Standing on the threshold of the White House Situation Room shouldn’t be this strange, but Cornelia could not remember a single moment of greater change in her life. Taking the next step seemed beyond her capabilities. And it wasn’t merely the Situation Room—which was actually a large complex of rooms in the basement of the West Wing. This was the entry to the President’s Briefing Room, the keystone conference room. This is where the nation’s hardest decisions were made and she absolutely didn’t belong here.
“Well, here’s a day I never thought I’d see,” President-elect Zachary Thomas chuckled from close behind her. “The day anything would slow down Ms. Cornelia Day.”
Fighting to keep her reactions to herself, she took the step, and the next five, her heels echoing as she crossed the pale gold marble and then onto the dark blue of the carpet surrounding the conference table. In her eight years as Vice President Thomas’ assistant, she had never entered this room. Didn’t he know that?
The dark walnut table had six armchairs down either side. At the near end was the lone chair that must be the President’s and at the far end there was a wall of video screens. More chairs lined either sidewall as well as more large screens.
The room felt wrong, too simple for what it was. The governor’s conference room in Colorado was several times larger and much more nicely appointed. Of course the Roosevelt Room and Cabinet Room upstairs were just opposite the Oval Office, but the Situation Room should look like more than an afterthought. It was so small for what happened here. If all the chairs were filled it would be more cramped than the coach section on an airplane.
Then she looked at the clock. Local time and—she barely managed a breath against the tightness building in her chest—President time. He had his own clock. Nothing so succinctly stated the purpose of this room as him having his own clock.
She really didn’t belong here. She didn’t even know which chair would be hers, or more troubling, why it would be hers.
“This,” Zachary Thomas came up beside her and rested his hand on the head chair, “will typically be mine starting on Inauguration Day.”
It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. They had barely seven weeks to form their new administration. Cornelia’s head hurt just thinking about how much there was to do.
“And if you don’t think that’s scaring the daylights out of me, you’ve got another think coming. That one,” he pointed to his immediate left, the chair she’d stopped close behind, “is where my White House Chief of Staff will be sitting.”
Cornelia rested her hand on the seatback and tried not to be physically ill. At the President of the United States’ left hand. “How did this happen?”
She managed to look up at his dark eyes.
“It happened because I need someone to keep me from screwing the pooch…too often. You’ve been with me since before I was the Governor of Colorado, almost a dozen years. You know me better than anyone, even Anne.”
Cornelia doubted that. First Lady-elect Anne Darlington-Thomas had shown a heartfelt understanding of her future husband since the day they’d met last Christmas—an affinity that neither Cornelia, nor Anne had expected. But Cornelia wasn’t comfortable correcting the President-elect on her first-ever visit to the Situation Room.
“There hasn’t been a policy decision in all those years that you didn’t offer something on.”
“Even when I disagreed with you,” she managed a smile.
“Especially when you disagreed with me. You know how many people were willing to speak truth to the Governor, never mind the President? I need someone who will.”
“I can’t believe you did this to me, Mr. President-elect!” Daniel Darlington strode into the Situation Room.
His hearty greeting echoed Cornelia’s sentiments exactly.
“Hey!” He aimed a finger at the chair her hand rested on. “That’s my chair!”
Cornelia snatched her hand back.
“Nope,” Zachary pointed to his right. “That’s going to be yours very soon, Daniel.”
“I still can’t believe you did this to me,” Daniel repeated but he moved to the designated chair and dropped into it as if there was nothing unusual. It fit him. With his immaculate suit, surfer blond hair, and charming smile, Daniel was one of the most politically savvy people, and well-liked ones, in DC. He had proven he was an exceptional White House Chief of Staff and she had no doubt that he’d make an amazing Vice President. “I’m supposed to be back on the family farm in two months. Remind me again how you convinced me to run with you?”
“I asked and you said yes. You didn’t even whine much,” Zachary sat in his own future chair at the head of the table. Cornelia wished he’d at least squirm a little as he did, so that she wasn’t the only one so obviously out of place.
“And I expect to regret it for the rest of my days. But my wife said she’d vote for me, so I caved. Sorry Mr. President-elect, but you’re not the one Alice voted for on our ticket.”
The two men shared smiles that told Cornelia this was going to be her life for the next four to eight years. They were both simply too pleased with themselves and each other. It didn’t help that, through Anne, they were also now brothers-in-law.
Cornelia was halfway into her seat when Daniel aimed that charming smile at her.
“Careful. If this all goes wrong, you’ll be the one in the Vice President’s chair eight years from now. Four if I have the good sense to quit while I’m ahead.”
She collapsed into her seat with far less dignity than she’d intended. She straightened both her spine and the line of her best Ann Taylor suit to regain her composure before replying.
“I will change my citizenship tomorrow,” she said with all of the dignity she could muster.
“Aruba’s a good choice,” Daniel suggested with a casual ease that unraveled her attempts to set a tone befitting the White House Situation Room.
“I’d go with Australia,” Zachary riposted. “Better beer.”
Cornelia sighed. They were here for their first Sit Room briefing as the incoming administration. And if this was any indicator for how their schedule was going to go over the next four years (never mind if there were two terms) she would go insane managing it. Except that wouldn’t be her job anymore. Zachary Thomas would have a body man and a fleet of secretaries. Her job would be about managing his information flow, not his hour-to-hour schedule. Definitely time to up your game, Cornelia.
“Personally,” a new voice sounded from behind her, “I prefer German beer. There is a beer called Rieder Dunkle Weisse—dark white—in Bavaria. Very traditional, very local. It does not ship well and should only be drunk in Munich and only in the fall. However, considering the next five-year projection for regional stability, I would not recommend an actual citizenship change to Germany at this time, Ms. Day, nor Aruba. However, I must say that I think that chair fits you very well.”
Cornelia could only look at the man aghast. Everything they’d said in one of the most secure rooms in the world and—none of it was private. She wouldn’t forget that lesson soon. Which was the point of the newcomer’s lesson.
The tall, dark-haired man looked vaguely professorial in a slightly rumpled suit. But in contrast his bearing and broad shoulders said military. His New York accent went well with the slightly pompous tone of his thinking he was the smartest one in the room.
Damien Feinman always enjoyed this moment, though he knew it was no surprise to the Misters Elect. He considered this to be one of the perks of being head of the Situation Room duty watch.
Every word said in the Briefing Room was overheard by the room’s National Security Council watch officers. This allowed the occupants to simply ask for any data and his watch would provide—one of their many duties. He’d always felt that a direct demonstration was the most effective on that point, which was very evident by Ms. Day’s chagrined expression.
Damien had studied her file and was still scratching his head over it. Valedictorian at Claremont McKenna in three years, unheard of at that college. The debate team had won at the national level and been top three internationally for all three years she was on it—the last year as president. Straight to the Colorado Governor’s office. Everyone in Washington had assumed that Governor and then Vice President Zachary Thomas was dallying with her on the side. However, shortly before he began his run for President, Zachary Thomas had married Anne Darlington—and Cornelia Day had stood as maid-of-honor. If she wasn’t with the President-elect on the sly, then the intelligence indicated that she had even less of a life than he himself did.
However, Ms. Day in person was a very different woman than the one in her file. One look at her upright bearing made it impossible to imagine her doing a single improper thing. She sat like a dancer—her posture Audrey Hepburn perfect.
She stood to greet him. No, she rose to greet him; she even moved like a dancer. He’d had the hots for a girl in high school, for what little good it had done him, who went on to dance for the American Ballet Theatre. Ms. Day’s simple rising from her chair was more graceful than Jara’s dancing had been. Her merest movement made his breath catch in his throat.
The Elects offered him friendly smiles and handshakes which was kind of them. Ms. Day followed suit. She stood six-one in her two-inch heels. Her long fingers were as slender and fine as she was. There was an elegance to her that had nothing to do with her finely tailored suit. Unadorned right down to her unpainted nails except for a simple gold necklace chain. Her face was as slender as her body. Her straight fall of deep brunette hair was immaculately sliced at shoulder length and swung back and forth with the neat precision of a knife at her cautious nod of greeting.
“I’m Marine Corps Captain Damien Feinman. Situation Room, senior duty watch officer.”
“Cornelia Day,” her tone polite, but cautious. By using only her own name she managed to accuse him of intruding and his listening in to be unwelcome.
It was easy to see why she’d picked up the nickname “The Shark”. Insanely intelligent, lean, and apparently lethal to anyone getting in the Vice President’s way. Damien had heard rumors that congressmen would rather face Zachary Thomas than his assistant on any day of the week. Dangerous and, the one thing that the file communicated least of all, beautiful. She was the killer combo. And ten gets you twenty, Damien, she’s as chilly on the inside as her reputation on the outside.
“I’m one of the National Security Council duty watch officers in charge of the Situation Room,” he moved to the chair beside Daniel so that he could look at her across the table for the briefing. No normal human had a file of her caliber and he wanted to unravel the puzzle of what data was missing. He liked puzzles and the woman across from him presented a fine one. He hoped the mystery wasn’t too simple to solve—so many people had only a few layers to their truth. Even the President-elect and the Vice-President-elect were not complicated men. Skilled, absolutely. Complicated? Both were moderately predictable, straightforward alpha males mitigated by a solid layer of decency and good upbringing.
“So, your job is to listen,” Cornelia still sounded a bit indignant about that, but was covering it well.
“To listen and to provide. This room is manned…” he paused a beat to tease the two women currently on the watch desk, “…or perhaps I should say peopled twenty-four hours a day by a minimum staff of five people. Three duty officers, a communications specialist, and an intelligence analyst.”
“And which are you?” Cornelia’s tone said she wasn’t going to cut him a single inch of slack this side of Christmas.
“He,” Zachary said, “is our friendly, neighborhood anomaly.”
“We keep trying to straighten him out, but it doesn’t do any good,” Daniel agreed.
“Details on Ms. Day,” he spoke loudly into the room and watched her for a reaction, then cursed under his breath. He should have changed the order of the presentation. If she was already offended, this was just going to make things worse, but it was too late.
The screens just beyond the end of the table flashed to life. Pictures from kindergarten through the recent election day rotating on one screen and an extensive bio on the other. He didn’t bother to turn to read it, having memorized the key points. Instead he watched her, but her expression revealed nothing.
“Parents divorced. Mother a senior-level Raytheon engineer and father a high-school math teacher, the latter recently incarcerated because he did that thing with a female under-age student that you aren’t supposed to do.” Crap! Now he was sounding like an asshole starting on the most personal point. But he’d wanted to poke at that chilly facade; couldn’t resist doing so.
“Does your precious file also indicate that I have neither seen nor heard from him since I was three? Not child support, not a birthday card or Christmas present?”
Her tone was absolutely flat, impossible to read hurt or pride into—Just the facts, ma’am. No wonder she scared the crap out of congressmen and senators alike; the woman was unreadable.
He typically started with the most personal information as a test. Most were shocked, dismayed, put off, even angered at the volume of information he had at his fingertips. Cornelia was calm and made it sound as if she was questioning his own intelligence for choosing such a starting point. There was more shock from Zachary Thomas, who had employed her for over a decade, than there was from her. That degree of composure was unique in his experience. More rather than less intriguing on his puzzle scale.
“Merely an example of the types of information we can supply.” He dismissed the rest of her file with a spoken word and spent the next twenty minutes giving the room’s three occupants a rundown of the capabilities of the Situation Room and its staff.
With the Misters Elect both in the top tier of the current administration, there was no need to compartmentalize information during this briefing. He’d been given authorization by the President that Ms. Day was also to be brought fully up to speed rather than awaiting Inauguration Day and her shift into the role of Chief of Staff.
For the Misters Elect this was old news. And it seemed no matter how fast he fed the information to her, Cornelia Day absorbed and cataloged it all. He wondered if it was a facade or if somehow her mind really was so quick and orderly that she could indeed remember the NSC staff’s capabilities when she would have need of it.
He finished and waited, watching her.
Her smile was infinitesimal.
The cordovan-red leather portfolio—as slim as she was—that she had set on the table when she’d sat down had remained untouched, unopened. Now she reached out with her slender fingers, but merely turned it slightly so that its edge aligned more precisely with the table’s.
Damien was fascinated. He’d seen plenty of men and a few women sit about this table over the years. A person, of either gender, that he couldn’t read rated as either a cyborg or zombie—at least on the inside. That tiny smile gave her away as being neither.
Completely intrigued, he waited for what came next.
“You, Mr. Feinman,” she inspected him with those dark brown eyes of hers. Was there a hidden laugh behind that thin smile? “Never answered my question.”
Damien puzzled at that as her smile grew. What question?
He burst out laughing and slapped the table. What was he indeed!
The Misters Elect were looking at him as if he’d lost his mind.
He supposed that it was rude to laugh in the face of the next Commander-in-Chief, but was unable to help himself.
Both Zachary and Daniel chuckled along with him, but it was tentative. They didn’t get it.
Only the woman across the table truly understood the joke and, while she didn’t laugh, her smile went completely radiant—doubly so for how unexpected it was on her serious face.
Damien, still fighting for composure, rose to his feet and bowed deeply. It felt more like the curtain call at the end of No, No, Nanette in high school—in which he had played Jimmy the cheerful philanderer and, ironically for a Brooklyn Jew, wealthy bible salesman.
“As to what I am, my good Ms. Day,” he had to fight down the laugh. “I am the intelligent officer…”
Which almost earned him her laugh but not quite.
“He’s the librarian.”
Cornelia twisted about to see National Security Advisor Sienna Arnson stride into the room, her long red hair fiery bright and her shapely figure looking great in a Diane von Furstenberg dress. A woman who wore bright summer colors at the beginning of the DC winter and could somehow made it work. Her own charcoal slacks and jacket seemed dowdy beside the NSA.
Sienna sat in the chair beside Cornelia and directly across from Damien. But Sienna’s answer did little to explain the man.
“You’re…what?” Librarian was about the last title Cornelia would have expected.
Damien sighed for his stolen thunder and dropped back into his seat.
“You lack,” she resisted the urge to ask if he bought his suits at Sears, “the military snap and precision I would expect from a handsome Marine Corps Captain. Now I understand why.” And she should not have said handsome even if it was undeniable.
“Story of my life,” Damien agreed and scowled at Sienna. Then he turned to Cornelia but raised his voice. “Story of my life, please.”
In moments the briefing screens were filled with an array of images: high school photo, looking sharp in Marine blues complete with gold buttons, white hat, and sword. Damien Feinman looked good in his present suit whatever its origin, but he was remarkable in his dress uniform.
She scanned the biographic feed. High school drama department. Library school and Naval ROTC—odd combination. He was two months younger than she was—selfless Pisces to her own overly determined Capricorn. Marine Corps intelligence at Quantico for two years. Ten years at—
“I thought National Security Council assignments to the White House Situation Room were only for two-year tours.”
“That’s why he’s our anomaly,” Zachary repeated his earlier statement.
But Damien wasn’t looking at Zachary or at her. He was looking at the screens.
Cornelia followed the direction of his gaze and sighed. She didn’t have an eidetic memory; no photograph of the information existed in her head—there was far too much of it. But she was very good at picking out what didn’t fit in an array of information. Many people, especially those subjected to her occasional in-vain attempts at relationships, found her ability disconcerting. She could see him wondering how she had zeroed in on that so quickly.
She read more during his puzzled silence. He too had been valedictorian and his climb through the ranks had been at a pace even combat officers rarely achieved. Clearly he too rose to a challenge.
“Now that you know how this place works,” Sienna spoke up, “let’s get into our first current affairs briefing. Until now, your intel briefings have been background material and longer term issues. As the others are already up to speed on world affairs, please let me know if I’m going too fast for you, Ms. Day. Starting with Africa.”
The screens shifted again, but Cornelia wasn’t watching them.
She was watching Damien Feinman as he slowly turned from the summary of his life to look at her. He was inspecting her carefully as if she was of sudden interest. They each had their skills, was it now a “contest” to see whose were more useful?
Cornelia arched a single eyebrow to voice the challenge and he offered a nod reminiscent of his mock bow to accept it. Game on.