Eleven year old Mellie loses her faith when she steps into line to receive communion at Redeemer Methodist church one Sunday. There’s no particular reason for it—all of her friends and relatives are alive and well, her parents are wealthy and love their daughter, she’s never been hungry, never wanted for anything—except that when she thinks about it, really thinks about what the pastor is saying... She glances at her mother and father ahead of her, lips soundlessly reciting words they’d taught her as soon as she could repeat them and the bare cross at her neck feels like an anchor.
She studies the dreamy looks on the faces around her as she opens her mouth to receive the bread, mouth turned down slightly.
It’s dry and tasteless on her tongue.
Mellie doesn’t believe in God, but she does believe in destiny, that everyone has one and that a very few are born to do great things. When she meets Fitzgerald Grant at their legal department’s annual mixer, she thinks she knows her purpose.
He’s smart, charming, politically minded and she can easily see herself at his side. She doesn’t think she can love him, not like her daddy loved her momma, but she can care for him and, better yet, she can respect him. Knows with a certainty she’s only felt once before that they would make a good partnership.
On his third circuit around the room, she looks over her friend’s naked shoulder and catches his eye with a smile.
Sometimes Mellie has dreams she’s too smart to call prophetic. Dreams where she sees people, sees her own future. The night after Cyrus convinces Fitz to run for a senate seat, she wakes up in a cold sweat. Knowing exactly what she has to do. The older man eyes her curiously as she leads him into their tiny apartment, shutting the door tightly behind him. The kids are at school for another hour and they’re alone.
“Doesn’t have what it takes,” Mellie cuts in, settling into an uncomfortable wing backed chair. Cyrus looks at her sharply and she holds his gaze. “We both love him but you know it’s true. In order to turn this country around, we need someone different. Someone who will go to the ends of the earth and back for their nation. Someone who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty for a greater cause and that’s not Fitz. He’s a good person, but he’s not the right one. Not for this.”
“Someone willing to get their hands dirty?” Cyrus smiles and leans back, his hands cupped over his crossed knees. “All we’re talking about here is a possible senate run.”
She tilts her head to the side. “We both know that’s not true.”
He studies her for a moment. “And who do you think would be a better choice? You?”
Mellie’s a pragmatist. She knows that a woman, a divorced one with two children at that, would have a hard time convincing the nation to make her their first choice, but she feels that certainty again. She thinks of destiny, of sacrifice, of having the will to look at terrible outcomes and choose the one that works best. She sits up straight and tilts her head back. She doesn't need to answer his question. He’s like her, he knows.
Cyrus’ protegee shows up four years into her senatorship when they’re 15 points down with three weeks to decide whether or not to make a bid for the presidency. Mellie doesn’t have much of an opinion on her at first, besides appreciating the cream sheath dress she wore the first day and the way she doesn’t take any of Cyrus’ guff. He says she’s the best and Mellie doesn’t doubt him, she just hasn’t had much of a chance to see the woman in action. Then they call her into the office one evening.
His protegee, Olivia, is leaning against the front of his wide oak desk, arms crossed over her chest as Cyrus welcomes Mellie in.
“I know we’ve been practicing debates and interview questions ad nauseum but I thought it would be good for you to try with someone new. Now Liv is really going to come after you, Mellie. What I need for you to do—”
Mellie puts her hand up to stop him and shakes her head with a smile. “I was the chair of the debate team at Harvard, I already made it through one campaign while in the process of divorcing the husband I took the nomination from. I understand what’s happening here. I won’t pull her hair out over it, don’t worry. I think we’ll be okay.”
He bows out of the conversation at that, touching Olivia’s shoulder gently to give her the floor. She stands, straightens out her skirt and smiles in Mellie’s direction. “So you’re thinking of running for president?”
“I wouldn’t get ahead of myself there,” Mellie responds, ten years of pageant training coming into use. “I haven’t even made it through my term yet and my first thoughts are always on those that believed in me enough to put me here. My home state is giving me enough to focus on without thinking about the presidency.”
Olivia didn’t raise her head during Mellie’s answer and she doesn’t congratulate for a good deflection now, just begins to pace the floor directly in front of Cyrus’ desk. “All that time on the road, how will your boys cope without their mother?”
“I am very lucky in that I have two, independent, willful little boys who absolutely love their gammy and paw paw. My parents have always been there for them and they are a great help to me. I know most other single mothers out there don't have as much support and I thank them for theirs every day.”
“It’s great that you have such a tight-knit family, but should you be leaning on it so heavily? Isn’t a mother’s place with her children?”
“One of my favorite quotes is: A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold. That was Ogden Nash by the way, and I always thought of it as learning to take the bad with the good. I don’t look forward to leaving my children or my mother and father, but we don’t live in a bubble. I want to try and make the world better for them and in order to do that, sometimes I have to leave. I don’t relish it but I do see it as necessary.”
“With all that traveling you must have trouble eating well. How will you keep yourself fit on the trail?”
“We all know I’m southern and we love our food fried but that’s kept as a treat every now and then. I just try to get off the bus whenever I can and stay active.”
“Do you know anyone named Mallory Simms?”
Mellie clears her throat, “She’s an old friend of mine. We grew up together and she was my roommate in college. She was actually there when I met Fitz.”
“You said you were single earlier. Can we expect to see you out on dates anytime soon?”
“My children and my work keep me very busy but you never know,” Mellie says, a little flirtatious and wondering why Cyrus felt the need to try and give her a disclaimer. Mellie’s mind is starting to wander to dinner when Olivia raises her face, a warm smile splitting her features and Mellie realizes then that everything until now has only been a warm-up. “On that note, what are your feelings on premarital sex? Birth control?”
Mellie laughs and straightens her back. “Personally, I am a Christian and I believe sex should be between a wife and her husband.”
“No feelings on birth control then.”
“Well— ” Mellie starts, only to be cut off.
“That orange,” Olivia exclaims, pointing toward Mellie’s dress and making her feel like she has whiplash. “It’s beautiful on you, where did you get it?”
“Banana Republic,” she replies evenly. “It was actually on sal–”
“Are you a lesbian, Millicent?”
Mellie’s not ashamed of who she is, but the question makes her hesitate. She’s been careful, extremely so, because she knows that in order to achieve what she’s set out to do, for better or worse, some parts of herself must remain private. She’d come to terms with it the second she realized her path would lead her to something bigger than her home town. Mellie thinks for a moment before answering. “I was married to a man that I loved and even though it ended, I still love and respect him greatly.”
Olivia sits next to her on the small couch and writes something on her clipboard. “Good, you didn’t react badly but you’re a smart woman. You know the press will take all non-answers as an affirmative to whatever they want to believe. And that was a non-answer if I ever heard one.” She shuffles a few papers and looks over at Cyrus. He only watches them quietly. “You were very thoughtful in how you chose your girlfriends and when and where you were seen together but there are rumors. There have been rumblings from Mallory–”
“Mal’s been talking about us?” Even though things hadn’t ended well between them, when she met Fitz and Mal asked her to stay she’d said no, Mellie never expected her oldest friend to be a weak link in her chain.
“Not loudly but there’s talk. It seems like she’s been to rehab in the last five years—”
“Alcohol,” Olivia answers, watching her reactions and filing them away, always watching. “So we can discredit her if need be.” She crosses her legs and leans in closer, studying Mellie thoughtfully. “It’s unfortunate really, it shouldn’t matter who you—”
“But it does,” Mellie cuts in and Olivia nods, dropping it.
“We’ll have to squash the rumors all together though. You’ll need to get remarried.”
“Some people in red states won’t like it, but your being a woman at all is a minus to them anyway. I don’t think we’ll lose much by facing this head on. I actually have a candidate in mind.” She pulls a photo from her purse and hands it over to Mellie. A well dressed, dark haired man is smirking up at her. “He’s a friend of mine, very trustworthy, discreet, smart and he already knows this will be a mariage blanc. He’s not American born, which those same red staters won’t like but I think we could pick up independents and some of the more sane center-leaning Democrats. They’ll think you’re more open and progressive about our relationships with the rest of the word.”
“Because I’m fucking a foreigner?” Cyrus’ face gets tight and thinking on it now, Mellie doesn’t believe she’s ever cursed in his presence, but Olivia laughs.
“Exactly. It’ll add an element of danger—maybe he’s a spy?”
Mellie breaks out a small grin of her own at that and Olivia leans back, looking comfortable and down to earth again. “You did a pretty good job. Better than I expected.”
“Thank you,” Mellie replies, patting Olivia’s knee before bringing her hand back to her own lap. She hadn’t expected to get found out but maybe it’s for the best. Now she knows what the woman next to her is capable of and having knowledge is always better than the lack of it. No matter how embarrassing the price is. She’s also learned that Cyrus isn’t as quite as aware as he needs to be. He’d had no clue, Mellie saw it on his face when Olivia asked and she files that away in the back of her mind, along with the feeling of Olivia’s knees parting ever so slightly beneath the pressure of her hand.
Planning a wedding alongside a presidential campaign is not Mellie’s first choice—You cannot elope, Olivia told her firmly. You will win or lose this nomination based on how fun people think your wedding looked—but what Liv says goes. Dodging rumors about her impending run and picking invitations should be enough grist for the gossip mill but it’s only ratcheted up the presses interest in her first failed union.
She hasn’t spoken with Fitz about anything other than their children since the divorce and though both Olivia and Cyrus offered themselves up, Mellie makes a point to make sure she’s able to go see him herself. He’s a Political Science teacher at the University of Oregon these days. After a toy donation at the local children’s hospital, Mellie has a driver take her over to the campus.
The walk across the campus goes smoothly. She’s only stopped once or twice to receive a lecture or asked to take a picture with one of her voters and by the time she makes it to his office, he already knows she’s there. Fitz makes her and her guards sit in his cramped waiting area for 15 minutes before the undergraduate guarding his door beckons her in.
“Sorry about that,” he apologizes, setting the phone in its cradle as soon as she crosses the threshold. “I had a very important conference call.”
“Of course, I understand completely.” They stare at one another before she moves to shut the door and take a seat.
“So Mellie,” he starts, hands steepled on his desk. “Or... I guess it’s Millicent these days?”
“Madam Senator will do just fine actually.” It’s a cheap shot but so was making them wait while he counted down the seconds trying to make himself feel big.
He frowns. "Right. What can I do for you then?”
“We – I— I know that people have been questioning you about us lately, with the wedding and everything, and I just wanted—”
“To make sure I won’t say anything Cyrus wouldn’t approve of?”
Mellie crosses her legs and takes a breath. “I’m so sorry people have been calling your home and the best way to combat that is to not give them what they’re looking for. I can have something drafted for you and sent to the news organizations. Then just ignore them. They’ll leave you alone when they realize there’s no story here.”
“There isn’t? There’s no story in one of our presidential hopefuls marrying someone they didn’t love to get ahead?”
“I didn’t marry you for status, Fitz. I loved you. Maybe not in the way you wanted, but I loved you.”
He scoffs and closes his eyes for a second. “I don’t know what you said to him, how you convinced him to take you on, but it should be me where you are. We both know that.”
His receptionist knocks on the door and pops her head in without waiting to be acknowledged. “I just need to...” she points at his desk and darts in, quickly grabs a file and smiles at him from under lidded eyes before closing the door behind her.
Mellie watches him watch the girl leave the room and welcomes his returned glance with a smile. “I came here to make sure you held the line but I also wanted to— I don’t know exactly but now, I think you’ll be just fine, Fitz. Both of us are exactly where we need to be.”
His mouth turns down at her words and he looks toward the door at her back. “I won’t say anything unbecoming of the mother of my children, don’t worry. Now I think you can see your own way out.”
Mellie’s having trouble holding her third and fourth glass of scotch while maneuvering in the pair of heels Olivia shoved onto her feet earlier that night. She’d been told in no uncertain terms not to take them off before she got home but, eyes scanning the room now, the party has thinned out to die-hards and drunkards too far gone to notice if the official Republican nominee for president is barefoot or not. She slips out of them, carefully juggles both drinks into one hand and grabs them by the heel while she tries to find the restroom.
She’s ascended one flight of stairs and tried about fifty different handles before one opens. Mellie doesn’t see Olivia sitting on the counter, her left leg bent up against her chest and a cigarette dangling between two fingers, until she’s got the door locked, her drinks on the sink and her dress hiked up to her waist. She freezes at the realization that she isn’t alone and Liv smiles, waves her hand with a flourish. “I’ve seen worse.”
Mellie could walk out and try and find somewhere else, but if you can't go in front of your communications manager, when can you? She turns away from the other woman as much as possible and flushes when done. She goes to wash her hands and Olivia follows her with an amused gaze.
“I just saw the republican nominee drunkenly pee. I feel like there are several reputable news organizations that would pay me for my story.”
“Try it. Cyrus and I would lose no sleep over handling it.”
Olivia’s smile falters a little as she takes another drag. “I’ve worked with Cyrus a long time. I believe you.”
Mellie glances at the other woman from the corner of her eye but doesn’t comment. Their yearlong professional relationship has not made them friends, but it has made them friendly and Mellie is just drunk enough to admit that Olivia looks beautiful tonight out loud.
“You do too,” Liv replies, blowing smoke towards the room's small window. “You’re always pretty in blue.” She points down to the shoes that aren’t on Mellie’s feet. “You’d look better with those on.”
“No one cares, Olivia, and I just about broke my neck trying to walk in them earlier.”
“You have to stay looking polished, Mellie.”
“All the time. Just in case.”
“And there goes our friendly moment,” Mellie announces, rolling her eyes. “It was really nice for about two seconds there." She starts making her way back to the door when Olivia blocks her way with one stocking-clad foot.
“Let me freshen your make-up.”
“Come on. It’ll only take a second.”
Mellie turns toward her and looks into the mirror behind them as Olivia pulls out a tube of lipstick. She drags the color across Mellie’s bottom lip before stopping and staring at the plump flesh. Mellie feels something deep in her gut clench. Then Olivia kisses her. Gently at first, waiting to see if Mellie will allow it and she doesn’t even like the woman 50% of the time but Olivia’s mouth is wet and sweet and willing against her own. It’s enough. It’s too much.
She groans and leans into it. Pulls Olivia’s legs down and around her waist tightly and it’s been so long since she hasn’t had to kiss someone for the cameras. Since she sincerely meant it. Stephen is sweet, a great match for her, but he’s not who she dreams about.
Olivia pulls back breathless and Mellie lets her even though it goes against everything she needs right now. “Whenever I haven’t wanted to scream at you, I’ve been wanting to do that.”
There have been moments, a glance, a lingering touch, a raised eyebrow that makes Mellie think that just might be true. She’s always felt something between them, if she’s being honest. A spark, an energy that captured her but she thought it trended more towards hate than attraction. Maybe it does but tonight it’s going the other direction. “You’re drunk.”
“Not as drunk as you.”
“We’re in agreement that this is idiotic, right?”
“That it’s not going to happen because I’m running for president, we work together, we’re drunk, we’re in a stranger's house, I’m getting married to your friend...”
“Stephen would be so proud,” Olivia declares, draining one of Mellie’s scotches and pulling her back in.
Staring at herself in all white once again, Mellie feels rare self-doubt creeping in.
“What if I don’t win? Mallor— ”
“You will win," Cyrus says with the sort of determination that points towards a forgone conclusion and Mellie sees Olivia get that look in the mirror. The one she’s been wearing in Cyrus’ presence more and more lately as she lounges on the couch.
“I need to speak to him.”
Olivia stands and unlocks the door, pulls out her cell and not five minutes later, there’s two raps on the door before Stephen enters. “I think it’s unlucky to see the bride before the wedding.”
“It’s a good thing I don’t think we’ll be needing much of that then.” He raises his eyebrows but doesn’t comment and Mellie goes on. “I wanted to speak to you. Alone.” When neither Cyrus nor Olivia move to leave the room, she adds, “Please.”
It’s obvious they don’t want to go by their glacial pace, but neither she nor Stephen speaks until the door shuts behind her staff.
“Cold feet?” he asks, and there’s no judgment in his voice. Just that slight amusement she’d taken for hubris when they first met and now thinks might be something else.
“Why are you doing this? You’re handsome. You don’t want a wife? A family?”
“I’ve never been interested in children,” he answers honestly. “And the last thing in the world I want is a wife. You’ve actually been a great help to me. Lots of girls want to say they’ve slept with the president's husband and you’ve given me an honest reason why I can’t leave you and date them afterward.” Mellie laughs and he touches her shoulder companionably. “Feeling a little better, then?”
“I guess I better get out there—”
“No actually,” she speaks up, regaining her composure. “If you’d come to the rehearsal you’d know this.”
“Yes, sorry. I really was up to my neck in it.”
“I’m sure you were.”
“Thanks again,” he replies on a laugh and she continues.
“The one thing I fought them for was us walking down the aisle together. They said it would make the base think we’re socialist but I don’t care.”
“Sounds good to me,” he says and she feels better, takes his arm when he offers it. “Shall we?”
November fourth, the night of the election, Mellie is stuck in the small dressing room adjacent to the hall where she will be giving her speech tonight. Cyrus is running around screaming at underlings, Stephen’s romancing the bartender, Olivia’s running late and Mellie is starting to sweat. she pulls the neck of her dress away from her body once, then again when someone grabs her arm.
She turns to see Olivia gripping her arm tightly. She looks as calm and put together as ever but Mellie knows her too well to buy it. “What’s happened?”
Olivia ducks out of Cyrus’ sight when he scans the room and then leads Mellie to the restroom, closing the door tightly behind them. Mellie smiles. Since the nomination party they haven’t had much time together but Olivia’s face tells her that that’s not what they’re in here for.
She pulls a newspaper from her bag and shoves it in Mellie’s direction. “Mallory Simms is dead, Mellie. The cops went to her house when she didn’t show up for work. They found the door unlocked but everything else in its place. No blood, nothing missing except for her. I’m worried. What if— ”
“Don’t,” Mellie orders and for once in her life, Olivia listens. “You know how bad asking questions can be for your health.”
Olivia stares at her, disbelieving. “Mellie— ”
“We have so much more to accomplish,” Mellie says slowly. “Sometimes you have to do what’s necessary for your country.”
“No,” Olivia says eyes widening with the ever growing realization she will not be leaving this restroom with an ally. “You’re better than this. There are certain things you don’t do no matter what.”
“Well that’s the difference between you and us,” Mellie replies. “Cyrus and me, we’ll do what we have to do and we’ll live with it. That’s our strength. But you think— you know—that what you’re doing is right. That’s what makes you dangerous. We don’t have such illusions.”
Olivia looks at her like she doesn’t know her at all and Mellie thinks of Liv’s legs around her waist. The soft skin of her inner thigh. The way she moves against her after they’ve been apart too long. Mellie looks back and agrees. She doesn’t know her. Not really, because if she were to tell her she would never do something—never betray a confidence, never have a woman killed—Olivia would believe it because she wants to believe it. That’s her weakness and Mellie hasn’t gone deep enough down the rabbit hole to exploit it. Not just yet.
Olivia steps in closer, touches her side. “Mellie, I know you. You don’t want— ”
But she does not yield. “I’ve appreciated every moment we’ve spent together but you’re only here because you’re good at your job.” Mellie makes sure she’s watching her then. That she can see her eyes. That she knows just how serious she is. “That’s all I ever needed you to be.”
Olivia starts at the cold words, her eyes doe-like and soft and Mellie knows then that she loves her the way she was supposed to love Fitz. Like a noose around her neck, like a knife to the gut, like stepping in quicksand. She also knows that she can’t. Not with the path she has to walk.
Mellie wants to pull her into her arms, to apologize, but she doesn't and Olivia’s features become impenetrable. “Of course. I’m sorry to have pulled you out of the room.”
“It’s fine,” Mellie assures her, spinning on her heel and walking back out. The small crowd whoops at her re-entrance and she finds Cyrus’ eyes before checking the numbers. She and Samuel are head to head now but all she needs is Florida. If she gets their electoral votes, the night will be over.
“Group prayer circle,” one of her volunteers yells, moving everyone in tight, and she can hear the people waiting for her speech next door getting louder. Olivia is watching her again but Mellie is looking past the other woman now. Into the future she’s a state away from walking into. Into the destiny she’s worked decades to achieve. She assumes the correct position, head bowed in reverence, hands tightly clasped, but it doesn’t go any further than that. Mellie hasn’t prayed in years.