After fleeing a painful and compromising past, Emma Rose Howard settled eagerly into the role of a pastor's wife.
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As an act of whimsy, or perhaps pique, on June 6, 2003, Fate gave Daryn Jane Austin the most impressive birthday gift of her forty-eight years: the presidency of the United States.
Awakened by the screeching of the Nokia on her nightstand, she sat up in darkness and glanced at the glowing clock as she reached for the phone3:30 A.M. Such an hour rarely brought good news, and only a handful of people had her private cell phone number. So either something had happened to her parents, or ...
Bracing herself, she cleared her throat. "Yes?"
"Madam Vice President, this is Anson Quinn."
The name registered immediately, as did the noticeable absence of an apology. Quinn served as head of the Presidential Protection Detail, the Secret Service branch specifically dedicated to guarding the president. If this were anything other than the direst emergency, protocol would have demanded that he apologize for disturbing her sleep.
As a flock of worries took wing, she struggled to keep her voice low and level. "What's the trouble, Agent Quinn?"
"A crucial situation has developed. A car will pick you up in ten minutes."
She pressed her hand to her brow, willing her fingers not to tremble. "Am I needed at the White House?"
"You'll be taken to George Washington University Hospital." Quinn paused a moment, then spoke in a tone heavy with portent. "They've sent for the chief justice aswell."
Daryn's hand fell to her lips. She could think of only one reason Quinn would roust that venerable old man out of bed: President Craig Parker was dead or dying. In an effort to maintain the illusion of order, the chief justice of the Supreme Court would administer the oath of office to Parker's successor before daybreak, before the morning newscasts ...
The chief justice would administer the oath for her.
Her fingertips clung to her lips, which had gone cold and still, then adrenaline surged and she found her voice. "I'm on my way."
Snapping the phone off, she crossed to the closet in three strides. After flicking on the light, she squinted in the brightness, then reached for a black suit that reeked of authority and solemnity.
She grabbed the ivory silk blouse that never wrinkled, then crossed the darkened bedroom and tossed the hangers on the bed. Dressing in the stream of light from the closet, she struggled to anticipate the after-effects of something that had happened in another darkened bedroom a few miles away.
President Parker, who'd appeared hale and hearty at a state dinner a few hours ago, must have had a heart attack. If it proved fatal, she would become the tenth vice president suddenly to assume the office.
And the first woman.
She stepped into the skirt, yanked the zipper upward, then slipped her arms into the jacket sleeves. Moving to the mirrored wall behind the bed, she fluffed her short hair, then wet a fingertip and wiped a leftover mascara smudge from below one eye. She'd forgo makeup; no one would expect a national leader to appear pink and blooming in a moment of crisis.
Satisfied with her face, she took a half step back to check her head-to-toe reflection, then drew a deep breath. This wasn't the look she had imagined she'd adopt when she became the first female leader of the free world ... still the juxtaposition of dark suit and pale complexion would make a striking photograph.
An image to resonate through the agesand to make her father proud.
* * *
As a quartet of uniformed motorcycle officers led the way, a black limousine whisked Daryn over largely deserted streets. A light rain had begun to fall during the night; now it steamed on the still-warm asphalt while traffic signals splintered in their liquid reflections.
Six escort sedans accompanied her car, each occupied by Secret Service agents. Three agents rode with Daryn. Troy Stock, chief of her own protective detail, kept her company in the back and scowled at every intersection. She usually sat alone in the rear seat; she usually traveled with only two escort vehicles. The president, on the other hand, traveled with a minimum of twenty-four.
Was she, in fact, already president? Impossible to know for certain, and impolitic to ask an agent who was not supposed to know more than the vice president ...
She wiped her damp palms on her skirt and returned her gaze to the road. After Quinn's call she had envisioned the worst-case scenario, but anything might have happened tonight. Craig Parker may have been only incapacitated. According to the Twenty-fifth Amendment, in case of a temporary disability, the vice president was empowered to act as president until the president recovered. Perhaps the chief justice had only been summoned as a precaution. Perhaps
Stock's rough voice scraped against her nerves. "Right on time," he said, punctuating his last word with the clunk of the door handle.
The parking lot of George Washington University Hospital gleamed beyond the limo's darkened windows. Anson Quinn sprinted forward with an umbrella as the car rolled to a stop at the curb.
The ozonic smell of rain struck Daryn as Quinn opened her door. Powerful and confident, the agent stood with one arm propped on the car, the bristles of his gray hair glowing in the arc-sodium lights. "The president and first lady arrived five minutes ago," he announced without preamble. "The doctors are still working on POTUS, but there's no pulse. We want to get you in place before they pronounce him."
There's no pulse ...
The words rang in Daryn's brain like the somber tolling of a funeral bell. In this day of respirators and defibrillators, how could the president of the United States not have a pulse?
As she stood a rising wind came whooshing past, lifting her hair from her ears and whipping her skirt tight around her legs. Crouching slightly, she hunched beneath the shelter of the proffered umbrella, then matched her pace to Quinn's as they hurried past a flashing ambulance toward the safety of the building. "What happened?" She lifted her voice to be heard above the pounding of their footsteps.
"Firelight called us at 0300," Quinn explained, using the agents' code name for the first lady. "Apparently he got up in the night, then collapsed on his way back to bed."
Daryn considered the news in silence. At sixty-three, Craig Parker was as fit as any president in recent memory, and he'd passed each of his yearly physicals with flying colors. During the 2000 election, they'd made a point of jogging together at every campaign stop, and Parker had easily kept pace with Daryn's long-legged stride.
She caught Quinn's eye. "Mrs. Parker is here?"
"Affirmative. Firelight is inside, waiting for you. The chief's ETA is four minutes. The doctor plans to pronounce POTUS as soon as the chief arrives, then the justice will administer the oath of office." Quinn hesitated, and for an instant Daryn thought she caught a glimpse of personal concern in his dark eyes. "Firelight knows it's important for her to stand by your side. She's been prepared; she's ready to follow procedure."
A pair of plain-clothes agents in trench coats pulled the glass doors open as Daryn and Quinn approached. "I can't recall there being an established procedure for this," she whispered as they passed through the doorway. "This is happening so fast."
"Everything happens fast these days," Quinn answered. "Crenshaw's calling the shots and he didn't want to give the vultures time to circle. As soon as POTUS is pronounced, you'll be sworn in. No quibbling allowed."
Pressing her lips together, Daryn stepped back as Quinn closed the umbrella and handed it to another agent. Few Americans outside Washington knew that Curtis Crenshaw, Parker's chief of staff, had been the de facto second-in-command ever since Parker took office. As Parker's campaign manager in the past election, Crenshaw had been the one to toss Daryn's name into the pool of prospective running mates when Craig Parker decided to run as an independent. She'd reluctantly agreed to the political ménage à trois, understanding that in exchange for the historical honor of becoming the first female vice president, she would placate the women's movement, charm the Southern vote, and remain pretty much out of sight when and if the White House was won.
The former vice president, Al Gore, had maintained four offices in the capital: one in the West Wing of the White House, one in the Old Executive Office Building, one in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and one off the floor of the Senate. Since the inauguration, she'd been allowed to oversee her duties in two: the ceremonial office near the Senate chamber and the vice-presidential office in the OEOB. Crenshaw had taken Gore's old office in the West Wing.
Standing in the hallway, she brought up her hand and swiped a damp hank of hair from her forehead. She had never intended to stay in the background. Like so many women who lived and worked in a man's world, she had planned to play the game well, do excellent work, and then run for the presidency on her own meritsagainst Parker, if necessary. But now fate had taken a hand, turning the tables on Parker and Crenshaw and the entire crew who ran the West Wing.
She turned at the soft voice and saw Helen Parker approaching in a floral housecoat of cotton, the sort of thing older Southern women wore to do housework. The top snap hung open, and through the V-shaped gap Daryn could see the worn lace of a pink nightgown.
"Mrs. Parker, I'm so sorry." Daryn bent to embrace the woman, who felt wooden, in her grasp.
"They say it was an aortic aneurysm." Helen Parker did not look at her, but seemed to be staring at something Daryn couldn't see. With two fingers she picked at the lace of her neckline. "He was standing there, holding his back, then he fell onto the bed ..."
Not knowing what else to do, Daryn placed a hand on the pale woman's shoulder. The human touch seemed to awaken something in the older woman, and her gaze shifted to Daryn's face. Her mouth twisted; the blue eyes softened with pain. "Time to do our thing for the country, then." Her hands fluttered over the robe as if she would smooth out a host of imaginary wrinkles. "Jackie stood by Lady Bird and LBJ when he took the oath, so I'll need to stand by you. I want everyone to see. To know we ... intended to finish the course."
"Mrs. Parker?" One of the aides approached, a steaming foam cup in his hand. "We have coffee for you. If you'd like to sit a moment while we set up ..."
Shuffling forward, her legs white and spindly above a pair of brown leather loafers, Mrs. Parker let herself be led away. Daryn felt pressure on her elbow and turned to see Quinn gesturing to an open door guarded by two other agents in dark glasses. She followed, then nodded to the slender man who sat on a vinyl sofa in the small room. "Hello, Peter." She extended her hand. "It's good to see you, even if I do regret the circumstances."
Peter Chang, official White House photographer for the Parker administration, stood and shook her hand. His usually animated face seemed locked in neutral, as though he hadn't decided what sort of expression fit the situation. "I'm not sure why I'm here, Madam Vice President," he said, his hand falling back to the camera hanging from his neck. "But I'm ready."
"Thank you, Peter. I'm sure everything will be made clear in a moment."
From the corner of her eye, Daryn saw Quinn turn slightly and press his hand to his earpiece. The agents in the hall lifted their heads, and without being told, Daryn knew what Quinn's next words would be.
"The chief justice has arrived." His focused gaze shifted to Daryn. "We'll bring him to you."
He left the room, leaving Daryn with Peter Chang, who swayed nervously on his feet. "Please, Peter" she gestured to the worn sofa against the wall"make yourself comfortable."
With a grateful smile, Chang sank to the couch and began to rummage in his camera bag. Daryn turned to the wall and crossed her arms, then glanced at her watch3:53 A.M., and her life's significance was about to take a quantum leap upward. Something within her crowed at the thought, but she tamped her rising emotions. In the days and weeks ahead of this momentous hour, she needed witnesses to testify to her calm, her courage, and her compassion for the widow. No matter how intense her feelings, she could not dissolve into tears or trembling. Either extreme would be extraordinary for a man, unforgivable for a woman.
She straightened as the sound of approaching footsteps reached her ear and turned toward the door in time to see the chief justice enter, followed closely by Anson Quinn and Helen Parker.
Chief Justice Marshall Haynes, a gaunt man with a shiny head and weary eyes, gazed at Daryn with a resigned smile on his lined face. "Good morning, Madam President," he said, his Texas drawl evident despite twenty-five years of life within the Beltway. "Shall we proceed?"
Shock flew through her. Madam President. Somehow she smiled and nodded at the old gentleman. "I'm ready."
She stepped forward, then suppressed a sigh as an aide scrambled to find a Bible. During the wait, Daryn turned to the first lady, who stood with her arms stiffly wrapped around her waist, her eyes focused on some inward horizon. "I'm so sorry," Daryn whispered, hoping for some sign of unbending. "We'll do all we can to preserve the dignity of his legacy, of course."
The first lady's eyes seemed to focus, then her slack face contorted in a grimace. "It was nothing" her hands tightened upon her arms"a little backache, that's all. He took aspirin and went to bed early. And then he got up and went into the bathroom, then he came back and fell. I called for help right away, and they worked on him, but he was gone from that first minute. He was there and then he just ... left me."
Daryn slipped an arm around the woman's shoulders. Moving silently in the background, Peter Chang set to work, but Daryn shot him a not-now glance, and he lowered the camera.
A moment later Quinn returned with a Bible and handed it to Haynes. Catching Daryn's eye, he added, "From the nurse's station."
As Helen Parker held the Bible on her open palms and Chang's camera began to click in earnest, Daryn placed her right hand on the worn, leather cover and repeated the oath of office after the chief justice: "I, Daryn Jane Austin, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States ... and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Chang's camera flashed.
* * *
After driving to the White House under a warm mantle of darkness, Daryn walked into the large secretarial alcove outside the Oval Office and breathed in the scents of paper, leather, and power. Three desks occupied this space, mute testimony to the work that disseminated from the room beyond. On each of the desks, a small electronic device displayed a blue screen, on which Daryn could read POTUS: Oval Office. The fields for FLOTUSfirst lady of the United Statesand VPOTUS vice presidentwere blank.
She glanced at the matching palm device in Quinn's hand. He had just tapped in her present position, as scores of other agents would as she moved throughout the fifty-five-acre White House grounds. Any one of her aides would only have to look at one of the desktop deviceswhich were located throughout the mansion and OEOBto know where she could be reached.
Daryn had seen the gadgets before but had never thought to inquire how they worked. Now she turned to Quinn, who stood behind her. "My whereabouts are revealed on this thing all the time?"
"Yes," Quinn answered, "but not in detail. When you're in the family quarters, all the Screen says is residence. And when you're in the Oval, that's as detailed as the device gets. We don't have agents outside your private study or"
"The bathroom." She laughed. "What does it say when I'm away from the White House?"
Quinn grinned. "Probably ARONaway for the remainder of the nightbut I'm not sure. We check our devices at the desk whenever the president leaves the premises, and where the president goes, we go."
"One more question, Agent Quinn." She reached out to caress the silver shell of the appliance that would reveal her every move to hundreds of people. "There's a slot here for the vice president, yet I don't believe I was ever tracked before today." She tilted her head and looked at him. "How did Parker explain that?"
Quinn swallowed hard and thrust his hands behind his back. "I don't know, Madam President. Perhaps ... because you didn't maintain an office on the grounds."
Clever of him to use the word maintain instead of have. Implying that she'd chosen to work at a distance from the pinnacle of power.
Helpless to halt Quinn's discomfiture, she averted her gaze. "Perhaps you're right. But when I appoint a vice president, we will restore the West Wing office. It'll be nice to see your screen fill up again, won't it?"
She ran her fingertips over the polished desk, moving away from the shiny gadget. The presidency would result in huge adjustments to her personal lifestyle, for as vice president she'd been able to retain a measure of privacy. But she could not regret anything attached to the Oval Office. She'd worked for this position all her life, and she would learn to work within the system. After all, if forty-three men could manage it ...
A dim lamp burned on the desk belonging to the president's personal secretary, Soon Yi Park, and a matching ray of light blazed from beneath the curved door leading into the Oval. Daryn glanced toward it, doubting that Miss Park had been notified of her employer's sudden demise. So who ...?
She moved forward, put her hand to the knob, and found it locked. The person undoubtedly plowing through the Oval Office had to be Curtis Crenshaw, Parker's chief of staff.
She pressed her forehead to the cool wood, finding joy in an unexpected lagniappe. Now, with the reins of power firmly in her hands, she could finally admit the truthshe had never liked the man.
At her hesitation, Quinn cleared his throat. "Is there something I can do for you, Madam President?"
"Yes. I seem to be locked out of the Oval Office."
Turning, she flashed him a smile with steel beneath it, then stepped aside as he hurried forward. From a pocket he produced a key card, then the door swung open, startling the disheveled man who sat in the executive chair behind the desk.
"Good morning, Mr. Crenshaw." Entering behind the agent, Daryn offered the greeting with a polite nod. "So kind of you to get things in order for me."
At least Crenshaw had the decency to flush. Standing, he gestured toward a stack of leather folders. "Daryn, it's good to see you. I thought I'd try to sort things out before you came in, remove anything that might be personal. I didn't think you'd appreciate finding one of Helen's grocery lists among the presidential papers." He lifted his hand to wipe his forehead, revealing fresh sweat stains on his blue dress shirt. Crenshaw hadn't gone to the hospital. He had been hard at work here for the last two hoursdoing what?
"Curtis" she softened her voice as she walked toward him"three things. First, I am very sorry for your loss. I know you and the president were friends as well as coworkers." Reaching the desk, she lowered her voice and placed her hands on the edge, leaning toward him. "Second, I believe you should call me Madam President from this moment forward. I was elected to fill this job and I have every intention of doing my dead-level best to meet that responsibility. And third" she gave him the brightest smile she could muster"I want you to step away from the desk and leave everything exactly as you found it."
Crenshaw's eyes, she noticed now, were red-rimmed and watery. Either his devotion to Parker or his adoration for the Tinkertoys of power had been genuine.
"I appreciate the concern," she said, resuming her normal tone, "but the discovery of a grocery list wouldn't bother me. Nor would I be tempted to call the tabloids if I found a love letter from a starry-eyed college intern." She placed her hand atop the presidential seal on the uppermost folder. "Thank you, Curtis, for your help, but I'm sure you'd like to be alone to collect your thoughts."
Crenshaw said nothing, but tapped the desktop with his fingertips, then pointed to a single sheet in the corner of the blotter. "Tomorrow's schedule. Miss Park always places it on the desk the night before. The master calendar, of course, is kept by the Office of Presidential Scheduling and downloaded to the president's computer." He jerked his thumb toward the hallway that led to the private study where for generations presidents had accomplished the real work of the office. "I expect we'll cancel everything until further notice."
"I'll have the scheduling office see to it." Daryn fixed her face in lines of somber humility. "I'm sure Jacob Thrasher, my chief of staff, will be calling upon you in the next few days. We'll offer every assistance to Mrs. Parker as she plans the funeral, and I expect you'll extend the same courtesy to Jacob as he oversees the transition."
A change came over Crenshaw's featuresa sudden shock of sick realization. Yes, she wanted to add, you backed the wrong horse and now you're outta luck.
Ignoring his stricken silence, she walked around the desk and stood next to him, holding her ground until he retreated. "Now," she said, resting her hand atop the president's desk, "would you be so kind as to call Jacob Thrasher? Tell him to meet me at the Naval Observatory ASAP. We'll make the first announcement from the vice president's mansion." She paused. "I'm assuming you've already alerted the White House press secretary?"
Only the tightening of the muscles in Crenshaw's throat betrayed his emotion. "Morgan's in her office."
"We'll want to have a statement prepared for the 6:00 A.M. network news. Statement first, I suppose, followed by a press conference at 7:00. Run the idea by Ms. Morgan and let's hear what she thinks."
Daryn knew she was treating Crenshaw like a secretary, but on several occasions in the past three years he'd treated her with far less respect. She had been elected to the office of vice president, her constituents had helped put Parker, an independent from nowhere, in the White House, and then she had been relegated to meetings with women's groups and Georgia peanut growers. She'd been willing to pay her dues and wait, to wear pizza-sized corsages and attend an endless succession of mind-numbing social events, but Fate, bless her heart, had decided to end the testosterone-based partnership from which Daryn had always felt excluded.
Payback felt rich.
A look of irritated despair passed over Crenshaw's features. "I'll send Morgan in." He turned and moved toward the door, his gait wooden. As he passed Quinn, Daryn thought she saw the flicker of a smile cross the agent's face.
Sinking into the tufted leather chair, she gave the agent a nod. "Thank you, Mr. Quinn. I appreciate your help in what could have been an awkward situation."
He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug, murmured, "No problem, Madam President," and followed Crenshaw out the door.
Finally alone, Daryn placed her hands on the desk and took a deep breath. The Oval Office ... belonged to her. She had dreamed of the day she would sit behind this desk, but she'd planned on being older and far more experienced. As the daughter of Edward Austin, who'd served as both a Georgia governor and state senator, she'd grown up as a political princess, but it wasn't until she entered the game herself that she began to learn the hidden rules and truths kept from the public.
Excerpted from THE JUSTICE by Angela Hunt. Copyright © 2002 by Angela Elwell Hunt. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Christy Award winner Angela Hunt writes stories for everyone who enjoys the unexpected. She is the best-selling author of Uncharted, The Debt, The Note, The Pearl, and many more.
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Thought provoking. Leaves you knowing you can be and do more to show the love of Christ. No matter how much you already think you're doing.
This is by far my favorite book. SUspenceful and so true to life. I love this author and all of her books.