Three words and three numbers. Enough to make Dr. Jessica
Croft's heart hitch. She reread the note the CEO had left on
her desk: My officeâ€”8:45. Franz. It was already eight
What did I do?
Jessie had never been summoned to the executive suite of
The Oliver Institute. Not when she'd kindled a media
firestorm with her provocative articles on designer babies.
Not when the series had sparked enough controversy to incite
a congressional hearing. Not even when she'd been briefed
before she went to Washington to testify.
She unbuttoned her coat and sank into her chair.
Lois, her earlyâ€“bird, motherly secretary, came in
carrying a mug of hot tea for Jessie and set it on the desk.
During the last couple of years, they'd tasted their way
through the entire Harney & Sons tea catalog and settled on
their favorites. Chinese Flower was Jessie's.
"Thank you." Jessie glanced at her, then looked away
quickly, too embarrassed to meet her eyes. "You must have
seen the note."
"I did." Lois kept her tone positive. But everyone knew
about the curse of the CEO's office, and they nervously
joked about it at the Institute. Franz's office was the last
place you go before the last time you leave.
Jessie had once seen a dismissed coworker escorted out of
the Institute by a security guard. The poor woman had
carried a cardboard box full of empty hopes, her dignity
left on the desk. Jessie shrugged. "Somehow, I've earned the
walk of shame."
"Or a Pulitzer Prize." Lois gave her an encouraging smile
and set a copy of Jessie's schedule for the day on the desk.
Despite new technology, Lois relied on the tangibility of
paper and ink. Jessie understood. Words printed on a page
implied a commitment that words typed on a screen could not.
Evidently Franz felt the same, since he'd left his message
on a Postâ€“it note.
Jessie swallowed hard, conflicted over the
possibilities. "I guess it could go either way." But not as
far as a Pulitzer Prize. And hopefully not as far as getting
fired from the Institute. She'd carved a niche for herself
here and, thanks in large part to Lois, finally felt like
she belonged somewhere.
"Good thing Franz wants to see you first thing," Lois
said. "I'm not sure much else will get done today." She
gestured toward the window, the creases in her pleasant face
deepened by her frown. Outside, the sky hung low and gray.
Pine branches glistened, frozen from the dreary beginning of
an ice storm. "I'll reschedule things for you, if need be."
Jessie couldn't help but hear a double entendre. Lois
was referring to the worsening weather and not the question
of Jessie getting fired.
By 8:43, Jessie sat before the esteemed Dr. Franz Oliver,
her insides all ripply and tense. She pulled her cardigan
tightly around herself and took a deep breath of the chilly
air in the fabled executive suite.
Burl wood furniture, museumâ€“quality art.
This one included a starchy White House envoy who had
introduced himself as Mr. Bishop.
"Miss Croft," he said, "the president has questions about
Jessie's gaze darted to Franzâ€”the president, as in
president of the United States?â€”then back to Bishop,
whose words wore a couldâ€“beâ€“good,
couldâ€“beâ€“bad disguise. She sat straighter in her
seat and wondered why Bishop had called her Miss instead of
Doctor. Not that the title really mattered to her. Usually
when someone referred to "Dr. Croft," she thought of her
grandfather, who had been an MD, not a PhD like Jessie.
Bishop had settled in the chair next to hers. He riffled
through a stack of papers in his lap, CONFIDENTIAL slashed
across the pages in red. His balding head shifted as he
scanned each sheet.
Seated at his desk, Franz loomed in front of them, built
like the Tower of London minus the turrets. He dragged his
hand over his gray mustache and clutched a fistful of
goatee. His gaze settled on Bishop, flickering with the
foresight of damage control.
In the corner of the room, an antique floor clock ticked.
Jessie counted the secondsâ€”backward from twenty.
Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen.
Franz cleared his throat. "What specific area of Dr.
Croft's work concerns the president?"
Bishop cocked his head, appraising Franz. "It's her body
of work more than her position on a particular issue." He
licked his index finger and leafed through his papers. "But
the president has commented on her recent articles about
assisted reproductive technologies and..." He stopped on a
page, skimmed his fingers over it, and halted
midâ€“paragraph. "Genetic screening of embryos."
Jessie might as well have been a cardboard cutout, since
the two men talked about her as if she wasn't in the room.
Since the president objected to her work, was her next stop
the recycling bin? She practiced her science like a
religion, reconciling issues as current as human cloning
with principles as rockâ€“solid as Stonehenge. But
bioethics was hardly an exact science. No matter how well
she justified her reasoning, someone disagreed. Now, that
someone just happened to be the leader of the free world.
Franz leaned forward, planted his elbows on the desk, and
steepled his thick fingers. "Her contributions to The Oliver
Report may not parallel the president's views, but they
foster critical debate."
Bishop turned his attention to Jessie, and she willed
herself not to react.
"Furthermore," Franz said in his intellectual voice, "Dr.
Croft is the most thoughtâ€“provoking bioethicist at my
Jessie's jaw went slack, but she reined in her surprise.
For five years, she had finessed her way up the ranks at the
think tank without praise from Franz. He had an unspoken
philosophy: If you work at my Institute, you're the best.
You don't need a reminder.
"The president agrees with your assessment," Bishop said.
Franz leaned back in his chair, eyebrows raised. "He does?"
Wideâ€“eyed, Jessie looked from Franz to Bishop.
"Yes," Bishop said. "He's selected Miss Croft to fill the
vacancy on his Commission for the Study of Bioethical
Issues. We've already started the vetting process. He wants
to know if she'll accept his appointment."
Franz flashed her a victorious smile, but Jessie's
defenses flared despite her excitement and relief.
Nothing came out of Washington without premeditation, and
this appointment was no different. She'd bring a fresh frame
of reference to the Commission, but other candidates offered
name recognition, distinguished achievements, and longtime
careers. Something more had prompted the president to choose
her. Something more politically charged, complex, and knotty.
Jessie pinched her pencil between her fingers and wrote
on her notepad, Arranged by my father? She stabbed the dot
beneath the question mark.
"As a courtesy," Bishop said to Franz, "I'm alerting you
that my team is contacting Miss Croft's coworkers and
superiors, former professors, friends. We've started with
"That won't be necessary." Nerves sharpened Jessie's
words, the first ones she'd said since hello.
Franz's smile flattened.
"You're not interested?" The first hint of emotion tinged
Of course I'm interested.
The weight of Franz's expectations smothered Jessie, and
her doubts piled on. At only thirty, the fulfillment of a
lifelong goal was dangling in front of her. Because of her
hard work, because of her sacrifice, or because she had her
Bishop's BlackBerry buzzed. He snatched it from his belt
and scanned the screen. "Sorry." He set the phone atop the
papers in his lap and gave Jessie a questioning look.
"Is this selection a strategy to favor my father?" She
hesitated to suggest such impropriety, yet she needed to
Bishop crooked a prickly eyebrow, his expression guarded.
"You misunderstand the president."
"Perhaps," she said. "I don't know the president. But I
know politics. That's why I'm here in
middleâ€“ofâ€“nowhere Virginiaâ€”and not in DC."
"You can serve on the Commission from here," Bishop said.
"Stay with The Oliver Institute. The other members are
highly respected physicians, lawyers, and academics who
"I understand." Jessie gathered some false confidence and
faced him. "But you evaded my question about my father.
Should I take that as an answer?"
Bishop blinked erratically.
Franz shot Jessie a watchâ€“yourself look.
"If the president is interested in my perspective," she
said, "then I'm honored. If he's trying to create a false
family image for my father ahead of his likely nomination to
the Supreme Court, I can't accept." She leveled a determined
gaze at Bishop. "I've worked too hard to be used as a trophy
Bishop's thin lips twitched. "I assure you, that is not
the president's intent." His BlackBerry shimmied on the
papers in his lap, red light flashing. He squinted at its
screen and grimaced. "As I mentioned, we've started the
vetting process. We're questioning your family today."
Jessie regretted that they had to involve her family.
Couldn't her superiors and professional associations vet
her? She shook her head. "They don't know me."
"My father, my sisterâ€”they don't know me. Haven't
for a while." Awkwardly, she twisted the monogrammed silver
ring on her finger, the familiar edges of her mother's
initials pressed beneath her fingertips. "So interviewing
them won't be necessary."
Bishop's BlackBerry shuddered again.
"Excuse me," he said, sounding frustrated. "This must be
urgent." He held it to his ear. "Bishop." He stood, stepped
out of the office, and shut the door.
Jessie risked a glance at Franz.
"You deserve this appointment," he said. "No matter who
or what motivated it. Don't let pride or speculation cause
you to make a reckless decision."
Lightning pain shot behind Jessie's temples. The closed
door muffled Bishop's voice, but she could still hear his
end of the conversation. "I'm in a meeting," he said. "Make
it quick." Then, in hushed words that she struggled to make
out, "Our Samantha Croft, the lobbyist? Judge Croft's
The tone in his voice put Jessie on full alert, but Franz
kept talking. "I'm confident thatâ€”"
Bishop opened the door, no longer on the phone, his face
sallow. His stunned demeanor stopped Franz
midâ€“sentence. He walked to his chair and sat.
"What is it?" Jessie asked. "I heard you mention my sister."
Bishop opened his mouth but hesitated before he spoke.
"That was my assistant, the one assigned to meet with
Samantha in Washington."
Jessie heard an odd tick in his voice. "Is something
wrong?" Apprehension tingled across her scalp.
No change in Bishop's expression. No answer.
Jessie shifted in her seat. "Mr. Bishop?"
He stared out the picture window behind Franz. Sleet
pelted against the glass, drizzling down in melted rivulets,
distorting the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains into a
surreal, Daliâ€“esque landscape.
Bishop faced Jessie but avoided her eyes. "Have you been
in touch with her?"
Jessie stiffened. "Maybe I should clarify what I said a
moment ago. My sister lobbies for some of the same issues I
deal with, but we don't associate with each other." Even
though we still have a bond, and I miss her, and I hope she
knows she's always in my heart.
Jessie's throat tightened. She hated to talk about Sam
and her father, and she hated to think of their separate
lives. "What did your assistant say about Sam?"
"It's a highly unusual situation," Bishop said.
"Inappropriate for me to discuss."
"Sam's my sister. Your assistant is interviewing her in a
vetting process for me, for what little he might learn from
her. What about that is highly unusual and inappropriate to
"I'm not the right personâ€”" Bishop's Adam's apple
bobbed as he swallowed hard.
"What is it, Mr. Bishop?" Jessie forced calm into her
voice. "I've leveled with you. Please, let's be honest in
Bishop nodded once. "There's no easy way to say this."
He turned to Jessie, looked her in the eyes, then sucked in
a breath as if it had to last him a lifetime.
"Your sister is dead."