Introducing… The First Family Series!

Holy crap, I’ve been sitting on this bombshell for MONTHS, having to bite my tongue not to accidentally give away the surprise! I know some of you are sitting there asking WTF is happening. Let me explain…

Earlier this year, I left the publisher of the first fifteen Fatal books. As I was writing Fatal Fraud, it became clear to me that the way forward for me with Fatal was unsustainable with no ability to market or promote the earlier books. I can’t make another company do something, and as such, it was obvious I needed to end that chapter in Sam and Nick’s story and start a new one.

The idea for the First Family Series came to me as I was writing Fatal Fraud, after Nick announced he wasn’t going to run in the next election. I thought, what if he made that decision public, and then Nelson dropped dead? He’d be inheriting a job he just told the world he didn’t want. Not to mention the implications for Sam and their children, and holy moly, I can’t WAIT to write the First Family Series! State of Affairs, Book 1 in the new series, will pick up one second after Nick gets the phone call from the White House chief of staff letting him know the boss is dead and will follow the Cappuanos through this enormous transition from second family to first family.

I promise you this: All the things you love best about the Fatal Series will be coming with us into the new First Family Series, only there’ll be some added focus on Nick’s job (not too much—I promise) in addition to Sam’s job, which she’ll continue, despite an enormous uproar. There’ll be glamour and international intrigue and all sorts of amazing things to come, beginning with State of Affairs on April 20, 2021. We’ve included a sneak peek at State of Affairs and preorder information below.

All the characters you love in the Fatal Series will remain on the landscape, albeit some of them in new and different roles, but everyone will remain present. I understand that change is often scary, even fictional change, but I’m so excited for this new chapter in Sam and Nick’s life, and I hope you are too.

Because this development is a rather major bombshell for Fatal readers, I ask that you discuss this ONLY in the Fatal Fraud Reader Facebook Group so it can be a surprise to everyone when they get the chance to read Fatal Fraud. I’m also going to ask that you PLEASE not include mention of this development in reviews of Fatal Fraud. I want every reader to have the “holy shit” moment at the end of this book that you got to have, so please help me keep a lid on this until most of the hard-core series fans get a chance to read this book. Thank you so much for that!

I want to thank the loyal Fatal readers who’ve come on this journey with me, Sam and Nick thus far and invite you to join us at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the next part of their story. I can’t wait! Check out the video introducing State of Affairs

The phone call that changed their lives forever…

Minutes after Vice President Nick Cappuano and Lt. Sam Holland get the call that President Nelson has been found dead in the residence on Thanksgiving, they’re still processing that Nick has been asked to come to the White House to take the oath of office.

As they go through the motions to ensure a peaceful transition of power, Sam has a million and one concerns about her husband, her family, the Nelson family, the country and the enormity of what Nick is about to take on. In the back of her mind is another major concern: What does this mean for my job? No other first lady in history has held a job outside the White House, but she’s determined to be the first, to blaze new trails for those who will follow her. However, in order to do that, she quickly realizes that compromises will have to be made to continue working as a Homicide detective. 

Their lives become an immediate firestorm of meetings, requests for interviews, difficult questions from their children and a host of potential landmines to navigate as they make the transition from second family to first family. An unexpected issue with a diplomatic trip to Iran quickly thrusts Nick into the thick of his new responsibilities while Sam confronts a murder investigation that may have ties to a cold case from fifteen years ago.

As everything around them spins out of control, Sam and Nick take refuge with each other, relying on their unbreakable bond to see them through the storm.

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State of Affairs

First Family Series, Book 1

By: Marie Force

 

Chapter 1

A full minute after ending the bombshell call from the White House chief of staff, Nick Cappuano stared into the eyes of his wife, Samantha, looking to her for calm in the midst of calamity. However, he wasn’t finding calm in her lovely blue eyes. Instead he saw the same panic he felt.

President David Nelson had been found dead in the White House residence.

Nick was going to be president of the United States of America.

The Secret Service was waiting to transport him and Sam to the White House so he could take the oath of office.

Five minutes ago, they’d been in bed, commiserating after eating too much at Thanksgiving dinner. And now… Now, he needed to breathe, to remain calm, to do what needed to be done for his family and his country. “Say something.”

Sam licked her lips and looked up at him with eyes gone wild. “I… I don’t know what to say.”

“It’s going to be okay. You and me… We’ve got this. There’s nothing we can’t handle.”

She laughed, but it had a maniacal edge to it. “If you say so, Mr. President.”

Mr. President.

She was the first to ever call him that, as it should be. She was the most important person in his life.

He held her precious face in his hands and gazed into her light-blue eyes. “Before we leave this room and step onto the biggest stage in the world, I want you to hear me when I tell you this won’t change anything that matters. This—you and me and our family—will not change. I swear to you, Samantha.”

She nodded and reached for him.

He took her into his arms and held on tight to the love of his life, determined to do whatever it took to reassure her even as he tried not to freak out himself. No one needed a president who was freaking out.

President.

This could not be happening. But it was. David Nelson was dead. Nick couldn’t wrap his head around the last five minutes.

Still holding Sam, he said, “We need to get up, get dressed and make ourselves presentable for pictures that’ll be in history books for the rest of time. But no pressure or anything.”

Again, Sam’s laughter had a hysterical edge. “I… We should tell people. Like Graham, Terry, Celia, my sisters… Your dad.”

He shook his head. “They’ll find out in the morning. For right now, we need to focus only on getting to the White House.”

“We have to bring Scotty. He’d never forgive us if we didn’t.”

“Agreed. I’ll go get him up and tell Elijah what’s going on so he knows he’s in charge of the Littles.” Aubrey and Alden, the twins Sam and Nick had recently taken in after their parents were murdered, would be six on Saturday. Leaving them with their older brother, who was home from Princeton for the Thanksgiving holiday, was the right thing to do.

“Will we be allowed to come back for them?” Sam asked.

“Of course, or we’ll have the Secret Service bring them to us. Try not to worry. We’ll figure it out one step at a time.”

Sam looked around at the bedroom that was their private sanctuary, their calm in the storm of their crazy lives. “We’re going to have to move. This won’t be our home anymore.”

“This will always be our home. We can come back here anytime we want to.” He pulled back to kiss her forehead and then her lips. “We have to go, Sam. Are you going to be able to do this?”

He watched as she took a deep breath and summoned the fortitude to take this formidable next step on their journey. “I’m about to prove to you that I meant it all the times I said there was nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”

Smiling, he said, “I love you more than anything. Don’t ever forget that.”

“Same.”

They got out of bed, and he pulled on a T-shirt and pajama pants and grabbed the child monitor they kept in their bedroom to alert them if the twins woke up. When Nick opened the bedroom door to go wake Scotty, he found his lead agent, John Brantley Jr., waiting to speak to him.

“We’re ready to transport you and Mrs. Cappuano to the White House, sir.”

“We need a few minutes to pull ourselves together. I’m going to wake Scotty. He’ll want to be there, and I need to tell Elijah what’s happening.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll be quick.” Nick went into Scotty’s room and sat on the edge of the bed. “Scotty.” He gave his son’s shoulder a gentle shake. In the glow of the Capitals nightlight, he watched his son’s eyes open.

“What’s wrong?”

“President Nelson has died.”

Scotty’s eyes went wide as the implications hit him immediately. “Holy crap.

“That’s putting it mildly. The Secret Service is waiting to take Mom and me to the White House. Mom said you’d never forgive us if we didn’t bring you with us.”

“Hell yes, I want to be there.”

“You have to hurry.”

“Work clothes, I presume?”

Nick smiled and nodded at their code for the clothes Scotty wore when he accompanied Nick to official events—khaki pants, navy blazer, dress shirt and tie. Nick got up and headed for the door.

“Dad?”

He turned back to his son.

“Are you wigging out?”

“Trying not to.”

“How about Mom?”

“Same.”

“Are we bringing the Littles?”

“They’re asleep, so we’re going to have them stay here with Elijah for now. I think it would be confusing and upsetting for them until we have time to explain what’s happening.”

“That’s a good call.”

Nick smiled at his adorable son. “Glad you agree. I’m going to tell Elijah. Hurry up and get ready, okay?”

“I’m hurrying, and in case I forget to tell you later, I’m super proud of you, even if it’s gonna be kinda weird at first.”

Nick grinned. “Thanks, bud. That means the world to me. We’ll get through it. Like I told Mom, nothing that really matters will change. As long as we’re all together, we can handle whatever comes our way.”

“I guess we’re gonna find out if that’s true. Thanks for getting me up. Mom was right—I never would’ve forgiven you if you hadn’t.”

“We had a feeling. You probably know this, but you can’t say anything to anyone about this until the White House releases the news.”

“I never would.”

“Thanks. Be back in a few.”

Nick went up to the third floor, where they’d made a bedroom for Elijah across the hall from the loft Nick had put together as a sanctuary for him and Sam to get away from it all. He knocked on Elijah’s closed door.

“Come in.”

Nick opened the door to find Elijah stretched out on the bed watching a movie on his laptop.

“What’s up?” Elijah asked.

“I have to tell you something that you can’t tell anyone. I need your word.”

“You have it.”

“President Nelson was found dead in the residence a short time ago. Sam, Scotty and I are headed to the White House so I can be sworn in.”

“Holy. Shit.” Elijah sat up on the bed. “I, um… Wow.

Nick handed the child monitor to Elijah. “We’re going to leave the twins here with you for now. I think it would scare them if we woke them to take them with us.”

“Yes, that’s better. I’ll talk to them when they get up, and then we can figure out what’s next. But Jesus, Nick… I mean…”

“Believe me, I know. As I said to Sam and Scotty, nothing that matters will change. We’re still a family. You and the twins are still our family, and we’re going to stick together and get through this. I promise.”

The young man nodded, but Nick saw the same wariness, fear and uncertainty they were all feeling.

“Try to get some sleep. It’s going to be a crazy few days.”

“Ah, yeah, sure,” Elijah said, laughing. “Not seeing a lot of sleep in my future tonight.”

“I don’t want you to worry about anything.”

“I’ll try not to.”

“We’ll be in touch as soon as we can about what’s going on.”

“Okay.”

Nick wasn’t sure what else he could say to reassure him, so he left it at that and returned to his room, where Sam was emerging from the shower, wrapped in a towel.

“I’m hurrying.”

“Thanks, love.” Nick got in the shower and ran a razor over his face, being careful not to cut himself in his haste to get ready. His thoughts swirled a mile a minute, but he concentrated only on the task at hand. Shower, shave, get dressed, get in the car, go to the White House, take the oath. If he took this one minute and one step at a time, he could hold it together to do what needed to be done.

At least he hoped so.

 

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. That was the only thought in Sam’s head for the first ten minutes after The Call that changed their lives forever. Thankfully, she’d spent some time on her hair earlier in the day and needed only to give it a good brushing to make it presentable. After messing with it for a minute, she decided on a simple, elegant knot. Her hands trembled ever so slightly as she applied makeup and mascara. Dear God… Nick was going to be the president.

He’d only recently told the world of his decision not to run in the next election. Her relief had been overwhelming. She hadn’t wanted him to be president, to be subjected to the scrutiny and stress that would come with the most important job in the world. She’d been thrilled to know he would become a private citizen again in three years, when his term as vice president ended and they got back to “normal,” whatever that was anymore.

This couldn’t be happening.

Except it was, and their lives were going to be turned upside down once again. She’d believed him when he’d said nothing that mattered would change. Their marriage was solid, and they were an awesome team.

But this…

She glanced in the mirror at him in the shower, seeing the tension in his shoulders that no one else would notice. But she saw it. She saw him, and as the dizzying array of implications settled on her, the weight of it threatened to crush her.

Yes, they’d known this was possible when Nick became vice president, but David Nelson had been a healthy man in his late sixties with decades left to live, or so they’d thought. She flattened her hands on the marble vanity and hung her head, trying to relieve the tension in her neck.

Nick had said nothing that mattered would change, but they both knew everything would.

The scrutiny, the security, the criticism, the insanity… Panic bubbled up inside her. What would she do? They’d make her give up her career as a homicide detective, the job that had defined her adult life. The realization filled her with a pervasive sadness that only compounded the grief she’d been living with since she lost her beloved dad just over a month ago. What she wouldn’t give to talk this through with Skip Holland.

He’d tell her to toughen up and do for Nick what he’d always done for her—support her one thousand percent. Nick deserved nothing less from her and would get everything she had to give him, no matter what she had to sacrifice.

And then he was there, his hands on her shoulders, kneading the tension from her muscles. He kissed her neck and made her shiver. “Whatever you’re thinking, just stop. It’s you and me all the way, babe.”

Sam turned in to his embrace and breathed in the fresh, clean scent of home, taking comfort in the familiar when everything had become uncertain in the span of one phone call.

“We really have to go,” he said.

“I know.” Sam gave herself another second to cling to life as she knew it before she reluctantly let him go, donned a robe and went across the hall to get dressed in the closet he’d had built for her. Thinking of photos that would last forever and in deference to the death of President Nelson, she chose a demure black dress and put on her diamond engagement ring and the diamond key necklace that’d been a wedding gift from Nick.

Taking a quick look in the full-length mirror on the back of the door, she decided she was presentable enough to be in photos that would be studied for generations to come. She stepped into the black Louboutins with the distinctive red soles that Nick had given her for Christmas last year, ran damp hands over her skirt to smooth the lines and tried not to think too far ahead of the next couple of hours.

She took a deep breath and released it slowly, determined to be there for him the way he always was for her. So much of their life together had been about her—her job, her family, her needs. This was about Nick, and she was determined to support him in every possible way as he took on the role that would define his life—and hers, whether she wanted that or not.

“You can do this,” she told her reflection. “You can do it for him. You will do it for him.”

A soft knock on the door sounded.

Sam opened the door to him dressed in a navy blue suit, a white dress shirt, a burgundy tie and an American flag pinned to his lapel. He looked handsome, sexy, competent and slightly petrified. The rest of the world would see the calm, cool, collected man he was under pressure. Only she would know how he really felt.

“You look beautiful,” he said softly, aware of ears all around as the Secret Service hovered nearby.

“Funny, I was just thinking the same about you.” Flattening her hands on his lapels, she looked up at him. “Is Scotty ready?”

He nodded.

“Are you?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

She slid her hands down his arms and took hold of his hands, giving a gentle squeeze. “Then let’s get going.”

“Before we go, I just want to say… You certainly didn’t sign on for this.”

She went up on tiptoes to kiss him. “I signed on for you, come what may.”

“But this…”

“This will turn out to be our greatest adventure yet.” She wasn’t sure she believed that herself, but she needed him to believe it. “I love you, and I’m right here with you. Always.”

“That’s all I need to know.”

“Let’s do this thing.” 

Chapter 2

They met Scotty downstairs, donned their coats and followed the Secret Service agents out the door. Sam wasn’t sure how Brant, Nick’s lead agent, had gotten there so quickly after having been off on Thanksgiving Day. He’d probably known about Nelson’s death before they had. Thinking about logistics was better than contemplating the myriad ways their lives were about to change forever. Her stomach ached the way it had years ago, when she’d been a stressed-out mess addicted to diet cola.

The limousine that usually transported Nelson was idling at the curb with a massive number of other vehicles lined up in front of and behind it. That ramped-up security presence served as further proof that everything had changed.

On the ramp that led out of their home to the sidewalk below, it occurred to her that they needed a Bible. “Nick,” she said, “I should grab the Holland family Bible.”

“That’s a good idea.”

He’d used the O’Connor family Bible to be sworn into the Senate and when he took the oath as vice president.

“Is it okay if I tell Celia what’s going on?”

“Yes, but please ask her not to tell anyone until the news is announced.”

“I will.” Sam moved to the left, heading for her late father’s home three doors down from theirs.

“Mrs. Cappuano,” Brant said. “Where’re you going?”

“To get our family Bible.”

Brant nodded to one of the other agents, indicating that she should follow Sam.

Sam wanted to remind him that she wasn’t officially under their protection, but she’d be fighting that battle in the days to come. She went up the ramp to Celia’s front door and knocked. A few seconds later, the outside light came on as locks were disengaged.

Celia, who was wearing a robe, seemed surprised to see Sam there. “Come in.” She opened the storm door. “What’re you doing out so late? And why are you all made up?”

“I need to tell you something that you can’t tell anyone else.”

“All right…”

“President Nelson passed away.”

Celia gasped. “What? When?”

“He was found dead a short time ago.”

Her eyes went wide as the implications seemed to hit her all at once. “So that means… Dear God, Sam.”

“Believe me, I know. I was hoping I could borrow the Holland family Bible.”

“Of course. Do you know where it is?”

“The last time I saw it, it was on the bookshelf in Dad’s room. Do you mind if I run up and see if I can find it?”

“My home is your home. You know that.”

Sam kissed Celia on the cheek. “Thank you.”

She ran up the stairs to the room that had been her dad’s before he was shot on the job four years ago and left a quadriplegic. The last time she’d been in there, shortly after his death in October, she and her partner, Detective Freddie Cruz, had been looking for the messenger bag Skip had carried on the job. She hadn’t been in there again since, and when she crossed the threshold and encountered the faint scent of the Polo cologne Skip used to wear, a million and one memories hit her in a tsunami of emotions.

Oh, how she missed him.

She found the Bible on the small bookshelf that also held numerous volumes about investigative techniques as well as fictional thrillers, held it to her chest and gave herself a second to wallow in the presence of Skip Holland in this place that had been his private sanctuary.

“Dad, if you can hear me, things are about to get crazy for me and Nick and the kids. Keep an eye on us, will you? Do whatever you can to keep him safe and give me a clue of how I’m supposed to deal with this. I’ll take whatever you’ve got. I miss you every minute of every day, but never more so than right now.”

Knowing Nick was waiting for her and time was of the essence, she left the room and went downstairs.

“I’m glad you found it,” Celia said. “Please let me know what I can do for you, Nick or the kids. Anything you need, I’m right here.”

Sam put down the Bible and hugged her. “I’m so scared.” She could count on one hand the number of times she’d said those words out loud in her adult life. Sam wasn’t known for being scared, but this…

“I’m sure you are,” Celia said. “But if anyone can pull this off, you can. I have complete faith in you.”

“Thank you. I needed that. I’ll call you later.”

“I’ll be waiting to hear from you. I’ll pray for you and Nick. Our country is lucky to have you both.”

She retrieved the Bible. “Keep telling me that, okay?”

“Anytime you need to hear it.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Sam went outside and down the ramp to the sidewalk, where the Secret Service agent waited for her. She hurried to the waiting limousine and got in the back seat next to Nick. Scotty sat across from them, his brows furrowed with the same anxiety she was feeling.

Nick reached for her hand. “I was just telling Scotty that the limo used to transport the president is known as The Beast.”

“Why do they call it that?” Scotty asked.

“Because it’s heavily armored and fortified against every form of threat, even a bomb.”

Whoa.” Scotty looked outside the window. “Is the motorcade way bigger than it was before?”

“Yep. The president gets a lot more security than anyone else.”

“Does the Secret Service call it The Beast too?”

Nick shook his head. “They use the name Stagecoach for the president’s car.”

“Ah, okay.”

“This car has a lot of the same survival features I had put into Mom’s car when I had it tricked out for safety,” Nick said. “I had it done at the same facility that produced this car. Like with hers, we could live for days inside this car if we ever had to.”

“Let’s hope we never have to.” Sam couldn’t bear to think of him being in that kind of danger. “You really should call your dad. He shouldn’t hear this on the news.”

“I was thinking that too.” Nick retrieved his phone and placed the call to his dad, Leo, putting it on speaker so Sam and Scotty could hear.

“Hey,” Leo said. “Didn’t I just see you?”

“You did. I’m in the car with Sam and Scotty, and we have some news to share, but you have to keep it confidential.”

“Okay… Is everything all right?”

“President Nelson passed away earlier tonight. We’re on the way to the White House so I can be sworn in as president.”

“Oh my God, Nicky. Wow. How do you feel?”

“Uh, can I get back to you on that?”

Leo laughed.

“I didn’t want you to hear it on TV.”

“Thank you for the call, and… I don’t even know what to say, son.”

“Right there with you. We’re a little speechless ourselves.”

“Do you know what happened to Nelson?”

“Not yet.”

“If there’s anything we can do, anything at all, just call.”

“We will. Thanks, Dad.”

“I’m so proud, Nicky. So very proud.”

“Thank you. We’ll be in touch when we can.”

“Take care, son. You too, Sam and Scotty. We love you guys.”

“Thanks, Leo,” Sam said. “We love you too.”

Nick ended the call and put his phone back in his pocket. On the short ride to Pennsylvania Avenue, he held on tight to Sam’s hand.

The feel of his hand wrapped around hers calmed her as parts and pieces of his words from earlier echoed through her mind. Nothing will change. The most important thing is us and our family. We can do anything if we do it together.

One question burned at the tip of her tongue—What about my job?—but she knew this wasn’t the time to ask. A minute at a time. That’s how they had to approach this life-changing challenge, and when they got a minute to breathe, she’d address the issue with Nick. To her knowledge, no first lady in history had ever worked outside the White House while her husband was the president.

Her case was somewhat unique, however, as most first families relocated from outside the DC area. Sam’s job was right in Washington, so no relocation was needed. For that reason, she held out hope that they could work something out to allow her to continue to do the job she loved. Nick had enough on his mind right now, and she wasn’t about to add to his worries, but she had no doubt that the topic of her job would be an issue sooner rather than later.

Her phone rang with a call from Dani Carlucci, one of her third-shift detectives, reminding her that while her life was changing by the second, no one at work knew that. Sam showed Nick the caller ID on her phone. “You mind if I take this?”

“Of course. Go ahead.”

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Sorry to bother you on Thanksgiving, Lieutenant, but I thought you’d want to know that Gigi’s in the hospital.” Carlucci had recently told Sam she was concerned that her partner, Detective Giselle “Gigi” Dominguez, was in an unsafe relationship.

“What happened?”

“An altercation with the boyfriend.”

“Oh God. Is she okay?”

“He tuned her up pretty good. The biggest concern at the moment is a concussion and possible injury to her spleen.”

Sam closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Is he in custody?”

“Not yet. We’re looking for him.” Carlucci sounded stressed and pissed. “I should’ve gotten involved.”

“You tried, Dani. She told you she didn’t want it.”

“Still… I should’ve done it anyway. Sorry again for bothering you. I thought you’d want to know.”

“I definitely want to know. Which hospital is she in?”

“GW.”

“Listen, I’d come if I could, but I’m in the middle of something, and I can’t get there right now.” She glanced at Nick as his lips curved into a small smile at her massive understatement. “Please keep me posted, okay?”

“I will. Thanks, LT.”

Long after the line went dead, Sam stared at the phone in her hand, torn between competing needs. At any other time, she’d already be on her way to GW to see what she could do to help her injured detective and to keep Gigi’s partner from doing something stupid. But that wasn’t possible right now.

“What’s going on?” Nick asked.

“Gigi Dominguez’s boyfriend beat her up. She’s got a concussion and something with her spleen.” Sam knew Nick would understand that she’d want to be with her officers at a time like this. So she acted quickly to keep him from thinking about anything other than the massive thing he was about to do. She flipped open her phone and called Gonzo.

The phone rang four times before he picked up. “Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”

Sam cringed over what she was about to ask of her sergeant on his wedding night, but he was second in command to Sam, and she wanted Dani to focus on her friend and partner rather than the effort to locate Gigi’s boyfriend. Sam was also concerned about what Dani would do if she got her hands on the guy. “I need a huge favor.”

“Okay…”

“Dominguez has been having some trouble with her boyfriend, and it exploded into something physical tonight. She’s at GW with a concussion and other injuries. I can’t go there for reasons you’ll hear about very soon.”

“Seriously, Sam?”

“Dead seriously. Carlucci is about to lose her shit because she knew something was brewing and didn’t intervene. I’m worried about them both. I’d never ask this of you, especially tonight, if it wasn’t urgent.”

“I know,” he said, sighing. “I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

“Thanks, Gonzo.”

“You owe me big.”

“Huge, and this won’t ever be forgotten.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Keep me posted.”

“Will do.”

She closed the phone again, satisfied that she’d done what she could under the circumstances. Hauling Gonzo out of bed on his wedding night was a big ask, but he was the one she needed to handle this since she couldn’t be there.

“I’m sorry you’re not able to be with them right now,” Nick said, sounding pained.

“It’s fine. I’m where I need to be.”

“Still…”

“It’s okay.” If she couldn’t be there, Gonzo was the next best thing. He’d keep a lid on Carlucci and make sure others within the department were doing everything they could to apprehend the guy who’d hurt Dominguez.

This is how it’ll be now, Sam thought, gazing out the window as the limo flew down deserted streets that would be packed with cars in just a few hours. Nonstop competing demands.

In a matter of minutes, they were pulling up to one of the White House entrances, where they were greeted by Nelson’s chief of staff, Tom Hanigan, and Derek Kavanaugh, Nick’s close friend and Nelson’s deputy chief of staff.

What would happen to Derek and the rest of Nelson’s staff now that he was gone? She remembered Nick saying after Senator John O’Connor died that the fortunes of political staffers rose and fell with their bosses. When John had been murdered, Nick had lost his best friend and his job as John’s chief of staff.

Hanigan shook hands with Nick. “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss.”

Hanigan and Nelson had been old friends from South Dakota.

“Thank you. It’s a shock, to say the least. I saw him two hours before the butler found him.”

“Do you know what happened?” Nick asked.

Hanigan shook his head. “It wasn’t immediately obvious to the medical staff, but there was no sign of foul play. They think whatever it was happened quickly.”

“I’d ask how you’re doing, but I can probably guess,” Derek said to Sam as they followed Hanigan and Nick inside. Scotty brought up the rear as they marched into the White House so Nick could be sworn in as president.

Surreal.

Sam glanced at their close friend. “One minute, I was complaining about being too full from Thanksgiving, and the next…”

“I was playing a game with Maeve while my parents watched a movie when Tom called. I came right over when I heard what happened.”

“Thanks for coming. It means a lot to us to have a friend here.”

“It’s so shocking. I saw Nelson yesterday.”

“You never know what’s coming.”

“No, you don’t,” he said with a sigh, probably thinking of his late wife, Victoria, who’d been murdered almost two years ago.

Sam held out a hand to Scotty to bring him along with them as they were led deeper into the executive mansion that would be their home. It would probably be weeks before Sam wrapped her head around the events of this evening. How long, she wondered, would it take for the shock to subside and reality to set in?

She was due back to work in three days. Would they let her go? The possibility that they wouldn’t was unthinkable.

One step at a time, she reminded herself. One step at a time.

They were taken to the East Room and offered refreshments.

“Nothing for me, thanks,” Nick said, glancing to Sam and Scotty.

“Could I please have a Coke?” Scotty asked the tuxedo-clad butler.

“Absolutely.”

“I’m Scotty Cappuano.” He extended a hand to the older Black man. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Clearly delighted by the boy’s manners, the man said, “I’m LeRoy Chastain, one of the White House butlers, and it’s a pleasure to meet you too, young man.”

“This is my mom, Sam.”

LeRoy shook hands with her. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

Sam wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to call her ma’am, but she knew that would be pointless. “You as well, LeRoy.”

“May I get you anything, ma’am?”

“I’m good, but thank you.”

LeRoy nodded and went to get the drink for Scotty.

“Way to finagle another Coke,” Sam said. “They’ll be told to limit you to one per day.”

“There has to be some benefit to being the first son. I mean, if a man has to live his life surrounded by Secret Service, he ought to be able to have a Coke at the end of a long day.”

Derek choked back a laugh that he tried to cover with a cough.

“He’s going to be on the Supreme Court someday,” Sam said.

“If I can pass eighth-grade algebra, that is,” Scotty said.

“We’re waiting for Mrs. Nelson,” Hanigan said. “She’s en route from Pierre.” The Nelsons had been living apart since Nelson’s affair with a campaign staffer became public. “We thought it would be important for the optics to have her here when you take the oath. She’s two hours out.”

So they’d have to wait. Great… Sam was impatient at the best of times.

LeRoy returned with a tall, icy cola for Scotty as well as a pitcher of ice water with glasses and a tray of cheese, crackers, grapes and cookies.

Living at the White House might have a few perks after all.

“Thank you, LeRoy,” Sam said.

“You’re most welcome, ma’am. If there’s anything at all we can do for you, please let us know. I’ll be close by.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

“We’re here to serve you and your family.”

They would have a household staff. Sam had no idea what to think about that. The very idea of it made her exquisitely uncomfortable as someone who’d grown up with a blue-collar work ethic and parents who’d made their daughters do chores and learn to take care of themselves.

Hanigan asked for a word with Derek, which gave Sam, Nick and Scotty a second to themselves.

Nick put his arm around her and kissed her temple. “How’re you doing?”

“Just dandy. You?”

“Even dandier.”

Scotty laughed. “You guys are so weird, even in the White House.” He helped himself to another cheese and cracker as well as a handful of grapes. “It’s pretty cool that we can get snacks and stuff anytime we want them.”

“You’re going to get your own snacks,” Nick said, “and not become spoiled by the White House staff.”

“Why do parents have to ruin everything fun?”

“That’s our job,” Sam said.

“What does this mean for our dog project?” Scotty asked. “My birthday and Christmas are coming up, and either would be the perfect opportunity to gift me with a dog. I checked Google on the way over here, and did you know that most presidents and their families have at least one dog? Many of them have two. We should try to keep up with tradition by getting two dogs. History will be watching.”

“I can’t with this kid,” Sam said to Nick. “You’re the one who found him and brought him home. Deal with him, will you?”

Nick and Scotty laughed.

“I know it’s not the time or the place,” Scotty said. “So don’t mind me.”

“It’s still under advisement,” Nick said. “We’ve got a few things to figure out first, and then we’ll see what we can do, okay?”

“Okay.” Scotty held up his hands. “Not trying to make it about me or anything.”

“We appreciate the comic relief,” Nick said.

Hanigan returned a few minutes later. “Mr. Vice President, if I might have a word.”

“Duty calls,” Nick said. “I’ll be back. Don’t go running for the exits when I’m not looking.”

“We’ll be here,” Sam said.

“Counting on that.” Nick left them with a smile as he went off with Hanigan to see to the fate of the free world.

“He’s losing it, isn’t he?” Scotty asked.

“He’s always calm and cool under pressure, but he has to be having a meltdown on the inside. Anyone would be.”

“Is it going to be a thing that he just told the world he doesn’t want the job?”

“I suppose it probably will be.” Sam was already exhausted from battles they hadn’t even fought yet. “But if anyone can navigate something like this, Dad can. He’s been working in this game his entire adult life. He knows what strings to pull and how to get things done.”

“That’s true. He’ll figure out a way to spin it as a positive thing, even if he just said he didn’t want it.” Scotty gave her a wary look. “Are you losing it and pretending not to be?”

“What? Me, lose it? Nah.”

“Right… What about your job?”

Leave it to him to home right in on her biggest concern, other than the loss of privacy, the scrutiny, the security “I don’t know, buddy. I just don’t know.”

“But you’re going to fight to keep it, right?”

She looked at him, noting the wary expression on his sweet face. “Hell yes.”

 Chapter 3

Hanigan escorted Nick to the West Wing and into the chief of staff’s office, where Nelson’s national security advisor Teresa Howard waited for them.

She stood to shake hands with Nick. “Mr. Vice President, you were briefed yesterday about the ongoing situation in Iran?”

“I was.”

“Earlier today, I updated President Nelson on the latest developments.” Teresa provided a detailed analysis of message traffic intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies. “We believe they’re planning to test a nuclear warhead in the next seven to ten days. President Nelson authorized Secretary of State Ruskin to leave tomorrow with orders to defuse the situation. We need to know if you wish to continue with that plan.”

It’s up to me, Nick thought, whether the U.S. secretary of State traveled to Iran on a mission to calm a potentially dangerous situation for the U.S. and the rest of the world. “What specifically did President Nelson instruct the secretary to do?”

Teresa went through the list of concerns and demands that the secretary would take with him.

“What about sanctions?” Nick asked.

“They’re on the table if diplomacy fails,” Teresa said.

Nick nodded. “Tell him to go ahead.”

Hanigan picked up the phone to pass along Nick’s order.

“If there’s anything I can do to assist in the transition, I’m at your service, sir,” Teresa said.

“Thank you, Teresa.”

She shook his hand before she left the room.

It would also be up to him whether to retain Nelson’s staff, cabinet and advisers or to bring in his own people. He’d give them the opportunity to resign if they wished to, and go forward from there. Nelson’s team would be loyal to the late president, not him. He didn’t want anyone working for him who didn’t want to be there, or who’d be unable to transfer their loyalties to him.

When Hanigan hung up the phone, he said, “All set. Ruskin will leave as scheduled in the morning.”

“I’d like to call Terry to notify him of what’s happened.” Nick referred to his chief of staff, Terry O’Connor. “Is there any reason why I shouldn’t do that?”

“Not that I can think of, but of course please ask him to keep it under wraps until we’ve prepared the official statement for the media. Our primary goal is to get Mrs. Nelson here and swear you in. After that, we’ll release the video of you taking the oath along with information about President Nelson’s death. I don’t have to tell you how important it is that this story gets released on our timeline and not someone else’s. Thankfully, the press corps presence is light tonight with it being a holiday.”

Nick certainly understood the importance of optics at a time like this. “I’d still like to call Terry and my communications director, Trevor Donnelly.”

“Mr. Vice President, you’re the boss. You can call anyone you want as long as you trust them to be discreet.”

“I’d trust them both with my life.”

“Please feel free to use my office.”

“I’ll go to my own, but thank you.” Nick left Hanigan’s office and encountered Brant outside, waiting for him as always. “Sorry to interrupt your holiday, Brant.”

“No such thing as holidays in my line of work, sir.”

Nick had grown to like the earnest young man charged with leading his detail and considered him a friend. “What a night.”

“Indeed, sir.”

They walked to the vice president’s office together. He didn’t feel right using the Oval Office until he’d taken the oath and the staff had the chance to remove President Nelson’s personal effects.

“I’ll be here for a few minutes before I rejoin Sam and Scotty in the East Room.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nick went into his office and closed the door. The first thing he did was reach for his cell phone to text Sam. Be back in a few.

We’re fine, she replied. Take your time.

She was so calm. So unnaturally calm that it had to be shock. Her mind was probably racing the same way his was with details, scenarios and concerns. So many concerns.

He picked up the extension on his desk and put through the call to Terry, who answered on the second ring.

“Mr. Vice President.” No matter how many times Nick told him to call him by his first name, Terry rarely did. “Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.”

“We did, until about an hour ago when Hanigan called to tell me President Nelson had passed away.”

What?

Nick could almost hear Terry sitting up straighter and see the shock in his expression. “You heard that right.”

“What happened?”

“No one knows yet, but Hanigan said there was no immediate sign of foul play. I assume there’ll be an autopsy that’ll hopefully provide some answers. Sam, Scotty and I are at the White House awaiting Mrs. Nelson’s arrival from South Dakota before I take the oath.”

“I’ll be right there.”

“Had a feeling you might say that. Needless to say—”

“I won’t say a word, sir. To anyone.”

“Thank you. Will you ask Trevor to come too?”

“I’ll take care of that. Mr. Vice President… Nick…”

“I know. I’ll see you soon?”

“On my way.”

Nick was relieved to know his own people were coming to help guide him through these next few hours. With that detail taken care of, he was eager to get back to Sam and Scotty. He was on his way to the office door when a thought occurred to him that had him returning to his desk to place another call, this one to Sam’s chief of staff, Lilia Van Nostrand. Since he didn’t have her number, he asked the White House switchboard to put through the call for him.

“Mr. Vice President,” Lilia said when she took the call. “Is everything all right?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you on a holiday, Lilia.”

“It’s no problem at all, sir.”

“I’m also sorry to have to tell you that President Nelson died this evening.”

“Oh my God. What happened?”

“We don’t know yet. Mrs. Nelson is on her way from South Dakota, and when she gets here, I’ll take the oath. I thought it might be helpful to Sam to have you here, if that’s at all possible.”

“I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Thank you for calling me, sir.”

“If my friend is with you, please ask him to join you.” Lilia was dating Nick’s close friend Dr. Harry Flynn.

“I’ll do that.”

“I’ll see you when you get here.”

Nick felt a thousand times better knowing Sam’s trusted aide would be there to see her through this challenging transition. Making sure she was cared for would be one of his top priorities over the coming days and weeks. She’d already had her world rocked recently when she lost her dad. Added to that, this new development might be enough to take her right over the edge.

She was on his mind as he left the office and went to rejoin her, determined to guide their family through these tumultuous days the best he could. They’d take their lead from him, and he would show them nothing but calm, cool collectedness, even as he quaked on the inside.

 

Mrs. Nelson arrived shortly after midnight in a Marine helicopter that landed on the South Lawn after having conveyed her from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Her daughters, Amanda, Camille and Collette, accompanied her, all of them wearing expressions of shock and sorrow.

Sam and Nick were waiting for them as they came inside.

Nick went to Mrs. Nelson. “Please accept our heartfelt condolences.”

Sam and Nick both hugged her.

Sam partook in the proceedings with a surreal feeling and sympathy for the late president’s family. Derek had told her that the image of the late president’s wife standing next to the new president would provide assurances to the country and the world that a smooth transition of power had occurred.

“Thank you,” Gloria said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue Collette handed her.

“We’re sorry for the loss of your father,” Nick said to her daughters.

“Do they know what happened?” Camille asked.

“I haven’t heard anything yet,” Nick said, “but due to national security concerns, there’ll be an autopsy.”

“Yes, we need to know,” Gloria said. “The country needs to know.”

“We’re taking care of everything, ma’am,” Hanigan said.

“Oh, Tom.” Gloria hugged their old friend. “You must be heartbroken too.”

“We all are, ma’am.”

They were escorted by Hanigan, Derek and other staffers Sam didn’t recognize back to the East Room, where Chief Justice Byron Riley waited for them. Also in the room were Terry O’Connor, Lilia Van Nostrand and her partner, Dr. Harry Flynn.

Sam was surprised to see her friend and aide and went to hug Lilia and Harry. “Thank you for being here.”

“Your husband thought it might help,” Lilia said.

“He’s the best, and so are you.”

“Everything will be okay.”

Sam released the other woman, who had been such an asset to her as second lady. “Promise?”

“I promise.”

“You got this, kid.” Harry gave Sam a warm smile that displayed his adorable dimples. “I know this isn’t what you’d had planned, but you’re going to be great. I know it.”

Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly, giving them a bug-eyed look that made them smile. They might’ve laughed if Mrs. Nelson and her daughters hadn’t been there. It wouldn’t do to show any sort of frivolity in the face of their tragic loss.

Nick held out a hand to her. “Samantha?”

For a second, she was frozen, unable to move or think or breathe out of sheer panic, the likes of which she hadn’t felt in quite some time. But then his earnest hazel-eyed gaze collided with hers, calming and centering her the way no one else could. She went to him and took his hand.

The White House photographer arranged them the way he wanted them with Riley in the center, Sam holding the Bible for Nick with Scotty at her side. Gloria Nelson and her daughters were to their right. A camera crew recorded the event on behalf of the White House press corps. The footage of the swearing-in would be released along with the news of Nelson’s death, all of it carefully choreographed.

“If you’d place your right hand on the Bible and repeat after me,” Riley said. “I, Nicholas Domenic Cappuano, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.”

After Nick had repeated the oath, Riley shook his hand and then Sam’s and Scotty’s. “Congratulations, Mr. President, Mrs. Cappuano, young Mr. Cappuano.”

“Thank you for being here, Justice Riley,” Nick said.

“My prayers and best wishes are with you and your family as you rise to this occasion, Mr. President,” Riley said.

“Thank you so much.”

After Riley left, Hanigan and Terry approached them.

“Is it okay to release the news, sir?” Hanigan asked.

Nick had agreed to the wording of the release before the swearing-in, but this would tell the rest of the world that the United States of America had a new president. “Yes, please go ahead.” The release would mention that he’d be addressing the nation at eight p.m. Eastern Time. It would also report that he’d already been briefed on several pressing issues and had been given the preliminary information he needed as the new keeper of the nation’s nuclear security codes.

“I’d like to get Sam and Scotty home to bed if there’re no objections.”

“We have one additional piece of business that can’t wait until the morning,” Hanigan said.
“We need about fifteen minutes. Would you like to send your family home, or have them wait?”

“We’ll wait for you,” Sam said to Nick. “Take your time.”

“We’ll get him right back to you,” Hanigan said.

 

Hanigan led Nick and Terry to the West Wing and the Oval Office. A man in a military uniform followed them into the office carrying a large black bag that resembled an oversized briefcase.

The “nuclear football” was actually a metal briefcase inside a black leather “jacket” that served as a mobile command center to use in times of crisis when the president was away from regular communication centers, such as the White House Situation Room. In addition to nuclear-activation codes, the bag also contained the Black Book outlining options available to the president should retaliation be necessary, another book detailing classified site locations and a binder with Emergency Broadcast System information and procedures.

Nick had traveled with Nelson enough times to know the drill. The football would always be close at hand going forward. He hoped and prayed he’d never have to use it.

“Mr. President, I’m Lieutenant Commander Juan Rodriguez with the United States Navy. It’s my honor to serve a rotation as one of the military aides in charge of overseeing your emergency satchel.”

Nick, who was now the commander in chief, returned the other man’s salute. “Thank you, Commander.”

The phone call from Hanigan informing him of President Nelson’s death had been surreal. Taking the oath of office had been even more so. But this—realizing he was commander in chief of the United States armed forces—made his change in status as real as it got.

After briefing him on what he needed to know about the nuclear codes, Hanigan, Derek and Lieutenant Commander Rodriguez accompanied him back to the East Room, where Sam and Scotty waited for him.

“We’ll pick it up in the morning with next steps.” Hanigan shook Nick’s hand. “The usual protocol would be to put up you and your family at Blair House, but since you live locally and have established Secret Service protection there, the Secret Service has determined that you can remain in your own home until after the funeral. Mrs. Nelson will need some time to oversee the packing of their things.”

“Of course,” Nick said. “We want to be respectful of whatever she needs.”

Nick felt a huge sense of relief at knowing they’d be able to stay at their house, at least for a few more days.

“I’d like to meet with the cabinet tomorrow if you can make that happen,” Nick said to Tom and Terry.

“Yes, sir,” Tom said.

“Let’s bring Secretary of State Ruskin in by videoconference.”

“I’ll see to that.”

“And please keep Terry in the loop on anything we need to know as we make the transition.”

“Will do, Mr. President,” Hanigan said. “We’ll see you in the morning?”

“I’ll be here.”

Hanigan shook Nick’s hand. “Excellent.”

When the other man began to walk away, Nick said, “Tom.”

He turned back, gray eyebrow raised. “Yes, sir?”

“I just wanted to say… I’ve been where you are right now. The chief of staff to a high-ranking official who died in office. Like you with President Nelson, John O’Connor was also my longtime friend. If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.”

Hanigan seemed momentarily stunned by Nick’s kindness. In a cutthroat town like Washington, kindness was often in rare supply. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Before they left with the Secret Service, Nick and Sam went to the Red Room to say good night to Gloria and her daughters.

“Please let us know how we can help with the funeral and anything else you might need,” Nick said to her.

“Thank you, Mr. President.”

“Call me Nick. Please.”

Gloria’s chin wobbled as she nodded. “Nick. And Sam, I’d be happy to show you around the residence and answer any questions you may have. Let’s get that on the schedule in the next few days.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Sam said. “Thank you.”

“I was happy in this house for a long time,” Gloria said wistfully. “I hope you will be too.”

“We’ll give it all we’ve got,” Nick said.

“Don’t give it everything,” Gloria said. “We made that mistake and paid the price.” She looked up at them with shattered eyes. “Don’t let that happen to you too.”

“Come on, Mom.” Collette put her arm around her mother. “Let’s get you up to bed.”

“We’ll see you tomorrow,” Nick said. “If there’s anything at all you and your family need, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Thank you so much, Nick,” Gloria said.

Nick gestured for Scotty to come with them as he signaled to Brant that they were ready to go. They were escorted to the limo with the usual efficiency. Again, Nick sat next to Sam, while Scotty sat facing them.

“And with that, my dad became the most powerful man on earth,” Scotty said, beaming. “So freaking awesome.”

“Glad you think so,” Nick said dryly. “Let’s hope you’re still saying that when you’re in high school being trailed by agents.”

“They don’t bother me. I barely notice them anymore.”

“Until the first time you want to kiss a girl, and you’ve got agents watching,” Sam said.

Scotty wrinkled his nose. “I’m not the one who does all the kissing around here.”

Yet,” Sam said. “Just you wait.”

“Thanks for being there with me tonight, you guys,” Nick said.

“Duh, where else would we be when you were being sworn in as the freaking president?” Scotty said.

“That’s two freakings in two minutes,” Sam said. “The swear jar will be expecting your contributions.”

“That doesn’t even count as a swear. If it did, you’d be broke.”

 “So that actually happened,” Nick said on a long sigh as the rush of adrenaline seemed to leave him all at once.

Sam smiled and placed her hand on his leg. “How lucky am I to be sleeping with the president?”

“Gross,” Scotty said.

“Nothing gross about it, my friend,” Nick said.

Scotty put his hands over his ears and closed his eyes. “Get it all out of your system while the child isn’t looking.”

Nick took advantage of the opportunity to kiss his gorgeous wife. “Thanks for holding it together in there.”

“Did I hold it together? Didn’t feel that way to me.”

“You did great.”

“It was super sexy watching you give Hanigan orders,” she said with a dramatic little shiver that made him laugh.

“I know we have a lot to talk about…”

“We’ll do that tomorrow. Right now, you should just breathe.”

Scotty, who’d become bored with hiding from the kissing, was looking at his phone. “You want to know what people are saying?”

No,” Sam and Nick said together.

“I want him to sleep tonight,” Sam said. “Let’s worry about that in the morning too.”

“Good plan,” Nick said.

His insomnia was a bitch at the best of times. Nick wondered if he’d sleep at all over the next three years. Ugh, three yearsDon’t think about it, or you’ll never sleep again.

They pulled up to their house on Ninth Street a few minutes later and were escorted up the ramp and inside. “The detail seems to have expanded,” Nick said to Brant.

“Tripled, sir.”

“Are you able to go home at some point?”

“Shortly, sir. I’ll be back in the morning, and the director will want to meet with you in the next few days. They’ll want to assign more senior agents to your details.”

“Wait, what? So you won’t be my lead agent anymore?”

“Probably not, sir.”

“Yeah, that’s not happening. I’ll take care of it.”

Brant cracked a rare smile. “If you say so, sir.”

“I say so. I’ll see you in the morning. Go home. Get some sleep.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So hot and commanding,” Sam whispered, loving the way his face flushed with embarrassment.

“Hush and get your butt in bed. I’ll be right there.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”

His low growl had her laughing all the way up the stairs.

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