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"Is she there? Do you see her?"
As Jessica Ford pushed through the smoked-glass door in front of her, cell phone clamped to her ear, urgency sharpened John Davenport's voice to the point where the alcohol-induced slurring of his words almost disappeared.
"Yes," Jess answered, her hand tightening around the phone as the door swung shut behind her, because the lady was and she did.
On the fringe of a raucous crowd intent on watching a televised basket ball game, the First Lady of the United States was sitting alone at a table for two in a dark, secluded corner of the hotel bar, knocking back a shot of some undetermined golden liquid with the stiff wrist and easy gulp of a practiced drinker. Wearing a generic black tracksuit with white stripes down the sides and white running shoes. With her trademark short blond hair tucked up beneath a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes. The sheer unlikelihood of her presence in this mid-priced hotel just a few blocks from the White House at ten minutes past midnight on a Saturday night, plus a strategically placed leafy potted ficus near her elbow, was all that stood between her and a Texas-size scandal.
Jess felt butterflies at the realization.
"Thank God." Davenport's tone was devout. "Tell her . . ."
A cheer from the basketball fans made it impossible for Jess to hear the rest. Grimacing, fearing disaster with every way-too-fast beat of her heart, she hurried toward the corner.
Even knowing what she did, her mind boggled at what she was being asked to do. She was not the First Lady's handler.
"I couldn't hear you. It's kind of crowded in here," Jess said into the phone as the cheering died down.
"Shit." Davenport added a few more choice words under his breath.
"Just get her out of there, would you?"
"Yes." Jess had already learned not to say "I'll do my best" to her formidable boss. He would snap that he wasn't paying for her to do her best, he was paying for her to do it. End of story. The phone disconnected with a click in her ear. Okay, the problem was now officially hers.
Where the hell is the Secret Service when you need them?
Casting another glance around, she had her answer: Nowhere useful, obviously. There wasn't a black suit in sight.
Davenport had said the First Lady would be alone. Silly of her to have doubted the all-knowing one.
"Mrs. Cooper?" she asked in a low voice as she reached the table, mindful of possible listening ears. Besides the First Lady and the basketball fans, there were only a few other patrons in the small, wood-paneled room. No one seemed even remotely interested in the solitary woman in the corner.
Still, it never paid to take chances. She needed to get her newest problem out of there fast.
The First Lady continued to stare at her now-empty shot glass. If she'd heard Jess speak to her, she gave no indication of it. Clearing her throat, Jess tried again.
"Mrs. Cooper? Mr. Davenport sent me."
That did it. The brim of the baseball cap tilted up. The look Mrs. Cooper gave her was tense, wary.
Jess attempted a reassuring smile. It felt tight.
"Jessica Ford. I work for Mr. Davenport."
The blue eyes that seemed so soft and gentle on TV and in magazine spreads narrowed. Tonight they were red-rimmed and puffy, devoid of obvious makeup, and hard. The attractive, round-cheeked face was puffy, too, and pale, but still instantly familiar in the way a fuzzy copy of an iconic photograph is familiar. The lines seemed blurred, the angles less defined, the features indistinct, but the subject was definitely recognizable.
It was impossible to miss that Mrs. Cooper had been crying.
They fight a lot. She and David. All you need to do is hold her hand and nod sympathetically until she gets it out of her system, Davenport had said.
David being the President. Of the United States. And before she could get busy with the hand-holding, Jess first had to coax his wife one of the most recognizable women in the worldout of a packed hotel bar she had no business being in. Without anyone recognizing the icon in their midst. Jess could already almost feel a posse of gossip hungry reporters panting at her heels.
FIRST LADY FLEES WHITE HOUSE, the headlines would scream.
Oh, jeez. If she screwed this up, she would probably lose her job. For sure, her boss would go crazy. The world would go crazy. The image of the weepy, sweats-clad, runaway First Lady would be plastered on every TV screen and on the front page of every newspaper and magazine in the world. The political fallout would be incalculable. The personal fallout would be incalculable. And hers would be the fi rst head on the chopping block.
This was way too much responsibility. Jess felt her palms grow damp.
She clasped them in front of her. Do not wring them.
She didn't, but she still must have looked less than reassuring because
the First Lady's expression turned hostile.
"I don't know you. I want John."
Perfectly manicured pink nails drummed the table. Then Mrs. Cooper's well-tended hand curled around the cell phone lying beside the shot glass. Davenport was the First Lady's old friend and personal lawyer. Jess was a lawyer, too, junior grade, who had been working for the filthy-rich mega-firm of Davenport, Kelly, and Bascomb, the most prestigious and powerful of the giant legal firms operating in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, for just under a year. Although officially known as an associate, Jess sometimes thought her main duty consisted of asking "How high?" when Davenport said "Jump." When Davenport had hired her part-time during her second year at George Mason School of Law, which catered almost equally to older night-schoolers wanting to change careers and hardscrabble kids with crippling student loans and no money, such as herself, Jess had been giddy with excitement over her good fortune. This was her big chance, an opportunity to grab the golden ring for herself and her family, and there was no way she was going to blow it. If she had to work a hundred hours a week, she would work a hundred hours a week. If she had to put up with crap from the Ivy League blue bloods in the corner offices, she would put up with crap. If she had to be more efficient, more knowledgeable, and more determined than everybody else to get where she wanted to go, then that's what she was going to do.
That was the game plan. And so far it was working. She'd been offered a full-time position upon graduation, and she did the prep work on many of Davenport's most important cases. The drudge behind the star, that was her. For now. Not forever.
Jess definitely knew who Annette Cooper was. Not surprisingly, although the First Lady had been in the office a number of times while Jess had been there and Jess had once been sent to hand-deliver some papers to her, Mrs. Cooper didn't remember her.
Wallpaper, that's what I am, she thought as Mrs. Cooper punched a single button on the phone and lifted it to her ear while running suspicious eyes over Jess. Jess took quick mental inventory in conjunction with Mrs. Cooper's sweeping look: twenty-eight years old but younger looking; chin-length mahogany hair pushed haphazardly behind her ears; square-jawed, even-featured, ivory-skinned face with a hastily applied minimum of makeup imperfectly concealing a scattering of freckles; hazel eyes complete with contacts; five-two, slim, regrettably flat-chested; dressed in her favorite go-to black pantsuit with a black tee and, unfortunately, well-broken-in black sneakers (she usually wore heels when working because she needed the height). She was wearing the sneakers because her new roommate, her college-student sister, Grace, had apparently "borrowed" her good black heels without asking and had scattered the rest of her meager shoe wardrobe around the walk-in closet they now shared.
"You sent a flunky?" Mrs. Cooper spoke in an outraged tone into the phone. Davenport presumably had answered. There was a pause, and then Mrs. Cooper swept another condemning look over Jess. "Are you sure? She looks fifteen years old."
Jess tried to shut her ears and keep her face impassive even as she positioned herself between her new charge and one of the couples. Luckily, the noise level in the bar made it extremely unlikely that they could hear a thing.
Jess only wished she were so lucky. That she had not yet succeeded in impressing Mrs. Cooper was excruciatingly clear.
"Not when you do something like send over a teenage stand-in. This is it, do you hear? I mean it. I need you."
Whether fighting with her husband was a regular feature of Mrs. Cooper's life or not, she sounded both angry and desperate. Her voice was low but increasingly shrill. She blinked rapidly. Her cheeks had flushed a deep, distressed pink.
Uncomfortable, Jess glanced away.
I'm counting on you for this, Davenport had said in the phone call that had interrupted Jess's sleepy viewing of a Lifetime movie from the cozy comfort of her bed and sent her scrambling out of her pj's and into the car he had sent to pick her up. From the way Davenport had slurred his words, it was obvious he 'd been imbibing pretty heavily.
In no shape to babysit Annette tonight, was how he had unapologetically put it. Anyway, I'm not home. It'd take me an hour or more to get there. While you . . .
Her apartment was maybe ten minutes away.
As she had scrambled into her clothes she 'd thought, This is a chance to get to know the First Lady. It's inner-circle stuff, the kind of thing that any newbie lawyer would kill for. It could lead to a promotion. It could lead to a whole lot more . . . everything. Responsibility. Prestige. Money. Always, in the end, it came down to money.
The story of her life.
"But I need you. This is an emergency. Do you hear? This is it," Mrs. Cooper told Davenport again, louder than before, drawing Jess's attention back to her. To Jess's horror, big tears started to leak from the First Lady's eyes and roll down her cheeks. Her face crumpled, her mouth shook, and so did the hand holding the phone. Jess shot a sideways glance at the next table, then tensed at the sound of a footstep behind her. Pivoting, using her body to block the sight line to her illustrious charge as best she could, she confronted a waiter who was clearly intent on checking in with the customer at the corner table.
"I tell you, it's true," Mrs. Cooper continued in what was almost a sob, growing louder with every word. Sight lines she could block, Jess thought despairingly. Voices, not so much. "It's a nightmare. You have to help me."
"We don't need anything else, thanks," Jess said brightly to the waiter.
"You sure?" The waiter was maybe mid-twenties, a slight guy with dark hair and eyes. His gaze slid past Jess, seeking Mrs. Cooper, who wasthank Godsilent again, apparently listening to Davenport now. Jess could only hope that the woman's head was once again down, with the baseball cap obscuring her face.
Taking a sliding step to the left with the intention of more completely blocking the waiter's view, Jess nodded.
"That'll be twelve dollars, then."
Twelve dollars. Okay, Jess, pay the First Lady's bar bill.
Jess opened her shoulder bag, felt around in the zipper compartment where she kept her money, came up empty, looked down and suffered a split second of horror as she discovered that Grace had "borrowed" her cash along with her shoes. She didn't really want to hand over a credit card, because she had some sort of barely coalescing idea that it would be better if there was no hard evidence that sheand, ergo, Mrs. Cooperwas ever in this bar. Besides, the object was to break land speed records getting the First Lady out of there and waiting for her card to be returned would not facilitate that. Before she could completel panic, she remembered the emergency twenty-dollar bill she kept folded away at the bottom of the zippered compartment of her purse from force of habit now, although it had begun at her mother's insistence when she had gone to her firstand onlyhigh school dance.
Honey, believe me, you don't want to have to count on any man for anything, not even a ride home.
Words to live by, Mom.
Jess handed the twenty over, and the waiter hurried away.
Enjoy the tip. A tinge of regret about forking over money she didn't even owe colored the thought. The whole twenty was gone, of course. Because she couldn't wait for change.
"As quick as you can," Mrs. Cooper said, her tone urgent. "Hurry."
Jess turned back to the table in time to see the phone snap shut. Mrs. Cooper lowered it, holding it clenched tightly in her hand. Then she looked up at Jess. Her jaw was hard and set. Her eyes were still damp, but tears no longer spilled over. Instead, the soft blue glinted with what? Anger? Determination? Some combination of the two?
"I can't believe that bastard sent you instead of coming himself."
Jess blinked. The reality of the woman in front of her juxtaposed with the First Lady's saccharine image was starting to make her head spin.
"Mr. Davenport was afraid he couldn't get here quickly enough." The calmness of Jess's tone belied the hard knot of tension forming in her stomach. "I brought a car. It's waiting outside. We should go, before . . ."
A small but comprehensive gesture finished her sentence: before somebody figures out who you are and the shit hits the fan.
"Don't give me that. He's drunk as a skunk." Mrs. Cooper abruptly stood up, the legs of her chair scraping loudly back over the wood floor. Despite the potentially attention-attracting sound, Jess breathed a silent sigh of relief. It had just occurred to her that if Mrs. Cooper didn't want to move, she had no way of budging her. Tugging the brim of her cap lower over her face, and tucking an envelope-size, absolutely gorgeous, and totally inappropriate crystal-studded evening bag beneath her arm, Mrs. Cooper stepped away from the table. "All right, let's go."
Without another word, braced for the possibility of discovery with each step, Jess turned and led the way to the door. As she skirted their tables, the basketball fans leaped to their feet, cheering in deafening unison and nearly causing her heart to leap out of her chest. She stopped dead. A glance over her shoulder showed her that Mrs. Cooper, like- wise clearly startled, had stopped in her tracks as well, her mouth dropping open, her eyes shooting fearfully to the celebrating crowd. But their noisy exuberance had nothing to do with her, and, indeed, the rowdy focus on the TV provided some much-needed cover for their hastily resumed exit. Walking quickly once the initial shock had passed, they made it safely out of the bar without anyone noticing them at all.
At least, so Jess hoped. But with cell phones being as ubiquitous as they were, all it took was one vaguely curious onlooker to snap a picture and . . .
I am so out of my league here.
The dim, old-fashioned lobby was about twenty feet wide and three times that long, with the reception desk and bell stand opposite the bar and an adjacent restaurant that was now closed and dark. Only a single female clerk in a red blazer stood behind the reception counter, talking on the phone and paying no attention to the two women newly emerged from the bar. The bell stand, located a dozen wide marble steps down from the reception desk, at street level, was deserted. A red-jacketed doorman waited beside the triple glass doors, holding one open for whom? Jess couldn't see who was on the way inside, but someone definitely was, and as a consequence she felt more exposed than ever.
"This way." Keeping her voice low, she indicated the main entrance with a gesture. Mrs. Cooper nodded and fell in beside her.
Jess was just thankful that Mrs. Cooper finally seemed to be aware of just how vulnerable to discovery she was and how disastrous that discovery could be. Keeping her head down, the woman took care to stay between Jess and the wall. Striding along beside her, Jess held her breath, her heart pounding, her gaze fi xed on that open door. Anyone could walk through it, glance up, and . . .
Just as they reached the top of the steps, a pair of middle-aged men, low-level executives from the quality of their suits, brushed through the open door one after the other, each dragging his own battered suitcase on wheels, which clattered along behind them like noisy, overweight black dogs.
"Can I take those for you?" the bellman asked. The businessmen brushed him off with curt shakes of the head and began lugging the suitcases up the steps themselves while the doorman, deprived of his hoped-for tip, scowled after them. Hugging the paneled wall on the opposite side of the stairs, Jess and Mrs. Cooper hurried on down. As far as Jess could tell, neither the businessmen nor the doorman even so much as glanced their way.
I'm not qualified for this. Scandal Quashing 101 wasn't even on the course list in law school.
"Where's the car?" On the last step now, Mrs. Cooper looked out at the street through the plate-glass doors that were just ahead. She seemed tense, on edgejust about as tense and on edge as Jess felt.
"Out front." Jess hadn't thought to tell the driver to wait anywhere else. A screwup, probably, she realized now. She probably should have looked for a side entrance, but she had been in such a hurry at the time that she had just told the driver to stop at the entrance and scrambled out. She could only hope that in the end it wouldn't matter.
"We need to hurry. They'll be looking for me."
"Who?" Jess asked before she thought, although the answer was almost instantly clear: most of official Washington. The press corps. Her husband.
"The Secret Service."
Oh, yeah. Them, too. Although, come to think of it, Mrs. Cooper could probably use a bodyguard about now. And I could certainly use some backup.
As she pushed through the thick glass door at the far end of the trio from the one the businessmen had used, the knot in Jess's stomach twisted tighter. For the first time it really dawned on her what she was doing: spiriting away an unprotected, emotionally overwrought, on-the-lam First Lady. On Davenport's instructions, she reminded herself, but the sensation that she was getting in way over her head here persisted.
Next time the phone rings at midnight, I don't answer it, she promised herself as the cold, fresh air of the early April night blew her hair back from her face and plastered her jacket against her body. The smell of car exhaust notwithstanding, its briskness was a welcome antidote to the overly warm mustiness of the aging hotel. You don't have to be at Davenport's beck and call twenty-four hours a day, you know.
But the sad truth was that she did, if she wanted to keep collecting her nice fat paycheck. Which, thanks to her always-good-for-a-complication family, she now needed more than ever.
"So, where is it?" Mrs. Cooper meant the car. She stopped on the sidewalk beside Jess, who had paused, too, briefly taken aback. The car was not parked where it had been when she had exited it some ten minutes before, which was just to the left of the front entrance, mere steps from where they now looked for it in vain.
Good question, Jess thought as she glanced swiftly around. The white glow of the hotel's marquee was too bright for comfort. She felt like they were standing under a spotlight. Other nearby businessesa sushi bar, a liquor store, a pharmacyspilled light out over the sidewalk, too. A steady stream of vehicles cruised the street in both directions, their headlights providing even more illumination. There were people everywhere, strolling the sidewalk, entering and leaving stores, exiting a car that had just parked in front of the sushi bar. Their noise rose over the steady hum of the traffic. Anyone could glance their way and . . .
"Can I get you ladies a cab?" the doorman asked, making Jess jump.
He was right at her shoulder, and she hadn't heard him approach at all.
"N-no, we 're fine, thanks." With a shake of her head she fobbed him off, then, without thinking about the whole breach of protocol such a gesture probably constituted until it was too late, caught Mrs. Cooper firmly by the arm. Heart thudding, desperately scanning both sides of the street for the errant car, she pulled the First Lady away from the bright lights of the hotel. Please let it be here some . . . Hallelujah. There it is. Her breath expelled in a sigh of relief. "The car's right up there."
The black Lincoln that Davenport had sent waited at the end of the line of cars parked bumper to bumper at meters almost to the intersection. It had pulled over to the curb in the no-man's-land between the legally parked cars and the traffi c light. Red parking lights glowing at them through the darkness told Jess that the driver had, as instructed, kept the engine running.
"Oh, shit, there's Prescott." Ducking her head, Mrs. Cooper picked up the pace. She moved quickly between Jess and the buildings on her right, her shoulders hunched now as she sought to deflect the casual glances of passersby.
"Who's Prescott?" Voice hushed, Jess cast a hunted look over her shoulder.
"One of my detail."
"Secret Service?" Jess perked up. At least the responsibility for keeping this woman safe would no longer be hers alone. Yes, there he was, a tall, well-built man in a tailored dark suit talking to the doorman in front of the hotel. White shirt, dark tie. Short, neat, dark hair. Handsome, clean-shaven face. Lifting his hand to his mouth to say something into his fist. He might as well have been wearing a flashing neon sign.
Reinforcements at last. Thank God.
"What are you doing?" Mrs. Cooper grabbed her hand when Jess started to wave at Prescott to signal their location.
"You need protection and . . ."
"Protection?" Mrs. Cooper's laugh was bitter. The hand holding Jess's tightened until Jess's fingers hurt. "They're more like wardens." Her eyes blazed into Jess's. "Don't you understand, you stupid little girl? I'm a fucking prisoner." Her gaze shot past Jess's shoulder. "Get back in the car."
By this time they had reached the Lincoln. Mrs. Cooper's fierce command was hurled at the driver, a burly redhead in a black chauffeur's uniform who was at that moment coming around the front of the car, presumably to open the door for his passengers.
As she spoke, Mrs. Cooper jerked open the rear passenger door and ducked inside. With one hand on the open door, Jess exchanged glances with the startled driver. He shrugged and obediently reversed directions. Her gaze slid toward the Secret Service agent, who was looking their way.
Jess hesitated. The First Lady was way more upset than a simple fight with her husband should dictate, and . . .
"Get in," Mrs. Cooper barked.
The driver was already sliding behind the wheel.
His eyes fixed on the Lincoln, now clearly suspecting that his principal was inside, the Secret Service agent turned, waved, and started to jog their way.
"Go. Now," Mrs. Cooper shrieked. Jess looked down just in time to watch as the First Lady's hand slapped the back of the front seat hard.
There was no time. The driver put the car in gear. Heart thudding,
Jess flung one more doubtful glance back at the man who was now racing toward them. Then, throwing herself into the backseat with the woman she'd been sent to collect, she slammed the door just as the Lincoln screeched away from the curb.