Sitting in a luxury State Department limousine, Jayne Whitticker stared out across the wide runway toward the specially adapted Boeing 757. Through the tinted windows of the car the dark skies glowering over Andrew’s Air Force Base seemed even more oppressive than they had when she’d arrived ten minutes ago. A shiver ran across her shoulders. The clouds, heavy with snow, promised a blizzard later that day. Secretary of State Whitticker would be halfway across the Atlantic by then. She couldn’t help but wonder whether the threatening storm was some sort of omen for what lay ahead.
In the distance, the faint wail of a siren started up. Whitticker leaned forward in her seat. Automatically, the thick glass partition separating the front seats from the back buzzed down.
“Is that something we need to be concerned about, James?”
The man in the black suit murmured something into a discreet microphone clipped to the sleeve of his jacket, then waited. “Minor security breach on the other side of the base, ma’am. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“Ma’am?” His voice was hesitant, unsure.
“We should really be boarding now. The weather is deteriorating.”
“Give me a few more moments, James.”
The partition buzzed back up again.
Jayne Whitticker looked up at the snowy sky. She was about to face the biggest task of her career. The biggest she was ever likely to take on. At sixty-four, she knew her position as Secretary of State would probably be the last professional role she’d hold. She’d only had the job a few weeks, following the premature retirement of her predecessor. Before his heart condition had forced him to step down, he had been conducting difficult negotiations between three warring African nations, in an attempt to broker a peace deal and halt the slaughter of innocent civilians. It was a mission she had now inherited. In just over seven hours she would be sitting in a room in Strasbourg with the leaders of those three nations and their many aides. The eyes of the world would be on her.
The partition buzzed back down again. She should really be getting on that plane. She took a deep breath and straightened her spine. This might be the toughest job of her career, but it was also the most prestigious. She had an opportunity to help make an enormous change for the better. That was a task to be relished, not feared. “All right, James, I’m ready.”
“Actually, ma’am, we can’t move right now.”
“The security breach is more serious than we first thought.”
“I have to get on that plane.”
“You will, ma’am. Have no doubt about that.”
“What exactly is happening?”
“An individual was causing a disturbance at the entrance nearest the access road. The guard on duty raised the alert level accordingly.”
“What kind of disturbance?”
Before her chief security advisor could answer, Jayne Whitticker saw a black SUV swerve to a stop right next to her limousine. “James?”
“It’s all right ma’am. The individual is known to us. There’s no further threat.”
The partition moved back up again.
Outside, a special agent yanked open the rear passenger door of the SUV and, wearing a thin hooded coat and skinny jeans, the Secretary of State’s granddaughter, Rachel, jumped out. She had a small backpack slung across one shoulder and a coy expression on her face. The agent opened the door of the State Department limousine and Rachel climbed inside. She was shivering.
“How did you get here?” Jayne Whitticker held the eighteen year old’s ungloved hands in hers. “You’re frozen to the bone.”
Rachel sniffed then wiped a sleeve across her nose. “I hitched.”
“For God’s sake, what have I told you about that?”
“I know for a fact you hitched right across the country in the sixties and seventies. If it was OK for you then it’s—”
“Times are different now, more dangerous.”
“I had to come see you before you left.”
“Do your mother and father know you’re here?”
Rachel Whitticker wriggled her shoulders and turned away.
“You’ve had another fight?”
“Biggest one yet.”
“What was it about this time?”
“Dad wants me to go to college to study Math. I want to go to acting class. He won’t even listen to what I have to say.”
The things teenagers consider important, Jayne Whitticker thought. “How about majoring in Math? You could still take classes in theater and drama.”
The partition buzzed down again. “Madam Secretary? We really do have to board the plane now,” James said.
Rachel ignored him. “I even suggested that. I told you—he won’t listen. He’s being a bully.”
A strong stubborn streak ran through Whitticker’s family: everyone determined to hold their ground until the argument wasn’t so much won or lost, but rendered irrelevant.
“I’ll be right there, James.”
Jayne Whitticker had recognized long ago that she always took her favorite grandchild’s side over her son’s. It had become her default position. “A big fight doesn’t explain your presence here.” She squeezed Rachel’s hand. “You know what this trip is for. You know what I’m going to Europe to try to achieve. How important it is.”
“And you know I wouldn’t be here if there were any way I could stay with them without imploding.”
“Oh come on, Rachel. Are you seriously suggesting you come with me?” Jayne Whitticker pulled her hand away and studied her granddaughter’s face closely.
“If I come with you it’d give mom and dad a chance to calm down some. Maybe see things from a different perspective. Especially if you spoke to dad.”
The Secretary of State shook her head. “I can’t take you with me. I can’t. It’s just not possible.”
“Ma’am, I really have to insist now. The weather is closing in.”
“You wouldn’t even notice me. I promise I’ll behave myself.”
James climbed out of the car and grabbed the handle of the rear passenger door.
“Please, Grams.” She pulled a pained expression. “I don’t know what might happen if I stay.”
“You can’t get your own way through emotional blackmail. Please credit me with enough sense to see through that ploy.”
“I know how smart you are. And I’m so proud of you. What you’re about to do.”
“Flattery doesn’t cut it either.” Jayne Whitticker glanced down at Rachel’s left wrist, at the scar running from the base of her palm three inches up her arm. This wasn’t the first time her granddaughter had spoken about imploding. Rachel needed her support right now. The timing couldn’t have been worse. “I take it you remembered to bring your passport?”
Rachel dug a hand into her backpack and retrieved the dark blue rectangular booklet.
“You’ll have to have a chaperone once we’re over there. A private security guard. You do know I won’t be able to spend any time with you?”
“I understand. I told you—I’ll totally behave myself. I won’t embarrass you.”
The door opened next to the Secretary of State. James’ black jacket flapped in the strong wind. A few moments later Jayne and Rachel Whitticker were helped from the car to the steps of the waiting plane.
When Jayne Whitticker was buckled into her seat for take off, she took a moment to wonder at the wisdom of her decision, but before she had time to change her mind, her cell phone started to ring. She knew without looking who was calling. She answered quickly and listened carefully to an intense sixty second pep talk.
“Don’t worry, Mr President,” she said when it was her turn to speak. “The negotiations are in safe hands. I won’t let you down.”
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