Some days it was hell being leader of the free world.
Seven months into the job, Adam Dybik was accustomed to the pressure. But now, with the White House press corps bearing down on him like the Pentagon’s newest heat-seeking warhead, he wished he were anywhere but in the briefing room in front of a bulletproof podium, with dozens of microphones poised to catch any gaffe.
God forbid a chance word from POTUS caused the stock market to crash.
“Our East Asia policy is not under review, despite what you may have read in Politico,” Adam answered, in response to Fox Burnley’s dogged questioning about the recent uprisings in Bhotaan.
“Renata?” Adam nodded at the woman behind Burnley. Renata Carr, a former model turned cable TV reporter, had so far shown more interest in the pattern on the Dybik White House china than in their China policy.
She started off with a slow smile, a hint she was about to drop a “gotcha” like a Nats pitcher chucking a sinker over the plate. “Can you tell us if the rumors regarding you and Pam Dixon are true? She was seen leaving the residence last night.”
Adam gripped the podium and considered lobbing it in her direction. But assaulting the press probably wasn’t what his comms director had had in mind when she’d advised him to take a tough stance with the media.
As the first unmarried commander in chief in over a century, Adam had discovered the press was often more interested in his personal life than his foreign policy—though at the moment his love life was about as salacious as Jimmy Carter’s.
“You know I can’t talk about state secrets, Renata,” he tried to joke, but she countered his evasion with the poise she’d perfected in modeling school.
“Then can you comment about the recent firing of a Secret Service agent who reportedly lost the first daughter?”
“No, and that’s strike two.” Adam bit back a stronger retort. The press was supposed to lay off the first daughter, but there hadn’t been a first daughter like Katie before. She’d ditched her agents again, and this time, photos of her at a tattoo parlor on 14th Street had turned up on Instagram.
Before Renata could strike out with a third inappropriate question, Adam nodded toward the second row. “Ben?”
Unfortunately, the AP correspondent was ready with a pinch-hit, aimed directly at Adam’s weak spot. “Sir, there’s renewed talk about the ‘lucky presidency.’ Grumbling from the Hill that by a fluke of circumstances, you managed to become the first Independent candidate to be elected president. How do you respond to that?”
Adam scowled toward the pool camera. “Who better to comment on the whims of luck than members of Congress, embedded in Capitol Hill, counting their campaign contributions?” As the chuckles died down, he caught the eye of his chief of staff. John Styles was desperately adjusting his tie, their prearranged signal to quit.
Adam stepped back. “That’s all, folks. Same time next week.” As he walked away, he heard the scramble for position behind him. A Marine opened the door, and John joined him as he turned toward the Oval Office.
“I should have warned you we’d get that last question. It’s been floating around Washington since the Sunday talk shows,” he said.
“I read the Post,” Adam said, dismissing his apology as he took the folder embossed with the presidential seal from him.
“We should have made sure no one saw Judge Dixon’s exit. Next time—”
“There won’t be a next time.”
“Oh.” John’s face registered surprise. Pam hadn’t lasted long enough to become gossip, in a town that thrived on rumor.
Adam had abandoned any hope of a private life when he’d announced his candidacy last September, and found a tabloid journalist digging through his recycling bin the next morning. Since the inauguration, he’d had exactly two dates that didn’t involve embossed invitations, and the latest had been interrupted by the Situation Room duty officer twice.
And with a teenage daughter to raise, he’d vowed to spend as much time with her as possible, despite having a superpower to run.
Katie hadn’t adjusted well to life at 1600 Pennsylvania, to say the least.
“Is my next appointment here?” he asked his secretary, Olive Redding, as he passed through her office.
“Not yet, sir.”
“Show her in when she arrives.” Adam closed the door to the Oval, wanting more than anything one of the cigarettes he’d once used to burn off his frustrations. As he passed the bust of Lincoln set in the alcove, he heard a voice admonishing him, “You gave them up four score years ago, when faced with posterity—”
“It was fourteen years ago, you ass, right after Katie was born. And get off my back, would you?” But Adam knew his predecessor wouldn’t shut up. Abe had been nagging him ever since his first moment alone in the Oval Office—a figment of his overworked imagination, he was sure, but still…there were times he could swear he smelled wood ash coming from the alcove, and when he opened his desk drawer, he caught a faint trace of cigar smoke that could only belong to Kennedy.
He tossed the folder on top of the desk, made from timbers salvaged from the HMS Resolute, and wondered how long it would be before the job completely drove him nuts. Already he talked to himself, and last night, he’d come close to taking a sleeping pill the White House physician had prescribed. But drugs of any kind turned his stomach. His ex-wife had been an alcoholic, and the last thing he wanted to add to Katie’s list of complaints was a father who couldn’t keep his hands off the bottle—prescription or otherwise.
He looked at the photograph on his desk, of Katie and himself at Christmas two years ago, before a campaign he’d never asked for had stolen their quality time. She’d been twelve then, her smile full of braces and hope. What had happened to his little girl, who used to land in his arms with the grace of a gymnast when he came home from work?
She’d turned fourteen eight months ago, and he hardly recognized her. A snarl lived on her lips now, along with various holes in her ears—how could those tiny ears hold four earrings, anyway? He’d threatened to issue an executive order making ear-piercing illegal for anyone under the age of twenty-one. But his threats went unheeded—Katie obviously hadn’t gotten around to studying the executive branch powers in Civics yet.
He wondered if he could bribe the Secret Service agent newly assigned as head of her detail—the woman he was meeting any minute now—to keep her away from any place involving needles. Already, two agents had been reassigned after losing Katie—or, more accurately, after Katie had lost them. In the seven months he’d been in office, she’d perfected the art of ditching her protection.
The intercom on his desk buzzed and Olive announced, “Agent Brody is here.”
“Send her in.”
The woman who walked into his office hardly looked brawny enough to be a protective duty agent. Eleanor Brody was a little on the short side, even with the trim pumps she wore, but her navy suit jacket undoubtedly hid a mean set of biceps.
He stepped onto the presidential seal emblazoned on the rug and held out his hand. “Welcome to the Oval Office, Agent Brody. Eleanor, as in Roosevelt?”
“My parents were fans—I’m Ellie to everyone else. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
Her firm grip was a contrast to the brown curls rioting around her head, the result of either a really good haircut or a stiff wind. Dimples lit her face when she smiled, a glimpse of mischievous charm that took Adam aback.
He shook off the hint of attraction he felt—she was trained to risk her life for his daughter, for Christ’s sakes—and motioned to one of the two sofas flanking the desk. “Have a seat. Is this your first time in the Oval Office?”
She shook her head. “I visited when I was four. All I remember is Max biting me.”
Adam halted mid-sit. “Max? I assume he was detained by security?”
She laughed. “He got a scolding. Max was POTUS’s poodle.”
Adam relaxed against the cushions. “Ah. The ushers have told me stories about President Cole’s dogs.”
She glanced at the black and white cat, curled on the window sill.
“My daughter’s cat, Jinks.”
A crease dented her cheek. “I read his bio in the Washingtonian.”
Adam sighed. “Yeah, not even the cat has any privacy. Now the whole world knows he occasionally misses the litterbox.” He didn’t add that Jinks had been his desperate attempt to replace the cat Katie’s mother, Bonnie, had taken when she left, but a replacement cat had never filled the giant hole in Katie’s heart. “What brought you here before? When you were four?”
She hesitated just long enough for Adam to wonder if the question had touched a nerve, then she answered, “My father brought me. He was an agent assigned to protective duty.”
“Brody? That wouldn’t be Frank Brody?”
She nodded, then lifted her chin defensively, as if bracing for the inevitable admiration, the nod of approval, the subtle increase in respect: She was the daughter of a man who’d once taken a bullet for POTUS.
He understood the reaction. Being a hero, even the daughter of a hero, was sometimes more of a burden than an asset.
“And your dad encouraged you to join the Service?”
“Actually, he tried to discourage me.”
“Can’t say I blame him…speaking as a father. But he must be proud.”
She shifted her gaze to the bowl of apples on the table between them, and Adam recognized the tactic: Every time anyone asked about his own heroic exploits, he preferred looking at a bowl of apples to telling the truth.
But then she looked up, warm brown eyes meeting his gaze. Agent Brody didn’t back away from fights, or even uncomfortable questions. “Let’s just say he’s still adjusting.”
Adam changed the subject. “You’ve heard about the problems we’ve had with Katie’s last detail?”
“I’ve read the reports.”
“And?” He got up to pour a glass of sparkling water from the bar along the wall. He lifted a glass toward her, but she shook her head.
“I understand your daughter has some issues with her protection.”
He lifted the glass to his lips and gulped before answering. “Issues? It went past issues about two and a half months ago. We’ve got a Level One rebellion on our hands.”
That got a smile, at least a trace of one.
“Do you honestly believe you can protect her from the dozen or so nuts that call here every day?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” Her chin edged up a notch, and Adam had an inkling of the teenager she’d once been.
“How old are you?”
His surprise must have shown on his face, because she continued, “We thought it would be better to have someone who can blend in.”
Adam remembered the threats his own head of detail had shared with him, from mere crackpots to more sinister foes who sought to harm America through the president’s family.
He swallowed more ice water, then muttered, “I’d rather have someone who can nail assassins blindfolded and is equipped with bullet-jamming radar.”
“I was first in my class at Rowley, which provides the highest standards of tactical and physical training in the world. I can kill a moving target at a hundred yards and stop a wound from bleeding out with my bra.” The teenager was gone, replaced by a trained killer with a set of disarming dimples. “As for the radar, we’re working on that.”
“How do you intend to curb her habit of ditching you guys? The last one was sent to Counterfeiting after Katie snuck out of the residence during shift change.”
“I’m a trained psychologist, with a master’s in adolescent behavior, and more importantly, I’ll have back-up. We’ve already increased the number of agents assigned to Princess.”
His jaw tightened. If he were a better father, stricter, like his own dad, taxpayers wouldn’t be paying for extra protection for his unmanageable daughter.
Adam set the glass on a coaster with the presidential seal. “For what it’s worth, I’ve spoken to her. Told her if she did it again she was grounded until her eighteenth birthday.”
“Good idea. If she can’t leave the residence, that’ll make our job a lot easier.”
“That’s exactly what she said. She also threatened to report me to the commission I set up to investigate child abuse.”
Agent Brody rewarded him with another one of those dimple-filled smiles. “I look forward to meeting her, sir.”
Adam wished she wouldn’t call him “sir”—it made him feel like he was old enough to be her father—but everyone who walked into this office seemed to treat him like one of those bronze busts come to life.
“You might want to wear body armor. I warn you, she’s in the middle of a major outbreak of adolescent angst. She’s thrown more dirty looks my way than the Russian ambassador when I told him to get his subs out of our waters.”
Another smile, this time with a little less dimple, a little more steel. He had a feeling she was tougher than she looked, as Max had no doubt found out.
Adam cleared his throat. “I want to know of any breach of behavior on her part. If she so much as looks like she’s going to bolt, I want to hear about it.”
Eleanor Brody just stared at him, brown eyes unwavering.
“Have you got a problem with that?” he asked.
“We aren’t supposed to snitch. It’s agency policy.”
“You mean if she does something—like pierce her belly button—you wouldn’t tell me?”
“That’s between you and your daughter.”
“I see.” He tried to stare her down, but it wasn’t working on her any more than it had on Burnley. “Do you have any kids?”
“If you did, wouldn’t you want to know when they skipped class? Or tried marijuana? Or—what is it kids do these days, anyway?”
“Inhalants are popular. So is vaping, tattoos, lip piercing, beer—”
“Hold it. I draw the line at alcohol. Her mother—” He paused. “I’ve talked with Katie about the danger. If she even goes near a glass of booze—”
“I’m sorry, but if your daughter is drinking, I won’t tell you.” She squared already straight shoulders and faced him, unflinching. “If she doesn’t trust us, she’ll just try harder to ditch us whenever she wants to do something you’d disapprove of.”
He sighed. She was right, but he’d taught Katie everything from how to eat an Oreo to how to ride a bike, and he didn’t like the idea of losing track of her now. “I bet Clinton didn’t have this problem.”
The blank stare was back. She wouldn’t gossip about previous protectees, a trait he should be grateful for. A quiet knock sounded—Olive had no doubt peered through the peephole and figured his meeting was wrapping up. She opened the door and poked her head inside.
“The chief of staff is ready for your briefing, sir.”
“Tell him to hold on,” he said, and she shut the door.
Adam looked again at Eleanor Brody—Ellie. She wasn’t much bigger than his daughter, but she was a match for her in attitude, and maybe that was all that mattered.
“You’ve made a promise to risk your life protecting my daughter,” he said. “Why? You don’t even know her.”
“I’d do the same for anyone’s daughter,” she said. “Anyone who sits at that desk every day, defending our Constitution the way our forefathers intended.”
She must have been reading his campaign literature. “Are you making a political statement?”
“That’s not allowed, sir.”
“Of course it is, in this office. I defend the Constitution, remember?” he said with what he hoped was a wise look. “There’s something in there somewhere about free speech.”
She smiled, and suddenly looked older. “I didn’t even vote—my father insists it clouds the judgment. But I did place a bet with my brother you’d win.”
“You and a lot of other high rollers in Vegas. You shouldn’t have taken such long odds.”
She shrugged. “What do the pundits know, anyway?”
Adam lifted his glass in a mock toast. “This office has never heard such logic.” He glanced at the bust of Abraham Lincoln and added, “In this century at least.”
Abe didn’t comment.
Adam stood up. “You can meet Katie tonight at the residence. Be there at seven. I’ll see that she’s suitably civil.”
Ellie nodded, and stood to leave.
Before she opened the door, Adam stopped her. “What’d you do to him? The dog—to make him bite you?”
She turned and leveled mischievous brown eyes at him. “I bit him first.”
For the first time since entering the West Wing that morning, Adam Dybik laughed.
“We’ve got problems in Bhotaan.” John pulled his chair closer to Adam’s desk and handed over a blue folder containing briefing papers. “Civilians are protesting Chairman Shino’s new water distribution policies, and the army’s been called out. Two protesters were shot.”
Adam leafed through the pages, filled with descriptions of growing unrest in the Asian nation. Bhotaan, with eighty million people of mixed ethnic backgrounds, was vital to US interests as a counterweight to China. The turmoil was threatening to infect other countries in the region, but there was little America could do without riling the other superpowers.
Adam sighed. “We’ll send a strongly worded statement. Contact State and have them prepare one. Anything else?”
“Your poll numbers are sticking. No movement, despite the bouts you’ve had with Congress over the budget.” He almost looked disappointed.
“Which shows the American people could care less what the pundits say.”
“Both parties are still in disarray since the election.” John continually worried about Adam’s poll numbers, insisting at some point opinion would turn on a man who had no political party to carry water for him. But Adam didn’t particularly care about his poll numbers—he had no intention of running for re-election, though no one had believed him when he’d campaigned on being a one-term president.
John stuffed his briefing papers into a secure bag and twisted the lock. “I’ll let you know how the situation in Bhotaan progresses. The NSC is keeping a close eye on it.”
“You do that. Oh, and John…we should organize some R and R, maybe do a Camp David weekend,” Adam said, thinking of the late hours John and the rest of the staff had been keeping.
“The last time we went to Camp David the stock market dropped 500 points.”
“And I lost a round of golf to President Kao. He swore he’d never played before, but I think the State Department gave him lessons, in case I got lucky and made a putt.”
Adam was the first president in recent memory who didn’t golf. His political advisers had insisted he learn, but so far the lessons hadn’t paid off. Even with the most advanced titanium driver, digitally imaged swing analysis, and a private session with Tiger Woods, Adam still bogeyed like a beginner.
John adjusted his glasses, turning into the history professor he’d been before rejoining the government in the all-hands-on-deck crisis Adam had inherited. “According to Winston Churchill, ‘Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.’”
“All the more reason I should take up bowling.” Adam joined John in front of the desk. “Why don’t you come to the residence this weekend, watch a movie with us? We ordered the latest Bond flick.”
Tucking the blue security bag under his arm, John shook his head. “I thought I would catch the C-Span interview with the author of that new book on European democracies.”
Adam sighed. “The blistering pace of your social life is astounding.” As was his own, but John tactfully refrained from pointing out the hypocrisy.
LBJ, however, had no such scruples: You need to get yourself laid, son. Let the bad guys sort out that rodeo in East Asia.
Adam swallowed a curse. Lyndon—or whatever figments of Adam’s subconscious supplied his voice—may have good intentions, but Adam was tired of critiques of his love life from a man who’d been dead fifty years.
“John,” Adam called just before he reached the door. “Thanks for the briefing. Let’s hope the good guys win this time.”
John looked back. “They’d better. Your poll numbers depend on it. You got here on the strength of your status as a war hero—maintaining world peace while we’re here is part of the deal.”
Adam winced. He’d been trying to outrun his hero status for two decades, but the film made about his war exploits was now available via streaming. “The only Poles I’m worried about are the ones named Dybik. My dad thinks the guys down at the auto plant would be better off if we had a little war to spur the economy. Seems people buy more Buicks under the rockets’ red glare.”
“And you wonder why I worry?” John slumped through the doorway, his dour look even more firmly fixed than when he’d entered.
“Mr. President,” Olive called from her desk. “Your golf lesson is set up for Saturday at Andrews. Secretary Forrest is joining you.”
Adam considered telling her to cancel it. But he was looking forward to seeing his old friend, Connor Forrest, who was now his treasury secretary. And, he had to admit, he was also looking forward to seeing Ellie Brody again, tonight, when she came to meet Katie.
Somewhere in his subconscious, Lyndon hooted in approval.