The rustic shoeshine box displayed in the front window of the antique store drew Taylor Crenshaw inside. The gorgeous brunette behind the counter kept her there.
Taylor loved stylish women. The woman flipping through the Metro section of the Washington Post exuded style from every pore. Her dark eyes were accentuated by a pair of retro-style glasses. Her raven-colored hair was pulled back into a loose bun held in place by two bright yellow number two pencils. Her crisp white cotton blouse was paired with a black-and-white houndstooth miniskirt. A wide black belt circled her narrow waist. Her long legs, sheathed in fishnet stockings, disappeared into a pair of knee-high black leather boots.
“Nice,” Taylor said under her breath as she slowly walked up one of the antique-laden aisles and headed toward the front of the store.
The woman lifted her eyes from the newspaper when Taylor reached the glass-topped counter. A look of curiosity followed by a glimmer of recognition crossed her smooth porcelain features. She looked momentarily flustered. Taylor had been receiving that reaction a lot lately, but she supposed she was going to have to get used to it. Or at least try to.
“May I help you?” the woman asked.
“I certainly hope so.” Taylor pointed over her shoulder. “The shoeshine box in the window. How much is it?”
The woman came around the counter and walked to the display in the window, her stiletto heels clicking on the worn hardwood floor. Taylor followed, her gaze glued to the woman’s gently swaying hips.
Steven Alesana, the Secret Service agent who had been assigned to Taylor’s detail, softly cleared his throat to let her know she might have spoken a bit louder than she intended. She waved off his show of concern. The straight-backed ex-Army sergeant had stuck to her side like glue since the morning after election night. It was his job to keep trouble from finding her. Had he been tasked with preventing her from looking for it on her own, too? If so, he had blown his mission because Taylor’s gut said a woman as gorgeous as this one spelled trouble with a capital T. And that was just the kind she was looking for.
“This one?” The woman leaned past a vintage Underwood typewriter and picked up a brightly painted wooden shoeshine box with brass accents.
Taylor dragged her eyes away from her mouthwatering view of the woman’s firm round ass. “No, the primitive one next to it.”
The woman replaced the shoeshine box and reached for its less ornate companion. The unpainted pine box featured a foot-shaped cutout on top. The open storage area underneath the cutout left plenty of room for wax, brushes, rags, and other supplies. Despite—or, rather, because of—its simplicity, Taylor speculated the box was worth much more than the flashier version next to it.
The woman looked at the price tag dangling from the well-worn box. “It’s regularly one hundred fifty dollars, but it’s marked down to a hundred. Are you interested?”
Taylor suppressed a smile. “You bet I am.” The woman was a threat to her primary rule: have all the fun you want, but don’t let anyone get too close. Never had a threat seemed so appealing. “I mean, I’ll take it.”
“Okay.” The woman said the word hesitantly as if she were unsure why Taylor would want to possess such an item.
“My grandfather shined shoes to earn money during the Depression,” Taylor said as she followed the woman back to the front of the store. “The box is a gift for my dad so he won’t forget where he came from.”
“Ah.” The woman placed the box on the counter and reached for a three-ring binder. After consulting the price tag on the box, she found a matching entry in the binder. Then she made a note on the page and rang up the purchase. “One-oh-five seventy-five, please.”
Taylor handed the woman her credit card.
The woman flipped the card over to check the signature. “May I see your ID?”
“I think you know who I am,” Taylor said with a smile.
The woman smiled back, though not as sincerely as Taylor might have liked. She would have preferred to see desire emanating from her rather than indulgence. Did the woman have even a modicum of an interest in her, or was she simply trying to provide good customer service? Ah, the joys of retail.
“Maybe so,” the woman said, “but your card says, ‘See ID.’”
“So it does.” Taylor pulled her wallet from the back pocket of her frayed jeans, unfolded it, and fished out her driver’s license.
The woman flicked her eyes from Taylor’s face to the driver’s license and back again. “The address on your license is wrong,” she said, returning Taylor’s ID. “Shouldn’t it read 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue instead?”
Taylor smiled again. “We don’t move in for another couple of days. I still have time to visit the DMV and get my address changed before then.”
The woman swiped the credit card and tapped it against her red lacquered nails as she waited for the transaction to process. “Here you are.” She extended her arm, and her fingers brushed against Taylor’s as they exchanged possession of the credit card. Taylor felt something in the woman’s touch she hadn’t seen in her smile: attraction. “Shall I wrap this for you?”
“Please.” Taylor could have easily wrapped the box herself, but she wanted to prolong her visit as long as possible. She wasn’t leaving without a name or a phone number. Preferably both.
The woman snipped the price tag off the box and stapled it to the receipt. Then she wrapped Taylor’s purchase in paisley-accented gift paper. Taylor wrote a message on the provided gift card, which the woman taped to the package before completing the presentation with a claret-colored bow.
“How’s that?” the woman asked.
“Perfect, thank you.” Taylor examined the package. “You’re quite skilled with scissors and tape.”
The woman’s ruby lips quirked up into a playful smile that made Taylor’s heart skip several beats. “You should see me when I get my hands on more complex equipment.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Taylor put the package down and placed both hands on the counter. She needed to make her move before it was too late. Once the transaction ended, this encounter might as well. “You have me at a disadvantage. You already know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
The woman pulled off her glasses and set them on the counter. Her eyes, as black as midnight and nearly as sinful, were arresting. “Roberta Rawlins, but please call me Robby if you expect me to respond.”
Oh, Taylor expected her to respond. And loudly, if she had anything to say about it. “It’s nice to meet you, Robby. Do you have plans for the evening? If you’re free, I would love to take you to dinner.”
Robby’s eyes fell to half-mast. “To dinner or to bed?”
“That depends. Which would you prefer?”
Robby’s smile turned coquettish. “I asked you first.”
Oh, yeah. Robby was definitely trouble. But Taylor was too invested to back out now. She grinned, enjoying the game. “Why don’t we start with dinner and see how the evening progresses?”
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
“Excellent. Where should I meet you?”
Robby wrote a name and address on a piece of paper and slid it across the counter.
“Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café?” Taylor asked. “Never heard of the place.”
“If you’re going to live in DC for the next four years—or eight, depending on the results of the next election—this should be your first stop. It’s the perfect place to meet to have a drink, sit down for a meal, buy a book, or pick up the booklover of your choice.”
“What if I want to pick up an antique store clerk? Can you help me with that?”
Robby cocked her head. “I think you’re doing a fine job on your own, don’t you?”
Taylor pocketed the slip of paper, feeling happier than she had since her father’s campaign strategists had decided the best way to get him elected was to turn him into someone she didn’t recognize. “See you at eight?”
“Only if you promise to tell me why your political stance is so far left of your father’s.”
Taylor arched an eyebrow. “Politics as foreplay?”
Robby shrugged. “In this town, that’s par for the course.”
“In that case, I’ll see you tonight.”
Robby reached for her laptop as soon as Taylor and her bodyguard left the store. She didn’t normally submit posts from her own computer, but this was an emergency.
Miles Osgood, her sometime boss and longtime best friend, returned from his deli run while she was updating her blog. Her online gossip column was getting more and more hits each week. The latest entry should increase traffic even more.
The pH Factor wasn’t a serious threat to Perez Hilton’s site yet. His website regularly racked up millions of hits while hers averaged only a low six figures. But if she could add a few more subscribers—say ten or twenty thousand—she could start thinking corporate sponsorship. After that, she would have to make a difficult decision: should she continue to post anonymously, or reveal herself to the world?
She revealed her body three nights a week. Why shouldn’t she reveal her identity as well? Simple. Even though she was willing to do many things for money, some things weren’t for sale.
Miles placed a bag of pastrami sandwiches on the counter and looked around the store he had inherited from his parents. Thanks to his parents’ contacts and the store’s prime location near Dupont Circle, Miles easily raked in enough income to make the monthly mortgage payments on the townhouse he occupied in Georgetown—and to offer the cramped living space above the store to Robby rent-free until she could afford a place of her own. Whenever that happened.
Robby gave Miles plenty of grief because that was what friends were for, but she appreciated his generosity. If not for him, she would have been on the street or in the poorhouse years ago. When she hit it big, he would be the first stop on her restitution tour. Okay, maybe second. She would square things with him right after she paid a visit to her favorite designer shoe store to pick up a pair of the trademark red-soled Louboutins she had always longed to own but could never afford.
Miles jammed his hands in the pockets of his tweed vest as he tried to read over Robby’s shoulder. “Did you have any customers while I was gone?”
Robby angled her laptop away from Miles’s prying eyes. With his youthful countenance and unruly mop of brown curls, he looked positively prepubescent. Too bad his wardrobe was strictly nineteenth century. Less steampunk and more Charles Dickens. No wonder his friends called him Tiny Tim behind his back.
“Just one,” she said, “but I took care of her.”
“The same way you ‘take care’ of the women who leave you big, fat tips at Virginia’s?”
Robby gave him a not-so-playful punch in the shoulder. “Don’t mock patrons of the art.”
“I didn’t know go-go dancing was considered an art.”
“That’s because you haven’t seen me do it.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Miles wrinkled his nose in distaste. “You’re like my sister, Robby. I don’t want to see my sister twerking for tips.”
“Whatever you say, bro. But if you want to learn a few moves, you know who to call.”
Robby gyrated her hips to the slow, seductive rhythm of an imaginary beat. A few days a week, she worked the late shift at Virginia’s, a lesbian club where bartenders served up drinks and entertained overflow crowds composed of an uneven mix of out and proud hipsters and closeted politicos looking to leave their day jobs behind for a few fun-filled hours.
How would Taylor react if she knew Robby danced on a bar top when she wasn’t peddling antiques? Would she slip a five-dollar bill down her shirt like the other patrons lined up to do, or would she run the other way?
Robby knew what Taylor’s father’s advisors would say. They would have a shit fit if they suspected the First Daughter was involved with a go-go girl. As for Taylor’s parents, their conservative little heads would probably explode. Which, all things considered, might not be such a bad thing.
Did Taylor have a mind of her own, or was she destined to become another Mary Cheney? Shoved back into the closet and forced to toe the party line while her father spouted anti-gay rhetoric that endeared him to his base of supporters but alienated him from everyone else.
Miles pursed his lips as he picked a piece of lint off his corduroy pants. “Did you get our mystery shopper’s phone number?”
“Not yet, but I know where to find her if I need her.”
Robby waited a beat before hitting him with the punch line. “The White House.”
“Who do you know inside the White House?” he asked skeptically. “Some entry-level employee you plan to pump for information?”
“Oh, ye of little faith. My contact isn’t an unpaid intern no one cares about until they run out of coffee or office supplies. She’s someone much higher up.”
“So high she has her own Secret Service code name.”
“You’re kidding me, right? Secret Service code names are limited to some serious heavy hitters. Do you really expect me to believe a member of the First Family, the Vice President and her husband, or someone similar strolled off the street and through those doors?”
“Check the security camera if you don’t believe me.”
“Don’t make me jump through hoops, Robby. Just tell me.”
“I’m having too much fun to give up the information so easily, but I will give you a hint. You used to have a crush on her brother back when you preferred yuppies to gym queens.”
Miles’s brown eyes bugged. “Taylor Crenshaw? The daughter of the next president of the United States was here? In my shop?”
“In the flesh.”
“What did she buy?”
Miles was so excited his eyeglasses were starting to fog up. In DC, what you knew was important, but who you knew was even more valuable. If word got out that the Crenshaws were clients, the store could become a tourist attraction instead of the destination of choice for a selective, albeit very rich, few.
Robby slid the inventory log toward Miles. “She bought her father a shoeshine box to remind him he may be the leader of the free world, but he’s still one of the little people. Apparently, her grandfather shined shoes when he was a boy.”
“That story’s true? I thought it was something her father made up to garner sympathy votes during the campaign when he wasn’t slinging mud at the competition.”
“You thought wrong.” Robby’s fingers flew across the keyboard, her hands barely able to keep pace with the thoughts streaming through her head. She loved when that happened. When the words flowed so freely she didn’t have to think about what she wanted to say. In moments like these, she felt like she was taking dictation instead of writing.
Miles glanced at the computer screen. “Please tell me you’re not doing what I think you’re doing.”
Robby read over what she had written and clicked Submit. “What do you think I’m doing?” she asked after she logged off the password-protected portion of her website.
“Getting into very big trouble.”
Robby grinned. “Is there any other kind?”
“You’re screwing around with the president’s daughter.”
“I haven’t screwed her yet. Even I don’t work that fast. And Terry Crenshaw isn’t the president yet. He’s president-elect. He won’t take office until Tuesday, by which time I hope to have wrangled an invitation to the inaugural ball.” Robby powered off her computer. “Would you like to come with? If you play your cards right, you might get felt up by the strapping Secret Service agent she came in here with.”
“As tempting as that sounds, count me out. Prison stripes make me look fat.” Miles bit into his sandwich. “But you have fun. I’ll visit you in the big house.”
Robby wiped a speck of mustard off the corner of Miles’s mouth. “I think you mean the White House. Because if I play my cards right, I’m going to be a frequent guest there for the next four years.”
“Or until Taylor Crenshaw finds out who you really are. Do you honestly think it’s going to take her that long to realize you’re something other than a simple clerk in an antique store?”
Robby unwrapped a kosher dill. “By the time she discovers who I really am, I’ll be too rich to care.”
Taylor knew Steven was only doing his job, but his constant presence was starting to get on her nerves. Not to mention he insisted on calling her “ma’am” despite her many pleas to the contrary. She was only twenty-five. Old enough to drink, but too young for such a formal term of address.
“If things go well with Robby, hopefully, he’ll take the hint and make himself scarce,” she said to herself as Steven shadowed her through the aisles of Kramerbooks. “Otherwise, he might get an eyeful.” And, perhaps, an earful.
She smiled at the thought of getting intimate with the sexy clerk from the antique store she had wandered into that afternoon, but quickly banished the idea from her head. She needed to get her hormones under control. While her father was in office, discretion would be the better part of valor. But he wasn’t in office yet, so why shouldn’t she have one final fling before she checked herself into the nunnery? There would be plenty of time to be good after her father was sworn in on Tuesday. Until then, all bets were off.
She browsed the shelves at Kramer’s while she waited for Robby to arrive. Both the bookstore and the attached café were bustling as tourists and locals alike competed to see and be seen.
Taylor picked up a book and pretended to read. She scanned the room instead of the printed page. All the online customer reviews she’d read since leaving Osgood’s that afternoon said Kramerbooks was the place to be. For once, there was truth in advertising. Love connections were being made everywhere.
“I wonder how many of them last for more than one night.”
She got her answer when a man in a three-piece suit dropped to one knee in the Current Affairs section and pulled out a huge diamond ring. His intended started screaming yes before her new fiancé could even pop the question.
Taylor joined the rest of the patrons in a round of applause as the happy couple floated out the door. She was beyond envious. If her father and his cronies had their way, she would never get to experience such a magical moment herself.
Terry Crenshaw, the senior senator from Missouri, had spoken out against marriage equality on several occasions before, during, and after the election. He had also promised his fellow conservatives that, if elected, he would do everything in his power to overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states. Would he keep his promises once he took the oath of office, or, like most politicians, had he only said what he thought he needed to say in order to get elected?
Taylor fervently hoped her father was only pretending to be a bigot instead of actually turning out to be one. Neither scenario offered much comfort, but it was the only thing she had to hold on to.
Needless to say, she didn’t share her father’s political beliefs. When he became a presidential candidate, she had refused to make appearances or stump speeches on his behalf. She had even toyed with the idea of publicly endorsing the Democratic nominee until family loyalty compelled her to think better of the idea. She had not come out in favor of anyone, answering reporters’ questions about her preferred candidate with a noncommittal “May the best man—or woman—win.”
In turn, her father had promised not to make her “life decisions” a point of contention as long as she kept her name out of the headlines. He needn’t have bothered to make the request. He had chosen to be a public figure; she had not. She kept her private life so private it was practically a state secret. Who she slept with was her business, not anyone else’s.
She had never denied who she was, but she hadn’t flaunted it either. She lived her life openly, not brazenly. And that was all she wanted. Nothing more, nothing less. She had no desire to be a celebrity, a role model, or a cautionary tale. She just wanted to live her life and be who she was: a grad student with a heavy class load, a slight caffeine addiction, and a fondness for beautiful women. With that being said, what was she doing rendezvousing with a stranger in a very public place on the weekend before her father was sworn into the highest office in the land?
“Ma’am?” Steven asked.
“Never mind.” Taylor reminded herself to keep her internal monologues just that. Internal. Because her burly bodyguard might not be the only one listening. “Toto,” she said under her breath, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas City anymore.”
“While we have a few minutes, there’s something I’d like to bring to your attention.” Steven reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and retrieved a small notebook. “I’ve completed a preliminary background check on Miss Rawlins,” he said, flipping the notebook open. “Would you like to know what I’ve found?”
Taylor skimmed the table of contents of a book about Eleanor Roosevelt. “No.”
Steven’s thick eyebrows knitted in confusion. “Ma’am?”
“Call me old-fashioned, but I consider it a turnoff when I go out with someone and she doesn’t make an effort to get to know me because she’s learned everything she thinks she needs to know about me on the Internet. If you tell me everything you’ve discovered about Robby before our first date, you’ll ruin the getting-to-know-you stage of the relationship. And that just so happens to be my favorite part.”
Taylor loved gleaning the details of her paramours’ lives. Hearing their hopes and dreams. Discovering what they liked and what they didn’t. Learning what made them tick. She wanted to feel that sense of wonder with Robby. And she wanted to do it on her own. Which she couldn’t do if Steven gave her all the answers before she took the test.
“Just tell me she isn’t a terrorist or a serial killer,” she said. “That’s all the information I need from you. The rest I can muddle through myself.”
Steven snapped his notebook shut. “She isn’t a terrorist or a serial killer.”
“Is she single?”
“I could take that a couple of ways, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” She tucked the book under her arm and headed to the counter so she could pay for her purchase.
Even though she was done with the subject, Steven wouldn’t let it go. “She likes to party, her social media presence raises a few red flags, and she has debt issues. Serious debt issues.”
“Who doesn’t? My parents didn’t approve of my choice of major—among other things—so they didn’t pay for me to go to college. When I get my master’s degree next year, I’m going to be paying off student loans for the rest of my life.” Taylor paid for the book and turned back to Steven. She tapped the notebook he was cradling in his huge hands. “Is there anything in there I should be worried about?”
“Like I said, it was only a cursory search. If I have time to perform a more extensive scan—”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
Taylor headed to the bar. She couldn’t tell if Steven had been assigned to look out for her best interests or her father’s. Until she figured out where his real loyalties lay, she would look out for herself.
When she walked into Kramerbooks and saw the hulking Secret Service agent by Taylor’s side, Robby was glad she had decided against bringing her tape recorder. The voice-activated machine was tiny, but probably not small enough to escape the agent’s eagle eyes.
The guy was so big, he made the Incredible Hulk look emaciated. Robby could understand Taylor having him tag along for a shopping spree, but why did she feel the need to bring him on a date?
“Talk about two’s company and three’s a crowd.”
When the agent swiveled his head in her direction, Robby nearly lost her nerve. She ran through her mental checklist, making sure she had covered all her bases.
Her name wasn’t on the website. Neither was her image. The domain registration couldn’t be traced to her, and today’s entry was so vague it could have been written by anyone.
“Time to stop worrying and start digging up some real dirt.”
Robby squared her shoulders, plastered on her best come-hither smile, and joined Taylor at the bar.
“What’s in the bag?” she asked, polishing off the rest of Taylor’s drink. She tried not to make a face when she discovered the rim of the glass was lined with salt instead of sugar. She liked her drinks sweet, not bitter. The salty dog she had just swallowed definitely didn’t fit the bill.
“A book about Eleanor Roosevelt.”
“The one detailing her long-running affair with Lorena Hickok?” Robby rested her elbows on the bar, smiling a little when Taylor gawped at her cleavage.
“Unfortunately, no. I don’t think my poli sci professor wants to read about the former First Lady’s desire to kiss the soft spot on the northeast corner of her alleged lover’s mouth.” Taylor cleared her throat and signaled for another drink. She turned to Robby. “Would you like something?”
“Sex on the beach.”
“I’m assuming the kind that comes in a glass.”
“You know what they say about assuming.” Robby slowly circled her finger around the rim of Taylor’s glass, picking up leftover crystals of sea salt along the way. Taylor’s breath quickened as if she could feel every stroke. “What’s the book about?”
“It’s a collection of the newspaper columns Mrs. Roosevelt wrote from 1936 to 1962. I think it will provide valuable research material for my thesis on the changing role of women in politics. I can see your eyes glazing over, so I’ll take that as my cue to change the subject.”
Taylor laughed self-consciously. For a brief moment, Robby saw her as a woman instead of source material for her column. She liked what she saw.
Taylor’s light brown hair was cut fashionably short. Streaks of blond made her look like a free spirit instead of the über serious women’s studies major she was and the earnest professor she would most likely become. Her angular face was unconventionally beautiful. Wide-set blue eyes, aquiline nose, and a jaw so sharp it could probably cut glass. With her trusting expression and rakish smile, she was a cross between the quintessential girl next door and the naughty neighbor across the street. Robby wanted to get naked with both. Preferably at the same time.
When her drink arrived, Robby drank half of it in one swallow, the sweet pineapple juice and peach schnapps cleansing the bitter remnants of the salty dog from her mouth.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Taylor said. “I reserved us a table for two.”
Robby glanced at the Secret Service agent who was giving her the evil eye. “Don’t you mean three?”
Taylor took a sip of her fresh drink. “Steven doesn’t eat when he’s on duty.”
“What time does he get off duty?” Robby plucked the maraschino cherry from her drink and tied the stem in a knot with her tongue.
“Not soon enough. Wait. Did I say that out loud?”
This is going to be easier than I thought.
Robby followed Taylor to their table in the Afterwords Café. Steven trailed close behind. Robby felt the ground shake each time he took a step.
After looking over the menu, Taylor ordered a grilled filet mignon. Robby opted for the butternut squash ravioli, though she wondered if she should have upgraded to the lobster instead. When the date was over, she would be forced to return to her regular diet of ramen noodles and frozen pizza.
Definitely should have gone with the lobster.
“You’ve been holding out on me,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Taylor asked.
“You promised to tell me how a rabid conservative whose platform makes him sound like he wants to turn back the clock sixty years managed to produce a daughter who’s a liberal Democrat most people suspect was rooting for the opposition.”
Taylor’s eyes flashed with something that looked like pain, but her expression remained inscrutable. “Just lucky, I guess.”
“Do you really expect me to take that for an answer?”
Taylor’s sigh sounded world-weary. Like she had been the one hitting the campaign trail for the better part of a year instead of her father. “In a few days, I’m going to be living in a glass house. I can’t afford to throw stones. Especially at my own walls.”
“Then that makes this difficult.” Robby leaned back in her seat as she tried to figure out a way to dig beneath Taylor’s guarded exterior. “How are we supposed to get to know each other better if you don’t let me get to know you at all?”
Taylor stared at her so long Robby was afraid she was going to call her bluff.
“I love my father,” Taylor eventually said. “I know he loves me, too. Yes, our different political opinions make sharing a home—or a dinner table—somewhat challenging.”
“Then why don’t you move out?”
“I had my own place when we lived in Missouri, but our circumstances are different now, to say the least. Given the toxic political environment during the presidential campaign, I’m told it’s too much of a security risk for me to live on my own here.”
“Or perhaps you’re less likely to create unwanted headlines if you’re on lockdown twenty-four seven. George W. Bush probably wished he had instituted similar restrictions when his twin daughters were cited for underage drinking when they were running wild in Texas and Connecticut while he and Laura lived in DC.”
“Whatever the reason, I’m holding out hope my father will eventually stop listening to his advisors and start listening to his heart.” Taylor leaned forward as if she wanted to be sure she had Robby’s attention. “You can ask me any question you want about me and I’ll answer it, but please don’t expect me to answer any about him. I’m his daughter, not his press secretary.”
Robby couldn’t imagine the pressure Taylor was under. For a moment, she almost felt sorry for her. Almost. If Taylor wanted to change her lot in life, one well-timed interview would do the job. Others weren’t as fortunate.
She studied the drink menu as she tried to hide her disappointment. She’d never had to work this hard to earn a woman’s trust. All she usually needed to do to get what she wanted was bat her eyes a few times and count to ten. Not this time. What made Taylor so different? And why was she so determined to find out?
“What’s your first question?” Taylor asked.
Robby looked up from the extensive wine list. “How long are you going to make me wait before you let me kiss you?”
Taylor blushed, a quaint reaction Robby found disarming. And downright charming. Unless Taylor grew a thick skin or picked up a suit of armor over the coming months, this town was going to eat her alive.
“It’ll happen sooner or later.”
“In case you’re wondering, I prefer sooner.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Taylor spread her napkin in her lap as the food arrived. “Now what’s your first real question?” she asked after the waiter left.
Robby was torn between asking a question her readers would want to know and one she wanted the answer to. So she went with both. “What are you wearing to the inaugural ball?”
“A dress my mother’s stylist picked out.”
“You don’t sound very excited by the prospect.”
“I haven’t worn a dress since I was five. Tuesday, I’ll be expected to wear two in one day. One for the inauguration and another for the ball. Hopefully, I won’t be required to stay for the whole event. Otherwise I might lose my mind before the night ends.”
“I’m sure the right woman could take your mind off things. And help you out of your dress.”
“Are you saying that woman’s you?”
“Are you asking me on a date?”
“We’re already on a date.”
“Are you asking me on another one?”
Taylor paused in mid chew as she considered the question. “Yes,” she said at length.
Robby’s heart rate tripled as she wondered if she was about to be invited to the social event of the year. “I’m free Tuesday night.”
“But I’m not.” Taylor’s smile faltered as she slashed at the grilled steak on her plate. “I have to spend the evening watching a string of political bigwigs line up to audition for the few remaining cabinet appointments my father hasn’t already filled.”
“Sounds like fun.” And Robby would love to be able to bear witness to the high stakes parlor game as political favors were called in, repaid, or rebuffed.
“I doubt watching groveling is your idea of entertainment. What do you do for fun?”
“Well, I don’t read three-inch thick books about Eleanor Roosevelt, that’s for sure.”
“What kind of books do you prefer?”
Robby decided to downplay her interest in the written word.
“In my opinion, a good movie beats a good book every time. Give me a smart romantic comedy, an opulent costume drama, and a bowl of popcorn, and I’m a happy girl.”
“I could recommend several authors who could change your mind.”
“The books are better than the movie. Intellectuals always say that.”
And Taylor definitely fit the bill. In addition to studying for her master’s degree, Taylor worked as a teaching assistant for one of her professors. She probably kept her nose buried in so many books she would rather read about someone else’s life than live her own.
“They say it because it’s usually true,” Taylor said.
“What kind of books do you like?” Robby asked, turning the tables.
“I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Especially works with two female protagonists.”
Robby imagined co-starring with Taylor in their very own bodice-ripper. She pictured herself in a beautiful Victorian-style evening gown, her breasts spilling over the top of a tightly laced corset while Taylor tore through the formal dress to get to the whalebone undergarment and flounced petticoats underneath.
“Who knew talking about books could be so sexy?” she asked, taking a sip of her drink to cool off.
Taylor pushed her empty plate away from her. “I think talking about pretty much anything with you would be sexy.”
“In that case, why don’t we go back to my place and find out?”
Taylor signaled for the check. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Robby’s tiny apartment reminded Taylor of the one she used to rent while she was enrolled at the University of Missouri. The place she and her roommates turned into party central every weekend as they hung out to watch football or basketball games or simply played beer pong on the back deck. But that was a lifetime ago. Before her family left Kansas City for the District of Columbia. Before it was “suggested” that she transfer from Mizzou to Georgetown. Before she traded in her apartment for a room in the White House. Back when she had a life.
She took a seat on one end of the L-shaped couch and looked around the room. The furnishings were sparse but well coordinated. The tan microsuede sofa was paired with a matching oversized ottoman that doubled as a coffee table. Four milk crates were stacked next to the flat screen TV. The colorful plastic storage units were filled with DVDs and CDs. The movies were all contemporary or historical romances. The music ran the gamut from pop to rock to dance to jazz. Perfect for setting any mood. At the moment, Norah Jones was doing the honors, her smooth, silky voice filling the room.
Taylor flinched in surprise when a large black cat trotted in from another room and leaped onto the couch. The well fed feline butted its large head against her hand. When she scratched it between its ears, the cat purred happily and settled into her lap. She peeked at its hind end to see if it was male or female. Definitely male. He kneaded her legs with his oversized paws. She winced when one of his nails poked through her jeans and found skin. “What’s your name, big boy?” she asked, digging his claw out of her thigh.
“His name’s Orson, and he knows he isn’t allowed on the sofa. Down, Orson.”
Orson stood, stretched, and jumped off the couch. He rubbed himself against Robby’s legs before ambling out of the room, his long tail pointed straight up in the air.
Robby handed Taylor a glass of water and took a seat on the opposite end of the couch. “As in Orson Welles. The later years, not the early ones.”
“I can see the resemblance.” Taylor laughed, remembering the sight of Orson’s pendulous belly swinging back and forth as he waddled away. “He’s cute. How long have you had him?”
“Four years. I found him at the Humane Society the week I moved to Washington.”
“You’re not originally from here?”
“No, I’m from Richmond, Virginia. I moved to DC for a woman. The relationship didn’t work out, but I liked the area so much I decided to stay.”
“I’m glad you did.”
Robby stretched her legs in front of her and crossed them at the ankles, giving Taylor a clear view of her curvy thighs. She was wearing another skirt, though not the one from that afternoon. This one was a gray pencil skirt paired with a burgundy camisole under a sheer ruffled blouse. “What’s your idea of the perfect woman?”
I think I’m looking at her.
“One who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, but isn’t above being pampered from time to time.”
“Shall I expect you to place your coat in my path every time I cross a mud puddle?”
“I’d rather carry you across it.” Taylor shook off the comparison to Sir Walter Raleigh. She had always fancied herself more of a knight than a noblewoman. Chivalrous and more than ready to come to the aid of a damsel in distress, but definitely far from the manor born. “What’s your idea of the perfect woman?”
Robby was quiet for a moment. “One who’s strong enough to let me cry on her shoulder, but isn’t afraid to use mine when she needs to.”
Taylor, who prided herself on being fiercely independent, hadn’t cried on anyone’s shoulder since her pet hamster died when she was eight. She wanted to rest her head on Robby’s shoulder now—but for reasons other than comfort. She wanted to come face-to-face with the gorgeous breasts she had been fantasizing about all day. She placed her glass on the coffee table and moved to the other end of the couch. “What would you like to do on our second date?”
Robby flashed an indulgent smile. “We haven’t finished our first date yet.”
Taylor placed one hand on Robby’s knee and brushed the other across her cheek. “I like to plan ahead.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Robby turned and kissed Taylor’s hand, leaving an outline of her lips on the palm.
Taylor buried her hand in Robby’s hair and drew herself closer. She nuzzled the side of Robby’s neck, smiling at her gasp of surprise. Then she slid her lips across the smooth skin. Moving higher, she drew Robby’s earlobe into her mouth and gently sucked.
Robby drew in air through her teeth. She slid her right hand across the top of Taylor’s denim-covered thigh and burrowed under her thick cable-knit sweater until she brought her hand to rest on Taylor’s left breast. She gently squeezed, kneading Taylor’s flesh through the thin material of her bra.
Taylor’s lips found Robby’s at the same time Robby’s dexterous fingers pinched her nipple. Robby’s warm mouth swallowed her cries. Robby tasted as sweet as honey—and felt nearly as pliable. Taylor wanted her in every possible way.
She pulled Robby into her lap, their tongues sliding against each other’s in a slow, sensuous dance. As Robby scraped her fingernails across her belly, Taylor unbuttoned Robby’s blouse and pushed it off her shoulders. When she reached for the thin straps of Robby’s camisole, Robby pulled away.
“Whoa, tiger. Let’s slow down.”
Taylor felt an odd mixture of disappointment and relief. Disappointment over not being able to see Robby naked. Relief that she wasn’t allowed to make the mistake of starting something she couldn’t finish.
Robby was new, exciting, and different. Nothing like anyone Taylor had ever met. And she wasn’t meant to be a one-night stand. She was meant to be something more. Something Taylor couldn’t have.
“I’m sorry,” Taylor said. “I don’t normally move this fast. I just—”
“It’s okay.” Robby ran her fingers through her mussed hair. “We’re not running a race, are we?”
Taylor thought about her self-imposed deadline. After Inauguration Day, she wouldn’t be able to spend time with Robby like this. Or any other woman, for that matter. But wasn’t that being unfair to Robby? The timing of their first meeting was an accident of fate. Asking her out, however, had been Taylor’s idea. If Taylor stopped hanging out with her now, it would look like she was pouting because Robby had decided not to sleep with her tonight.
Taylor felt like she was in a no-win situation. If she bailed now, Robby would probably think she was a heel. And if she continued to see her, the whole world would get to watch her fumble through the feeling-out process, something she would prefer to do in private. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
“No,” she said, wishing the words she was about to say were true. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”
“Good. I’m glad we’re on the same page.” Robby gave her a quick kiss, then wiped her lipstick off Taylor’s mouth with her thumb. “Definitely not your shade.”
Taylor reached for her glass after Robby climbed off her lap. She was so hot she was tempted to pour the contents over her head instead of down her throat.
“You’re a basketball fan, right?” Robby asked.
Taylor nodded. “I was a starter on the varsity squad for three years in high school and rode the bench for two more as a walk-on at Mizzou. I still play pickup games from time to time, but I haven’t been able to get on the court for a while. Why do you ask?”
“The Hoyas are on the road this weekend, but the Wizards are hosting the Warriors Friday night. If I can get tickets, would you like to go?”
Basketball was Taylor’s passion. She realized long ago she didn’t have the skills to make it in the professional ranks, but she once considered becoming a coach so she could stay near the game when her playing career ended. She changed her mind when the siren call of the classroom proved impossible to ignore. She wanted nothing more than to be able to watch a professional basketball game in person, but the venue was much too public considering her new higher profile.
“I’d love to, but—”
“But what?” Robby’s lower lip slid forward. Taylor wanted to capture it between her own lips and slowly trace its contours with her tongue.
“I want to make sure you have a clear idea of what you might be getting into by going out with me. If we were to go on a date, do you know how much scrutiny you would be subjected to?”
“All I know is I want to see you again. Don’t you want that, too?”
When Robby’s sexy pout turned into an even sexier smile, Taylor couldn’t remember the last time she had wanted something more.
“Then I’ll see you Friday night. I’ll call you later in the week with the details.” Robby handed Taylor her cell phone so she could program her number into the list of contacts.
Taylor returned Robby’s phone. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Robby walked Taylor to the door and helped her don her heavy overcoat. She gave Taylor a good night kiss, then reached past her, and turned the doorknob. Steven Alesana stood guard outside the door. He had walked through the apartment earlier to make sure no surprises lurked inside. Then he had stationed himself in the hallway to give them some privacy. When Robby opened the door, he snapped to attention as if an unseen bugler had just played reveille.
Robby warily eyed the man she felt sure would soon become her nemesis. If he wasn’t already. “Do I need to buy three tickets instead of two?”
“It might not be a bad idea.” Taylor’s cheeks reddened. “I could probably get away with saying he’s with me, but I don’t want to throw my weight around. I’ll gladly pay for the tickets if the price is too exorbitant for you to—”
Robby held up her hands to stop her before the situation went from awkward to embarrassing. “I’ll take care of the cost of the extra ticket. Going to the game was my idea, after all.”
“Tickets for what?” Steven asked. “And what game are we talking about?”
“I’ll fill you in later,” Taylor said. “Come on.”
After Taylor and Steven left, Robby sagged against the door. She was two seconds away—two buttons, really—from having Taylor exactly where she wanted her. So why had she pulled the plug? In the past, she had always been willing to go to any lengths for a story. She would say or do anything if it helped her be first to publish breaking news. Why not now?
Because tonight didn’t feel like a means to an end. It felt like a beginning. And in this case, it might be the beginning of the end.
She had never felt so instantly, utterly aroused as she had when Taylor leaned toward her. She could still feel the heat of Taylor’s hands on her skin. Taste the sweetness of her kiss. In a few days, she could have more—much more—of both. As far as she was concerned, Friday couldn’t come fast enough.
She powered up her laptop and navigated to the Washington Wizards’ website. She examined the interactive map of the arena to see which tickets were still available. Courtside seats were well out of her price range and most of them were already sold out. Seats in the nosebleed section were available for fifty dollars a pop, but, money problems aside, she didn’t want to seem like a cheap date. She moved her cursor to the seats in the middle of the arena.
“A hundred fifty dollars a ticket? Too rich for my blood.”
Most of her credit cards were maxed out. The few that weren’t had a limit so low she couldn’t even use them to buy a cup of coffee. And she couldn’t ask for an advance on her paycheck at Virginia’s since she’d be skipping out on Friday night’s shift in order to take Taylor to the basketball game. There was only one thing she could do.
“Time to visit Osgood National Bank and ask for another interest-free loan.”
Taylor whistled happily as she approached the entrance to the hotel where she and her family were sequestered until Tuesday afternoon. Her brother, Thomas Jefferson “TJ” Crenshaw, puffed on an electronic cigarette as he stood in the small designated smoking area near the lobby doors. A Secret Service agent smoking an actual cigarette stood a few feet away.
She doubted agents were allowed to smoke while they were on duty, but perhaps he and TJ had a budding bromance. TJ had that effect on people. Even those he met for the first time went away feeling like he was their best friend. In her case, it happened to be true.
He had given her the typical big brother grief when they were growing up, but once they left their teen years behind, they had reached a point where they were able to tell each other everything without fear of reprisal. Well, almost everything. The one subject she tried to avoid was her issues with their parents. It was a battle he couldn’t win and she didn’t want him to feel like he had to choose sides.
“Why are you standing out here?” She flipped her collar up to protect the back of her neck from the wind. “I thought e-cigarettes were allowed in the room.”
“The hotel staff doesn’t have a problem with them. Paula does.” He held up his faux cigarette. “The nicotine level in these is negligible compared to the real thing, but she doesn’t want me smoking them around the kids.”
“She won’t rest until you’ve kicked the habit altogether.”
“I’m trying.” He blew out a thick stream of water vapor. “I take it your date went well?”
“You would be correct, sir.”
Taylor sat on a nearby bench. TJ soon joined her.
“Are you going to see her again?”
“We’re going to the Washington-Golden State game Friday night.”
TJ held up his hand for a high five. Taylor grinned as she slapped his palm. She might not have her parents’ approval, but she definitely had her brother’s.
“What’s your date’s name again?” he asked.
“Make up your mind. One sounds like someone’s grandmother, the other like a twelve-year-old boy.”
“Ass.” Taylor elbowed him in the ribs. “I assure you she’s neither.”
“Did you invite her to the inaugural ball?”
Taylor snorted. “I don’t think that would go over well.”
She jerked her thumb at the luxury hotel behind them. “The lovely couple in Penthouse A for starters.”
“It’s your life, not theirs, little sis. And life’s much too short to spend unhappy.”
Though there was undeniable truth in what TJ had said, Taylor was hesitant to follow his advice. Her life was her own, not the public’s. She wanted to live it openly, but she didn’t want to become a talking point on any of the dozens of current affairs shows that littered the television landscape. It was nearly impossible to keep relationships secret in the electronic age. No matter how circumspect she was, she was sure it was simply a matter of time before photos of her and one of her lovers turned up on the Internet. Before she became the subject of a tweet on Twitter, an entry on someone’s Facebook page, or a name dropped in a blog. Why should she fight the inevitable?
Because she had promised her father she wouldn’t make headlines, and she couldn’t go back on her word. Not even for the most exciting woman she had met in years.
“Are you sure a thousand dollars is going to be enough?” Miles asked.
“It’s plenty, thank you.”
Miles signed the check, ripped it from the register, and recorded the entry in an oversized ledger.
Barely refraining from rubbing her hands together in glee like the Scrooge eying a mound of gold, Robby folded the check in half and stowed it in her purse. “I’ll pay you back. I promise.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
Miles locked the rest of the unused checks in the floor safe behind the counter. “Let’s just say I’m not holding my—”
“I think the word you’re looking for is breath,” she said when he didn’t finish his sentence.
“Yes, as in I can’t catch mine.”
“What’s wrong?” Robby squeezed Miles’s arm when she finally noticed what had captured his attention. A huge black SUV with tinted windows and oversized tires was parked in front of the store. Nothing unusual about that. Dupont Circle saw its fair share of luxury cars. Only one, however, was occupied by Taylor Crenshaw.
“Your girlfriend’s here,” Miles whispered after Taylor stepped out of the SUV. “Who’s the sexy side of beef with her?”
Robby watched Steven clear a path across the sidewalk. “Traitor. Your ‘sexy side of beef’ is the thorn in my side who’s been keeping me awake at night.”
“He can pull the thorn out of you and stick it in me anytime.”
“Gross. Whatever you do, please do not make me imagine you having sex. That’s worse than picturing my parents doing it.”
“I don’t know. Your dad’s kinda hot. Your mom must think so, too. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have three kids.”
“For the love of God, please stop.” The bell over the front door dinged, officially announcing Taylor and Steven’s arrival. “Look busy. Better yet, make yourself scarce.”
She tried to shoo Miles away to no avail. Standing his ground, he straightened his striped bow tie. “Not on your life.”
Robby grabbed a pen and a sheaf of papers and pretended to take inventory of the items in the store. Looking neither left nor right, Taylor headed straight for the counter.
“Hello and welcome. I’m Miles Osgood. May I help you?”
Robby cringed at the over-the-top chirpiness in Miles’s voice. Could he be more transparent?
“Osgood,” Taylor said. “Is your name the same as the one over the door?”
“I like to say my parents’ name is the one over the front door. I sneaked in the back when no one was looking.”
Robby looked up from the inventory list when she heard what sounded like a sneeze. She realized with a start it was the sound of Steven snickering. He and Miles shared a laugh as they shook hands. Mr. Big had a sense of humor? Or did he have a soft spot for Miles? If so, she might be able to use the situation to her advantage. Miles could play Steven the same way she was playing Taylor. He might need some convincing, but she was nothing if not persuasive.
Taylor caught her eye. “You look like you’re in the middle of something so I won’t stay long.” She reached into the pocket of her snow-dusted black pea coat and pulled out a crisp white envelope. “In case you haven’t heard, there’s a party tomorrow night. I apologize for the late notice, but I’d love it if you could attend.”
Robby reached for the envelope. “Is this what I think it is?”
Taylor grinned. “I don’t know. What do you think it is?”
Robby turned the envelope over in her hands, resisting the urge to rip it open to get to what lay inside. “An invitation to the inaugural ball. The official one, not the satellite parties being thrown all around town.”
“Then you thought right. Will I see you there?”
Robby tried to think of a witty comment, but she was so excited all she could do was nod her head like an overly enthusiastic bobblehead doll. “Will I be your date?” she finally managed to sputter.
“No.” Taylor’s smile faded. “I already have a date, I’m afraid. Portia Thomas posted a video on YouTube last year asking me to accompany her to the Marine Corps ball. I thought it only right to return the favor, though my invitation was extended with a great deal less fanfare than hers.”
Robby remembered the stir it had caused when pictures of Taylor on Lance Corporal Thomas’s arm had appeared on TV and on the Internet. A few of Terry Crenshaw’s fellow conservatives had made a stink about it, but Taylor had laughed it off by saying she was simply doing her part to support the troops.
She and Portia looked really good together—great, in fact—but Robby had thought their “date” was a one-time thing. Just another example of a celebrity generating good PR like actress Betty White, singer Justin Timberlake, and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey had when they accepted similar invitations to the annual black-tie event. But if Taylor and Portia were going to the inaugural ball together, perhaps there was more to the story than had been originally reported.
“Are you two seeing each other?” Robby asked.
“Why not?” Miles said. “I mean if you don’t mind my asking.”
“No worries,” Taylor said, effortlessly smoothing over Miles’s misstep. “PT and I are much too similar to be in a relationship. We make better friends than we ever would lovers. She’s someone I can talk to when I can’t talk to anyone else. If you can’t trust a Marine, who can you trust?”
“Who, indeed?” Miles asked, making eyes at Steven.
“I’ve got to get going,” Taylor said. “I’m between classes and I don’t want the next one to start without me. I’ll see you tomorrow night?”
“You bet,” Robby said.
“Excellent. It was nice to meet you, Miles.”
“You, too. Both of you.” He practically swooned when Steven returned his smile. “Call me,” he said after Taylor and Steven returned to their waiting car.
“Dude, don’t be so obvious.” Robby opened the envelope and pulled out the laser-printed card inside.
“What does it say?”
“In honor of the President of the United States and Mrs. Crenshaw and the Vice President of the United States and Mr. Duvall, the Presidential Inaugural Committee requests the pleasure of your company at the Presidential Inaugural Ball Tuesday, the twentieth of January at seven o’clock in the evening in the city of Washington. White tie. Black tie optional.”
“Let me see that.”
Robby gave Miles just enough time to read the words for himself before she snatched the card out of his hands. She fanned herself with the invitation as if she were a demure Southern belle sipping sweet tea on the front porch of her family mansion. “Since I can’t count on you to be my escort, Mr. Osgood, I suppose I shall have to find someone else to accompany me to the ball.”
“Don’t even think about inviting anyone else. Let me be your walker,” he said, referring to the group of predominantly gay men who escorted rich society women to events which their husbands couldn’t or didn’t want to attend.
“I thought you said you didn’t want anything to do with my plan.”
Miles shrugged. “It is a girl’s prerogative to change her mind, isn’t it?” He tapped a finger against his chin. “I wonder what Steven looks like in white tie and tails.”
As Miles recast Cinderella with him and Steven in the starring roles, Robby cautioned herself to keep her head in the game. But it took a concerted effort to avoid giving in to the fantasy. Each time Taylor smiled at her, she felt her resolve begin to falter. And when Taylor kissed her, she had almost lost sight of her goals. What would happen if they went all the way? Was the prospect of great sex enough incentive to cease her pursuit of a story?
No, she told herself. It was simply an added bonus. She would get to bag the girl and control the narrative. What could be better?
When her father announced he intended to run for president, Taylor told a few trusted friends he would win the election when hell froze over. Someone must have heard her because Inauguration Day was the coldest on record.
As she waited for the ceremony to begin, she felt like her cheeks were frozen. If she looked close enough, she could probably see ice crystals forming on her eyelashes.
TJ wrapped his thick wool scarf tighter around his neck. “Is it too late for us to go back to Missouri?”
“Just a bit,” Taylor replied out of the corner of her mouth.
TJ clapped his gloved hands to restore circulation. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
Taylor tugged at the hem of her powder-blue dress, which was long enough not to be considered risqué but too short to keep her legs warm. The matching overcoat had its drawbacks, too. Namely being more stylish than functional.
Where was her thermal underwear when she needed it? Oh, yeah. Packed inside a moving van idling next to the rear entrance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A few blocks away, two sets of movers were parked behind the White House—one employed by the departing commander in chief, another by the incoming one. Now that she had taken some time to get used to the idea, Taylor was looking forward to getting settled in. To making the White House feel like her home instead of a museum she had accidentally gotten locked inside of.
She couldn’t wait for Portia to arrive so they could crack a few beers and commiserate over their respective lots in life. She had been sentenced to spend the next four years deflecting questions about her father’s voting record while being publicly flogged by gay rights activists for not speaking out against him. Portia, meanwhile, might not fare much better. She was currently waiting to hear what her next assignment would be—the cushy spot in Hawaii she was hoping for, or yet another dreaded deployment to Afghanistan.
Portia would be Taylor’s first official overnight guest. Would she be the last? Hopefully not, but their relationship was decidedly platonic. What Taylor felt for Robby, however, went beyond friendship.
Taylor smiled, imagining making love to Robby for hours as they christened each of the many guest rooms in the historic structure. A nice fantasy, but surely nothing more than an impossible dream. No relationship could stand up to the scrutiny she would be under during her father’s term in office. Though she longed to spend more time with Robby to see where things might lead, she needed to draw the line before she got in too deep.
Or was it already too late?
She was playing with fire by inviting Robby to the official inaugural ball. Everyone who was anyone in Washington was bound to be there. Thrown in the middle of such a well-heeled crowd, Robby would seem like an interloper. Questions about her presence were bound to be raised. And if the two of them were spotted together at the Wizards game Friday night, the amount of inquiries would only increase.
Logic said Taylor should end things now, but how could she walk away when being with Robby felt so right?
What had TJ said last night? Life was too short to spend unhappy. Yes, that was it. Was she willing to deny herself a possible chance at happiness simply because it didn’t fit into someone else’s agenda?
One more date couldn’t hurt.
She tried to keep her expression impassive when Philip Morgan, the head of a Colorado superchurch with thousands of members and a rapidly growing political base, rose to give the invocation.
After Arthur Dunphy’s series of missteps left the evangelical Christian vote up for grabs, Morgan’s endorsement had swayed most members of the influential demographic to vote for the Crenshaw-Duvall ticket. The right-wing tenets Morgan espoused were diametrically opposed to the ones Taylor followed. She was in favor of staying loyal to those who were loyal to you, but she considered the decision to reward the avowed separatist for his support to be her father’s first misstep. Hopefully, it would also be the last.
The long, drawn-out presidential campaign had left the nation divided and battle-weary. Election night should have been cause for celebration, but it had seemed more like a sigh of relief that all the backbiting, infighting, and name-calling had finally come to an end. Many political pundits had expressed the hope that today’s ceremony would mark the beginning of the healing process. Much to Taylor’s dismay, Phillip Morgan’s planned presence only served to drive the wedge even deeper.
Taylor didn’t approve of giving such a large forum to a rabid hatemonger. Freedom of speech had its limits. Apparently, she wasn’t alone in her assessment. Morgan’s selection had prompted a torrent of protests, op-ed columns and letters to the editor rife with negative reactions. None of her father’s Republican cronies had second-guessed him publicly, however, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach before they issued any official statements. She didn’t expect them to choose a side until they determined how it would affect their own political fortunes.
She suppressed a smile as scattered boos greeted Morgan’s approach to the dais. She didn’t want to get caught gloating. Or doing anything else, for that matter. Like it or not, she wasn’t simply witnessing history today. She was part of it. She needed to give the occasion the respect it deserved. Even if she didn’t expect to receive any in return.
Morgan didn’t say anything controversial, but he didn’t say anything memorable either. In deference to the frigid temperatures, he kept his remarks mercifully short. The applause that accompanied his departure could be generously referred to as polite.
Taylor’s cell phone vibrated twice in rapid succession while the nation’s poet laureate, an African-American literature professor from Harvard, recited a poem written especially for the occasion. Though she was riveted by the woman’s words, Taylor wanted to discreetly slip her phone out of her coat pocket and read the text message she had just received. With billions of people watching around the world, she knew there was no such thing as discreet. For the next four years, her every move would be magnified a hundredfold. Each misstep a potential meme in the making.
At a luncheon a few days before, Luci Johnson, the daughter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, had passed on some sound advice her own mother had given her when LBJ had unexpectedly taken over for John Kennedy in 1963.
“Always act like whatever you do will be printed on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times and act accordingly,” Lady Bird Johnson had said.
Taylor took the advice to heart. She applauded politely after the vice president-elect took the oath of office. On some level, Taylor was glad to see a woman assume a leadership role in the White House, even if it wasn’t the woman she wanted to pave the way. She hoped the I’m With Her T-shirt currently collecting dust in her closet would eventually become something more than a collector’s item.
Holly Duvall, the tough-talking former governor of Texas, had finished third in the race for the Republican nomination—right behind Arnold Dunphy, the blowhard billionaire who had been the frontrunner for months until the fiery rhetoric he used during his public appearances had incited a near-riot between his supporters and the hordes of protesters who had made their way into the arena.
Holly’s legion of predominantly female followers, popularly known as the Hollyhocks, was widely considered the reason the Crenshaw-Duvall ticket had swept the southern states the previous November. With her ribald sense of humor and endless supply of homespun stories, Holly made a wonderful dinner companion, but it remained to be seen how she would handle the job of vice president. The early signs looked—and sounded—encouraging.
“There is a great deal of anger in this country,” Holly said, addressing the crowd. “That anger is what got this ticket elected. Voters are tired of partisan politics and childish games that belong on the playground instead of the halls of Congress. But anger isn’t an end. It’s a beginning. If we want to move this great nation forward, we need to work together instead of impeding each other’s progress. I would like to take this moment to issue a challenge to my colleagues in the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike. Our fellow Americans elected us to lead. Let’s do what we were sent to Washington to do: our jobs.”
As Holly returned to her seat, applause washed over her like a breaking wave. Taylor felt herself getting swept up in the pageantry of the moment. She threw her shoulders back and sat up straight when her parents rose from their seats and approached the front of the stage.
Her mother held the family Bible while her father stood in front of the Chief Justice of the United States and recited his pledge to fulfill his duty to the utmost of his ability. Taylor felt an unexpected surge of emotion as the final lines of the oath of office echoed in the air. Though she and her father had their differences both personally and philosophically, she was proud he had been able to accomplish his lifelong goal. Only a select few individuals had been trusted with the enormous responsibility of leading the country, and he had joined their ranks. Now she and the rest of the nation waited to see what his next move would be. Would he focus on undoing the gains his liberal predecessor had made, or would he move forward and try to make his own mark in history?
The massive crowd roared its approval throughout his inaugural address. Taylor wished she could match the crowd’s intensity, but she couldn’t. Instead of tossing a figurative olive branch, her father’s speechwriters had drafted a discourse that reinforced the same old us-versus-them mentality. The unfortunate new normal in American politics.
When her father first ran for office nearly twenty years ago, he had aspired to be the next Ronald Reagan—a charismatic leader whose broad appeal inspired the public and crossed party lines. But perhaps he had followed the blueprint a little too closely. Reagan’s slow response to the burgeoning AIDS epidemic had made him a pariah in the LGBTQ community in the 1980s. Taylor’s father was almost as unpopular now as Reagan was then. And rightfully so.
Rhetoric from both parties had created a schism that had turned the country into the Divided States of America, neatly color-coded into red territories and blue ones. And, based on what she heard while her father addressed the hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall, the sorry state of affairs wasn’t going to change any time soon.
“God, it’s going to be a long four years,” she said to herself after her father wrapped up his speech, then worked the crowd of dignitaries like he was trying to sway undecided voters at a campaign stop.
Her phone vibrated again as she filed into the review stand to watch the inaugural parade. Despite the cold weather, marching bands from each of the fifty states were lining up to make the steady procession from the steps of the Capitol Building to the White House. Portions of Pennsylvania Avenue had been closed to vehicular traffic for years, but the foot traffic would be heavy for the next three hours.
She checked her messages. The first was from Portia, letting her know she had arrived safely and was making herself at home in the Lincoln Bedroom. The guest suite on the southeast corner of the White House’s second floor was normally reserved for visiting dignitaries and generous campaign contributors, but Taylor had called dibs on it so Portia wouldn’t have to blow her hard-earned salary on a hotel while she was in town. She hadn’t checked the going rates, but she was willing to bet no one would be able to find a room within twenty miles of the Beltway for less than four hundred dollars a night until all the official and unofficial celebrations around town had ended.
The other two messages were from Robby.
You look cold, the first one read. Would you like some of my body heat?
The second one said, Got the tix 4 Friday. Can’t wait 4 R date. C U 2nite. Save the last dance for me. Sounds like a song lyric, doesn’t it? If it isn’t, it should be. TTYL.
“Whoever that is,” Christina “Tina” Crenshaw said as she warmed her feet with one of the portable heaters that had been set up in front of each parade watcher’s chair, “tell them to call more often. This is the first time I’ve seen you smile all day.”
Taylor hoped it wouldn’t be the last.
“Did you finalize your design plans?” she asked as she put her phone away.
That morning, the Crenshaws had sat down to breakfast with the departing First Family. Afterward, Taylor had planned to spend some much needed quality time with her parents, but her mother had cut the meeting short so she could huddle with her interior decorator. She wanted to begin putting her personal stamp on the East Wing, the portion of the White House set aside for the offices of the First Lady and the White House Social Secretary as well as the not-so-secret underground bunker designated to serve as base of operations during a national emergency.
“As a matter of fact, yes, I did.”
Her mother appeared surprised Taylor was attempting to have a conversation with her. Had it been that long since they had talked? Really talked instead of pointing fingers?
Looks like we both have some work to do in that regard.
Once the aesthetic changes were complete, Taylor hoped her mother would eventually attach herself to a more substantial platform. Nancy Reagan was famous for the anti-drug campaign Just Say No. Michelle Obama was known for Let’s Move, the program she developed to help combat childhood obesity. Did her mother want to be known only for her ability to accessorize, or did she want to aim higher?
Taylor reached out and clasped her mother’s hand. “I’m sure you’ll do a wonderful job, Mom. You always do.”
Robby saw snippets of the swearing-in ceremony while she searched for a ball gown. Shoppers clustered around computer monitors and TV screens so they could witness the historic occasion. She watched the parade on her cell phone after she sent out a string of tweets. Anonymously, of course. She didn’t want to give herself away too soon. If ever. She was probably in the minority, but she had no desire to be rich and famous. Just rich. Leave the notoriety to someone else.
The parade was great if you were into marching bands. Robby wasn’t, but she kept watching anyway. In a knee-length robin’s egg blue dress and matching coat the exact color of her eyes, Taylor looked stunning. She also looked like she was freezing. As the parade dragged on, the crowd in the review stand began to thin, but the Crenshaws were obligated to stay until the bitterly cold end. If Taylor needed body heat, Robby was more than willing to share some of hers. She had even sent her a cheeky text message telling her so. Taylor hadn’t responded, but the Cheshire Cat grin she sported throughout the parade told Robby all she needed to know. Message received.
Robby finally found a dress in the eighth store she visited. She paid for her purchase with some of the money Miles had fronted her. She made sure to leave the tags attached so she could return the gown the next day. She might not be able to receive a cash refund, but the store credit would be enough to buy three or four outfits. It was so hard being a clotheshorse on a carousel pony salary.
She took the train home at six thirty, ninety minutes before the official inaugural ball was scheduled to begin. Miles picked her up an hour later, right about the time the First Family finally left the parade route. “Jesus, you look amazing,” he said when she ushered him inside her apartment.
“I do what I can.”
Time would tell if Taylor shared Miles’s sentiments.
Because she wasn’t Taylor’s official date, Robby would probably see her only in passing at the ball, where she would be just one of hundreds of attendees. She and Miles would have to entertain each other tonight. Based on the seating chart, they would be so close to the kitchen they could practically serve themselves. But at least they would be in the room. That was all the opening she needed. She could figure out how to exploit it later.
“Shall we?” Miles offered his arm.
Robby placed her hand in the crook of Miles’s elbow. “Here goes nothing.”