I'm afraid of heights, snakes, normalcy, mediocrity, Hollywood, the initial silence of an empty house, the enduring darkness of a poorly lit street, evil clowns, professional failure, the intellectual impact of Barbie dolls, letting my father down, being paralyzed, hospitals, doctors, the cancer that killed my mother, dying unexpectedly, dying for a stupid reason, dying painfully, and, worst of all, dying alone. But I'm not afraid of power—which is why I work in the White House.
As I sit in the passenger seat of my beat-up, rusty blue Jeep, I can't help but stare at my date, the beautiful young woman who's driving my car. Her long, thin fingers hold the steering wheel in a commanding grip that lets both of us know who's in charge. I could care less, though—as the car flies up Connecticut Avenue, I'm far more content studying the way her short black hair licks the back of her neck. For security reasons, we keep the windows closed, but that doesn't stop her from opening the sunroof. Letting the warm, early-September air sweep through her hair, she leans back and enjoys the freedom. She then adds her final personal touch to the car: She turns on the radio, flips through my preset stations, and shakes her head.
"This is what you like?" Nora asks. "Talk radio?"
"It's for work." Pointing to the dashboard and hoping to be cool, I add, "The last one has music."
She calls my bluff and hits the last button. More talk radio. "You always this predictable?" she asks.
"Only when I—" Before I can finish, the shriek of an electric guitar pierces my eardrum. She's found her station.
Tapping her thumbs against the steering wheel and bobbing her head to the beat, Nora looks completely alive.
"This is what you like?" I shout back over the noise. "Thrash radio?"
"Only way to stay young," she says with a grin. She's kicking my shins and she loves it. At twenty-two years of age, Nora Hartson is smart. And way too confident. She knows I'm self-conscious about the difference in our ages—she knew it the first moment I told her I was twenty-nine. She didn't care, though.
"Think that's going to scare me off?" she had asked.
"If it does, that's your mistake."
That's when I had her. She needed the challenge. Especially a sexual one. For too long, things had been easy for her. And as Nora is so keenly aware, there's no fun in always getting what you want. The thing is, that's likely to be her lot in life. For better or worse, that's her power. Nora is attractive, engaging, and extremely captivating. She's also the daughter of the President of the United States.
As I said, I'm not afraid of power.
The car heads toward Dupont Circle, and I glance at my watch, wondering when our first date is going to end. It's quarter past eleven, but Nora seems to just be getting started. As we pull up to a place called Tequila Mockingbird, I roll my eyes. "Another bar?"
"You gotta have at least a little foreplay," she teases. I look over like I hear it all the time. It doesn't fool her for a second. God, I love America. "Besides," she adds, "this is a good one—no one knows this place."
"So we'll actually have some privacy?" Instinctively, I check the rearview mirror. The black Chevy Suburban that followed us out of the White House gate and to every subsequent stop we made is still right behind us. The Secret Service never lets go.
"Don't worry about them," she says. "They don't know what's coming."
Before I can ask her to explain, I see a man in khakis standing at the side entrance of Tequila Mockingbird. He points to a reserved parking spot and waves us toward him. Even before he pushes the button in his hand and whispers into the collar of his struggling-to-be-casual polo shirt, I know who he is. Secret Service. Which means we don't have to wait in the long line out front—he'll take us in the side. Not a bad way to bar-hop, if you ask me. Of course, Nora sees it differently.
"Ready to rain on his parade?" she asks.
I nod, unsure of what she's up to, but barely able to contain my smile. The First Daughter, and I mean the First Daughter, is sitting next to me, in my crappy car, asking me to follow her under the limbo stick. I can already taste the salsa.
Just as we make eye contact with the agent outside the Mockingbird, Nora rolls past the bar, and instead heads to a dance club halfway up the block. I turn around and check out the agent's expression. He's not amused. I can read his lips from here. "Shadow moving," he growls into his collar.
"Wait a minute—didn't you tell them we were going to the Mockingbird?"
"Let me ask you a question: When you go out, do you think it's fun to have the Secret Service check out the place before you get there?"
I pause to think about it. "Actually, it seems pretty cool to me."
She laughs. "Well, I hate it. The moment they walk in, the really interesting people hit the exits." Pointing to the Suburban that's still behind us, she adds, "The ones who follow me, I can deal with. It's the advance guys that wreck the party. Besides, this keeps everyone on their toes."
As we pull up to the valet, I try to think of something witty to say. That's when I see him. Standing at the front entrance of our newest destination is another man whispering into the collar of his shirt. Like the agent who was standing outside the Mockingbird, he's dressed in Secret Service casual standards: khakis and a short-sleeve polo. To call as little attention to Nora as possible, the agents try their best to be invisible—their attire is keyed to their protectee's. Of course, they think they blend in, but last I checked, most people in khakis don't carry guns and talk into the collars of their shirts. Either way, though, I'm impressed. They know her better than I thought.
"So, we going in or what?" I ask, motioning toward the valet, who's waiting for Nora to open her door.
Nora doesn't answer. Her piercing green eyes, which were persuasive enough to convince me to let her drive, are now staring vacantly out the window.
I tap her playfully on the shoulder. "So they knew you were coming. Big deal—that's their job."
"That's not it."
"Nora, we're all creatures of habit. Just because they know your routine—"
"That's the problem!" she shouts. "I was being spontaneous!"
Behind the outburst, there's a pain in her voice that catches me off guard. Despite the years of watching her on TV, it's the first time I've seen her open her soft side, and even though it's with a yell, I jump right in. My playful shoulder-tap turns into a soothing caress. "Forget this place—we'll find somewhere new."
She glares angrily at the agent near the front door. He grins back. They've played this game before. "We're out of here," she growls. With a quick pump of the gas, our tires screech and we're on to our next stop. As we take off, I again check the rearview mirror. The Suburban, as always, is right behind us.
"They ever let up?" I ask.
"Goes with the territory," she says, sounding like she's been kicked in the gut.
Hoping to cheer her up, I say, "Forget those monkeys. Who cares if they know where you—"
"Spend two weeks doing it. That'll change your tune."
"Not me. My tune stays the same: Love the guys with guns. Love the guys with guns. Love the guys with guns. We're talkin' mantra here."
The joke is easy, but it works. She fights back the tiniest smile. "Gotta love those guns." Taking a deep breath, she runs her hand across the back of her neck and through the tips of her black hair. I think she's finally starting to relax. "Thanks again for letting me drive—I was starting to miss it."
"If it makes you feel better, you're an excellent driver."
"And you're an excellent liar."
"Don't take my word for it—look at the lemmings behind us; they've been smiling since you peeled out from the club."
Nora checks the rearview mirror for herself and waves at two more of the khaki-and-polo patrol. Neither smiles, but the one in the passenger seat actually waves back. "Those're my boys—been with me for three years," she explains. "Besides, Harry and Darren aren't that bad. They're just miserable because they're the only two who are actually responsible for me."
"Sounds like a dream job."
"More like a nightmare—every time I leave the House, they're stuck watching my behind."
"Like I said: dream job."
She turns, pretending she doesn't enjoy the compliment. "You love to flirt, don't you?"
"Safest form of intense social interaction."
"Safe, huh? Is that what it's all about for you?"
"Says the young lady with the armed bodyguards."
"What can I say?" she says with a laugh. "Sometimes you've got to be careful."
"And sometimes you've got to burn the village to save it."
She likes that one—anything that brings back some challenge. For her, everything else is planned. "So now you're Genghis Khan?" she asks.
"I've been known to ravage a few helpless townships."
"Oh, please, lawboy, you're starting to embarrass yourself. Now where do you want to go?"
The forcefulness turns me on. I try to act unfazed. "Doesn't matter to me. But do the monkeys have to follow?"
"That depends," she says with a grin. "You think you can handle them?"
"Oh, yeah. Lawyers are well known for their ability to beat up large willing-to-take-a-bullet military types. There's a whole 'Fisticuffs' section on the bar exam… right after the 'Rain of Pain' essay."
"Okay, so if it's not going to be fight, we're going to have to go with flight." She hits the gas and my head snaps back into the headrest. We're now once again flying up Connecticut Avenue.
"What're you doing?"
She shoots me a look that I can feel in my pants. "You wanted privacy."
"Actually, I wanted foreplay."
"Well if this works, you're gonna get both."
Now the adrenaline's pumping. "You really think you can lose them?"
"Only tried once before."
She shoots me another one of those looks. "You don't want to know."
The speedometer quickly shoots up to sixty, and the poorly paved D.C. roads are making us feel every pothole. I grab the handle on the door and prop myself up straight. It's at this moment that I see Nora as the twenty-two-year-old she really is—fearless, smug, and still impressed by the rev of an engine. Although I'm only a few years older, it's been a long time since my heart's raced this fast. After three years at Michigan Law, two years of clerkships, two years at a law firm, and the past two years in the White House Counsel's Office, my passions have been purely professional. Then Nora Hartson slaps me awake and starts a flash fire in my gut. How the hell was I supposed to know what I was missing?
Still, I look back at the Suburban and let out a nervous laugh. "If this gets me in trouble…"
"Is that what you're worried about?"
I bite my lip. That was a big step backwards. "No… it's just that… you know what I mean."
She ignores my stumbling and gives it more speed.
Stuck in the silence of our conversation, all I can hear is how loud the engine is revving. Up ahead is the entrance to the underpass that runs below Dupont Circle. The small tunnel has an initial steep drop, so you can't see how many cars are actually ahead of you. Nora doesn't seem to care. Without slowing down, we leap into the tunnel and my stomach drops. Luckily, there's no one in front of us.
As we leave the tunnel, all I can focus on is the green light at the end of the block. Then it turns yellow. We're not nearly close enough to make it. Again, Nora doesn't seem to care. "The light… !"
It turns red and Nora jerks the wheel into an illegal left turn. The tires shriek and my shoulder is pressed against the door. For the first time, I actually think we're in danger. I glance in the rearview mirror. The Suburban is still behind us. Never letting go.
We race down a narrow, short street. I can see a stop sign ahead. Despite the late hour, there's still a steady stream of cars enjoying the right of way. I expect Nora to slow down. Instead, she speeds up.
"Don't do it!" I warn her.
She takes notice of the volume of my voice, but doesn't reply. I'm craning my neck, trying to see how many cars there are. I see a few, but have no idea if they see us. We blow through the stop sign, and I shut my eyes. I hear cars screech to a halt and the simultaneous blaring of horns. Nothing hits us. I turn around and watch the Secret Service follow in our wake…
"What're you, a psychopath?"
"Only if I kill us. If we live, I'm a daredevil."
She refuses to let up, twisting and turning through the brownstone-lined streets of Dupont Circle. Every stop sign we run leaves another chorus of screaming horns and pissed-off drivers. Eventually, we're tearing up a one-way street that crosses back over the main thoroughfare, Connecticut Avenue. The only thing between us and the six lanes of traffic is another stop sign. With a hundred feet to go, she slams on the brakes. Thank God. Sanity's returned.
"Why don't we just call it a night?" I offer.
"Not a chance." She's scowling in the mirror, staring down her favorite agents. They look tempted to get out of the Suburban, but they have to know she'll take off the moment they do.
The agent in the passenger seat rolls down his window. He's young, maybe even younger than me. "C'mon, Shadow," he yells, rubbing it in by using her Secret Service code name. "You know what he said last time. Don't make us call this one in."
She doesn't take well to the threat. Under her breath, she mutters, "Cocky jock asshole." With that, she punches the gas. The wheels spin until they find traction.
I can't let her do this. "Nora, don't…"
"Don't tell me to—"
"I said, shut up." Her response is a measured, low snarl. She doesn't sound like herself. We're barreling toward the stop sign and I count seven cars crossing in front of us. Eight. Nine. Ten. This isn't like the side streets. These cars are flying. I notice a tiny bead of sweat rolling down the side of Nora's forehead. She's holding the wheel as tight as she can. We're not going to make this one.
As we hit the threshold, I do the only thing I can think of. I lean over, punch the horn, and hold it down. We shoot out of the side street like a fifty-mile-an-hour banshee. Two cars swerve. Another hits his brakes. A fourth driver, in a black Acura, tries to slow down, but there's not enough time. His tires screech against the pavement, but he's still moving. Although Nora does her best to swerve out of his way, he nicks us right on the back tip of our bumper. It's just enough to make us veer out of control. And to put the Acura directly in front of the Secret Service Suburban. The Suburban pulls a sharp right and comes to a dead halt. We keep moving.
"It's okay!" Nora screams as she fights the steering wheel. "It's okay!" And in a two-second interval, I realize it's true. Everyone's safe and we're free to go. Nora lights up the car with a smile. As we motor up the block, I'm still remembering how to breathe.
Her chest is heaving as she catches her own breath. "Not bad, huh?" she finally asks.
"Not bad?" I ask, wiping my forehead. "You could've killed us—not to mention the other drivers and the—"