MEREDITH RUSHED INTO the apartment, darting toward the kitchen counter as she tried not to lose the balance of soup she had stacked up to her chin. She caught wind of Liam's stunned face from where he stood behind her, still holding the door open to let her in, and gave him a sheepish smile over her shoulder. It wasn't until the cups of soup were safely on the counter that she slowed down.
"Hey, Liam." She turned around, leaned against the counter as she met his eyes. "Thanks for letting me know Audrey and Ben were sick. I got here as fast as I could."
He raised his eyebrows, his face the picture of disbelief as he closed the door behind her, returning to his own apartment. "As fast as you could after picking up," --He leaned to her right where she stood, glancing at the critical mass of food behind her-- "four cups of soup?"
She grinned. "I had to come prepared."
He raised an eyebrow. "Obviously."
"So where are they? Can I come in and see them?" She ignored the sarcasm in his tone as she shrugged off her coat, walking back toward the door and hanging it on one of the hooks where she came in. He nodded toward their hallway, indicating with a smile for her to follow.
"Yeah, c'mon; they're in our room." He started down toward the bedroom as she kicked off her shoes, subsequently rushing after him. "Aud's still not doing so good, but she's definitely better off than Ben. Poor kid isn't himself right now."
"Aw, yeah?" Meredith frowned, her brow furrowed as he looked over his shoulder at her. "Shit, that sucks; I'm sorry. What are they down with?"
"I'm actually not sure, but we think it's the flu." Liam scratched the back of his neck, face wound up into what was almost a grimace as we reached his bedroom. "C'mon in." He pushed the door open, and Meredith walked tentatively into the empty doorway as he entered the room, wearing a wary smile as Audrey glanced over at her, eyebrows raised in surprise.
"Hey, Audrey," Meredith said softly. "How're you doing?"
She smiled, though fatigue was written from her weary brow to the heavy bags under her eyes. "Hey, honey." Her voice was almost softer than Meredith's. "Please, come in, I'm doing just fine."
She sat next to where Ben lay on the foot of the bed, watching Inside Out on what you recognized as Audrey's tablet as he scrunched his nose up, perpetually looking as though he was about to sneeze. "Hey, Ben," she added with an amused smile, and he rolled over, looking bored before his eyes lit up as he saw Meredith.
"Aunt Meredith!" He pushed himself off the bed with a toothy (and toothless) grin, coming over to give her a hug. She swept him gladly up onto her arms, shifting him onto her hip as he latched onto her shoulders.
"How's it goin', kiddo?"
He pursed his lips, shook his head dramatically. "Really bad. Me and Mama have the fluke."
She raised her eyebrows at this, turning with him to Audrey and suppressing a laugh. "Oh yeah? Is that right, Mama? You have the fluke?"
Audrey's small smile waa threatening to become a grin as Ben nodded earnestly. She couldn't help but be endeared at the pair. "Something like that," she agreed, and Ben turned again to Meredith looking very self-contented.
"See? We got fevers and coughs and everything," he pouted, and she matched his expression, looking sympathetic as she pulled him closer. He wrapped his little arms around her neck while her expression softened toward Audrey.
"I'm sorry you guys are feeling so bad." The words were directed both at Audrey and Ben, but their four-year-old's mind seemed long gone at that point, attention drawn back to the cartoon playing on the tablet over Meredith's shoulder.
It was then that Liam came over to Audrey, joining her on the side of the bed with an affectionate smile. "I know. It's the worst." He leaned in to wrap an arm around Audrey's shoulder, pulled her close as he softly kissed her forehead. "I'm really gonna miss you at the gala tonight, Auds." He gave a soft chuckle as their foreheads rested together, and her gaze softened. "It'll be the loneliest in a while. Who's gonna make fun of Bentley's new, ridiculous, gaudy suit with me?"
She hummed her agreement as she cuddled into his side, sniffing and stifling a yawn. "I'll miss you too." She let out a soft sigh as he wrapped an arm around her, and Meredith couldn't help but smile at the domesticity of the scene, bouncing Ben on her hip. For a moment there was only tender quiet, and none of them seemed to come to until Audrey quietly mumbled, "You should bring Meredith instead."
He raised an eyebrow, redirecting his gaze from Audrey's tired form to our rather surprised heroine. "That's actually not a bad idea. You wanna come?"
Her eyes widened as she realized that yes, the invitation was unmistakably directed at her. "To what, exactly?"
A soft chuckle escaped him at how suspicious she looked, brow furrowed tentatively, and he carded a hand through his hair. "Right, I forgot we hadn't told you about that."
"Rajavi's having a gala," Audrey piped up, sleep thick in her voice, "It's to celebrate the start of his last year before the next election."
"And why invite me?"
Liam sighed. "I love Arman, but God is it impossible to throw a good party when you're the president." He pursed his lips, rolling his eyes at the memory. "It's always just dry diplomats and politicians. I wouldn't last the night alone."
Meredith hesitated, lips pressed into a thin line as she considered him; Audrey was quickly falling asleep on his shoulder, and he just stared up at Meredith expectantly, his expression holding no trace of a joke. "Tonight?"
"Tonight," he confirmed, nodding. "It's black tie, but if you don't have anything to wear, you can just wear the dress Audrey was planning on."
"I have a dress," she said, many details of the night still giving her pause. She shifted Ben on her hip. "Would I even be welcome? Like, bringing your wife to a government event is one thing, but--"
"You'd be more than welcome," he assured her with a laugh, his easy smile doing just a bit to ease her nerves, "Don't worry about it. They'll all love you, it'll be a fine time, you'll be fine." Her worries were apparently written across her face, if how he was responding was anything to go by, and he waited a beat before asking, "Are you in?"
She took a deep breath. "What time should I be ready?"
"I can be by to pick you up at seven."
"More like your driver will be by to pick me up," Meredith snickered.
"Listen I have to have a security detail, I'm a cabinet official, and I--"
"How many people have tried to assassinate the Secretary of the Treasury, literally ever?"
"It's an important job--"
"I'll be ready at seven." She raised her eyebrows, amused and waiting for him to challenge her. He rolled his eyes.
"See you then."
"WHAT COLOR IS your dress?" Liam demanded over the phone, voice coming out in a rush of static as Meredith had him on speaker, still putting the finishing touches on her makeup.
Getting ready on the fly had proved to be more of a challenge than she expected, having rushed home from Liam and Audrey's, had to quickly deal with the newest scoop on Ella's love life -- He's wealthy and sweet but is he right for her? -- and still made time to shower and do her hair and makeup. (The sound of her hair sizzling under a flat iron before it was entirely dry had made her cringe; it was an occupational hazard she wasn't entirely willing to deal with, ultimately deciding to let it air dry.)
She pursed her lips as she looked in the mirror.
"Green," she answered simply. "Why?"
"I'm trying to find a tie that matches," he said, exasperation just distinguishable from her side of the line. "What green? Kelley green? Emerald?"
She shrugged before remembering he couldn't see her and considered it for a moment. "More like a forest green."
A small noise of frustration came through in a crackled huff, and she could hear his hangers squeaking against the rod in his closet. "Alright. That'll work."
She laughed lightly at his reply as she slid on her favorite pair of gold earrings. "It better work, 'cause that's what you're working with. Will you still be here at seven?"
HE PULLED UP in front of her apartment complex at seven o'six, a number she would continue to dote on for the rest of the night, in a rather official, tinted-window, black government van.
It was seven o'seven when she saw the text letting her know he was outside, and it wasn't until seven thirteen that she finished hobbling down the stairs in her favorite pair of heels, having clung to the railing going a mile per hour the entire way down. (The elevator was broken, what would you expect her to do, walk barefoot? In the disgusting stairwell? She would have winced at the idea.)
She smoothed out the front of her floor-length dress as she took a deep breath, suddenly feeling very self-conscious as she walked out the door of her building's lobby. Was her neckline too low? Should she have covered up more? Did she look too slutty to be at a state dinner? The Italian diplomats surely didn't show this much skin.
She tugged at the straps on her shoulders as she approached the car Liam was in, silently willing it to hide her from any judgment or insecurity about being at such an event. (It was quite an ask of just a fancy dress, though she supposed some of the responsibility also went to the gold necklace that fell just above her hemline and the heels that made her legs look as shapely as ever.)
Liam rolled down the window with a grin, not even bothering to get out of the car to greet her. "Hey. You look nice."
She'd known him for years and was more than used to his antics by then, but still, she rolled her eyes. "What a gentleman." As she let herself into the backseat of the car, sliding into the leather seat beside Liam as the door fell shut with a click, she gave him a second glance. "You don't look so bad either. Would never have guessed you spent your morning in a petri dish of disease."
He only chuckled. "Are you making fun of me for taking care of my family?" Her smile widened.
"Only a little."
The pair bickered good-naturedly for most of the ride there, the teasing gaining fervor when Meredith learned he had only started getting ready ten minutes before coming to pick her up. Realistically, that much had been clear since he called her about his tie five minutes before he left, but that didn't dissuade her from taking advantage of the information.
Her nerves had thus far tamed themselves, but when they pulled up to the steps of the White House and were ushered through with smiles and recognition, she could feel her heart begin to jump into her throat. What had she been thinking, accepting his invitation? She didn't belong here; her job was to critique the government, not working in it.
"Cool it, Meredith." Liam gave her a look between worried and skeptical, brows furrowed and eyes wide. She wondered briefly if her emotions were painted that blatantly across her face. "There's no issue with you being here; you're my guest."
She rolled her eyes. "Whatever, I'm fine. It's no biggie, just a dinner, right?"
Now his expression was skeptical. "Yeah? You're fine?"
"Every muscle in your body is tensed right now."
"It's the strain of walking in these heels. You wouldn't understand." She earned herself a dramatic scoff at that one, and couldn't conceal her resulting grin as he led her through the different rooms of the building to where the dinner was apparently being held.
"Right," he said, tone dry. He glanced over at her as he walked, the stress hadn't faded from her expression, and his gaze softened, if only momentarily. "Hey, you know this is gonna be fine, right?"
The unimpressed look she gave was all the answer he needed, reaching out to give her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "I promise. Everyone brings the most random plus-ones to these, for whatever reason. Last year someone brought their son's kindergarten teacher, so now no one gives any unexpected guests a second glance."
"Alright," she sighed, leaning on the railing in her impractical footwear as they began up a flight of stairs. "I just... I'm worried that my being with the press will make it a different story."
He chuckled. "So long as you stop short of whipping out a notebook and full-on interviewing Bentley in the middle of the ballroom, don't sweat it."
"You just want me to give up an exclusive? Just like that?" The look she shot him was playfully offended, and his grin grew. "I don't feel like you support my career, Liam."
He rolled his eyes, an amused smile still playing at his lips. "Unfortunately, I'll put your success just below my still having a job in the government."
"You're no fun."
The state dining room was more the size of a ballroom, as Meredith realized when she entered on Liam's arm. Secretaries and politicians, diplomats and economists swarmed the room, all discussing matters she could hardly begin to skim the surface of; everyone there was certainly more important than she -- at least, that was all she could hear running through her mind as she saw the fancy dresses and sharp suits of the other attendees. She suddenly felt very small.
She took a shaky breath, hoping Liam wouldn't notice her swelling nerves. "Alright, where to?"
"There are a few people I've been wanting you to meet." The sentence was presented innocently enough, but there also lay a glint in his eye that Meredith couldn't quite place the intention behind.
"Oh yeah?" Liam ignored the skepticism in her tone, as well as the question altogether as his eyes scanned the fluid crowd before him. Meredith huffed. "Like who, exactly?"
He glanced back at her with a grin as he started toward the wall to their right, beckoning for her to follow. "Just old friends. I have a feeling you'll like them."
She raised an eyebrow but followed him nonetheless, far from sure about what to expect from this. She had to dodge to avoid running head-on into people who looked like they could sue her for all she was worth as he zigzagged through the crowd, and trying to keep up with Liam was quickly giving Meredith a headache. He glanced back just as she slipped by the Secretary of Education, casting her a wary glance as she hurried to join her friend.
"Christ, Liam." She paused after reaching him to adjust her heels, leaning on him for support as she scowled at the red lines that dug into her skin. "Slow down, will you? Where are we going, anyway?"
"Have you met Alex?" He continued trying to pull her along, even as she hopped and hobbled, trying to put her shoe back onto her foot. She shrugged.
"That's the one." His words came distracted over his shoulder as his gaze continued to dart around the quadrant of the room he'd finally reached. His eyes fixed on the man in question, he smiled. "Have I introduced you?"
"Yeah, once or twice," she said, finally finding exactly who it was they were looking for. "Only in passing, though. Don't think I've ever actually had a conversation with the guy."
He ushered her over in a hurry, and she stumbled behind him, preoccupied with ensuring the neckline of her dress didn't dip too far down in her haste.
"Alex!" Liam called to him once they were just within earshot. The man in question turned with a raised brow, before breaking into a grin upon seeing his friend. They finally reached where he was standing, and Liam immediately released Meredith in favor of pulling Alex into a bear hug.
"It's been a minute," he said as he pulled away, his smile soft. "How've you been? How's Zane?"
"He's great. We're great, really." Alex's tone was earnest as he looked back down at Liam. "What about Audrey? Ben?"
"They're well. You'd be surprised how much Ben is growing up to look like you," he chuckled. "If I didn't know better, I'd have thought you were the father."
"If you didn't know better," Alex repeated, amused smile tugging at his lips. A pregnant pause followed his words before he cleared his throat, taking a brief glance at Meredith standing stiffly beside them, and took a small step back to address her. "It's Meredith, right? We've definitely met before."
He shook her hand spiritedly, giving her a lopsided grin that couldn't help but elicit one of her own. "Yeah, for sure. It's good to see you."
"You as well." The warmth in his voice and his gaze seemed to be genuine as he glanced between Meredith and Liam. "Remind me how you two know each other?"
"She's Angie's college friend, and now her roommate." He bumped elbows with Meredith, and she raised an amused eyebrow. "We've been pretty good friends for years now."
"Well, I'm glad you could make it, Meredith. I was disappointed to hear Audrey was feeling too bad, but you're an alright substitute when push comes to shove." He shot her a playful wink with his words, and she couldn't help but laugh.
"The stand-in could never be as good as the original, I'm afraid." She grinned. "Anyway, if I were Audrey, I'd also have to be attracted to this one." Meredith shot Liam a disdainful glance, and while he rolled his eyes, Alex's smile only grew.
"Alright, you two, I need a drink before I can deal with any more of this tonight." He sounded exasperated, but his smiling eyes told a different story. He turned to Meredith. "Can you find us somewhere to sit?"
She briefly turned back to his friend. "Any open seats at your table, Alex?"
"Then I've got it covered, Liam." She grinned, and he just rolled his eyes.
"Fine." He shook his head, playing up the dramatics of it all as a small smile still tugged at his lips. "You want anything while I'm gone?"
"Whatever you're having is good." She shrugged. "Open bar?"
He gave her a mischievous smile as he began his route toward the side of the room. "Nah, you're treating."
"What do you mean, I'm treating?" she called after him, indignant, but he'd already moved on, well within earshot but no longer listening. She scowled, turning to Alex. "How have you put up with him for even longer than I have?"
"Plenty of liquor," he answered, amusement dancing through his expression. "Got any healthier secrets for me, though?"
She scoffed. "If I knew, I'd tell you." Her gaze flickered around the room, concurring with her lighthearted answer as she tried to find the open table Alex had mentioned. "Where are we sitting?"
"Follow me." His grin was wide as he beckoned her toward the round table he'd sat down at earlier. A few of the seats were populated, but the table wasn't nearly half full yet.
"So, how do you know President Rajavi?" Meredith asked. She knew this dinner was for close associates and important relations of his (and, well, their wives' sisters' roommates, in her case), and had never been sure from their few encounters quite what Alex did.
"I was a soldier under him in the war," he answered, scratching the back of his neck. She didn't have to ask what war he was referring to. The conflict with China that had stretched to France and other allied world powers had shaken the international community to its core, the American people in particular. It was the worst national confrontation since the Cold War -- Vietnam, Korea, or Afghanistan be damned.
She had only just been old enough to follow the war when it broke out, reading the news on her doorstep before her parents could stop her, smuggling it to her eighth-grade classroom to be informed in peace (or really, in war). The memory of its gruesomeness still looming, Meredith nodded, brows knit.
The silence from her seemed to make him uneasy, and the grin once again returned to his face. "Don't worry about it, though. I didn't see too much of the combat. For most of the years, I was only a camp aide."
"'Camp aide'," a voice to their left scoffed. Both their heads turned, and Alex's eyebrows immediately shot up. "More like "war hero," do not let 'im lie to you."
"What ever happened to humility, Raf?" Alex shot back, and Meredith's eyes widened, caught between the obvious familiarity of the two men.
"I 'ave never been humble, and look where it 'as gotten me." The man speaking seemed as animated as Alex, with skin a deep brown and curls that bounced as he laughed, tied back into an untidy bun.
"What, across the ocean from the country you're supposed royalty in?"
"Royalty," he snorted. "Please. Try, 'disgraced and banished.'"
Alex only smiled. pulling him into a hug as he stood up from the table to greet him. "Right, and that's how you got the job as ambassador to the states?"
The other man flashed him a white-toothed grin as they broke apart. "Something like that." As Alex pulled away, allowing him to return to his seat, he raised an eyebrow at Meredith, glancing back to Alex expectantly. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your belle amie?"
Meredith didn't speak a whole lot of Portuguese, but she was fairly sure the first word he'd used meant pretty -- or was it French? Maybe Italian?
Alex gave him a look she couldn't read before saying, "She's Haber's friend Meredith. His sister-in-law's roommate."
He smiled behind the rim of the glass he'd returned to, turning to Meredith. "Très heureux, Meredith. My name is Raphael Arquette, friends call me Raf." He paused, drinking in her mildly amused expression, and set down his glass, saying, "Take your pick."
"It's a pleasure, Raphael." She shook his hand as her eyes scanned the table at which he sat; Alex had taken a seat next to Raphael while he and she were getting acquainted, and the far half of the chairs seemed largely abandoned. Alex beckoned her over to the empty seat by him as she withdrew from his friend.
She pulled out the seat next to him (making a mental note to keep a chair open for Liam, whenever he returned), and turned back to Raphael, smoothing out her dress beneath her. "So what is it you do?"
The question was clearly addressed to him; he'd caught her eye almost the moment she sat down. "I am ze French ambassador to ze United States. I work out of ze Quai d'Orsay?"
Based on how he was looking at her, she supposed what he said was supposed to mean something to her. Unfortunately, his words hadn't fallen on deaf ears, but on stupid ones. His smile was almost sympathetic. "The French state department."
"Ah!" Finally, in English. "That sounds incredible. What do you do as an ambassador?"
"Mostly attend parties and meet beautiful women." His quick response caught her off guard, and while he remained the picture of nonchalance, she felt heat rushing to the back of her neck. Her eyebrows shot up.
"Sounds... like a good job." She couldn't help but swallow harshly. The implication behind his words made her heartbeat pick up, but despite it, her timid smile grew.
"It certainly is." His gaze had zeroed in on her by then, yet she couldn't decide whether it was a good thing as his eyes narrowed, as though scrutinizing her expression in its entirety alongside his playful grin. In the left of her peripheral vision, Alex raised an eyebrow. "In fact--"
"Would you mind if we joined you?" It was much to his chagrin that Raphael was cut off before he could take it further; however, it was much to Meredith's relief. Her heart had already jumped nearly to her throat. She turned to face the voice to the right of her.
"Was there nowhere else to sit?" Alex addressed Mr. MacDuff and his wife before Meredith could, a cold undertone in his words. His response raised a few eyebrows, though it was annoyance from James where surprise from Meredith. His wife eyed Alex with alarm.
"We'd hoped to be seated among friends--" His eye contact with Raphael at that was pointed, and the man’s expression spelled out an unspoken apology. "But if we're not wanted--"
"Please, stay." Meredith sent Alex a questioning look as she cut James off. Her expression turned immediately kind as she met his eyes, seeing how startled his wife appeared. "I could use a few more people who don't resent me just for who I'm here with."
"Thank you, Meredith." Though he did address her, his words seemed more so directed toward Alex. He paused as he reached for the chair next to her. "I assume this is where your company is seated?"
"Yeah, Liam is just off getting drinks." Surprise painted his features as he pulled out a seat for his wife, exchanging a gentle glance before giving Meredith a questioning look.
"You're here with Secretary Haber?"
"Yeah, he's an old friend." She couldn't quite read his expression but knew at least that she felt out of place with how he was looking at her. She shifted in her seat. "Will that... be a problem?"
The hesitation in her words didn't go unnoticed, and he responded with a warm smile, calming her momentary qualms. "No, of course not. Haber and I are on perfectly good terms. I was just wondering how you knew him."
"Through his sister-in-law, actually." The words left her with a chuckle, her chance connection even more awkward to have to explain. "She's been my roommate for a long time, and I've gotten to know Liam and Audrey through her."
Upon noticing his head still cocked to one side, she added, "His wife is sick, so he invited me as a plus-one just for the hell of it."
James laughed at that, taking a sip of his wine. "I'm glad he brought you, of all people."
"So am I, to be honest."
He was shaking his head as he set down his glass, smoothing out invisible creases in his jacket as he glanced back to his right. "Hey, Iris, I don't suppose you've met Meredith?"
"Not in this lifetime, anyway." Her eyes were soft as she leaned across the table to shake Meredith's hand. "I'm Iris, James's wife. I'd hug you properly if we were standing, but just know that it's implied."
A laugh tumbled from Meredith's lips, her grin lingering as she ultimately withdrew her hand. "Hug noted and accepted. It's great to meet you, Iris."
"Meredith is a writer for the Washington Post. She's covering Thomas's campaign trail." Iris's eyes widened at his words.
"Meredith Garcia?" She nodded, and Iris's features relaxed as recognition set in. "Ah, I thought I recognized you from somewhere. I've read a lot of your stuff pre-campaign; you're a great writer."
Meredith beamed back at her. She'd decided almost immediately that she liked Iris, but that certainly confirmed it. "Thank you so much; that's so sweet of you."
"I do feel sorry for you, though." She shook her head with a huff as she took a long sip of her wine. Meredith's brow knit with concern. "Stuck reporting about Thomas for the next, what, year? Let me know if you need me to cover your therapy costs afterward, dear."
"Careful what you promise, I may just take you up on it," Meredith retorted, and Iris laughed.
"You were right, James, she is funny." Her husband turned to look at her wide smile with a soft one of his own, subtle adoration resting in his eyes as she hung onto his arm. They were an unlikely pair, Meredith thought as she watched them, their personalities worlds apart, but they seemed to work so well. She couldn't help but wonder how they'd ended up together.
She didn't ruminate long, though, as James lifted an arm to wave across the room, motioning with a smile for someone she couldn't see to join them.
She turned back to Raphael and Liam where they'd been discussing the country's terms of alliance with France. She couldn't have cared less about it, quite frankly, but the MacDuffs' attention was clearly elsewhere, and she wasn't inclined to isolate herself and stare at the table.
Her facade of interest didn't last; the person in question finally reached their table and it would have been impossible for Meredith not to recognize him. Her head whirled around, pulse quickening even as she heard him greeting James. Just her luck. He dipped down to kiss Iris on the cheek, acting sickeningly familiar with the couple, after pulling James into a hug. His interactions with them were uncharacteristically genuine, in her opinion, and he pulled out the chair next to Iris to join them at their table, still chatting animatedly with the pair.
It wasn't until Bentley caught Meredith's eye that she realized she'd been staring, and caught staring, too. His movements slowed momentarily, surprised gaze meeting her alarmed one almost directly across the table, and he raised an eyebrow, expression easing into one of amusement, as if to say, look what we have here.
She blinked, eyes wide.
"Thomas!" Iris's excited exclamation took them both by surprise, and they quickly broke the gaze they'd held just a moment too long. Heat threatened to fill Meredith's cheeks despite her fighting it down; she fixed her eyes to the red tablecloth before her. Of all people who could've shown up to her table, it had to be him. "Have you met Meredith?"
Her heart nearly jumped into her throat as Iris broke her train of thought, having been expecting (or really, hoping) not to be dragged into the conversation. Her gaze snapped upwards.
Iris seemed oblivious to her reaction, though, reaching across the table to squeeze Meredith's forearm with a wide smile. She could only manage a weak one in return. There was a skip as Bentley met her eyes, his brow raised, and she was painfully aware of every little movement she made.
Finally, Meredith answered for him, turning to Iris, "Yeah, we've run into each other once or twice." She winced inwardly at how breathless she sounded.
"Twice." She was surprised to hear Thomas chime back in, hoping to just let the subject drop, and he was just on the wrong side of self-contented as her wide eyes found his.
"Oh, really?" Meredith could see Iris glancing between them out of the corner of her eye, and she swallowed, throat tight. "When did you meet?"
"Just a few campaign events, nothin' too exciting." Though his words were directed at Iris, his gaze was still fixed on Meredith, and while she swallowed thickly, James laughed.
"'Nothing too exciting.' Care to tell us the story of how you almost ran her over, Thomas?"
"You what?" Iris's reaction was immediate and incredibly expressive. Her eyes widened as she looked at the man in question. "Now you're on the hook, Bentley. What's the story?"
His smile mellowed out as Meredith was either too afraid or too stubborn to be the one to break his gaze -- or somewhere between the two -- despite that her heart was pounding all the way down to her toes with how he looked at her. "Just a bit of a logistical mix-up." He grinned as he turned to Iris, breaking the prolonged eye contact. "I happened to be tryin' to drive in the same place that she was tryin' to walk."
"And he almost hit you, Meredith? Where was this?" Iris seemed to be enjoying the revelation, laughing, and Meredith had to conclude she was planning on giving Thomas hell for this. She sighed.
"Oh, just off in one of the alleyways between buildings downtown where cars aren't supposed to go." She shrugged, taking a sip of her drink. She'd begun to enjoy this now that it had been turned on him. "Y'know, over where he regularly violates traffic laws."
"Oh really?" James raised an acute eyebrow at Bentley. "I seem to have missed this part of the story, funnily enough."
"Must have been conveniently omitted. I’m sure it was only an oversight." Meredith wore a look of falsified innocence as she looked over at him, and he sighed.
“Apparently so." He moved his annoyed gaze from Bentley to Meredith, glare easing as he looked over at her. "You really should've pressed charges, y'know."
She grinned, hardly stifling a laugh at his words, and raised her glass in agreement. "Don't tempt me; I still might."
He laughed, taking a sip of his own wine as he considered her, eyes shining. Iris chose that moment to pipe back in, smile inquisitive as she laid a hand on James's forearm. "So, how did your close call with manslaughter turn into you two meeting? Did you not just, I dunno, keep driving?"
Bentley grinned at that, turning his full attention back to Meredith. "You wanna answer that one, Meredith?"
"Hard pass." Her teeth were gritted as she met his eyes, and he chuckled.
"That was when she blackmailed me into givin' her an interview for her article," he explained, tone matter-of-fact, but mischief danced in his smile. She pursed her lips.
"I mean, otherwise the article would've been about how the Secretary of State has no respect for the law." She had to keep her expression in check with how amused he looked. Anger at this point would do her no good. "Almost hitting an innocent pedestrian wouldn't do much for your campaign; you should consider yourself lucky."
"Oh, I do." Bentley no longer seemed to be talking about the article, though, his smile bordering on predatory as his eyes bore into hers. Her glare set in with how he was looking at her. He continued, expression easing into nonchalant amusement, "You're doing wonders for my Twitter following."
"I'm glad to hear you're popular online." She plastered on a sarcastic smile, and frustration radiated off of her in waves. The tension between the two was palpable. "But don't expect to gain anything more from me, Secretary Bentley. The Washington Post sends you all their best."
A beat passed as he held her gaze, his smile becoming smug as his eyes narrowed. "Now, what happened to 'Thomas'?"
Her jaw ticked, despite the thrill that ran down her spine with the edge to his words, as his stare seemed to be burning into her own. How much humor he seemed to find in the situation had her fuming; she had to attribute it to anger when her breath caught at the words.
She held her tongue for a moment, only stared at him, brows raised in livid disbelief, and just when she didn't think she could stop herself from lunging across the table to yank Bentley by his obviously expensive necktie--
Liam cleared his throat behind Meredith, making her almost jump in her seat. Her heart beat a tattoo against her chest, and Liam looked suspicious as he took the seat to her right.
Now it was him holding Bentley's gaze, the tension between the two men even stronger yet, with their scowls perfectly mirrored and with both their jaws clenched.
"Picked you up a gin, dry." He didn't turn to face Meredith, despite that it was her he was addressing. He appeared too busy staring daggers into Bentley's expectant expression, all but ready to risk his job if it meant taking a good, hard swing at him.
"Thank you, Liam." It irked her that Bentley looked so smug, especially so needlessly, but it clearly annoyed Liam more than only a bit more, and she knew she needed to diffuse whatever sexually charged staring contest was taking place before her. She took the glass from Liam, resting a hand on his forearm until he turned to look at her. "How much do I owe you?"
Though she didn't see it, Bentley raised his eyebrows at him across the table, disdain looming in his surprise. Liam sent him a glare, saying, "Don't worry, I'll cover it."
"You sure?" Her brows shot toward her hairline; he still seemed preoccupied, but any generosity from him was new to her. "Thought you said I was paying for drinks tonight."
Liam certainly didn't care for the judgment in Bentley's eyes. He met it with a scowl, sending a shameless glare across the table before he pulled off a smile, turning back toward her. "Seriously, no worries. You're my guest."
There was suspicion deep-set in the words she had to force down, glancing between him and Bentley; instead, she opted for saying, "Thank you."
There was a tense pause as she brought the glass to her lips, desperately wanting not to be the one who broke it.
"So, Thomas, how's your campaign going?" Iris's endearing voice again chimed in, and Meredith was torn between being grateful for her breaking up the unspoken standoff between him and Liam, and groaning inwardly as Bentley began to speak again. And it didn't seem like he planned to stop for a while.
Sighing, she threw back a heavy sip of her gin. It could be a long night.