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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels
All rights reserved.
The most famous address in the world —
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Trailing behind the Secret Service agent escorting her to President Connor's private quarters in the East Wing, Lizzie tried her best not to gawk at the magnificent Christmas decorations. She was not, she had to remind herself, a starstruck tourist. She was there for lunch and so much more.
The president herself opened the door and literally dragged Lizzie inside with a whispered, "I'll take it from here, Agent Goodwin." She smiled warmly at her friend. "God, Lizzie, I am so glad to see you! I mean I'm really glad!"
"Me too, Madam President." And she was glad. She and President Connor had a history. Then they wrapped their arms around each other in a bone-crushing hug, strange for two such elegant women.
President Connor laughed. "Stop with that 'Madam President' stuff. In here we're Lizzie and Marti. I need you to call me by my name, Lizzie. I don't want to forget who I really am. Can we do that?" She sounded so anxious, Lizzie nodded.
Lizzie looked around. "Pretty fancy digs, Marti. This is my first time in the White House. I'm impressed. The Christmas decorations are beautiful."
"If you have the time, I'll give you the tour after lunch. Right now I want you all to myself. I can't thank you enough for accepting my invitation. You look so happy, Lizzie."
Lizzie smiled as she was shown to a deep off-white chair that would have held both her and Cosmo. She watched as the president sat down across from her and kicked off her shoes. Lizzie did the same thing, and they giggled like two schoolgirls.
"There are no words to tell you how happy I am, Marti. I wish I could say the same for you. You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders."
Martine Connor forced a smile she was far from feeling. "I do have the weight of the world on my shoulders. See how bowed they are. And before you can ask, the world slowed down for some reason this week to allow me time for this luncheon."
"You want to talk about it, or is it all NTK? Your approval ratings are in the seventy percent range, so you must be doing something right."
Martine shrugged. "I had a hard time getting used to having every second of my time budgeted. Sometimes bathroom breaks are a luxury. There's always a crisis that has to be dealt with brewing somewhere. You know me. I'm cool under fire. It's when I get up here that I lose it."
Lizzie blinked. "This was what you wanted, Marti."
Martine brushed at the soft bangs falling over her forehead. "Yes, and if it weren't for you ... and ... your friends, I wouldn't be here. I know that, Lizzie. It's with me every second of every day. That's why you're here, isn't it? That's why you accepted my job offer, right? You're here to spell it out to me. Again."
Lizzie stared at her old friend. She gave a slight nod. "Six months. Pro bono. I walk away unless the job proves to be something beyond my expectations. I have to admit, I was surprised you agreed to my terms."
Martine burst out laughing. "Oh, Lizzie, I wish you could have seen the expressions on all their faces when I listed your demands. I thought the lot of them would choke to death. Nine to five! Every weekend off. Pro bono. I realize one hundred sixty-eight thousand dollars is a lot of money, and yet it isn't much to live on here in the District, what with rent, travel back to one's home state, taxes, everyday expenses, and maintaining two residences. It's hard to raise a family and keep up two residences, all for the sake of doing one's duty. When I told them you weren't interested in adding the White House to your résumé, because yours was impressive enough without it, several of them had to be resuscitated. It's safe to say your fame has preceded you. Actually, Lizzie, you're a legend in your own time, and I, for one, am honored to be called your friend. How does your new husband feel about your taking on the job?"
Lizzie leaned forward. "You know what, Marti? My husband is that rare breed of man who only wants to see me happy. If all it takes is his approval, he's all for it. We take turns traveling on the weekends. You need to give him a huge slice of credit for helping get you to where you're sitting right now." Lizzie looked around and lowered her voice. "Is this place bugged? Are you recording me?"
Martine's outrage was so total, Lizzie relaxed. "What I was going to say was, my husband numbers among his friends some of the most powerful, some of the most respected, some of the richest people in the world, and those he doesn't know personally, he has access to via those same friends in his Rolodex. You should see his Rolodex, Marti. I think it's safe to say your own cannot compare."
"What are you trying to tell me, Lizzie?" There was an edge to Martine's voice that did not go unnoticed by Lizzie.
"Nothing, Marti. I was simply commenting on your question about my husband."
There was a knock at the door, and a white-coated waiter indicated that lunch was ready in the little breakfast nook, as requested by the president.
"Our lunch is ready. It's one of the perks here. I hope you enjoy it," Martine said as she rose and led Lizzie down the hall. When they reached their destination, she nodded to the waiter to show that he could leave. "I know you don't like to eat heavily at lunch, and most days I don't have time for lunch. We're having sesame-crusted salmon, grilled asparagus, and a garden salad."
It looked delicious, but Lizzie wasn't hungry. She lifted the glass of iced tea set by her plate and clinked it against Martine's. "Here's to a thankful Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas, Madam President."
"And the same to you, Lizzie."
The bite was still in Martine's voice, Lizzie noticed. Well, she hadn't invited herself here. She was the invitee. She smiled as she mashed the salmon on her plate. Martine was cutting her asparagus into tiny pieces. Lizzie couldn't help but wonder if she was going to eat it or if she was just playing with her food, too.
"Does my office have a window, Marti?"
Martine offered up a genuine smile this time. "It was one of your requirements, so yes, your office has a window. You did say you would be willing to negotiate the second half of the year. Is that still on the table?"
Lizzie mashed the salmon some more. "Yes, but no promises. So, tell me now, who do I have to watch out for?"
"Everyone would be my guess. You've been Googled so much since we made the announcement, I'm surprised the site didn't shut down. You're the next thing to Public Enemy Number One at Sixteen Hundred Pennsylvania Avenue. My chief of staff understands that you are to have direct access to me twenty-four-seven. Of course, he went ballistic, but we're on the same page now. Everyone is replaceable. He understands that, too."
"Guess you aren't going to eat that asparagus. You must have a hundred little pieces on your plate."
"You always were perceptive, Lizzie. I'm listening when you're ready to talk."
"My friends are very unhappy, Marti. I thought you would have gotten the message when your Secret Service agents were thrown into a Dumpster and their weapons and badges were sent back to you."
Martine started to mash her salmon the way Lizzie had. "We're going to have to put all this food in the disposal so the kitchen doesn't get their knickers in a knot. I did get the message. I wasn't amused. We had to do some fancy dancing to explain all that."
"I bet you did. My friends weren't amused either. You have six months to keep your promise."
"I can't believe you're giving the president of this country an ultimatum! And if for some reason I can't deliver on the promise in the allotted time, then what?" Martine asked in the same frosty tone.
Lizzie smiled. "Marti, I might be many things, but I'm not clairvoyant."
"What? Are you seriously warning me that the vigilantes can penetrate the White House? Is that what you're telling me? Are you telling me they're smart enough to outwit the best of the best? It's simply not possible. What are they going to do, hold a gun to my head and make me sign a pardon and then we're all going to disappear in a puff of smoke?"
Lizzie was pleased at the look of pure horror on the president's face. She continued to smile. "I said no such thing. That's your interpretation. Although the ladies did take on your Secret Service and come out on top. And if I remember correctly, that little neighborhood White House luncheon you sponsored didn't go over so well either. Your guests were more impressed with their ride home, compliments of the vigilantes, than they were with your luncheon, the photo op, and their souvenirs."
Martine Connor got up and carried the two luncheon plates to the sink in the main part of the kitchen. She scraped the plates and turned on the garbage disposal. Lizzie listened to the loud clunking noise followed by a shrieking, grinding sound.
"The plumbing leaves a lot to be desired," Martine said.
"You could call a plumber," Lizzie volunteered.
"It doesn't work that way here. In the real world, yes. I can't even describe to you what it's like living here. I can't step out and go to the drugstore to get shampoo. If I want to do that, I have to notify the Service a month in advance. Then they have to empty out the store so I can shop. I can't go to a bookstore. I can't drive a car. I can't use my credit cards or carry money. If they ever find out I have that phone, they'll probably pack me off to Outer Mongolia.
"You know what I miss, Lizzie? I miss going out to the mailbox for my mail. I miss all those catalogs I used to get by the pound. I always looked forward to Sunday afternoon, when I'd browse through them and order something. You know what else? I made potato pancakes one day. They came up here on the run and said I was stinking up the White House and not to do it again. They fucking told me I can't make potato pancakes! It was the onion I put in them. I'm not excusing my language either."
For all of a minute, Lizzie almost felt sorry for her old friend. Almost. Then she burst out laughing. "Remember that old saying, 'Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.' You wished for this, we made it happen for you at the eleventh hour, and now you have to live with it. And you have to honor your debt. That's the bottom line."
"God, Lizzie, how cold you sound. That's the real reason you agreed to sign on, isn't it? You're here to protect your friends, and if it means taking me down, you'll help them do it, right?"
Lizzie just smiled.
"Goddamnit, Lizzie, say something."
"Where I come from, Marti, and where you've been, a person is only as good as her word. I really should be going. I've taken up enough of your time today."
Martine Connor turned to stop her furious pacing. Lizzie thought she looked great in a honey-colored suit, with a copper-colored blouse underneath her suit jacket, which was open. Her haircut was stylish, and the feathery bangs falling over her forehead were new, too, since the last time Lizzie had seen Martine. She looked presidential.
"But we haven't had dessert, and I was going to give you the tour. Lizzie, I'm sorry. I'll find a way. I promise you. Please, I need you to believe me."
"It's not me you have to convince, Marti. I'll pass on your message. Six months. Not one day, not one hour, not one second longer. I'll report in on January second. I hope you have a wonderful holiday. Are you staying here or going somewhere?"
"Camp David. I plan to sleep through the holidays. Do you want to hear something really sad? I don't have a single soul I can invite to spend the holidays with me. Well, that's not quite true. I had several people I was going to invite, but the Service said when they vetted them, they were unsuitable. Unsuitable! That's what they said. I'm whining, and I didn't want to do that. I apologize."
Lizzie stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the president. She squeezed hard. "Six months, Marti," she whispered. "Now, how do I get out of here? Is that guy with the 'football' still outside the door? Oh, one last thing. Watch out for Baron Bell."
Martine grimaced. "You mean the marine with the nuclear codes? Yes, he's out there. You just walk past him. It's that simple. One of my agents will take you home."
Lizzie stared at the president. She could feel her eyes start to burn at what she was seeing on her old friend's face. She lowered her voice to a bare whisper and said, "I wouldn't want to be you for all the gold in Fort Knox."
The moment the door opened, Martine Connor shed her personal persona and, in the blink of an eye, was once again the president of the United States. "Thank you for that observation, and thank you for coming, Lizzie. I enjoyed our luncheon. I hope we can do it again soon. Happy holidays to you and yours."
"Don't eat too much turkey, Madam President." Lizzie flinched at the sound of the door closing behind her. She straightened her shoulders and walked alongside the agent escorting her to a black limousine, where another agent waited to drive her back to her home.
Lizzie kept her eyes closed all the way home, her mind racing as she sifted, collated, and made mental notes.
The moment she was inside her cozy little home, she shed her lavender suit and donned a pair of jeans and a warm, fleecy shirt. She had the crazy urge all of a sudden to make potato pancakes. But first she had to check things at her office, call her husband, then call the mountain. Maybe she should call the mountain first. Or maybe she should wait, think about her visit some more, and make the potato pancakes first. Multitasking, so to speak.
Before she did anything, though, she was going to make herself a pot of strong black coffee to get her adrenaline levels up. While the coffee was dripping, Lizzie fiddled with her CD player, then slipped in one of Cosmo's favorite CDs. Frank Sinatra's mellow voice filled her kitchen. She immediately felt the tenseness leave her shoulders. Then she made herself a sandwich, the kind of sandwich Cosmo raised his eyebrows over but later admitted was tasty. Swiss cheese, lettuce, fire-roasted peppers, and one slice of salami. That mess she'd mangled back at the White House couldn't come close to the sandwich she was devouring. There wasn't a crumb to be seen when she finished.
Then Lizzie moved at lightning speed. She called the mountain, then she called Jack Emery, then her office. She had two calls left to make when she poured her coffee. The first call was to Nikki's old law office, where she asked more questions than she answered. She had one call to go before she could call her husband. With business taken care of, she could talk for hours if he had the time. At the crack of dawn, she'd be winging her way to Vegas to spend Thanksgiving and the rest of the holidays with Cosmo. A radiant smile lit her features.
Lizzie was huffing and puffing when she opened the doors of the fireplace, placed the logs just so, and threw in a pile of birch kindling. The fire blazed instantly. She then moved a pile of silky red cushions near the hearth so she could curl up and be comfortable.
One more trip to the kitchen to replenish her coffee. She was walking through the dining room when retired judge Nellie Easter picked up the phone. "Lizzie, Judge. Several things. I want to wish you and Elias a wonderful Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas. I'm leaving in the morning for Las Vegas." They made small talk for a few minutes, with Lizzie asking about Elias's new grandbaby and his other children before she got down to the real reason for her phone call.
"Nellie, tell me everything you know about Baron Bell. And ask Elias if he knows anything. Better yet, use the speakerphone, if he's agreeable."
"Baron was always a gentleman in court. He fights to win for his clients. He and I belong to five or six of the same organizations. He's been Man of the Year for so many years, I've lost count. He used to do a lot of pro bono work. Lovely wife, kind of timid, stays in his shadow. Two grown children. One is a doctor at Georgetown, and one is a public defender in Georgia. Several grandchildren, who he dotes on. No matter the cause, you can count on him for a donation, and he gives his time willingly to any worthy cause. He plays Santa every year for some children's group, and it always makes the paper. He always arrives in a sleigh with his helpers, either on wheels or with horses pulling the sleigh, and he does it at his own expense. It's usually quite an event. As far as I know, I never heard a hint of any kind of scandal. He's quite wealthy, and as you know, there are always a few who will take a swipe at you for that. Elias said there's a file on him at the Bureau, but nothing bad is in it. There are those among the recipients of his generosity who think he's the Messiah. Why are you asking, Lizzie?"
"No one is that perfect, Nellie. What's his flaw?"
Excerpted from Deadly Deals by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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