Chris Botti’s jazz trumpet floated through the emptiness of Allison’s high-ceilinged kitchen. She walked barefoot across the polished hardwood, rinsing the plate, glass, and fork she had used for dinner (third night in a row of reheated macaroni and cheese -- even when she halved the recipe it made enough for four people) before she slotted them into the dishwasher.
The clink of plates echoed off the walls and appliances.
When she’d written the definitive manual titled, “How to Implode Your Formerly-Stellar Political Career In 24 Hours Or Less,” she’d assumed that at least she’d enjoy the silence that came with landing on everyone’s shit list. For decades, more than three minutes of solitude had been a gift, unexpected and rare.
Apparently at some point over the last thirty years, she’d grown unaccustomed to being alone.
Now she didn’t like it, not in mega-doses.
She gazed at the stove clock; the glimmering green lines read 7:16. She dried her hands on a dishtowel and tossed it onto the counter. Despite six weeks of steady practice, she wasn’t skilled at filling four or more hours on her own. She’d never had to.
She poured a glass of Pinot Noir, stood indecisively before her bookshelf for a few minutes, selected The Age of Innocence, and settled into the burgundy-cushioned love seat in the living room. The Justice Department had been a great deal kinder to her than she had expected or deserved, although she never forgot that she owed most of her present comfort to the instinctive desire for damage control.
Newland Archer hadn’t even stopped fussing over Madame Olenska’s presence at the opera when the buzzer rang. Puzzled, Allison walked to the intercom and pressed the button, startled by the volume of the unfamiliar buzz. “Yes?”
“Allison. It’s Ethan. May I come up for a moment?”
Ethan. Before this second, she hadn’t been aware that delight and horror could coexist quite so symbiotically.
A prickly flush of irritation climbed from her chest into her face (she could feel it, spreading like water spilled on one of those micro-fiber tablecloths that refuse to soak up liquids) when her first thought was I’m wearing fleece sweatpants and one of Henry’s old t-shirts. She ran a hand over her hair, trying (and failing) to remember what it had looked like the last time she glanced in the mirror, then hit the button again and said, forcing her voice into a lower register, “Yes. Of course. I’ll buzz you in.”
Calculating how long it would take him to take the elevator up seven floors, she dashed into the bedroom, slamming a drawer open and throwing shirts aside before she finally found a dark purple one that at least matched her sweatpants and wasn’t three sizes too big. Taking a quick detour into the bathroom, she flipped on the light and rummaged through one of the vanity drawers, coming up with lipstick in a deep burgundy shade she wouldn’t have chosen herself (it was probably Olivia’s, imported from another lifetime), but she didn’t have time to be picky. She wiped her clammy hands on the navy towel and headed for the door.
“Ethan. Come in.” He was wearing a suit (deep grey herringbone) at 7:30 on a Sunday night, and she noticed that the knuckles on the hand holding his polished leather briefcase were a touch paler than the rest of his hand. “What can I do for you? I’m sure this isn’t a social call.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.” She shut the door and stared at the amber flecks in the wood grain, as if maybe, if she looked hard enough, she might find the right thing to say or do, the thing that would keep him here for more than the requisite businesslike five minutes. “Can I get you a drink?”
“No, thank you. I can’t stay.”
“All right.” She closed her thumb into her palm and ignored the ache that opened like a flower in her stomach and blossomed upward into her chest. Turning so he couldn’t see her face, she walked into the living room. “Tell me what brings you here on a Sunday evening.”
Ethan set his briefcase on the end table and clicked it open. “We’ve got a situation with Kamistan. It’s under control so far -- the press knows nothing. But the president is getting mixed signals from his people over there and he’d like your advice.”
“My advice?” She couldn’t scrape the skepticism from her words.
Ethan smiled, tired. “Yes. Your advice. He may be inexperienced, but he’s not an idiot. Do you have time to look through the file and call him before midnight?”
She reached for the folder, raising an eyebrow. “I think I can clear my schedule.”
If he detected her sarcasm, Ethan didn’t show it. “The president will appreciate it. I’ll come by for the papers in the morning if that’s all right.” He snapped the briefcase shut with a metallic click.
He paused, his eyes fixed on the edge of the braided rug in front of the couch.
“Would you like to stay and have some dinner while I go through these? I have more macaroni and cheese than I know what to do with and-” She broke off, words flitting through her mind, settling nowhere. “And I’d like the company."
She held her breath in the space before his answer, listening to the click and sudden rush of water as the dishwasher switched to the next part of its cycle.
Ethan smiled (a tiny smile, but enough). “That sounds wonderful, actually. I didn’t get time for lunch today.”
She caught herself before she exhaled audibly and nodded toward the couch. “Sit down then. Would you like that drink while you wait?”
“Do you still have that terrific Scotch you used to serve at Christmas parties?” He shrugged out of his suit jacket.
“The Glenfiddich? I’ll check.”
She managed to quell her grin until she made it around the corner into the kitchen, her face hidden behind the cabinet door.