If you live in the United States, it’s Election Day, so you should vote. And when you’re done, I have a reward for you: the opening chapter of Party Lines, the final book in The Easy Part series. (Non-Americans can just read the chapter.) Party Lines is smart, sassy, and steamy–and it has the best opening chapter in the series.
I’m nervous about this book. It was hard for me to write and it’s different structurally than the first two. But I love it so much and I want you to love it too.
Michael Picetti dared the universe to pay some of those dividends he’d accumulated. The sapphire-eyed brunette chipping away on her phone would do nicely.
Though, okay, one pretty woman sitting next to him on a flight from Chicago to Des Moines would hardly make up for the more than a decade he’d spent on the campaign trail—for the meals skipped, the relationships stunted and the vacations he’d never taken—but it would be a start. He was pretty cheap these days.
He dropped his gaze back to his tablet and continued typing an answer to a consultant’s question about media buys. Even on a Sunday morning campaign work never ended.
He’d spent the last weekend he’d have off for five weeks, until after the Iowa caucuses, maybe until after there was a nominee, attending the wedding of one of his college roommates. Parker was obnoxiously happy with his labor organizer. His other former roommate, Liam, had nabbed her best friend. They’d probably be engaged before the balloons dropped at the conventions.
And Michael…well, he’d be racking up frequent flyer miles and Marriott reward points, pounding the pavement for Democratic candidates and remembering when he’d once had a social life—which was absolutely not a problem.
The brunette answered a call. “He proposed!”
Okay, maybe not her.
He finished writing an email and opened a report on swing voters in rural counties. The first two sentences were in passive voice and it didn’t improve after that. He fiddled with the brightness on the display and shifted in his seat.
Her. Maybe she’d be next to him on the flight. Curly, red hair looped in an enormous bun. Yoga pants—easily his favorite stylistic innovation of the past decade—showing off first-class curves. Attention riveted to her e-Reader. She was intense and hot.
Just as the fantasy in his head got interesting, the loudspeaker crackled on. “We’re now boarding Group C at Gate G6B for the 12:05 flight to Des Moines.”
Michael shouldered a garment bag and shuffled to the back of the queue. Once on board, he stuffed his bag into the overhead bin and began furiously scrolling through tweets, the fastest updates on the state of the race available.
Randall has earned the nomination. Emery Allen will be the Repub nom, and we need to think about the general. #IowaDems
Jimmy Randall oozes sleaze and I hope he gets creamed.
Met #Randall at a diner in Algona. Straight shooter, good guy.
Anyone but Randall. Anyone. #Caucuses
Michael closed his eyes. He loved elections with their high stakes and fast pace. He loved the work—okay, some of the work. He loved the travel. But he would give anything to bring back Boss Tweed and smoky backroom deals because primaries—all the money and time just for a shot at being on the presidential ticket—were a backbiting waste. Today’s editorial in a certain leading newspaper about how Democrats should slow down and look at all their options before committing to Randall was Exhibit A.
He wasn’t a true believer; he liked to win. But there was too much margin for error in this race. Randall had all the right stuff. After a very successful career as a district attorney, he’d served as state attorney general and governor. He’d balanced the budget, expanded access to health care and proven an admirable ability to work with business leaders and even moderate Republicans. He was popular, had a photogenic family and could raise boatloads of cash. What was holding Democrats back?
The rumors Randall had lifted skirts, maybe. But Michael had done his own research before he’d signed with the campaign and hadn’t found a thing. The only thing that mattered was his electability. That was the only standard—and Randall passed it.
Why couldn’t all the Democratic voters see that?
With his eyes closed, Michael missed his seatmate walking down the aisle. At the sound of shuffling, he opened one eye and watched her drop next to him with a thump.
He went back to pretending to nap. It was a woman, but not the brunette or the redhead. He’d noted a braid, black and shiny, reaching almost down to her waist, and a T-shirt, which advertised her allegiance to one of those big southern schools that were so very good at football. Also horn-rimmed glasses and a focused expression, though the attention was entirely for her phone.
Oh well. Even if the redhead had sat next to him, what was the best-case scenario? They might have flirted, had dinner a few times and perhaps kept each other warm on a cold Iowa night—and nothing more. If not precisely an inducement to celibacy, campaigns did tend to kill relationships.
The woman muttered to herself as she dug through a purse large enough to be luggage, evidently trying to decide what she needed and what she could put in the overhead bin.
“What are the odds the Wi-Fi will work?” she asked.
“One out of two.” He wasn’t sure she was talking to him, but it seemed rude not to answer.
“You seem certain.” Her tone was teasing.
Michael made an affirmative sound. He was.
“Well, I hope you’re wrong.”
He grunted and cracked his eyelid open, reassessing her. She seemed to be debating between keeping out a netbook and a tablet. Who had both? Other than him, of course.
“Now, the train is unpredictable. That’s the one I can’t figure out. Not that I take it often…” She didn’t seem to be talking to him, merely near him. She was right about Wi-Fi on Amtrak, though.
Michael pushed himself toward the window as he reviewed his to-do list, most of which related to caucus trainings. The Iowa caucuses were complicated compared to regular primaries. Caucus-goers had to publicly indicate their support for candidates and try to convince their neighbors to support their candidate. It took training and dedication to participate.
And that wasn’t even considering the weather. There was no place on earth as bleak as Decatur in December. He’d prefer Siberia.
But all of the quirks of Iowa were precisely why big campaigns such as Randall’s had the advantage. More money and more staff meant better-organized, better-trained voters for the caucuses. Why couldn’t the rest of the yahoos clear the field? There were enough Republicans in the race to field a baseball team; if the Democrats could get behind Randall early, the benefits to unity and strategy would be substantial. Winning the general election was the point, after all. He wanted a Democrat in the White House. Nothing else mattered.
His phone buzzed in his pocket and Michael fished it out. It was Zeke Nelson, the campaign manager. Michael answered.
“Where are you at?” Zeke was never one for salutations or closings. The guy was even busier than he was.
“On the tarmac. Should be taking off soon and in the office in a few hours.”
He glanced to see if his seatmate was listening, but she seemed absorbed by the digital edition of Economics Weekly. Most issues of the magazine were sold to make people’s coffee tables look smart. The rest were read by pretentious hipsters and political aides. Which was she?
Zeke’s voice interrupted the thought. “I wanted to elaborate about the boss’s meeting.”
The previous evening, Randall had met with a group of important Democratic donors. They’d given some money to Randall but now seemed to be hedging their bets. Something about competition being healthy for the party. What bullshit.
“We’ve got to protect our left flank. I know that you want us to start positioning for the general—”
“Damn straight I do.”
“—but right now we’ve got to secure the nomination.”
Michael rotated himself more toward the window—because that was going to give this conversation some privacy? “If we’re talking about posturing, okay, but if they’re looking for something substantive…”
He trailed off and gave Zeke the chance to fill in the blank. He wasn’t wild about the idea of Randall espousing things he didn’t believe just to get a few more votes in the primary. Not unless the payoff was huge, and it didn’t appear to be.
“I hear you.”
What Michael could actually hear was Zeke’s shrug through the phone. He was an excellent manager of people. Different types ended up on campaigns, from true believers to fundraisers to cynics to idealists to kids who didn’t know what else to do and those who wanted to be candidates someday. Zeke seemed to understand what they all should be doing and how to get the best out of them.
Zeke cleared his voice and added, “I’m telling you he was amenable to what they were asking.”
There was a way that staffers said he when they were referring to their boss. They embossed the word, communicating volumes about how the staffer in question felt about said boss and his attitude toward the proposition in question. It could be adoring or hagiographic, mocking or disdainful. No one’s feelings about his boss were quite as complicated as a political staffer’s.
With this intonation, Zeke was telling him that his objections had already been raised—raised and dismissed. Which meant Michael had some work ahead of him.
“Got it. I’ll talk to him.”
Michael said him differently than almost anyone else on the campaign. He thought James Randall was the best candidate for the Democratic nomination and that he would make an acceptable president, mostly because he could win. He wanted all the other Democrats out of the race, preferably yesterday. Michael was dedicated to his job, almost pathologically so, but he hadn’t started his career with Randall decades earlier. He wasn’t carrying around a bucket of golden-tinged memories.
Most of the other staff seemed perfectly happy to let Michael do most of the heavy lifting. He got to be belligerent. He got to do the hard sell. He got to say whatever everyone else knew needed to be said but somehow couldn’t bring themselves to voice. What they didn’t seem to understand was that when things worked out, he would get the credit for that too. This was why he was the deputy campaign manager at thirty-two, why he’d be able to write his own ticket from here if he could put James Randall in the White House.
He hung up and shoved his phone back into his pocket. Slumping against the window, he planned what he needed to work on for the rest of the day. The flight announcements came a few minutes later and soon the plane was aloft.
When the flight attendant came around, he got some coffee and so did the woman next to him. She’d moved from Economics Weekly to Today’s Republic.
Unable to resist, he gestured toward her tablet. “Heavy reading.”
She turned her full attention toward him and rounded a brow. She had big, dark eyes—and she was not impressed.
“Heavy for whom?”
“Fewer than fifteen percent of Americans read news magazines. In our demographic—” she was in her late twenties or early thirties, “—it’s less. Probably sub-five percent.”
Her brow arced farther. He couldn’t tell if she was impressed by his use of statistics or not. “Does it follow that the reading is heavy? Or is the implication news magazines don’t offer much to most people, specifically to most Millennials?”
He smothered a smile. “They obviously offer something to you since you’re reading them.”
“Maybe it’s for my job.”
Michael’s pulse ticked up. Against his better judgment, a tinge of interest fluttered in his stomach. He sipped his coffee and regarded her over the rim.
“Are you going to Iowa for work?”
She offered him a hand. “Lydia Reales.”
It wasn’t precisely an answer, but he’d take it. “Michael Picetti.”
He slid his fingers along her palm and enjoyed how her lips quirked in response. He kept her hand longer than was necessary, strictly speaking.
“What about you?” she asked. “That seemed like a work-related call earlier.”
He didn’t want to get into specifics, so he made a non-committal noise.
She accepted this and picked up her bag of pretzels. She struggled to open it. “Who’s going to be the nominee?” When he didn’t answer right away, she went on, “I ask everyone I meet.”
He glanced at her hand and noted the absence of a ring. “This is for science?”
“Yes. So show your work.”
Between this and the news magazines, he suspected she worked for one of the 529s, or maybe one of the nonprofits.
“Randall, of course.” She didn’t know about his job, but he had to show some loyalty. “He’s got the most money, the best pedigree.” It was true, not flattery. “Liberals will stop to check out O’Day-Martinez, but they’ll get in line soon enough.”
“And the Republicans?” she prompted.
Michael started plucking at his own pretzels. “Emery Allen’s not serious. He’s got a certain…” He paused while trying to think of the most-PC way to put it. “Appeal, but I can’t imagine it extends to party bosses. Republicans are nothing if not a top-down, authoritarian bunch. Then you have the entrepreneur business types, Becktel and Marcus.” They were essentially financing their own campaigns and making the Chamber of Commerce salivate. “One of them will be out right after the caucus and the other before Super Tuesday.”
Lydia had managed to get her pretzels open and was eating them one at a time, watching him intently. “Mm-hmm.”
Okay, so that noise made him want to keep talking.
“Republicans keep flirting with that type, but they can’t seem to commit to it. Then there are the sitting senators and house members.” He dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “They’ll all fold over the course of February.”
He shrugged. “That rarely works out. People’s contempt for Congress is…high.”
Lydia crossed her legs and looked at him over the top of her glasses. It gave her the air of a naughty librarian on her day off. “You’re a student of history?”
“Sure.” He wasn’t really, but the statistical approach to politics was in vogue at the moment and history provided the data. “I know it’s a small sample size, but it’s all we’ve got. Governors and former governors have the best shot at the nomination.”
She smiled and rolled her wrist. “So who’s it going to be? Who I am putting you down for?”
Michael had to admit that between the full lips and wide smile, she had a pretty great look. Not obviously pretty, no, but definitely fascinating. That she was a policy wonk helped.
“Is it an actual list? Are you recording this for posterity?”
“A lady never lies.”
She pulled her netbook out of the pocket in front of her. Obviously she’d decided she couldn’t make it through the flight without both pieces of technology, which he understood. She clicked a few things and pulled up an honest-to-God spreadsheet filled with hundreds of entries. She was definitely some kind of political aide.
She typed his name into a cell and looked at him expectantly. “Take a risk, Michael.”
When she said the words, his heartbeat throbbed in his fingertips, but he swallowed and ignored the flare of nerves. He wasn’t sure why he felt that something was at stake in the conversation; he answered this question while chatting with journalists several times a day. He could handle it from one not-quite-pretty woman.
“Scott Stafford,” he said after a pause.
He watched her type his choices, date and save them. She shut her netbook with a click and turned toward him.
“Why Stafford?” she demanded. “He’s not the front-runner.”
Conventional wisdom agreed with her, but he suspected that Beltway group-think was the cause of dismissing Stafford, not anything sound.
“Polling Iowa is tricky because the caucuses are tricky. I talk to voters a lot and I think he’s doing better than the numbers suggest. He’ll over-perform there, though he won’t win. But as the field thins, Republicans will re-examine and realize he’s got it all—executive experience, fundraising capability and the ability to appear sane. The right wing will decide they can accept him and the bureaucrats will love him. Republicans prefer an orderly primary, but divisions within the party won’t make that possible this time. He’ll be the nominee, though.”
Lydia crossed her arms over her chest and smiled at him again. Not another full smile, but an even more ingratiating half-grin. She was flirting with him.
“Is that as sound as your Wi-Fi prediction?”
Didn’t that prove his point? “We have internet access, don’t we?”
“Yes, but you only put the odds at one in two.”
Michael shrugged and pointed at her netbook. “What do you say?”
“You’re the first entrant in the spreadsheet, right? What’s down for you?”
“Oh…Randall and Stafford.”
He smiled and leaned closer to her. “Oh, so we agree? Why did you press me for reasons then?”
“Well, I don’t really trust myself.” The words were coy and at odds with everything else about her, which was bold and confident.
“Is this your first time in Iowa?” he asked.
“This cycle? Yes. Does it show?”
“No. It’s just that you’ll feel better next time.”
“Depending on how things go this time, there might not be a next time. I’ve been on a lot of state-wide elections, but this is my first presidential.”
He began making a list of whom she might work for. Probably one of the women’s organizations, or maybe the unions. He considered dropping Parker’s wife’s name and seeing if she knew her. He didn’t want to ask, though—that seemed too personal. It would also move this from flirting into pursuing, and he wasn’t ready for that. He sent up a test balloon instead.
“It’s an interesting state for people like us.”
Something flared in her eyes, but she threw her head back and laughed. “Yeah. People like us.”
The words carried an edge he didn’t quite comprehend, but she had a great laugh. She had a great neck. She could be coy all she wanted, but he knew he was right. A young Latina? Reading Economics Weekly and Today’s Republic? Technologically savvy and confident enough to flirt with a stranger? She was definitely a Democrat.
He pressed on. “I’ve worked both state and national campaigns and there’s nothing like this. You won’t go back.”
She canted away from him. “You’re right. I don’t think I will.”
For several sustained beats, they stared at each other. Michael was suddenly glad that neither the brunette nor the redhead had ended up next to him. There was no way either of them would have been nearly as interesting as Lydia.
Just when he was about to say something else, she picked up her tablet and started to read again.
Michael looked at the shiny metal back and blinked several times. He rotated and pulled out his own work, but even as he found what he should be doing, he felt the rebuke.
It was gentle as far as these things went. He should know; he was something of an expert at ending the in-flight conversation. He was constantly striking up conversations with voters, getting the information he wanted and then going back to his business when he had what he needed. It was practically his life.
He hadn’t realized it stung so much. That was all.
For forty minutes, he tried to work and not to glare at her too much. He tried not to notice how shiny her hair was. Or her truly impressive degree of concentration. Or her habit of chewing on her bottom lip.
As they began their descent in Des Moines, she stowed her tablet and inspected her braid. After a few beats, she asked offhandedly, “Get a lot of work done?”
“I am fully briefed on all the week’s media, thank you.”
The silence between them was uncomfortable. This was silly. She’d wanted to know what he thought about the election and why and then to get back to her work. That was fine. That was fair. He was being an ass.
“Where are you staying?” he asked.
A generic answer, but that was okay. He hadn’t been exactly straight with her or told her who he worked for. Her caution made sense.
They were allies, however. It was her first time in Iowa; she was still learning the ropes. But he knew the ropes. He was an expert. If she needed something, he might be able to help her out.
Which was why, when they landed, he leaned over. “Hey, here’s my card.”
Her brow creased as she took it. “Why?”
“In case you have any questions. Since this is your first cycle in Iowa. You can give me a call if you need anything.”
“That’s so…thoughtful.” The expression on her face was absolutely blank, as if she was trying not to react at all. She didn’t seem happy or surprised or thankful. Okay, so he didn’t expect her to be thankful, but he expected something akin to pleased.
Michael kept the smile pasted on his face, but it was hollow. He didn’t give women his number often. He asked for numbers. And to be blunt, he received them. What precisely was the problem?
He tried to remember the last time he’d been turned down. It had happened, he was sure, but he did usually get his way.
This sort of sucked.
As the plane began to empty, Lydia retrieved her giant purse from the overhead bin. She stowed his number in her wallet and then dug around in a pocket. Finally she pulled out a card and extended it to him.
He looked up and cocked his head to one side. “This is?”
So maybe the universe had been paying him back after all. She was definitely the most noteworthy woman he’d met in a while. A little aloof, a little naïve, but smart. And she had just given him her number.
With what he suspected was an arrogant smile, he reached for it. The next few weeks suddenly seemed more interesting. She probably hadn’t even discovered Cooper’s on 5th yet. But when he glanced down he couldn’t seem to clear the ringing from his ears.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you?” she said innocently. “I work for the Stafford campaign. Must have slipped my mind.”
And with a wink, she was gone.
And on January 12, you can see how he gets her back. It’s worth the wait.
© Emma Barry, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Emma Barry with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.