The presidents daughter, p.24
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       The President's Daughter, p.24

           Ellen Emerson White
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  Just about everyone did, so she put the plastic bag in the center of the table. Even Phyllis helped herself to one. When they had all finished, Meg took a bite out of one of the two that were left.

  Hell, they weren’t even all that good—she’d take a regular old Oreo, any day.

  IT WAS A relief when school ended, and she could escape. She’d spent the entire day feeling like a tiny deer at the zoo, having everyone come up to the fence, then say nervously, “Does it bite?” Some guy had held the door for her and exchanged a few pleasantries as she left her French class—and two girls had given her incredible scowls. Being the President’s daughter was a royal pain. Why couldn’t her parents own a hardware store or a coffeehouse or something?

  When she got back to the White House and ducked through the vestibule and into the Diplomatic Reception Room to head upstairs, she saw Preston lounging in one of the upholstered yellow armchairs by the fireplace, clearly waiting for her.

  “Well,” he said. “If it isn’t Meghan Winslow Powers, her very own self.”

  Oh, swell. “No, I’m the doppelgänger,” she said.

  He motioned towards the chair across from his, with a quick jerk of his head. “Have a seat.”

  She was almost sure that these two particular chairs were generally reserved for heads of state—but that probably didn’t mean that she and Preston would be imprisoned for sitting in them. Not indefinitely, anyway.

  “Did you know,” he said conversationally, “that the President recently appointed a Secretary of Education?”

  She might have heard something about that, yeah. “Well, actually, she has to undergo confirmation hearings,” Meg said.

  Preston nodded. “So, you’re hoping you still have a shot?”

  “Yeah,” Meg said. “Which would be good, because I think it would put me sixteenth in the line of succession.”

  “Actually, you’d be fourteenth, because Morales and Kimura”—two of the other Cabinet members-to-be—“weren’t born in the United States,” he said.

  So much the better.

  “But, maybe you should aim for Interior or Agriculture,” he said, “because then, you would be in the top ten.”

  Good advice.

  He straightened his tie—red silk with a gold paisley pattern—even though it was already perfectly aligned. “Of course, since you’re not thirty-five, the line would skip over you, and everyone else would move up another slot.”

  Damn. Meg frowned. “That means it’ll be years before you can assume office, either.”

  He nodded. “I know. It’s a great disappointment.”

  They looked at each other, and she gave him her very most winning smile—which he returned with a half-grin.

  “Living here doesn’t mean that we’re going to abrogate your First Amendment rights, Meg,” he said, “but common sense should still trump intellect every so often, don’t you think?”

  For a hip guy, he could talk the talk with the best of them. And since that was an absolutely fair and reasonable argument, she nodded. “Is Linda going to come and yell at me, and say I need a full-time handler, and I’m not allowed to talk about policy, and all of that?”

  Preston shook his head. “No, I promised I’d do it for her.”

  Oh. “Has that already happened?” she asked. Since it was kind of hard to tell.

  He nodded.

  Okay. Good. “You know, I could go to public school,” Meg said. In fact, she had offered to do so, back when her parents had started discussing which schools she and her brothers would probably attend in the city. “I mean, if it would take some heat off her.”

  He shook his head again.

  “It’s hypocritical,” she said. “Saying there are ‘security issues’ doesn’t quite do it.”

  Preston sighed. “There are security issues.”

  Yeah, whatever. It was still hypocritical.

  “They’re not going to send you to a halfway decent public school, when they can send you to a great private school,” he said.

  Meg nodded. “Some animals are more equal than other animals.”

  He just shrugged. “And maybe you wouldn’t be able to snap off a quote like that if you hadn’t gone to excellent schools your entire life.”

  They had all been public schools—but, okay, public schools in an affluent suburb.

  “Give her a chance to try and fix a few things,” Preston said. “If everything’s still exactly the same four years from now, then you can hammer her.”

  Which didn’t allow for the probability that Congress would not be entirely cooperative about passing her legislation, of course. She looked around the room—an extremely pretty, and intimidating, room, feeling as though someone should come and serve them nectar, at once. And bow and scrape, too, maybe.

  “Do you think we’re both a little bit too comfortable in the world leaders’ chairs?” she asked.

  He grinned at her. “I won’t tell, if you won’t.”

  AFTER HE HAD gone back to his office in the East Wing, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself. She talked to Barbara, who worked in the flower shop, for a few minutes, and then went up to the First Floor to goof around on the piano in the East Room for a while. She played “Greensleeves”—which really was just about the only song she knew, then part of “My Favorite Things,” the first nine bars of “Deck the Halls,” and the introduction to “No Business Like Show Business.” Her repertoire exhausted—except for the last part of the “Mapleleaf Rag,” which she quickly played—she got up from the piano and went to sit in the Green Room. She slouched in a Sheraton mahogany armchair, resting her feet on an undoubtedly priceless New York sofa table. After a few minutes of that, she got bored—and very briefly considered going down to the Oval Office to say hello—but, her mother would be busy, and she would be in the way.

  The Oval Office was very impressive. Her mother had taken them in there on the second day, and it was the kind of room that made Meg want to stand up straight. The room had been—swiftly—redecorated, her mother giving the room a soft blue emphasis, and there were quiet hints of gold and yellow, too, which coordinated nicely with the Presidential Seal rug. There were two darker blue couches, and then, two formal armchairs on either side of the fireplace. A plant that had been growing for decades—being reproduced by countless cuttings, no doubt—covered most of the mantelpiece, and there were busts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Although there was usually a slight Western influence in the Oval Office, since her mother despised horses, she had had all of that removed. She had also added many more books to the built-in bookcases than Presidents usually displayed—because, she said, shelves covered with tchotchkes—even ones with historical significance—made her nervous.

  There was a huge, mostly blue, impressionistic painting of Fifth Avenue on a rainy day by Childe Hassam in the White House collection, and her mother had had it hung over the fireplace. A Monet was on the wall to the right of her desk, and there was also a John Singer Sargent and a disturbing Margaret Bourke-White photograph that had been taken at a concentration camp at the end of World War II—both of which were on loan. The other art she had chosen was more traditional—although she had mostly stayed away from the predictable portraits of stern male statesmen.

  The desk was the famous HMS Resolute—the same desk John F. Kennedy Jr. had played inside in a photo she’d seen about a million times—and it was made of dark, gleaming oak. Her mother had a complicated telephone system on it, a leather blotter and fountain pen set that had belonged to her father, a primitive clay paperweight—it was supposed to be a cat—that Meg had made when she was nine, and an ashtray that Steven had done as an art project—not that anyone in the family smoked—except for Trudy, who generally only did it furtively. Her mother used the ashtray for paper clips and things like that.

  “What about me?” Neal had asked, and she had shown him the framed drawing that was going up on the wall to the left of her desk.

  “What about
me?” Meg’s father asked, and her mother had grinned at him. Her parents might be under a lot of pressure lately, but other than a few snappish exchanges here and there, they sure seemed to be getting a kick out of each other. Thank God.

  There were photos of everyone—including Kirby and the cats—on the table behind the desk and the tall, black executive chair. It was Meg’s opinion that the school pictures of her brothers and the one of her were absolutely horrendous. Her mother liked them.

  “How come there’s one of everyone but you?” Steven asked her, studying the pictures and laughing uproariously at the one of Meg with prominent braces.

  “I know what I look like,” her mother said. “I want to feel as if you all are keeping me company all day.”

  Which was probably true, but her mother almost certainly meant figurative company, not literal companionship, so Meg decided to go upstairs. She found Steven and Neal in the solarium, drinking Coke, eating brownies, and watching a Brady Bunch DVD. Their aunt had given them the entire series, because she had said that it was one of her favorites when she was growing up, and even though the clothes were really stupid and mod, Meg and her brothers loved it, too, and had seen every episode at least twice.

  Anyway, it was so refreshingly normal to see them lying around like that—despite the soaring view out the windows—that Meg flopped down on the couch next to them.

  “How was school for you guys?” she asked.

  Steven belched.

  Meg nodded. “Me, too. How about you, Neal?”

  Neal tried to burp, and made a noise that was more like a squeak.

  “Absolutely,” Meg said. “Same for me.” She looked at the television. “Which one is this?”

  “Jan gets glasses,” Neal said.

  Oh, good. Jan-centric episodes were always a goof.

  Steven held out the back of his right hand for her to examine.

  She frowned. “What am I looking at?”

  He sighed deeply, and indicated the bruised knuckle.

  What, and she had gotten a lecture just for pointing out the inequities of the American education system? “Oh, God, Steven,” she said, “what did you do?”

  “Some guy said I looked totally retarded in my tie.” Steven grinned. “Guess he won’t be bugging me anymore.”

  Great. “Steven, you can’t go around hitting everyone who makes you mad,” she said.

  “Why not?” he asked. “Gets ’em off me.”

  “Yeah, but—” Meg stopped, not having any good way to contradict that. “What did your agents do?”

  Steven shrugged. “Broke it up and yelled at us.”

  “Did you get in trouble?” she asked.

  “Nah, no teachers around.” He put most of a brownie in his mouth. “Kid’s a nice guy. Said he plays baseball, and can probably get me hooked up with his team and all.”

  Meg looked at Neal. “What about you? Did you hit anyone?”

  Neal laughed, and shook his head.

  “Girl tried to kiss him,” Steven said.

  “Really?” Meg looked at her little brother—possibly in an entirely new, post-latency period, light. “What did you do?”

  “Let her,” Steven said. “What else?”

  Neal giggled. “On the lips.”

  “Said she was pretty.” Steven gave Kirby half a brownie, Kirby thumping his tail and going under the coffee table to eat it.

  Neal nodded, giggling some more.

  Great. She was sitting with a brawler—and a heart-breaker.

  “The guys at your school all think you were ugly and stuff?” Steven asked.

  With her luck, yeah.

  “But, you’re not,” Neal said.

  So speaketh the Heart-Breaker. Meg smiled at him. “Is that an expert opinion?” Then, she gestured towards the television. “Which one are we watching next?”

  Steven pulled over the box, and looked at the list of episodes. “Maybe when Peter’s voice changes?”

  “Great,” Meg said, took a brownie, and put her legs up on the coffee table. “I love that one.”

  DURING THE NEXT week or so, it began to seem as though school wasn’t working out to be quite as bad as she had anticipated. She didn’t love it—but, she wasn’t miserable, either. In a couple of classes, like French and chemistry, she was ahead; in the others, she was just about even. Her computer programming class was incredibly boring, but she had to take an elective, and it fit into her schedule. She had some catch-up reading to do in English, and her new Calculus and Linear Algebra book was sort of confusing, but she figured she would just put extra time into those two subjects for a while.

  Most of the people in her classes were either still intimidated, or asking constant questions. And girls were being very possessive with their boyfriends. It didn’t look as though she was going to be making any female friends anytime soon.

  Adam, on the other hand, was very attentive. Sometimes, she had the uneasy feeling that he had staked her out, and that it was more of a prestige thing than anything else, but since she had a pretty irreversible crush on him, she pushed away any suspicions, easily convincing herself that they would be a perfect couple.

  Now, all she had to do was convince him.

  Then, finally, he asked her out. It was a Tuesday, and he wanted to know if she could go to a movie or something on Friday.

  “Um, yeah,” she said, trying not to sound as delighted as she felt. “That would be nice.”

  “How’s it work?” He glanced back at Barry, who was just down the hall.

  “I’m not sure,” she said. “I think they have to follow me in other cars.”

  Adam frowned. “Do they come inside the movie theater and everything?”

  Well, yeah, presumably. “I think they have to,” she said. “I mean—well, you know.” Security issues, and all.

  “What happens if we go somewhere after?” he asked.

  She shrugged, since she hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time talking to the agents on her detail about dating. “Um, I guess they have to sit at another table, maybe.”

  Adam didn’t say anything.

  Swell. “Hey, we don’t have to go at all, if you don’t want to,” she said.

  “It’s not that.” He shifted his weight. “I don’t know. It’s just kind of weird.”

  Yeah, but it wasn’t like she had any choice in the matter. “I can’t help it,” she said.

  “Yeah, yeah, I know.” He kicked at the floor with one Nike, hands sulkly moving into his pockets.

  He wasn’t going to turn out to be a jerk. No way.

  “It’s just—” He touched her shoulder, moving his hand down her arm, and she felt a warm tremor of excitement in her back, trying to suppress an instant stream of potentially graphic thoughts, and making an effort not to move closer to him. “I wanted to be alone with you.”

  He wasn’t a jerk—she knew he wasn’t a jerk. He did like her.

  “Well, how do I pick you up?” he asked. “Will they let me in?”

  She hadn’t had any visitors yet, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t—as far as she knew. “I think I just have to tell them what time you’re coming.”

  He nodded. “Okay. Seven-thirty sound good?”

  Six in the morning would sound good. “Yeah,” she said. “It sounds fine.”


  HER PARENTS DIDN’T react the way she expected. Her father—disappointingly—acted as though he wasn’t sure that anyone was good enough to take out his daughter, and her mother looked worried, saying that she wasn’t very happy about the idea, either. Meg found this incomprehensibly infuriating. She had been talking about him for days—where had they been?

  “So, what am I supposed to do?” she asked her mother in the West Sitting Hall that night, after Steven and Neal had gone to bed. “Tell him I’m sorry, but my parents are prehistoric and won’t let me go?”

  Her mother lowered the papers she was studying. “I didn’t say you couldn’t go. I said that your father and I didn’t like
the idea of your going out with some boy we haven’t met.”

  Yeah, because her mother was always so hands-on. “What, like it’s my fault you aren’t going to be home?” Meg asked.

  “The last I heard, you were coming to the play with us,” her mother said calmly.

  “But, Adam asked me out. God.” Meg shook her head. “Don’t you understand anything?”

  Her mother nodded. “Probably more than you think.”

  Yeah, right. Meg felt her teeth clench. “I didn’t say I was definitely going to the play, I said maybe. Then, when he asked me, I forgot. Is that why you’re mad?”

  Her mother put the papers down. “There’s a very simple solution to all of this. As I said before, invite him to dinner on Thursday, and that way, your father and I will get a chance to meet him before you go out.”

  “I can’t do that.” Meg sat down on the couch, very discouraged. She had expected her parents to be pleased and send her off with their blessing. It had never occurred to her that they might not let her go.

  “Why not?” her mother asked.

  “That might scare him off,” Meg said. “To have to come here and sit through dinner and everything.”

  Her mother smiled. “What’s wrong with us?”

  And Beth complained about her mother? The next time they spoke, Meg was definitely going to offer to swap. Permanently. “Oh, forget it,” she said. “You don’t understand anything.”

  Now, her mother sighed. “Meg, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice boy, but there are a lot of strange people out there, you’re in a very high-profile position, and can’t you see why your father and I might be a little concerned?”

  “I’m going to have a bunch of stupid agents with me,” Meg said. “How much safer can I get?”

  “Granted, but—” Her mother rubbed her hand across her eyes, looking as though she had just gotten a very bad headache. “What can you tell me about him? The only thing we’ve heard is that he’s handsome.”

  Which was absolutely accurate. “I don’t know,” Meg said. “He plays football.”

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