Vance Loughton rolled over to pull his wife into his arms only to find her side of the bed empty, the sheets cool. It was their thirtieth anniversary, and he’d hoped to start the day off right. Well, it was their thirtieth anniversary in some of the time zones. To twist a phrase, it’s twelve o’clock somewhere. Without his wife or his assistant—or a clock—he had no idea where he was or what time it was or even what day it was. But he knew, somewhere, today was his anniversary. Would have been nice to start by joining the mile high club. Cordelia had refused every other time he’d asked, but today was special. She probably snuck out early to avoid the question.
No. Not his wife. She had no problems saying “no” if it mattered to her. And propriety mattered. For some reason, she thought the Air Force One bedroom was different than the White House bedroom even though it was the same two guys stationed within earshot just outside the door.
Cordelia was gone because she struggled with the overseas trips. Poor thing probably only slept an hour or two. Well, he didn’t know how long she’d been awake and alone on this giant bird, but that ended now. He quickly showered, shaved, and dressed, then he went in search of his first—and only—lady.
He found her reading her Kindle in the living area. She looked radiant dressed all in cream. “You look just like my bride. No, even more beautiful than you were thirty years ago. Happy anniversary, darling.”
“You old flirt.” But she smiled up at him.
“Who are you calling old? Remember, I’m six weeks younger than you.”
“Don’t remind me.” She tipped her head up for a kiss.
Vance happily obliged.
She tucked away her Kindle. “I’ve probably had too much coffee, but I waited to have breakfast with you. How does eggs Benedict and freshly squeezed blood orange juice sound?”
“Like my favorite breakfast. You know me so well.”
“After all this time, I should. I’ll tell the kitchen we’re ready to eat.” She picked up the phone. Before pressing the buttons, Cordelia leaned over to look past his shoulder. “Have you had your breakfast yet?”
“We’re fine, ma’am,” Steven said.
Two-and-a-half years into his term, and she couldn’t break herself of the habit of playing hostess, even though they were Secret Service agents and not guests. Vance hoped they didn’t find it annoying or think she was too thoughtless or lazy to learn their protocols. She meant well.
He found it endearing.
As his wife hung up the phone, his assistant entered the living quarters. “Good morning, sir. Ma’am.”
“Good morning, Gemma,” Cordelia said. “Have you eaten yet?”
She smiled. “I’m fine, ma’am. Thank you. Sir, you have a lot on your schedule today. It would be prudent for you to take your breakfast in the office so you can review the—”
“Gemma. It’s my anniversary. I can take twenty minutes to eat an English muffin with my wife.”
“Of course, sir. Happy anniversary.”
Cordelia frowned. “Vance. Don’t be that way. We can eat together in your office. You can start reviewing whatever you need to while we share a meal. The American people come first. We’ll still be together.”
“I didn’t mean a working breakfast.”
“It’s fine. Come on.” She rose, then held her hand out to him.
The woman wasn’t just First Lady. She was a goddess. He laced his fingers with hers. Gemma followed them out of the room. His Secret Service agents led the way to his office.
When they opened the door, he approached his desk. “Someone get Mrs. Loughton a chair. And Gemma, can we clear a space for our breakfast tray?”
“Right away, Mr. President. What should I do with this box?”
He glanced at the small box centered on his blotter. Wrapped in brown paper, it had no address or other distinguishing markings. “Huh. I don’t know what—”
One of the Secret Service agents enveloped him and shoved him out of the room.
“Cordi!” He looked back, under an agent's arm.
Brett grabbed his wife.
Steven must have him.
“Where are we going?” His heart hammered. His palms were slick. They had no bunker on the plane.
But in emergency situations, Secret Service protocol was to see that he was safe before they answered his questions. At the moment, they were on their comms to a command center somewhere. “Lancelot and Ladybug are secure. Get us on the ground. Now.”
“What’s going on?” Cordelia’s voice shook.
Vance reached for her hand, but she was too far away.
Brett and Steven continued ignoring them as they rushed them to the front of the plane. Occasionally one or the other spoke in code to someone on the other end of their comms.
The plane accelerated as it descended. Vance barely kept to his feet until Steven deposited him in a seat. “Strap in, sir. We’re landing as soon as the pilot finds a safe stretch, and it’ll be hard and fast.”
“Are we even at an airport?”
“No, sir. We’re having an interstate cleared.”
“An interstate?” Vance fumbled with his seatbelt. “What’s going on?”
“Air Force One has been compromised. We need to get you and Mrs. Loughton off the plane and to a secure location.”
“Someone managed to sneak a package wrapped in brown paper into your office. No address label. It could be a bomb or anthrax or any number of threats. But don’t worry. We’ll be on the ground shortly, then we'll get you safe.”
Cordelia grabbed his hand. “Oh, Vance. No!”
* * *
Two Hours Earlier
Cordelia Loughton loved many things about being the First Lady. There were few negatives, but overnight flights across oceans definitely made the list. Often it was difficult to sleep, and if she managed to, she had no idea what time it was when she woke, but it was likely not a “normal” morning hour.
In the grand scheme of things, she couldn’t complain about that. Or anything, really. It wouldn’t be fair. Not when her husband was trying to fight terrorists, fix the environment, rescue the disenfranchised, balance an increasingly unbalanced budget… generally save the world. She could picture him in the Oval Office, phone to his ear, rolling his eyes as he listened to an unreasonable prime minister make ridiculous demands. Was she supposed to cut in with an, “Excuse me. Can you have your secretary schedule our next overseas trip so I don’t get jet lag? That would be great. Thanks. Carry on.” Or maybe that could wait for pillow talk.
After slipping out of bed, she glanced down at Vance, who was still sleeping. The subtle movements of the plane always gave him his best rest. Cordelia felt a slight pang of jealousy at that, but she resisted the urge to wake him. He deserved the dreams, and hopefully they were happy ones.
Besides, it gave her time to make herself presentable without fighting over bathroom time. Since he’d probably be out for a while, she luxuriated in the shower, and when she was done, she almost felt human. Whatever time it was. After a hot cup of coffee, she might actually be able to function in civilized society.
It was their thirtieth wedding anniversary. She could wait to eat breakfast with Vance. But the coffee was non-negotiable.
Cordelia planned her day for comfort while keeping in mind the reporters would watch them disembark. She dressed in ivory slacks and a cream sweater. Her overcoat would hide how casual her top was. After applying her makeup, she tied her hair in a chignon to keep it out of her face. Classic, elegant, and didn’t require a blow dryer and styling wand. She kept her jewelry simple—wedding band, engagement ring, wristwatch, and diamond studs in her ears. Less than ten minutes, and she was ready for caffeine. All she had to do was leave Vance’s gift for him…
She glanced around the room but didn’t see any place he’d definitely see it. Rather than risk him missing it, Cordelia decided to leave it on his desk in his office. The wrapping paper embarrassed her—plain brown. She’d intended to wrap it in beautiful luminescent white because the thirtieth anniversary was commemorated by the pearl. The face of the watch she’d bought him even had a pearlescent look. But the paper she ordered came in with a pink hue, and that felt too feminine. She hadn’t had time to send her assistant to the store—they had to leave for the trip. So, she improvised and went to the kitchen for butcher paper. That was manly. Brown and boring, but manly.
Walking quietly so she didn’t wake him, she slipped out of their bedroom. She nodded to Steven and Brett, Vance’s Secret Service agents who were stationed outside their door, then she made her way to the Presidential Office on Air Force One.
She didn’t pass anyone else on her way there. Her internal clock must really be messed up. When she got back to their personal area, Patrick, head of the kitchen, greeted her with a nod and a stifled yawn. “Good morning, ma’am. Can I get you something?”
“Just coffee right now, Patrick. I’ll have breakfast with my husband when he wakes. It’s going to be a special day for us. One we’ll always remember.”