BEAU HAD never received a letter from the president of the United States before.
Matthew “Beau” Beaumont stared at the elegant cream envelope he’d found propped against his monitor when he settled at his desk on this blustery Wednesday morning in late September. He picked it up and flipped it over, running his fingertips across the raised seal on the flap. He’d seen the seal ten thousand times. Everyone in Washington, DC, had. Almost everyone in the country recognized the Seal of the President of the United States.
But he’d never seen it on a document with his name before. He’d also never gotten anything in an envelope of such smooth, thick paper.
Instinctively he brought it to his nose and sniffed. No scent. What had he expected? The president’s aftershave? He knew President Bergen wore Chrome, and if he closed his eyes, he might pick up the citrusy layers…. No. It didn’t smell like anything—fortunately, because the most likely aroma would be from the slightly sweaty mailroom guy who distributed the ever-decreasing number of real paper envelopes delivered to the District Daily newspaper office.
Of course the president hadn’t personally sent this. But a guy could dream. President Bergen was pretty damn hot for a leader of the free world.
“Waiting for it to open itself?”
Beau spun around in his chair at the sound of Laney Tillman’s distinctive voice. She sounded like a bird caught in a car door, except when she laughed. Then she sounded like a donkey caught in a car door. You could hear Laney laughing from a block away.
This morning she stood in Beau’s cubicle wearing a mishmash of pinks and pale pastel greens. She looked like she’d been mugged by the Easter Bunny and left for dead. Beau actually closed his eyes and opened them again, hoping he’d only been having a Crayola nightmare.
As the Daily’s fashion columnist, hanging out with Laney could seriously damage Beau’s street cred. Laney’s frilly top and her pants appeared about two sizes too small, probably as result of her gig as the Daily’s food writer.
“Jesus, Laney, do not sneak up on a guy like that. I could have spilled my coffee and ruined a perfectly divine pair of new Diesels.”
“They look like normal old jeans to me.”
“Of course they do. To you.” He blew her a kiss and replied in his most soothing voice. As much as he loved Laney, her clothes sense horrified him. “The way foie gras tastes like chopped liver to me.” It didn’t, but it was fun to push her buttons.
She cringed, then gave him the kind of smile a mother might give her irascible child. “Of course it does. But what’s in the envelope already?”
Beau wanted to know too. He eyed it as he took a sip of double-hazelnut, low-fat no-whip. He absolutely missed fat and whip, but the Diesels wouldn’t fit if he indulged too often. He set the cup down and slid a careful finger under the flap so as not to damage the beautiful embossed seal.
“Hurry up, I’m graying over here.” Laney yanked the envelope out of Beau’s hand and ripped it open before he could stop her. The fffft of paper tearing deflated his excitement. She slid out a thick card and waved it like her life depended on it.
“Oh. Oh! Beau!” She cleared her throat and started reading in a regal voice:
“‘The President and the First Lady request your presence at the Autumn Correspondents’ Celebration at the White House. Black Tie…’ blah blah blah.” Then she stared at him for a moment. “The correspondents’ dinner? Really? You?”
“Don’t sound so shocked.” But Beau was shocked. He grabbed the invitation from her and looked to see if it really was addressed to him. Why had he been invited?
Laney clearly wondered the same thing. “Have you ever even done a story at the White House?”
“I covered a charity fashion event the first lady sponsored a few months ago. It was to raise money for a girls’ school in Africa and—”
“What do you mean? Angelina Jolie was there too. And you should have seen what the first lady was wearing! The most gorgeous pale pink knee-length—”
“What? It was beautiful. And her shoes had these little teeny—”
“Would you like me to tell you what they served for lunch?” He frowned when she nodded vehemently. “Look, honey, shoes to me are like caviar to you. Why can’t you understand that?”
“Because I don’t see how what someone else is wearing is news.”
He refrained from suggesting she should start worrying about what she was wearing. “But I can understand why food is so exciting for you.”
“Everyone has to eat. Not everyone has to wear pink kneepads.”
“She wore a knee-length dress. Not kneepads. But she does have lovely knees.”
They had this discussion or one like it at least once a week. Despite their inability to see eye to eye on each other’s area of expertise, they got along regarding everything else, from politics to films to men, though at the moment, neither had one of those.
“When’s this dinner? And what are you going to wear?”
“You really don’t care what I’ll wear, do you?”
“No. But I can tell you’re dying to tell me.” She grinned and perched her hefty bottom on the edge of his desk. She reached for the invitation again. “How did you get invited? I doubt many writers from the Daily did.”
“I wondered the same thing.”
The Daily was the second paper in town after the Washington Post, which attracted the cream of the crop. But downsizing meant the Post had to let some good writers go—including Beau—which was how the Daily had come about. It focused less on politics and more on everything else and included an expanded Lifestyle section. Food, fashion, and fundraisers were big news in DC, and the Daily found an increasing readership of locals who were tired of getting a king-size dose of politics when they also wanted to know which film to see or where to get the best ice cream.
“Maybe we’re finally getting some recognition,” Laney said.
“Still, I’m not exactly a correspondent.” Beau read the fine print on the invitation. “But I get to bring a plus one…. Wo—”
“How do you know I was going to ask you? Maybe I needed your advice about whom to invite?”
“You mean which of your long list of lovers?”
Beau shrugged. “Right. None of them are really White House material.”
“They might have a dark alley around there somewhere….”
“Bitch.” He slapped her hand. “I won’t invite you after all. I’ll Instagram minute-by-minute photos of all the lovely, lovely food they’ll be serving, just to torture you. I hear they have a different wine with each course.”
Color rose in her face. These were fighting words. “Who’s being a bitch now?”
“If you stop making fun of my sorry love life, then I’ll bring you along.”
BEAU’S THRILL lasted another seventy-three minutes. Then someone kicked the side of his cubicle and erupted in a ball of humanized fury.
“Lemme have my invitation.” A six-foot grizzly bear stared down at Beau, who rotated his chair to see what the commotion was about. The bear had a surprisingly neatly trimmed beard and a cream-colored button-down tucked haphazardly into generic worn jeans with tatters at the edges. The pale shirt didn’t camouflage the bulge hanging over his waistband. Beau would have suggested a nice olive-colored shirt instead. But now he was face-to-face with that bulge, though he admitted he instinctively checked for another more desirable bulge.
“Sorry, who are you and why are you bellowing at me?”
“I’m not bellowing,” bellowed the bear, raising the volume another dozen decibels. He’d only been speaking loudly before, but the guy was definitely bellowing now.
“Can you use your inside voice?” Beau used his campy tone and gave the chubby bear a sweet smile.
This disarmed the bear for a moment. He blinked, then stood up to his full height. “Mike Beaumont. Senior reporter.”
Beau stood and held out a hand. “Hi Mike, nice to meet you. Do you think we’re related?”
“No. I’m positive we are not related.” He paused for a moment, appearing to consider his next words. “I’m here to collect my White House dinner invitation.” He pointed at the invitation, which Beau had propped up against his monitor.
Beau grabbed the envelope and glanced at the front. “It’s mine. It says ‘Matthew.’ That’s me. You’re Mike. Even I can read.” He winked at the other Beaumont, who pressed his lips together until they were paper white.
“There was a mistake. For some reason they sent it to you. It should have gone to me.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because they invite me to every White House event for journalists. And I didn’t get an invitation this time.”
“Maybe you were naughty?” Beau couldn’t help using the campy voice again. With considerable effort, he kept himself from batting his eyelashes.
“I was not naughty.”
The word sounded so ridiculous from this huge man that Beau burst out laughing. By now some of the other writers and staff were looking in his direction, and he fluttered his fingers at his audience.
“I’m sorry.” He wasn’t, but it wouldn’t do to torture the large, angry man any further. “Did you call to see if there was a mistake? Because this one is definitely addressed to me, and I’ve already got a date lined up. Of course, if someone tells me I’m not supposed to be invited, I’ll gladly hand this over.” He smiled again, but he hoped like hell there wasn’t a mistake. He really wanted to go to a big dinner at the White House. He’d give up his seat at a Prada runway show for a chance to attend a White House dinner, if only to be in the same room as the sexiest president in US history.
“I’ll be back!” Mike Beaumont said, turned on his heel, and lumbered out of Beau’s cube.
“Wait, Mike.” Beau stood. He was about the same height as Mike but only half as wide. Beau glanced at the invitation again and put aside the images of him in a tux shaking hands with the president, who would then ask him to dance. He handed the envelope over to its intended recipient.
Mike sneered and ripped it out of Beau’s hand with unexpected speed. He turned and lumbered out of the cube again.
“Oh, shit.” Laney appeared at the entrance to Beau’s cube, frowning. “It probably was for him, you know.”
Beau nodded. “I know. He was entertaining to tease.” He let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. “Well, it was fun to dream about while it lasted. I guess the ugly stepsister is going and leaving me at home.”
“Forget the White House. We’d never find a parking spot. Why don’t we get dressed up anyway that night and go somewhere fancy?”
AT LUNCHTIME Beau dragged himself downstairs and around the corner to Subway. He ordered the sandwich with all the Italian cold cuts and cheese, then slid into a booth, but after one unsatisfying bite, he put it down on the table.
“There you are!” Laney frowned as she settled into the booth across from him.
“I never thought I’d see you in a Subway.”
“I’ll need a Silkwood shower when I leave.” She pulled Beau’s sandwich toward her, and the frown deepened. “Friends don’t let friends eat lunch meat. Unless it’s charcuterie, but that’s like comparing Korbel to Dom Perignon.”
Beau let out a sigh as she trashed his sandwich. But he had no appetite anyway.
“What’s the matter, Beau? I’m worried. Subway is slumming it, even for you.”
“You’re not helping.” He continued dining dangerously as he slurped real soda made with high-fructose corn syrup instead of the flavored no-calorie water he usually drank. “It’s the whole invitation thing.”
“This isn’t about the party or Big Mike, is it?”
Beau shook his head. The movement made his teeth ache, and he pushed the soda toward Laney so he wouldn’t be tempted to sip more of it. “I actually like my job, but in those situations I feel like a second-class citizen.”
“No one at the paper sees you that way.”
“Mike Beaumont does. And he’s right.”
“Forget him. If he was really good, he’d be at the Post, right?”
“So would we. The Daily is, well, not the Post. And compared to hard news like I used to write, only a gig at Vogue is going to come anywhere near my old job.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are not the only journalist downsized into a features position. How many other options did you have? It’s better than being unemployed. Or living someplace like Kansas City.” She regularly deprecated her hometown. “Until recently everything was either barbecued or fried.”
“Really? I read something recently that said Kansas City was one of the top five cultured cities in the US.”
She glared at him. “Come on, you’re still much better off than the top reporter in KC.”
“Sometimes I’m not so sure. I really loved writing hard news until the Post let everyone go unless they were covering the biggest, most controversial stories.”
“You’re really good at fashion. You always look terrific.”
“Why couldn’t you be a guy?” Beau cracked a narrow smile. He knew Laney meant well, but he cycled through these doldrums every so often. Today was worse than it had been in quite a while.
“I could if I wanted, but I like who I am right now. Look, get up and we’ll go get some of the truffles you like so much. My treat. We can pig out on as many as you want.”
“Okay.” Beau smiled and got up. Laney was the one who loved those truffles, but he’d go along to humor her so she wouldn’t worry about him. But it was going to take more than truffles to blow away the dark cloud that had settled over his mood.
Laney surprised him after the trip to the truffle shop. She wanted to talk about what they would wear when they went out for their alternative correspondents’ dinner. She insisted on flipping through the stack of fashion mags in his cube and created some of the scariest color combinations he’d ever seen. But she soon had him smiling and laughing again.
“You know what? Maybe Plan B will be more fun. If all the people there are like Mike Beaumont, I’m not so sure I even want to go,” Beau said after work as they sipped Belgian craft beers at a swanky new bar Laney wanted to try.
“Here’s to Plan B!” She raised a glass, and they toasted each other.
PLAN B lasted until the following day.
Tom Withers, Features Editor, came into Beau’s cube just before lunch. He had the beautiful envelope with the presidential seal in his hand and presented it to Beau.
Beau looked at it, then up at Tom, who was leaning against one wall of the cubicle. “I don’t understand.”
“Looks like it was a mistake. But the White House won’t let Mike Beaumont use this invitation. Apparently it’s some security thing. You have to show up with your own invitation because the Secret Service has to do a basic background check on you in advance. They check ID and everything.”
“So I get to keep this as a souvenir of the party that almost was?”
“The White House Social Secretary called to apologize after Mike questioned the error.” Tom grinned. “‘Questioned’ is actually a polite word. But she wanted to apologize to you. In fact, she felt so bad about the error, you’ve been added to the guest list. You’ve got an official invitation. Follow the directions to RSVP. Mike Beaumont will receive his own invitation.”
“Good thing he doesn’t have to rely on his charm to get one.”
“Agreed. He’s not that charming,” Tom replied in a dry tone.
Having an awesome boss like Tom was one reason Beau had come to love this job so much. “I didn’t want to point that out.”
“He’s a good reporter. Better when he doesn’t have to talk to real people. Anyway, the social secretary was impressed with how you handed it over. She thought your gesture was charming, and worthy of an invitation.”
Beau’s spirits brightened further. Maybe he would get to dance with the president. “I’ll tell Laney the good news.”
“But speaking of charm…. Try to watch what you say. Mike Beaumont reported you for sexual harassment because you flirted with him.”
Beau recoiled. “It wasn’t real flirting—more like a defensive maneuver. Am I in trouble?”
Tom shook his head. “Hell no. His editor was laughing when he mentioned it to me. But you’ll have to do an all-day sensitivity training course next week.”
“Lesson learned.” Beau stopped smiling and nodded. “Thanks.”
Tom left and Laney flounced into Beau’s cube. “Sexual harassment? What a dickhead!”
“I’m probably prohibited from using the word ‘dick’ in the office, so you summed up my thoughts.”
“How about if I’m your spokesperson when you need to say something with a sexual connotation. At least until someone else complains?”