Read an Excerpt
(Two hours before)
Ben Kincaid stood rigid and still as his wife, Christina McCall, adjusted his tie, smoothed the lie of his shirt, and ran a lint brush over the shoulders of his navy blue suit coat.
“There,” she said, taking a step back to survey the view. “Now you look like someone who’s ready to advise the leader of the free world.”
“That’s a relief.”
“Remember to smile and say something nice about his wife. And don’t remind him about—” She stopped in midsentence. “Wait just a minute.” She hiked up the leg of his blue slacks. “Are you seriously wearing red socks?”
Ben’s eyes moved downward. “They’re my lucky socks.”
“But I need all the luck—”
“No.” She pointed toward the clothes closet. “Change.”
Ben obeyed without further protest. Of course, he always made a great show of being put out when Christina made these sartorial demands, but in truth, he didn’t mind a bit. Given that he had no sense of fashion and was partially color-blind, he needed all the help he could get and was capable of accepting it without feeling his manhood was threatened. For years his mother had picked out and paired up all his clothes. Now she had passed the torch to his wife. All this meant, he reminded himself as he changed into a pair of blue socks, was that he was a very fortunate man.
The irony was that, once upon a time, Christina had been known for her dubious fashion sense, for dressing more like a member of the Sex Pistols than a practicing attorney. All that had changed last year when Ben made his run for a Senate seat. In addition to the five thousand other consultants they’d consulted, they’d hired a fashion consultant to tell them how to dress for formal functions, casual events, and television appearances. For Christina, it was a road-to-Damascus experience. Now she had the reputation of being one of the sharpest dressers in Washington. Ben had been asked more than once if she had acquired a fashion degree at some point in her past. With her gorgeous red hair styled in a fetching shoulder-length coif, Ben found her absolutely stunning. Not that he was prejudiced or anything.
“That’s more like it,” she said when he reemerged. “And just for the record, you’re not wearing those Superman boxer shorts, are you?”
“I’m not planning to strip at the White House.”
“Yes, and nothing unplanned ever happens to you, does it?”
“Good point. No, I’m clean.”
“Thank you.” She smiled, and the smile made his spirits soar. Such a beautiful woman. Her face seemed to absolutely glow. Was it all his imagination? She even seemed taller these days. Although he supposed that could have something to do with the heels. “Anything else you need, mon cher amour?”
“No. I’d better go. Traffic is terrible this time of day. And it still takes half an hour to get cleared to enter the White House.”
“Yup.” Ben had been working for almost two months now as a member of the president’s legal team. Robert Griswold was the official special counsel to the president, but he had a staff of four lawyers. After his Senate defeat Ben had been appointed to fill a temporary vacancy on that staff. Despite the loss—not exactly unusual for a Democrat in Oklahoma—Ben’s rankings in popularity polls remained high nationwide as a result of his work during his brief time in the Senate, particularly his work on the controversial Emergency Council bill, which garnered nationwide daily coverage. His oration on the floor of the Senate was widely credited with being the cause of the bill’s ultimate defeat, which endeared him to many, especially in the Democratic party. Still, he’d been flabbergasted when the newly elected president, Roland Kyler, invited him into the White House. “I want the president to have a chance to read my brief. So I’m out of here.”
“Did you have Jones proofread it?”
“I’m an adult, Christina.”
“And you’re the worst speller on earth. Spell-check is not enough for you. Email it to Jones now. He’ll have it proofed by the time you get to the White House.”
He raised his chin a bit. “If you insist. Parting is such sweet sorrow, but—”
“Wait.” She took both of Ben’s hands and snuggled close to him. “Can you believe that sometime today you’re going to see the POTUS?” Christina had always loved hip slang and catchphrases. She’d picked up on the Beltway acronyms in no time at all. “You work hard and try to help him. He’s a good man.”
“You just say that because he did you a favor.”
“No, I say it because it’s true.”
“You’re talking about his inspirational politics?”
“I’m talking about him, the human being. He’s good to his wife. That’s the surest sign of a good man.”
Ben arched an eyebrow. “Is it indeed?”
“Yes. I read that he’s given up smoking after twenty years because his wife didn’t want smoke to ruin the White House—or him. That can’t be easy, but he’s doing it for her. So you help him out, Ben. He doesn’t need any extra trouble.”
“I’ll probably get ten minutes with him. If I’m lucky.”
“Look at you!” She grinned and pulled him closer. “You’re talking about meeting with President Kyler all calm, cool, and collected. I remember when you couldn’t think about talking to a judge without your knees shaking so badly you could barely walk.”
Ben shrugged. “Times change. People grow up.”
“They do indeed.” She wrapped her arms around him. “And may I just say, Mr. Kincaid, that I like the way you’ve grown up, very much.” She pressed herself against him and squeezed.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Ben grinned. “I have a surprise for you.”
“What a coincidence. I have a surprise for you also.”
“Well, you’ll never top mine.”
“Never say never.”
“No, that’s what you always do. You always top my story. But not this time.”
“Okay,” she said, “you go first.”
Ben beamed. “Robert says there’s a good chance that after this temporary appointment expires, I might be appointed to the president’s energy commission.”
“That’s terrific! Who better than a good Oklahoma boy to advise the president on energy concerns?”
“Well, he knows we have to shift over to natural gas, the sooner the better. Our dependency on foreign oil is killing this country on numerous fronts. And we simultaneously need to develop alternative energy sources—”
Christina held up her hands. “Hold on, tiger. I’ve already heard the speech. Save it for the president.”
“Right. Sorry. But isn’t that great news?”
“So what’s your news, huh? Go ahead and try to top a presidential commission appointment.”
She batted her long eyelashes. “I’ve signed LexiCo as a firm client.”
Ben’s lips parted. “No.”
“Yup. We’re their counsel for all litigation matters, civil and criminal.”
“No!” Ben knew LexiCo was a huge East Coast technology firm that Christina had been courting for months. Having them on the firm roster would not only generate much revenue but start a precedent. Where LexiCo went others would surely follow. Ben had been concerned about the firm and its nascent D.C. satellite office, especially after he went “Of Counsel” so he could take the White House appointment. Now it appeared that Christina had landed a client who could keep the firm busy well into the future. “That’s fantastic!”
“Yup. I’m hiring a new associate. Just in case I want to take some time off.”
He sighed. “And your news is bigger than mine.”
“Like I said, never say never.” She pulled him close once more.
“Can we make a date to watch Jeopardy together tonight?”
She made a small moue. “Because you’ve read, like, every history book ever written? I don’t think I can stand to hear you ace all the history questions again.”
“Hey, at least you don’t have to listen to someone talking about how sexy Alex Trebek is.”
“I only did that once!” She squeezed him all the tighter. “It’s just ’cause he reminds me of you, you smarty. So tell me the truth—do you like me a lot, or do you really truly love me, Mr. Kincaid?”
He hugged her with all his heart and soul. “Yes.”
As it turned out, Ben’s estimates were all wrong. Traffic was so jammed as he left their K Street apartment that it took him forty-five minutes to get to the White House, but only twenty-five minutes to pass through all the security protocols and get to his office. It worked out the same. Only a few minutes after he reached his office, the president’s chief of staff knocked on his door.
“The president is ready to see you.”
Ben rose to his feet. He knew Sarie Morrell didn’t like it, but his mother had taught him to always rise when a woman entered the room, and old habits died hard. Sarie was the president’s chief of staff, one of the few females to ever hold that position. Her crisp efficiency, not to mention her good looks and snappy dress, often reminded Ben of his wife. Sarie was a blonde, with long, straight hair that stretched past her shoulder blades, but she shared with Christina that most valuable of all assets: the ability to get things done. Other White House staffers dithered, changed their minds, vacillated, but not Sarie. Once she made a plan, she stuck to it and pushed to make it a reality. In the short time he’d been in the White House, Ben had seen what an asset she could be to President Kyler, whom he believed to be a good man with his heart in the right place.
“Do I need to bring anything?”
Sarie was an Alabama girl and spoke with a pronounced southern accent. “Just a notepad and your razor-sharp brains.”
“I think I left them at home.”
“Then fake it. That’s what the rest of us do.”
Ben grabbed his legal pad and followed her into the corridor. She moved fast, and he had to make an effort to walk with her, rather than in her wake. The legal office was at the far edge of the West Wing, near the elevator the First Family used to get to their personal rooms. The corridors were crowded today, but then, they almost always were. He was amazed by how much business, in so many different arenas, was conducted in the White House on a daily basis.
Ben still considered this sprawling mansion, which insiders called “the Residence,” a large Greek labyrinth. He had learned to negotiate his way by noting landmarks. In a few moments they passed the Red Room, a favorite of his because he knew it was a favorite of Eleanor Roosevelt’s and had been refurbished under the direction of Jacqueline Kennedy. Barely a half minute later, given Sarie’s brisk pace, they were whizzing by the Green Room and the Blue Room, both of which he knew had been substantially improved by Pat Nixon. Her husband had covered up FDR’s swimming pool and added a bowling alley. Pat had brought in more than six hundred fabulous artifacts and artworks. How did those two ever live together?
They turned right into the main corridor and almost collided with Dr. Henry Albertson, the president’s chief physician, who entered at the same time from the opposite side. Ben was surprised to see him. He knew the White House medical office was located at the far opposite end of the corridor.
Ben nodded at the doctor. “You’re walking briskly this morning.”
Albertson was an avuncular man in his mid-sixties, his hair still brown and his cheeks the color of radishes. “You do anything else in this joint, you’ll get trampled.”
“Not on your way to an emergency, I hope.”
“No. Just headed for the Oval Office.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Now? Are you involved in the offshore drilling case somehow?”
“No, no. I just like to drop in from time to time. To observe what’s going on.”
“You mean with the president?”
“Just every now and again. Whenever Sarie thinks it’s a good idea.”
Out the corner of his eye, Ben saw a look pass from Sarie to the doctor. The expression on Albertson’s face gave him the distinct impression that she thought he should close his mouth. He did.
As Ben continued walking down the corridor he attempted to break what had become an uncomfortable silence. “Any progress with the Speaker of the House, Sarie?” President Kyler was a Democrat, but the Republicans controlled the House, and as a result, Kyler had been unable to pass any of his major objectives so far. The Speaker, Congressman Wilkins, was extremely charismatic and high-profile, probably nursing presidential aspirations of his own. “Surely there must be someplace they can compromise.”
“If so, I haven’t found it. And believe me, I’ve tried.” She flashed him a quick smile. “I’ve turned on all my southern-girl charm and then some. Even offered to come by the House cafeteria and whip up a batch of my grandmama’s hominy grits. He didn’t go for it.”
Ben shook his head. “The man must be made of steel.”
“Well, he’s from New Jersey. They don’t know what good food is.”
“Wait a minute,” Dr. Albertson said. “I’m from New Jersey.”
“And have you ever eaten my grandmama’s hominy grits?”
“Well, if the opportunity arose...”
“I brought some to the potluck at Vice President Swinburne’s house last month. And I made careful note of who partook and who did not. You were not among the partakers.”
Albertson cleared his throat. “Well, I would’ve been.” He patted his stomach. “But that darned spastic colon of mine was acting up.”
Sarie gave him a long look. “Do tell.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had grits,” Ben said.
“Well, you’re a man of culture and refinement,” Sarie replied. “I feel certain you would adore them.”
“Doesn’t that pretty little wife of yours fix you breakfast?” Albertson asked.
“She does,” Ben replied. “She makes a fantastic spinach omelet. When she has time.” And when she didn’t, he did not add, or when she wasn’t looking, he dug into his secret stash of Cap’n Crunch. Living with a health food nut could be so challenging at times.
A deep, gravelly voice cut into the conversation. “This must be the Three Stooges. On their way to tell the emperor he’s got no clothes.”
Ben veered left and saw his least favorite person in the entire White House, Admiral Wilson Cartwright, the head of the White House Military Office. He was a stocky older man, about a foot shorter than Ben, but if you judged by his bearing and manner, you would think he must be at least three feet taller.
Ben had never been very good with the military. But Cartwright seemed to have an absolute antipathy for lawyers. Whenever possible, Ben just tried to stay out of the man’s way.
“We’re off to see the wizard,” Ben answered.
Cartwright made a guttural growling sound. “Then you can follow me.”