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Final Protocol (The Protocol Series Book 3) by Eden Butler (1)

PROLOGUE

Lia

The White House,

Private Residence,

June 2012

My body still hummed from the touch of his mouth. Eyes shut tight, I had to steady myself as I looked out of the window, holding onto the molding as though it would keep me centered and steady as the rush of memory flooded into my mind.

Cruz, loving me, never stopping, giving me everything I wanted until I could not breathe, until every cell in my body hummed like a symphony. Then, one final command I’d given him, one that he obeyed. One he didn’t seem able to ignore.

“Get inside me. Please.”

My head swimming, I focused on the grounds in front of me and in the distance, the tall mammoth that was the Washington Monument. Night had descended around the city and the monument lit up like a beacon, its luminous light shining over the reflecting pool in front of it. My eyes unfocused as I watched it, shoes at the foot of the sofa next to me, my stomach coiled tight as I waited for Cruz, something that was pathetic. Something I couldn’t keep myself from doing.

The crowd in the Oval and on the outskirts of our private residence was thinning. Only a few soft voices could be heard over the low sound of Aretha Franklin on vinyl, turntable old, but still mint next to me. The crackle of air between her voice and the next intro of music was comforting, but it did little to keep my thoughts from Cruz.

There was nothing for it—nothing I was meant to do got accomplished with more than a half-hearted thought. Meetings got attended, but I didn’t listen, didn’t offer a single opinion as the day had dragged on. There was no room for anything in my mind but the recall of Cruz taking me again and again in his Waterford condo and the growing fear of why he had not called since I left his home.

Days, it had been, and I got landed with a new agent while Cruz and Phil took on extra duty, tailing Lincoln as he hosted the Canadian Prime Minister. But now, with the sky growing darker and our Canadian guests having left an hour before, surely, Cruz would come. I’d sent him that note. Roni had been discreet, I was certain of it. Knowing my assistant, she’d personally hand delivered the note asking Cruz to make time to see me while Lincoln was distracted with yet another meeting and, God knew who else.

There was wine on the table next to me, the glass filled to the brim but I didn’t drink. Instead, I closed my eyes, letting Aretha’s rich, silky smooth voice purr in my ear as she sang about Do-Right women and men. The sound calmed me, but didn’t let me ease completely.

My eyes felt heavy against the drawl of that luxurious voice and the sweet, welcoming ache I still felt between my legs—where Cruz had been over and over again. If I wasn’t so exposed, so eager to see him, I’d have laid on that expensive Chesterfield sofa and touched myself, keeping his face at the forefront of my mind and his name leaping from my mouth as I came.

The worry was ridiculous. Cruz Solano wasn’t some random stranger I’d met and instantly wanted to bed. He’d been my first love, maybe my only real love. He’d left me in New Orleans, but he’d never left my heart.

Hell, I thought to myself, realizing how dramatic and silly I sounded. It was stupid to get so worked up, to be so damn worried. I was the First Lady. I had ties I couldn’t easily break, not without inviting the attention of the world and the press that came with it.

There was no reason for me to fret and worry over Cruz and why he’d kept himself busy and out of my sight for three days.

Then, like an answered prayer, Cruz walked into the room. I didn’t see him. Didn’t hear him utter a sound, but I felt that heavy stare against my back and when I opened my eyes, catching his reflection in the window in front of me, I relinquished all semblance of subtlety and turned, smile splitting against my mouth as I caught his gaze.

I wanted to run to him.

I wanted to kiss him and touch him, damn where we were and who would see us.

But I held back, setting my shoulders straight, trying like hell to at least appear cool and collected. Then, he nodded, unable, it seemed, to fight the quick, friendly smile he offered as he watched me walk toward him. When I stood in front of him, that smile was gone.

Cruz didn’t move a muscle. He gave me the same practiced stance—the unspoken air of a man on a mission; the agent prepared to maim and kill without hesitation. His arms were at his sides and there was a stiffness in his shoulders that hadn’t been there the night in his condo when our Loyola friends carried on about all the meaningless stupidity we’d allowed ourselves to get into as kids. He’d laughed. Cruz had toasted our friends, then kept me warm and welcomed in his home for hours, all the while sporting an easy smile and a friendly glint in his eyes.

Now though, all that friendliness was gone. Now there was only the agent and the worried composure etched into his fine features.

One small step closer and he still didn’t drop the hard expression. The only change that came over him happened when I brushed my hair from my shoulder and motioned toward his hand, balled into a fist at his side. I debated touching him, thinking he should speak first.

But he only watched, gaze darting around my face like he wanted to commit every feature to his memory. The thought made my heart jump time for the worry his expression, his demeanor gave me.

“You...” I began, swallowing when I heard the rasp in my voice. “I thought you were avoiding me,” I admitted, unable to keep myself from curling an arm around him. He stiffened at my touch and though my stomach dropped, though I knew what the pull of his body away from me meant, I still clung to him. It was useless and stupid and very pathetic, but I couldn’t keep myself from doing it.

“Ma’am...”

The small, insignificant word that was supposed to denote authority and respect, did nothing but make me feel useless and little and sadly weak. My eyelids shook and I couldn’t keep my bottom lip from twitching, as though a frown threatened to pull down my mouth.

“Ma’am?” I said, my voice sounding astonished. The tears surfaced before I realized it. They were an irritating companion to the anger and disappointment that bubbled inside my chest. Every thought that curled and twisted in my gut brimmed forward, wetting my eyes until there was enough moisture on my lashes to embarrass me. Their appearance seemed to make Cruz regret the rejection I guessed was coming. But I didn’t want pity. Not from him.

I wanted an explanation, not the way he attempted to touch me as I spoke. “After we...” I said, brushing his hand from my arm.

“Lia, please. This isn’t...you know this isn’t going to happen for us.”

He’d already decided. Cruz hadn’t even given me a chance to convince him that we could be together. He’d made a decision about how I was supposed to feel and never bothered to ask me exactly what that was.

There had been a fire in him that night in his condo. There’d been strength and desperation and every doubt I knew had made him hesitate to touch me got left behind the second he slipped inside me. I’d seen the light brightening his eyes when I told him I needed him. I’d felt every needful touch of his hands and mouth and tongue as he possessed my body and now? After all that, he was telling me it wouldn’t happen?

He didn’t follow when I stepped back. Cruz let me take him in, gaze over his face, anger and hurt fighting for dominance in my chest. “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

Cruz remained silent, doing nothing more than lifting his hand as though he was desperate to touch me, then lowering it like he knew the feel of my skin on his fingertips would seal his fate. But I didn’t care why he hesitated. I wouldn’t let him make an excuse I knew he didn’t mean. In two short steps I rushed him, grabbing his face between my hands before I pulled his mouth to mine, taking what I knew would always be mine.

He stilled at first, not reacting, not until the first wave of tears fell from my eyes and slipped against his cheeks. I kissed him like I wanted to possess him—tongue battling his, succulent, thick lip between my mouth, fingers guiding, directing him closer as I paused long enough to whisper against his lips, “You love me...I know you do.”

If he answered, I didn’t hear him. I only knew that Cruz kissed me back, that I felt full and alive and solely possessed as I pulled him closer, as he gripped my hair between his fingers and began to guide the kiss, letting me know with the fierce control of his mouth that he wanted to possess me as much as I wanted to be possessed.

And then, the shatter of glass and the low, deep curse that came from the doorway.

“Son of a bitch,” Lincoln said, pulling all the air from the room, cooling everything in me that Cruz had heated and coiled and made right and real.  “You son of a bitch!” Lincoln moved quicker than I’d seen him in years, fingers wet from the bourbon he’d flung to the floor.

Fleetingly, I spotted the liquor darkening the lush area rug under our feet and reminded myself that I needed an excuse and it needed to come to me quickly.

“Sir,” Cruz tried, blocking the punch Lincoln attempted.  

There were no excuses except for the one that would wound Lincoln most. It would destroy him. He never could see me for anything other than the naive woman he’d managed to convince didn’t need a career when her man would be president. I’d doted on him back then, believed all the lies he expertly spoke to me.

That girl was gone. He had to know that.

“Stop!” I shouted, wedging myself between my husband and my lover. “Lincoln, please!”

He had Cruz by the collar, face blotchy and pink as he glared at me. “He was kissing you.” His voice was a low growl of astonished syllables I barely understood. “You were kissing him. You were...”

“Enjoying it?” I didn’t hide the anger in my voice, didn’t let the drop of his features, how his frown made him look old and worn and broken for just a second, squash the anger I felt.

Lincoln stepped back, pushing Cruz away as he kept his attention to me. It was only when he rubbed his chin, hand over his mouth that he blinked, taking several steps away before he walked to the window, his back to both of us.

Cruz looked up when Phil entered the room, taking in Lincoln’s posture as he held his palms on the window frame, leaning his head against the glass. The older agent frowned, gave both of us a curious look, but we didn’t fill him in on the details.

“Leave,” Lincoln said, head still against the glass. “I want some privacy with my wife.”

I watched Cruz as he left, spotted the tension hardening the muscles of his neck as he walked to the entrance, pausing only a second before he looked at me. There was a lot I caught from his expression, most of which I’m sure I imagined. But just as Cruz left the room, he hesitated, giving me a look I’d never forget—it was regret and longing and a goodbye I knew he didn’t want to make, given the choice.

And then, Cruz walked away from me.

“Are you fucking him?” Lincoln asked, and I slipped my eyes shut, not ready to face him, not sure I could stomach watching the disappointment in his eyes. He was a hypocrite. He was a possessive, pointless asshole if he thought I’d answer that question. “Lia...” he started, straightening from the window to watch me.

My back to him, I dried my tears with a quick swipe of my hand against my cheeks before I turned to face my husband. He watched me for a while, trying, I supposed to make out the truth. Would he find the answers he wanted in the muted expression I gave him? Would he get angry and scream or would Lincoln do what I had done the first time I’d discovered the truth about the kind of man I’d married? Somehow, I doubted my infidelity would leave him a sobbing mess in a hotel bathroom.  

He didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t answer.

“This been happening since the campaign?”

“No, Lincoln,” I told him, curling my arms around my waist as he stepped away from the window and stood in front of me. I didn’t blink or shy away from the truth as I looked up at him. “You were the only one sleeping around during the campaign.”

A small nerve twitched along his cheek, but Lincoln didn’t deny my accusation. “We’re not talking about me.”

“Of course not.” I stepped away, meaning to leave him in that large den alone, intending to leave the White House altogether and find Cruz and convince him we could start our lives right then. We just had to be brave.

Lincoln had other ideas.

I was almost to the door before he caught me, pulling my arm to stop my exit.  Lincoln had me, his arm around my waist, his fingers threaded through my hair so he could whisper against my neck.

“You’re mine, Lia, body and soul.” Lincoln kissed my temple, arm tightening to bring me still closer. He was older than me, but still fit. His waist was trim, his stomach flat and as he pressed against me, I made out the fine, lithe lines of his heavily muscular thighs. Lincoln smelled of sandalwood and spice, masculine scents that had once done something to my insides. Most nights when we were first together, it took only a whiff of his soap as he left the shower to have me ready and eager for him.

Now that scent made me nauseous.

“Don’t you love me anymore?” he asked, his tone gruff now, with a hint of fear making his voice crack. “I still...you know I...”

“Don’t say it.” There was a plea in my words I wouldn’t hold back. Lincoln loved himself most. Maybe he cared for me. Maybe he’d worry if something bad ever happened to me, but he had no idea what love meant. The concept was alien to him.

He didn’t listen. Lincoln didn’t do anything more but whine at my words, turning me to face him, holding me in the cage of his arms against the wall of bookshelves next to the door.

“We belong together.” He held my face, moving my chin up so I’d look at him. “It’s me and you, my girl, always, baby. It has to be.”

I didn’t want him to kiss me. It had been months since Lincoln had even gotten close enough to pretend like he wanted me. It had been far longer than that since we’d actually slept together, but now, with what I thought he might see as his claim to me threatened, Lincoln took what he wanted.

His kiss came slow, at first, just enough pressure of his soft, wide mouth and a slip of tongue that teased and tempted. Any other woman in the world would be compelled to kiss him back. He was charming. He was attractive, despite his age. But I had fallen out of love with hm a long time ago. No amount of weak seduction would take the taste and feel of Cruz Solano from my mind.

“Let’s forget this,” he breathed against my mouth. “You’re lonely and for that, I’m sorry, truly.” Lincoln brushed a finger over my cheek, his expression worried, but shifting to interest. “I’ll be better to you, Lia, my love. I promise.”

There was no worry for me about how Lincoln would treat me. I didn’t care anymore about anything but being free from him. I didn’t care, at that moment, about anything but seeing Cruz safe. Just then, as my husband held my face between his fingers, a thought came to me—Cruz’s professions about duty and honor. Losing his position would devastate him. It would shred decades of reputation and hard work he’d devoted himself to. For what? One night with me? A fleeting chance to recall what we’d had once? I couldn’t let that happen.

“Linc,” I said, stopping him when he tried to kiss me again. “This wasn’t...Cruz would never.” I inhaled, irritated with myself that I couldn’t find the right words. Eyes squeezed shut, I exhaled, my voice calmer, my heart no longer thrumming hard. “Please don’t fire him. He’s worked so hard and I wouldn’t...”

Lincoln leaned back, his hand near the side of my head as he looked over my features. He shook his head once, his frown losing some of his tightness as he watched me. “This wasn’t him?” he asked, nodding when I shook my head. “Okay...ok...” Again, Lincoln wiped his hand over his mouth, thinking, contemplating his next move. “I’m...not mad at...him.”

“Promise me,” I said, not sure what to make of the look he gave me. That look made me feel like a kid—irresponsible and in trouble for something I shouldn’t have ever done.

My husband’s frown was gone completely now, and he took to rubbing my cheek again, like he was seeing me, really seeing me for the first time. Either that or he was surprised I had worked up the nerve to get someone else’s attention.

“I promise. I won’t fire him.” Lincoln brushed the hair from my forehead before he kissed me there. A quick nod and he backed away, readjusting his tie before he made for the doorway. “Of course,” he said, sounding smug. “I can’t have him around you, now can I?”

“What?” Something caught in my throat just then, clawing at my lungs until fire welled up inside me.

“Lia, sweetheart, I’m certainly not going to put temptation in your way.” Lincoln’s laugh was quick but cruel. He pushed his hands into his pockets, shrugging. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t pay extra attention to you and made sure you aren’t tempted again when you’re bored?”

Boredom. That was Lincoln’s reasoning for me cheating. Not love. Not wanting something I’d had once and always wanted back. My husband clearly thought I stepped out on him because I was acting out, because sheer boredom had made me eager to get out of my monotonous routine.

“I’m going to have a shower,” he said, already through the doorway. “You’re welcome to join me.” He didn’t wait for my answer. As I stood there, with the throb of Cruz’s kiss lingering on my mouth, I’d spend years waiting—for the end of my marriage, for the end of Lincoln’s presidency, for the end of a love Cruz had given me and my husband had taken away.