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Home / Stormy Night Publications Newsletter / Under His Protection by Isabella Laase – Serialization (Part One)

Under His Protection by Isabella Laase – Serialization (Part One)

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.

Chapter Three

During the next few days, Cruz received no messages summoning him back to his boss’s office in disgrace, but he’d spent almost twenty minutes reflecting on the phone to his younger brother from his apartment in suburban Maryland. “I don’t understand it, Matt,” he sighed, rubbing the towel over his hair after his shower. “I mean, if somebody had spanked my daughter, I’d have something to say about it.”

With less than twenty-four months between the brothers and twin boys born two years after that, Matias Cruz’s easy manner and quick smile had made him the quintessential middle child, at least until the two little girls came along eleven and twelve years later to change their family dynamics. “Damn, Alec,” he said, failing to fight a laugh. “I mean, really? You spanked her? Like over your knee? I think I’d have gone for a Taser or pepper spray. At least those don’t have any sexual connotations.” With a chuckle, he added, “Not for most people, anyway.”

“There weren’t any sexual overtones,” he dismissed a little too quickly. When his frown deepened, he was glad that he hadn’t video chatted with Matt. Cruz had never shied away from giving a good spanking when playing with a women after hours, but no matter what his cock had to say about the pretty First Daughter, there was no way he could allow that daydream, no matter how nicely his palm had warmed over that tight ass. “And I didn’t think I should use anything that could potentially stop her heart or cause temporary blindness. I’d run out of options. A few well-placed swats on her backside did the job.”

“Well, bro,” he said with another laugh. “I hope you enjoyed it cause Mom’s going to ream you out for smacking some strange woman’s ass when you get fired. Maybe you should quit first and take that job with me. I could still use a good deputy or two. Christian and Casey are talking about getting out of the army, and in a few years, the four Cruz brothers could be working together.”

“With you in charge of all of us?” he asked with a laugh. “I’m sure as hell not desperate enough to work for my little brother. You stick to your low-stress, chief of police job in a one-horse county, and I’ll take my chances with an angry father who has access to CIA assassins. Besides, maybe he’d just stepped into the hallway and didn’t see anything. Maybe—”

“And maybe he’s just talking to Human Resources,” interrupted Matt. “I mean, come on, buddy. You spanked his daughter’s ass. If he didn’t see you, she sure as hell went running to Daddy as soon as she could, unless they were just a couple of precursory love pats?”

“Nope. I’m pretty confident that Victoria Bradford isn’t looking for me to repeat that particular scene. I made my point. Besides, I sure as hell wouldn’t play with a submissive who thinks it’s a good idea to kick my nuts off.” Glancing down at his cell, Cruz read an incoming text from his supervisor, an arrogant ass who’d been trying to make his life miserable for the last two years. “But I think the mystery is resolved. I got a message from MacMillan telling me to be at the Oval Office in an hour. The president has requested a private meeting with me.”

“Damn,” said Matt, suddenly solemn. “I’m sorry, man. Call me when you’re done, okay?”

“Yeah. My bastard boss is going to enjoy this one. He’s probably got my termination papers filled out. I’ll be lucky if I don’t get arrested over this, but I’m hoping they’ll want to avoid any publicity, too.”

Matt offered a few more words of support while Cruz changed into a suit and tie and secured his service weapon before disconnecting the call. He’d love to live a little closer to his job, but the DC rents were crazy expensive. His Maryland apartment was still pricy compared to what he’d paid during his first Secret Service field assignment back in Syracuse, but the one-bedroom apartment had a tiny balcony that overlooked some grass and trees. There was always plenty of parking and a lot of good running trails nearby. The cute little redhead on the first floor had even provided him with some quiet fun on the days their schedules had matched up. It was all he really needed.

Thankful that it wasn’t the daily rush hour that generally held the city hostage for hours, Cruz managed the trip down I-270 with his typical speed, the reddish-orange fireball providing a spectacular sunset out his passenger window. Entering the White House from the 17th Street gate, he reported to the secretaries’ office with five minutes to spare, but fifty-something-year-old Betsy Garber peered over her reading glasses with disdain. “He’s in his private study, Cruz. Don’t keep him too long. The man leaves for Japan first thing in the morning.”

Cruz nodded without speaking and made his way to the room where he’d end his career. Knocking quietly on the door, he waited until he was given permission to enter. “Good to see you, Agent Cruz,” the president said sincerely. “I hope this summons hasn’t inconvenienced you. I’m on my way to the Residence for dinner. I’d like you to join me.”

“Join you?” he asked as though his hearing were a little off. “You want me to do what, Mr. President?”

“Yes, son. I’d like you to join me,” repeated Bradford, sorting through some papers to fill his briefcase. “I know that it’s a little late, but I haven’t eaten yet. Have you?”

Whether the man had seen him smack his daughter’s ass or not, Cruz couldn’t think of a single reason why the president of the United States wanted to have dinner with him. While he stupidly stood trying to figure out the correct response to an unprecedented invitation, the president took the heavy paperweight off his desk and moved it to the other side with no true purpose. The last time Cruz had seen that hunk of glass was when he’d wrestled it away from Victoria Bradford to keep her from throwing it at his head.

“And thanks for saving the paperweight, Agent Cruz. It belonged to my grandfather. I owe you dinner for that, at least. And there’s that other little incident we should probably discuss, too. After all, not every Secret Service agent has managed to take my daughter quite so firmly in hand. So, I’m going to have to insist.” His tone lowered slightly. “Join me.”

Yep. There it was. Cruz nodded politely, adding, “Yes, sir,” while wondering how much flights cost to Jacksonville. He needed to tell his parents in person what had happened to his life before some tabloid picked up the whole mess.

Out of habit, Cruz followed the traditional few steps behind the president as the man made his forty-five-second commute down the west colonnade to the Residence. Cruz quickly scanned the well-tended Rose Garden and the press briefing room for any oddities before they entered the Executive Mansion. Still on his six, Cruz followed him all the way to the second floor where he was led into the president’s living quarters, already lit and welcoming against the dark evening, and was settled in his private sitting room on a silk maroon and gold wing-back chair. He’d been in the room many times, but certainly never as a guest and always surrounded by a large staff. The second floor appeared to be empty except for the two of them, and Cruz had no idea what to say.

“The food will be here soon, but what would you like to drink in the meantime, Agent Cruz?” asked the president, pouring himself a scotch at the bar. “You aren’t on duty, so please don’t insult me by saying nothing. We’ve got a conversation coming that’s going to require both of us to be a little more… relaxed.”

“Uh, a water would be fine, sir,” said Cruz politely. When Bradford raised an eyebrow, Cruz added honestly, “I’m afraid that I’m really not comfortable drinking anything else in your private sitting room, Mr. President.”

“How about we move to the movie theater?” asked the president, showing a touch of the dry sarcasm that he was known for. “Or perhaps you’d like to meet me in that room on the ground floor that has all the dishes in it. I think we have something like a hundred twenty-five rooms to choose from, if you’d be more comfortable someplace else.”

“A hundred thirty-two rooms,” responded Cruz without thinking. Part of his extensive training, he could describe the history and architecture of every room, but most important, he could find every hidden stairway and exit that could take the president to the covert underground safe space below the White House grounds. But the man’s arching eyebrow made clear that he’d had been speaking rhetorically. With his mouth growing a little drier, Cruz added, “A water would be wonderful, sir.”

The president complied, then sat next to him in a matching chair, sipping his scotch with a sigh as though he’d waited for that moment of relaxation all day. For almost five minutes, the only sound was the ticking of some probably crazy expensive clock, and Cruz jumped a little when the chime registered the top of the hour.

“Sir,” he said in an effort to take control of a horribly uncomfortable situation. “I’d like to apologize for my behavior toward your daughter. I’ll offer my resignation immediately, but I want to respectfully ask if there’s any way that we can keep this out of the media? My father’s not been in great health recently, and I need to protect both of my parents from any publicity.”

The president nodded as though he were giving the request great thought. “Exactly what is it that you’re apologizing for, Alejandro? May I call you Alejandro? Is that what your mother and father call you?”

“Uh, no. I mean, yes, sir,” stuttered Cruz. During his car ride to the White House, he’d worked out the apology down to the inflection of his voice, but the president’s questions had thrown him. “My family calls me Alec, but that isn’t necess—”

“I’m pretty sure that I get to determine what’s necessary in the White House,” interrupted President Bradford, his expression still unreadable. “I can check with my lawyers, but that oath of office thing came with some pretty good perks. I’m still a little confused though, Alec, and you haven’t answered my question. What is it that you’re apologizing for, again?”

“I, uh…” This guy was going to make him say it out loud. Sitting up straight, he met the president’s gaze and spoke clearly. If he was going down, he was going to do it with grace and style. “Your daughter was making an attempt to interrupt your meeting a few days ago, and in my efforts to stop her, I… um.” He hesitated before lowering his voice, but the president continued to nod in encouragement. “I spanked her, sir. She’d already bitten and kicked me, and I had no other options if I was going to restrain her and not truly hurt her.”

There was a reflective moment of silence, the president still nodding as though he were hearing it all for the first time when muffled sounds came from the hallway. Cruz listened on full alert, his hand instinctively moving toward his service weapon before he dismissed the noise as a simple conversation between a pair of the over one hundred people who kept the White House running smoothly. A waiter, whose name and background Cruz could recite from memory, entered the room with trays of steaming food on a silver cart, the tantalizing smells appealing to a man who’d missed dinner after his daily five-mile run.

“Thank you, Robert.” Bradford quickly dismissed the waiter. “I’ll take it from here.” The waiter left the room as the president moved the trays to a small mahogany table nestled under the window and motioned for Cruz to join him. “I know that this is the most important home in America, Alec, but I’ve long since gotten used to the interruptions around here, so please don’t shoot anybody today, although I do appreciate your diligence. Eat.”

Bradford sat at the table and uncovered the first tray to reveal a pasta dish with a thick red sauce smothered in sausage, peppers, and onions. “On his first morning in the White House,” he said, opening another dish to reveal a large, fresh salad and basket of warm bread. “President Reagan heard all the tourists moving around on the first floor, turned to Nancy and said, ‘Honey, we’re living above the store now.’ I used to think that was funny, but now…” He waved his hand around the elegant room. “This has been hard, but I chose this life. I was prepared for the dramatic change in lifestyle and for the lack of privacy. But Victoria never signed up for any of this. She moved here at a very impressionable age. I’m not making excuses for her. I know that she’s difficult, but…”

The normally stoic man’s voice cracked slightly before he pulled himself together. “I’m just pointing out, all of this responsibility, losing her mother, getting through those teen years in full view of the public, she’s had a tough time.”

Cruz’s own father was recovering from his heart attack with relative ease, pushing more of the physical demands of his job to a growing staff, but his children’s fears over the close call were embedded in a deep place, and he couldn’t imagine the pain of losing a parent. But he was still confused. “With all due respect, sir. May I ask what I’m doing here? I understand why I’m being fired, but you don’t owe me an explanation. I know that I crossed a line with Ms. Bradford.”

Effectively ignoring him, President Bradford motioned a second time for Cruz to join him at the table, but this time, the man waited in stony silence until he complied. “Now eat, young man. And that’s an order, so don’t make me postpone my meal. Then I’d like you to tell me about yourself. What did you do before you came to the Secret Service?”

“Mr. President,” he said with a defeated sigh. “My entire history from probably the hospital room my mother had when I was born to what I had for breakfast yesterday is recorded in copious detail in the Secret Service office, and you have access to any information you want from the NSA, the FBI, and the CIA with less effort than it takes to order a pizza. What are we really doing here?”

Leaning back in his chair, the man crossed his arms and responded seriously. “It’s actually pretty hard for me to order a pizza. Most pizza joints think that a delivery to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a prank call, not to mention the fact that you guys in the Secret Service get all testy whenever I eat any food you don’t watch being made. I’m waiting for you to tell me about yourself, Alec. Have some faith and appease an old father at the same time, would you?”

Cruz did have faith in this man, but this whole meeting was pushing the limits of his patience. “Fine,” he said, failing to drop the confusion from his tone. “I was born south of Jacksonville, and my parents still run a landscaping business down there. I have five brothers and sisters, all adults and out of the house. I served eight years in the Air Force where I got my college degree. I’ve been with the Secret Service for the last eight.”

Literally, the last eight because it was all going to end tonight. Maybe that job working for his little brother was more than a half-assed promise? He sure as heck couldn’t see himself going the civilian route after all those years of training, and it was pretty much a given that he wasn’t walking out of this one with a reference.

“Were you angry with my daughter at the time?” asked the president.

“Well, yes, sir, I was,” he responded incredulously. “I don’t go around spanking women in public as a matter of practice. She was on her way to your office, and she wasn’t obeying simple instructions. You were in there with a lot of brass, and I knew that your meeting was serious. My job is… was… to keep you safe and her distractions weren’t what you needed. She was being unreasonable.”

“And that’s it? That’s the only reason you were angry with her?”

How many questions did this guy have, anyway? “No, sir,” he said honestly, meeting the president’s gaze. “Your daughter had just bitten my arm and tried to kick me in the crotch. I was angry with her, but I didn’t smack her butt with any anger. I gave her a few swats to calm her down. That’s all.”

The president took another sip of scotch. “You were right, Alec. I did look up your records, and I talked to your boss. Joe MacMillan isn’t a fan of yours, by the way.” Cruz nodded to accept the full reality of that message. For some reason he’d never fully understood, the guy had hated him since the first day he’d started at the White House. He must be laughing his ass off right about now.

But Bradford continued. “I appreciate your honesty tonight, young man, and I’m sorry that my daughter was awful to you. I have no intention of asking MacMillan to fire you or even reassign you. As a matter of fact, he has no idea what transpired today, and I intend to keep it that way.”

“I’m sorry, sir?” he asked, the last few sentences dramatically changing his poor afternoon. “Are you saying that you aren’t asking for my resignation?”

“Your resignation?” responded Bradford with a scoff. “I want you to take over Victoria’s security detail.”

It took a lot to stun Cruz into silence, but that bombshell shut him down. Taking a deep breath, he aimlessly scratched behind his ear with a frown. “Excuse me, Mr. President? But do you really think that’s a good idea?”

“Running against that idiot for the Senate in 2005 was a bad idea,” said Bradford dryly. “And that targeted response after the drone attack last year? That was a bad idea. But for the last six years, you seem to be the only one who has had any impact on my daughter’s tantrums. Why shouldn’t you be the one to take control of her safety?”

“Because, sir,” he said forcefully, “she’s not going to accept me, for one thing. And I’m not sure that I’d blame her. I mean, I spanked her. Without her consent. Women don’t tend to like that.”

“Sorry, son,” said the president, “but I’m running out of options, and I’m worried about her safety. Victoria and I had a particularly big argument a few days ago, and she stormed out of here without her detail. They didn’t find her until about ten or eleven the next morning. Trust me when I tell you that nothing can disrupt your sleep more than knowing your child is missing, even if she is twenty-three years old. When they finally located her, she was with that loser boyfriend who I’ve spent the last three months trying to keep out of the press. He’s her type: family money, entitled, and he’s got a felony drug conviction, for god’s sake. Sometimes I think she works hard to find the biggest pain in my ass she can.”

Cruz chose his next words carefully. “I understand that being a father must be difficult, Mr. President, but our job is to protect our assignments, not to keep them from making poor relationship decisions. If he isn’t trying to hurt her, there isn’t much any of us can do to stop her, nor can we become spies for you. We need the cooperation of the people we’re protecting in order to do our jobs, and that requires an element of trust beyond anything you might be trying to achieve as a parent.”

“I understand that, Alec,” he added with a sigh. “Believe me, if I had the legal or even ethical ability to do it, I’d have her surrounded by a team of army rangers with M4s at all times. But I need to make some changes. With all of her publicity stunts, we’ve received an uptake in credible threats against her, and she’s not complying with any reasonable safety precautions.”

“She’s pulling all this crap knowing that?” Cruz asked suspiciously.

“No. MacMillan thought it best if we shielded her from that particular truth. He was afraid she’d leak something important to their investigation, and he assured me that his team could do their job, even without her knowledge. But it’s time to change that, and you’re the change we need. You have both the technical and physical savvy to keep her safe, and the personal skills to get through to her.” Bradford stopped to down the last of his scotch. “You know, Teddy Roosevelt had a difficult adult daughter, too. When people complained about her nonsense, he said, ‘I can either run the country or handle Alice, but I can’t do both.’ I need your help, son.”

“And what happened to Alice?” he asked quietly, stalling for some time.

“She married a guy her father hated, had a miserable marriage, and an illegitimate daughter before dying at almost a hundred years old as an icon in Washington society. Oh, and a whole bunch of historians blame her for the popularity of cigarette use in women. Look, Alec. I’m not ordering you to take this assignment even though we both know that I can. I want you to choose to do this on your own.”

“Mr. President, even if I agree to this, Victoria won’t. I spanked her, sir. Not only is that not in any job description, it’s not even legal. She could probably press charges against me.”

“You defended yourself,” insisted the president. “She was physically attacking you, and you never even mentioned to me the blood she drew on your face. I was there, Agent Cruz. I saw what happened, well, most of it anyway. That was the same night she disappeared for a few hours after we’d argued over something stupid. She was so embarrassed by what happened to her that she never even mentioned the incident to me. She won’t make this a deal-breaker.”

Most of it? Cruz thought to himself. There was a real possibility that he’d been outmaneuvered by the president of the United States. “How much of that scene in the Oval Office did you actually see, sir?”

Bradford stood, taking a few steps to stare out the window toward the Washington Monument and the crowds of tiny people still visible in the darkness. “Look, Alec,” he said, completely ignoring his question. “I’m just saying, I think that you’ve established some ground rules, and I think that she’ll respond to your requests accordingly.”

In the last two years, Cruz had never heard the normally confident man use the phrase, ‘I think,’ twice in the same sentence. He remained silent, but the president continued to speak for both of them. “I wish I’d taken a stronger hand with her when she was younger, but politics kept me about as far removed from her as a father can get. I regret that, and I regret not doing things differently when her mother died. But she’s an adult, and when my second term is done, I’ll have no tools in my arsenal to defeat this behavior that I’m afraid is going to kill her. Even if we discount the drug-selling boyfriend, she’s a target for every crazy person out there. And despite her age, she’s still the same little girl who was so overwrought with grief that she refused to attend her own mother’s funeral.”

“Sir,” he insisted. “You aren’t answering my question. How are you going to convince your daughter to accept my protection? I can’t make her behave if she doesn’t choose to do so, and I can’t protect somebody who doesn’t want to be protected. I’m not going to lie or manipulate or even physically threaten her into this arrangement.”

For the first time all evening, the president relaxed. “And those morals are the reason why you’re the best man for this job. Son, if you agree to take this on, I’ll bring her to you without doing any of those things. I know my daughter. There is a very, very good person inside all of that abhorrent behavior. I just need you to, well, be yourself.” He stuck his hand out. “Deal?”

This was a bad idea, Cruz thought to himself, but there was really only one answer. Taking the president’s hand, he said, “Deal, sir. I just hope that she doesn’t make biting her protective detail a habit, because I’m not sure how much patience I have to deal with that.”

“I’m pretty much betting on your lack of patience to bring about the changes she needs, Agent Cruz,” said the president with another sigh.

Chapter Four

Between selectively ignoring his phone and text messages and the timing of his trip to Asia that the press was reporting as some weapons negotiations thing, Victoria had managed to avoid her father for almost an entire week since their little altercation at the Executive Mansion. Even restless sleep and a nagging guilt weren’t enough to break her self-imposed boycott of anything presidential. With any luck at all, she might be able to string this little game out until Thanksgiving when she’d planned to show up at the ceremony where he pardoned a turkey. That one had always been too ridiculously fun to miss.

After a quick warm-up in her apartment building’s well-equipped gym, Victoria turned up the speed on her treadmill and adjusted the volume on her Bluetooth speaker to drown the chatter from two giggling women. Effectively blocking a pair of exercise machines, the thirty-something-year-olds had been staring at her since she’d arrived, but she bit her tongue to keep her cool. Just because everybody in the room was probably sneaking her picture didn’t mean that she needed to give them a scene to sell to the media. She’d learned one thing from the nefarious special agent who’d refused to leave her thoughts; she needed to work on being a nicer human being.

The subtle shift in power happened without anybody else missing a step. She kept jogging at a steady pace, but out of the corner of her eye, her protective detail received a phone call about the same time a pair of blue-suited minions arrived in the gym, their dress and demeanor easily identifying them as Secret Service add-ons. Each agent took a position near the exits, but nobody rushed to her side or insisted that she leave the premises. She’d been through enough of this nonsense over the last six years to realize that the whole show had nothing to do with her.

With a sigh, she stopped jogging about the same time her father walked into the gym with three more agents at his back. All smiles for the people who’d started taking his picture, he waved and acknowledged her new neighbors, giving each of them a personal handshake like he was working a rope line. Nobody could woo the voters like William Bradford.

After this stunt, she’d probably have to move. It had likely taken thirty or forty official Secret Service cars to shut down Connecticut Avenue in a rolling wave of security to get him from the White House to Woodley Park. The neighbors who weren’t pissed off by the disruption would probably start stalking her, thinking they’d catch a glimpse of him. Little did they know, he wasn’t the kind of father who came to her house for dinner. He was the kind of president who demanded that you show up in his office, and when that failed, he usually sent his henchmen to find her. Coming to her in person was a rarity.

“Hi, Dad,” she said, her teeth gritted with a forced smile. “I wasn’t expecting you today.”

To the thrill of the small crowd, he lightly kissed her cheek. “I’ve been trying to reach you,” he said gently. “You should call your father occasionally. Old men worry, you know.”

She couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Seriously? She was surrounded twenty-four/seven by highly trained professional gunslingers who recorded her every movement. Taking a breath, she spoke politely. “I’m sorry. Why don’t we go up to my apartment?”

With his campaign smile burned into his face, her father continued to pose for the cell phone blitz. Speaking quietly so that only she could hear, he added, “Only if you promise not to throw anything glass at me, Victoria. I’m running out of Secret Service agents.”

Her mouth fell open, but she grabbed her towel and headed out, knowing that the whole three-ring circus would follow. Damn. He knew more than he did before, but this couldn’t have anything to do with that jerk who’d left her so unsettled. Anybody with any sense of propriety would keep their mouth shut, and the dark, unsmiling bodyguard had looked like integrity should have been a defining characteristic.

Another nameless, stern agent stood in front of her apartment, and he opened the door for them without the use of her key. She glared at her father, but he responded with a shrug. “I pay the rent, and my name is on the lease. I also have in my employment some pretty experienced covert operatives. Let’s just say one of them got me in here.”

With another sigh, she entered the fifteen hundred square foot luxury space with her father close behind, but she was relieved when his silent command left his security detail in the hallway. At least they’d have a chance to lay down a few ground rules in private before starting their next big battle over whatever brought him all the way out to Woodley Park. Before she could throw a sweatshirt over her gym clothes, the sliding glass door to her balcony caught her attention, and the man who’d spanked her ass a few days earlier walked into her gray and cream living area. He nodded politely. “Ms. Bradford, it’s nice to see you again.”

Turning to her father, she exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding me? Why is Agent What-the-Fuck here?”

“Watch your language and sit down,” her father scolded. “We need to talk, and Agent Cruz has kindly agreed to help us with our current problem.”

“What problem?” snapped Victoria. “I have nothing to say to this… this… abuser.”

Rolling his eyes, Agent Cruz didn’t even have the decency to look uncomfortable. “All I did was to protect myself from a bratty little girl who was trying to castrate me with a pair of leather heels. If you promise not to scratch my eyes out, I promise not to spank you again. Why don’t you do what your father asks and sit down?”

The ease at which the handsome brute of an agent talked about her chastisement burned her cheeks to a mortified red and momentarily silenced her. She risked a peek at her father, expecting him to do something, anything, to defend her honor, but he simply nodded. “Please, sit down and hear this out. I’ve asked Agent Cruz to join us today because I want him to take over your security detail, and I want all of us to have a clear understanding about my expectations.”

“Him?” she asked incredulously, pointing her finger at the man whose mere presence had started a quivering across her backside. His solid good looks and the memory of his strong arms holding her over that damned thigh dramatically increased the red warmth enveloping her body, and she shifted her weight uncomfortably.

Holding her just before he whacked her on the ass, that is, but the mental clarification did nothing to ease her overheating. With as much innocence as she could muster, she instructed her computer to turn down the temperature on her air conditioner and continued to point her finger in the ogre’s direction. “I’m not doing anything with him, so you just need a plan B.”

Sitting on her couch, her father rubbed his forehead as though he was fighting a headache. “The only other plan I have is moving you to a nunnery in Switzerland, but I’m guessing you won’t go for that either. Sit down, Victoria, before I lose my temper. You too, Alec. We’re going to have this conversation like adults.”

Agent Cruz sat in the matching chair, and both men waited for her to comply; her father’s exasperated expression was quickly lost to the second man’s heavily weighted glare. She stubbornly held her ground, but her father spoke softly. “Please, honey. This is important to both you and me. I don’t want to repeat our last conversation. That mess left both of us unhappy, and we need to work a little harder at this.”

It was easy to yell at him when he was being an idiot, but a lot harder when he was being nice. Humans weren’t wired to fight and argue, and certainly not with their parent. Daintily sitting on the couch, she smoothed the imaginary wrinkles out of her smooth-fitting yoga pants and turned toward her father, putting her back to Special Agent Cruz. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she said, willing her voice to remain calm. “You’re right. I don’t want to fight with you, either. This is a bit of a shock, but I’m perfectly happy with the detail I have. I don’t want another one.”

“Thank you, Victoria,” said her father as formally as if he were signing a new trade deal. “I appreciate your cooperation. I’ll cut to the chase since we’re all busy people. You may not want a different detail, but you need one, and I want Agent Cruz to take the job.”

One of his more frustrating habits was to sidestep her when he didn’t like what she had to say, but this was a no-brainer. She took a deep sigh and prepared to be dramatic. “No. Fucking. Way.”

“Watch your language, young lady,” warned her father, his tone rising in an eerie recreation of their last fight. “I’m not going to tell you again. If you don’t take this seriously and allow Cruz to protect you, I’m cutting you off. You can get a job and pay your own way, but I’m not going to sit back and watch you destroy yourself.”

“My god, Dad,” she hissed. “If I had a dollar for every time you’ve made that threat, I could buy this whole building. Your credibility pretty much sucks all the way around.”

“Excuse me, sir, if I may?” Cruz waited for the president’s nonverbal acknowledgement before continuing. “First, Victoria, let’s get something straight. I take my job very seriously. It’s an honor to serve this presidency, and no matter what option you pick tonight, I insist that you watch your language and your attitude. Whether you like it or not, you represent the Bradford administration and, as you well know, your integrity will be judged by millions of people every time you open your mouth. And where I come from, nobody talks to their parents like that. So watch it.”

The bastard had a way of making her feel like a five-year-old. He was right, but not too many people had had the guts to deliver lectures about integrity and professionalism to her face. She considered snapping at him to gain control over some small part of the conversation, but his stern expression reminded her way too much of those few dramatic seconds before he’d turned her over his knee, making her think the better of her choices.

When she nodded slightly, Agent Cruz continued. “And second, this isn’t just about your behavior. Since your father and I last spoke, I’ve gone through every threat that the Secret Service received on you in the last six months. Plain and simple, you need somebody to keep you safe. I want to be that person, but we’re going to establish a few rules, starting with minding what I say and stopping all of this nonsense.”

“What threats?” she scoffed. “Nobody ever said anything about any threats.”

“I’ve known about several credible threats for a while,” said her father, looking away with a rare sign of guilt. “With everything else that you’ve gone through, I supported the Secret Service decision to shield you from that reality, but Agent Cruz has convinced me that you needed to know the entire truth so you can make the best choices.”

“This is crazy.” She shook her head slowly. “You’re just making all of this up so you can keep a better eye on me.”

Cruz leaned forward in his chair, those dark, handsome eyes holding her in place. “You haven’t known me for very long, but I can assure you that I’m a man of my word. I won’t lie to you, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep others from lying to you as well. Whether or not it’s been your intention, all of your publicity has made you a high profile member of this presidency and that makes you vulnerable.”

“Vulnerable to what?” she asked warily. “How bad are these threats?”

“I wasn’t privy to the information until I agreed to take over your detail,” said Cruz, “but there are quite a few Class III threats in the report. I’ll share them with you to see if you recognize any names, but these guys aren’t drunks or incarcerated. Our investigators are opening a new task force, but it’ll take a little time to clear them all out.”

“And I’m sorry that I made the comments about the money,” her father added quietly. “I understand that it’s useless to try to control you with my checkbook, but it’s all that I have left. You’re all I have left. Since I lost your mother…”

His voice cracking, he stood and walked to the door of the balcony. Even during their darkest days, witnessing her father’s pain was unusual and by some magical familial connection, she felt his sadness as though it were her own. She joined him in the doorway, leaning into his side to wrap her arms around his waist, and he pulled her close with a ferocity that surprised her, burying his face in her hair as though she were the most important thing in his world and igniting that comfortable little girl feeling she got whenever her dad had had the time to hold her.

Enjoying the peace with the last of her family, she stayed where she was for a few minutes before he shifted his weight and she reluctantly stepped aside. Her father continued to speak quietly. “We should talk more about your mother, honey. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when we lost her. I guess I wasn’t strong enough to understand your loss while I was dealing with my own, but I know that all of this poor behavior isn’t you. This isn’t the woman that your mother raised you to be. Let us keep you safe and help you get your life back.”

Cruz’s voice came from behind her, and she turned to face him. “When your father asked me to take this job, he promised that there would be no lies and no manipulation because that won’t sustain either of us for the long run. I need a firm commitment from you that you understand what’s at stake, and that you’ll change your ways. And, at least, until the investigation is complete, you’ll have more restrictions than usual. If you don’t mind what I say, I can promise you that I won’t be happy, and neither will you.”

Way too much information was coming at her with laser-like speed, and she walked to her small galley kitchen to put a little space between the two men and her thoughts. She didn’t give the gift of trust easily, but this guy’s dark, unsmiling presence had filled her living room with an aura of decency, not to mention a physical strength that did make her feel more secure. But having him around every day was more than her raging hormones could manage. Nobody should be that good looking, making this whole bat-shit crazy plan a horrible idea. The indecision rendered her into an uncomfortable silence, and she sucked nervously on her bottom lip.

With a hint of his gun bulging under his jacket, Special Agent Cruz stood patiently, his big arms crossed over his finely tailored suit as though he were prepared to give her all the time she needed. His dark hair and eyes perfectly matched his deep tan, fully countering every man she’d ever even remotely allowed into her life. Their relationship would never grow beyond the one they’d dangled in front of her, protection and professionalism, but she trusted that he was a man of his word. He’d keep her safe from whatever was out there, and well, she could daydream about the rest.

And their interactions would likely never come down to any physical correction. She was perfectly capable of behaving herself. She could do this… a few months at the most. Slowly nodding, she said, “Fine. I’ll work with him. But…” In an attempt to dissipate some of the heat that followed Agent Cruz’s physical presence, she wanted to add some limitations to their working relationship, but his arched eyebrow sent the message that he’d be calling the shots, not her. She nodded and returned to silence, wondering how yoga and meditation would work for controlling her impulsive temper.

“I’m glad that’s settled,” said her father, visibly relaxing. “I’ll leave you two to sort out the details. I’ve got to get back to a few disasters at work.”

Victoria rolled her eyes with a groan. “Come on, Dad. Most fathers don’t speak literally when they say they have a disaster at the office. Can’t you work on being normal once in a while?” But Cruz cleared his throat, reminding her that this man had some kind of crazy respect for both parents and the presidency. She kept quiet, a small red blush burning across her cheeks and a quivering sensation across her ass.

“As you well know, Victoria,” said her father. “I’m not most fathers. Good luck to both of you. I’m confident that this is going to work.” He kissed Victoria on the cheek and left her apartment; the shuffling noises of a half dozen Secret Service agents getting into position followed before he quietly closed the door.

In the last twenty-five minutes, there had been way too much focus on spankings and consequences, but she realized with a little shock that the threat had never actually been voiced. Even so, she understood what she was getting into. She’d experienced what he’d done to her in the shadow of the Oval Office and that man would beat her ass if she didn’t listen to him. But given the unknown threats that apparently lurked outside her door, this plan didn’t sound nearly as ridiculous as it would have a few hours earlier.

She walked out on the balcony and closed her eyes in a desperate attempt to control the hormonal overdose that refused to dissipate from its relentless attack, raising goosebumps across her skin and causing her to pull her thighs together to hide the damp spot between her legs. But when she opened her eyes, Special Agent Alec Cruz was still standing in her living room. Her clit fluttered, and she had to work hard to keep her breath steady.

Chapter Five

“You wouldn’t really spank me again, would you?” Victoria Bradford asked from the balcony of her apartment.

Despite the fact that she’d told the computer to set the temperature to a chilly sixty-five degrees, the room was a tad warm with her pretty little self a few feet away and his shaft pushing uncomfortably against the confines of his pants. He slipped out of his suit coat and carefully laid it over the back of a chair, leaving the tailored white dress shirt to frame the .357 Sig nestled in its leather holster. She was a little flushed, too, but she pulled a navy blue sweatshirt over her gym clothes, hiding the cute curves and flat abs of her well-exercised frame.

“Don’t push me, and we won’t have to find out, will we?” Cruz shrugged. “But let’s start simple. My name is Alejandro Cruz, not Agent What-the-Fuck. You may call me Agent Cruz, whether you’re angry with me or not.”

She wiggled uncomfortably, and he silently prided himself for starting off with a strong message. No matter how adorable she looked in those form-fitting yoga pants with her long hair pulled back in a simple ponytail and her perfectly clear complexion unmarred by layers of makeup, this was just another job, and he intended to keep it that way.

Tilting her chin slightly, she said, “Well, I wouldn’t have called you names if you hadn’t been such a jerk. I don’t get spanked every day, and there aren’t a lot of rules for reacting to that indignation.”

He raised an eyebrow and fought a smile. There actually were quite a few rules on how to take a spanking, but that wasn’t a conversation he was going to have with her. Instead, he lowered his tone. “First, you started with the nasty names long before I turned you over my knee and second, that wasn’t really a spanking. That was a little dusting off of your backside. If you want to see what a spanking really feels like, keep up the attitude, and I’ll give you a few lessons. And for the record, an apology for the other day isn’t out of the realm of acceptable behaviors about now.”

“Apologize?” she almost shouted, but continued in a lower voice, nervously glancing around the room like they were in the middle of some crowd. “You spanked me. That whole incident was a result of your loss of temper, as well as mine. I think… I think…” she mumbled before standing a little taller, “…that mutual apologies are appropriate about now, and since I am the bigger person, fine. I’ll go first. I’m sorry that I was rude to you.”

That time, he allowed himself a tiny smirk. She showed all the signs of being a good little sparring partner. “Okay,” he said slowly. “I don’t usually negotiate with tiny terrorists, but I’m sorry that you struggled to take an appropriate punishment. It’s usually much more effective when the chastised person accepts what they did wrong and asks for their spanking, but you didn’t get any time to achieve that level of communication. Next time, I’ll make sure that you have a chance to think about it before I take you over my knee.”

Her frown burrowed even deeper as she processed his gilded response, but when her gaze fell on the smooth black leather belt around his waist, he knew that he’d won. In the military and in his current job, he’d seen sophisticated, professional women rip the unprepared apart with sharp words and exploding tempers to do their jobs effectively, but in his personal experience, the brattier the temper tantrum, the more submissive the little girl was deep inside. Victoria Bradford would make some man a willing playmate, but Cruz’s responsibility was to keep her safe, not to help her understand how her sexuality was tied to a kinky side.

“Until we get these threats sorted out,” he said, “you’ll need to make some changes to your routines. I’m going to keep both Bukowski and Rivers on your detail, and we—”

“Why those two?” she interrupted rudely. “I barely know them. Can’t I have someone else?”

“Don’t interrupt me again,” he said sharply. “We’re going to stop this revolving door of agents because you’re going to start behaving yourself. If you’d had some consistency, these threats would have been explored a long time ago. Bukowski and Rivers are two of the best, and I trust them to follow my instructions and report any behaviors that might need a little correction… from me.”

With an apparent overload of nervous energy, Victoria stormed outside to pace the length of her balcony, but after two or three laps, it became obvious that the small space didn’t provide enough square footage to vent her emotions. She crossed her arms and snapped through the still open door. “Stop that.”

“Stop what?” he asked innocently.

“Stop being all big… and mean,” she said, giving her foot a little stomp. “I don’t like it.”

“Good. I’m glad that you don’t like it because that’ll be a deterrent so I don’t have to deal with your tantrums. Everybody has consequences for bad decisions. Do what I say, and we won’t have any problems.”

“What if you say something stupid?” she persisted. “Like, what if you tell me to do something that I know would get me hurt? Or something that I know won’t make any difference?”

“You’ll do it anyway,” he said darkly. “Because my job is to protect you, and your job is to trust me. You already know how I feel about respecting your father and all of his staff. That’s non-negotiable. For the time being, you’ll also follow a reasonable curfew and let me know about any outings with at least twenty-four hours’ notice. Whether I’m on duty or not, I’ll hold the final say on where you can go and how long you can stay. I’ll need a list of all your friends and acquaintances, so they can be fully vetted. Nobody comes into this apartment without my permission, and you’ll spend the nights in your own bed, alone, until I’ve had a chance to investigate any potential guests.”

He wasn’t surprised when she snapped, “Listen, Special Agent Wh…” At the sight of his unblinking face and crossed arms, his little charge had the intelligence to lower her tone. “…Agent Cruz. I have the right to make adult decisions by myself, including who I sleep with. There’s a limit to what I’m going to put up with around here.”

“Under normal circumstances, I’d agree with you, but for the time being, this is the way things are going to be. I’m adding a few temporary restrictions, but even after this is over, there are going to be some dramatic changes in your attitude. You can’t go on like this.”

“Are you all planning on joining me in my bed, too, sir?” she snapped. “Because I might have to get a bigger mattress.”

“No,” he said dangerously. “You can retain an element of privacy, but the first time you lock a door between you and your detail, I’m knocking it off the hinges, and you won’t get it back. Am I clear?”

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “Now if you’ll go out in the hallway, there is a nice uncomfortable chair where I keep all of the ogres from the Secret Service. I’m going to take a shower and enjoy a few minutes without you and your damned rules.”

“I suggest very strongly that you watch your, tone, young lady. And until we get more information, at least one agent will be stationed inside of your apartment at all times. We’re adding security cameras with motion detectors in the lobby and the hallways tomorrow.”

“I live on the fu—freaking fifth floor, Agent Cruz.” There was a little too much snarky emphasis on the ‘Agent Cruz,’ but self-regulating her language was a small victory. “Unless you’re expecting Spiderman to attack me, I think I’m pretty safe.”

“Nobody has ever fully vetted your neighbors. You have a very lovely balcony, but with a nine point square, you’re surrounded by eight potential threats. If you demand more privacy, we need to move you back to the White House, at least temporarily. Those are your choices.”

She turned away with a shudder before he could fully gauge her response, but it was the second time he’d seen her unhappy reaction when mentioning the Executive Mansion. She clearly had triggers over the building, but instead of growing angrier, she mellowed. Speaking quietly and staring at the floor, she said, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Just how long do you think all of this investigation crap is going to take?”

“I guess that depends on how many friends you have who need to be investigated.”

She looked up at him, her sparkly brown eyes about as sad as he’d ever seen in a pretty little girl. “Then I guess that this will be the world’s shortest investigation, won’t it, Agent Cruz?”

He was reading his tablet well past midnight when he heard her moving around her bedroom. After the shower had turned off, it had been quiet in there for hours, but with no balcony and a lone window on the fifth floor, he was pretty comfortable waiting on the couch until morning. He’d checked on her a few times, sleeping soundly like a little girl, her famous blonde hair tossed across one pillow and another snuggled to her belly like a teddy bear, the picture showcasing a touch of the sweet innocence her father had insisted was in there someplace.

Two other agents would relieve him by eight, and he’d go home to grab a few hours’ sleep before returning in the midafternoon. Just like last year, he’d likely max out on the Secret Service salary cap dictated by Congress. The law occasionally meant that he and his peers worked for no pay in order to meet the demands of the job, but it was a quirk he’d expected when he took the assignment.

She came out of the bedroom without warning, rubbing her eyes like she’d been sound asleep and looking almost startled to see him. Damn, she looked adorable in her bare feet and the oversized t-shirt showcasing a rainbow-colored bunny. The hem went well past her bottom, leaving long, taut thighs to tease his cock and make him wonder how far that smooth skin went before meeting up with her tight ass.

Resisting the urge to tell her to put some pants on, he acknowledged her with a nod while she moved to the kitchen, rummaging through her refrigerator in an apparently vain attempt to find what she was looking for. After her full day, he wouldn’t be surprised if she went for one of the bottles of expensive wine in her living room display rack, but instead, she pulled a carton of chocolate ice cream from the freezer and added an overly large spoon before sitting at the kitchen table with a sigh. With her blonde hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, she looked more like she could have been one of his sisters’ friends hanging out at the beach rather than the high-society, Mayflower descendant that she was.

To qualify for his position, he’d mastered a wide variety of skills, from the appropriate diplomatic responses when dealing with foreign leaders to emergency medical procedures that could keep a person alive until help arrived, but the extensive psychology courses were the most helpful to him when working with new people. This was going to be tough for her, but as long as she obeyed him, she could eat all the ice cream she wanted.

“Do you like ice cream, Agent Cruz?” she asked. The question left him a little rattled, but her open and honest expression showed no sign of bratty hostility.

“Yep, I do,” he responded sincerely. “I personally like it with chocolate fudge and chunks of brownies.”

“Well, I don’t have any fudge or brownies, but there are about a thousand calories in this box, and I’m not going to stop until it’s all gone. So, would you please get a spoon and help me eat it? It’s the least you can do to protect me.”

“And how is eating a thousand calories of ice cream protecting you?” She was damned cute when she wasn’t cussing him out, and Cruz’s stomach grumbled at the thought of a little food. Junk food wasn’t usually his meal of choice, but right about then, a bowl of chocolate ice cream did sound pretty good. Between coordinating his newest investigation at the Secret Service headquarters and meeting up with his boss and President Bradford to work out the final details of the job, he hadn’t eaten since lunch.

“I need to be protected from myself, Agent Cruz,” she added with mock sincerity. “Please… grab a spoon and eat some of this shit before I gorge myself. Unless, of course, you have something better in that backpack of yours?” she asked, waving her spoon toward his personal gear.

“No,” he responded seriously, checking each item off his fingertips. “All I have in there is some rope, a nice, soft old belt, a few spatulas, a ruler, and a random flip-flop or two. I’d love something to eat.”

Her eyes grew wide as the alternative purpose for each item registered with her new rules, and he laughed. “I’m kidding, Victoria. All I have is a peanut butter sandwich on stale bread. I haven’t had the chance to go to the grocery store in weeks.”

“I can’t really cook,” she said with a nervous shrug. “But I can probably make you a sandwich or something.”

“I looked in your fridge when I did a sweep of this place. You have three eggs and a jar of expired mayonnaise. I don’t think I’m that desperate.”

He located a spoon and considered getting a bowl for himself, but she pushed the container a little closer, so he sat next to her and took a spoonful, his empty stomach enjoying the rich decadence. She wiggled a little more in her chair before pulling her ankles up to her thighs to make herself more comfortable. Without looking at him, she asked, “Why do you call me Victoria when all the other agents call me Ms. Bradford? I thought you were all about being professional?”

“Fair question,” he conceded with a nod. “I made the conscientious effort to call you that to maintain my authority. But if it’s important to you, I’ll call you Ms. Bradford, so long as you understand that it doesn’t change anything about the power dynamics of our relationship.”

“No,” she said slowly, licking the ice cream off the back of her spoon. “I don’t mind. It’s fine.”

“I’m really not a monster,” he said seriously. “I’m more than willing to listen to what you have to say, but I’m going to make the final decision when it comes to your safety. As long as you agree to that, we’ll get along just fine.”

“And what if I don’t?” There wasn’t a hint of a nasty tone. “What if I do what I want, whenever I want? Like right now, what if I told you that I called my friend Amanda on the phone a few minutes ago, and she’s on her way over here?”

Cruz arched an eyebrow with an expression that he knew darn well would shake her up. Turning away miserably, she dropped the spoon and pushed away from the table. “Did you?” he asked darkly. “I figured we’d have this conversation, sooner or later, but I admit that I thought we’d make it until daylight.”

“Fine,” she conceded with a guilty shrug. “I admit that I called her, but I didn’t invite her over. I just wanted to see how you’d react. Don’t be mad at me, I’m sorry.”

He’d been prepared for the raging tyrant who’d terrorized the White House for years, but she’d pulled such an innocent, naughty move that he wasn’t sure how to react. “Look,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I don’t relish the idea of spanking you. So long as you understand, the next time, you won’t have that nice layer of clothing over your butt. Amanda Grant has already been vetted, and you can call her anytime you want. Just give me a heads up before you invite her over. I don’t want to shoot anybody accidently, especially a senator’s daughter.”

But the first part of that simple statement was a lie. He wouldn’t mind turning Victoria Bradford over his knee to deliver a few sensual smacks, gauging her reaction to the discipline by sliding his finger along her wet pussy, but the little shit looked at him with a Cheshire cat grin like she knew his secrets. “Do you relish the idea of spanking any women?” she asked in the same teasing tone his sisters used when asking him if he had a girlfriend.

“That,” he said firmly, tapping her nose with the back of his spoon, “is none of your business. Remember a few simple rules, and we’ll get along fantastically. I need you home at a decent hour, no drinking in a public—”

“Wait,” she interrupted. “Every time I talk to you, you’ve got some crazy new rule. Why this no drinking in public sh—stuff? That’s another rule that should be beyond your paygrade.”

“You didn’t let me finish. No drinking in a public nightclub or bar. It’s too hard in a crowded scene to watch your drink. And for right now, everything’s my responsibility. A glass of wine or a drink at a restaurant is fine, but you need to stay in control. Your boyfriend will have to understand.”

“Oh.” She reflected quietly, but her guilty expression confused him. “I guess I get that. And I guess I should also mention that I don’t actually have a boyfriend. I haven’t dated anybody for years. They were just guy friends I knew would drive my father crazy. Especially Dustin. When my dad found out about the drug conviction, I knew that he’d want to pull out the army.”

Cruz stared at her until she shuddered. “Stop looking at me like that,” she complained. “It’s like you’re visualizing me over your knee. New deal, here. I’ll behave moving forward, but you can’t hold me accountable for anything I’ve done in the past. And keep that look for something really serious because it’s… unsettling.”

“Fine,” he agreed with a laugh, pleased with her overall change in attitude. “But we aren’t just playing some game to make your father’s life easier, although I’ll never understand why you’d want to mess with a guy who has so much on his plate. There are dangers out there much more serious than a few smacks to your backside. It’s not just enemy countries with deep pockets that we have to worry about. There are dozens of domestic fringe groups who’d like to make a name for themselves, and they don’t play by any rules.”

“I know,” she said sadly, wiping a lone tear from her cheek. “No matter what you think, Agent Cruz, I’m not stupid. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s the only reason why I’m agreeing to this crazy plan. And I never set out to make his life harder. It’s just, well, it’s just been hard. Period. And I really am sorry that I hurt you in the West Wing. I was out of line, and I know it.”

“Apology accepted,” he said with a nod, “because you need to hear that to move forward.” He gave the next sentence a lot of thought before continuing. “Look, everybody just calls me Cruz. We’re going to spend a lot of time together over the next few months. Would you rather call me that?”

Nodding slowly, she sniffled a little. “Thank you, Cruz. I think I’d like that.”

They spent another half hour or so, finishing the ice cream and cleaning up before Victoria returned to her room, but the door remained ajar and a tiny light burned from her bathroom. As much as he was pleased that she was taking the threats seriously, he was subdued by the reality that the poor little thing was frightened in her own home.

He stayed on alert during the night, and she was still sound asleep under a pile of blankets when Bukowski arrived the next morning to relieve him, followed shortly after by Richard London, a fifteen-year Secret Service veteran who’d openly criticized the agency’s decision to put MacMillan in charge of the White House. Despite the fact that Cruz had agreed with him, their relationship was strictly professional.

“Cruz,” he acknowledged without keeping his voice down. Looking toward the half-open bedroom door, he added, “How was your first night babysitting? I appreciate all the changes you’ve made. We usually sit in the hallway on this assignment, but it’ll be nice to have a more comfortable chair.”

While he spoke, Victoria came into the living room in the same cartoon-themed t-shirt she’d gone to bed in, but she blushed deeply at the sight of the newcomers and slipped into a pair of jeans that had been resting lazily over a chair. Crossing to the kitchen, she acknowledged the newcomers with a miserable nod before starting some coffee in a fancy single serve machine.

None of this was fair. A kid like Victoria should have the right to walk around their own place naked if they wanted to. He scowled before turning back to London. “It was peaceful,” he said, hoping to ease her discomfort with a little professionalism. “What are your plans for today, Ms. Bradford?”

“I really wasn’t planning on much,” she said with a shrug. “Being unemployed has its advantages. I thought I’d meet some friends for lunch and maybe take a yoga class this afternoon. I can walk to both of them.”

“That sounds fine, but take the car the White House is sending over this morning. It’s less conspicuous than your Audi. And wear the sunglasses and a hat; that blonde hair of yours gives you away like a spotlight. Leave the building through the back door, too, and maybe we can avoid the media.”

Turning to the agents, he added, “During the daytime, one of you should post in the hallway and try to give Ms. Bradford as much privacy as you can. When will Rivers be back?”

“He’s out of town until next Monday,” warned London. “But he isn’t going to be happy with this assignment. He put his time in with this one last year and said he was done.”

Victoria cringed, but Cruz rankled. “Watch your mouth, London. If you can’t remain professional, you can leave right now. Ms. Bradford deserves that level of respect.”

London looked surprised at the reprimand, but backed down with a nod. Bashing Victoria Bradford had been a common pastime for his office, but that was going to stop. He couldn’t protect her from all the negativity in her life, but he’d damn well step up where he could. And if he had anything to say about it, Richard London wasn’t getting anywhere near her after this shift.

Victoria’s mouth was open slightly, but she pulled her shoulders back with a little sign of strength. “Thank you, Agent Cruz. I’m sure that today will be fine.”

That’s all until next week’s installment! If you’re aching to finish right now, though, just click below and buy the book!

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