She certainly hadn't meant to do it. Natalie Hinde was used to walking. Sometimes she took the bus. When she did hire a cab she was usually wearing practical outfits, not an evening dress that cost upward of a thousand pounds and was cut to there. She simply wasn't practiced with wrangling treacherous folds of silk that didn't hang in quite the way she expected upon exiting a town car.
HINDE'S HIND, blared the front cover of that day's Sun. Pink cotton bikini briefs covered in cartoon strawberries took up much of the lead graphic.
"Well," said David thoughtfully as he studied the Sun in his office, filled with all the imposing and staid furnishings appropriate for the Prime Minister. "On the upside, they are rather adorable. One of my favorite pairs. Top three." He laughed as she turned bright red and covered her face with her hands. "Cheer up. Look on the bright side, Nat. At least you were wearing pants. You could have gone Britney Spears about the whole thing and then France's visit would have entirely different topics of conversation, I'm sure. "
Her blush deepened. She actually had considered going without, worried the paparazzi would catch some embarrassing lines. "I just don't want to muck things up any more than I already do." Obvious amusement made her review her word choice in a panic, searching for any unintended cursing. "I said everything proper there, I know I did!"
"You did. That's what I found funny." He beamed at her. "I expected you to say 'fuck.'"
She hit him on the shoulder with her handbag, hard.
David seemed to only see the humor in the event, which drove Natalie mad. "You just assaulted the Prime Minister," he gasped. "You're really fucking in for it, now."
"David!" Natalie squawked. Her frustration boiled over in splotchy cheeks and sudden hot tears that she tried to blink back. "This isn't funny!"
His amusement died. "Nat," he said with equal parts concern and befuddlement. "It's fine. Really it is. Tomorrow Jordan will 'accidentally' flash the cameras when she's showing off a magenta shrink-wrapped vinyl jumpsuit and everyone will forget about this. It's the Sun, not the Times. Not the readers with the best attention spans."
He didn't understand at all. "I don't want to be in a cycle of attention spans," Natalie sniffed, "with whatever WAG the paparazzi get hold of that day. I'm dating the Prime Minister! I am excellent at my job! And still, no one in this country sees me as any different from the girls on Page 3." No, she miserably corrected. They thought she was fatter, with smaller tits.
"You are completely different from the girls on Page 3," David said emphatically. His brilliant, wonderful smile returned. "You're a thousand times more beautiful than any of them."
One of the tears spilled over. She wiped it away, smiling as she did. "Stop finding the right thing to say," Natalie mock-pouted, thumping him lightly again with her handbag. The moment was ruined somewhat by her noisy, wet attempt at correcting her running nose. He had the good grace to offer a tissue without comment.
"Chin up, Nat," he said when she'd collected herself. "The trade meeting starts soon. You're wonderful at trade meetings. Everyone stays happy, everyone likes moving money around, Britain has more jobs because of it, and I go up in the polls." He grinned at her again. "Of course, you might hurt more than you help."
Natalie drew back, lower lip trembling. "What?"
"Well," David said, leaning in, "I'm just worried that when the French delegation walks in, the president will be so taken by my stunningly sexy girlfriend that he'll storm off in a fit of raging jealousy and wage war in the name of your ass."
Considering he was married to a model, Natalie somehow doubted that very much. But she took the compliment. "I need to get to work," she said after giving him a prompted kiss. "Thank you for being so lovely."
"Remember: Jordan. Magenta jumpsuit. It'll all work out." David winked at her. "At the trade party, wear the knickers with the little rainbows on them."
"Don't start in on me," Natalie said to her officemates before they had a chance to say anything. "While I'm past the point of wanting to hit things, I'm still not in the mood."
"It was a black dress," Annie eventually began. "If you'd worn black pants with it they probably wouldn't have even noticed."
Natalie frowned. "Damn. That is a good idea." She looked at the woman askance. "Why don't you tell me these things beforehand?"
"You didn't ask."
Terence cleared his throat several times and said absolutely nothing. He was far too proper to comment on her exposed undergarments. Mary cleared her throat even more times than he had. Pat only smiled sympathetically as she made her way across the room's dusty shelves.
"In any case," Natalie said grandly when the time for jibes had passed, "we have a week's worth of trade meetings to prepare for. I have to make sure the menu is perfect for the opening banquet, manage all the refreshments for the sessions, plan the photo ops...."
Annie took up the baton. "And I will be double-checking on our ever so temperamental celebrity chefs to make sure they will actually be there on time."
Terence spoke up. "And I," he said genially, "will manage the boring parts."
"That's why we love you," Annie told him with a beaming smile. She turned to Natalie. "You have to find a new dress for the banquet, too."
"Oh." Natalie grimaced. Shopping out in the public eye did not sound like the most appealing duty to fulfill. "I suppose you're right."
"Remember," Annie suggested, "match the colors." Well, that wouldn't work. David wanted the ones with the little rainbows and Natalie had no intention of showing up like some sort of clueless drag queen. Seeing her hesitation, Annie added, "Or make triple-sure that the gown isn't even the least bit see-through."
Visions of rainbows popping up through the rump of a fine Marchesa silk gown made Natalie blanch. "Another disaster averted," she told Annie with no small relief. "What would I do without you?"
"Suffer horribly," Annie said lightly. "Go on now, get your menus planned and your gown purchased. Terence's head is liable to pop right off if we keep talking about this in front of him."
His face had turned awfully red. Natalie smiled at all of them and went to prepare for an absolutely flawless, unremarkable, entirely boring trade banquet where she earned no commentary whatsoever.
Eleven days later, the only words filling Natalie's mind were Oh, Christ. She was supposed to be greeting the president of France and his stunningly beautiful and composed wife. They were there to meet with representatives of the two largest nations on the planet. Hundreds of billions of pounds in trade agreements might be agreed upon during this visit. And the man had just stepped out of his limo with his tuxedo's fly unzipped.
"Mr. President," she said very quietly around a smile. "Very nice to meet you, but before you walk out you might want to...." Natalie looked pointedly down.
Laughing, he reached down and fastened his fly. An impish wink at the press almost made him look as if he'd done it on purpose.
Natalie gave a properly relieved smile to him, only for it to drop away as soon as she saw the puff of white against the black of his trousers. He'd caught a bit of shirting with his quick movement. "Mr. President," she whispered, leaning in again. "You, ah." She gestured helplessly at the offending material.
He laughed again before actually unzipping far enough to tug back the bit of cloth. Absolutely nothing seemed to faze the man. Natalie breathed out. That was taken care of, then. "May I escort you inside?" she asked the couple. "The Prime Minister is with the ambassadors from India and China, I'm sure they're terribly excited to meet both of you."
They smiled at her and looked to the door. A boring night of openings to trade negotiations followed. The music droned. The menu she had put together with the chefs, however, was spectacular. Natalie sat back and let the courses come at her, relaxing as her role in the night ebbed. The next week would be filled with even more deathly dull meetings and she would have absolutely nothing to do with any of them.
"Why do you read that?" David asked the next morning as Natalie's outraged squawk filled their room. "Just stop your Sun subscription and be done with it."
HINDE GRABS FOR THE STAFF OF OFFICE.
Natalie stared in disbelief at the image of her apparently reaching for the French president's crotch. "I was trying to hide his shirttail from poking out of his fly! I was attempting to smooth over rough waves and maintain... propriety and order and all those things that I am somehow supposed to manage!"
David squeezed her shoulder. "I'm sure he appreciated it."
"I hate Rupert Murdoch," Natalie whimpered. As soon as she let the complaint fly she realized what was coming.
"Want me to have him murdered?" David asked.
"Stop offering. One day I might just take you up on it."
"You have a photographic memory for people's requests," Annie said.
"Yes," Natalie said, "I do."
"You single-handedly kept that meeting going with the Sultan of Brunei simply by asking him about his favorite Ferrari."
Natalie shrugged. "I'd read that he loves them. Things were boiling over, it seemed as if we needed a distraction...."
Annie grabbed her by the shoulders. "And you found the perfect one. You are bloody good at the job you get paid for. Remember that. Be proud of it."
"That's what I keep telling myself! But it doesn't do much good when I completely muck up the job I don't get paid for. I am an embarrassment to myself, to Britain...." Natalie sniffled. "And to David."
"Does he think that?"
"No," she admitted. "He tells me not to worry about it."
"Because he is head over heels in love with you. So stop your whinging," Annie said with a voice very much like Natalie's mother. "Remember what's important: some people you've never met or your handsome, powerful, altogether charming boyfriend?"
"Right. Right. I'm fine. I'm better than fine: I'm..." Her confidence faltered. "Okay."
Annie's eyebrow rose. "That's not better than fine. Anyway, confirmation just came through on the trip to Brussels. I assume David will want you going with him. Best get to shopping again."
"Bloody fucking hell!" Natalie yelped.
"If it helps," Annie said, "you'll be in suits this time, rather than the gowns that seem to have been giving you so much trouble." The other eyebrow rose. "It doesn't seem to have helped. Should I call a cab for Harrods?"
Harrods was absolutely the most obvious, overpriced place she could go for someone who was already being judged as some sort of déclassé social climber. But the staff knew her and she did love their restaurants. "Off to Knightsbridge," she said with false cheer.
Paparazzi were waiting for her outside. Not for her specifically, she assumed, but for any tabloid target who was drawn to the city block-sized beacon of status. Lucky her, that she had become such an easy fit into that category.
"Are you planning to move to Paris?"
"Is there trouble at Number Ten?"
"How are you going to act out next?"
"Is this some statement you're making against the Prime Minister? Has he been cheating on you?"
Natalie's eye twitched. She rounded on the last shouted question and jabbed a manicured nail into the lens of his camera. "You all listen to me," she seethed. "I am not doing anything wrong but being a complete cock-up at high society. You, on the other hand, are trying to make my life hell to sell your bloody stupid papers. Yes, I'm heavier than I would like to be. So are a lot of women! Yes, I step out of the house with my hair a mess." She looked askance at one paparazzo that was gladly filming her tirade. "You telling me you've never walked out with that toupee off-kilter?"
He drew back and touched his head uncertainly. The other three smirked.
Aware that she had drawn a crowd but unable to stop, Natalie yelled, "I am uncouth and like to say 'fuck' and own nine pairs of sweatpants, and I am also hardworking and love my boyfriend and am damned good at my job! And my wonderful boyfriend, by the way, loves me and tells me I'm gorgeous, which is a hell of a lot more than the ads in your papers can claim!"
The bravest of the paparazzi risked asking, "Do you think this behavior is appropriate for—"
Natalie thrust two fingers at him. "No," she said behind the obscene gesture. "Not appropriate at all. There's your story, run with it. Now I have to go buy a suit so I can do some real work, which I'm sure you lot know nothing about. Make fun of me. Fine. I can't stop you. I'm done worrying. I've got this country to think about."
The crowd started applauding. Natalie, the heat of her anger falling away, realized that half of them were holding up their phones to film the entire thing. Fucking blasted hell! They started laughing and she put a hand to her mouth. "Did I say that out loud?"
They nodded in unison. "Fuck!" Natalie said, only for the crowd to laugh and cheer.
"Well," David drawled the next day. "I hope you bought yourself a very nice suit." He laid down the front page of the Times and studied her angry photograph.
"I am so sorry—"
He cut her off. "The early polls love it," he almost giggled. "For you and me. You're the no-nonsense girlfriend who understands the common woman, and I'm the handsome, wonderful, remarkable, brilliant—"
"—boyfriend who doesn't expect all women to look like Kate Moss," he finished. "We captivate the country!"
"You're serious? People like this?" Natalie sat on his lap when he patted his knees. "Have they all gone mad?"
"Just a little bit." He kissed the end of her nose. "Like we are. But it's a pleasant, fun kind of crazy. We're all going for the ride together. I tell off a superpower, you tell off the fourth estate... we'll just keep being popular until we've yelled at so many people that there's no one left to vote yes when the pollsters call."
She kissed his forehead, leaving a smudged red lip print over his right eyebrow.
"Oh," David said happily when he hooked his thumb into her waistband and pulled down a bit. "Strawberries again."