The presidents daughter, p.28
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       The President's Daughter, p.28
 

           Ellen Emerson White
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  Her mother nodded.

  “Be, uh, kind of a big deal if you sold them on the humanitarian deployment,” Meg said. Which had been all over the news, because even though it was potentially fraught with far too many perils, the President had made it very clear that she thought that the situation was gravely deteriorating and bordering on genocide—and that they were compelled to respond, swiftly, with something more than financial aid.

  Her mother glanced over, Meg grinning shyly at her.

  “Indeed it would,” her mother said.

  “Can I come watch?” Meg asked. “I’d like to.”

  “Really?” Her mother looked very pleased. “It’s not going to be very exciting, I’m afraid.”

  “I’d still like to,” Meg said. “Can you write me a note to get dismissed early?”

  “Sure.” Her mother frowned. “That is, if you think you can miss class.”

  Obviously, there were few things she enjoyed more than missing classes. “It’s only gym. But, um”—somehow, she felt shy again—“can you write the note yourself? I mean, you know, in handwriting?”

  “Sure,” her mother said. “I’d like that.”

  25

  “HI,” JOSH SAID, when he passed her locker the next morning. “H-how was your weekend?”

  He really was kind of cute. Shy as hell, but at least with enough nerve to be persistent. Consistent, anyway. “Not bad,” she said. “How was yours?”

  “Fine.” He nodded. “Yeah. Fine.”

  Jesus. “Are you always so nervous?” she asked.

  “Who, me?” He coughed. “No, not always.”

  “When aren’t you?” she asked.

  “Um, well,” he coughed again, “sometimes I sleep.”

  She laughed, and he allowed himself a small grin.

  “You have a very nice smile,” he said.

  Upon which, she felt herself turn into the shy one.

  “You really do,” he said.

  “Oh, I don’t think—” She noticed Adam swaggering down the hall with some of his friends, and pretended to be busy with something inside her locker.

  “You might as well give up, Feldman,” Adam said. “She doesn’t talk to guys.”

  “Look, Miller,” Josh said. “Why don’t you—”

  “Watch out for your glasses,” Adam said, shoving him and continuing down the hall.

  Josh recovered his balance, very red, and took off his glasses, shining them with his shirt. He looked different without them. Younger? Less anxious?

  “He’s really a jerk,” she said.

  “Yeah.” He cleaned his glasses harder.

  “If you hate them so much, why don’t you get contacts?” she asked. Or that eye surgery, even.

  “I don’t know. Guess I should.” He studied his frames. “Guess these are kind of a turn-off, hunh?”

  “Some people look good in them.” Meg noticed that he was taller than she’d thought, and that she had to look up to see his eyes.

  “Yeah.” He put them on. “Men with greying temples. Or women who wear them on top of their heads.” He paused. “You really do have a nice smile.”

  “Thank you.” She went back to feeling shy. “But, I don’t think—”

  They both looked up as the warning bell rang.

  “May I carry your books?” he asked. “Or were you brought up to carry boys’ books?”

  She grinned, and took his knapsack—which was actually heavy as hell.

  “Thanks, they weigh a lot.” He put his hands in his pockets. “And I’m very weak.”

  “You don’t look it,” she said, and he really didn’t, she decided, studying his deceptively muscled build. Alison had told her that he was on the baseball team, and he also looked like the kind of guy who maybe played lacrosse or something.

  “Brought up to be a diplomat, too, hunh?” He took his knapsack—and hers. “Come on.”

  He was cute. She wasn’t interested—no way was she interested—but, he was cute. Very cute.

  SCHOOL FELT MUCH better. Or else, she felt better, maybe. The novelty of being the President’s daughter was wearing off, and she could open her lunch bag without everyone wanting to see what she had in there. She could make a joke without people either staring—or laughing much harder than necessary. Best of all, she bumped into some guy in the hall—a senior, she thought—and he said, “Christ, will you look where you’re going?” instead of falling all over himself apologizing. Sure, some people were still treating her like a being from Oz, but life was unquestionably improving. She was going to play tennis on Thursday with Alison—whose parents belonged to an indoor club—a couple of people had wanted to see her homework before class, she got reprimanded in French for talking—it was almost like being at home. And Josh was turning out to be very nice. She wasn’t interested in him—but, he was nice. One of these days, she might even have a couple of graphic thoughts.

  Maybe.

  “Are you still coming tomorrow?” her mother asked, the night before the leadership conference speech.

  “Maybe,” Meg said in her if-you’re-lucky voice. “Are you still thinking of writing me a note?”

  “Maybe.” Her mother had an even better if-you’re-lucky voice, and Meg laughed.

  So, the next morning, Meg carried in her little note on official White House stationery. It was in two envelopes and everything—her mother was being pretty funny, signing the polite request for her to be dismissed early with a large, dramatic “Katharine Vaughn Powers.”

  Josh noticed the envelope when he paused by her locker before home-room, an action that had become a habit. “What’s that?”

  She put her knapsack and the note in his arms, and stuffed her jacket into her locker. “I have to get out early today, so my mother wrote me a note.”

  “Yeah?” He touched the envelope with an exaggeratedly reverent hand. “Is this kind of like kissing the Pope’s ring?”

  “Skip right past the Pope, and go straight up to God,” Meg said.

  Josh laughed—quite hard—and then bowed in front of her. “May I have the honor of escorting you to homeroom, Miss Powers?”

  “Well, I don’t know.” She looked him over. “Jeffrey, darling?”

  Her Secret Service agent, who was standing just down the hall, grinned. “What?”

  “Do something with this young man, will you?” She brushed Josh away as if he were a small, annoying fly. “I cawn’t seem to get rid of him.”

  “Talk about Boston accents,” Josh said.

  She shrugged. “I can only assume that you’re jealous.”

  “In your dreams, kid,” he said.

  “No,” she shook her head, “I have to have my dreams screened before I can have them.”

  Jeff laughed, but Josh just looked at her, his expression—what? Intent? Interested? Attracted. Very, very attracted. So attracted, that she blushed in confusion, adjusting the collar of her shirt, which didn’t need it.

  The warning bell rang, and she headed down the hall, Josh next to her, neither of them speaking.

  “Um, here you go,” he said, at the door of her homeroom, handing her her knapsack.

  “Thank you,” she said, keeping her eyes down.

  He started to walk away, and then came back. “Meg?”

  She stopped, too. “What?”

  “I, uh—” He seemed to change his mind about whatever he had been going to say. “S-see you in English.”

  She nodded. “See you there.”

  AT ONE-THIRTY, SHE was driven back to the White House to go to the speech with her mother. She changed into a skirt and sweater, then they went out to the motorcade that was waiting on the South Grounds, her mother pausing to banter with the clearly delighted press for a couple of minutes.

  Once they were inside the limousine, Meg looked around.

  “I almost never get to ride up here,” she said. “How come Winnie or Glen isn’t in here briefing you?”

  “Because I sometimes get tired of being treated as thou
gh I’m scarcely capable of speaking my native language,” her mother said, flipping through a small stack of index cards covered with handwritten notes.

  Woe to anyone who tried to tell the not-ego-free President what to do.

  Meg leaned over to try and read the notes, but her mother pointed sternly at her seatbelt, and she sat back, putting it on.

  “What are you going to say?” she asked.

  Her mother shrugged. “I don’t know. I’d like to do a good job, though—I always feel as though I owe women’s groups something extra.”

  Which didn’t seem fair. “Haven’t you done enough?” Meg asked.

  “It just makes them expect more,” her mother said.

  At the hotel where the convention was being held, she and her mother sat quietly in the holding room for a few minutes. Then, after taking a couple of calls from the White House, her mother drank three shots of espresso in rapid succession, then used some breath spray, and one of Linda’s aides walked Meg out to the huge reception hall to her seat in the front row.

  She looked over her shoulder at the packed room. Christ, she would be petrified to speak in front of that many people—how did her mother do it? The audience was very excited. In fact, they had even been excited to see her. Indicating—to Meg, anyway—that they were pretty hard up.

  Everyone turned to watch the door suddenly, and Meg saw her mother, surrounded by Secret Service agents, being ushered to the stage.

  After being introduced to great applause, her mother stepped up to the podium, and the applause turned into a standing ovation.

  Which the President seemed to enjoy, frankly.

  The audience was very receptive, laughing and/or cheering at almost everything her mother said. Including—to some degree—the artfully phrased news-bite about the upcoming military deployment she was proposing, which seemed to be given some cautious acceptance, although not outright enthusiasm. But, the entire press pool instantly perked up, and she saw notebooks fly open and pens start writing like crazy. So, at the very worst, her mother had accomplished the lesser goal of feeding the press a nice tasty morsel—a tactic that was almost always beneficial in the long run.

  At one point, her mother took off her blazer, which she dryly described as “abandoning male trappings,” and got the biggest laugh of all. She winked at Meg, throwing the blazer out to her, and Meg caught it, wondering how the hell her mother even managed to make being goofy seem Presidential.

  She held the blazer in her lap, smelling the vitality and elegance of the perfume, and it occurred to her that the Leader of the Free World almost never wore blazers—but must have specifically chosen to do so today, just to get the big laugh. Which was cocky as hell, but also pretty funny.

  She didn’t really listen to the speech, just watched the audience’s reactions: clapping, laughing, communal nodding. Meg kind of got the feeling that they all thought that her mother really had met God. Of course, knowing her mother, that was probably the case. Maybe she’d spent a weekend in Heaven campaigning.

  She watched her finish the speech, wondering if her mother ever actually relaxed. Sometimes, Meg thought she looked much happier holding Neal on her lap or sitting with Steven, than she ever did doing political stuff. And lots of times with her father. She had probably never seen her mother as happy as the day she caught the two of them dancing.

  Now, the applause was another standing ovation, and her mother looked pleasant enough, but maybe it was the difference between happiness—and joy. Her mother didn’t seem to get any joy out of this. But, she was winking again, and—only a little embarrassed—Meg winked back.

  Sometimes, she thought the President was a pretty soft touch.

  WHEN THE APPLAUSE finally died down, there was a reception in one of the hotel ballrooms. No one could say that her mother wasn’t a friendly President—nor could they accuse her of ducking out after speaking engagements, although Meg saw Winnie, the deputy chief of staff, whisper into her ear a couple of times, and a tiny look of concern flash across her mother’s face once.

  Meg made a half-hearted attempt to go over to her, but the crowd was so big, that she decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. But, her mother was clearly looking for her, and Meg waved, her mother smiling and waving back, most of the women gathered around her smiling, too.

  That taken care of, Meg wandered over to one of the tables to check out the food. Steven and Neal were going to be mad that they hadn’t come—there were platters of frosted pastries, whipped cream puffing up all over the place. Maybe she could steal them some.

  Feeling a little bored and a little bratty, she decided to make her agents nervous and eat a few. They had a poison fixation, always watching everything she put into her mouth. It was enough to make her want to stuff her face.

  She ate a couple, then got a paper plate to take some home. The chairwoman of the conference, who was coming over to say hello, saw the pastry-laden plate and looked very surprised—perhaps at the thought that she had such a monster appetite.

  Meg blushed. “I was sort of taking them for my brothers. Is that okay? If you want, I can put them back.”

  The woman laughed. “That’s great. That’s really great.”

  Meg reddened more, and covered the plate with a napkin. A lot of other people started coming up to talk to her, which was awkward, when she was standing there with a bunch of stolen pastries.

  “Barry, can you hold these?” she whispered.

  He shook his head. “Meg, you know I can’t—”

  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Strict Secret Service rule. “Can you give them to Frank, maybe?” she asked. Since he was her mother’s personal aide, and always got stuck carrying everything, like a well-dressed little pack mule. “So I can go to the ladies’ room?”

  Barry sighed and took the plate, gesturing for Jeff to escort her.

  It was a serious drag to be followed over to the ladies’ room. It would have been better if Marcy had been assigned to this shift—but, she wasn’t. It was a real reminder, though, of why Steven kept trying to escape from his agents. Sometimes, it would just be nice to be left alone.

  Jeff knocked on the door, said, “Secret Service,” and went inside with her to make sure everything was okay. The two women who were standing by the sinks made a very quick exit.

  “Please don’t take too long, okay?” he said, looking at his watch.

  Meg nodded grumpily, and he went out to the hall to wait for her. She sat down on the couch in the lounge section, realizing that it was the first time she had been by herself in public for weeks. It felt great. She glanced around, one idle foot tapping on the floor. Jeff would keep everyone out, being paranoid as usual, so she could stay in here all day, if she wanted.

  Tapping her other foot to make a little rhythm, she noticed that there was another door across the room. Did Jeff know that? Probably. Only, what if he had forgotten? It would be pretty funny to go out the wrong way, and then come up behind him. She had never tried anything like that before, and—well, no time like the present.

  She opened the door, seeing a long corridor with a door at the far left. There was no one in sight, so she went out there, walking down to the other door. She opened it, finding herself in another hallway, with some boxes stacked along the walls. Maybe this was a storage area, or something. She turned left, figuring that she would make a full circle that way, and end up in the lobby.

  It was really weird to be by herself in public. To feel normal. And it suddenly made perfect sense that her mother had a tendency to stroll right on over to rope-lines and shake hands, even when her detail was strongly against the idea. There was something to be said for a little independence.

  As she walked down the hall, she kind of hoped someone would come out and yell at her, thinking she was just some kid off the street. A janitor or a cook or a bellhop, maybe.

  She found another hall, only it led to the right, which wouldn’t take her to the lobby. She didn’t think.

  Hmmm. She looked around uncert
ainly, then headed in that direction. She would just try to find her way out for another minute, and then give up and go back to the ladies’ room, and exit the normal way. She made a couple more turns, realized that she was completely lost, and stopped. So, she went back to the door she had just come through and opened it, but the hall there didn’t look right at all. Maybe she had come through one of the other three doors. Except that two of them were locked, and the other opened on to a flight of stairs.

  Okay. She was officially lost—and Jeff was going to kill her. Christ, she was in the middle of a large city, in a four-star hotel—and she might as well be in the freakin’ Yukon. How stupid was that?

  She went into the one hallway she could still access, not sure if she had originally come from the left or the right. All of the doors on the right side were locked, and when she went down to the left, she found another stairway. Since stairways were now her only option, she went down, finding herself in a pipe-crowded basement. She could hear a steady dripping from somewhere, and an irrational fear skipped up her back when she heard a loud crash that was maybe a machine starting up, or something falling over, or someone—she wasn’t waiting around to find out. She ran up the stairs and back into whichever hall she had been in, and tried doors until she finally found an open one—which led to another staircase, and an ominously empty storage room.

  Okay. Maybe deciding to surprise Jeff hadn’t been such a great idea.

  She came across another unlocked door and stepped into a grey, uncarpeted hallway. It looked like the set for every rape scene she had ever seen on television, and she came to the conclusion that this had definitely been a lousy idea.

  She felt a draft behind her, and spun around, scared. What if someone was after her, or—no, that was paranoid. But, why else did she have Secret Service agents? Because people were afraid that someone might go after her.

  This had been a terrible, awful idea.

 
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