You stand in the bathroom with a wad of damp paper towels pressed to the back of your neck. It's the dead of the D.C. winter, but the White House central heating is stuffy and inconsistent. The baby is beginning to feel like a furnace inside, and you're craving Cherry Garcia. You didn't notice Donna come in, but suddenly she's smiling at you in the mirror and offering her congratulations. You can't help but wonder how much of it's genuine, and how much is fueled by relief.
"I've never wanted Josh," you want to tell her, but you throw the paper towels away and adjust the security badge around your neck instead.
Kenny is waiting when you come out, and his fingers dart in concern. Maybe you were in there longer than you thought. You've assured everyone a thousand times that you're still fine traveling, but maybe it's no longer true. Your ankles ache, lower back throbs, but you wink at him and sweep away his fretting with a wave.
You're certainly too tired to deal with Toby, but you won't let him know that. The news you have is only good, and it shouldn't surprise you that he's skeptical, but you don't mean it when you goad him to come out to Michigan. You really weren't expecting Leo to concur. You enjoy the mall testing, seeing the results of your work develop in front of you, and you don't need him spoiling it. How the hell Andi coped is a mystery, carrying twins and dealing with his morose behaviour. Maybe he's different with her.
Still, a week later and your ankles continue to hurt and you're missing home more than you thought and dreading the impact of the Ziegler Effect on your day.
She's not at all what you expected.
He'd emailed to say he was bringing an assistant, but you didn't picture this. She's towing Toby's luggage, and matching him stride for stride in impossibly high heels. Unbelievably, from the snatches you can read from here, she's railing on him about not eating breakfast, and he looks slightly sheepish, accepting a proffered bagel.
He introduces her as Rina, with a glare that suggests he will refuse to explain. She looks you straight in the eye.
"I'm Rina," she says, spelling her name in halting ASL. "You'll have to ask me to speak slower if I go too fast because I'm totally prone to babbling".
In the split second you appraise her you mourn the loss of your own figure. Beneath your sweater are spidery stretch marks that you rub endless lotions into. You picture Max's fingers splayed across them, telling you they're beautiful, but you've never really believed it. You shake your head to clear the image. It's hormones making you homesick, and you've no time for sentimentality. No time to take in the snow dusting Rina's bright red coat as you help her out of it, or the idea that her perfume smells like June in Monterey.
You explain the testing procedures to them both and Rina surprises you by picking the correct test speech first try. She describes it as "strong but not mean", but her childish vocabulary seems to belie an intelligence she's hiding. Or maybe just not used to expressing.
"It is," you agree with her, smiling broadly. "B's showing a significant 26% movement in purchase intent."
"I need some coffee," Toby grouses.
"Oh, I'll get it."
"No. I'd rather, thank you," he replies, already turning to leave.
"Ok well, don't forget, we're a left turn at the Mrs Fields," she calls after him, in a way that seems oddly maternal. You sink to a folding chair, and ask her to sit beside you.
"Is it difficult?" she asks, "traveling so close to term?" She's the first person who hasn't placed an unwanted hand on your belly and gushed, "When are you due??"
You ask if she can understand you, and when she nods you send Kenny off on a break.
You tell her the hardest part isn't the traveling but being away from home. She says she's a military brat, not used to being in one place for very long.
Suddenly the way she's leaning toward you gets a little distracting.
"I have to...check on something," you offer, pressing your hand to your lower back as you ease back to your feet. Forced to tug a little at your turtleneck when you look back over your shoulder and find her still smiling at you. Hormones, you remind yourself. But you go and stand outside with Kenny while he has a cigarette in the snow, just to cool down.
That night, Toby buys you dinner in the hotel restaurant, and Kenny begs off early. You wonder what he does in the evenings. Whether he calls his wife, or just drinks minibar scotch and watches adult pay-per-view. It's harder for you to follow the conversation without him. Toby mumbles and you have to keep asking him to look up, forever losing his words in his beard. But it's okay, it lets you tune out a little, mind wandering. Rina puts her hand over yours to get your attention, and you catch your breath. You decline dessert and go back to your room, emailing Max before you fall asleep.
You dream about her.
You wake overheated and anxious, still seeing her sliding off her red overcoat at your door, seeing yourself reaching for her. You stand under a cool shower and take yourself over the edge thinking of her dark hair across your thighs. Her smiling up at you. And you come back to yourself with your forehead pressed against the tile, your breath catching in your throat. You feel a strange sort of guilt.
You've got everywhere you've ever been on your own. Clawed past prejudice and obstacle, and you've done it on your own terms. You're at the very top of your field. And maybe there's something about motherhood you're not really ready for, because it's your first team effort. You want to believe that even without the baby you'd never stray, but you're lying to yourself and it's you who suggests Kenny switch seats with Toby on the plane, and you who asks Rina if she'll help you compile some figures later that evening.
And so it's after ten, and she's changed into low-riding jeans and is sprawled across the bed in your hotel room surrounded by paper. You're transfixed by the expanse of olive skin you can see at the small of her back, and you're trying not to look ungainly as you lower yourself to the armchair, your glasses sliding too far down your nose. Kenny has left you to it, with a look that says he thought you were better than this, and you wonder if your signs are defensive when you tell him where to go.
When she stacks your work away neatly an hour later you take your glasses off and rub at the bridge of your nose. You were right, of course, Rina's far smarter than she appears. Or maybe you've just lost any ounce of subtlety you ever possessed.
"Do you want a drink...some room service?" you ask, and she crosses the room and crouches beside you. She has one hand on your knee for balance, but it's unbalancing you.
"You're beautiful," she says in a low voice, looking down at her hand on your leg. "You're...awe-inspiring."
Your breath catches in your throat, and you're staring at her hair, wishing she'd look up at you.
She continues softly, "I won't stay here with you...unless you can assure me of something."
Right now you'd assure her your name wasn't Josephine if it would keep her where she is.
"Tell me there's no one waiting in California for you and the baby."
You wonder how this happened, how you became seven months pregnant and terrified. Propositioning a White House assistant who's probably ten years younger than you and twice as savvy. How you got so out of control.
You don't say anything. She gets to her feet and presses a kiss to your cheek, and lets herself out before a tear slides over the same patch of skin.
The next day you watch her on the phone rearranging their flights out of Florida. They're leaving early, and you're not sure whether you're disappointed or relieved.
That afternoon, Max calls Kenny and says she'll pick you up at the airport. In the years you've worked together he's never asked you questions and you've never offered him explanations. But now his hands falter a little. Finally he says, "You're going to make a wonderful family."
You look away. You hope that he's right.