Never My Love by Kathryn Shay
President James Manwaring sat across from Annalise in her swank Foggy Bottom condo, looking youthful at sixty-seven. His face sported only laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. “I like your place, but I wish you’d listened and chosen a big building so you could be on an upper floor.”
She kissed his cheek. “I know, Dad. I wanted a deck. A backyard.” She handed him coffee. “Let’s sit.”
“So, sweetheart, how are you doing?”
She took one of the other white leather couches across from him. “I’m good. You? How’s the foundation?”
Her parents had set up a foundation to eradicate human slavery. They worked parttime on an awareness campaign and fundraising.
He watched her with those searing green eyes that she’d inherited. “We’re well. Our work is satisfying. Tell me about your new job.”
“I love it so far. I’ve always been interested in The Justice Project.” A national political action organization that supported candidates for their party’s elections. “And I’ve donated to it for years.”
He could always tell when something was wrong.
“One of the founding members, Luke Branson, voted against me. The women on the project told me to be careful around him. He’s not a founder, but started there seven years ago, and is technically my superior.”
“Why would he do that? Your qualifications are impeccable.”
She shifted in her seat. “People tend to think I’munqualified to do anything but cut ribbons and be pretty.”
“That’s not fair. After you got your law degree from Georgetown, you clerked for two years with Tom Anderson.”
“Who is a judge you appointed.”
“I’m sorry then, honey. I regret my part in his veto.”
“Don’t be. I’ll never apologize for being the president’s daughter.”
The former president chuckled. “I like your pride in our family.”
Sighing, she sat back. “As for the job, I signed on for four days so I can still take pro bono cases on Fridays at my old firm.”
“That’s a boon.”
She stood. “I think the banana bread you love is cooled by now.”
As she passed him, he grabbed her hand. “You don’t have to pretend everything’s going well with your life, honey.”
“I’m not pretending. I want to follow in your footsteps and this is the path. I’ll be right back.”
Annalise went to the kitchen and cut the bread. The sweet scent of sugar and bananas was heavenly. When she returned, her father was staring out at the D.C skyline. He sat again when she did. “Now, give me a slice.”
She bit into one, too. Contrary to Hannah, her younger sister, who ate organic foods, Annalise wasn’t that rigid, though she did use all-natural ingredients for baking. She envied her sister, who’d chosen a different path than she.
“What are you thinking about?”
A smile spread across his tanned face. “I heard from her yesterday.”
“Yeah, she’s called me twice and both times, I couldn’t get back to her. How is she?”
“She was fixing her furnace.”
Annalise grinned at that. Hannah had said no to college, a scandal for the president’s child. Instead, she went to trade schools—got an electrician certification, one in plumbing, another in carpentry and one in construction, for which she was required to work on a building site. Annalise remembered seeing a picture of the Secret Service standing by in their suits and hard hats. “She’s something, isn’t she?”
“Always was. She’s busy but sees Sasha frequently.”
Both of those sisters had moved to upstate New York. Hannah used her trust funds from her mother’s parents to buy the farm and Sasha used the money to buy a dance studio in downtown Rockford. Annalise had purchased an estate in Maryland where she planned to move sometime in the future. Andraya had saved hers.
“Well, that’s why Sasha opened her dance studio in Rockford. I wish my twin hadn’t gone halfway across the world to work.”
“Andraya loves Casarina and teaching. She got close to the Gentileschis when she spent her senior year at the Marcello schools.”
“I know. I’m going over to Italy to see her when I get some time off.”
“I adore the fact that you’re all so different.” Her father was the only person she knew who used the wordadorenaturally.
She checked her watch. “I’m afraid I have a meeting in a half-hour.”
“Said the man who sat in the Situation Room on a number of weekends.”
An expression which had charmed America when he first ran for state office, then the House of Representatives, then the Senate and finally the presidency spread across his face. “I know. So, I won’t harp. But your mom and I will be more available to you now.”
“Give her my love.” Annalise and Karen Masters were very close.
She stood with her father and walked him to the door. Hugged him fiercely. “I love you, Daddy.”
“Ah,Daddy,” he said as he drew back. “I love you too, Annie.”
She opened the front door to find his two Secret Service agents standing at attention. Eddie Cramer and Milt Smith had been and still were her father’s guards, as her dad was entitled to protection for life. And now that he wasn’t president, all three of them had loosened up somewhat, were friendlier and wore casual clothes.
She rolled her eyes. “You didn’t call me that when one of the boys I dated took me out on his motorcycle, Eddie.”
He smirked. “Okay, Shining Star.” The code name she’d been given by her protectors.
“Goodbye, everyone.” She went back inside and her cell rang. She clicked on. “Hello.”
“Annalise. Where are you?” Luke Branson’s tone was annoyed.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re late for the meeting.”
“It isn’t for another half-hour.”
“The meeting started at nine!”
Hell. “I’ll be right there.” She didn’t live far from the Lincoln building. “I’m sorry, Luke.”
“Just get here.”
“I said I would.” She disconnected abruptly. That guy got under her skin. He did it intentionally, but to be fair, shewaslate, and she might have been as impatient as he. Grabbing her briefcase, she headed out.
Fifteen minutes later, Annalise walked into a large conference room of the building where The Justice Project was housed. Housed on two floors, it spread out in offices to hold fifty employees and several large and small conferences rooms.
“Annalise, hi.” Harold Franklin, a founding member and elected as chair, said the words kindly.
“I’m sorry, Harold. No excuses.” Except that she was with the former president.
“Not to worry. It happens. We’re divvying up some projects. You and Luke are taking candidate assessment for the 204th district in Pennsylvania.”
Damn, she was going to have to work with the man after all.
* * *
Luke Branson watched Annalise Manwaring walk into his office with all the confidence in the world. She’d handled her lateness with aplomb. Once inside, she glanced around at the two desks adjacent to each other and a small table and chairs by the window on the streets of D.C. Recessed lighting made the area ideal for working. “Where’s everybody else?”
“It’s you and me. Harold assigned us.”
“Why didn’t you object?”
“Because I’m a team player.” He held his temper. “You heard I was reluctant to hiring you.”
“It’s important that The Justice Project remain impartial. I didn’t want your appointment to seem like nepotism. But I was outvoted, so here we are.”
“I assure you,” she said, coldly. “I’m fully qualified.”
“That’s true.” He motioned to the small conference table. “Would you like coffee?”
She sat, pulled down the skirt of the sage-green suit she wore and took her slim laptop out of her briefcase.
She was a beauty, all right and, unfortunately, he’d been mesmerized by it for years. He’d envied her when they were both at Georgetown. She’d sailed into law school, while he had to delay a law degree to save up for tuition. In the end, he got a masters in marketing and finance which he excelled in. He was embarrassed by still, at thirty-six, having remnants of negative feelings about her.
“Do I have banana bread on my face?”
“Excuse me? Banana bread?”
“I baked some this morning.”
Ah, he got it. Rumor had it President James Manwaring loved his daughter’s banana bread, a story leaked to the press to underscore his happy family life. That didn’t sit with Luke at all, since hisfamilywas never much a part of his life.
“You were late because you were baking bread for your father?”
“No, I was late because I got the time wrong.” She held his gaze. “Can we get to work?”
“If you’re finally ready.” He grabbed his tablet. “I’ll send you the candidates we have to choose from.”
Quickly, her tablet pinged. Four candidates were in the running for congress in the November primary in Pittsburg. She read the notes on all of them.
“Hmm, they certainly have different agendas. From a quick scan, I think it’s going to be between Meredith Long and Mark Dawson.”
Meredith was running on LGBT rights, social security and Medicare. She also favored environmental issues and education. Those were the issues Annalise would have chosen, too. Mark Dawson was for steelworkers, ran on his experience in science and technology, highways and transit and the economy. She looked up. “At first glance, I gravitate toward Long’s agenda.”
“Let’s take our time, consider the others and if we chose Long and Dawson, we’ll vet both of them. Then we’ll present them to the rest of the members.”
“Whatever you say.”
Man, she was a sassy one. Too bad he liked spunk.
* * *
The Reston Hotel had been remodeled into exactly the kind of ballroom setting Annalise preferred. High ceilings lit by modern chandeliers and sconces on the wall gave it atmosphere. Deep mauve cloths covered the raised tables. And best of all, its wall of windows let in light and the city sparkled all around them. Fitting, she thought, since this was her welcome party to The Justice Project.
“Nice place,” Mitch McCullen said as he let go of her hand. “Just your style.”
He gave her the once over. They’d been lovers off and on for two years. “And that outfit is great on you.”
She’d chosen a fitted black cocktail dress, with an outer layer of lace, that ended above her knees. Two-inch black heels completed the outfit. She never wore stilettos. She smiled as she recalled her mother’s advice.
Girls, never wear shoes that are uncomfortable. Whoever you’re trying to impress isn’t worth it if the size of your heels matters to him, her or them.
“What’s that smile for?” Oh, damn. Luke Branson was the first member to greet her. With a supermodel on his arm. She’d seen Helena Miles on the covers of numerous magazines.
“I was thinking about my mother.”
He scowled. “I thought your parents weren’t coming.”
“They’re not.” She turned to Helena. “Hello, I’m Annalise Manwaring. I’ve seen your photos all over the place.”
“And I recognized you. The president’s daughter. This party is for you.”
Mitch nudged her. “Here you go, honey.” He held out his hand to Luke after she took her drink. “I’m Mitch McCullen. I work with Annalise.”
“As do I. I’m Luke Branson. And this is…”
“Helena Miles.” Mitch smiled. “Annalise has shown me pictures of you in magazines.”
How ironic. She liked his date better than him. But Annalise behaved graciously. After a bit of small talk, Luke said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like a few private minutes with Annalise.”
Neither date objected and began their own discussion.
Luke and Annalise moved to a corner. “What the hell does that mean, he works with you?”
“First, I don’t appreciate your tone, even if you’re my boss. But it’s a fair question. On Fridays and weekends, I work at my former law firm, Hastings and Higgins. I take pro bono cases for the firm, as I did when I was full-time there. Mitch often assists me. We help people who can’t help themselves.”
His brow furrowed. He was handsome tonight in a dark blue suit and lighter shirt. They heightened the color of his navy-blue eyes, framed with mink-colored stylish hair. The fit of his clothing also showed off his muscular build. “I hope that doesn’t interfere with your work with us.”
“Harold hired me for four days a week. He doesn’t think that will be a problem.” She arched a brow. “If it was, I’d never have taken the job.”
“Why didn’t you stay at the law firm, then?”
Man, he really didn’t like her.
To needle him, she responded, “I’m trying to get closer to politics.”
“So you can follow in Daddy’s footsteps?”
“Actually, yes.” She angled her chin at Mitch and Helena. “Now, we’re being rude. Most of the guests are arriving.”
They socialized with the other members, with honored guests and some family and friends.
Another of the founding members, Clarke Ellis, greeted her. “Glad to have you on board.” He had a gentle way about him, and made her comfortable.
Three women approached her. They were all in their forties and settled into their families and careers. “Having fun, Annalise?” one asked.
“Yes, I am. Thank you all for taking me under your wings.”
“Being a woman in this business is tough. We have to stick together.”
Then there were the lobbyists. “I hope you’ll pick Meredith…Dawson’s your guy…We’re trying to get a member of the house…”
In truth, all the business talk was exhausting. So, she was happy when Harold called her over to where he stood with another man who had his back to her. When she reached them, the guest turned to her.
“Alessio? Oh. Alessio!” The king of Casarina was here?
“Ciao, Bella.” He kissed both her cheeks. She returned the European greeting. “I didn’t know you were in town.”
“I had business. And I brought a friend. Look over my shoulder,Cara Mia.”
And saw her sister walking toward her!
“Oh, oh, oh….” She threw her arms around her twin. Cameras snapped. “Andraya!” Annalise’s eyes misted. She always felt…complete when they were together again. “What a surprise.”
As usual, her sister hugged tightly, too. She’d gained some weight but was solid and fit. And she smelled the same, of lotion and bath splash. When she drew away, Annalise noted that Andraya still wore no makeup, but had dressed in a lovely green sequined dress. “Your dress is terrific.”
“I brought this so I wouldn’t embarrass you.”
“You could have come in sack cloth and I wouldn’t be embarrassed.”
They studied each other. Annalise noted, “You let your hair go curly. And it’s shorter.”
“Yours is lovely, that long.”
Mitch came up to her. “Hi, Andraya.”
“Nice to see you again, Mitch.”
After several minutes, there was a clink of glasses. Then Harold walked up to them. He lifted his drink. “I’d like us all to raise a glass to our newest member, Annalise Manwaring.”
Toasts were given. All the while, she held onto Andraya’s hand.
* * *
Luke watched the two sisters. Huh. They were nearly identical. He thought he was no longer a jealous person. That trait had gotten him into big trouble until he was twenty. But seeing them, seeing their closeness, made him envious.
To quell his feelings, he crossed to where they stood. They were talking to a congressman from Maryland who TJP supported. He was saying, “I sure do miss your dad.”
“That’s a nice thing to say.” Annalise gave the answer. Andraya stood by silently.
Luke butted in. “Hello, Jake. Good to see you again.”
“Luke, hello.” They talked briefly, then Peters left.
So he focused on the quiet twin. “I’m Luke Branson. I work with your sister.”
She gave him a genuine smile. “Yes, I know who you are. She’s told me about you.”
His brows raised.
“We video call a few nights a week and discuss everything.”
Annalise quipped, “Don’t worry, I told her the truth.”
“I’d guess that wasn’t all positive.” He scanned them both. “I’m stunned that you look so much alike.”
“Do you have any siblings, Luke?” Andraya asked. There was a natural sweetness in her voice.
His heartbeat sped up. “Yes, a brother. We lost track of each other when we were kids.”
“How did that happen?” Annalise sounded abhorred. Damn her. He’d tell her the truth.
“Child services separated us when we were eight and ten. It was hard to keep track of where he went. Where I went.” He tried to control the emotion but his voice was laced with it.
Annalise’s face softened. And she squeezed his arm. “Luke, I’m so sorry.”
“Life deals some people lemons. I don’t share mine, usually.”
Annalise frowned. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“A far cry from being the president’s daughter.”
“Of course, it is. But you know, that had its drawbacks.”
Before she was hired, he’d researched the lives of political children. They were often ambitious. Many times, they had addiction problems. They were expected to be present at all kinds of events. Poor them. “What, like attending the Easter Egg Hunt, or the Turkey Pardon?”
Andraya stepped back as if she’d been slapped.
Annalise’s expression was murderous. “That was a nasty thing to say. Come on Andraya, let’s go talk to somebody nicer.”
One of his former dates had told him,You’re your own worst enemy, Luke. That chip on your shoulder must really weigh you down.
He guessed he’d just confirmed her accusations.