Zachary's Christmas - M. L. Buchman - ebook
Opis

-a Night Stalkers White House romance- NAME: Zachary Thomas JOB: Vice President of the United States FAMILY: A distant two-star general and a self-involved Olympic swimming coach NAME: Melanie Anne Darlington JOB: She hasn’t a clue FAMILY: White House Chief of Staff and a powerful Southern legacy Zack’s political career thrives—his star shines brightly. The only thing missing? Someone to share it with. Anne’s brother embraces the White House career he was born to do. Unfortunately, Anne’s own future shines as clearly as a snow globe blizzard on a dark winter’s night. This holiday season, each day opens a new window to the vista of their future in Zachary’s Christmas.

Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:

Androidzie
iOS
czytnikach certyfikowanych
przez Legimi
Windows
10
Windows
Phone

Liczba stron: 275

Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostepny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacjach Legimi na:

Androidzie
iOS

Zachary’s Christmas

M. L. Buchman

Don’t Miss a Thing!

Sign up for M. L. Buchman’s newsletter!

New releases

Sales and Free release notices

Insider information

Get a free book today!

www.mlbuchman.com

Chapter One

“Brother, is it evertricky to break into this place,” Melanie Anne Darlington plummeted into her sibling’s office chair. Then she had to scrape her hair out of her face; long hair and a thick parka complete with a furred collar and hood kept trapping her behind a blond curtain. She’d never been good at being a woman of mystery.

Daniel would know of course, that his big sister was dropping in for an unannounced visit since the moment she’d hit the outermost layer of White House security. Not quite like the old days when she could drop unexpectedly out of the hayloft and scare the daylights out of him—a joke that simply never grew old—but there was still satisfaction to be had. And she’d come accompanied by her own personal White House guard—looking very spiffy in his blue uniform and white hat—just in case he didn’t welcome the “surprise.”

“Hey, Sister. Where’s your rifle, Anne? I assume you’re hunting polar bear in that outfit.” His lazy Tennessee accent was more diluted by Washington DC every time she saw him and it made her feel even more alone than she already did, which at the moment was saying more than a thing or two. But his smile was warm as always and that helped some.

“You will not be insulting my parka. It’s never seventeen degrees on December first! Don’t you gentlemen pass laws and sign bills against precisely this kind of travesty?” The city was cloaked in ice and a recent snow.

It had looked magical from the airplane and the cab, with all the landmark buildings popping up out of the vast whiteness as if they themselves were formed of snow. And signs of Christmas had been everywhere, from a tiny wreath above baggage claim to giant fake candy canes on street lamps to the massive National Christmas Tree on The Ellipse.

Once afoot though, the cold had cut right to the bone. But if Daniel thought he’d be getting away with insulting her attire, he had another think coming.

Of course Mister Cover-of-GQ—the blond boy-genius turned White House Chief of Staff by the age of thirty—would never think of wearing a parka. His corner office glowed a warm orange with the setting sun. Her own little brother had a southwest-facing corner office in the West Wing—that was completely crazy. The only sign of Christmas from here was a massive wreath on the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street. The White House hadn’t been decorated yet.

“I’ll have them draft special legislation just for you. Would you prefer a military escort with portable heaters?”

“Now that be sweet of you,” the Tennesseans’ way of calling someone a jerk in public, “though maybe if you selected a few particularly hunky ones, that would have some nice possibilities.” She slapped her hand against her coat’s thick padding, “If the apocalypse hits tomorrow, this is going to be far more practical than one of your three-piece suits and designer-Ralph wool coats, City Boy. Besides, how am I supposed to hunt a decent bear, even a stuffed one for Christmas, when they’ve confiscated my popgun at the front gate.” She waved a hand at the guard who had escorted her through the last leg of her journey. “Do you think the spiffy soldier will lend me his sword if I bat my eyelashes?”

“He’s not a soldier, he’s a Marine, and I think he’d be crazy if he did.” Daniel looked up at the man in question. “We’re fine here, Jeffrey; you’ll want to escape while you still can. She’s a man eater.”

The Marine saluted and, in a flash of humor that she suspected was rare for a White House honor guardsman said, “Thank you for the warning, sir.” He did a neat turn on his heel and marched back out into the hall to his post outside the Oval Office, his boot heels sounding smartly against the hardwood flooring.

“Am not a man eater.”

“Are too.”

“Am not,” she looked up over his shoulder, “am I Mr. President?”

Daniel startled to his feet and she belatedly rose to her own as Peter Matthews strode in through the side door of Daniel’s office. The President was a tall, handsome man with dark hair and lively eyes that always made him look even kinder than he already was.

“Hello, Anne. You been out moose hunting?” He came around to offer her a friendly handshake. He earned additional points for recalling that she went by her middle name.

“Sir, between you and my brother you are two of the handsomest ex-bachelors around, but you share the same lousy sense of humor. I’ll talk to your wife about fixing that for you.”

“Trust me, Genny has tried,” the President dropped into the other chair and she and Daniel resumed their own. It still startled her every time he did something like that; Peter Matthews always had time to be pleasant.

“If you two have something to talk about, I can go upstairs and see you later.” But the President was patting his hand in the air for her to stay in place.

“Nothing that won’t keep. How’s the farm?”

“It’s…” She was finally warm enough to unzip her coat. Toying with the zip gave her a moment to steel herself before confronting Daniel. It was what she’d come to DC to talk to him about. Gently. After testing the waters very carefully. Daniel had always been crazy about the family farm. By some strange chance, that was what had led him to DC and the White House. Even here in the Chief of Staff’s office—when the historical decorators offered him a selection from the greatest works of art—he’d put up four big panoramas of their family farm, one in each season.

The rest of the furniture was ornate, classic, probably from some period of history they’d tried to teach her about in high school when she couldn’t care less. Memorize the facts, spit them out, get the A, forget them. The only incongruous part of her brother’s office was his desk. The piece itself was a majestic piece of cherrywood, but a battle raged upon what little showed of its surface with no victor yet proclaimed. File folders in a rainbow of coded colors teetered against other stacks of plain manila. Thick-bound volumes bore official looking report titles that were gleefully driving the lone computer monitor inch by grudging inch toward its doom off the edge of the desk.

The only reason that she could tell it was cherrywood rather than battered old plywood was a small, carefully walled off corner that contained only two objects. A beautiful Advent calendar with only its first door opened stood stout guard over the wedding picture of her brother and Alice now-Darlington III—the coolest sister-in-law on the planet. A top CIA analyst, she was even smarter than Anne’s brilliant brother. Their wedding on the farm had been…

The farm.

Sighing that things never seemed to go quite the way she intended, she turned to face the President.

“The farm sucks, Mr. President.” She could see Daniel jolt upright out of the corner of her eye so she turned to face the problem head on. “The farm is jes’ fine, baby brother. So relax yourself some. It’s only me who is going madder than a hatter. You were built for that place; I wasn’t. The foreman, the manager, Ma and Pop, the streaming hordes just begging to work at the cuisine training center on the model Slow Food farm of the entire Southeastern US—none of them need me there.”

“But you did all of the Thanksgiving events and it was amazing.”

“Thanks. And I’d rather shoot myself with a popgun than go through it again.” She’d done the grand hostess gig for the Darlington Thanksgiving—the fanciest affair on the farm’s annual event calendar. Dinner for hundreds, not a Tennessee Congressman who hadn’t been invited along with his family. She’d made sure that Food and Wine as well as the key food bloggers had not only received the recipes, but invitations to the banquet as well. It had been a grand affair and Anne had been at the center of it. That was one of the things that had driven her to escape the farm now, Ma and Pop had been pushing her to take on the estate’s entire event division and she’d…run away. Real mature, but there was not a chance that she’d be telling her little brother that.

“I’m bored shitless,” which was also true. She could do these big events in her sleep now, and she couldn’t imagine feeling less excited about anything.

Daniel flinched at her language.

Maybe she had gone a little too far considering the company. She turned slowly to face the President. “Sorry sir. You may not know this, but I was raised on a farm. I speak that way far too often for Daniel’s liking. I failed my kindergarten training to be a polite Southern lady and never recovered.”

“A farm, really?” He offered in mock surprise. “I grew up in DC. I’ll trash talk with you any day you want.”

She knew from various visits over the last three years since Daniel rose to Chief of Staff that Peter Matthews could barely say “darn” without blushing and her brother wasn’t all that much better.

“You’re on, sir. Some night we’ll each have a beer, which is about my limit anyway, and we’ll choose a topic. Maybe you,” she pointed at her brother. “We’ll make him attend but won’t let him speak. I’ll tell you childhood horror stories, like the first time he kissed a girl—she was six and he was seven, the mad womanizer—I’m the one who caught them.”

“And you haven’t let me live down Becky Carpenter yet.”

“Hush now. I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the President,” she kept her attention on Peter Matthews. “You can tell me Washington stories. I still don’t understand how my dirt-loving brother ended up at the center of power and I ended up at the center of whole passel of dirt.”

“Just lucky I guess,” Daniel growled. “I’d trade this in a heartbeat, if—” He bit his tongue.

It was an interesting moment. The President had gone very still. Anne considered gunning for Daniel while he was down but decided that was too cruel despite her big-sisterly responsibilities to harass him whenever possible.

“If what, Daniel?” The President’s tone had gone soft and difficult to read. “I wouldn’t be the first President to run through two Chiefs of Staff. Do you want out?”

“No, sir,” he immediately replied. No doubt, no equivocation. Her brother had grown a real spine while she wasn’t watching—which only made her feel all the more lost. Like an elf kicked out of the Christmas workshop for painting candy canes pink and black, but who had nowhere else to go because Santa’s workshop was indeed at the North Pole.

“If what, Daniel?”

“It’s an honor to serve and—”

“He did grow up on a farm, didn’t he?” The President turned to her, interrupting Daniel. “I’m from DC but I know when someone heaves a shovel of horse crap at me.”

“That was horseshit, Mr. President. And yes sir, my brother is slinging it.” She turned back to Daniel, “Maybe I should become Chief of Staff and you should return to the farm. Neither of us is where we want to be.”

“Give it to me straight, Daniel,” the President spoke in his this-bill-will-pass tone that was so effective on national TV.

Daniel dug his hands through his hair, actually mussing it up. Anne was sorry she’d trapped him enough to make him feel that way, but she didn’t know how to take it back in the current situation.

“We’re doing so much good here, Peter,” Daniel had dropped the honorific, which she could see surprised the President more than anything that had come before. Then Daniel did finally blush. “Sorry, Mr. President. I came to DC to help jumpstart the Slow Food movement, farm-to-table. I came to promote fresh, unprocessed ingredients that are farmed rather than GMO agri-business. I had never imagined what I’ve ended up doing here. It’s amazing and I love it!” He started picking up folders off his desk. “The next G-20 meeting. The Southeast Asia trading pact. Watershed restoration. I wouldn’t want to miss a single day of it.”

“But you miss the farm that,” the President turned to her, “your sister hates.”

“I do, Mr. President,” they said in unison with exactly the same intonation.

Zachary Thomas typically went directly from his office to the Oval Office when visiting the White House. President Peter Matthews had made it clear that his Vice President was to be barred from no meeting and was always welcome there. VPs had so often—and occasionally notoriously—been kept out of the loop, that even after five years Zack couldn’t get used to the privilege. There were VPs who had never once used their office just next door to the Chief of Staff’s. The bulk of his own staff worked across the street in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, but he was in the West Wing at least a portion of every day.

He heard the President’s laugh from Daniel’s office, so he turned in rather than continuing down to the Oval. Janet offered her typical teasing smile—that of a woman on the verge of retirement who had offered more than once to run off to Tangiers with him—and waved him through.

“If only I were a few decades older, and we were both unwed,” he told her. Janet had aged very well, but he’d met her very attentive husband.

“We need to be finding you a wife, Mr. Vice President. Or I will leave poor James for you.”

“I just might take you up on that, ma’am. Best warn him to start looking.” They traded winks then Zack strode up to the threshold.

Peter Matthews was the first President since Polk in the mid-1800s who wore his dark hair casually long—LBJ’s gray coif had only appeared after his retirement. It made Peter look boyish and handsome, aided by being the youngest President ever elected. The gray that came with the office was only beginning to show. Daniel, his Chief of Staff, wore his blond hair short, but he had that California surfer-boy handsomeness despite his Tennessee farm heritage. Neither had the military bearing of having served, though it was hard to fault the choices the President had made over the years.

Zack was more of a tall Colorado boy—Colorado Springs born-and-buttered. It was a distinction little understood outside the state and one used carefully inside the state. His hometown had shrugged off almost all of its early counter-culture roots except in small outlier enclaves like Manitou Springs. Now it was known for one of three things: the US Olympic Training Center, the Air Force Academy, and headquarters for over fifty Evangelical churches. When spoken in-state, Zack only had to add one word, “I’m from The Springs…Academy.” That was a whole conversation had, and answered. Out-of-state, he just said “Colorado” without even mentioning the city’s name. It was easier that way.

Daniel sat as respectfully as always, perhaps sitting so carefully upright in order to be seen across the prairie-sized expanse of paperwork he called a desk. The President remained in his chair, looking more relaxed than Daniel, but proper as always.

Beside him, in profile, sat a woman with a beauty as surprising as Daniel’s. They were obviously related, so this must be the sister he’d heard tales of but never met. Melanie Anne Darlington. Daniel’s rugged handsomeness had been translated into her fine features; his short blond hair transformed into a sun-streaked cascade that spilled down over the furred collar of her oversized parka.

The mood in the room was an odd mixture. Daniel was confused and perhaps angry. The President and Daniel’s sister were both laughing, hers a bright spill on the air.

“Hello, Mr. Vice President,” Daniel spotted him and rose, just as he would for the President. It was always a kind compliment that his predecessor had certainly never offered…before he’d been hauled off for treason on other matters.

The President glanced over, “Hello, Zack.”

The woman turned and the full impact of her sparkling eyes, the darkest blue he’d ever seen, almost had him stepping backwards. Behind those beautiful features was clearly a very sharp mind. And her beauty while not of some fantastical portion, was all the stronger for the woman who lived behind them; she was vibrant. A massive parka hung open from her shoulders, but the bulk made it difficult to assess her figure.

“Where do I sign up?”

She looked up at him in surprise. She too had risen along with her brother but it was a fair way from his own six-two down to her five-foot-six.

“For the polar expedition that you’re obviously leading,” he clarified.

“Have to bring your own parka,” her smile went from tentative to radiant.

“Done,” he offered a hand and she shook it firmly. Fine fingers had nothing to do with this woman’s obvious strength. “Zachary Thomas. But expedition leaders can call me Zack.”

“Thank you, Mr. Vice President. I’ll remember that. Anne Darlington, expedition leader.” Then she turned back to the President. “See? At least one man in this administration has a decent sense of humor.”

“Only happens around beautiful women,”—which she was and more. She had a much stronger accent than her brother, unmistakably Tennessee. Like a blond and slightly taller Holly Hunter who he’d always had a weak spot for in the movies. “You sound just like—”

“Don’t you be doing that,” she cut him off and shook a finger at him. “I do not sound like her. Not if you want to stay on my expedition. Besides, she’s from Georgia. That’s a whole different place,” she pronounced ‘whole’ as if it had three or four Ls, exactly as Holly Hunter would have.

“Yes, ma’am,” he saluted her sharply. Zack looked to Peter Matthews, “Should I come back later?” The tension still rippled about the room. Though no one had ever accused him of having a sense of humor before, she made him want to try. “In the meantime, if the lady would like, I can go out and rustle up a dog team with sled. That might prove difficult in Washington DC, but I’m willing to give it a go.”

Again that laugh spilled forth so easily and brightened the room still further. Then she turned to her brother.

“Okay, Daniel, I’ll make you a deal. One time offer, but you must decide right away. I’ll go back to the farm, but only if I can take my team with me,” she stepped over and hooked a hand about Zack’s elbow to demonstrate their solidarity.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t have him,” Peter Matthews shook his head. “Zack still has a job here.”

“With all due respect, Mr. President…Tough!”

Zack didn’t even try to stop the laugh that come out of him as she faced down the President of the United States.

“This man here,” she lifted Zack’s elbow as if she needed to clarify which one, “applied, was accepted, and signed the ship’s articles. He’s mine now. Besides, I like his smile.”

And when she smiled up at him, he couldn’t help but return it.

“Hate to correct you, Ma’am. Truly I do,” Zack should be backing away, this was Daniel’s sister, but he was enjoying the little scene and the way her hand felt on his arm. “However, there are no ship’s articles as I’m retired Air Force, not Navy. And I regret to inform you that I did swear before the nation to uphold this Vice Presidential office as well as several other odds and ends. Like, oh, the Constitution.”

“Traitor!” She let go of his arm, clasped her hands over her heart, before collapsing back into her chair as if struck down. “I’ve been betrayed. I suppose you may have him back, Mr. President. I wouldn’t trust him though. Far too honorable. Unlike me.”

The President waved Zack to a seat. The only open one was close beside Ms. Darlington, which was just fine with him.

“So, what are we debating?”

“Whether or not Daniel and I should trade jobs. What do you think?”

He could only assume she was joking, but there was something in the President’s look that made him less than certain. Normally that would cause Zack to approach such a question with caution and diplomacy. But with Anne Darlington sitting beside him…

Clambering back out of his chair, he grabbed Anne’s wrist, dragged her to her feet, and tugged her around the desk after him.

She giggled, which was awfully cute on her. So he went with it.

“Out, Daniel. Out!” Zack shooed him away.

Daniel remained paralyzed for a second, then, puzzled, scrambled to his feet.

Zack bowed toward the woman as if she wore an evening gown rather than a heavy parka, jeans, and craftsman-stitched custom-made cowboy boots which said just as much as a designer gown would have about who she was. The Darlingtons weren’t just Tennessee farmers; they were one of the power families of the South.

“My lady leader, your chair awaits.”

Anne curtsied, holding out the hem of her parka, before sitting regally in the seat as if on a throne.

She looked up at the three men.

Vice President Zachary Thomas utterly charming and terribly handsome in his role of momentarily playing the jester. He was tall, dark-haired, and wore one of those close beards that he kept at just a week’s length. On his strong face, it looked mature and thoughtful rather than unkempt as most such beards did. She’d never much fancied a man in a beard, but the Vice President perhaps could convince her otherwise. His military background was easily seen in perfect posture, an inordinate strength for a politician, and a degree of self-assuredness that few men had.

The President still sat with an unreadable half smile on his face.

And Daniel remained on his feet, looking actively distressed.

Then she looked at the desk in front of her and began reading report titles: Antarctic Climate Change Update. Southeast Asia—an analysis of potential armed conflict over China’s latest Spratly Island militarization. Terrorist activity in…

A bit overwhelmed, she looked up again.

The President of the United States still sat directly across the desk and was watching her with a carefully neutral expression. As if in some alternate reality he’d consider it if both she and Daniel said yes. There was an unnerving thought.

She’d never really appreciated what Daniel did before. He sorted, filtered, prioritized all this information into a form digestible by the man sitting across from her. It didn’t look hard from the other side of the desk—but from here it looked impossible. And the responsibility of it was overwhelming.

Her kid brother stood there, shifting from foot to foot, a nervous habit he’d had since he was a little boy.

“When did you change so much?” It was barely a whisper, but it was all she could manage.

Daniel shrugged uneasily, as if uncertain what she meant. Maybe he didn’t know how different he’d become; she almost didn’t recognize him. The fine suit was the least of it. The beautiful and brilliant wife, the amazing job, finding a place he belonged in the nation’s capital—in the heart of it. Taken altogether it was an alarming change.

Only that trademark shifting of feet—which she suspected only happened now in his big sister’s presence—still identified him as the boy she’d known since birth. He was her very first memory. She’d been three on the day her brother had come home and squalled right in her face—the moment before burping up all over her. It was a day she had yet to let him off the hook for.

Well, she knew one thing about him in the here and now for certain. Anne rose to her feet. “You belong here. Right here.” She swiveled the chair partly in his direction and moved away.

She shoved her hands in her pockets and pulled the parka tightly about her. A chill shivered through her and it was all she could do to hide it.

Yet another place she didn’tbelong.

“I’ll just go up to the Residence. See you later, Daniel. Mr. President and Mr. Vice President.”

She slipped out of the office, past Daniel’s secretary, and wished she could pull up the parka’s hood. Would have, if it wouldn’t make every single Marine and Secret Service agent stop her as she crossed from the West Wing to the Residence.

She passed through hordes of Christmas decorators, all escorted by multitudes of Secret Service agents. The White House was transforming around her, but still she remained the same. She wished they could redecorate her so easily.

Anne plowed through and—more by luck than thought—found her way out of the West Wing and over to the Residence. For the first time in decades the Chief of Staff lived in the White House—the President had given Daniel use of the third floor. It was a holdover from the year when both Peter and Daniel had been bachelors.

Now the President, his wife Geneviève Matthews, and their little girl Adele lived on the second floor. Daniel lived on the third with his wife Alice.

And she lived…in a parka while wandering through the long halls of the White House. A few people eyed her curiously, but she made it to the elevator and up to the third floor without being stopped. At least that one thing had gone well today.

Chapter Two

After their meeting wasdone, Zack Thomas swung through his office to gather his coat. He took the stairs down to the West Wing lobby. Clutters of rushing staffers dodged aside to open a passage for him. Heading up the stairs, the Communications Director passed him, in a deep debate with one of the speechwriters, offering a quick nod without breaking stride.

It was decorating day and while the West Wing didn’t get the level of treatment accorded to the Residence, a stream of volunteers did what they could to remain out of the way while totting mantel swags, holly boughs, and curiously two of them carrying a child mannequin in a Victorian-era Christmas outfit.

“Please tell me that isn’t headed for my office.”

The young woman holding the mannequin’s shoulders mumbled something about that being up to the West Wing Director of Decorations and moved on without recognizing him.

Zack seriously hoped that the Victorian motif was whimsical or even ironic rather than thematic to this year’s decoration plan.

He finally reached the lobby, which the decorators had yet to reach and the congestion eased to normal levels of West Wing mayhem. With her impeccable timing, that he could only credit to her having him wired with a geo-locator when he wasn’t watching, his assistant appeared from the opposite side of the lobby. She was dressed in one of her understated wool knee-length designer coats that looked so good on her tall, slender frame; the red wool a tasteful contrast to the dark brunette swing of hair that brushed her collar. She moved like an elegant VP-seeking missile through the heart of the crowd and they all stepped aside for her.

Cornelia Day held his coat’s collar for him as he shrugged into it.

“What else do I have today? Anything pressing?”

She retained his entire schedule in her head, just one of her many daunting skills. “Surround yourself with people smarter than you,” was the one rare piece of advice from his father-the-two-star-General. Cornelia was definitely one of those people. She’d served him since she’d interned for him as the Governor of Colorado, straight out of Claremont McKenna College—graduated at nineteen with full honors. He’d moved her to his full-time assistant four weeks later and six months after that he wondered how he’d ever survived without her.

“End of day wrap up with me. Not even a dinner meeting,” she buttoned her coat as if the EEOB offices were far more than a hundred feet from the West Wing. Cornelia often complained about having to move from Southern California to Colorado to work for him. But her time there had prepared her wardrobe for the current Washington, DC cold snap. She added thin, black leather gloves and a cashmere scarf.

She indeed looked ready for a polar expedition—DC style. It would be hard to find a person more the opposite of Anne Darlington. Anne had looked storm-tossed when she’d retreated from Daniel’s office wrapped deep in her massive parka. She’d frankly looked…miserable.

“Hit me with the short version.”

“Seven a.m. breakfast with the present governor of Colorado. You asked me to specifically remind you not to call him an idiot.”

But the man was.

“Simply because he doesn’t agree with your prior policies,” she read his expression easily of course, “does not necessarily reflect on his mental capacity.”

“And yet he is.”

She sighed and then nodded, her shoulder-length hair slid forward and back in a sharp slicing motion that emphasized her narrow face and dark eyes, “And yet he is. But your life at next month’s fundraiser in Denver will be easier if you don’t remind him of that.”

“Got it. I’m going to make a call.”

“Should I wait?” She already had her tablet out to make any notes he side-spoke to her.

“No. Go home for a change. Have some eggnog,” and he briefly wondered what Cornelia Day did in her time off. Did she even have a life outside the office? “We’re done for today.”

She squinted at him momentarily. He could feel her attempting to peer inside his head and read his thoughts. He barely had a clear idea of them himself, so he wished her luck.

“Tomorrow morning,” the slightly worried look didn’t clear. “At the Hay-Adams, seven a.m.”

At his nod, she moved off.

He crossed to one of the guard’s desks. “Could you call the Residence for me? Third floor.”

Anne wished Daniel would show up and answer his own damned phone; it had rung until she thought it might be a new and effective form of torture. She’d been on the verge of snatching it off the cradle anyway, her hand mere inches away when it had finally stopped.

She held her breath.

It didn’t restart.

Counted to ten.

Still nothing.

She retreated to a seat in the Music Room at the top of the White House Residence and stared eastward. In the distance, a peek-a-boo view of the Capitol Building’s dome was etched in yellow light against the darkening sky. The bronze Statue of Freedom atop the dome stood with her butt facing Anne; a fact she knew from past curiosity. Though the distance made it impossible to actually see the butt from here, she could feel it. Why wasn’t this a surprise?

Tennessee. She’d just escaped Tennessee, but it was still awfully tempting to call the family plane to come right back and pick her up. Why did she think DC was going to be any better? Because it rhymed with Tennessee? Maybe she should try Gay Paree next—at least the number of syllables would match properly. All she needed was a time machine to take her back to 1920s Paris.

If she—

There was a discreet knock on the open Music Room door.

She glanced over her shoulder and then spun to her feet in surprise, almost catapulting herself to the floor. “Mr. Vice President.”

“Team leaders are supposed to call me Zack. I’m fairly sure that was in the ship’s articles.”