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Under His Protection by Isabella Laase – Sample

Chapter One

From his corner post in front of the Oval Office, Special Agent Alejandro Cruz had eyes on everything and everyone, constantly surveying the perpendicular hallways that led to the office of the Chief of Staff to his left and all the way back to the Cabinet Room to his right. His communication piece kept him in contact with the other agents on duty, giving him eyes and ears across the impressive eighteen-acre complex, but in most cases, the glorified windowless broom closets found in the West Wing were not nearly as prestigious as the jobs that came with the epitome of power.

Despite having top secret security clearance, Cruz remained in the hallway. His job was to align himself with the web of protection that followed the president wherever he went, combining technological superpowers with the brute force and intelligence of the over three thousand special agents and fourteen hundred uniformed officers who represented the core of the Secret Service. Whether it was a trip to Geneva to speak before the World Trade Organization or a golf game at a Maryland country club a few miles down the road, the potential dangers required all of his skills and concentration.

Protecting President Bradford in the eight hundred square feet west of the Executive Mansion, however, was the one place where Cruz allowed himself to breathe a little easier. The White House team relied on the latest in technology from infrared sensors and impenetrable bulletproof glass to robotic drones that maintained constant surveillance. A fully equipped counter-assault team was close at hand, along with bomb-sniffing dog handlers and snipers on the rooftops. And if all those failed, military jets were on standby if anybody were stupid enough to invade the no-fly zone.

Her angry shrieks reached him before she rounded the corner from the main lobby. “For god’s sake. Get the hell away from me, already.” Despite the layers of protection surrounding the Oval Office, nobody could stop the storm that was coming, and he steadied his temper. He’d been trained to take a bullet without thinking twice, but dealing with President Bradford’s only child was a job for the most patient of agents and he sure as hell didn’t fall into that category.

A skinny young intern came from the press briefing room with his attention divided between his cell and a pile of reports that teetered dangerously in his arms. “Watch where you’re going, asshole,” snapped the bitchy First Daughter. The intern cringed, pushing himself against a wall and pulling his overly large stack of paper against his chest in a panic. Instead of working to avoid a collision, Victoria bumped against him, sending the unstapled pages across the hallway with a dismal finality. The poor guy stared in shock, but the self-righteous bitch just smirked before turning toward the Oval Office.

With a determined snarl, she set her eyes on Cruz’s position, and he spoke softly into the wire he always wore on his sleeve. “Princess is on her way to the Eagle’s Nest.”

The security team had long since started the practice of using code names to identify the extended family and close staff to the president, but the obvious ‘spoiled’ adjective was generally left unspoken when she was close enough to hear. During his almost two-year tenure at the White House, Cruz had had limited contact with twenty-three-year-old Victoria Bradford, a recent college grad who’d returned full-time to DC a few months earlier, living in a prestigious Woodley Park high-rise off Connecticut Avenue and driving away Secret Service protection with consistent regularity. It was the job from hell, and he’d breathed a sigh of relief every time he’d managed to bypass the miserable assignment.

He stood his ground, tilting his chin slightly and making direct eye contact with the curvy blonde whose outfit probably cost more than a week’s pay for half the behind-the-scenes people who worked at the White House. She was a good-looking woman, however, and it was hard not to appreciate the fine lines of her breasts in the tight black blouse that showed a little too much skin or to avoid the second glance at the smooth ass rounding out her pale wheat linen slacks. He may have been a highly trained professional, but he wasn’t blind.

But after his quick survey, it didn’t matter what she looked like. Cruz had a job to do and even the president had no legal authority to stop him from doing it. The little shit wasn’t going to interrupt a meeting with the nation’s top military leaders, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the National Security Administration, and the Secretary of Defense, along with more minions than he thought could fit in the room. It didn’t take a lot of brains to realize that there were high stakes involved. The White House press corps had been in a frenzy for hours, and the instability over sovereignty in the South China Sea had reached epic proportions with one angry country sending warships to tick off another.

Facing his unnerving stare-down, she slowed, but crossed the final distance with a determined glare of her own. “Excuse me,” she said snippily, tilting her chin. “I need to see my father.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bradford,” he responded firmly. “The president is in a meeting right now. If you’d like to return to the Residence, I’ll be sure to notify his secretaries that you’re waiting to see him.”

He wasn’t shocked when she didn’t move. “I don’t care who the fuck he’s talking to. I’ve got to talk to him, and it’s only going to take a minute. Move.”

“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen, ma’am,” responded Cruz, crossing his arms over his chest. “Would you please move away from the door.” There wasn’t a hint of a question in his tone, and he widened his stance to ground his position.

At six foot three and two hundred pounds of weight-lifting muscle, he understood the impact that his physical size should have had over his immediate problem, but unfortunately, the little spitfire didn’t register the same understanding. Throwing her infamous curly blonde hair over her shoulder, she tried to move around him, getting so far as to put her hand on the doorknob before he grabbed her wrist. “Stop,” he demanded in the same tone he’d used when dealing with his little sisters when they were driving him nuts. “I’m not going to tell you again.”

“Get your fucking hands off me, you son of a bitch!” The high-pitched screech grated across his skin, but he didn’t let go of her until she’d taken a step away from the door. He’d have paddled his two little sisters’ asses if he’d ever heard them use language like that, but the values instilled by his immigrant parents wouldn’t have allowed any of their six kids to disrespect a place of reverence and authority. Having come to this country from an unstable dictatorship as children, his parents fully appreciated the benefits of a democracy. There was no explaining any of this to Victoria Bradford, however, so Cruz remained silent, never taking his eyes off of her and standing firmly in front of the door.

Two of his colleagues had entered the hallway to provide backup against the obnoxious threat to the president’s day. Victoria evaluated each of them, the glare burrowing deeper into her face. For a brief second, he thought she’d try to push past him a second time, but instead, she turned with a swirl of that thick blonde hair. “There’s more than one door to the Oval Office, asshole,” she hissed over her shoulder as she started down the hallway.

Nodding to Special Agents Monica Bukowski, who was moving closer from his left, and Tim Rivers, who’d started down the hall from the lobby, Cruz spoke into his communication piece. “Princess is on the move. Will follow to make sure she finds her way to the castle.” He’d get her sorry ass back to the president’s private quarters if he had to drag her, but she knew her way around the West Wing better than the average terrorist. With the three agents effectively cutting off her exits, she pushed past Bukowski and slipped into the president’s private study that had a back door to the Oval Office.

Cruz groaned. He didn’t really blame their newest special agent for her failure; nothing short of tackling the little bitch would probably have stopped her. Grappling with the president’s daughter on the floor of the West Wing didn’t sound like much of a career move, but Cruz was close enough behind her that he could stick his shoe in the frame to prevent her from shutting the door. Silently nodding to the other two agents to cover his post, he entered the room, closing the door behind him to give them both a little privacy.

She hadn’t calmed. Walking toward the back hallway that led to the Oval Office, she continued to shout. “Listen, Special Agent What-the-Fuck, I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but I’m Victoria Bradford and nobody stops me around here.” As he got closer, her tone rose. “Get away from me!”

Cruz covered the gap in three short steps and for once, Victoria showed a little common sense, slowing down and paling slightly. “Ma’am,” he said through clenched teeth. “With all due respect, your father and several high-level government authorities are dealing with a crisis. If you go in there right now, not only will you disrupt their progress, you’re going to be embarrassed by their reaction.”

Looking uncertain, she actually hesitated, giving some indication that he’d found her weak spot. She’d had a lot of bad press over the last few years, so the need to avoid a semi-public tantrum wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Seeing a small sign of reasoning, he continued in a calm tone. “Let’s go over to the Residence, and he’ll be there as soon as he can. Whatever you have to say to him can wait.”

It was the wrong move. “I’m not going to the Residence,” she snapped, her anger resurfacing like a twisting flood. “I’m only going to be a minute.”

She took another half a step, but this time, Cruz grabbed her wrist, twirling her in a circle until she faced the opposite wall. “What the hell are you doing? I said, keep your fucking hands off of me.” She screamed loud enough for the entire West Wing to hear, pounding on his chest with as much force as her lightweight body strength allowed. When both of those tantrums failed to lessen his grasp, her long, well-manicured fingernails connected with a long scratch down his left cheek.

She couldn’t have been more than five foot five, so he pulled his head out of her reach, using his free hand to gently rub his battle wound and garnering a tiny spot of blood on his fingertip. Still holding tight to her wrist, he figured he was too far down the proverbial rabbit hole to stop his attempts to control her. “I’m not going to let go while you’re fighting me,” he warned dangerously. “Stop being a brat before I…”

He didn’t finish the sentence before the little shit’s teeth connected with his forearm. Biting down forcefully through the blue suit and dress shirt, she made a sound that reminded him of his mother’s cocker spaniel protecting a hot dog, and his arm began to throb. He still didn’t let go of her, nor did she of him, but digging hard to find his last vestige of professionalism, he spoke in a dangerously calm tone. “Let go of me. Now. Or I’ll paddle your ass until you can’t sit down for a week.” The last part snuck out about the same time he realized that professionalism was no longer an option.

Surprisingly, she obeyed. A pair of dark eyes contrasted with the shock of blonde hair to showcase an emotion other than anger. A sadness. An anxiety. Perhaps even a touch of fear. He started to feel bad for taking such a strong stand and moved back a step to give her a little space. “Good girl,” he said, releasing her wrist to ruefully rub his arm. “Let’s take it easy, and we can go someplace else to talk about this. If you don’t want to go to the Residence, how about I take you down to the Navy mess and get you a cup of coffee? They have great desserts down there, too. My treat.”

Victoria nodded slowly, and he silently congratulated himself on his people skills. If he could put Victoria Bradford on a calm path, he could handle any threat coming at the president, even if he did walk away from this one with a small casualty. He prepared to speak calmly and reward her with a gentle smile for her compliance when she kicked him with her high-heeled black leather shoe. Probably aiming for his crotch, she landed a firm blow on his inner thigh when he thankfully turned in a last-second defensive move. Picking up a heavy glass paperweight from the president’s desk, she held it like she was ready to send a hand grenade at his head and backed away slowly toward the Oval Office. “Fuck off, Special Agent What-the-Fuck.”

The lack of respect toward both him and this place of honor combined with the language no self-respecting professional should use, but his anger toward the self-righteous, entitled, privileged little bitch matched the throbbing in his arm, the sting on his cheek, and the likely growing bruise on his thigh. The last of his patience snapped, and he grumbled loud enough to make her run. She got a good foot or two away from him before he caught her a second time, grabbing her by the wrist and rescuing the expensive paperweight in a single move. Twirling her around, he rested his foot on the coffee table and bent her fighting, squirming self over his knee, then smacked the backside of her expensive slacks, making sure to deliver a good sting.

The spank caught her attention, and she twisted slightly to stare at him with wide eyes, her mouth fully agape. When it became apparent that his move had effectively shut her up, he followed up with a few more swats for good measure, each one a little harder than the next. The layered effect finally caused her to cry out, wiggling in a futile attempt to escape his iron-clad grasp, and moving her hands across her bottom to protect what was left of her privacy. The corrective action to her sculpted little ass satisfied his need to discipline her, but he gathered her wrists with his free hand and firmly delivered a few more spanks that rose her to her toes.

“Stop,” she squealed like a little girl, her bad attitude officially dissipated. “I’m sorry. Just stop.”

“Now that I have your attention,” he said dangerously, allowing her to stand on her own. Her gaze fell to the floor and her cheeks burned a bright red. “Let’s assume that you aren’t going to be a mean-spirited brat anymore. Nobody likes it when they have to deal with your tantrums, so you have two choices. You can leave this room on your own two feet, or you can stay here with me. If you leave, you can go anyplace you want as long as it’s out of my sight and nowhere near the Oval Office. But if you stay, I’ll give you the spanking that somebody should have given you years ago. And it’s not going to be over those slacks, little girl, so pick.”

A far cry from the little shit whose teeth marks still burned on his arm, she’d mellowed dramatically, staring at him with those soulful eyes that could have melted a glacier, and for a brief second, he thought she was going to choose the spanking. Not that he would have minded turning that pretty, firm ass over his knee for a longer session, but it was probably better to leave that for the casual playmate he found on his days off. For a million logistical reasons, a submissive Victoria Bradford would never work for him, no matter how well she filled out those pants.

Nodding slowly, she turned and walked toward the door, rubbing her ass and glancing innocently over her shoulder until he gave her a nod of approval and pointed his finger to keep her moving. When she quietly closed the door behind her, he sighed, pleased to have averted a disaster. Putting the paperweight back in its rightful place on the president’s desk, he ran a final check of the perimeter, glancing toward the short hallway that led to the Oval Office. Hidden from view a foot or two back in the shadows was William Collier Bradford IV, President of the United States.

“Fuck,” he thought to himself. Nodding politely to the president, he looked for any sign to gauge how long he’d been standing there. Faced with nothing, Cruz acknowledged, “Sir,” and left the room, wondering exactly how long he was going to have a job.

Chapter Two

He’d spanked her. My god, the son of a bitch, Special Agent What-the-Fuck, had actually whacked her on her ass, leaving both sets of cheeks burning, one with mortification and the other with a stinging pain that still formed the imprint from his palm. He’d warned her, but in all of her sheltered years, nobody who’d worked for her father had ever talked to her like that. Nobody had ever even threatened to lay a hand on her, much less followed through, and the humiliation of having her ass smacked by a total stranger wasn’t going to dissipate with the pain.

Standing in the middle of her father’s study, every fighting instinct she had wanted to take on the Secret Service with a full-blown tantrum, but his biting contact had ignited a tingling of gratification, spinning through her system and swelling her clit until it throbbed. Too quickly, the stinging turned to a cozy warmth, inexplicably leaving a damp spot on her panties and an aching emptiness between her folds. She couldn’t help but wonder what a skin to skin connection would have felt like; if the smack would burn stronger and longer, filling her emptiness and spurring the pleasure to a full-blown orgasm.

Since she’d started reading the darker novels back in college, she’d loved the idea of strong, leading men who’d used erotic restraints and toys on their submissive females. The fantasy of being held in place without a choice and having her bottom smacked was one she’d allowed, in her dreams. But she also enjoyed reading about vampires and spy thrillers and that didn’t mean she wanted Dracula or Russian spies to meet her for lunch in DuPont Circle.

Even if she’d had the privacy to explore a little kink, there was no way in hell she had the confidence to enter that kind of relationship. Any kind of commitment with the opposite sex was a challenge for her after her senior prom date had made a name for himself with his tell-all school exposé about how he’d banged the president’s daughter. She’d been a lot more careful after that; the only other serious boyfriend was for a year or so during college, and that relationship had ended just as badly as the high school asshole.

She didn’t know Agent What-the-Fuck’s real name and didn’t want to care, but faced with his stern command and a no-nonsense stand, she had no resources to even communicate with him, much less stand around and wait for him to bare her ass. Starting for the door, she risked one more glance at the dark-haired man with even darker eyes still burrowed into a steely frown. Firm shoulders filled out the nicely cut blue suit and those monster hands really were as big as they’d felt across her bottom. His hair was cut close to his head, the effect giving him an even stronger aura of authority, but the ugly red scratch on his cheek justified both his stern expression and nonverbal commands to keep her moving. She obeyed like a chastised child.

Once she was in the hallway with a solid wood door closed firmly between them, Victoria could breathe a little easier but the mortification and confusion continued to twist together until frustrated tears bubbled to the surface. Working hard to keep her hand away from the lingering burning on her ass, she avoided eye contact with the two agents outside the door, confident that everybody in the West Wing knew what had happened in her father’s private office. Keeping her head low, she returned to the lobby and hurled herself into the oppressive heat that fired her core temperature even more than it already was. Only the formerly swampy bottoms of DC in August could melt you with the temperature and soak you with a layer of humid sweat in a simultaneous second.

Safety. She needed to go someplace safe, but the relative meaning of the word had nothing to do with her security detail, who’d had enough sense to stay as far away from her as possible. Experiencing any comfort in her physical surroundings had been lost ever since the presidential election that had spun her high school, drama-filled world on an axis with a new school, new friends, and new rules, all while living under the prying eyes of the American public, but the damned White House was as close to privacy as she was going to get before her tears betrayed her. With the press setting up their evening news feeds on the north lawn and the judgmental eyes of the hordes of tourists and protesters behind the big iron gates on Pennsylvania Avenue, she needed to move quickly.

She entered the mansion through the Palm Room, but the cool breeze from the hard-working air-conditioning system didn’t defeat her tumultuous emotions or the constant reminders of dead presidents and their bleak histories filled with war and more death. Her head still low, she walked past a half-dozen nameless strangers who nodded politely without ever really making eye contact, but, thankfully, nobody stopped her before she reached the private residence on the second floor, twenty thousand square feet of luxurious prison. Leaning against the door in relief to have made it that far without crying, she realized that she wasn’t alone. Of course not, she said to herself, closing her eyes in defeat.

A maid turned off the vacuum she’d been running across the expensive oriental carpet. Glancing at Victoria’s face, the slightly pale woman cringed and that damned special agent’s lecture on people’s perception of her temper replayed itself with relentless persistency. No matter how she reacted on the outside, once she was allowed some time to think about her actions, she really did hate that look people gave her when she was being unreasonable. And she’d actually drawn blood on the guy, a new low for even her. Always elegant, Victoria’s mother would have been aghast at the reputation her only child had gained in the last few years.

But none of it was this woman’s fault. Victoria wiped at a rogue tear like she might have had a little dust at the corner of her eye. She’d seen the woman before, but had to read the woman’s ID tag to continue, willing herself to be polite. “Good afternoon, Teresa.”

“Thank you, Miss Bradford,” said the woman, a little confused. “Can I get you anything, today?”

“No,” said Victoria quickly. “I mean, no thank you. I’m just going up to my room, but thank you.”

“Are you okay, miss?” asked the woman sincerely. “You look upset.”

“I… I’m fine,” she responded dully, staring in the direction of the creepy Lincoln bedroom that still gave her nightmares. Little Willie Lincoln had taken his last breath in there, and the rumors of a spiritual Abraham Lincoln haunting the hallways had preceded their tenure at the White House. Back in those early days of the Bradford presidency, she’d studied all of the past presidents and their families when she and her mother had spent hours wistfully theorizing how history might remember them. That little dream had turned into a new kind of nightmare just before her eighteenth birthday.

The maid shifted her weight nervously, bringing Victoria’s attention back to the present. “I… I have to admit,” Victoria said softly, “that this place doesn’t make me very comfortable.”

Surprisingly sad, Teresa looked around the expansive hallway filled with an undeniable elegance. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl,” she said softly. “My mother had this job when I was growing up, and my grandfather worked as an usher before her. But when she died…I was still in high school, so getting hired here was kind of a way to be closer to her.”

The personal revelation left Victoria feeling uneasy, and she shot the thirty-something-year-old woman a suspicious glance. Separating friends from enemies was tough when your father was famous, and her father had been famous ever since her second birthday when he’d won his first political office as a state senator for Massachusetts. But Teresa seemed oblivious to Victoria’s discomfort. “I’ve been working here for over ten years,” Teresa continued with a sad smile, “but I like the personal changes your mother made much better than President Morrison’s White House. She was very kind to me when I was going through some difficult personal times. I miss her, and her beautiful things remind me of her every day.”

Victoria swallowed hard, forcing a polite nod when all she wanted to do was burst into tears. “Some of these things came from our house in Boston,” she responded slowly. “But Congress gives every First Family money to renovate after the election, and a lot of these paintings and furniture are borrowed from the Smithsonian and the National Art Gallery. My mother spent weeks working with the curators to make a home for us here.”

Teresa nodded, but remained silent. Like everyone else in the United States, she knew that cancer had defeated Victoria’s family fourteen months after the inauguration, taking her mother without enough warning, and Victoria was left to continue without her. “I miss her too,” Victoria added to fill the awkward silence. “I think she would have enjoyed these last few years a lot more than I did. Thank you for sharing your feelings with me. It means more to me today than you can imagine, but I think I’ll just go up to my room now.”

The room she’d chosen six years earlier had big windows facing Pennsylvania Avenue, with high ceilings, ornate trim, and a white marble fireplace. As a teen, she’d guarded the space as fiercely as she’d guarded her privacy, not even allowing close friends easy access for fear the details would end up in the media. Throwing herself on the pale yellow Amish quilt her mother had helped her pick out on their last big road trip together, she curled next to Mr. Monkey Face who’d lived on her bed for as long as she could remember and finally allowed the protective barriers to drop. Huge, choking tears emanated from a deep place inside of her, the release leaving her exhausted, but emotionally relieved by the catharsis.

With no place to go, she wrapped herself in her quilt and dozed, a half sleep that delivered a rare peace and granted access to forgotten memories buried in the mansion. Her mother and father were always happiest when they were together; her father’s inauguration, the bright sun warming the frigid January temperatures and her mother’s only official state dinner, a dazzling array of gowns and jewelry surrounded by some of the most influential people in the world.

By the time she heard the television in the solarium that indicated her father had returned for the evening, darkness had fallen over the city, casting the third floor in more eerie shadows. Getting off the bed, she brushed her hair and touched up her makeup in the big oval mirror to destroy any signs of weakness that came from unrestrained tears. With a sad smile, she ran her hands across the rumpled yellow bedspread to smooth it to perfection, the touch of nostalgia still a little crippling. Picking up the high-heeled shoes that she’d kicked to the floor, she walked away with a final glance at the last vestige of her childhood before closing the door behind her and following the noise down the hall.

The White House solarium had a wall of windows facing the south portico to showcase the twinkling majesty of the Washington Monument overlooking the National Mall. With his back to the view, however, her father sat in front of the flat screen in an oversized leather chair from their Boston townhouse that he’d insisted make the move to DC. Far removed from his Oval Office formality, he wore a pair of sweats and a tattered sweatshirt that she remembered from a beach vacation they’d taken as a family a lifetime earlier. With no security or staff in sight, he looked almost like everybody else’s father, and, for a brief second, she saw the telltale signs of stress, his hair significantly grayer than it had been on election day and the lines around his eyes and brow much deeper.

Given the rare opportunity, she watched him drinking his traditional scotch and eating off a tray by his chair. He looked… tired… but eventually he glanced up. “Victoria,” he sighed. “I didn’t know you were here. Would you like to have some dinner brought to you? I’m afraid my hamburger and fries isn’t going to go very far.”

Sitting next to him in a matching leather chair, she shifted uncomfortably. Her father had always been such a strong presence; his booming laughter and no-nonsense attitude toward any childish behaviors usually kept her a little distant as he navigated his political career with long absences from home. A few months after her mother died, she’d fled toward college independence, never returning to the White House for more than a few nights of expected holiday visits.

“You shouldn’t eat that garbage,” she said quietly, not totally trusting her voice. “You need to watch your cholesterol.” She wasn’t exactly sure what his numbers were, but her mom used to say that all the time.

“Quirks of the job, Victoria. I’ve got my own personal physician and an entire naval hospital taking care of me, so don’t worry about it.” Without missing a beat, he took a sip of his scotch, adding, “I understand that you were looking for me earlier. Did you get what you needed?”

Her heart fluttered nervously, and she froze over his choice of words. What exactly did he know about her horrible afternoon? She knew for fact that there was no surveillance equipment in that office, and there was no way Agent What-the-Fuck would have told anybody what he’d done to her. Would he? Maybe he’d squeal to the press in some carefully leaked exposé after he retired, but he’d certainly never tell her father. Looking away, she took a breath to steady herself. “No. I took care of it by myself.”

“As long as you’re sure,” he said lightly.

In hindsight, asking him for the money and permission for her security detail to accompany her to the Caribbean with friends had been a stupid idea. She was glad she hadn’t interrupted the meeting, cursing softly with the realization that Special Agent What-the-Fuck had been right. “I, uh… No, it wasn’t important, Dad.”

“Good. I’m glad it all worked out, honey,” he said with a kind smile. He put his bare feet up on the coffee table and handed her a newspaper. “I’m glad you stopped by, though; I was going to send somebody for you tomorrow. Do you want to explain this?”

And just like that, he was back to being the president with a large staff who could bring her to his side like an errant child. She tensed, staring at the front page of the tabloid with a picture of her in a DC nightclub. Dressed in a skimpy outfit that showed a little more cleavage than she’d realized, she’d contorted her expression to a snarl as she tossed a drink in a shocked stranger’s face.

She had no idea how the press managed to find her every time she lost her patience. It didn’t happen that often, she assured herself, but they never gave her a minute’s peace, so it was no wonder they were always catching her at her worst. That particular drunken idiot had bumped into her hard enough to almost knock her off her feet, then called her a bitch before she’d dumped her Manhattan in his face, but the headline had left those details out, only reporting, ‘Vixen Vicky Strikes Again.’

After her emotional afternoon, she wanted to explain all of that to her father, to share with him the details of her life and explain how hard it was to be constantly watched, constantly judged. She wanted him to understand that she tried, she really, really tried, but since her mother had left them, she had nobody to talk to. Nobody who put her before the needs of three hundred twenty million other Americans. But William Bradford never even made eye contact with her. “I asked you a question, Victoria. What do you have to say for yourself?”

With no other resources, her temper snapped. “It was nothing, Dad. I don’t understand why you get so uptight about everything. Get a life, for god’s sake.”

In the dog-eat-dog world of politics, her father had never been a pushover, and he rankled with a temper to match hers. “Watch how you speak to me, Victoria. I’m not in the mood to listen to your childish responses. As you well know, I have a lot going on that doesn’t include dealing with the actions of a selfish brat.”

“Of course you do,” she said sarcastically, rolling her eyes in exasperation. “Now if I were the spoiled princess of some country that you were seeking a trade agreement with, it would all be different, wouldn’t it?”

“What does that even mean?” he roared. “All I know is that my communications people need to clear up another one of your disasters. You’re an adult. You’ve got to stop making my job that much more difficult every time you turn around. And that relationship with the internet paper has to stop. I’ve told you not to give interviews and yet, they seem to have a quote from you almost every week.”

Her best friend, Amanda Grant, had hooked her up with Trevor King and the rest of the group at The Party, a well-known internet magazine run by a politically savvy group of young graduates from Harvard. Amanda had been in and out her life since grade school when their fathers were freshman senators, and Victoria’s relocation to DC six years earlier had put them in the same elite high school before going on to college together. They’d talked for hours about life after graduation, convincing themselves that they’d gain more respect if they showed some intellectual thought on key challenges facing the country, but Victoria’s name had made it into the paper way more often than Amanda’s.

Even when her views had contradicted her father’s well-documented positions, she’d felt firmly about the stands she’d taken. Well, mostly firmly. It didn’t do much good to parrot all of her father’s policies if she was looking to make a name for herself, but if he’d just read what she’d said, he’d find that she almost always agreed with him. Reality, however, had never been his concern.

“I’m not a minor,” she snapped, refusing to take the paper he still held out to her. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a free country, and in case you haven’t read the Constitution, there are a few lines in there that protect my right to give a damned interview. And whether you believe it or not, I have an opinion that might not be the same as yours.”

“Do you really plan on lecturing me on Constitutional law?” he asked incredulously. “I think my law degree and my current position pretty much qualifies me to remind you that you have responsibilities that extend beyond legal rights. You know damned well that this publicity stunt has nothing to do with your opinion. You’re doing this to cause me grief. I deal with life and death decisions every day, and I shouldn’t have to worry about your selfish actions.”

Him. It was always about him and never about what she needed. Her mother would have wrapped her in her arms and let her cry, never shouting and passing unreasonable dictates. Before coming to Washington, Victoria’s entire life had revolved around her mother in their Boston townhouse while her father had commuted to DC as a member of Congress. Her gentle mother would have given her the chance to explain instead of bringing the sum of all the world’s problems to an argument, but he had no such skills. He might have been the political wonder of the twenty-first century, but his cold, distant demeanor had no place in her heart.

Tears rose to the surface, churning the deepest, darkest sadness that she kept buried inside of her, and there was only one way to destroy that horrible feeling. “I don’t understand what the fuck you’re saying half the time! This is insane. I’m twenty-three years old, and I get to live my own fucking life. It’s bad enough that I’ve given up my life and my privacy for this stupid job of yours. Stop interfering and stop telling me what to do.”

Her father stood, the paper dropping to the floor as a subtle reminder that it was no longer key to their argument. “Stop acting like a selfish brat. You’ve had advantages that most people only dream of since I’ve been in this job. And you can live any life you want, but as long as you’re taking my money, living in an apartment that I paid for, and driving a car that’s in my name, you’ll not only follow some decorum of civility by watching your language, you’ll obey a few simple rules, and that includes behaving yourself with your security detail. I’m tired of getting reports about your childish tantrums. These men and women have a job to do, and you’ll do everything you can to make that job as easy as possible.”

Even a vague reference to Agent What-the-Fuck and the rest of that invasive organization sparked a whole new level of anger. She prepared to continue screaming when the painful reminder from the Secret Service agent’s spanking magically repeated itself across her bottom. It wasn’t a comforting memory. Staring hard at her father, she wondered which one of those Neanderthals had complained about her this time; surely not the man who’d spanked her.

When his face remained frozen, she dismissed any possibility that he knew what had happened in the West Wing and planned on keeping it that way. With her screaming effectively defeated, she shot her father the nastiest glare she could produce before turning away with no small amount of drama and headed toward the door.

“You’re not leaving here, Victoria,” her father said dangerously. “I’m not done talking to you yet.”

“Well, I’m done talking to you, Dad,” she mocked sarcastically. “And unless you’re planning on dragging out the fucking 1st Infantry Division to stop me, I’m walking the fuck out of here.” She could still hear his shouting from the stairwell, but nobody, not even the 1st Infantry Division or Special Agent What-the-Fuck, came after her.

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