"I still can't believe you got tickets to this," Meg Powers whispered to her "date" for the evening. "I didn't think she wanted anyone to go, after all the criticism of propaganda machines."
Preston Fielding, the only man she knew who could look even more handsome in the color pink, smiled at her. "Someone had to go, even if your mother and Kruger weren't. It would have looked worse if no one from her administration had showed up. Besides, I like Joel McHale."
Meg looked back over the dining hall, seeing faces she recognized, names she knew. Not as many as Preston, White House Press Secretary, probably did (he probably knew everyone by name, the name of their partners and children, and even their pet's name) but enough to feel a little intimidated. She pulled her hand closer into her stomach. "Remind me again why I have to be here for this?"
"Meg, relax," he told her. "You love Joel McHale," he pointed out. Which was true. Meg watched three things on television: the Boston Red Sox (who actually had a decent year), CSPAN, and Joel McHale's shows The Soup and Community. She blamed her crush on McHale on her best friend Beth, who had spent so much time raving about him that Meg had given in and just watched the damn shows to shut her up. What Preston didn’t know (unless Beth had told him, which she never would) was that half the reason she liked McHale so much was because he reminded her of Preston. "Besides, I thought you could use a night out on the town." He lowered his voice and leaned closer. They were in a room full of the White House Correspondents, after all. "Your emails have been sounding down."
She held back a frown at his words. She'd broken up with her boyfriend, Jack, recently, that was true. Frankly, she'd thought the break-up was inevitable. As they'd progressed through college, their interests had really started to diverge and Jack's hang-ups about her safety and health got worse. Meg was a little surprised they'd actually lasted a year and a half. She was just grateful Jack wasn't the type to talk to the press about their relationship now that it was over.
Being the boyfriend of the First Daughter would sell. Being the boyfriend of the First Daughter who had been kidnapped and tortured while in high school would sell millions of papers.
"I don't need a pity date."
Preston reached over and wrapped his fingers gently around her hand -- her injured hand -- squeezing enough she felt it but not enough to cause pain. That had been one of the reasons why she'd finally broken up with Jack; he could never seem to find the balance when they were together. Worse, he overreacted to the nightmares and flashbacks she had, though both were a lot less common than they had been two years ago when she'd started at Williams. "This is definitely not a pity date, Meg. You're the most beautiful woman here."
The sheer sincerity in his voice started a laugh out of her. "Coming from the White House Press Secretary," she said, looking back over the room. The advantages of sitting at the head table were that you could see everyone else in the room. The disadvantage, of course, was that everyone in the room could see you as well.
"It's true," Preston said, grinning at her and squeezing her hand again, pulling it into his lap under the table. "You've got style, Meggo. Only one in the room with enough style to keep up with me."
She looked at the simple floor-length black dress she wore, designed long to cover her knee brace, and the crystal pendant her mother had given her from the President's Jewel Cabinet with the words of warning "You break it, you buy it" and shook her head. "Style, huh? Her Majesty approves," she teased, getting into the spirit and enjoying the warm glow in the pit of her stomach at his touch. It felt a little like being fifteen and crushing on Preston with Beth again. "Especially as the compliment is coming from Our second oldest friend." She said it before she realized it was true. Beth was her oldest friend and had been for fifteen years. But she'd known Preston since she was thirteen and he was still a newly-minted intern assigned to her mother in the Senate. Nearly eight years. She let her smile drop a bit and looked deliberately out into the audience of the Press Corp and then down at their joined hands. "You know there's going to be another round of reports that we're together now." She began to lightly pull back. "You'll get another phone call from Mrs. Fielding warning you to treat me right."
Preston didn't let go of her hand. "I don't really care." His voice was warm and so was his hand. The hand that wasn't letting go of hers.
The man definitely had style. She licked her lips briefly and used her good hand to pick up her glass of water for a drink. "So definitely not a pity date?"
"With you, Meg," he said quietly. "It's never a pity date."
She nodded to the reporters. "A publicity stunt date?" she tried, her stomach clenching at the thought. She was instantly ashamed for thinking it too, because this was Preston. He'd never do that.
He opened his mouth to answer and was interrupted by the sound of her name being called and applause. Right. The real reason they were here -- Meg was giving a short speech. Preston's idea, that she had reluctantly agreed to, when her mother's staff was suggesting candidates to attend the Correspondent's dinner. Meg slowly pushed back her chair and started to stand, but Preston's hand in hers stopped her from going too far. "Just a date," he told her softly and smiled. "Knock 'em dead."
The knot clenched in her stomach eased and she let go of his hand, feeling almost normal. "As you can see, I've been working on my six-minute mile," she said, relaxing as she reached the podium. It got laughter and applause that sounded more genuine than polite but the best thing was sneaking a glance to the side and seeing the approval on Preston's face.
Maybe it would be okay after all.