I hated these political events. They were always interminably dull and there was something demeaning about being paraded around in front of campaign donors by your parents. I felt like a prize spaniel on display.
My mother seemed born to it and could small-talk for hours without a break. Despite multiple training sessions with my father’s media and publicity coach, I still felt horribly awkward. I dreaded being caught by reporters the most. I’d become good at lying and glossing over anything controversial but the one question that always threw me was the very unoriginal, “So, what’s it like to be the daughter of a top running contender for Governor of Verona?”
The answer I always had to suppress was: “It kinda sucks, actually.”
Tonight it was a debate. Half an hour into the proceedings and I seriously wanted to skip out of the rest the show. I loathed the conservative candidate and couldn’t bear listening to the hostile back-and-forthing between my father and that dumbass Todd Capulet on topics like gay marriage and the coal industry. The crowd was howling like badly trained circus animals now things were in full swing.
I looked around for an escape route. Tonight’s debate was being held in the conference room at the Museum of Fine Art. I’d been here recently on a school excursion and knew the corridor containing the bathrooms led straight into the main foyer where a bunch of comfortable lounges were dotted about. Perfect for hiding.
“Going to the ladies’ room,” I mouthed to my mother.
She gave a flappy wave that probably meant something like, “Take one of the security guards with you!”
I pretended not to understand. This debate was a closed event, ticketed only, so I was pretty safe. And I doubted anyone would miss me during the rest of the debate. I slipped away from our group with relative ease, letting myself into the corridor and shutting the door on the ruckus behind me. There might be some fallout later for disappearing. Worth it, I decided.
Out here, the museum was practically abandoned. Much better. A woman wearing a Montague for Governor! button emerged from the bathroom and clacked by on heels. She gave me a quick smile and went back into the debate room. Now I really was alone. I wandered down the dim corridor and edged cautiously into the gallery foyer. There was an attendant at the desk and she glanced up at my arrival but went straight back to her magazine. Evidently she didn’t consider me a threat to the collection. There was nothing I could steal here even if I wanted to, with all the artworks enclosed in Perspex cases. Anyway I was so straight-looking in my garden tea-party dress, picked by my mom.
I browsed aimlessly. To entice visitors to cough up the few bucks they needed to go through into the main gallery, they had a few big-name pieces on display in the foyer. A Degas. A Picasso. I hovered before the Picasso. It wasn’t one of his famous cubist works. It was quite a sad painting of a woman with a child.
“I wonder what made him start experimenting like he did,” came a voice beside me.
“Not sure,” I said, glancing around. A young man was standing a short distance away, gazing at the painting. I made a brief assessment: neat clothes—jeans but dressed up with a jacket. Top knot in his golden-brown hair. I dropped my gaze. Uh, flip-flops? Hmmm, hipster styling, knew about Picasso. Montague supporter for sure.
“You’re missing the debate,” I said.
He gave me a quick smile. “Am I? That’s a shame.”
I laughed. “Dragged here by your parents as well?”
He nodded, losing interest in the Picasso and coming closer. “I was only ever in it for the caviar-topped blinis.” He said this with just the right amount of irony so I knew he meant it but he was also laughing at himself. Cute and smart.
“They certainly know how to cater these political things, huh?”
“Conservatives always cater well. Making a good impression is of prime importance. Campaigning 101.”
I cocked my head. “And the other guy?”
“The other guy should know that the caviar isn’t dolphin safe and the wait staff are underpaid.”
I burst out laughing this time. “I hope you’re joking. I don’t want to be eating something that hurts dolphins, or accepting service from exploited workers.”
He shrugged. “I may have made up the dolphin thing. But you should probably tip the waiter generously.”
I appraised him again. This guy was intriguing. He couldn’t have been much older than my sixteen years but he conversed like a much older man. And now he was closer I saw how cute he was. Dark blue eyes, tanned skin and gorgeous angular cheeks. He investigated my face with similar interest.
“What’s your name?” he asked me unexpectedly.
I didn’t particularly want him to know I was Alan Montague’s daughter after his snappy political commentary of a few moments before. I snatched at the first thing that came into my head. “I am the girl who wanders galleries at night.”
He cracked up laughing this time. “Mysterious, indeed.” He stuck out a hand for me to shake. “Hello, Girl Who Wanders Galleries at Night.”
“Girl Who, to my friends,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Guy Who Came for the Caviar Blinis.”
“Guy Who,” he said, nodding gravely. Then we shared a grin.
Through the glass foyer walls I saw a sight that made me roll my eyes. A leggy blonde was climbing out of a sleek car in front of the gallery. “Oh, god. It’s her.”
He followed my gaze. “Her?”
“Paris Addison. In the Capulet camp,” I explained. “Her dad owns half the coal mines in the state and when she’s not tweeting about her dog or Instagramming her nail art, she’s schmoozing with the conservatives on her father’s behalf. Her dad’s trying to get a major new mine through environmental planning so the Addisons are being pretty friendly with the party most likely to help them out.” I made a face.
I’d meant it as a joke but his face fell slightly. Perhaps he was more serious about politics than I’d realized.
“Hopefully Capulet keeps his ethics in check long enough to get through the election,” he said.
I gave him a dubious glance. “Uh-huh. Let’s see how that works out.”
Right. So just how bad does it feel to hear someone you’ve just met accuse your father of political corruption? And, as unreasonable as it is, how much worse does it feel when the person is a pretty, funny, smart girl you’re wildly attracted to?
What ‘Girl Who’ didn’t know was that I’d unwisely let Mom talk me into something tonight before we headed out to the debate—and that something involved Paris Addison.
“Jules,” she’d said, coming into my room, “what do you say to the idea of having a steady girlfriend?”
I nearly spat my soda. “What?”
“Well, you’re eighteen now, off to college in the fall.”
“Uh, yeah. So what?”
“You know Paris Addison?”
“She’s a cousin, twice removed, of Vice President Escher.” I’d raised an eyebrow, wondering where this was heading. “She noticed you at the party fundraiser last month.”
“Yeah?” I could see my mother’s eyes sparkling like they always did when she had some ambitious scheme lined up for me.
“She asked your father about you.” She waggled her eyebrows.
“Good for her. Not interested.” I returned to my soda and my book.
She pouted, sitting on my bed. “Julian Capulet. By the time your father and I were your age we were engaged to be married.”
“Yeah, things have moved on since then,” I informed her, slurping soda. “There’s this thing called having a life. Lots of kids are doing it these days. I was thinking of giving it a shot.”
“Don’t be snide,” she said, becoming stern. “Paris Addison is coming to the debate. I want you to chat with her and I want you to be nice to her.”
I shrugged. “Sure, whatever. And I’m always nice, by the way.”
“Hmm.” She sounded dubious.
So here I was at the debate, waiting to entertain Paris Addison at the after-party … like a chump. But there would be plenty of time for that later. Right now, I had a beautiful dark-eyed girl to try to charm.
“Tell me, Girl Who,” I said as we moved onto the Matisse display. “Which bet did you lose to end up here tonight?”
“I have parents who like to drag their kids to dull political events, too,” she said.
Her parents were Montague supporters, I guessed. She’d made her position pretty clear. Unless she was a rebel like me, pretending to support the Capulet campaign while secretly rooting for the other guy. Except this was a massive betrayal on my behalf because Todd Capulet was my dad. An uproar arose from the debate room—cheering and boos.
“Sounds like it’s heating up in there,” I said.
She tucked a loose bit of dark hair behind one ear and gave me a sideways look. “All the more reason to avoid.”
“I’m with you,” I said, totally earnest.
She gave me a more concentrated stare. Wow. She was really pretty. Beautiful, in fact. I noticed a simple pendant hanging on a silver chain around her neck: smiling and crying theatrical masks.
“You live local?” she asked, sounding a little shyer this time.
“Yeah. I’m going to college in the fall though.”
“Oh, cool. I’ll be a senior then. You going far—for college, I mean?”
As far as I can go without leaving the country, I was about to say but, irrationally, I decided not to reveal that plan. For one thing, it would prompt her to ask why I wanted to get so far away. For another, it might put her off me to think I’ll be gone far away in the fall. And no matter what the truth was, I didn’t particularly want to put her off me.
“Haven’t made any decisions yet,” I shrugged. That was sort of true.
“I’d like to travel before college,” she said, gazing at the Matisse. “Europe, maybe. I could do a working holiday.”
Lucky girl. If only I had the freedom to make choices like that. My wildest independent decision in the past year had been to grow my hair long. And I only got away with it because Dad’s PR team approved my look, saying it might be useful in reaching a new demographic.
We moved onto the Cezanne. “So not a fan of Todd Capulet?” I asked it casually but I was keen to hear how much my father was ruining my chances with a girl like this.
She wrinkled her nose. “Uh, right. 1950s morals for a new millennium world? No, thanks.”
“Maybe it’s a utopian ideal,” I suggested. “Maybe the guy is nostalgic for a more innocent time of wholesome values and simpler roles.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “Maybe so. But he can get his wholesome values off my best friend Merrick, who’s gay … and extract his simpler gender roles from my own career aspirations, thanks.”
Oh, wow. She was so smart. And so hot. Crap! I knew I needed to get back inside the debate room soon and then this whole charade would be over because she’d work out who I was and hate my guts. And then I could spend the rest of the evening entertaining the airheaded Paris Addison. Was there any chance I could get Girl Who’s number first? Make contact after the debate and try to convince her I’m not like my father?
“Hey, Girl Who,” I said impulsively. “I’ve gotta get back to the bun fight but … do you want to maybe go for a coffee this week?”
She was startled but her cheeks went pink and I detected a small smile playing around her lips. My spirits rose.
“Sure. I know a good coffee shop in the East Quarter. They don’t quite do caviar blinis but their latte art is da bomb.”
Did she actually just say that? I think I’m in love. I grinned like I’d won the party fundraiser raffle and whipped out my phone. “Can I have your number?” She recited it and I saved it in my phone. “Girl Who, with a W?” I asked and it made her laugh again.
Down the hall a door opened and a woman emerged, standing in the shadows. She stared at us for a moment before calling out, “Romilly! Come on!”
The girl shot me an apologetic look. “Catch you later, Guy Who.” She ran down the hall in her white flats and cute dress. Looking adorable.
Romilly, huh? I updated the new contact in my phone to ‘Girl Who (Romilly)’ and trailed after them. Was her mom taking her home already? That was promising. Maybe there was a chance she wouldn’t realize who I was tonight and then I’d have more of a chance to get to know her before she rejected me on the basis of my political parentage.
Inside, the debate was winding down. The host was making some final remarks and people were laughing at his lame jokes. Waiters hovered at the edges of the room with trays full of food and drinks.
“But before we move on to the social part of the evening,” the host was saying, “let’s take a moment to thank our esteemed candidates for their efforts in tonight’s debate. Come back up here, guys—and bring your families. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alan Montague and Todd Capulet.”
Mom caught my eye and tipped her head to say ‘get up there!’ I complied, meeting her on stage with Dad and Ty while the crowd applauded. I scoured the crowd for Girl Who. In the sea of faces I picked out Paris Addison in a tight black dress and five-inch heels, giving me a gigantic smile and a wave. I couldn’t see the adorable Romilly in her green-and-white dress anywhere. She must have gone already. I relaxed.
But then I glanced across the stage to where Alan Montague stood with his wife and daughter—and my heart dropped.
Totally Starcross’d will release on February 11, 2016. Subscribe to this blog in the right hand panel to be notified of release.