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The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is the author of more than 100 historical and contemporary novels. Now living in Spokane, Washington, the “First Lady of the West” hit a career high when all three of her 2011 Creed Cowboy books debuted at #1 on the New York Times list. In 2007, the Romance Writers of America presented her their Lifetime Achievement Award. She personally funds her Linda Lael Miller Scholarships for Women. Visit her at LindaLaelMiller.com.
The tall man ran one hand through his dark hair and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Despite the heavy woolen overcoat he wore, he was still cold. Swift indigo eyes scanned the first page of the dossier. "So what, Walt?" David Goddard bit out, frowning. "She's the president-elect's third cousin. Since when do third cousins qualify for Secret Service protection?"
Walt Zigman made a contemptuous, impatient sound. Apparently, this assignment wasn't exactly dear to his crusty old heart. "It isn't protection, Goddard," he snarled. "Remember that. This is a surveillance project."
David sat back in his chair, drawing his right ankle up to rest on his left knee. "Surveillance," he muttered, suppressing an unprofessional urge to fling the file on Holly Llewellyn back into the mess that littered Walt's desk. "That isn't our"
"I know, Goddard," Walt interrupted, falling into his own chair and reaching into one ink-stained shirt pocket for a match to light the cigar stub that was always in his mouth. "I know. I tried to give this thing to the Bureau. I even tried the CIA. But they both threw it right back in my lap. Anything connected with the president or his family is our bailiwickaccording to them."
David breathed a swearword. He was tired and he could still feel the bite of the crisp November wind outside. He wanted to get out of Washington and have Thanksgiving dinner in Arlington with his sister, Chris, and her family. He wanted to spoil her kids and lounge in front of her fireplace. "Okay, Walt. So Ms. Llewellyn is our problem. Why am I the lucky one?"
Walt chortled. "Born under the right star, I guess. Come on, Goddard, how bad can it be? You spend a few weeks maybe a few monthsin Spokane. You get the lady to like you. And you make damned sure she's really what she claims to be, and not a courier for that brother of hers."
David had the beginnings of a headache. He opened the dossier again, skimming the rundown on Holly Llewellyn. Twenty-seven years old. Blond. Blue-eyed. Five feet, seven inches tall. A one hundred twenty-three pound pain. "What makes you think she's running secrets? It says here she writes cookbooks."
"Middle Eastern cookbooks," David's supervisor imparted with dramatic import.
David's mouth twisted into a wry grin. "That alone should convict her," he mocked.
"Dammit, Goddard, keep your sparkling wit to yourself. Can't you see that we've got the makings of a scandal here that would make Watergate seem insignificant?"
"Yes! How would it look if the new president's cousin turned out to be a traitor? Isn't it bad enough that her brother sold out? She could be cut from the same cloth!"
David sighed. "That's unlikely, Walt. It says here that she's written a book about Scandinavian meatballs. Good God, maybe she's spying for the Swedes!"
"Or the Danes. You've got to watch those Danes, crafty little devils, one and all."
"She wrote Fun With Tacos, too, I see," David pressed on dryly. "Do you think she's working for the Mexicans? Holy guacamole, Batmando you suppose they're planning to rush up here and take back Texas?"
Walt was leaning into the desk, his meaty hands braced against the edge, his cigar stub bobbing up and down in outrage. "I'm glad you think this situation is funny, Goddard, but it just so happens that the next president of the United States doesn't agree with you! This little lady happens to have a bona fide, card-carrying traitor for a brother!"
David flipped through the rest of the dossier, not so hastily this time. His headache was worse. "Craig Llewellyn," he muttered.
"You remember him, don't you, Goddard?" Walt gibed, going to stand at the barred window of his dingy little office.
Remember? David remembered, all righthow could he help it? Craig Llewellyn's defection had never made the national news, by some miracle, but every federal agent in the country knew the sordid story. "Being Llewellyn's sister doesn't make the lady a security risk, Walt," he pointed out quietly.
"Maybe not. If she wasn't related to our next president, I wouldn't be worried. If she hadn't just spent two months in Iran, I wouldn't be worried. As it is, I'm damned worried."
"You'd think the opposition would have caught on to this before the election " David speculated, thinking of the outgoing president and the no-holds-barred campaign he had conducted.
"They didn't," Walt broke in. "I'll expect your first report early next week."
"Right." David stood up and stretched. Every muscle in his long frame ached with residual cold. "Is this operation covert, by the way, or do I just knock on Ms. Llewellyn's door and flash my identification?"
Clearly, Walt Zigman had a headache, too. "That was a stupid question, Goddard. You've been on White House Detail too damned long. Spent too much time walking the first lady's dog. Of course it's covert!"
David shrugged, feeling weary. Maybe Walt was right; maybe he was getting soft. Instead of thinking about this case on every level, a part of him was anticipating a day at Chris's place. The kids would be watching the Macy's parade on TV. The smell of roasting turkey would be everywhere .
He reached for the dossier. "Can I take this?"
Walt waved impatiently. "Yeah, yeah, that's your copy."
David tucked the file under one arm. He supposed it was the forthcoming holiday that was distracting him, stirring up bittersweet memories and half-formed hopes, making him feel far older than his thirty-four years. He tried to imagine Marleen, his ex-wife, roasting turkey or settling a band of freckle-faced rug rats in front of the tube to watch a Thanksgiving parade and couldn't. "You having dinner here, Walt?" he asked, his hand on the doorknob. "Tomorrow, I mean?"
Zigman grinned around his cigar stub. "Nope. Going to New York to see my daughter. Happy Thanksgiving, Goddard."
David laughed, though he had a bereft feeling inside. He thought of Marleen studying chimpanzees in Borneo and wondered if she remembered that she'd once wanted to raise an entirely different kind of monkey. "I'll call you on Monday."
David stepped out into the wide, familiar hallway, with its lighted paintings and expensively shabby carpeting. In front of the Oval Office, two agents guarded the heavy double doors. He nodded and they nodded back, their faces solemn.
Downstairs, David left the White House by a side door, then strode through the snow-dusted parking lot to his car. At one of the high wrought-iron gates, he showed his ID, even though he was going out, not in, even though he knew the young Marines on duty, knew their wives and their kids and their collar sizes.
Again he felt lonely. Even quietly desperate. As the White House gate clanked shut behind him, he turned up the car radio in a belated effort to cover the sound.
Holly Llewellyn placed the elegantly scripted invitation in the center of the kitchen mantelpiece. Hands tucked into the pockets of her cozy blue jogging jacket, she stood back to admire it.
"Imagine," said her friend and secretary, Elaine Bateman, from her chair at the cluttered trestle table. "Being invited to the White House! An Inaugural Ball! Good heavens, Holly, what are you going to wear?"
Holly's bright, aquamarine eyes danced with mischief and she withdrew her hands from her pockets to push her chin-length blond hair atop her head. "Nothing," she crooned, striking a cheesecake pose.
"That ought to cause a sensation!"
Holly made a face and went back to the printer set up on the end of the trestle table. She began printing out the pages of "Ka-bobs for a Crowd," the initial chapter of her new book. "I meant that I'm not going," she pointed out. "After all, Toby is in school and I've got my classes to teach and this book to finish. These recipes all have to be tested and retested, you know. And there's my newspaper column"
"Excuses!" Elaine cried, ignoring the finished manuscript, Soups are Super, that she was supposed to be indexing. "Good Lord, Holly, how many times does a person's cousin get elected president? I can't believe you'd miss a chance like this! Besides, you've got until January."
The rhythmic whining of the printer was giving Holly a headache; she closed her eyes and ran her hands down the sides of her trim-fitting jeans. "I'm not going," she repeated sharply.
Elaine sighed in a way that made Holly regret her tone of voice. "Okay, Holl. No problem. Listen, tomorrow's Thanksgivingdo you mind if I take this home and work on it there? I've got a turkey to stuff and ceramic pilgrims to set out in strategic places."
Holly laughed, able to look at her friend now. "Go," she said. "And leave the manuscript here. It will keep until Monday."
Elaine beamed triumphantly, gathering the stack of blue-penciled pages into a neat pile. "You were always a soft touch for ceramic pilgrims," she grinned. "Are you sure you don't want me to work Friday?"
Elaine looked worried now, her wide green eyes watchful. "You and Toby have somewhere to go for Thanksgiving, don't you? I mean, you're not going to sit here and brood or anything, are you?"
Holly felt a tender sort of exasperation. "We're spending the day with Skyler's parents, worrywart. Hie thyself home, before that husband of yours tries to stuff the gobbler on his own. Remember last year? He cut himself on the giblets."
Elaine laughed. "Roy means well," she said, taking her coat from the antique wall rack beside the back door. Shrugging into it, she tossed her glossy brown hair back over her shoulders. "How was he to know that a partially frozen turkey neck can be lethal?"
"How indeed?" Holly chuckled, wondering why she felt so sad. Skyler's parents were nice people; she and Toby would both have a good time at their house.
"Happy, happy," Elaine sang, opening the door to leave and letting in a rush of frigid November air. "See you Monday."
"Monday," Holly confirmed, smiling hard. But when her friend was gone, she sat down on the long bench beside the trestle table and sighed.
Just then Toby scrambled in from the other direction, still wearing his jacket, earmuffs and mittens. His "Moon Boots" made puddles on the redbrick floor, and he was waving a multi-colored construction-paper turkey in one hand. "Look what we made, Mom! Look what we made!"
From somewhere in the depths of her, Holly summoned up another smile. "Wow!" she crowed. She didn't bother to correct the little boy, to remind him that she was his aunt and not his mother. She never did that anymore.
The seven-year-old was trying to peel off his winter garb without crumpling his purple, green, pink and black turkey. The cold glowed in his plump cheeks and his china-blue eyes sparkled.
After ruffling his irresistible corn-silk hair with one hand, Holly aided him by taking the bedraggled, paste-crusted turkey while he wrestled out of his jacket.
"I've never seen a turkey quite like this," she remarked.
Toby laughed and Holly felt a pang at the sound; he was so like her brother, Craig. Poor, hunted Craig. "I wanted him to be different, Mom!" For a moment, the child looked sheepish. "Besides, all the brown and gold and orange paper was gone."
Holly walked to the huge side-by-side refrigerator and attached the turkey to its surface with magnets. To make room, she had to take down the previous month's construction-paper pumpkin. "No matter," she said. "I like this bird. He has character. Are you hungry?"
"Starved," the little boy exclaimed, and there was a scuffling sound as he made a place for himself at the paper-and-book-littered table.
Holly plundered the refrigerator for lunch meat, sliced cheese, lettuce and mustard. She thought ruefully that another trip to the supermarket was in order.
Carrying the armload of sandwich supplies over to the counter, Holly set everything down to open the old-fashioned wooden bread box.
"We're still going to Skyler's place tomorrow, right?" Toby asked without looking at her.
Holly was closing the bread sack, tucking it back into its nook. She sighed. "Not exactly. We're going to his parents' house, remember? They live in the country."
"You don't like Skyler very much, do you, Toby?" she ventured, buttering a slice of bread, adding cheese and lunch meat and a lettuce leaf.
"Are you going to marry him?" the child countered, watching Holly with pensive eyes.
It was a fair question, but since Holly didn't know the answer herself, she could hardly offer one to Toby. "I don't know. I like Skyler."
Holly thought. "Yeah. I like him a lot."
"Do you love him?"
Holly's knife clattered in the mustard jar. "Well"
"You're supposed to love somebody if you're going to marry them. The way Elaine loves Roy. She's always kissing him and when he says something, she looks at him like every word is real important."
Holly paused, feeling oddly shaken, and gave her nephew a lopsided grin. "You've been watching Dr. Phil again," she teased.
Toby looked puzzled. "Huh?"
"Never mind. How was school today?"
The little boy sighed. "I didn't get any orange paper."
"I remember," Holly replied, putting the finished sandwich on a plate and carrying it to the table. "How come that happened, anyway? Were you late for art class or something?"
Toby was gathering up the sandwich in eager hands. "I had to talk to the principal."
"Toby Llewellyn! Did you get into trouble?"
"No," Toby said through a mouthful. "He wanted me to talk about the new president next week at assembly."
A jolt of mingled alarm and fury raced through Holly; she had to take a deep breath before she could speak calmly. "What? How did he know"
Toby shrugged. "Maybe there was something in the paper. Mr. Richardson was pretty disappointed when I told him I didn't know the president."
Holly was pacing the floor, her hands tucked into the hip pockets of her jeans. The celebrity of being a cookbook author was one thingonly a select group of people cared one way or the other, of coursebut this shirttail relationship to the future president could get to be a real problem. Suppose reporters started taking an interest? Suppose what Craig had done got talked about? Toby could be hurt or even put in real danger!
"Did you see any newspaper people, Toby? Did anybody ask you questions?"
Toby shook his head. "Can I watch TV?"
Holly nodded somewhat impatiently. "You'll tell me if anyone you don't know tries to talk to you, won't you, Toby?"