SENATOR JACK WARNER WOKE UP ON Saturday morning with a crushing hangover. Honor had left early for her yoga class. Downstairs, in the playroom of their idyllic Westchester County farmhouse, Jack Warner could hear his daughters, Bobby and Rose, screaming blue murder at each other.

What the fuck is Ilse doing?

The family's new Dutch au pair gave an excellent blow job, but her nannying skills left much to be desired. So far Jack had resisted Honor's requests to be allowed to fire Ilse. But this morning, he changed his mind. An uninterrupted Saturday morning in bed was worth much more than a good blow job. In Senator Jack Warner's world, good blow jobs were easy to come by. Peace and quiet, on the other hand, were priceless.

Jack Warner first knew he wanted to become president of the United States when he was three years old. It was August 1974. His parents were watching Richard Nixon's resignation on television.

"What's that man doing?" little Jack asked his mother. It was his father who answered.

"He's leaving the best job in the world, son. He's a liar and a fool."

Jack thought about this for a minute.

"If he's a fool, how did he get the best job in the world?"

His father laughed. "That's a good question!"

"Who's going to do his job now?"

"Why d'you ask, Jacko?" Jack's father pulled him up onto his lap and ruffled his hair affectionately. "Do you want it?"

Yes, thought Jack. If it's the best job in the world, I rather think I do.

So far, Jack Warner's path to the White House had been straight as an arrow. First in his class at Andover? Check. Steady record of volunteer work and public service? Check. Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, partnership in a prestigious New York law firm? Check, check, check. After two brief internships working on senatorial campaigns, Jack Warner ran for Congress, winning the 20th Congressional District seat by a landslide at the astonishingly young age of twenty-nine. Jack Warner never made a friend, took a job, attended a party, or got laid without first thinking, How will this look on my record? On the rare occasions when he slept with a less-than-suitable girl, he made sure that the event took place well away from the prying eyes of any potential voters. But such slipups were rare. Jack made it his business to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. He knew that his appeal lay in his all-American good looks, the air of confidence and down-home goodness that he seemed to project so effortlessly.

Like everything else in Jack Warner's life, his marriage to Honor Knowles had been a carefully choreographed political decision.

Fred Farrell, Jack's campaign manager, sat him down. "Our data show you're still perceived as too young to run for the Senate. We need to 'mature' your image."

Jack was frustrated. "How? Should I grow a beard? Start wearing vests?"

"Actually the beard's not a bad idea. But what you really need to do is get married. A couple of kids wouldn't hurt either. The single women all love you, but you need to work on the family vote."

"Fine. I'll ask Karen over the weekend."

Karen Connelly was Jack's girlfriend of the past ten months and his first really serious love. The only daughter of a respected, political family - Karen's father, Mitch, had once been White House chief of staff - Karen was also beautiful, intelligent and kind. She adored Jack unconditionally. The two of them had spoken often about starting a family together one day, when Karen finished grad school and Jack's congressional schedule got less hectic. Evidently "one day" was now.

Fred Farrell frowned. "I'm not so sure Karen's the best choice. She's a sweet girl and all. But for your wife..."

Jack bristled. "What's wrong with her?"

"There's nothing wrong with her. Don't take it personally, Jack. I'm merely saying that ideally I'd prefer someone with a little more 'wow' factor. Not too pretty, of course. That's a big turnoff for your base."

"But prettier than Karen?"

"Higher profile than Karen. It wouldn't hurt if she were independently wealthy, too."

"Why?"

"For the future, dear boy." Fred Farrell shook his head despairingly. "I'm assuming your political ambitions don't end with the Senate?"

"Of course not."

"Good. Then start thinking practically. Have you any idea how much a presidential run costs these days?"

Jack had a pretty good idea. Many a wealthy man had lost everything pursuing his White House fantasies. Even so, marrying for money seemed distasteful.

"Look, I have a girl in mind. Meet her, see what you think. No pressure."

Three months later, Congressman Jack Warner got over his distaste and married society heiress Honor Knowles in a blaze of publicity. The day they left for their honeymoon, Karen Connelly committed suicide, slitting her wrists in the bathtub. Out of respect for Karen's father, the press never ran the story.

For Honor Knowles, her whirlwind romance with the most eligible, dashing congressman in the country was easily the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. Ever since she was a little girl, Honor had felt overlooked. Her elder sister, Constance, was the brains of the family and their mother's clear favorite. Grace, Honor's younger sister, was drop-dead beautiful and had been the apple of their father's eye when he was alive. All of which left Honor pretty much nowhere. The fact that she was bright and attractive in her own right didn't seem to matter to anyone. I'm the fifth wheel. The backup singer no one ever notices. I'm only popular by association.

For a handsome man to single her out (and not just any handsome man but Jack Warner, a possible future president!) was so thrilling, so deliciously unexpected, that it never occurred to Honor to question Jack's motives. Or the speed with which he hustled her down the aisle. Jack, she soon learned, did everything at speed. No sooner had he asked her out on a date than he proposed. No sooner had she accepted than he'd booked the church. No sooner had they gotten back from their honeymoon than he was on her case about getting pregnant.

"What's the rush?" Honor laughed, stroking his sleek blond head in bed one night. She still had to pinch herself sometimes when she woke up next to Jack. He was so perfect. Not just perfect-looking but perfect on the inside, too. Noble, courageous, visionary. He wanted so many good things for America. "We've only been married five minutes. Can't we just enjoy being together for a little while, first?"

But Jack was insistent. He wanted a family and he wanted it now. On their honeymoon in Tahiti, Honor had been worried. Jack got a phone call from home on their first morning at the resort that had clearly upset him. He canceled their snorkeling trip ("You go. I have to work.") and barely spoke to Honor for the remainder of the day. That night, he kept calling out "Karen!" in his sleep. When Honor questioned him the next day, he was defensive. "Jesus, Honor. You're cross-examining my dreams now?"

After that, he was withdrawn and morose the entire week, refusing to talk about what was troubling him and avoiding all of Honor's attempts at closeness. He didn't even want to make love. But when they got back to New York, to Honor's immense relief, the black mood lifted. Suddenly he was all over her again.

He wouldn't want to start a family if he didn't love me, she reasoned. This is his way of saying sorry for Tahiti. And really, why should we wait? What could be sweeter than having a mini-Jack running around?

Their first daughter, Roberta, was born nine months later, followed within a year by her sister, Rose. Because the pregnancies were so close together, Honor was still carrying weight from Roberta when she conceived Rose. As a result, when Jack took her out for dinner to celebrate their second anniversary, Honor was almost fifty pounds heavier than she had been on her wedding day.

"Why don't you start running again?" Jack suggested bluntly over the pan-fried scallops. "You could go with your sister and her trainer. Grace is looking fantastic at the moment. That guy must be doing something right."

It was as if he'd stuck a pin in Honor's eyeball. Grace. Why did everything always have to come back to Grace?

When Honor married Jack Warner, she felt like the star of the show for the first time in her life. Growing up, Grace had always stolen her thunder. The worst part was, she'd done it without even trying. Just by walking into a room, Grace owned it, shining with a light so blinding it obliterated Honor's presence altogether. Honor tried hard to stamp down her feelings of jealousy and resentment. She knew Grace loved her, that she thought of Honor as her best friend. And yet there were times when Honor Knowles fantasized about her sister having an "accident." She pictured Grace falling from the high bars, her perfect little doll's body contorted and broken on the gym floor. Or a car accident in which Grace's exquisite, model features were ravaged by flames. The flames of my hatred. The fantasies were shameful, but they felt good.

When Honor married Jack, she thought, All that's behind me now. Now that I'm happy and famous, now that someone wonderful loves me, I can be the big sister Grace always wanted me to be.

It didn't work out that way. Ironically, it was Honor who had introduced Grace to Lenny Brookstein, at one of Jack's fund-raisers. Two weeks later, Grace announced they were in love.

At first, Honor thought she was kidding. When she realized her mistake, she felt sick to her stomach. "But, Gracie, you're eighteen years old. He's old enough to be your grandfather."

"I know. It's crazy!" Grace laughed, that sweet, tinkling laugh that made all men melt like butter on a stove. "I never thought I could feel this way about someone like Lenny but...I'm so happy, Honor. Truly. And so's Lenny. Can't you be happy for us?"

"Darling, I am happy. If it's what you really want."

But Honor wasn't happy. She was furious.

It wasn't enough for Grace to settle down with some normal, rich investment banker, like Connie had done. Oh no. Madam has to go and ensnare the biggest billionaire in New York. Honor Knowles's brief moment in the sun was already fading. While she was stuck at home, fat and exhausted like a mother hen, Grace was once more the talk of the town. And now here was Jack, her own beloved husband, comparing her unfavorably to her little sister because she'd gained a few pounds giving birth to his children! It was not to be borne.

And yet Honor did bear it, stoically and in silence. The same way she bore Jack's neglect of her and the children, his selfishness, his rampant ambition, and most recently, his infidelities. She lost the weight, every last pound of it. As far as the public was concerned, Senator Warner and his wife had a fairy-tale marriage. Honor was not about to disillusion them. The pretense was all she had left, and she kept it up, smiling at Jack loyally during his speeches, giving magazine interviews about her homemaking tips and Jack's brilliance as a "hands-on" father. Of course, Honor knew full well that the only thing Jack had had his hands on lately were the au pair's breasts, but she would have died rather than admit it.

The same went for her loathing of her sister. On the surface, Honor Warner remained close to both her sisters, but particularly to Grace. The two women ate lunch together twice a week, in addition to their regular shopping trips and vacations en famille. But beneath the loving, sisterly façade, Honor's resentment bubbled like scalding magma.

Jack encouraged his wife to strengthen her ties to the Brooksteins. "It's win-win, darling. You get to spend time with Grace. I know how much you love her. And I get some face time with Lenny. If Lenny Brookstein endorses my run for the White House in four years' time, I'll be unstoppable."

Honor thought about it. If Jack runs for president, he'll have to stop chasing tail. It's too risky. Plus, if he becomes president, with Lenny Brookstein's money, I'll be first lady. Not even Grace can trump that.

Recently, however, Jack's fervor for his billionaire in-laws had inexplicably cooled. It started with bitchy comments about Grace's clothes and Lenny's ever-growing paunch. In the days leading up to the Quorum Ball, it spilled over into something more overt. Jack was drinking heavily. At home, when drunk, he would rant at Honor about Lenny Brookstein's "disloyalty," his "arrogance."

"Fucking prick, who does he think he's talking to? One of his employees?" he rambled. "If Lenny wants his dick sucked, he should ask John Merrivale or that ass-kisser Preston. I'm a fucking United States senator!"

Honor had no idea what Jack was talking about. She longed to ask, but she was too afraid. Despite everything, Honor Warner still loved her husband. Deep down she was convinced that if she helped Jack's career - said the right things, wore the right dress, threw the right parties - he would eventually fall in love with her again.

She could not know that Jack Warner had never been in love with her in the first place.

JACK CAME DOWNSTAIRS IN HIS BATHROBE, hunting for some Alka-Seltzer. Roberta, known to her parents as Bobby, flew into his arms like a whirlwind.

"Daddy!" Blond and chubby, like a Renaissance cherub, Bobby had always been a very affectionate child. "Ilse says if we're not good, we won't go to In-tuck-it. That's not right, is it?"

Jack set his daughter back down on the floor.

"Don't pester your father, Roberta," said Ilse.

"But we like In-tuck-it. Even Rose does, don't you, Rosie?"

Four-year-old Rose was pulling Dior lipsticks out of Mommy's makeup bag and snapping them in half, rubbing waxy pink mess all over the hardwood floor. Ilse was too busy making eyes at her boss to notice.

"Can I help you with anything, Senator Warner?"

"No," Jack snapped. Nantucket. I forgot about that. That bastard Brookstein invited us all to his estate last night. Like we're all such good buddies.

It had cost Jack Warner's pride dearly for him to go to Lenny Brookstein for help. He'd never have done it if he hadn't been desperate. But he was desperate, and Lenny knew it. It had started as a sort of stress relief. A few innocent bets here and there, on the horses or the blackjack tables. But as his losses crept up, so did the size of Jack's positions. Gambling had unleashed a reckless side to Jack Warner that he had never before been aware of. It was exciting, exhilarating and addictive. Recently, his addiction had started to cost him dearly in financial terms. But the real risk was political. Jack had built his entire career on his reputation as an upstanding, Christian conservative. Compulsive gambling might not be illegal, but it would lose him the family values vote in a heartbeat.

Fred Farrell gave it to him straight. "You have to stop this, Jack. Right now. Pay off your debts and wipe the slate clean."

As if it were that easy! Pay off my debts? With what? Honor's inheritance had all been blown on the house and the children's education. As a senator, Jack earned $140,000 a year, a fraction of what he used to make as an attorney, and an even smaller fraction of what he now owed - in some cases, to some deeply unsavory characters.

There was no way around it. He would have to tap his brother-in-law. It would be embarrassing, sure. But once he explained the situation, Lenny would help him out. Lenny's a long-term thinker. When they make me president, I'll pay him back a thousandfold. He knows that.

It turned out Lenny Brookstein did not know it. Instead of writing a check, he'd given Jack a lecture.

"I'm sorry for you, Jack, truly I am. But I can't help. My father was a gambler. Put my poor mother through hell. If it hadn't been for the enablers, the friends who bailed him out time after time, the nightmare might have ended a lot sooner. As it was, he lost the money that could have paid for Ma's medical treatment."

Jack tried to keep his cool. "With all due respect, Lenny, I don't think I have much in common with your father. I'm a United States senator. I'm good for this money, you know that. It's just a small cash-flow problem."

Lenny smiled amiably. "In which case I'm sure you'll solve it on your own. Now, was there anything else?"

Patronizing bastard! It wasn't just a refusal. It was a dismissal. Jack Warner would not forget the slight as long as he lived. His first thought last night had been to tell Lenny Brookstein to stick his invitation to Nantucket where the "moon don't shine." But on reflection, perhaps that was a mistake. The truth was, he was still in urgent need of a significant injection of cash. Honor and Grace were close. Maybe if Honor worked on her little sister, Grace could make her besotted husband see sense? Of course, such a policy would mean Jack coming clean to Honor about his gambling debts. Not an appealing prospect. But at the end of the day, what was she going to do? Leave me? I don't think so.

Turning to Ilse, he said, "We'll leave for Nantucket first thing Monday morning. Please make sure the girls are packed and ready."

Bobby shot her au pair a look of purest triumph. "See. I told you we were going."

"Yes, sir. Is there anything...special...you'd like me to pack?"

Ilse gave him a lascivious wink. Her meaning could not have been clearer.

Neither could Jack's.

"No. You won't be coming with us. As of Monday, you're fired."

Grabbing the Alka-Seltzer from the kitchen cupboard, he went back upstairs to bed.




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