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T-MINUS CHAPTER ONE

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THE PRESIDENT’S COUNTRY HOME
Northern Virginia
Saturday, 1:00 a.m.

La-la-la-la-la-la-la.

With a moan, I roll over.

La-la-la-la-la-la-la.

Groggily, I open my eyes.

La-la-la-la-la-la-la.

My hand flies out to the nightstand, batting at my
phone. Erik, my goofball brother, must have programmed
it with a new ringtone. I would never pick a la-la tone.
Through the darkness of my bedroom, I squint at
the display. Dad? I look at the time. 1:00 a.m. Why is he
calling me from downstairs?

“Dad?” I croak and then clear my throat. “Why are
you calling me from downstairs?”

“Sophie,” Dad rushes, and his voice shoots the
sleepiness right out of me.

I sit up in bed. “What is it?”

“I need—” His voice catches, and with it, my heart
lurches.

“What’s going on? Are you okay? Where’s Mom?”

“Please tell me you know where your brother is.”

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“Sophie, wake up,” Frank calls from the hallway.

“You need to come downstairs,” Dad orders. “Now.”

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“I’m coming in.” My door opens, and Frank, my Secret Service agent,
steps inside. He takes one look at me sitting in the bed
with the phone clenched in my hand, and his expression
turns calm. He does that in order to keep me just as calm.

My dad clicks off, and I still can’t move. What’s going
on?

Frank efficiently glides around the room, turning on
a light before grabbing jeans, a white hoodie, and my
running shoes. He lays them on the bed, gently takes the
phone from my hand, and quietly puts it aside. Numbly, I
stare at the clothes he’s laid out. Why am I getting dressed?

Frank crouches down beside my bed, and I turn my
head and look into his kind blue eyes. He’s been with me
and my family forever, even worked for my mom back
when she was governor.

He doesn’t have any children. If I had a daughter I’d
want her to be just like you. He told me that once, and I
remember thinking I would do anything to make him proud.

“You need to get up and get dressed,” he says softly.

My throat rolls with a swallow. Something is really
wrong.

He stands. “Two minutes.”

Erik… I close my eyes. I have to focus. Why does Dad
want to know where my brother is? My God, did he sneak
out again? I’m going to kill him.

“Sophie.” Frank firms his tone. “I need a verbal response.”

My eyes open, and my brain shifts and moves with
the facts. Dad just called me. He needs me downstairs.
They can’t find my brother. And—my lungs contract for
a breath. “Where’s Mom?”

“She’s safe,” he assures me. “For now.”

Oh, Jesus. What does that mean?

“Two minutes,” he reminds me and then leaves my room.

I slide off the bed, and with trembling hands I take
the clothes he laid out, tugging them on over my tank
top and boxers. On my nightstand lies the vintage American flag
necklace that my grandmother gave me and that I only
take off when I sleep or shower. I clasp it on, grab my
iPhone, and meet Frank out in the hall. As we head
downstairs, I bring up the tracker on my brother’s phone,
but it registers that he’s here. Meaning his phone is here,
not him.

Downstairs, our living room is packed with agents, my
parents, and other people I don’t know. This is definitely
not just about Erik.

Dad sees me, and his jaw hardens as he comes straight
toward me. “Did you know your brother left?”

Icy alarm skips down my spine, and I run a worried
look around everyone in the room. “What’s going on?”

Dad’s light brown eyes narrow in on me. “Did you?”
he sternly repeats.

My head jerks with a shake, and panic clenches
through me. “No, I promise. Please just tell me what’s
going on.”

His firm jaw does not soften as he puts a warm and
heavy hand on my shoulder. This isn’t him. He’s never
scared and is the most levelheaded person I know. Even
more so than my mom, the president. But looking at his
strained expression, it’s not good.

He takes a breath, staring deeply into my eyes.
“There’s a domestic terrorist group that’s put a hit out
on your mother.”

“What?” I gasp.

Dad’s arm slides around my shoulders as he pulls me
over into the corner so we can talk privately. “Protocol
dictates they separate all of us in these situations. We’ll
each be taken to a secure location until the threat is
eliminated.”

“No.” I shake my head. “I don’t want to be separated.”

The sound of everything going on in the room buzzes in
my head, and my father’s expression softens a little.
“It’s going to be okay. Go with Frank. He’ll keep you
safe.”

My fingers dig into my dad’s sturdy forearm. I’m
aware of protocol, but this is the first time in the three
years Mom has been president that we’ve ever followed it.
Which means they think the threat is serious. Very serious.
“But what about you and Mom? What about Erik?”

Dad’s momentary soft expression turns hard again.
Brave, like he’s trying to demonstrate how he wants me
to be, because if he’s scared, it’ll frighten me more. But he
doesn’t answer my question because the room is breaking
up now, and we’re about to be separated.

He pulls me in for a hug, and I grip him hard as I lay
my head on his chest. He shifts a little, lowering his mouth
to my ear. “Do not trust anyone. Your mother thinks this
is coming from someone on the inside.”

My breath hitches. “What?”

Mom moves away from the people she is talking to
and across the room to where we stand.

Earlier in the evening we fought over the nose
piercing that I want. Yesterday we argued about my desire for independence.
The day before that it was about my college choices. I swear I’m not complaining. I have an amazing life, but every once in a while, it would be great to have a little
free time. Yes, we’ve been disagreeing a lot lately on
pretty much everything. Now, though, the whole thing seems so trivial.

Taking me from Dad’s embrace, she wraps me up in
slender arms. For someone so tiny, she has the sturdiest
hugs. I close my eyes and inhale her familiar coconut
scent. I’ve always loved that she doesn’t wear perfume
and smells like the homemade soap we make together.
These days our soap making is the only time we don’t
argue. It’s an unspoken truce that gives us a chance to
be together without all the crazy in the rest of our lives.

“Dad told me,” I whisper, and she doesn’t respond,
just kisses me firmly on the cheek before stepping away.

She looks me in the eyes, smiling a little. It’s a forced
one, meant to give me assurance. It doesn’t, though. It
only ramps up my nerves.

Agents step in then, and we’re ushered off in separate
directions.

Do not trust anyone. Your mother thinks this
is coming from someone on the inside.