Home > Off the Record (Record #1)(9)

Off the Record (Record #1)(9)
K.A. Linde

She followed the couple when they took a right down a hallway that opened up into a decent-sized ballroom. It was filled with several dozen white-clothed tables fit to seat eight. Each white-draped chair was tied around the middle with alternating red and blue ribbons. A bouquet of white flowers with faint red and blue accents rested in the center of each of the tables. A dance floor was completely open in the very center of the room, and a small stage was constructed directly opposite the entrance with an American flag banner across the back, two projection screens with the Jefferson-Jackson gala logo on display, and a large wooden podium. Chairs were already filling up as guests took their seats.

Liz wasn’t sure how Hayden had acquired the ticket, because she wasn’t seated in the back, where the reporters typically sat for press events. Not that she was working tonight. Well, not exactly. She wasn’t carrying around a camera, at least, and the voice recorder was only for extreme circumstances. She was there primarily to listen, make contacts, and gather information on where she should be the rest of the summer for her later articles, not to write anything specifically about the event.

Hayden had handed over the campaign to her. It was all a bit overwhelming, and she had spent all week plotting out her summer classes and the political appearances she would have to attend. Hayden had given her a list he had already compiled, but he had been planning to add to that after the JJ gala. Now that was her job.

Her phone vibrated in her purse, and she pulled it out.

Have a good time. Wish I could be there with you, Hayden said.

She smiled. Speak of the devil.

Thanks. Me too. I just got here, but I’m not seated in the back. Where did you get these tickets?

My mom pulled some strings. I hope you enjoy it. I’m already missing Chapel Hill.

She wanted to tell him Chapel Hill missed him too, but really it was all too complicated for her to even insinuate.

Bet you’re loving D.C., though, she typed. Plus, your new job starts Monday.

Nothing compared to running the campus paper, though, I’m sure.

At least it’s paid.

True.

Can’t beat Pennsylvania Avenue as far as internships go, Liz told him, not looking up from her touch screen and nearly running into someone.

There are better ways to spend your summer.

Liz smiled again bigger. Was he flirting with her? She never could tell. Well, I have to go find my seat.

Let me know how it all goes, and have fun!

Liz stuffed her phone back into her purse, on a high from the conversation with Hayden. He was missing Chapel Hill and the paper. He was texting her while away. He must miss her too.

She straightened out her dress, pressing her palms flat as they slid down the silky material. It helped relax her as she searched out her name card. When she located the table, she found Hayden’s name instead. She wasn’t that surprised since it was so last-minute. She was seated in the second row of tables nearest the stage on the right side. All in all it was a much better seat than she was expecting.

Liz placed her clutch on the table next to her nameplate and pulled out her chair. Her table was empty, but she didn’t recognize any of the names of the people around her. She wondered who they were.

Her eyes roamed the ballroom. She recognized quite a few political figures and members of their staffs that she should probably get to know. She wanted to know where the politicians were going to be, or at least get the in on their events. It made things easier to plan. She had decided to primarily follow the Senatorial race, the House race for her district, the governor’s race, and the local elections in Orange County.

The lights flickered in the room, indicating that the gala was about to begin. Individuals congregating together and mingling with their friends separated to return to their seats. Old wealthy white women who seemed to know one another surrounded Liz on all sides. They talked incessantly about local politics from several generations ago, and Liz tried to keep up as best she could.

A man in a black suit and blue tie walked purposefully onto the stage, interrupting their conversation. The room fell quiet as they watched him. He adjusted the microphone on the podium and smiled at the crowd. He was an older gentleman in his mid-to-late sixties with a bulging middle and graying hair. His square, wrinkled face was drawn and haggard.

Liz recognized him as Senator Mark Abbot. He had already announced his retirement, and individuals were clamoring for his seat, posturing for contention in the primary, and aligning themselves to be viable nominees.

“Welcome to the fifty-third annual Jefferson-Jackson gala,” he called gruffly into the microphone. The crowd erupted into applause. Liz clapped politely along with them.

“Now I know you’re all thinking, I was probably at the first Jefferson-Jackson gala.” Light laughter ensued. “But I’ll have to disappoint you in that regard. I have been to quite a few of these events, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s a damn good party. So thanks for coming out.” Another round of applause followed. “You’re probably all starving out there, wondering when this old geezer is going to shut his trap, but I do have to allow one more person to take the stage before we let you off the hook. I’ll apologize up front that it’s not steak, so you can all hold your complaints.”

Liz chuckled. She had heard Senator Abbot speak before on campus, but she didn’t remember him joking at all. Retirement must have really been calling his name.

“It’s my pleasure to introduce my partner in crime on the Hill. We don’t always agree on everything. Actually, if you look at our roll call records, we don’t agree on much, but he’s a good guy. In the political climate we find ourselves in these days, it’s hard to find someone who can see the other side of the aisle, reach over, shake your hand, and politely say, ‘I disagree with you.’ No name-calling. No jabs. No animosity. I mean, I go get lunch with this guy once a week. And I’ll miss that lunch when I’m sitting happily in my beach house in Wilmington ignoring politics.”

Man, he was really working the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Senator Brady Maxwell Jr.”

Liz swallowed in anticipation. If Brady’s father was here, then surely Brady would be in attendance. She didn’t let her eyes wander away from her work to search to see if he was here. But she would be lying to herself if she hadn’t been anticipating his presence. Maybe even hoping for it.

The crowd applauded as the two gentlemen met halfway across the stage and shook hands. Liz noticed that they said something to each other and laughed before parting. Senator Maxwell was astonishingly handsome for an older gentleman. It was clear how much his son strongly resembled him. He was tall and distinguished, with dark brown hair growing in salt and pepper around his temples. His smile was infectious, and it wasn’t hard to guess that he had the charm of his son. His black tuxedo was pristine, with a crisp white shirt and black bow tie.

“Thank you. Thank you,” Senator Maxwell called out, quieting the crowd. “I’d like to take a moment to thank Senator Abbot for his kind words of welcome. I have a feeling I’m going to miss those lunches more than you are.”

After a short pause to let the clapping die down, he continued. “Thank you again for coming out to the fifty-third annual JJ gala. I’m pleased to be the opening speaker for the night, especially since this event has so much personal connection to my family.

“Many of you probably don’t know that my middle name is Jefferson, or why my great-grandmother insisted that it continue throughout the years. The firstborn son’s middle name was Jefferson in every generation since the seventeen hundreds on her side of the family, and she can trace back her own lineage to President Thomas Jefferson himself. I am very proud to be Brady Jefferson Maxwell Jr. and that my son, Brady Jefferson Maxwell III, has similarly taken up his namesake and entered politics.

“As a descendant of the Jefferson household, I would like to formally welcome you. The gala has always held a special place in my heart for the rekindling of the past and the mingling of political company from both sides of the political spectrum. Our differences and how we handle the compromises make this country what it is today. I’m proud to be here tonight celebrating the achievements of the United States and this great state of North Carolina. A toast to you,” he said, pointing at the crowd. “Enjoy the evening.”

Now that his speech was over, Liz allowed her eyes to drift away from the elder Maxwell and out across the crowd of tables. She was excited and afraid to find him. Mostly because she hadn’t called him.

The card had been sitting in her wallet all week, screaming her name. She couldn’t allow herself to call, and certainly not after the article she wrote. What had she said about him? Hypocritical. Power hungry. No vision. Interests lying in how deep his pockets could stretch, not with the people. The comments were true. His record showed as much, and his ambitious desire to move up the political chain so quickly screamed that he was a man after power. Just like every other politician out there. Don’t be fooled by his pretty face and charming speech.

Speaking of a pretty face, there he was.

Brady was seated at a table a row in front of hers on the other end of the room, and they were facing each other. He was matching his father in a tuxedo, and he looked perfectly put together. Her heart accelerated all on its own. Liz wondered if he knew she was here. It was unlikely, and she felt as if that gave her the upper hand somehow.

Dinner was served a moment later, and the room fell into hushed conversation mingled with the sounds of forks scraping against plates, glasses being refilled, and waiters’ hurried feet. Liz tried to get into the conversations at her table, but none of the women was working on campaigns she was going to be following, and so she spent a lot of her time staring off at the handsome man across the ballroom and enjoying her roasted chicken.

The plates were cleared away, and the keynote speaker, Jeffrey Bakker, founder of the bipartisan organization People for a Better North Carolina, took the stage and delivered the final speech of the evening. Liz was surprised that he was such a good speaker and was able to engage the audience so easily. She wouldn’t have expected these events to be entertaining. As he spoke his final words and walked offstage, the lights dimmed slightly and the party began. This was what she had been waiting for, the part where everyone finally socialized.

Most of the room gravitated toward the dance floor as music filtered in through the speakers. She had read about the event from what little information she could glean and knew that the night began with a traditional waltz. Fifty-three years of this event and they were still doing ballroom numbers around the room.

Liz, on the other hand, veered in the direct opposite direction. No way was she dancing. She didn’t exactly have two left feet, but the last time she had willingly danced was when her mother had stuffed her into ballet lessons at the age of five. Two years of that nonsense and she had stripped quickly out of tights and grabbed a tennis racket. At least she could hit things that way.

Instead, she found the dessert table. Her favorite. She stared at the long table of desserts and zeroed in on the cheesecake. There was something about cheesecake. She couldn’t say no to it—and it was Oreo. Double trouble and totally worth it. She didn’t care if she had to spend all weekend in the Rams Head gym and on the tennis courts.

Liz took a piece and began to walk toward a group of people standing off to the side. She recognized one of the women as a press director for the governor’s campaign. Handy person to know.

As she was about to interject herself into the conversation, she felt someone tap her shoulder. She stopped with her mouth open and turned around in surprise.

“Liz Dougherty,” Brady said with a smirk, his big brown eyes staring straight through her.

Liz tried not to miss a beat, but something about him made her insides turn to mush. She hadn’t expected him to address her in public.

“You seem to be everywhere, don’t you?” he asked when she didn’t say anything.

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