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First pages

Chapter 1

The line between order and chaos is razor thin. I knew this intimately after practicing contract law for eight years in New York, knew it before I’d started to be honest. The esteemed Pickens and Crane, like every Manhattan mega-firm, chewed you slowly and ground you into pulp if you let it. I’d been determined not to, though I witnessed junior associates, many whom I considered friends, flame out epically.

For JA’s, sadness flourishes in large law firms. Student debt and cynicism ruled the day, which led to alcoholism, drug use, and depression. I’d worked at least eight hours every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day during my time in the Big Apple. It was expected, but it birthed a tiny seed of bitterness, which, left unchecked—and it was—bloomed into resentment.

My exit strategy evolved six months in and existed on an Excel spreadsheet I dutifully updated every month. I averaged ninety hours a week during the first year, eighty-five during years two and three, and eighty hours during years four through eight. Life for me revolved around floors twelve through seventeen at 15 Broad Street in Lower Manhattan, and never once did my shadow darken the entrance to a courtroom. Nor did I ever attend a Broadway play, see the Bronx Zoo, or visit the 9/11 Memorial.

Home was an eleven-hundred-square-foot riverfront apartment in Brooklyn, which afforded picturesque views of eastern Manhattan but little else in the way of luxury. Three different associates over the course of my eight-year stint split the rent and utilities with me. I had no car, and if the firm wasn’t paying for a meal, I ate on the cheap. I took almost six thousand trips on the East River Ferry, and by the time I submitted a letter of resignation to my boss and friend, Colin Swan, I’d managed to pay off a hundred thirty grand in law school loans and save close to four hundred grand. “You lucky bastard. Good for you,” he’d said after reading the letter. With three young kids and a wife with a taste for life’s finer things, law was the long haul for him, and it showed in his sunken eyes and expanding waistline.

“Beckett,” he’d bellowed as I exited his office, “if the world outside the walls of 15 Broad sucks, we’ll welcome you back with open arms.” My laughter bounced off the walls and reverberated down the hall. At least he still had his sense of humor. So there it was. Chaos back to order. New York City to Manassas, Virginia. Home.

Wildflower, a seventy-year-old river cottage on Bull Run, came on the market soon after I moved back. It captured my heart, and I paid cash for it. Then I met Doug, an airline pilot, and figured we’d spend the rest of our lives together in that home. We married in Vegas and spent a year renovating the cottage, adding an extra bedroom in anticipation of starting a family. Then Doug crushed me and told me children weren’t in his plans, and soon after, neither was I.

Divorced at thirty-three, I returned to my alma mater, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and added a teaching certificate in early childhood education. I landed a job teaching second-graders at Bennett’s Mill Elementary in Manassas. Part of my plan all along, save the divorce.

Eight pressure-packed years in law prepared me for life with these children and their parents. But nothing could prepare me for Alexander Christmas and the whirlwind accompanying him. This would be a love affair requiring on-the-job training. Later, people sometimes asked me if I would say “yes” again to a first date, after everything I’d endured over the last six months. “Was it worth it, Emma?”

It was an easy answer, but I was considerate and would pause, as if seriously considering their query.

“Yes,” I’d say eventually. Men like Alex are one in a hundred sixty million, though I knew this was also true: every good thing gained came with a price, oftentimes a painful one.

Sometimes the line between order and chaos didn’t even exist.

Chapter 2

We met on a warm Wednesday in early June. Fortuitous, really. It could have easily been the other second-grade teacher, happily married Emily Johnson, at the end of the line. Instead, she was supervising the eating area around the corner. Or Alex could have opted for an Irish pub across the street, or a Subway sandwich shop two doors down, and missed us altogether.

Our two second-grade classes had just walked over to Ike’s Burger Joint, a DC landmark, after our end-of-the-year field trip to the Air and Space Museum. I was at the back of the line, waiting to pay for forty-six Junior Burger Baskets and whatever the chaperones ordered, on my knees, retying Hank Baker’s shoes for the forty-third time, when I heard him, felt him, enter.

I rose, glanced behind me, and saw him for the first time, standing there patiently in a dark-gray suit and vibrant blue tie. Gently rocking on the balls of his feet. Hands clasped in front. A polished ruggedness.

I motioned to my left. “I’m sorry. They have another register open. I’m afraid Ike’s is currently under attack by the second grade.”

He smiled, revealing dimples and perfect white teeth.

“Oh, I don’t mind waiting in this line. Field trip?”

“Air and Space Museum.”

“Exciting. The students enjoyed it?”

“Immensely. A day of learning and fun, capped off by a visit to Ike’s.”

“Where are you all from?”

“Manassas. Bennett’s Mill Elementary.”

His hand stroked a chiseled chin. “Manassas . . . home of the first Battle of Bull Run.”

“That’s right. My home is on Bull Run, a half-mile from the battlefield.” Why did I tell this man where I lived?

“Fascinating. I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, I admit. I’m Alex Christmas.” I shook his outstretched hand, large and warm, the perfect grip.

“Emma Beckett. A pleasure to meet you. You’re a bit overdressed for Ike’s, Alex.”

He smiled warmly. “I’ll wear anything in here for a couple of Ike’s quarter-pound burgers.” I could get lost in those dimples.

Alex stayed in line, and we chatted the entire time while other patrons entered and gravitated to the open registers. After paying for my group, I turned and said goodbye, and that was it . . . or so I’d thought.

Three days later, a letter appeared in my mailbox, white and square-shaped, silver on the inside. The paper was cream-colored and heavy, reminding me of Pickens and Crane stationery. The note handwritten.

 

Emma,

 

I enjoyed our conversation and wondered if you would like to continue it. Perhaps at my place next Saturday. I grill a mean burger, though not as good as Ike’s.

 

I hope to hear from you.

 

Alex

202-174-0000

 

I didn’t call him back right away. In fact, I considered not calling at all. That he’d been able to find my address so easily shouldn’t have surprised me, especially after I’d told him where I lived. A quick search of my name revealed only one Emma Beckett residing in Manassas. Which was good to know. I liked my name, even if I wasn’t always comfortable with the person it belonged to.

After my failed marriage, my default setting became “no.” Four dates with four different men over the last two years, and I’d said “no” to second dates with all of them. For their own good, I would tell them. They were perfectly decent men, but they weren’t Alex. After confiding in my closest friend, Jill, I reluctantly called the number from the note the following Monday, after first steadying myself with a healthy glass of merlot.

He answered on the second ring with the practiced calmness of an emergency room doctor.

“Hello, Emma. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t hear from you.”

“How did you know it was me?”

“Because no one else has this number.”

“No one?”

“No one.”

“You really plan on grilling burgers Saturday night?”

“Yes, but only if you’ll be here. Otherwise, it’ll be grilled salmon and quinoa.”

“I’d hate for anyone to have to eat quinoa.”

“That sounds like a ‘yes.’”

“It is, Mr.—I mean, Alex.”

“Great. I look forward to it. You know, I don’t date much.”

“That makes two of us.”

“How does six thirty sound?”

“Perfect.”

Chapter 3

Saturday evening, Alex greeted me in jeans and a navy dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A four-legged companion stood at his side, an English Springer Spaniel he introduced as Maggie.

I bent down and stroked Maggie’s head, an adorable coloring of liver and white. “No suit today? I feel cheated.”

He smiled. “Consider this attire ‘burger casual.’ Getting in good with the boss, I see.”

“She’s a beaut, Alex.”

“I agree. I’m glad you could make it, Emma.”

“That makes two of us. Thank you for the invitation. I brought an apple cobbler. I hope that’s okay.”

His look turned stern before it softened. “I must warn you: I’m terrible at sharing.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Here, let me take this off your hands,” he said before cradling the cobbler in his left arm. We walked into a square room with a picture of Washington Crossing the Delaware hanging on the wall to my right. We continued down a blue-carpeted hall with beige walls adorned with other historic pictures: the dead at Gettysburg, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, the D-Day invasion. Alex the history buff.

“Maggie and I were finishing up some work in my office,” he said as we turned right into a small kitchen. He opened a stainless-steel refrigerator and placed the cobbler inside, adding, “We’ll scare up some vanilla ice cream to go with this later.”

We exited the kitchen, and he opened a door I’d not yet noticed, leading to his office. “You can leave your purse on the couch there, if you’d like. We take only half of what’s in it.”

“Very funny. This is a little surreal for me. I’m usually working on lesson plans on Saturday night, not spending time with an adorable dog and a man I barely know, in a home this grand.”

“This old place. I plan on moving in about six years or so. Get something out in the country a little more private. Downsized, of course. And truth be told, I’m normally working too, either here in the office or down in the basement. So, Emma, we can tap-dance together around whatever awkwardness we feel, if that suits you.”

And with those smooth words, Alexander Christmas broke what little tension there’d been. I dropped my purse on the couch, took a quick look around, and followed him outside onto a covered colonnade. My eyes landed on the most perfectly manicured yard I’d ever seen. Rows of colorful flowers and crabapple trees lined either side. At the far end, in the shadow of a magnolia, was a patio with a table and two chairs, a grill nearby, along with a cooler and an orange bucket.

“I was thinking you could throw tennis balls for Maggie to chase. There’s about fifty of them in that bucket. She loves the chase but not so much the fetch. She’s an obstinate girl. Meanwhile, I’ll flip burgers and annoy you with probing questions.”

And we did just that. It felt obscenely natural despite the newness . . . and the circumstances. I’d forgotten how much I loved the smell of burning charcoal. Alex and I fell into an easy rapport as we talked about our childhoods and careers. He was from western Pennsylvania, had an affinity for John Wayne and James Buchanan, and almost kicked me out upon learning I’d practiced law for eight years in New York City before becoming a second-grade teacher. I told him about Doug, and he told me about Aubrey. Before I knew it, long after cobbler and coffee, it was nearing eleven and I’d finished my fourth glass of Riesling. Or fifth. He’d nursed two Budweisers, best I could remember.

“Emma, it’s getting late, and I’d rather you not drive home. I have two options I strongly believe you should consider.”

I wasn’t intoxicated, but I was in that happy place that existed somewhere in the middle.

“Two options? I would love to hear them.”

“We can drive you home in your car while another vehicle follows to bring the driver back, or you can spend the night here and drive home in the morning.”

“Spend the night . . . here?”

“Well, yes. We have electricity and running water, and beds with mattresses and pillows.”

“We barely know each other.”

“This is true. Which is why I was going to propose you stay in another bedroom.”

“This wine has turned me into an idiot.”

“Nonsense. You’re positively adorable.”

“I don’t have any pajamas or a toothbrush.”

“I’m confident we can scare those items up.”

“One condition.”

The corners of his mouth lifted into a smile. “Conditions, huh? The lawyer in you, I suppose.”

“Next time, I cook dinner for you at my home . . . when your schedule permits, of course. That is, if you want to see me again.”

“I would love nothing more than to see you again, but I must warn you: it isn’t that simple.”

“I know.” Or thought I knew. But I didn’t.

Chapter 4

A knock at the door woke me the next morning. Through blurry eyes, I checked my phone on the nightstand: 8:15.

“Just a minute.” I slipped on a white terry-cloth robe and padded over to the door as the beginnings of a headache pulsed in my forehead. A man in a tuxedo appeared before me, holding a silver tray with a full coffee service, cloth-covered basket, and a bottled orange juice.

“Good morning, Ms. Beckett. The president requested I wake you and deliver a light breakfast.”

“Oh, right, thank you. Please come in. I’m sorry. I should probably get out of here. I’m afraid I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

“Oh no, ma’am. Stay as long as you wish. The White House doesn’t have a checkout time.”

He entered and set the tray on a small table by the window.

“Regretfully, the president had to depart for the G-20 Summit in Tokyo, but he asked me to leave this with you.” From an interior jacket pocket, he removed an envelope and handed it to me.

“Thank you. That’s right. I remember him telling me this last night.” How did his departure by helicopter not wake me?

I extended my hand. “I’m Emma.”

He seemed taken aback at my gesture, but soon a guarded smile appeared, and he took my hand.

“Banks, ma’am. Braxton Banks.”

“What is it like to work here, Mr. Banks?”

“Forgive me, Ms. Beckett. I’m not used to conversing with guests, but to answer your question, I consider it an honor to work at the White House, especially for this president.”

“He is something else,” I said, reflecting on our evening together.

“Yes, ma’am. A true president of the people, but maybe I’m a little biased. When you’re ready to depart—and please do take your time, Ms. Beckett—just pick up the phone, dial zero, and tell the operator you’d like an escort to your vehicle.”

“Thank you, Mr. Banks. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“A pleasure for me as well, ma’am.”

Braxton left, and I placed the envelope on the bed, making a beeline for my purse and the Tylenol bottle residing in there somewhere. After chasing two pills with the orange juice, I poured a cup of coffee and grabbed a croissant nestled in the cloth-covered basket. My eyes scanned the room I’d spent the night in. The Lincoln Bedroom wasn’t your average hotel room. Not that Lincoln ever slept here—he used it as an office, according to Alex—but other presidents had and scores of national and international dignitaries throughout America’s history.

The room was a step back in time, furnished entirely in the Victorian style. The centerpiece: an ornate bed carved entirely of rosewood, eight feet in length with a headboard almost as tall, according to the Wikipedia page I’d accessed last night from my phone. A stunning crystal chandelier hung in the center of the room. If these walls could talk.

I walked over to one of two windows, both hidden behind heavy, butter-colored drapes and topped with striking gilded valances. Standing to the left of the window, I eased the sheer ivory curtains to the side and peeked outside while nibbling on the croissant. The trees nearest the White House had committed fully to summer, allowing only partial views of the South Lawn and, in the distance, the Washington Monument. The smell of history was palpable, the sheer enormity of my current situation pure sensory overload.

After I’d decided to spend the night and before he escorted me to my room, Alex gave me the five-dollar tour, save for a trip to his West Wing man-cave, or as most people know it, the Situation Room. He had ended the evening by kissing my cheek before turning to leave. “What am I doing here, Mr. Pres— I mean, Alex?” I’d made the mistake twice earlier, and he’d playfully corrected me both times. He turned back to me. Leaned in close.

“I don’t want to risk you ending up in central booking on Indiana Avenue, or worse.”

“Well, I know which number I’d call,” I said teasingly. “But seriously, why me? You’re the president; your rolodex of available females with pedigrees more advanced than mine is limitless.”

“Sometimes you go with your gut, Emma. It’s gotten me this far. And don’t sell yourself short. Your pedigree is right up my alley.”

“What is your gut telling you now?”

“To retreat, lest I do something to screw up a perfect evening.”

“I can respect that. Good night, Alex.”

“Until next time, Emma.”

 

I released the curtains and wondered whether I’d ever see him again . . . in person. Perhaps he did this often, and I was just one in a string of first dates that never materialized into a second. Then I remembered the note Braxton had given me. Open it now, or save it for later? Who was I kidding?

 

Emma,

 

I’m still wearing the smile you gave me. Thank you.

The best things in life happen unexpectedly. Wouldn’t you agree?

 

Until next time,

 

Alex

 

My heart skipped a beat. The president of the United States—God bless his gut— enjoyed our evening together. I reread the note to make sure my eyes hadn’t deceived me before slipping it into my purse. This situation required a calmness I found difficult to muster. A quick shower in the adjoining Lincoln Bathroom temporarily eased my headache, and twenty minutes later, I said goodbye to the White House. Braxton escorted me along the West Wing colonnade and into the West Wing, where I had arrived some sixteen hours earlier. On my drive home, I replayed the evening in my mind, as best I could remember it, and came to the important conclusion that I would be attracted to Alexander Christmas regardless of any office he held, be it dog catcher or leader of the free world.

Chapter 5

Word of my five-minute encounter with the president at Ike’s spread from the mouths of my students and our chaperones the minute we’d returned from the Air and Space Museum. My fifteen minutes of fame. A reporter from the Manassas Observer came out to the school and interviewed me the week after my date with Alex. A chaperone happened to take a picture on her cell of us standing in line, both with big smiles plastered on our faces, while stern-looking men in suits lurked behind us. After showing me the picture, she remarked that we would make a cute couple and asked if I expected to hear from President Christmas again. I laughed off her question. Lying was not in my blood, and neither was the spotlight.

Which was exactly where I found myself soon after date number two, some three weeks later. Not that I hadn’t been warned. I remembered exactly what he’d told me on the phone a week before our second planned date.

“Emma, let me start by saying I want to have dinner with you in your home. In fact, I hope you decide to go through with this. But I feel like I should warn you. When the press finds out, and they will, because nothing is secret anymore, everything about your life becomes an open book. You will go from a private citizen to page one of the gossip columns overnight. And the press may be the least of your worries. Your fellow citizens will find out where you live. They’ll actively seek you out. You’ll be a curiosity. I want you to know I’ve done no digging, instructed my staff not to vet you in any way. You have to ask yourself if you can handle the heat and if this is worth it.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“You mean . . . if you are worth it?”

“Ultimately.”

“Thank you for being straightforward with me. Dinner is at seven. Don’t be late.”

He chuckled. “I was hoping you wouldn’t reconsider.”

“Will you bring Maggie? There’s room for her to run here.”

“Of course.”

“Great. So what will you tell the press when they ask about your evening?”

“I’ll come up with something suitably vague and boring, though I’m sure the evening will be anything but.”

--------

Alex and Maggie arrived via presidential motorcade five minutes early. I counted two limousines and five black SUVs pulling into my curvy, wooded driveway. Wildflower sat a quarter mile off Buckskin Road, so there were undoubtedly other vehicles securing the entrance to my property. Six Secret Service agents exited vehicles and took up stations around the rear limo, adding to the five agents already at my home—two inside with me, and three outside. Along with the Secret Service were three staffers who’d arrived a couple hours early to set up a secure communications link in the spare bedroom.

Any lingering doubts I had about having Alex over for dinner disappeared when Maggie bounded out of a rear limo door and made a beeline for me. Alex emerged with a dozen dark-pink roses and a kiss for my cheek.

“Early. Scoring points already.”

“I wouldn’t dare be late for an evening with you. I hope you like roses.”

“They’re beautiful, Alex. I do love them.”

“Your home is amazing, Emma. Like its owner.”

I’m sure I blushed. “Thank you. I fell in love with it instantly. Please come in.”

“I hope you don’t feel like we’ve taken over here.”

“Not at all. I like the idea of having the most secure home in the state, at least for a little while. We’ve had a spate of break-ins recently a half-mile from here.”

“Must be unnerving, especially living alone and off the beaten path.”

“I have a couple of friends named Smith and Wesson nearby, but yes, ‘unnerving’ is the right word.”

“Something smells fantastic.”

“Plain quinoa. We’re having it over Bibb lettuce with a side of steamed broccoli. I snuck a look at your medical records after you left me alone in the White House.”

“Very funny, Ms. Beckett.”

“If you must know, what you smell is my absolute favorite meal: Mom’s famous slow-cooked pot roast with red-wine gravy. She serves it over a buttery, rosemary polenta, along with roasted asparagus. And strawberry pie for dessert. She makes it for Christmas every year, so I decided I’d make it for Christmas . . . tonight.”

He groaned playfully.

“I hope it tastes as good as that joke was bad.”

“Me too. The roast has about fifteen more minutes in the oven. I thought maybe you and Maggie might like to stretch your legs and take a walk along the river.”

“We would love to.”

His eyes scanned my walls. “You have such an eye for art, Emma.”

“Thank you, though getting that sunflower to look how I wanted it to nearly drove me insane.” His eyes bored into me. “You painted that?”

“And the one of the East River and Manhattan over the fireplace. And the girls carrying the boat on the wall by the front door.”

“When we talked about our interests, you never mentioned painting.”

“I haven’t picked up a brush since before the renovation. My creativity and desire died with my marriage, I’m afraid.”

“When did you first learn to paint?”

“Eight, nine. Uncle Pete, my father’s brother, was a painter, and he got me hooked. Bought me my first easel, a cheap little tabletop number. I came within an eyelash of becoming an art major instead of pre-law, but I figured I’d need money to eat and pay the bills. You’ve heard the term ‘starving artist.’”

He nodded. “Don’t you miss it?”

“Some days. But I’ve done an admirable job filling the gaps, if you consider teaching and eight years of practicing law in New York admirable.”

We exited through the kitchen and onto the deck, where I’d already set the table for two. Maggie bounded off toward the water, springing off the deck with her powerful hind legs. I removed a bottle of Budweiser from a small cooler and unscrewed the cap before handing it to Alex. After retrieving my glass of red wine from the table, we entered a wooded trail that met up with the river some thirty yards away. Water bugs raced atop the slow-moving water, and a wood thrush sang for us as we walked into and out of ribbons of sunlight. Maggie kept speeding ahead of us and then trotting back our way, only to do it again.

“Budweiser and pot roast. The way to every man’s heart. I’ve missed you, Emma,” he said, sliding his hand into mine. “Thank you again for inviting me to your home.”

“I’m glad you could fit me into your busy schedule.”

“I’d move mountains to see you,” he said before leaning in and kissing me. Tenderly. Perfectly.

“I’ve wanted to do that since I saw you at Ike’s.”

“What took you so long?”

“Polls, focus groups. An army of psychologists trying to figure out how you’d react.” I playfully swatted his arm.

“Emma, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be tonight.”

“Double for me. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone as humble as you who’s so easy on the eyes. Though I’m confused about your affinity with James Buchanan.”

“What? He and I are the only presidents from Pennsylvania.”

“I still think there are better presidents to admire.”

“Tell me what else you think.”

“I think you should kiss me again before we have to head back.”

--------

We were a few minutes into dinner on my candlelit deck when a Secret Service agent appeared from the kitchen and whispered into Alex’s ear. His look turned stormy, and when the agent left, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and stood.

“I’m afraid there’s been an incident, Emma. Plane went down after departing Heathrow en route to Los Angeles. An American carrier. I need to go into our makeshift communications room and make some calls before heading back to Washington. I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, Alex, how awful. Of course. I understand.”

I remained on the deck, nervously sipping my wine while rubbing Maggie’s head. Alex returned fifteen minutes later.

He kissed my cheek and then motioned to Maggie. “C’mon, girl, we need to go.” He then turned back to me. “I’ll make this up to you, Emma. I promise.”

“I’m not worried about that. Go do what you have to do. I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter 6

Two days after Americana Air Flight 513 fell from the sky ten miles north of Kilkenny, Ireland, a reporter with Reuters asked Alex an innocuous question at a press conference in the White House Briefing Room. At that same time, I was teaching my summer-school class how to solve mathematical word problems. About thirty minutes later, during my lunch break, Principal Gwen Davis entered the teacher’s lunchroom and asked me to follow her. Instead of retiring to her office, we walked down the hall to the media center and into a conference room with a television.

“Emma, you need to see this. Victoria just happened to record it.”

On the television screen, Alex stood frozen at a podium adorned with the Presidential Seal until Gwen aimed the remote at the screen and pressed play.

“Mr. President, where did you first hear about the downing of Americana Air 513?”

“I was having dinner with a friend when I was first notified, Ted.”

“Rumor has it you were at the residence of Emma Beckett in Manassas, the lady you met at Ike’s. Can you confirm that, Mr. President?”

“Over three hundred people perished, Ted, and you are worried about who I was with. Yes, I was having dinner with Ms. Beckett when I was informed about the downing of Americana Air 513. Next question. Stacy.”

“How would you characterize your relationship with Ms. Beckett? And I also have a follow-up.”

“After your question, probably rocky. Let’s not take our eyes off the fact that three hundred twenty-one innocent people lost their lives to an egregious act of terrorism. Husbands, wives, children, grandfathers, aunts, and uncles all across our country are grieving the loss of their loved ones right now. Let us focus our energy on showing them love and compassion and a helping hand while we hunt down those responsible.”

“Mr. President, can you confirm Ms. Beckett spent the night at the White House on a Saturday night a few weeks ago?”

“Yes. Stacy, when did you start working for TMZ?” he shot back to muted laughter. “I’ll be traveling to Los Angeles tomorrow to meet with families of the victims. I ask that you continue to keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. Thank you.”

Gwen clicked to pause the video and turned to me, waiting for my reaction.

“We’ve been on two dates. It’ll probably amount to nothing.”

“You dating the president is none of my business, Emma, but if it affects this school, it becomes my business.”

“What do you want me to do, Gwen? This is new territory for me.”

“I’ve got a call into the district seeking some direction. Perhaps you should issue a statement.”

“A statement?”

“You have to give them something, have to get ahead of this as much as possible.”

I considered this for a moment, then said, “How ’bout something like this . . . the president and I have been on two dates, once at the White House, once at my home. We enjoyed our time together, and if he asked me out again, I’d be inclined to say ‘yes.’ Behind the suit and tie is a humble, down-to-earth man. As for me, I would only ask that you respect the children and hard-working staff at Bennett’s Mill Elementary and refrain from interfering with the important job of educating our children.”

“Not bad. Not bad. Might want to send an email blast out to the parents of your summer-school students. They don’t know you like we do, since most of their children attend other schools in the district. Let them know nothing has changed in terms of your dedication to their children.”

“Okay, Gwen. I’ll get on it.”

As we left the media center, she turned to me. “Take care of yourself, Emma. There’s a lot of crazy out there.”

After dismissal, I spent thirty minutes sitting at my desk, staring out the window at the school entrance and adjoining parking lot. Thankfully, the only press that had shown up was the reporter from the Manassas Observer. I left at quarter to four, feeling optimistic that my celebrity status had been overblown. That feeling abandoned me when I rounded the last curve before my driveway. Six news vans sat on the side of the road, their satellite dishes angled skyward, the vehicles’ occupants milling about around my mailbox, microphones in hand, ready to pounce. I plastered what I hoped would be seen as a genuine smile on my face as the mass descended on my car.

“Ms. Beckett, a word.”

“Ms. Beckett, are you pregnant?”

“Can you tell us about your divorce?”

“Are you in love with the president?”

A bloodthirsty pack of wolves came to mind as I tried to maintain my composure, outrun the wave of journalism that fought to overtake me. As soon as my home came into view, I hit the button on the garage door opener, and the door on my detached garage began to rise ever so slowly. As soon as my Ford Escape was inside, I hit the button again and watched the door move downward like molasses. The legs of the reporters who’d managed to keep up with me began to disappear from view— thighs, knees, ankles, and finally, blessed darkness. I breathed a temporary sigh of relief before remembering I still had to make it into my house.

The door to the kitchen was the closest. Fifteen steps away from the side door of my garage. With any luck—


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Ben Muse is the author of seven novels and one children's book. A lifetime Georgia native, he was born in Atlanta and suffers from an incurable case of the y'alls. He lives with his wife, children's book author Angela Muse, their two children, and a demanding English Springer Spaniel. Hobbies include golf (terrible), traveling (hates to fly), and self-deprecation (excels here), and he writes whenever time allows. He's just finished his first foray into romance (oh my) with Matters of the Heart.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Originally, Matters of the Heart was to be a 10,000 word Christmas short story. However, by the time I eclipsed the 40,000 word mark with no end in sight, I realized I had no clue how to write a short story,or novella, for that matter. So this was a lesson learned. Stick to what you know.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
Writing a book has always been on my bucket list. My journey began in June of 2012 when I began Break It. I've always been a voracious reader and writing a book just seemed like the next step. The self publishing revolution, particularly Amazon's KDP program, played a big part in the process.
Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
For the 4th time I am reading Beach Music by my favorite author, Pat Conroy. It's an achingly beautiful tale and a dangerous choice for an indie author with no schooling in the art of writing a novel. His command of the language and his ability to tell a story can make you doubt your abilities.

Next in:
Literature & Fiction
Frozen Panic
This time, she won't take "No" for an answer.
Trumplandia
A woman fights for sexual freedom
Between Love and Fear
Will protecting her save him from himself?