Senator Marsh calls her into his office to meet the new lawyer. Something about a retooling of their campaign's legal management - apparently, this is the place to start. Senate re-elections are around the corner and the most recent polling numbers suggest that Marsh's seat could flip. The entire office is being overhauled.
Nadine is just getting off the phone with another concerned constituent. She's been up to her eyeballs in policy drafts all week, and the oil lobbyists keep trying to strongarm her into increasing support from Marsh's state, and on top of everything the new interns keep forwarding constituents' calls to her damn line when they ought to be handling it themselves. These kids either lack the competence or the initiative, and Nadine has had it up to here with their waffling. It was time to sink or swim.
Or swim. Because re-elections are right around the corner, and this isn't amateur hour.
She loves her job, but she's overworked and underpaid. Her only child wants to go to Julliard, of all places, and she's incredibly proud, but an education in New York City is expensive, and her resources are not endless.
So she's feeling a little harried when she meets this new lawyer, not to mention stressed. But she smiles, and none of that shows.
Vincent introduces him as Michael Barnow, and then Michael Barnow introduces himself as 'Mike B'. Nadine has to bite her tongue so that she won't laugh in his face. What a fantastically juvenile nickname for a working professional.
She looks him in the eye, smiles, and shakes his hand. She's not going to call him that.
Vincent makes it Nadine's job to acclimate the man to the office. She shows Barnow the networks, introduces him to the campaign managers, breaks down their timeline for him. He catches on fast. He's good at his job and he's a sharp thinker, but "Mike B is a rising star!" is what Vincent had enthused, and Nadine just doesn't see it. Barnow has more ambition than humanity; more snark than compassion; and he's cynical despite the fact that he's lived a charmed life. To her that makes him morally suspect. He is the type of man for whom the fruits fall right into his lap simply because he wishes them to.
Washington is full of men like that.
She likes to know exactly who she's working with, so in the coming weeks she digs up some information on him - mostly just the basics. (After all, he's a colleague, not an opponent.) What she finds is this: He's a Rhodes Scholar, a brilliant defense attorney, and has argued a case before the Supreme Court. He's father to a young boy, and husband to a beautiful woman - also a lawyer; she works at some law firm in northern Virginia.
And perhaps most importantly, Barnow is not the type of man that Vincent would've hired himself. He is not a dark horse - he's a star litigator. And when Nadine asks around her circles in Washington, she finds that his name holds quite a bit of clout.
Incidentally, Mrs. Barnow works at the same firm as Arabelle Marsh. The two are colleagues, and friends. Nadine wonders if this is the reason that Senator Marsh has recruited 'Mike B' to his legal staff.
Nadine's met the Senator's wife on a few occasions. The woman loves her husband, but resents his work - she'd never intended to consign herself to a life of politics. And now that she has, she wields her limited influence with impunity, as if it's her right; her consolation prize.
It's possible that Arabelle leveraged her husband to get Mrs. Barnow's husband into the political scene. A senator's office isn't much, but it's something.
Of course, none of this really matters. It's not her job to ask questions - it's her job to get on board.
Their working relationship was rocky, at first. She had no patience for his snark and constant strategizing; he had no patience for her singular loyalties and by-the-book sensibilities.
"This is bigger than just the constituency," he'd lectured her one afternoon. He'd stormed into her office with the latest draft of the healthcare bill, furious that she thought Marsh could sign off on it. "He can't put his support behind this; I don't care what you think the constituents want. Making waves inside the party -"
"If we lose the constituents, they'll flip his seat." Nadine snapped back. "He's up for re-election this year; he can't afford that." Every interaction they had, it seemed, was an argument. "Honestly, how you're more concerned about the damn -"
"Sitting senators don't lose, Nadine! You're focusing on the wrong battle. You need to think bigger!" But he operated on confidence, not certainty - sitting senators lost all the time - and Nadine couldn't get on board. And Barnow was driven by his own agenda more than anything else, and she hated that about him. He was playing a long game, hoping that Marsh's politics would eventually catapult him into a political career of his own.
"You need to think about something other than your own career aspirations," she retorted bitingly.
"This may surprise you, Nadine, but I can think about multiple things at once. And some things are more complicated than my career, your career, Marsh's career. We don't live in a vacuum." He slapped the papers down on her desk. "Just fix this." He stormed out of her office.
She swore, and pounded her fist on her desk in frustration.
Eventually, they found their way to a detente. It took a few months, but in that time they had argued their way to enough good joint decisions that they could find some trust in the other, and it allowed them to settle into a more symbiotic relationship.
Nadine might even concede that Barnow really is worth his salt. He's nakedly ambitious, but he's scrappy too, and he fights hard and dirty as long as someone is paying him to do it. And he attacks his work with tenacity, matching Nadine's formidable work ethic with his own - and someone who can keep up with her is someone she can respect. They still argue, but they work well together too, and now there is less malice and more respect underscoring their disputes.
Nadine is the Senator's Chief of Staff, and anything that passes through this office gets her sign-off, and then Barnow's. Part of his job is to ensure that Marsh's points align with that of the campaign, the party, the constituents, and avoids language that makes them liable to...well, anything, really. She writes (and rewrites) copy all day long; he reads and rereads everything.
Marsh isn't his only client, so Barnow only spends a couple days out of the week in this office, but those days run long - and not just for him, but for Nadine, too. Come in early, leave late. Overworked, underpaid. (Though Nadine suspects that in his case, he is overworked and overpaid.) It's a lot of time to spend with one person, but some days she actually looks forward to it. He's a far cry from those green interns, and it's a nice change of pace to work with someone who actually knows what they're doing. Their strong professional rapport even becomes (and she uses this term lightly) a tenuous friendship.
Some nights, they go out for after-work drinks, but only occasionally. Barnow likes to end a long work day with a nightcap, but she still has a kid at home (for the time being, at least), and so out of respect for her son she often declines. She likes to come home at a decent hour whenever she can.
Roman doesn't mind, of course. It's mostly always been just the two of them and he's used to her work; understands her time. He doesn't resent it (and she only knows that because he's told her as much; if she's being honest, it made her cry with the relief of knowing she hadn't fucked up her only child), and he knows how to take care of himself. He couldn't care less if she stopped for after-work drinks with a colleague.
But the idea fills her with parental guilt anyway. So she only accepts Barnow's invitation when it's less of a shoot-the-breeze affair and more of a work meeting - and it turns out they have a lot of the latter anyway. Despite Nadine's impeccable efficiency, the reports have a way of piling up, and the long hours have a way of running their energy right into the dirt. So they replace the coffee with scotch, the office with a bar (or, if he knows that she's forgotten to eat, a proper restaurant) and suddenly they've kicked the evening slump and are back in business.
Today, they're at a proper restaurant. When she orders her meal, Barnow cuts in and requests extra fries on her behalf. She raises an eyebrow.
"I didn't see you have breakfast or lunch," he says. "I mean honestly, does Marsh ever let you eat?"
She rolls her eyes, but doesn't refuse the extra fries.
They settle into a comfortable silence, wordlessly trading documents between them with practiced synchronicity, and when the food comes, she alternates between signing off on reports and taking bites of her dinner. It is, in fact, her first meal of the day. She eats everything, extra fries and all, because she knows it makes him feel better when she does. He'd never cop to worrying about her, but he doesn't have to. She's become quite good at reading him.
His eyes linger on her sometimes, when they're working. She pretends not to notice, but he doesn't try to hide it - and it's not even just the looks. It's the little touches - a guiding hand on the small of her back, a gentle squeeze of her upper arm, things like that. None of it is unwelcome. He doesn't cross any lines, but he's interested, even if he hasn't said it in as many words. And it's the tone of his voice - he speaks to her differently these days; more regard and less snark than she's ever heard him use with anyone else, including the Senator.
He's married, of course, but it is not much of an obstacle to wanting. Affairs are the norm here. In this town, everything is negotiable, and nothing is inviolable. And he's the type of man who might have an affair.
They split the check, and then he walks her to her car. He'll see her at the office in a few days.
"Do me a favor and actually eat breakfast tomorrow, would ya?" He asks. "You do better policy work when you've eaten."
She rolls her eyes. "There's a compliment buried in there somewhere." But he won't let her close her door, until she reassures him. "Alright, yes, I'll remember!" She promises.
He still keeps ahold of it. "And lunch?"
"And lunch," she says. She feigns exasperation, but she knows his concern comes from a good place.
He's satisfied. "Good. I'll see you on Thursday." He lets her pull the door shut, and watches as she pulls out of the parking lot before he heads to his own car.
When Nadine gets back to her condo, Roman is out in the sitting room, notes spread across the coffee table. It's late, but not unreasonably so, and she knows he's in the midst of finals this week.
"Hey mom," he says, barely looking up as she walks in. He leafs through a textbook that sits open on the floor, an uncapped highlighter poised in his hand.
"Calculus final?" She asks. She hangs up her coat in the foyer closet and slips out of her heels. She goes over to him, leaning over the back of the couch to ruffle his hair lightly.
"European History. Calculus on Friday." He says. He drags the highlighter through a few lines of text, then gathers up a small mountain of index cards from the coffee table and offers them to her. "Maybe you could quiz me?"
She takes them, smiling. "Sure, baby." She drops her bag on the floor and settles in on the couch, shuffling the cards before settling on one. "Okay. The 'Auld Alliance' against the Kingdom of England had been formed between which two kingdoms?"
They make it through half the stack before calling it a night, both of them bleary and exhausted. Nadine helps him to subdue the explosion of paper into neater stacks, sorting them by chapter at his instruction.
"How was your work dinner?" Roman asks. He gathers all of his books and outlines, shoving them into his backpack along with the paper-clipped sheaves Nadine hands him.
"Oh, it was fine. We were just really backed up on reports today, that's all. I'm sorry for being late." She always apologizes, even though she knows he doesn't care.
"Well, you seem like you're having more fun. Even if you're working later sometimes," he says. It's just an off the cuff remark, but it surprises her.
She frowns, pausing. "Really." She's never really considered whether or not her work had become… more fun.
"I don't know." Roman shrugs it off easily. He takes the last stack of papers from her hands. "You should go to sleep. I'm just gonna put all my stuff together then head to bed."
She stands up, twisting her body to loosen stiff muscles. "Okay. Good luck on your final tomorrow. You're gonna crush it," she says, with conviction. She drops a kiss on the top of his head - something she can only manage now when she's standing and he's sitting - and heads off to her room. "Good night."
In her room, Nadine strips out of her work clothes and into her sleepwear, and she considers what Roman has said.
The only thing that's changed at work has been her professional relationship with Barnow. He challenges her, and she enjoys their working dynamic. Now that he is no longer of the singular purpose to drive her crazy (which she swears had been his jumping-off point) she can admit that the work they do together is... fun. Their relationship, their nascent friendship, has been easy to build.
And his interest in her? She can admit that that's fun, too. It's fun to feel interesting.
And she'd be lying if she said she hasn't thought about him in that way. They work so many late nights, it's inevitable that her mind might wander down that path. But he's married (even though he doesn't seem to be a fanatic about it), and that's a line she probably shouldn't cross.
Mike Barnow is, perhaps, the type of man who might have an affair. Nadine just doesn't know if she's the type of woman who would.