Chapter 1-2

1934 Words
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’t belong. “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.
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