Except for two conspicuously empty chairs, the rest of the seats at the table were already occupied. Everyone waited for the clock to tick over to nine so that the morning meeting could begin.
There was a feeling of suspense that blanketed the entire conference room, as if everyone inside was holding their breath. It split when Blake threw open the doors triumphantly. Behind him, Nadine followed with a stormy expression.
“It’s done!” Blake exclaimed. “He’s on board.”
The room let out a collective sigh of relief, followed by excited chatter.
“You got Chip Harding to the table?!” Elizabeth said.
Blake nodded. “He pledged Ashmont Petroleum to a ten-year reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and he agreed to sign the resolution.” His grin was huge.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “That’s more than we’d hoped for. What on earth did you have to give him to secure that?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You didn’t promise him a state, did you? I know we always joke about giving it away, but he can’t have Texas. He’s not allowed.”
“Or territories. He can’t have territories, either.”
“Among other concessions, we gave him a face to face meeting with you next week, and um…” Blake’s smile faltered only a little. He glanced at Nadine.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Nadine muttered darkly. She rounded the table and dropped her folders down before taking a seat.
Jay decided to be brave. “Nadine?” he prompted uncertainly.
She ignored him, so Blake responded instead. “Dinner with her,” he said. To his credit, he only shrank back a little bit when Nadine glared daggers his way. He finished weakly, “Harding… wanted to have dinner with her.”
Everyone stared. Nadine avoided everyone’s gaze, resolutely studying the reports in front of her instead. She twirled her pen between her fingers—the only outward sign of her agitation.
“But… you hate him,” Matt said, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Yep,” Nadine said, popping the p. She finally looked up at him over the rim of her glasses, daring him to say something else.
Daisy shook her head. “Nadine, you’re a goddamn hero,” she declared. She laughed exuberantly, and a round of good-natured agreement rippled around the table.
Elizabeth leaned toward her so that she wasn’t talking to the whole room. “This country owes you big time,” Elizabeth said. She kept her tone light, and patted Nadine on the arm before turning her attention back to the room at large. She tapped her knuckles on the table. “All right. Now that we’ve made one good thing happen, let’s see what else we can get done today.”
Nadine remained uncharacteristically quiet as they worked their way down this morning agenda, speaking up only when it was absolutely necessary. Jay glanced up repeatedly when she wasn’t looking, attempting to gauge her mood.
He’d talk to her later.
After the meeting, Jay went to his office, dropped off his things, then slowly walked to Nadine’s office. She’d taken off like a shot the second the meeting ended, her irritation palpable to everyone in the room. She was sure to be given a wide berth today.
Except by Jay. Maybe because he had some sort of death wish.
She was yanking off her blazer when he got to her door, and then she flung it on the couch. He rapped on the frame.
Nadine turned, but looked at him only briefly before walking to her desk to settle in. “What do you need, Jay?” she said.
“Just checking on you.” He walked in and sat in front of her desk. “You okay?”
“This thing with Chip Harding…” He trailed off when her shoulders tensed. “You don’t have to, you know. No one would expect you to go if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“It’s just dinner,” she said flatly, “in exchange for him making a pledge and signing the resolution. It’d be silly not to take the offer.”
“We could find some other way.”
“Then we really would have to give him Texas. That would be the other way.”
Jay winced. He knew she was right. “He wanted to take you out pretty badly, huh?”
She pressed her lips into a thin line. “I used to see him a lot for State Department matters when Vincent was here. Both in and out of the office,” she explained, though Jay knew that. It was no secret that Marsh kept the support of oil companies. “Chip asked me out every single time he saw me.” She rolled her eyes. “I must have turned him down some twenty times and he never seemed to get the hint.”
He paused. “Did Marsh know that?”
“No. I never thought it was worth mentioning. It was annoying, but that was all.”
“He does tend to be very annoying,” Jay agreed. Not to mention arrogant. "But still… awfully persistent of him.”
She sighed. “I just feel like a sellout now,” she complained. “Like… like whatever the political version of a whore is.”
“I promise you, no one else thinks that. Like Daisy said—you’re a hero and a patriot.” He grinned. He hoped it would lighten her mood, but she only rolled her eyes. “Just grit your teeth and think of America,” he tried. That earned him a small smile, at least.
“Yeah,” she said. “I think I’ll have to.”
“When’s your date?”
She was quick to correct him. “It’s just dinner, not a date,” she said.
“When’s your dinner?”
“Friday. Unless the world collapses between now and then.”
He shrugged. “You never know. But don’t… don’t pray for it, please.”
She looked thoughtful. “Is it very bad that I’d welcome a small declaration of war?”
“Any country. I’m not picky.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“Or a natural disaster. Just a small one—”
“Please stop saying these things out loud.”
“—I’d even settle for an international territory dispute.”
He pointed at her. “You are going to manifest these thoughts into the universe, and then you’ll be sorry,” he warned. But he was pleased that she seemed at least a little less doom-and-gloom now. Feeling like he accomplished a little of what he set out to do, he stood up to leave. “Hey if you need anything, let me know.”
Jay made it to the conference room early on Monday morning, but he still wasn’t the first one there. Nadine was already in her seat, scribbling notes in the margins of a report that Jay hoped wasn’t his.
“Good morning,” he said. He dropped his folders at his seat.
She looked up. “Good morning.”
She already had a mug of tea by her hand, so when Jay made his way over to the coffee station he only went about fixing a coffee for himself. As he grabbed the full carafe and chose a mug, he asked, “How was dinner with Harding?”
“Fine,” she said. “Over. Thankfully.”
He replaced the pot. He splashed creamer in his cup before walking it back to his seat. “Glad to hear it wasn’t awful.” He gestured to the report she was on. “Which one is that?”
“The Clean Water proposal,” she said. Not one he reviewed, then. “Actually, I think you should give it a pass. There’s nothing wrong with the proposal, but budget-wise I think it might be a hard sell… maybe you’d have better insight on where we can trim the fat, though.” She reached across the table to pass it to him, the sleeve of her blazer riding up. As Jay leaned over to take it, he froze.
“Nadine,” he said very quietly. “What is that?”
She dropped the report like it scalded her. “Nothing,” she said. She pulled back and tugged her sleeve down. But Jay was out of his seat and rounding the table in a flash.
“That doesn’t look like nothing,” he said. He tried to tamp down on the anger that was unfurling in his chest. He took the seat next to her, where the Secretary normally sat, and held out his hand. “May I see?”
She gave him a long look. Perhaps because she knew he was too stubborn to drop it, she complied and placed her hand in his.
Gently, he pushed her sleeve up to her elbow. He ground his teeth together.
A purple-black bruise disfigured her skin from wrist to mid-forearm. Though it was partly covered by her watch, Jay could tell that it took on the shape of a handprint. “Did Harding do this?” he asked.
Nadine freed her hand from his grasp and pushed her sleeve down again. Her eyes darted nervously to the open doorway, but there was no one else around to see. “Yeah,” she said without elaboration.
He stared at her. “Was he saving you from walking in front of an oncoming car?”
She wasn’t impressed by his scathing quip—her expression made that clear.
“Or perhaps from tripping over the curb?” he went on. “Because I have to tell you, Nadine, those are kind of the only two possibilities I can think of that would keep me from asking Matt and Kendall to pay him a visit in his office—”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“—or going myself,” he finished. “I know I can’t bench as much as Kendall, but I still know how to throw a decent punch.”
“You do any of those things and the deal will fall apart,” Nadine said sharply. “And then I will punch you, and I won’t need Matt or Kendall to back me up when I do it.”
“Did you tell the Secretary about this?”
“Are you going to?”
“...I’ll probably have to,” Nadine said begrudgingly, “given that she’s meeting with him this afternoon. I’m not going to have her blindsided by this.”
“What the hell happened?”
“He grabbed me.”
He looked at her expectantly, waiting for a more complete answer.
“He tried to kiss me,” she admitted. “And after I said no, he tried again, and then grabbed me when I resisted.”
Jay looked stunned. “I’m so sorry, Nadine,” he said. The line of his jaw was tight with anger. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, and she sounded like she really thought it.
“And he didn’t… Nothing else…” He didn’t know how to ask the question. She understood, though.
“Nothing else happened,” she said reassuringly.
“And you’re not hurt otherwise? You’re sure?” he asked, just to be completely clear on the matter.
“I’m fine, Jay. I promise.” She fretted, “Just. He obviously wasn't very happy with me after that, and so I'm worried now about the state of this agreement." She slumped a little in her seat and said gloomily, “The deal may already be shot.”
He shook his head. “I wish that hadn’t happened to you.”
“I’ll kill him for you if you want,” he offered. “Just say the word.”
“That would be bad diplomacy,” she said.
“Not if I get away with it. And with the Secretary on board, I’m pretty sure I could get away with it—”
“Get away with what?” Blake said as he swept into the room.
“Nothing,” Nadine said smoothly.
Blake stopped short when he saw where Jay was sitting. He gave him a funny look. “Why are you sitting there?”
“...We were just going over the Clean Water proposal,” Jay said.
Blake’s eyes darted to the table. He pointed with his chin at the report in question, which lay in the center of the table and was nowhere near either of them. “You mean that one?” he said suspiciously.
“I tossed it there,” Jay muttered. “...I was getting frustrated.”
That, at least, seemed to be an answer Blake could believe, because he let it go. Jay moved back to his own seat as others began to filter into the room. He swiped up the Clean Water report and placed it under his stack for later review, and tried not to look so pissed in front of so many people.
After the meeting, his eyes followed Nadine as she walked with the Secretary back to her office. He walked back to his office before anyone could notice him noticing.
Jay kept an eye on the corridor as he worked his way through some emails. When he finally saw Nadine pass by his door, he got up and followed her into her office.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
Nadine glanced at him as she sat down. “Jay, I appreciate your concern, but I don’t need you hovering. I can take care of myself.”
“I know, I didn’t think you needed— I didn’t mean to crowd you or anything,” he said. “Just thought you could use a friend.”
“By all means, be a friend,” she said easily. “But please stop hovering. If you do that all day you’ll only succeed in driving me crazy.”
“All right,” he agreed. “So what did the Secretary say?”
“She’ll try to do some damage control, if she has to,” she said, sounding grim. “And we agreed it would probably be best if he doesn’t run into me while he’s here today.”
His eyebrows arched in surprise. “She’s still taking the meeting?”
“Of course she is! Jay!” She gave him a look of bewilderment. “This is a big deal. We can’t afford to lose him just because of one unfortunate mishap—”
“That wasn’t a mishap, Nadine, he physically assaulted you! And tried to force—”
“Keep your voice down,” she snapped.
“It’s reprehensible,” he finished at a lower volume.
She sighed and pressed her fingers to her temple. “You don’t think I know that?” She sounded tired.
Instantly, he felt bad for yelling at her. He always tried to control his temper, but seemed to fail almost as often as he succeeded. Still, Nadine frequently let him get away with it. Certainly more often than the Secretary ever did.
If the Secretary had been here to witness this outburst, she’d have reamed him out from here to Babylon.
“Can we… What about an inducement?” he tried, but Nadine was already shaking her head.
“He’s the richest oil mogul in the country. He’s too powerful to be induced by one non-incident—it’d bounce right off his armor.”
“This isn’t right,” Jay muttered.
“Think of America, remember?” she said. Her mouth twitched with a smile she didn’t really seem to feel, and he didn’t feel inclined to humor her. She sighed again. “Look, we’re in a holding pattern just until the resolution gets signed,” she said. “After that, we can maybe reevaluate.”
“I get it, I do,” he said. “I just hate that he gets to do this to you and walk away scot-free.” He gripped the back of his neck. “I… I’m sorry for reacting.”
“I know, Jay.” She peered at him. “Maybe you should avoid him while he’s here as well,” she said carefully. “It certainly won’t help matters if you... react... in his presence.”
“You might be right.”
She nodded. “Okay. Glad we’re on the same page. So now... back to work.”
He knew a dismissal when he heard one.
In the doorway, he paused. He said, “If you change your mind about punching him, just let me know.”
She rolled her eyes, smiling despite herself. A real one, this time. “Back to work, Jay.”