Kate Galloway didn’t remember buying apple Toaster Strudel. She could have sworn all the boxes were cherry, but biting into the fresh out-of-the-toaster goodness, she definitely tasted apple.
It didn’t matter though, because she was going to be late if she didn’t find her other black pump in the sea of partially unpacked boxes that littered her apartment.
It was to the point now that she was using the boxes as furniture and storage, moving them around to create spaces. So, her shoe was probably thrown back into a “closet” box, somewhere. She was trying to get her earring clipped, while wobbling on one heel, when she noticed the time. If she left within five minutes, there would still be time for coffee. Her boss had called at 5:30 this morning, something important, could she be in by seven? So yeah, coffee was essential.
Finding the errant shoe behind her bedroom door, Kate took another bite of her strudel and walked to the bathroom to tackle her hair. Grateful that messy buns were still in, she wrapped an elastic around the mass of damp curls, grabbed a yogurt from the kitchen, and her keys, phone, purse, and a folder off her bed. By the time she finished shoving the folder into her briefcase, she was at the front door. Twirling around one last time, she surveyed the chaos of her apartment and told herself, as she had almost every morning for the past two years, that she would start unpacking when she got home. Kate licked a last bit of frosting from the corner of her mouth and left for her morning pilgrimage.
“Kate, we’ve retained a new client as of last night, and I’m assigning a large part of the project to you. While I’m sure your colleagues here would love this one, you’re the best person for the job—we all agreed, right guys?” Her boss Mark turned to the rest of their staff at Bracknell and Stevens, his fear well masked behind a smile, and they all nodded in turn.
Kate had a feeling she wasn’t going to like what Mark was about to say next.
He continued, “So just let me finish before you judge or say anything. I really need you to not judge, okay?” he pleaded as he sipped his coffee.
Kate took a seat, looking puzzled, and waited for him to go on.
“I voted for him. He’s great, why—” The caffeine had kicked in and she interrupted anyway.
“Kate, please.” Mark took a breath and gave her a pointed look, as if he needed her to focus. “Senator Malendar is running for re-election, as you know. He has hired us to bring a fresh perspective to his campaign. Truth be told, his opponent Jeff Driggs is giving him a run for his money. This guy’s a Republican, mid-thirties, and from what I was told last night, he’s drawing a lot of votes from the younger demographic. The senator’s office would like us to help him with his PR and outreach to these same young voters.”
Kate was still listening, but still not sure where he was going. Mark took another deep breath. Javier and Max both reached for another doughnut across the conference table, and when Kate looked to them for a clue, they just smiled. Big Cheshire smiles. This was not going to be good.
“There are several components to this, the most challenging being revamping the senator’s son’s image.”
“Mark—” Kate’s eyes narrowed.
“Grady Malendar is a direct link to the demographic the campaign is looking for, but he needs reining in. There have been a few situations lately, but he seems to appeal to—”
Kate couldn’t hold back any longer. “Situations? Are you joking, that man’s a walking situation. Which underage debutante did they find him with now?” she said, setting her pencil down as warmth crept up her face. This was a joke, right? Was it April first?
“Kate, this isn’t funny. From what I hear he’s an asset, has a good relationship with the community, but needs—”
“To grow up?” Kate said, leaning back in her chair and biting her thumb. It was a nervous habit. She caught herself and put her hand in her lap.
“Probably, but he’s willing to campaign. We just need to work on his image, play up . . . ”
Kate raised an eyebrow.
“Play up whatever we can, and help turn that into something for the campaign.” Mark said, and then looked to the rest of the table, hoping someone would chime in, throw him a lifeline, as Kate grew more and more disillusioned.
“I . . . I will be working on the social media components, younger voters, you . . . we’ll get to work together,” Javier added, chomping into his second doughnut.
Kate tried to meet his eyes, but they averted, and she looked to Max, who cleared his throat.
“Right, this is a really exciting project. I mean, a United States senator’s campaign and the youth vote.” Max looked back at Javier for words. “That’s, um, cool and Grady Malendar is important.”
Christ, this was ridiculous. What is going on, and who turned their staff into puppets? Kate thought.
“And let me guess, the son, Grady. That’s my all-important, call me at zero-dark-hundred this morning part of the job? Why me?” Kate tried to remain calm.
“Because you can do this and you’ll do it well. Grady Malendar is extremely popular and charismatic. You can channel this into a winning re-election bid for his father, I know you can. Remember Randy Nelson, coach at UCLA who was caught selling pot to his players?”
Everyone nodded at the table and Kate could feel Mark winding up for his You Can Do It speech. “You got him a medical marijuana license, convinced the entire university board that he was helping them, for medicinal purposes. Remember that, Kate.”
Kate nodded. It was a great save.
“He agreed to cut it out, close up his shop once the dust settled. The man retired last year with full benefits. That was brilliant work. Tough assignment, but those are your specialty. Listen, I know this is going to be a challenge. I’ll admit that from the media coverage, Grady is tough, but you’re good at this. You know you are. So, that’s that.” Mark picked up his notes and Kate could see him trying to finish strong, and hand down the order. “Kate, you will head up the Grady Malendar part of the campaign. You will work with Javier and Max, be with Mr. Malendar for the next six months. The senator has specifically asked for someone dedicated to Grady’s relationship with the community and voters. You will help him prepare speeches, manage his media exposure, clean up any messes, and accompany him to campaign events to ensure the public sees him in the best light. Congratulations, Kate. This is a big assignment.”
The other people sitting at the conference room, her colleagues, as Mark put it, snickered and clapped.
“This is just great. Thank you so much for your confidence in me.” Kate stood up and bowed as the clapping now evolved into cheers and whistling. “All of you, I can’t wait to work on this very important project. Where is the spoiled little—”
The room grew quiet and all gazes were now fixed on the door behind her. Javier and Max stood. Without turning around she sensed something, someone was there.
Mark looked panicked. “Kate, I believe you already know Senator Malendar.”
She put on her very best PR smile and turned around. Standing just outside the conference room and taking up most of the doorway was a good-looking man in a perfectly cut navy-blue suit. He wore a red tie that complemented his salt and pepper hair. Kate recognized him immediately as Senator Patrick Malendar of California. Through the glass encasing of the door, she could see a group of other suits, not as expensive, standing behind the senator with various electronic devices.
“Yes, of course. So good to see you, sir, and a pleasure to be working with you,” Kate said, extending her hand.
The senator, who had either not heard the beginnings of her jabs at his son, or chose to ignore them, smiled, stepped further into the room, and took Kate’s hand in a warm and firm handshake.
“Great to see you too, Kate. You guys seemed like you were having fun. Did I interrupt? Are we early?” The senator asked, and Kate turned to Mark hoping he had an answer.
“Not at all, senator. We will be going just down the hall to the larger conference room. It should be all set for our meeting. Your staff can head in there, and we’ll meet you in a moment,” Mark explained.
“Sounds good.” The senator hesitated and turned to the . . . what was the right word? Dashing, yes, that was it, the dashing younger man standing just outside the doorway. Kate had seen photographs of Grady Malendar, often of him doing something completely asinine, but they didn’t do him justice. He was tall, broad shoulders, short honey-brown hair, and he had—hands down—the most stunning, ice-blue eyes she’d ever seen. Kate had sworn off men for the rest of her life, but this man was at least fun to look at. His father gestured, and Grady walked into the conference room. Grady nodded to Mark, whom he’d obviously already met, shook Javier’s hand, and then turned to Kate.
“Kate, I’d like you to meet Grady Malendar,” Mark introduced, and Mr. Blue Eyes smiled a sort of runway model smoldering, but professional smile.
You’ve got to be kidding? Does that work? Of course it does. Kate, look at the smile for crying out loud. She started to roll her own blue eyes, but Mark gave her a pleading look for best behavior, and she obeyed.
“Mr. Malendar, it is a pleasure. I’m—”
“You’re Katherine Galloway.” He shook her hand. Firm handshake, and it served its purpose. Kate was thrown off for a beat. He came out of the gate collected, almost mature. The strength in his voice, his whole demeanor was unexpected and the public relations part of her was thrilled that there appeared to be something to work with. It was as if there might be something of substance behind the lady-killer smile. She saw it for just a moment.
“Kate, please call me Kate.” She took her hand back.
“Kate it is. Thank you for meeting with us. Shall we?” He gestured, and everyone began filing toward the large conference room. Kate stayed behind to collect her notes.
Grady popped his head back into the smaller conference room. “Hey, Kate. You coming?”
“I . . . I just need to get my things. I’ll be right there.”
“Okay, because you surely don’t want to miss a moment of how we’re going to contain the spoiled-son strategy.” Sarcasm? No, maybe that was anger mixed with his smooth silky voice. Either way, he was still standing there. Say something clever, Kate.
“I’m sure our strategy encompasses much more than just following you around, Mr. Malendar.”
“Grady, please call me Grady, and from what I hear you’ve been assigned to keep me in line. Am I mistaken? Kind of like a babysitter?”
So much for clever, it was time to break out the credentials. “Mr. Mal . . . Grady, I graduated top of my class at Columbia. I’ve been with Bracknell and Stevens for over five years. Now clearly someone thinks you need an image makeover, but I can assure you that I am not a babysitter.”
He stood there with his hands in the pockets of his light tan suit, leaning against the door and smiling.
She had just met him five minutes ago and already she was unnerved and a little pissed. Babysitter? Just who the hell does this guy think he is? Grady moved off the doorjamb to let Kate pass, and to spite him she gestured that he should go first. She could tell it upset his prep school sense of propriety, and she saw first-hand what she already suspected, that Grady knew all about maneuvering. His father clearly liked being in control, but Grady was like an ice skater. He glided, smiled, and moved with efficiency. As he walked past Mandy and Sabrina, normally very astute office assistants, both women strained for one last glimpse. Kate rolled her eyes at both of them, shaking her head. Christ, she should have gone for the double latte.
Grady seemed to have a way of walking that assumed people were following him. He did glance over his shoulder to check on her, so that was something at least. He walked with purpose, made quick and fleeting eye contact with those he passed, and carried an air of importance. His laid-back demeanor was not present in his walk, and Kate found that interesting. She wasn’t sure if this was his “being made to do something” walk, or if he always carried himself this way. They both entered the conference room, and Kate moved toward the empty leather chair on the far side of the dark-lacquered conference table. Everyone had taken their seats as the senator stood by the window with Mark. He looked as if he was telling a story that required a bird’s-eye view of the city. Kate stepped over wires and found Grady, pulling out a chair for her.
“Let’s start over, Kate. After all, I didn’t realize you graduated from Columbia.” Grady spoke close to her ear. “Impressive, indeed. Allow me.”
Kate eyed him suspiciously and tried for a smile. She failed. “That’s not necessary, but thank you,” she said as she sat.
Grady smiled a full dazzling smile for the audience of onlookers around the table, and then Kate fell a bit forward as he pushed her chair harder than was necessary.
She couldn’t see his face, but she was sure the smile was now a smirk.