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On the White House roof, tucked into a corner of the Promenade, there's a bit of loose paneling right on the edge of the Solarium. If you tap it just right, you can peel it back enough to find a message etched underneath, with the tip of a key or maybe a stolen West Wing letter opener.
In the secret history of First Families — an insular gossip mill sworn to absolute discretion about most things on pain of death — there's no definite answer for who wrote it. The one thing people seem certain of is that only a presidential son or daughter would have been daring enough to deface the White House. Some swear it was Jack Ford, with his Hendrix records and split-level room attached to the roof for late-night smoke breaks. Others say it was a young Luci Johnson, thick ribbon in her hair. But it doesn't matter. The writing stays, a private mantra for those resourceful enough to find it.
Alex discovered it within his first week of living there. He's never told anyone how.
RULE #1: DON'T GET CAUGHT
The East and West Bedrooms on theb second floor are generally reserved for the First Family. They were first designated as one giant state bedroom for visits from the Marquis de Lafayette in the Monroe administration, but eventually they were split. Alex has the East, across from the Treaty Room, and June uses the West, next to the elevator.
Growing up in Texas, their rooms were arranged in the same configuration, on either side of the hallway. Back then, you could tell June's ambition of the month by what covered the walls. At twelve, it was watercolor paintings. At fifteen, lunar calendars and charts of crystals. At sixteen, clippings from The Atlantic, a UT Austin pennant, Gloria Steinem, Zora Neale Hurston, and excerpts from the papers of Dolores Huerta.
His own room was forever the same, just steadily more stuffed with lacrosse trophies and piles of AP coursework. It's all gathering dust in the house they still keep back home. On a chain around his neck, always hidden from view, he's worn the key to that house since the day he left for DC.
Now, straight across the hall, June's room is all bright white and soft pink and minty green, photographed by Vogue and famously inspired by old '60s interior design periodicals she found in one of the White House sitting rooms. His own room was once Caroline Kennedy's nursery and, later, warranting some sage burning from June, Nancy Reagan's office. He's left up the nature field illustrations in a neat symmetrical grid above the sofa, but painted over Sasha Obama's pink walls with a deep blue.
Typically, the children of the president, at least for the past few decades, haven't lived in the Residence beyond eighteen, but Alex started at Georgetown the January his mom was sworn in, and logistically, it made sense not to split their security or costs to whatever one-bedroom apartment he'd be living in. June came that fall, fresh out of UT. She's never said it, but Alex knows she moved in to keep an eye on him. She knows better than anyone else how much he gets off on being this close to the action, and she's bodily yanked him out of the West Wing on more than one occasion.
Behind his bedroom door, he can sit and put Hall & Oates on the record player in the corner, and nobody hears him humming along like his dad to "Rich Girl." He can wear the reading glasses he always insists he doesn't need. He can make as many meticulous study guides with color-coded sticky notes as he wants. He's not going to be the youngest elected congressman in modern history without earning it, but nobody needs to know how hard he's kicking underwater. His sex-symbol stock would plummet.
"Hey," says a voice at the door, and he looks up from his laptop to see June edging into his room, two iPhones and a stack of magazines tucked under one arm, and a plate in her hand. She closes the door behind her with her foot.
"What'd you steal today?" Alex asks, pushing the pile of papers on his bed out of her way.
"Assorted donuts," June says as she climbs up. She's wearing a pencil skirt with pointy pink flats, and he can already see next week's fashion columns: a picture of her outfit today, a lead-in for some sponcon about flats for the professional gal on the go.
He wonders what she's been up to all day. She mentioned a column for WaPo, or was it a photoshoot for her blog? Or both? He can never keep up.
She's dumped her stack of magazines out on the bedspread and is already busying herself with them.
"Doing your part to keep the great American gossip industry alive?"
"That's what my journalism degree's for," June says.
"Anything good this week?" Alex asks, reaching for a donut.
"Let's see," June says. "In Touch says I'm ... dating a French model?"
"I wish." She flips a few pages. "Ooh, and they're saying you got your asshole bleached."
"That one is true," Alex says through a mouthful of chocolate with sprinkles.
"Thought so," June says without looking up. After riffling through most of the magazine, she shuffles it to the bottom of the stack and moves on to People. She flips through absently — People only ever writes what their publicists tell it to write. Boring. "Not much on us this week ... oh, I'm a crossword puzzle clue."
Following their tabloid coverage is something of an idle hobby of hers, one that in turns amuses and annoys their mother, and Alex is narcissistic enough to let June read him the highlights. They're usually either complete fabrications or lines fed from their press team, but sometimes it's just funny. Given the choice, he'd rather read one of the hundreds of glowing pieces of fan fiction about him on the internet, the up-to-eleven version of himself with devastating charm and unbelievable physical stamina, but June flat-out refuses to read those aloud to him, no matter how much he tries to bribe her.
"Do Us Weekly," Alex says.
"Hmm ..." June digs it out of the stack. "Oh, look, we made the cover this week."
She flashes the glossy cover at him, which has a photo of the two of them inlaid in one corner, June's hair pinned on top of her head and Alex looking slightly over-served but still handsome, all jawline and dark curls. Below it in bold yellow letters, the headline reads: FIRST SIBLINGS' WILD NYC NIGHT.
"Oh yeah, that was a wild night," Alex says, reclining back against the tall leather headboard and pushing his glasses up his nose. "Two whole keynote speakers. Nothing sexier than shrimp cocktails and an hour and a half of speeches on carbon emissions."
"It says here you had some kind of tryst with a 'mystery brunette,'" June reads. "'Though the First Daughter was whisked off by limousine to a star-studded party shortly after the gala, twenty-one-year-old heartthrob Alex was snapped sneaking into the W Hotel to meet a mystery brunette in the presidential suite and leaving around four a.m. Sources inside the hotel reported hearing amorous noises from the room all night, and rumors are swirling the brunette was none other than ... Nora Holleran, the twenty-two-year-old granddaughter of Vice President Mike Holleran and third member of the White House Trio. Could it be the two are rekindling their romance?'"
"Yes!" Alex crows, and June groans. "That's less than a month! You owe me fifty dollars, baby."
"Hold on. Was it Nora?"
Alex thinks back to the week before, showing up at Nora's room with a bottle of champagne. Their thing on the campaign trail a million years ago was brief, mostly to get the inevitable over with. They were seventeen and eighteen and doomed from the start, both convinced they were the smartest person in any room. Alex has since conceded Nora is 100 percent smarter than him and definitely too smart to have ever dated him.
It's not his fault the press won't let it go, though; that they love the idea of them together as if they're modern-day Kennedys. So, if he and Nora occasionally get drunk in hotel rooms together watching The West Wing and making loud moaning noises at the wall for the benefit of nosy tabloids, he can't be blamed, really. They're simply turning an undesirable situation into their own personal entertainment.
Scamming his sister is also a perk.
"Maybe," he says, dragging out the vowels.
June swats him with the magazine like he's an especially obnoxious cockroach. "That's cheating, you dick!"
"Bet's a bet," Alex tells her. "We said if there was a new rumor in a month, you'd owe me fifty bucks. I take Venmo."
"I'm not paying," June huffs. "I'm gonna kill her when we see her tomorrow. What are you wearing, by the way?"
"Uh, the royal wedding," June says. "Of England. It's literally on every cover I just showed you."
She holds Us Weekly up again, and this time Alex notices the main story in giant letters: PRINCE PHILIP SAYS I DO! Along with a photograph of an extremely nondescript British heir and his equally nondescript blond fiancée smiling blandly.
He drops his donut in a show of devastation. "That's this weekend?"
"Alex, we leave in the morning," June tells him. "We've got two appearances before we even go to the ceremony. I can't believe Zahra hasn't climbed up your ass about this already."
"Shit," he groans. "I know I had that written down. I got sidetracked."
"What, by conspiring with my best friend against me in the tabloids for fifty dollars?"
"No, with my research paper, smart-ass," Alex says, gesturing dramatically at his piles of notes. "I've been working on it for Roman Political Thought all week. And I thought we agreed Nora is our best friend."
"That can't possibly be a real class you're taking," June says. "Is it possible you willfully forgot about the biggest international event of the year because you don't want to see your archnemesis?"
"June, I'm the son of the President of the United States. Prince Henry is a figurehead of the British Empire. You can't just call him my 'archnemesis,'" Alex says. He returns to his donut, chewing thoughtfully, and adds, "'Archnemesis' implies he's actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself."
"I'm just saying."
"Well, you don't have to like him, you just have to put on a happy face and not cause an international incident at his brother's wedding."
"Bug, when do I ever not put on a happy face?" Alex says. He pulls a painfully fake grin, and June looks satisfyingly repulsed.
"Ugh. Anyway, you know what you're wearing, right?"
"Yeah, I picked it out and had Zahra approve it last month. I'm not an animal."
"I'm still not sure about my dress," June says. She leans over and steals his laptop away from him, ignoring his noise of protest. "Do you think the maroon or the one with the lace?"
"Lace, obviously. It's England. And why are you trying to make me fail this class?" he says, reaching for his laptop only to have his hand swatted away. "Go curate your Instagram or something. You're the worst."
"Shut up, I'm trying to pick something to watch. Ew, you have Garden State on your watch list? Wow, how's film school in 2005 going?"
"I hate you."
"Hmm, I know."
Outside his window, the wind stirs up over the lawn, rustling the linden trees down in the garden. The record on the turntable in the corner has spun out into fuzzy silence. He rolls off the bed and flips it, resetting the needle, and the second side picks up on "London Luck, & Love."
* * *
If he's honest, private aviation doesn't really get old, not even three years into his mother's term.
He doesn't get to travel this way a lot, but when he does, it's hard not to let it go to his head. He was born in the hill country of Texas to the daughter of a single mother and the son of Mexican immigrants, all of them dirt poor — luxury travel is still a luxury.
Fifteen years ago, when his mother first ran for the House, the Austin newspaper gave her a nickname: the Lometa Longshot. She'd escaped her tiny hometown in the shadow of Fort Hood, pulled night shifts at diners to put herself through law school, and was arguing discrimination cases before the Supreme Court by thirty. She was the last thing anybody expected to rise up out of Texas in the midst of the Iraq War: a strawberry-blond, whip-smart Democrat with high heels, an unapologetic drawl, and a little biracial family.
So, it's still surreal that Alex is cruising somewhere over the Atlantic, snacking on pistachios in a high-backed leather chair with his feet up. Nora is bent over the New York Times crossword opposite him, brown curls falling across her forehead. Beside her, the hulking Secret Service agent Cassius — Cash for short — holds his own copy in one giant hand, racing to finish it first. The cursor on Alex's Roman Political Thought paper blinks expectantly at him from his laptop, but something in him can't quite focus on school while they're flying transatlantic.
Amy, his mother's favorite Secret Service agent, a former Navy SEAL who is rumored around DC to have killed several men, sits across the aisle. She's got a bulletproof titanium case of crafting supplies open on the couch next to her and is serenely embroidering flowers onto a napkin. Alex has seen her stab someone in the kneecap with a very similar embroidery needle.
Which leaves June, next to him, leaning on one elbow with her nose buried in the issue of People she's inexplicably brought with them. She always chooses the most bizarre reading material for flights. Last time, it was a battered old Cantonese phrase book. Before that, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
"What are you reading in there now?" Alex asks her.
She flips the magazine around so he can see the double-page spread titled: ROYAL WEDDING MADNESS! Alex groans. This is definitely worse than Willa Cather.
"What?" she says. "I want to be prepared for my first-ever royal wedding."
"You went to prom, didn't you?" Alex says. "Just picture that, only in hell, and you have to be really nice about it."
"Can you believe they spent $75,000 just on the cake?"
"And apparently Prince Henry is going sans date to the wedding and everyone is freaking out about it. It says he was," she affects a comical English accent, "'rumored to be dating a Belgian heiress last month, but now followers of the prince's dating life aren't sure what to think.'"
Alex snorts. It's insane to him that there are legions of people who follow the intensely dull dating lives of the royal siblings. He understands why people care where he puts his own tongue — at least he has personality.
"Maybe the female population of Europe finally realized he's as compelling as a wet ball of yarn," Alex suggests.
Nora puts down her crossword puzzle, having finished it first. Cassius glances over and swears. "You gonna ask him to dance, then?"
Alex rolls his eyes, suddenly imagining twirling around a ballroom while Henry drones sweet nothings about croquet and fox hunting in his ear. The thought makes him want to gag.
"In his dreams."
"Aw," Nora says, "you're blushing."
"Listen," Alex tells her, "royal weddings are trash, the princes who have royal weddings are trash, the imperialism that allows princes to exist at all is trash. It's trash turtles all the way down."
"Is this your TED Talk?" June asks. "You do realize America is a genocidal empire too, right?"
"Yes, June, but at least we have the decency not to keep a monarchy around," Alex says, throwing a pistachio at her.
There are a few things about Alex and June that new White House hires are briefed on before they start. June's peanut allergy. Alex's frequent middle-of-the-night requests for coffee. June's college boyfriend, who broke up with her when he moved to California but is still the only person whose letters come to her directly. Alex's long-standing grudge against the youngest prince.
It's not a grudge, really. It's not even a rivalry. It's a prickling, unsettling annoyance. It makes his palms sweat.
The tabloids — the world — decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex's image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen; Henry's is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas. Henry's role, Alex thinks, is much easier to play.
Maybe it is technically a rivalry. Whatever.
"All right, MIT," he says, "what are the numbers on this one?"
Excerpted from "Red, White & Royal Blue"
Copyright © 2019 Casey McQuiston.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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