Once the photographer finished with us, the producer shuffled Simone and me into the living room where Francine, the interviewer, had everything set up and waiting. Simone and I clipped on microphones and sank onto our huge couch, sitting close together with my arm around her shoulders.
While the crew adjusted lights and fussed with overhead microphones, I swallowed the nausea that tried to rise in my throat. We'd made it through this part of our little charade. Now we just had to get through the interview.
The first of many, Jesse. Deal with it.
Movement caught my eye, and when I turned, I shouldn't have been surprised to see Anthony Hunter lingering in the background with Ranya. He stood back and watched everything, just like he had during the shoot, observing like he expected it all to happen according to his orders. For that matter, his posture had noticeably tensed since the producer shot down his request for a brief word with me before the interview. Something told me he wasn't used to hearing the word no.
It had been years since I'd seen the man. We'd only met in passing, and I really hadn't paid attention to him whenever I was at campaign functions with my uncle. Now I wondered how I missed him. He certainly had an unavoidable presence that I didn't recall from meeting him before. Maybe I just hadn't been paying attention back then, but he was...intense. I couldn't decide if he had a chip on his shoulder, somewhere else he'd rather be, or was just one of those reserved, poker-faced types who only let people see what he wanted them to see.
Right away, he unsettled me. I couldn't read him, but I was unnervingly certain he could see right through me.
God, I hoped he couldn't. The last thing I needed was my damned campaign manager catching on that in spite of his intimidating presence, he was also attractive as all hell. His features were as sharp and rigid as his presence, and I wasn't sure I was ready to find out what it was like to be the center of his attention, even for the span of a conversation. There were people who could make someone feel like they were the only person in the world. I had a funny feeling Anthony Hunter could make someone feel like they were the only suspect in the world.
And this was the guy who'd be running my campaign. Between drooling over him and being intimidated by him, I was fucked.
But wheels were turning, I was campaigning, and if I wanted to win, I needed him, so--
"Okay," Francine's squeaky voice startled me back into the present. "Are we ready?"
Simone glanced at me. I nodded, and she said to the interviewer, "Ready when you are."
And in no time, the cameras were rolling in spite of how much Anthony distracted me.
"So, Jesse and Simone," Francine said with a plastered-on smile. "You've just passed your fifth wedding anniversary. The two of you make a happy, rock-solid marriage look so easy. Tell us, what's your secret?"
Wishing I were anywhere but here, I smiled. "I just do what she tells me to."
My wife laughed. "Unless it's laundry or dishes, right?"
"What?" I feigned offense. "I did the dishes the other night."
She shot me a playful scowl. "Rinsing a coffee cup does not count as doing the dishes."
Exhaling melodramatically, I rolled my eyes. "Yes, dear."
Francine laughed. She continued with the usual mundane questions about married life, our relationship, our careers, our family. God only knew what kind of profound, quote-worthy answers she wanted. At least Simone and I had nervously rehearsed this interview every night for the last week, coming up with answers to any question we could think of so nothing caught us by surprise. So there wouldn't be any stammering or throat clearing while we improvised alibis and cover stories.
Francine shuffled her note cards. "Now, your marriage hasn't been without its obstacles."
My stomach tightened. Here we go...
She went on. "Simone, you've been in the news several times because of your struggles with an eating disorder. How has that affected your marriage?"
My wife's shoulders turned to steel against my arm. I gave her a gentle squeeze.
Simone coughed quietly, then produced a smile that probably looked easy to anyone but me. "It's been a struggle, but what marriage isn't?" She glanced at me, the smile broadening as if a director had just told her to look even happier, and at the same time, her eyebrows lifted in an unspoken help me out here.
I reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Still looking at her, I said to the cameras, "We deal with that just like anything else. One day at a time." I faced Francine and the camera that peered over her shoulder. "You marry someone, you roll with their punches as well as your own."
Simone relaxed against me, the change in her posture so subtle I doubted anyone else noticed, and I ran my fingers up and down her arm for a little more reassurance. This wasn't the first time either of us had been grilled about her eating disorder, and we'd both had a feeling it would come up this time. Anything for a little drama and sensationalism.
Fortunately Francine let the subject go. Evidently she had the sound bite she wanted, so she moved on.
"Tell us," she said, clasping her hands around her knee, "is it true, Jesse, the rumor that you're considering pursuing a political office?"
At the edge of my peripheral vision, Anthony shifted his weight. Though I couldn't see him directly, the tension in his posture made it to the hairs on the back of my neck. I swallowed hard, trying not to look at him.
I cleared my throat. "Yes. Yes, that rumor is true."
Her pencil-thin eyebrows climbed her makeup-caked forehead. "Would you care to elaborate?"
Anthony didn't move. The hairs on the back of my neck didn't lie down.
I took a breath. "There's a..." I couldn't resist letting my gaze dart toward Anthony for a fleeting second, but quickly returned it to the inquisitive reporter. "There's a very strong possibility I'll be throwing my hat in the ring for governor of California."
Francine blinked, drawing back slightly. "Is that right?"
"Yes." Why was my mouth suddenly dry? "There's a press conference scheduled for the fifteenth, so I'll answer anyone's questions about the election at that time."
"And Simone," Francine said. "How do you feel about possibly being the first lady of California?"
Simone forced another tight smile, this one probably taking even more effort than her neutral expression in the face of the eating disorder questions. "I'm looking forward to it." She put her hand on my knee and offered a stiff squeeze. I turned to her, returning her smile and affectionately smoothing her hair just to remind the cameras how happily married we were. Damn, maybe I really was cut out for the "lying through my teeth" side of politics after all.
The interview finally wrapped up, and Simone shooed me into the kitchen while she saw the producers and crew out. I owed her big-time for that, but she must have known I was nearing the end of my tether. The interview would have been easier if we hadn't already done the photo shoot. By the time Simone and I had taken our seats on the couch to smile our way through our well-rehearsed little act, we'd already spent half an hour or so faking the affection that the cameras wanted. The whole thing had left me nauseated, and smiling for the other set of cameras gave me a more in-depth understanding of the phrase "straw that broke the camel's back" than I ever wanted.
And it's only just beginning. I closed my eyes and rubbed a phantom headache out of my temples.
"He's right in here." Ranya's voice preceded two sets of footsteps coming into the kitchen, and the skin on the back of my neck prickled a split second before she added, "Jesse, Anthony Hunter's here to see you."
I exhaled, put on the closest thing I could still muster to a pleasant expression, and turned around.
Oh. Holy. Fuck.
The man was gorgeous. No two ways about it. He didn't have the flawless, lineless perfection that show business or California high society demanded. Instead he looked like a man who'd worked his ass off and wore every subtle groove of fatigue, wear, and tear with pride. I guessed he was in his late thirties, maybe early forties. At least a few years older than me, probably. A few gray hairs peppered his temples like thin, sharp hash marks. They reminded me of notches on a gun stock or the silhouettes of enemy aircraft drawn on the fuselage of the plane that shot them down, like a tally of everyone he'd ever taken down with a single look.
Up close, his sheer intensity was magnified. His dark eyes pulled no punches, boring right into--through--me, and his jaw was as firmly set as his broad shoulders. We were roughly the same height, but I couldn't shake the feeling I was looking up at him. Or, more specifically, he was looking down at me. Christ on a cracker, I'd met Hollywood overlords and shaken hands with sitting presidents, and I'd barely batted an eye. This guy had my knees threatening to collapse right out from under me.
Clearing my throat, I extended my hand. "Anthony, good to meet you again."
"Likewise." He quickly shook my hand. "Listen, I don't want to keep you too long, but we need to discuss your campaign." Icicles hung off every word, and I wondered how hard my uncle had twisted this guy's arm to get him on board.
"Yeah. All right." I gestured toward the French doors on one side of the kitchen. "Why don't we move this outside onto the veranda?"
"Sure." He offered a tight-lipped smile. "Do you mind if I smoke out there?"
"No, go right ahead. There's an ashtray on the table. Can I get you something to drink?" My mind tried to go blank, momentarily forgetting the name of every beverage in the goddamned house, but I recovered. "Coffee? Wine? Iced tea?"
"Iced tea is fine, thank you," he said.
"I'll get it," Ranya said.
"Thank you," I said. "We're good here, so when you're done, go ahead and take the rest of the evening off."
She smiled. "Sounds good to me. Anthony, let me take you outside, and then I'll get you two some drinks."
She led Anthony out to the veranda, and once he was out of earshot, I leaned against the counter and rubbed my neck with both hands.
Quiet footsteps approached from the other room.
"You okay?" Simone asked. She touched my arm.
Still rubbing my neck, I exhaled. "I think I'm going to be sick."
"Is it that horrible, posing with me?"
I looked at her, and we both laughed halfheartedly.
"You know what I mean," I said.
"Yeah, I know." She sighed. "If we never have to do that again, it'll be too soon."
"Yeah, well." I scowled. "I doubt it'll be the last time."
"A girl can dream."
I released a breath. "I'm sorry about this, Simone."
"Don't be," she whispered. "Roger's right. We need to do it, and it's not forever." Before I could reply, she glanced out at the veranda and smirked. "Speaking of whom, your uncle certainly did pick a looker to run your campaign."
"Don't remind me," I muttered.
"At least promise me you'll ogle him while you're out there."
I glared at her.
Simone laughed and nudged my arm. "Just relax and go talk to him."
"I'll go talk to him," I said. "But that first part? Gonna have to take a rain check."
Worry creased her forehead, so I smiled as much as I could with the queasiness still roiling around in my gut.
She returned it, and for the first time today, fatigue showed in the weakness of her smile and heaviness of her eyes.
I cocked my head. "You okay?"
She dropped her gaze and folded her arms across her chest. "I'm fine." Her eyes flicked up, and she looked at me through her lashes. "What about you?"
"Fine. I'm fine."
We held each other's gazes for a moment, and something sank in my gut. An actress and a politician, and we still couldn't lie enough to convince each other of anything. Well, she'd managed to fool movie cameras and film critics into believing she really felt every emotion she portrayed on the screen. Maybe together we could persuade the voting public we were as happily married as we claimed to be.
She cleared her throat and gestured over her shoulder toward the front of the house. "I'm...going to go out for a little while."
"Okay." I nodded toward the veranda. "I guess I'd better go talk to him."
With a smile that was a little less forced, she said, "Good luck."
I laughed quietly. "Thanks."
She hugged me gently. I closed my eyes and held on to her for a second, pretending not to notice that she felt smaller in my arms than she had in a long time.
God, please, don't let her be losing weight again.
Simone pulled back, and when she smiled, I was less concerned with the fact that her eyes didn't reflect it and more worried about the hint of gauntness in her cheeks.
I brushed a strand of hair out of her face. "Are you sure you're--"
"I'm fine." She put up a hand. "This is stressful for both of us, Jess, but I'm fine."
I swallowed. "Okay. Just, if you're not..."
"I know." The smile tried to come back to life. She nodded toward the veranda again. "Anyway. Go talk to him. I'll be back in a few hours."
There was no point in arguing with her, and I did still need to talk to Anthony, so she left while I went outside.
On the veranda, Anthony sat in one of the chairs at the table beside the pool, his legs crossed at the knees and a stemmed glass of iced tea cradled between his fingers like a brandy snifter. He'd fixed his gaze on the ocean far below us, and offered little more than a flick of his eyes in my direction as I approached.
A stainless steel Zippo lighter sat on the table beside a pack of cigarettes, but the air was clean and clear. Even the wind off the coast wouldn't have carried away the scent of smoke this quickly, and the ashtray was still bare.
I sat opposite him and picked up the glass Ranya had left for me. The condensation on the side added to the moisture on my sweaty palm, and the cool liquid only served to remind me how uncomfortably flustered I was just being in Anthony's presence.
"Your assistant, she--" He paused, his brow furrowing slightly. "Ranya? That's her name, right?"
"Will she continue as your assistant on the campaign?"
"Good. She seems to have her head screwed on straight."
Maybe I was just paranoid and nervous, but I swore there was an undercurrent of sarcasm in the statement. An unspoken at least someone around here does. Not that I could necessarily disagree. Ranya could keep it together like no one else.
Anthony picked up the pack of Camels and freed one cigarette. He set the pack down, and I couldn't help watching his hands as he lifted the cigarette to his lips and picked up his lighter. He had long, slim fingers, like a pianist's hands, and every motion was controlled and flawless. Calculated. He cupped one hand around the end of the cigarette and, with the other, flipped open the lighter. The clink made me jump. It wasn't like I'd never heard someone flick a Zippo before, but in Anthony's hands, the motion was somehow more pronounced, the sound sharper. I swore I could feel the heat off the flame even from here, but it was just the rush of warmth to my cheeks.
I gulped. Just what I needed. This guy was going to run my campaign, and he could make the act of lighting a cigarette intimidating. And fascinating. And distracting.
He set the lighter on the table with a quiet metallic sound and sat back, looking intently at me as he took a drag. For a long moment, he smoked while I tried not to let my nerves get the best of me. Even his smoking seemed calculated and choreographed, from the shadows it cast under his pronounced cheekbones to the way he elegantly lowered the cigarette as he released the stream of smoke. He tapped the ashes into the tray, then rested his wrist on the edge of the table.
"Your uncle wants me to get you elected." His tone was as even and collected as his movements, though a hint of gravel had been burned into the very edges of his otherwise smooth voice.
I cleared my throat. "Yeah, he told me you were the best campaign manager out there."
Anthony gave a quiet chuckle that could have been either arrogant or self-deprecating. I guessed the former, especially as he firmly held my gaze while he brought his smoldering cigarette back to his lips. "Why should I get you elected, Jesse?"
"I...I beg your pardon?"
The end of the cigarette glowed. When it darkened, he lowered it, and though he turned his head slightly to exhale the smoke, his eyes were locked on mine. "You heard me."
"I did. I'm just not sure what kind of answer you're looking for."
"Seems pretty straightforward to me," he said with a hint of a shrug, and I decided his earlier laugh had definitely been arrogant. "Why should I put my reputation on the line, raise my blood pressure, and devote all of my waking hours for the next few months to getting you elected?" He smothered his cigarette and picked up the lighter. Sitting back in his chair, he absently turned the Zippo between his fingers. "I have to convince the voters to elect you as their governor, which means you need to convince me to put in the effort." His eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly.
Jesus. I'd been a failure as an actor for a lot of reasons, but stage fright wasn't one of them. Sitting across from Anthony, I was about as articulate as a kid who'd found out a minute too late he wasn't ready to take center stage in the school play.
But I needed his help, and he was still looking at me like that, so I had to come up with an answer and figure out how the fuck to speak again.
"Why should you help me get elected? Well..." I took a drink, which moistened my dry mouth. Instead of looking at him, I watched myself set the glass down. "I'm sick and tired of the way--"
Clink. The lighter startled me again, and I barely kept myself from cursing aloud over the fact that I visibly jumped. Anyone else on the planet could play with a Zippo and not bother me, and here I was stuck with the one man who could make it as distracting as a goddamned marching band.
Pretending to be unruffled and not the least bit flustered, I sat back in my chair and looked at him. "I'm sick and tired of the way the state government is--"
His face betrayed no expression, his dark eyes boring into me without giving me a hint of what was going on his mind.
I took a breath. "This state's government is run by--"
I took another breath and gritted my teeth. "It's being run like--"
I eyed the lighter, then him. "You done?"
A hint of a smile pulled at his lips, and he set the lighter on the table. As he folded his hands across his lap, I couldn't help thinking I'd just passed some test I didn't know I was taking.
"Go on," he said, his tone gentler now than it had been before.
I hesitated, expecting him to...do something. Some other distraction. Some other way of fucking with my head. But he didn't move. He watched me intently, waiting for me to finish my thought.
I coughed into my fist. "Anyway, like I told Roger, I'm sick of watching the state government fuck around. We're spending money on bullshit programs, taxing people who can't afford it, and giving breaks to people who don't need it. We've got multimillion dollar corporations flourishing without seeing any increase in taxes while the schools are laying off teachers." I shook my head. "No way in hell this can continue."
Anthony nodded slightly. "Fair enough. But why not the legislature?" He shrugged with one shoulder. "Cut your teeth there. Make yourself known."
"If John Casey wasn't running, then that would be an option."
"Which begs the question," he said, raising an eyebrow, "why the hell should I believe you're a more viable candidate than Casey? Or for that matter, the other more experienced politicians you're trying to beat out for the candidacy."
I narrowed my eyes. "Are you suggesting you want Casey in office?"
"Quite the contrary. I want someone running against him who's a safe bet to keep his sorry ass out of office. Which is why I need to make sure it's worth the effort to run you and not one of those other idiots."
"Well, they all have proven track records of being idiots in political offices."
"And you have a proven track record of precisely nothing." He spun the lighter on the table with his middle finger. "I'm sure you're familiar with the saying, better the devil you know than the one you don't."
Why yes, Mr. Hunter. That phrase would be rather apropos at this moment.
"You know my uncle's views on things, right?" I asked.
"Consider that the Cliffs Notes of my beliefs," I said. "For the most part, mine line up with his."
"For the most part?" His eyebrow rose slowly again, and never had anyone been capable of unnerving me like this with such a subtle gesture. "Where don't your beliefs line up with his?"
I swallowed. "Gay rights, mostly. He quietly supported Prop 8. I vocally opposed it."
Some tension left Anthony's posture, but he didn't say anything.
Absently drawing lines with my thumb in the condensation on my drink, I said, "I'm also pushing for legislation to provide more rights and protection for victims of spousal abuse."
For the first time, surprise flickered across Anthony's face. His posture stiffened slightly, and he cocked his head like he didn't know what to make of my comment. "Go on."
I had his interest and attention, and I wasn't quite sure if I liked that. Leaning on one armrest, trying to look relaxed, I said, "There isn't nearly enough protection for the victims. I'd like to see more intervention by law enforcement, better resources and facilities, financial assistance for victims who can't otherwise leave abusive partners."
"So more protection for battered women, then," he said, more to himself than me.
"And men," he murmured with the slightest nod of acknowledgment. He was quiet for a long moment, rubbing his middle and index fingertips back and forth along his jaw. Finally he looked at me, and his chin dipped with a hint of a nod. "All right. I can work with that."
Something fluttered in my chest, as if his subtle approval suddenly negated his arrogant abrasiveness.
"One other question, though." He shifted in his chair. "Why exactly are you running on an independent ticket?"
I regarded him silently for a moment, narrowing my eyes as I searched his. "I'm assuming you're going to tell me that's a mistake and I should get on the Democratic ticket."
Anthony laughed. "You catch on quick, don't you?"
"Look." His expression shifted from amused to stern, almost annoyed, and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers over his glass. "You're an unknown, Jesse. You're a risk for the people of California. A huge risk. They see your name, they're going to associate you with your uncle, which is good. The people like your uncle. They see an I next to your name? They're going to get nervous, and nervous voters won't elect you."
"So you suggest I run as a Democrat, even if I don't think like a Democrat?"
"Do you think like a Republican?"
"Then you think like a Democrat." There was an edge to his voice, one that suggested he wasn't interested in debating the subject. "And therefore, you run as a Democrat."
I exhaled and shifted my gaze to the lazily rippling swimming pool beside us. So this was politics. Pretending to be one thing so everyone was damn certain I wasn't another. Games. Charades. Mirrors. Smoke. And here I thought I might have a shot at being an honest politician.
Anthony thumped his knuckle on the table, startling me and drawing my attention back to him. "Listen, you want to win this election? Do things my way. You need a party's endorsement to be taken seriously and get votes. Fuck doing shit just on principle, fuck antibipartisanship. Face it, kid. You're not getting elected without a campaign manager, and this campaign manager says put a D next to your name and let's quit fucking around."
I was already a happily married straight man. Why not be a Democrat while I was at it?
"All right," I said. "Democrat it is."
"Excellent," he said. "Now, with that out of the way, people are probably going to be divided when it comes to you. You'll be a breath of fresh air for people who are sick of the bullshit, but to others, you'll be another celebrity pretending to be a politician. The challenge is keeping the first group on the hook while convincing the rest that you're a competent candidate."
"Which is where you come in?"
"Yes." He smiled. "Lucky for you, I like a challenge."
"Yeah," I said, reaching for my glass and wishing I'd opted for something very, very alcoholic, "lucky me."