There was something about the name, enough to make Jane Kincaid pause to scan her overcrowded memory. Julia Landen. Familiar and yet not, like driving along a road with recognizable twists and turns, but set in a completely different and unfamiliar landscape. She stared at the name on the page, rested her finger on it, hoping she might suddenly remember this Julia Landen and in what capacity she knew her.
“What?” Corey Kincaid, Jane’s sister and senior political advisor, looked up with concern from the sheaf of papers in her lap.
“It’s nothing.” Probably, Jane thought.
Corey frowned deeply. “Is there something on the itinerary you don’t like? Because if there is, I need to know right away if I have any hope in hell of changing it.”
They were going over Jane’s itinerary for a three-day visit to California that would unofficially kick off the bid for re-election. In many ways, it seemed like just last year she was facing the long grind of asking voters for their support, laying out her vision for the future, and speaking until her voice was raw and her body practically worn to a skeleton. Four years had passed in a blur of meetings, speeches and trips. Make that boring meetings, redundant speeches, and trips that had lost their newness and exotic sheen a long time ago.
Now, however, things were about to get fun again because she could put aside the business of governing as vice president and begin focusing on one of her biggest joys in politics—campaigning.
She and President Dennis Collins, unchallenged within the party, could skip the gauntlet of Democratic primaries and go directly to the public to amass funds and support. Once the Republicans finished pummeling each other during the nomination process, the Collins-Kincaid campaign could really step it up and unleash an all-out warfare for another term. The grind would begin slowly, finally climaxing in the few months between the nomination convention and Election Day in November.
Returning to Corey’s question about the itinerary, Jane laughed. “Yeah, two things. This whole fund-raising whoring I have to do, plus all the sweet talking and cajoling with the WPC.” She did not enjoy begging for money or sucking up, two essentials of her position at times. On this trip, she would be required to do both.
Her smile mischievous, Corey relaxed and said, “At least it’s not whoring at the WPC. On second thought, that might be kind of fun, don’t you think?”
“Okay, that is so not funny!” Jane protested. Well, it was a little bit funny, she admitted to herself. The Women’s Political Caucus, which she chaired, consisted of women politicians from across all party lines around the country. The organization had its share of members who seemed to shed their inhibitions as well as their heterosexuality after a few drinks. It wasn’t unusual for a few of them to flirt openly with her. The most overt and persistent offender was California’s governor, Amy Roberts, who’d made it clear on several occasions that she would welcome a little one-on-one mentoring with the country’s openly gay vice president. The fact that Jane was happily partnered didn’t seem to register with the governor. Or Amy Roberts simply didn’t give a shit, which was more likely.
Corey tried to smother another giggle but gave up. “I’ll bet Governor Roberts would be only too happy to contribute to the campaign if you did a little whoring with her.”
“In her dreams!”
“For what it’s worth, she’s nuts to hit on you, considering that your girlfriend carries a gun.”
“I’m beginning to think Amy has a death wish.” Jane sighed. “Frankly, if we didn’t need California, I’d tell her to kiss my butt…and my gun-toting girlfriend’s too.”
Jane had initiated the national nonpartisan caucus to encourage women politicians to seek higher office, and to mentor and support one another. As politics remained mostly a man’s domain, the committee was her way of giving back a little, of trying to pull her sisters along with her, but hooking up for a night was certainly not part of the mission statement. Amy Roberts’s come-ons were an unwanted distraction she absolutely abhorred.
“Might as well throw my butt in there too while you’re at it,” Corey said.
“Hey,” Jane said slyly. “I think it’d be a great idea if you went out to dinner with the governor and convinced her to support us. After all, you’re a member of my senior staff. I trust you to stand in for me any time.”
Corey’s face instantly drained of color. “Don’t even joke about it!”
“What? I’m sure she’d find my little sister extremely attractive. In fact, I’d even bet money on it.” Pushing Corey’s buttons just like when they were kids, Jane waggled her eyebrows, which had the intended effect of infuriating her sister further.
“Remember, I set your campaign schedule, and if you’re mean to me, I’ll schedule you for an appearance with that smarmy, lecherous old Sam White next time we’re in Seattle.”
Corey would be evil enough to do it too, Jane decided, because unlike the kid sister seven years her junior who didn’t dare fight back, the adult Corey was fully capable of it now.
Jane’s skin crawled at the mention of Sam White, Seattle’s mayor. Months ago on a trip to the city to officially open a new factory, she and Corey had laughed all the way home over the mayor’s embarrassing and inappropriate antics. With stale booze on his breath and his double chin jiggling, he’d repeatedly asked her to join him on his sailboat for a drink. He’d proven harmless but completely revolting, especially when he constantly tried to brush up against her.
“You’ve got to help me out,” she recalled pleading to one of her Secret Service agents. “Because if he comes near me again, I think I might have to hurt him.”
After the unpleasant incident, by her request old Sam White was kept at least a dozen feet away from her.
She shivered. “All right, truce.”
“Deal.” Corey winked. “That means keeping me out of the line of fire whenever Amy’s in the same room. Yuck!”
“Oh, Corey,” Jane teased, shaking her head. “Imagine if she only knew you were a virginal baby dyke. My God, she’d be salivating buckets over you.”
“Jane!” Corey recoiled against the dark blue sofa, her sheaf of papers falling across her feet like autumn leaves. She looked absolutely horrified, and for a moment Jane felt a sliver of guilt.
“Oh, relax, my little lamb. I’m not going to serve you up for slaughter. I promise to protect you from all the big bad predatory lesbians out there. And if I can’t, Alex will.”
Corey had come out to her two months ago. Or at least, she’d stepped a toe out of the closet, delivering the rather stunning news that she was curious about women, and while she wasn’t particularly looking to date a woman, she wouldn’t say no if the opportunity arose. Jane had always assumed her sister was straight, since she’d always had boyfriends. They hadn’t been close growing up, and were only beginning to grow close now that Corey was on her staff. That Corey had confided in her was another step forward in their relationship.
She’d tried not asking too many questions or talking too much about it because she wanted to give Corey the space to figure it all out. Today, however, was the first time she’d ever teased Corey about her sexuality, and it felt good. Secretly, she worried about her baby sister. She didn’t want Corey getting hurt or going through a conga line of women until she found the right one. Jane had been lucky. Her first woman lover, Alex, turned out to be the love of her life.
“Can we get back on topic?” Corey asked, quickly gathering her papers and her composure.
“Sorry. I’m feeling a little punchy just thinking about this trip.”
“It’s only a quickie. It’ll fly by. Besides, March is almost upon us. Time to start getting your face out there and start drumming up support and money, no matter how much whoring and arm twisting it takes.”
“Yes, I know. The reality of the campaign. I feel like an old war horse this time instead of a bucking young stallion, full of noble ideals.”
Corey grinned at her. “You’re still a stud, and a noble one at that. It’ll get more fun once we know whose ass we’re going to kick in November. And we are going to kick ass.”
“Yes, I know, and I look forward to it. I just feel so out of practice…so, I don’t know, out to pasture.”
She had spent much of the last three years out of the limelight and in a supporting role to President Collins. The sharpness of her competitive spirit had dulled considerably in her secondary role. She only hoped she could summon it at will, that campaigning would come as easily to her again as riding a bike.
“I miss the primaries,” Jane lamented. “Four years ago, those were what I enjoyed most about the campaign. It gets your blood going like nothing else…out there in front of all those people, giving those fiery speeches, seeing the country, talking to people, listening to them, your hands blistered and swollen from shaking so many hands, people pulling at you, wanting a piece of you. It’s crazy, but a good kind of crazy.”
Campaigning was a high like no other. Campaigning was real. Campaigning was getting down in the trenches as opposed to sitting in some glass tower, directing, presiding and signing endless papers. She couldn’t wait to get back to it.
“I’m sorry I missed all the fun,” Corey said. “But it’ll get crazy again.”
Yes, Jane thought, it will. She’d been younger and more politically naïve then—a forty-three-year-old junior senator from Michigan who’d made it a two-horse race with Democratic frontrunner Dennis Collins.
Her grassroots campaign had been a hit with voters because she talked to people like they were important, as though their lives and their problems mattered to her, and she convinced them that they could work together to make the country a better place. She gave them hope. Because of that, her popularity skyrocketed. Practically overnight, she achieved rock star status. Collins, who had barely edged her out to take the party’s nomination, had little choice but to enlist her as his running mate.
Jane knew she’d need to rekindle that brand of fire that fueled her personally and powered her campaign. Her incendiary appeal was the main reason she was on the ticket again. That fire would keep her there.
“I wish you’d been around for it too,” Jane said softly. Corey had been in England at the time, teaching at the London School of Economics. She’d only returned stateside a year ago. After much begging and cajoling, she had agreed to join Jane’s staff. Corey’s business acumen and organizational skills, as well as her family loyalty, were all assets. Corey was the person Jane trusted more than anyone else in this town, besides Alex of course.
“But what’s important is that you’re around this time,” she added.
Corey returned to her papers. “So tomorrow night is the big fund-raising gala in Hollywood. That part’s going to be fun at least, rubbing shoulders with the stars.”
Jane rolled her eyes. In her experience, Hollywood types were no different than the business executives and lower-tier politicians who wanted to brag to their friends later that they’d hung out with the Veep, and either given her some useful advice, or pressed their personal issues and concerns with her. They all just wanted to be seen with someone as important as Jane Kincaid. Not only seen with her, but seen as having some sort of influence.
“Then the day after is lunch with the WPC in Sacramento, followed by a four o’clock speech to the state assembly on education. Then dinner with—” Corey grinned evilly. “Governor Roberts. The third day, you do a sit-down with the L.A. Times editorial board, then lunch with Mr. Moneybags, Forrest Mitchell.”
“Thank God we’re heading back to Washington right after that.” Jane glanced down at her briefing package. “And that we’re not bringing the entire circus with us. It’ll be almost quiet.”
Only a handful of journalists, Secret Service agents, her press secretary, her personal assistant, and Corey were slated to take the trip with her. Alex was coming along too, thank goodness. Since moving from protection work to a desk job with the Secret Service three years ago, Alex had accompanied her on many of her working trips, which made them seem almost like a vacation. They’d often steal away for a nice dinner or a walk on a beach. They chatted in bed late into the night, allowing her to decompress, took long baths together, and lingered over room service breakfast if there were no pressing engagements. Yes, Alex’s presence made the demands of the job much easier to swallow. She’d have never gotten through the campaign four years ago without her, and she wouldn’t this time, either.
Jane stared again at the list of journalists accompanying them to California. She knew all of them except for this Landen woman and yet…damn. The name meant something. Had she given her an interview during the last campaign? Or maybe during her Senate years? Shit. Had Landen been a lobbyist at one time? Had they met on a more personal level? Then realization struck like a runaway train. Julia Landen was the name of Alex’s ex-girlfriend, she felt certain, but this couldn’t possibly be the same person. What were the odds of that?
She cleared her throat, ignoring her pounding heart. “There’s a new reporter on this detail, Julia Landen. Who is she, do you know?”
“Nope. Do you want me to find out?”
“Yes, please.” She didn’t feel like explaining, nor did she want to alarm Corey. “If she’s going to be tagging along, I’d like to know a little about her and welcome her to the team.”
* * *
Alex Warner listened for her lover’s arrival. She’d been given a heads-up from one of the uniforms at the White House that the motorcade was on its way home.
Home was One Observatory Circle, the vice president’s official D.C. residence. Such a very long way from the trailer park she’d called home as a kid in North Carolina. Alex sometimes thought she should pinch herself, see if it was real, but she had never been afraid to dream. Had never been afraid of the obstacles in the way of those dreams, either. The dreamless and the weak might be intimidated by the world she moved in, perhaps feel unworthy, but not her.
While she would consider anyplace with Jane home, the vice president’s mansion consisted of way more space than they would ever need. The Victorian mansion, built in 1894, comprised 9,100 square feet of living space spread out over three stories plus a basement. Living in it was like living in a museum. It was downright lonely here sometimes, almost ghostly when Jane was out of town.
Jane had laughed when Alex had told her she was sure a ghost roamed the spacious third-floor attic that had once been servants’ quarters. A few times, she had heard coins dropping on the floor above their heads at night, but not Jane, who slept like the dead. Jane didn’t believe in ghosts and had told her that worrying about the living was more than enough.
Alex glanced at the ornate black walnut mantel clock over the fireplace. Only six o’clock, earlier than usual for Jane to be calling it a day, but with the trip to California tomorrow morning, she’d need her rest tonight.
At the first rumblings of two Chevy Suburbans in the drive, Alex lit the candles in the silver antique candelabras on the dining room table. She was uncorking the wine when Jane stepped through the front reception hall, cheerily calling out to her.
“Coming,” Alex replied, confirming the fire leaped and crackled in the fireplace before she went to Jane and enveloped her in a warm, extended hug. “You’re home early, sweetheart. I was counting on it.”
“Hmmm, that sounds rather cryptic.”
Alex pulled away but not before giving Jane a teasing kiss. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
“The fact that you’re home a bit early yourself, and that you were counting on me being early as well? Sounds like you’ve got something up your sleeve.” Jane’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, wait a minute. You’d better not be buttering me up to tell me you’re pulling out of the trip with me tomorrow.”
Alex laughed, amused by how close Jane had come to guessing the truth. “Don’t worry, I’m coming to California.”
Following the divine smells to the dining room, Jane gasped in pleasure at the candles, the roaring fire and the china place settings for two. Stainless steel lids covered the serving dishes.
“Oh, honey, this looks marvelous,” she said. “Don’t tell me you sent the staff home too?”
It was rare for them to have a quiet, romantic dinner in a house all to themselves, so it came as no surprise that Jane was onto her plan. “Damn, I’m getting too predictable.”
“Oh, no, you’re not,” Jane said, leaning over the table to give Alex a sizzling kiss, nipping playfully at her bottom lip. “I hope you left dessert up to me.”
“Darling, you are dessert.”
“Oh my God, you read my mind!”
Alex sucked in her breath as Jane’s dark brown eyes sparkled lasciviously. Jane’s beauty still paralyzed her, the spark between them as incendiary as ever. She wouldn’t have guessed that four years after falling in love, she would still melt under Jane’s gaze, still grow weak-kneed from her touch. Life and the maelstrom of politics got in the way of many things, but had not dimmed the love between them.
“Maybe,” Jane teased, “we could skip right to dessert.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that eating dessert first was bad for you?”
“Yes, but mother didn’t know what she was missing!”
Alex laughed before turning serious. She would not let Jane skip dinner, no matter what might be waiting at the end. Privately, she worried about the coming campaign and all the bone-wearying demands placed on Jane.
She gentled her voice. “With the campaign starting, my love, you need your strength, and that means not skipping meals, and no cheating on your sleep either.”
“Aw, crap. Do you always have to be so pragmatic?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Now feast your eyes on this!” With a flourish, Alex removed the steamer lids, revealing fragrant beef burgundy with garlic and rosemary roasted potatoes, and a mélange of roasted vegetables. There was no way Jane would consider skipping this meal.
“Oh, Stella overdid herself this time,” Jane said in excitement. “This looks wonderful!”
Alex poured the wine while Jane doled out the food.
As they ate ravenously, Alex decided it was a good time to tell Jane her news. “Honey, I’m coming to California with you, but I’m not going to join you on Air Force Two,” she said. “And don’t worry, I’ll be there in time for the Hollywood gala later on, okay?”
“Damn,” Jane said with a playful wink. “I was counting on us joining the Mile High Club again.”
Alex thought of the handful of times they’d made love in Jane’s quarters on Air Force Two. The demands on Jane’s time and frequent interruptions by staff had made it nearly impossible, but they’d managed an occasional quickie. “You’re almost convincing me to change my plans.”
“Seriously, is something wrong?” Jane asked.
“No, everything’s fine. I have a meeting with my chief right after lunch.”
Jane raised her eyebrows in alarm. “What’s up?”
“I want to take a sabbatical of sorts until after the election.”
For three years, Alex had been working for the technical development and planning division of the Secret Service’s Office of Protective Research. Her job entailed examining the protection branch’s long-term goals and objectives, and planning for disasters. The office was a think tank of sorts. While the work was interesting, she wanted to be at Jane’s side during the grueling campaign. Only a leave of absence would allow her to do that. She and Jane had discussed the idea in generalities, but she hadn’t committed to it until now. She’d wanted to be sure her leave wouldn’t damage her career opportunities down the road. She would be looking for exactly those assurances from her boss tomorrow.
“Really?” Jane grew animated. “You’ll travel with me? Campaign with me?”
“Absolutely. You know I want to be by your side through the whole thing. Besides, I won’t see you for the next nine months if I don’t.”
While spending time with Jane was important to her, it was not the only motivation for joining her on the campaign trail. Jane’s safety, security and well-being were too important to leave up to others. No one could protect her as well as she could. While protecting Jane would not be an official role for her because of their relationship, she would be armed and by her side, ready to act in her capacity as a member of the United States Secret Service if she absolutely needed to.
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