“Brother, is it ever tricky 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.”
“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…
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.