True, true.” The President nodded sagely and the guys traded smiles. The mutual respect and friendship was clear between them.
They made an interesting contrast. The President had all of the magnetism she’d seen on TV, and more again in person. Even sleepy-eyed and wearing sweats, dark hair ranging loose down to his collar, he looked as if he should be framed up on a wall. Most popular President in recent history, probably all the way back to JFK. The world’s ultimate bachelor since his wife’s tragic death in the helicopter crash.
Whereas Dr. Darlington was perhaps the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Yale and Princeton; Bulldogs and Lions. Along with the Wildcats that made two cats and a dog, that part of her mind that collected useless garbage offered up. The White House Chief of Staff looked like a classic surfer bum with those sparkling blue eyes and gold-blond hair, despite the short cut of it and his sharp three-piece suit that he filled really, really nicely.
She’d always been a nerd, only comfortable with other analyst nerds, but even her few moments with Daniel had been easy.
Before she could stop herself, she caught herself glancing over at his hands.
Some insane part of her brain said, “Goody.”
If she could slap it, she would.
Way too classically Alice. “Oh look, an intriguing rabbit hole, I think I’ll fall down it.” Of course, she usually fell for useless pretty boys. She’d bet that phrase had never been used to describe the White House Chief of Staff. Beautiful and, by reputation at least, brilliant as well. He was so far out of her league that it almost hurt. Still, she did wish she’d worn something nicer than her Christmas turtleneck and the old cardigan she’d knit a couple years back. It was her comfort sweater, made in a dozen shades of autumn forest browns and dusky reds.
“So, Dr. Alice Thompson, what did you bring us?” The Chief of Staff was back, all smooth and businesslike. He glanced up and over her head. “We’re good here, Kenneth. Thanks.”
She tipped her head back on the chair far enough to see the upper part of the upside-down Marine, her shadow who she’d completely forgotten about, looming close behind her. He offered a precise nod, did a neat snap turn, and walked out of her range of view with the back of his perfect white hat being the last thing to disappear.
Her head spun a little as she brought it back upright. She really needed some sleep.
Then she remembered what she held in the thin portfolio. It had kept her awake for three days, it would keep her going a bit longer.
That and the fact that, no matter how casual and collected he’d sounded, Dr. Daniel Drake Darlington III’s hands still hadn’t moved from the pull tab on the Advent calendar.
# # #
Daniel couldn’t help noticing the quirk of a smile across Dr. Thompson’s lips. With the unruly mop of hair, it was hard to tell, but she appeared to be staring at his hands.
He looked down.
The Advent calendar still lay in his lap. His hand half an inch from grabbing the little number “1” ribbon. Still.
Her smile bloomed, but she’d shaken down a few more of those soft-flowing curls and her eyes were almost invisible, except as a bright glint. Damn, it was about the cutest thing he’d ever seen.
He slapped the calendar closed and dropped it atop the nearest stack of papers. It over-balanced the stack, which slid to the right. In his sleep deprived state, he was nowhere near fast enough to stop the falling dominos as Chinese manufacturing cascaded into Arctic ecology and on into the Baja oil spill. Daniel rescued the calendar, but the oil spill took out the most recent fisheries and timbers trade reports. The budget was almost big enough to stop the whole thing, would have been if it weren’t sitting on top of the east Africa political report he’d been trying to review for the last three days.
The budget slammed to the floor with a crash loud enough that they all jumped a bit. A minor blizzard of paper followed it to the oriental carpet.
Kenneth stuck his head back in the door, but the President waved him off. All Daniel could do was watch the out-of-control disaster as file folders spilled open one after another to release a fresh splash of white and blue sheets of paper. Spreading like some cubist piece of floor performance art.
The President glanced at the pile of reports fluttering to a landing beside his chair.
“Janet is gonna be so pissed at you,” his boss practically crowed at him.
Daniel heard Alice’s voice, tentative for a moment.
“His secretary. She’s lethal about Daniel’s methods of organization.”
Alice stretched up to peer at the disaster beyond the President’s chair.
Then she aimed that impossibly cute smile at Daniel. This time those twin, hazel-colored laser beams were exposed with an easy head shake that flopped her hair back.
“How soon does she get in? Can we watch? Where do we get popcorn?”
Daniel read through the CIA intelligence report for the third time.
“If this is right, we’ll need a very unique asset.”
POTUS looked over at him, “I know just who to call. Even if it’s not a ‘go’ yet, we can start moving the asset into position.”
Daniel nodded. “We can do it from the Game Room.” He started around his desk, but had to double-back around the other side to avoid the paper disaster. His watch claimed barely one a.m.; there’d be plenty of time to fix it before Janet arrived and sentenced him to death by paper cuts.
He arrived by Alice’s chair as she offered another jaw-cracking yawn.
“Sorry. I— Sorry.”
She’d slipped even lower in the chair, far enough that the only thing keeping her from flowing down onto the floor were her knees bumping into the front panel of his desk.
He offered a hand to help her to her feet.
She did her one-eyed inspection of him for a moment, then accepted the offer. Her hand was deceptively strong for how fine-fingered and delicate it appeared. She rose to her feet in a smooth, fluid motion that bespoke some form of training. He’d seen it before somewhere.
“Ballet?” He knew it was wrong even as he said it.
“Why are you calling me sad?” Daniel knew he was missing something.
She laughed, a bright, merry sound that he could only describe as elfin, though she wasn’t but a few inches shy of his own five-eleven.
“S. A. D.”
“You’re S.A.D.?” he barely managed to choke out.
Even the President looked shocked by that one.
The Special Activities Division was the CIA’s black ops squadron. They were better trained than even the Army Rangers and were deployed in far more questionable situations.
She grinned wickedly, “Now you’re the one saying I’m sad? I’m half tempted to say, ‘yes,’ just to see you twitch. But no. They offered us senior analysts a month of S.A.D. training to better appreciate what could and couldn’t be done in the field. Found I liked the physical part, though I’d never be crazy enough to go for field ops. There’s an on-going course at the gym. I don’t do the weapons or field skills, but there’s dance, yoga, strength training. I keep that up.”
Daniel tried to get to the gym a little each day and do some weight training. He had the sudden feeling that, despite being a slip of a woman, she could probably beat the stuffing out of him. And senior analyst? If she was much past twenty-six or seven, he’d be shocked. Senior analysts usually sported decades of experience.
She freed her hand, which he didn’t realize he’d still been holding until its soft, strong warmth had been removed. She turned to follow the President who waited by the door. Alice Thompson passed close enough for Daniel to smell the woman, past her soap or shampoo; a heady scent of springtime in winter washed over him. She left him wobbly on his feet, as if he were the one who hadn’t slept in three days.
She and the President both stood at the door watching him.
“You coming?” Peter Matthews offered him a knowing smile over Dr. Thompson’s shoulder.
And Dr. Alice Thompson merely offered that crazy, elfin laugh.
All Daniel knew was that he couldn’t wait for next opportunity to get that close to her again.
“You said we were going to the Game Room. This is—” Alice nearly choked on her words as she watched Daniel press a palm against a glass plate reader. She’d been tired enough to not think much as they descended from the main level down a long flight of stairs.
She didn’t need the two Marine Guards at perfect attention to indicate what lay behind these heavy doors. She’d seen enough movies to know they stood at the entry to the Situation Room. A place that in many ways served as the political center of the planet. Decisions made here affected global politics, started and ended wars.
“Game Room. Definitely.” Mr. Smooth-Chief-of-Staff Daniel Darlington was back in place. “Most administrations call it the Woodshed, but President Matthews is Washington D.C. born and bred. Didn’t seem appropriate.”
Alice still couldn’t believe that she’d flustered the White House Chief of Staff. She. Alice. It was pretty flattering. Well, maybe it was lack of sleep that warped her perceptions, though she felt alarmingly awake at the moment, even if her body didn’t.
“There are refreshments,” the President spoke in such a friendly, normal fashion that it was proving difficult to remain gobsmacked by being in the President’s presence. “An amazing video system attended by the finest Marine Corps technicians. Global politics is more like chess than say, Chutes and Ladders, but there are pieces always in motion and we try to keep track of them in here. So, the Game Room fits.”
The Marines pulled back the double doors and Alice felt herself sucked inward as if by a vacuum.
Without preamble, President Matthews called out to what appeared to be an empty room, “I need to speak with Majors Beale and Henderson. They’re probably still at that little SOAR base in Pakistan.”
A disembodied voice spoke in soft, clearly articulated tones, “A few minutes, Mr. President.”
“Pakistan?” she whispered to Daniel. With relations the way they were in Pakistan, it was hard to imagine that there was a U.S. airbase still there. Though with SOAR. Maybe. The Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment often showed up in the damnedest places on her reports. The Night Stalkers, as they called themselves, were even called on by the CIA’s S.A.D. because no one could deliver a crew by helicopter the way SOAR could. Or get them back out as consistently. Though CIA pilots would never agree, Alice had seen the reports and it was true.
“Pakistan,” the President confirmed. “A special deal. Bati airbase is a small desert location that gives our folks close access to the Hindu Kush passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their primary mission there is to curtail the massive arms flow that Pakistan is sponsoring. However, in exchange for the airbase and certain other considerations, the Pakistan government also receives, shall we say, stabilization assistance along their contested border with India.”
That was just about the craziest arrangement she’d ever heard. But it also explained the oddities of the mission to take down Osama bin Laden. SOAR helicopters had penetrated deep into Pakistan as if coming out of nowhere, no reports ever emerged of where the flight had begun. One leak said northern Afghanistan, but that made even less sense. But perhaps from the secret, Pakistan-sanctioned airbase at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains. That would explain the infiltration issues she’d been unable to puzzle out.
After they’d raided bin Laden’s compound, they fled the country while being chased across the border by Pakistani jets. They must have been very slow jets to allow the helicopters fly from so far in-country, get clear of Pakistan airspace, and fly out over international waters. Or they had a secret pact with the government. Therefore, the Pakistani jets had chased the American helicopters for form’s sake, but not been allowed to interfere because of special on-going military agreements. That made the whole bin-Laden operational logistics make sense, finally.
Alice appreciated that. There was a back-burner portion of her thought processes that worried and chipped away at unexplained problems. That one had been there for a year or more, and now she could tell by the sudden mental silence that enough of the pieces were in place and she could let it go.
It also illustrated different aspects of the notorious southwest Asian schizophrenia. It was the reason her job never grew dull. It was like they thought with both sides of their brain, separately. Iran, a paranoid, extreme Islamic nation that cast aside all things Western, was now one of the few space powers on the planet. Afghanistan, desperate to shed the mantel of the Taliban, reviled the U.S. presence to suppress the brutally violent fanatics. The dichotomy of thought and action remained endlessly fascinating.
Daniel offered her some coffee and a doughnut. But her nervous system was so scrambled with exhaustion that she settled for hot chocolate and a croissant to avoid the bizarre effects caffeine would perpetrate.
As they sat at the table, the giant screen at the end of the room lit up. A beautiful blond glared balefully out at them.
“What the hell do you want at this hour, Sneaker Boy?”
Sneaker Boy? Alice looked around to see who she was addressing. The President was smiling at the screen.
“Morning, Squirt. What are you so surly about?” There was a tease in his voice.
Daniel leaned over to whisper in her ear, “Childhood friends.”
Alice turned to glance at him which brought them nearly nose-to-nose. Just the slightest bit of lean and they’d be kissing. She looked away quickly and took a large bite of her croissant to cover just how stupid her brain could be when she was tired. Her cat would be laughing at her for being such a goofball. If she had a cat.
The woman on the screen covered her face with both her hands as if impossibly weary. “Peter, you idiot!”
Alice choked, coughed, and spewed a small cloud of flaky croissant crust all over the polished Sit Room conference table.
“What time is it?” clearly meant as a rhetorical question. Rhetorical with an acid bite.
“One a.m. our time,” the President responded pleasantly. “Makes it midday for you.”
The woman uncovered one eye and just scowled at the President.
“Oh, right.” He didn’t sound very chagrined.
Alice finally got it, too. The Night Stalkers were called that for a reason. They lived in a flipped clock world, flying missions at night, sleeping during the day. The President had just rousted them after two or maybe three hours of sleep. And by the look of it, last night had included an exhausting mission.
She idly wondered if a report of it might be crossing her desk at the CIA even now. No, she’d left the southwest Asia desk six months ago. For half a year she’d been specializing in the craziest, most isolationist country on the planet.
And when she’d pulled her latest report on North Korea together, the Director had sent her scampering to the White House to report.
The Night Stalkers. The President had asked for Majors Beale and Henderson. That meant this was Major Emily Beale. Alice inspected the sleepy woman more closely. She’d shown up in enough of Alice’s reports over the years for her to know about the legend the woman had become. She out flew everyone, with the possible exception of her even more famous husband. Well, famous to the very small world of those who knew about black ops helicopter pilots.
All Alice saw was a sleepy looking woman in a sand-colored t-shirt.
“At least I didn’t wake Mark.”
A square chin in need of a shave appeared over Beale’s shoulder, “I wish, Mr. President.”
A hand reached out and filled the screen for a moment as it realigned the camera a bit higher. The two most successful pilots in SOAR history now looked out at them. Their most captivating features were Henderson’s gray eyes and Beale’s brilliant blues, almost as bright as Daniel’s. Even rumpled, tired, and grumpy, they made a beautiful couple.
Alice had always wondered how she’d look as part of a couple. Her sporadic relationships typically burned out long before her imagination had time to really take hold. And any efforts to make a portrait-type image, even in her head, had never gelled. Even in her naïve teenage years she hadn’t been able to imagine herself a couple with her massive crush, Leonardo di Caprio. And by the time Firefly’s Nathan Fillion came along, she’d lost the dreamy-eyed teenager completely.
She glanced again at the profile of the man seated beside her in his three-piece suit in the depths of a Washington D.C. night. Daniel was concentrating on the screen at the moment, revealing only his profile.
Him she could picture easily.
Alice was positively weaving by the time they left the Situation Room and passed by the Marine guards.
Daniel offered his arm.
She slipped her hand through the crook of his elbow, as if they were a couple promenading through a formal garden rather than striding along the West Wing basement hallway. Alice took a deep breath, trying not to acknowledge how much she enjoyed the feeling.
“Set her up in one of the spare rooms.” The President nodded to her.
Stay in the White House? She stumbled on the carpeted steps, would have tumbled to the ground if not for Daniel’s support. Yet another proof to her mother that she lacked any of the grace that ten years of childhood ballet should have taught her.
“I’ll get her settled and be right back down, Mr. President.”
Not that she’d stay awake long enough to get back to her apartment. Once she’d handed off the information that had kept her awake for three days, she felt limp.
“No, we’re done. We needed to get Emily in motion. Next steps tomorrow. I’m just going to swing through the office for a minute and then go back to bed.”
At the head of the stairs, Daniel turned her to the right, resting his left hand over her own where it curled about his right forearm. The sudden warmth felt both startling and comforting as her fingers were freezing cold by contrast. She’d pushed through enough M-LOS projects, as she called the ones causing massive lack of sleep, to know her body would go through chills and dizziness until she had at least a half dozen hours under her belt.
The chill only deepened as they walked the West Colonnade, passing the Marines standing stock still in heavy winter coats, rifles at the ready.
“They do that all winter?”
“I know. Pretty wild, hunh?” He pretended a shiver that she could feel through his arm, even as one of the Marines opened the door for them to enter the Residence.
In moments they were inside the Palm Room, Daniel acting the genial tour guide. His words blurred beneath the grandeur of everything. The room, little more than a pass-through with a bench, a marble table, and some potted palms, was alive with lacy woodwork and watched over by clearly historic paintings of Lady Liberty. The double doors beyond led to a wide, red-carpeted hallway, marble archways, chandeliers.
“Where’s the Christmas decorations?” she’d never actually been to the White House before and was sad that she’d be missing them.
“Not here yet.”
She bit back her disappointment. Of course, for an analyst to sit in the Situation Room and watch the first piece in the next game move across the board, that was a pretty good treat as well.
“Now you’ve done it, Alice.”
“What was that?” Daniel turned to face her.
“Fallen down the rabbit hole.”
Daniel’s laugh was easy, comfortable, and helped bring the whole place back into a little perspective.
“I thought Alice had long blond curls on her trip to Wonderland.” He led her into a mahogany-lined elevator.
“Mama hoped, but I ended up with this.” Or maybe it was walnut.
Daniel was quiet long enough for her to look up at him as they rode smoothly upward to the number three he had punched.
He was looking down at her. She’d need serious heels to be eye-to-eye with him. She’d never been good at heels.
“No, blond isn’t you. Russet suits you perfectly.”
“Always thought of it more as mouse-brown.”
“No. Russet. A beautiful russet red.”
She glanced back up at him as he led her out of the elevator to see if he was making fun of her. He studied the top of her head with a look of intense concentration. As if he were ascertaining an initial assessment of a situation rather than the bit of a flirt she’d expected. He was the perfect straight man.
“Like a russet potato?” she was never able to resist prodding a straight man.
“No. I meant the color of roses at sunset.” She tried to catch her breath, but hadn’t succeeded by the time he led her to a spacious bedroom. Even if she’d wanted to continue the conversation, all her body saw was somewhere to stretch out.
“Kitchen over that way if you get hungry.”
Hungry? The word didn’t anchor to anything in particular. It was still consumed by bed and sleep.
“President lives on the Second Floor, so don’t be concerned about disturbing him.”
Some saving grace there.
“I’m the First Chief of Staff to live here in decades. It was a little strange at first, but I’m getting used to it.”
“Hungry.” Her lagging brain finally found a use for the word. Hungry for a beautiful man who said her hair was the color of roses at sunset.
“I’m just across the hall if you need anything.”
She went up on her tiptoes, rested a hand on that nice, broad chest of his to steady herself, and kissed him.
He didn’t respond at first. She could feel the shock and surprise warring in him. All the propriety you’d expect from a gentleman.
Too much, Alice. Too forward. But the warmth of his lips, the strength of his muscles beneath her palm held her in place a moment longer.
A moment just long enough for Daniel to return the kiss.
A gentle, tentative gesture that in moments heated to melting. Specifically, her melting against him as his hands wrapped around and supported her. As his mouth explored hers.
Alice heard a small moan. She’d never in her twenty-seven years moaned when she kissed a man. But the sound was too high to come from Daniel, so it must have been hers.
She wallowed in being cradled in his arms, in being held as if she was someone desirable, even precious.
The change came suddenly. A freeze. A breath of space. A whispered, “sorry.”
“I’m not.” She opened her eyes, she didn’t recall closing them, and looked up at the summer-sky blue ones inspecting her.
Okay, this was awfully forward for her. She’d be more likely to go a half-dozen dates and barely hold hands, than to kiss a stranger.
But she wasn’t sorry. Especially not with a man who could kiss like that.
“You’re an amazing kisser.”
Daniel blinked at her. Sliding his hands down her arms until he held her hands. His were big, warm hands. Strong. Not what you’d expect from a paper-pusher.
“I’d best say goodnight.”
“Sure you don’t want to tuck me in?” She slapped her hand over her mouth. She’d never said such a Mae West line in her entire life. Next she’d be asking him if he knew how to whistle.
He slid a hand up to cradle her cheek.
“I’d love to, which is exactly why I’m not going to.” He kissed the back of her hand where it still covered her mouth.
With gentle hands, he turned her to face the bedroom, and pushed lightly against her shoulders to send her forward.
A soft click indicated the door had closed behind her.
The hand that yet covered her mouth was no longer cold. Instead it was warm with the heat of the kiss she could still feel against the back of it.
Daniel had spent most of his lunch hour in the workout room. Now, he was reading through the overnight reports, ones that he’d been trying to get to since breakfast, over a quick lunch of a BLT sandwich and a Coke when she came into the kitchen.
She entered the kitchen from behind him, but he didn’t doubt that it was Dr. Alice Thompson for a single second. The President would have arrived with his normal bravado and be already in the middle of a sentence before the door was even open. A trait he shared with his deceased wife, a comparison Daniel kept to himself as the man would not have appreciated it. If it had been the Secret Service entering the room, as they would have done if the President was in tow, there’d be at least two sets of very business-like footsteps.
But there weren’t.
The kitchen door opened part way, paused for a long moment, and then swung a bit farther. No soft slap of the rubber soles the agents wore for traction, but instead the almost silent step of a pair of sneakers on a woman who weighed half as much your average Secret Service agent.
“Good afternoon, did you sleep well?”
He didn’t turn to look at her, but remained instead perched on his stool, his reports spread out across the light and dark stripes of the maple-and-cherry wood island. Didn’t want to acknowledge the advantage he’d taken of an exhausted woman. He’d wanted to take that advantage though. For the first time in a long time, he really wanted to. Daniel tried not to cringe and simply hoped that she wouldn’t recall how he had kissed her.
She wasn’t drunk, you idiot. Just tired.
“I guess. Not really awake yet. Did you get any sleep?” She drifted into his peripheral vision over by the refrigerator.
“Not much.” Not at all really. First he’d gone back down to his office to clean up the mess. Then the phone rang and he’d clarified the instructions the President had set in motion half-a-world away. That was the problem when he and the President classified something “need to know” only, all the little questions shot straight to the top.
Then he saw the report newly placed in the middle of the teetering stacks on top of his desk. The upcoming G-8 summit had just had another bomb threat which led to a meeting with the Secret Service detail in charge of arranging that. One thing led to the next as he caught up with e-mail, fired off instructions to his staff for the morning. The overnighters discovered he was awake and began routing their questions to him.
Around three-thirty a.m. the President had drifted in from the Oval Office, “just to see if Daniel was available.” They’d spent the next hour reviewing and revising the new South African trade agreement, which had involved rousting the policy analysts from bed to straighten out an addition that someone had slipped in about Japanese whaling rights around Cape Horn. All of which had to be in place by five a.m. local-time before the eleven o’clock African-time round of talks restarted in Johannesburg.
When Janet arrived at six-thirty, Daniel had managed to clean up exactly three papers from the foot-deep stack that spread all the way under the couch beside his desk. With the rough edge of her contempt for how he let his desk become so out of control in first place, all communicated articulately by her not uttering a single word, she had it completely reorganized in less than twenty minutes.
Daniel hadn’t even tried to go to bed, especially not just across the hall from Dr. Alice Thompson. He’d been too aware of her from all the way over in the West Wing. Here in the residence, way too close.
The only reason he’d come over now was for a workout and late lunch. The break helped recenter him before the typical afternoon mêlée.
Some part of him had thought Dr. Alice Thompson would have long since been awake and gone. And some part of him had known she still slept across the hall.
He waved a hand toward the refrigerator, “Help yourself.” Then he tried to recall the notation he’d been intending to write in the report’s margin which lay open before him. Completely vanished.
Tossing down the pen, he sighed in frustration. He didn’t even know what the report was about at the moment. All he could think about was how much he wanted to taste her kiss again. You aren’t a sixteen-year old dying of hormones, he instructed himself; which had no affect at all on the path of his thoughts.
“Sorry to interrupt you, maybe I should just go.” She turned for the door. Daniel ran a hand through his hair. “No, this is a never-ending quest here at the White House. The elusive Completed Task.”
“Maybe if you hunted it with …”
“A butterfly net?”
She laughed. It was a light, merry sound. One quickly muffled by the hand she raised to cover her mouth.
In that moment Daniel discovered just how much he enjoyed making her laugh.
“Please,” he waved at the refrigerator again. “I can make you coffee or tea.”
A quick glance checking once more for permission, she finally opened the door and peeked inside the stainless steel monster. “Juice is fine.” She took a bottle. And a container of Greek yogurt.
“Or the chefs could make you a proper lunch.” He pointed toward the silverware drawer for a spoon.
“I think breakfast will be fine. And this is good, honestly.”
She went to sit across the island from him and peeked into the open box in the middle of the counter. “Ooo, Christmas cookies!”
“I couldn’t. They’re so beautiful.”
Daniel looked in. They were. “Old family tradition. We make cookie boxes for anyone, family or close friends, who can’t be around for the holiday baking. My big sister probably made most of these.” He poked around until he found a gingerbread man sticking out its tongue at him. He held it up for Alice to see. “Definitely Melanie Anne.”
She took a reindeer that had one leg lifted to relieve itself against an elf. “You sure I’m not interrupting?”
“No need to be so tentative. Please, join me. It has to be better than,” he had to flip to the cover of the report to remember what it addressed, “Pacific Northwest Reforestation.”
It wasn’t that she was just hesitant. He watched as she settled onto the bar stool opposite him. He’d shared several meals here with Emily Beale when she’d been posing as the First Lady’s chef. Major Beale cooked like a magician and looked like a modern-day warrior goddess. And while it was hard not to be stunned by that, combined with her military achievements, it was also exhausting. The woman was driven in a way that left even the President breathless.
It was an interesting contrast to Dr. Alice Thompson, sitting exactly where Emily Beale had sat across from him just a year before. The steel backbone, the warrior’s reflexes, and the black-and-white razor of the Captain’s mind contrasting with the quiet thoughtfulness of Dr. Thompson.
Alice was, Daniel had to cast about his mind until he found it, she was shy. An odd and unusual feature in the world of political extroverts who constituted the bulk of the White House Staff. Perhaps last night had been an aberration, her relaxed attitude and quick ripostes a result of guards lowered by exhaustion.
He knew that having missed last night’s sleep, he’d be in a similar state by late afternoon. But at the moment, he’d rather put her at her ease.
“About last night, I’m—”
“Not the least bit sorry.” She cut him off. Her head popped up just enough from where it had been concentrating on her yogurt for him to see that one eye peeking out from under her bangs.
Well, no question remained regarding her memory.
Daniel found himself dangerously close to a blush. Clearing his throat didn’t seem appropriate, something his father would do.
He had to say, something. “Uh, so are you.”
That earned him the head toss that cleared both of her eyes and revealed that smile that had lit up his imagination last night.
“Good thing we’ll never see each other again then, hunh?”
Daniel could feel himself blanch. Never see her again? No. That couldn’t be… “You’re teasing?”
“Oooo,” Alice clapped her hands and rubbed them together as if preparing for evil deeds. “A gudgeon! This is going to be fun.”
“A small fish.”
Daniel did his best to glare at her, but she didn’t appear daunted in the slightest.
“It’s also military slang for someone who will take a straight line, hook and sinker. Straight man. Gudgeon. Dr. Drake Darlington. All one and the same.”
Then she slapped a hand over her mouth again and her eyes grew quite wide and very distressed, looking as comic as she had last night right after he’d kissed her. And she’d kissed him back. Nothing wrong with his memory either.
He couldn’t stop the laugh.
“Sorry,” she mumbled through her fingers. “I promise I’ll cut my tongue out later.”
“I’ll help.” Gudgeon indeed. He could keep up just fine.
“I can find the front door on my own.” Alice wished she had on much more sophisticated clothes. What had been comfortable at one in the morning looked very out of place at one in the afternoon in the corridors of the White House.
“How?” Daniel guided her down a second flight of stairs that opened into a grand foyer. She’d seen this staircase, or a good replica, in far too many movies. The Grand Staircase was just that. A sweeping majesty trod by Annette Bening in a killer blue gown and great shoes. And now the real set of stairs bore Dr. Alice Thompson in garishly green sneakers and dirty corduroys.
Though she did have a killer handsome guy by her side, so it wasn’t a complete loss. At least until she turned the corner of the stair. A long marble hall spread before them. A sea of gold-trimmed red carpet flowed down the marbled length as if it would never end. It was staggering, sunlight pouring in from tall windows made the room glow.
The room itself so dazzled the mind that it took her a moment to focus on the hoard of people at the far end of the hallway. Dozens and dozens of people, with a watchful phalanx of security guards, were stringing garlands, erecting and decorating trees, hanging dazzlingly intricate paper snowflakes several feet across from the ceiling using a high-lift platform.
“Christmas is here.” Her voice had a sense of breathy wonder as if she were witnessing a modern miracle.
Daniel paused and looked out with her. “Four hundred volunteers. It will take them the better part of a day even at the rate they’re moving. By this evening there will be musicians in the lobby, the whole bit.”
He led her around the turn in the staircase as she rubbernecked like any tourist trying to take it all in. Right until she came face-to-face with Franklin D. Roosevelt, seated ever so grandly in a painted portrait almost as tall as she was.
It took her a moment to recover. Daniel almost had her turned toward the next set of descending stairs when her head cleared enough to spot the towering double doors. At the midpoint of the marbled foyer sufficiently spacious to hold a ballroom dance, the decorators hadn’t reached them yet.
“Those are doors,” she pointed. “And it is bright and sunny on the other side of them. They lead outside. Those,” she paused for emphasis, “are doors.”
“They are.” He continued to coax her toward the set of descending stairs, ignoring her discovery.
“Well, I found them.” She emphasized the “I” strongly and imagined herself discovering the North Pole.
“You did.” He started down the next flight of steps and she was half tempted to call his bluff and leave through the lately-discovered doors. She’d need to think up what to name them if she were going to publish her findings.
“Do you know what’s on the other side of those doors?” Daniel asked from where he’d paused three steps below her.
Alice wasn’t really sure. Other than the now-famous Doors of Alice discovered by one Dr. Thompson while journeying through new and definitely strange lands, White House cartography wasn’t exactly her thing. She could name the leaders of the hundred-and-ninety-three U.N. member nations and the three that weren’t, draw a to-scale map of southwest Asia including every city with a population over twenty thousand and most of the clandestine weapon supply routes, on-or-off road. But what lay beyond those doors, not so much.
“What?” she demanded in a voice that echoed surprisingly in the long stairwell and attracted the attention of some of the closer decorators.
“Half of the capital’s press corps is through those doors. We’ve had the new Egyptian President visiting this morning and he and President Matthews are finishing a photo op out on the North Portico at the moment. That’s why we held back the decorating until after his visit.”
“Oh. Right, he’s a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. Wouldn’t be right.” Alice tried to think of a good comeback, but it failed aborning. Maybe for the moment she’d leave herself in Daniel’s hands and not explore the Famous Alice Doors. She followed him down the stairs and through the vaulted underground corridor they’d now entered, not one bit less grand than the main hallway upstairs, if not quite so flashy. No decorations here. At least not yet.
“Where did you get such nice hands?” Where did she get such a stupid question? But it was out there and now she’d have to live with it.
He held one up as if to inspect it as they once again passed through the Palm Room and along the West Colonnade. The decorators had definitely been here. Garlands of green pine spiraled up each of the columns, broad red ribbons wrapped between.
“My dad. I think I can blame my hands on him.”
“Daniel Drake Darlington II?”
“What? No, that was Dad’s idea of a joke, he’s Johnny by the way. He thought it was funny. He’d found two Daniel Drakes in the family tree. One, an authentic Brit turned pioneer, who stumbled into the Tennessee wilderness in the early 1700s and never left. The second, a lieutenant in the Civil War, fought for the South. Died young and stupid, but left behind a pregnant farmer’s wife who ran the place with an iron fist. Dad felt one a century was a good mark and realized that he’d better use the name in a hurry if he wanted to get it done in the 1900s. He added the ‘third’ just to be funny, I guess.”
“So, you’re a slaver.”
“Born and bred.”
Alice followed him past another set of Marines who opened yet another set of doors for them before they could get there.
“Should I worry?”
“Nah. You’re not my type.” His voice was pure tease.
“You’re not mine either.” She shot back. But it was wrong, on both sides. An awkward silence fell for a moment. She glanced sideways at him as they stepped past a pair of Marines and through a door. Then she faced forward and she squeaked.
It was all Alice could do.
She tried to speak, but all she could emit was another, equally ridiculous, high-pitched squeak.
A quick turn to retreat back out the door she’d just come in proved fruitless. The Marines had already closed it behind her. She turned reluctantly back to face the room. It was huge. Magnificently furnished. Washington, Lincoln, and JFK stared down at her from the wall. She couldn’t say walls, because there was only one wall.
The room was oval.
The President entered and shook Alice’s hand a hearty good morning.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Thompson. You slept well I trust?”
Wholly unable to speak, she again managed little more than another puppy-dog limp handshake in response. The man must think her totally witless. He waved her toward the inevitable cluster of seating.
“Oval!” still rattled around in her brain like a ship lost at sea. Presidential portraits glowered down at her. The bloody Resolute desk, built from the timbers of the HMS Resolute anchored one end of the space and a large fireplace anchored the other. Nothing on television prepared her for the impact, for the sheer power of the room. It towered two stories tall, the Presidential Seal built into the center of the ceiling, mirrored by the one in the vast rug.
She dropped onto a couch. Far more comfortable than it looked. It would be a good slouching couch for watching a sappy movie, she resisted the urge to test that theory. As she’d half expected, the President and his Chief of Staff took the two armchairs. A small rosewood table separated her from Daniel. From its surface, a rather stumpy Christmas gnome considered her carefully. His open satchel sported a selection of cheerfully wrapped chocolates.
“I wanted a chance to speak with you before you left.”
“Me?” She blinked hard, but remained clearly wide awake. The President didn’t fade leaving a Cheshire Cat smile, and they were definitely still seated in the Oval Office. Or maybe Daniel was the Cheshire Cat for he too was smiling at her, though in apparent empathy, as if reading her complete discomfiture at finding herself on the wrong side of the looking glass.
“Yes, I’d like to ask for your professional assessment of the situation.”
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