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.