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It was inauguration night in Washington, D.C., and Cara Cranshaw had to choose between her president and her lover. One strode triumphantly though the arches of the Worthington Hotel ballroom to the uplifting strains of "Hail to the Chief" and the cheers of eight hundred well-wishers. The other stared boldly at her from across the ballroom, a shock of unruly, dark hair curling across his forehead, his bow tie slightly askew and his eyes telegraphing the message that he wanted her naked.
For the moment, it was investigative reporter Max Gray who held her attention. Despite her resolve to turn the page on their relationship, she couldn't tear her gaze from his, nor could she stop her hand from reflexively moving to her abdomen. But Max was off-limits now that Ted Morrow had been sworn in as president.
"Ladies and gentlemen," cried the master of ceremonies above the music and enthusiastic clapping that was spreading like a wave across the hall. "The President of the United States." His voice rang out from the microphone onstage at the opposite end of the massive, high-ceilinged room.
The cheers grew to a roar. The band's volume increased. And the crowd shifted, separating to form a pathway in front of President Morrow. Cara automatically moved with them, but she still couldn't tear her gaze from Max as he took a few steps backward on the other side of the divide.
She schooled her features, struggling to transmit her resolve. She couldn't let him see the confusion and alarm she'd been feeling since her doctor's visit that afternoon. Resolve, she ruthlessly reminded herself, not hesitation and definitely not fear.
"He's running late." Sandy Haniford's shout sounded shrill in Cara's ear.
Sandy was a junior staffer in the White House press office, where Cara worked as a public relations specialist. While Cara was moving from ball to ball tonight with the president's entourage, Sandy was stationed here as liaison to the American News Service event.
"Only by a few minutes," Cara shouted back, her eyes still on Max.
Resolve, she repeated to herself. The unexpected pregnancy might have tipped her world on its axis, but it didn't change her job tonight. And it didn't alter her responsibility to the president.
"I was hoping the president would get here a little early," Sandy continued, her voice still raised. "We have a last-minute addition to the speaker lineup."
Cara twisted her head; Sandy's words had instantly broken Max's psychological hold on her. "Come again?"
"You can't do that."
"It's done," said Sandy.
"Well, undo it."
The speakers, especially those at the events hosted by organizations less than friendly to the president, had been vetted weeks in advance. American News Service was no friend of President Morrow, but the cable network's ball was a tradition, so he'd had no choice but to show up.
It was a tightly scripted appearance, with only thirty minutes in the Worthington ballroom. He would arrive at ten forty-fivewell, ten fifty-two as it turned outthen he was to leave at eleven-fifteen. The Military Inaugural Ball was next on the schedule, and the president had made it clear he wanted to be on time to greet the troops.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Sandy. "Should I tackle the guy when he steps up to the microphone?" Sarcasm came through her raised voice.
"You should have solved the problem before it came to that." Cara lifted her phone to contact her boss, White House Press Secretary Lynn Larson.
"Don't you think I tried?"
"Obviously not hard enough. How could you give them permission to add a new speaker?"
"They didn't ask," Sandy pointed out with a frown. "Graham Boyle himself put Mitch Davis on the agenda for a toast. Two minutes, they say, tops."
Mitch Davis was a star reporter for ANS. Graham Boyle might be the billionaire owner of the network, and the sponsor of this ball, but even he didn't get to dictate to the president.
Cara couldn't help an errant glance at Max. As the most popular investigative reporter at ANS's rival, National Cable News, he was a mover and shaker himself. He might have some insight into what was up. But Cara couldn't ask him about this or anything else to do with her job, not now and not ever again.
Cara pressed a speed-dial button for her boss.
It rang but then went to voice mail.
She hung up and tried again.
She could see that the president had arrived at the head table, in front of and below the stage. He was accepting the congratulations of the smartly dressed guests. The men wore Savile Row tuxedos, while the woman were draped in designer fabrics that shimmered under the refracted light of several dozen crystal chandeliers.
The MC, popular ANS talk show host David Batten, returned to the microphone. He offered a brief but hearty welcome and congratulations to the president before handing the microphone over to Graham Boyle. According to the schedule, Graham had three minutes to speak. Then the president would have one dance with the female chair of a local hospital charity and a second with Shelley Michaels, another popular ANS celebrity. That was to be followed by seven minutes at his table with ANS board members before taking his leave.
Cara gave up on her cell phone and started making her way toward the stage. There was a staircase at either end, nothing up the middle. So she knew she had a fifty-fifty chance of stopping Mitch Davis before he made it to the microphone. Too bad she wasn't a little larger, a little brawnier, maybe a little more male.
Once again, her thoughts turned to Max. The man dodged bullets in war-torn cities, scaled mountains to reach rebel camps and fought his way through crocodiles and hippos for stories on the struggles of indigenous people. If Max Gray didn't want a person up onstage, that person was not getting up onstage. Too bad she couldn't enlist his help and would have to rely on her own wits.
She chose the stairs at stage right, wending her way through the packed crowd.
Graham Boyle was waxing poetic about ANS's role in the presidential election. He'd taken a couple of jabs at President Morrow's alma mater and its unfortunate choice of mascot given current relations with Brazil. But that was all fair game.
Cara wished she was taller. At five foot five, she couldn't see the stairs to know if Mitch was waiting to go up on the right-hand side. She regretted having gone for the comfortable two-inch heels instead of the flashy four-inch spikes that her sister, Gillian, had given her for Christmas. She could have used the height.
"Where are you going?" It was Max's voice in her ear.
"None of your business," she retorted, attempting to speed up and put some distance between them.
"You have that determined look in your eyes."
He tucked in close beside her. "Maybe I can help."
"Not now, Max." She was working. Why did he have to do this to her?
"Your destination can't possibly be a state secret."
She relented. "I'm trying to get to the stage. Okay? Are you happy?"
"Follow me." He stepped in front of her.
His six-foot-two-inch height and broad shoulders made him an imposing figure. She supposed it didn't hurt any that he was famous, either. Last month, he'd been voted one of the ten hottest men in D.C. The upshot was he could move through a crowd far faster than she could. Resigned, she stuck to his coattails.
Even with Max clearing the way, they eventually got stuck behind a crowd of people.
"Why do you want to get to the stage?" He turned to ask her.
"For the record," she responded, "I don't know any state secrets. I don't have that kind of job."
"And since I'm not a foreign spy, we should be able to carry on a conversation without compromising national security."
An unmistakable voice came over the sound system. "Good evening, Mr. President," drawled Mitch Davis.
A murmur of surprise moved across the room, since Mitch was a known detractor of President Morrow. Cara rocked back on her heels. She'd failed to stop him.
"First, let me say, on behalf of American News Service, congratulations, sir, on your election as President of the United States."
The applause came up on cue, though perhaps not as strong as usual.
"Your friends," Mitch continued with a hearty game-show-host smile, "your supporters and your mother and father must all be very proud."
Cara strained to catch the president's expression, wondering if he would be angry or merely annoyed by the deviation from the program. But there was no way to see through the dense crowd.
"The president is smiling," Max offered, obviously guessing her concern. "It looks a little strained though."
"Davis is not on the program," Cara ground out.
"No kidding," Max returned, as if only an idiot would think otherwise.
She glared at him, then elbowed her way past, maneuvering through the crowd toward the president's table below the stage. Lynn Larson was going to be furious. It wasn't exactly Cara's responsibility to ensure that this specific ball went smoothly, but she had been working closely with the staffers coordinating each one. She was partly to blame for this.
Thankfully, Max didn't follow her.
"I expect nobody is prouder than your daughter," said Mitch, just as Cara reached a place where she could see Mitch on stage.
There was a confused silence in the room, because the president was single and didn't have any children. Confused herself, Cara rocked to a halt a few feet from Lynn at the president's table. Lynn glanced toward the stairs at the end of the stage, as if she was gauging how long it would take her to get there.
Mitch waited a beat, microphone in one hand, glass of champagne in the other. "Your long-lost daughter, Ariella Winthrop, who is with us here tonight to celebrate."
It took half a second for the crowd to react. Maybe they were trying to figure out if it was a sick joke. Cara certainly was.
But she quickly realized it was something far more sinister than a joke, and her gaze flew to the corner of the stage, where she'd glimpsed her friend Ariella, whose event-planning company had been hired to throw the ANS ball. When Cara focused on Ariella, her stomach sank like a stone. As soon as it was pointed out, the resemblance between Ariella and the president was quite striking. And Cara had known for years that Ariella was adopted. Ariella didn't know her birth parents.
The crowd's murmurs rose in volume, everyone asking each other what they knew, had heard, had thought or had speculated. Cara could only imagine at least a thousand text messages had gone out already.
She took a half step toward Ariella, but the woman turned on her heel, disappearing behind the stage. There were at least a dozen doorways back there, most cordoned off from the guests by security. Hopefully, Ariella would make a quick getaway.
Mitch raised his glass. "To the president."
Everyone ignored him.
Cara moved toward Lynn as the crowd's questions turned to shouts and the press descended on the table.
"If you would direct your questions to me," Lynn called, standing up from her chair and drawing, at least for a moment, the attention of the reporters away from President Morrow.
The man looked shell-shocked.
"We obviously take any accusation of this nature very seriously," Lynn began. She looked to Cara, subtly jerking her head toward the stage.
Cara reacted immediately, skirting around the impromptu press conference to get to the microphone onstage. Damage Control 101get ahead of the story.
She quickly noted that the security detail had surrounded the president, moving him toward the nearest exit. She knew the drill. The limos would be waiting at the curb before the president even got out the door.
She had no idea if the accusation was true or if Mitch Davis had simply exploited the resemblance between Ariella and the president. But it didn't matter. The texts, tweets and blogs had likely made it to California and Seattle, probably all the way across the Atlantic by now.
Cara scooted up the stairs and crossed the stage, staring Mitch Davis down as she went for the microphone.
He relinquished it. His work was obviously completed.
Mitch's gaze darted to the crowd. His confident expression faltered, and she saw Max, his eyes thunderous as he moved along below the stage, keeping pace with Mitch as the man made his way to the stairs.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Cara began, composing a speech inside her head on the fly. "The White House would like to thank you all for joining the president tonight to celebrate. The president appreciates your support and invites you all to enjoy yourselves for the rest of the party. For members of the press, we'll provide a statement and follow-up on your questions at tomorrow's regular briefing."
Cara turned to applaud the band. "For now, the Sea Shoals have a lot of great songs left to play tonight." She gave a signal to the bandleader, which he thankfully picked up on, and the energetic strains of a jazz tune filled the room.
Covered by the music, Cara quickly slipped from the stage.
Max was standing at the bottom of the stairs to meet her, but her warning glare kept him backwhich was probably the first time that had ever happened. But then he mouthed the word "later," and she knew they weren't done.
There were times when being a recognizable television personality was frustrating and inconvenient. But for Max Gray, tonight wasn't one of them. He'd only been to Cara's Logan Circle apartment a handful of times, but the doorman remembered him from his national news show, After Dark, and let him straight into the elevator without calling upstairs for Cara's permission.
That was very convenient for Max, because there was a better than even chance Cara would have refused to let him come up. And he needed to see her.
The ANS inaugural ball debacle had been a huge blow to the White House, particularly to the press office. Cara and Lynn had handled it professionally, but even Cara had to be rattled. And she had to be worried about what happened next. The scandal whipping its way through D.C. tonight had the potential to derail the White House agenda for months to come. Max needed to see for himself that Cara was all right.