I hate this part.
The fake smiles and obligatory laughs and handshakes supposedly promising something. How many of these people actually believe in my father? Believe in what he says he stands for? How many of them are just here for potential future favors?
But this is why I’m here, I remind myself. This is why I came home. These are the people I need. Or at least some of these people will be the people I need. Some of them, hidden in this mob, are sincere people who are actually open to making a difference. People open to using their money in ways that will help others and not just make more money for themselves.
Somewhere at this party are the people I need. I just have to find them.
So I smile at everyone. I suffer the jokes of my ‘return to the fold’. I remind everyone that my father has another son. One who left years ago and is now back. His first son.
In the few hours I’ve been back, it’s obvious that my brother Ethan has become our father the Senator’s, right hand. Even if my little sister’s messages over the years hadn’t hinted at this dynamic, it would be impossible to miss. They speak quietly on the edges and then move through the guests, communicating wordlessly across the lawn. It’s well choreographed, subtle. But I remember the drill. I remember when he thought I would be the one following in his footsteps. In some ways those lessons help me now.
I grab a beer from one of the coolers strategically placed around our property and migrate to the fringe of the crowd. Our family’s July Fourth barbecue has grown in size and scale the years I’ve been abroad. Some of the faces I remember. Old friends and supporters of my family, my father. Others are new, joining his circle as his influence has grown. My siblings and cousins are also all here, the only people I am truly happy to see again. But we also know today isn’t for the family to reconnect. We’ll do that after the donors have all gone home.
Our neighbors, the Nichols’, approach and welcome me home, asking questions about my travels and my future plans giving me the perfect opportunity to tell them about my idea. Joan seems particularly intrigued, even suggesting some of her friends to speak with. We set up a time to meet later this week.
Yes. This is why I’m here. I’m riding high on this first success and not paying attention to the bodies milling around me. Entering our appointment into my cell calendar I walk right into a petite brunette, crushing her foot under my much larger one and causing her to drop her drink.
“Oh, shit. My bad. I’m so sorry,” I rush to apologize.
I shove my phone into my back pocket and look up to assess the damage.
Oh, shit. Words leave my head as I stare at her, stunned. She’s hopping on one foot, eyes closed in a slight grimace. One hand is resting over her heart, the other slightly outstretched as if protecting her personal space as she catches her breath.
She’s not ridiculously gorgeous or stunning but I find I still can’t form a full sentence. This woman, whoever she is, has wavy chestnut hair hanging just below her shoulders, a smattering of freckles across her lightly tanned skin, and when she finally blinks up at me, brilliant whiskey colored eyes. She’s beautifully ordinary. Or ordinarily beautiful. Whatever it is, I find I don’t want to look away.
“I’m sorry. Are you okay?” My hands hover near her without touching as I try to figure out how to help her.
She winces slightly as she sets her injured foot down and tests her weight. “Yeah, I think so. It’ll shake off.”
“Do you need some ice or anything? Here let me help you find a place to sit.” I straighten to my full height, trying to spot an empty chair.
“No really. I’m fine.”
I glance down and study her tiny sandaled foot. It’s a little pink where I stepped on it but doesn’t seem swollen or anything. And she seems to be standing fine now. Exhaling in relief, I shove a hand through my hair and grimace.
“Sorry. I promise to pay more attention from now on.”
She laughs lightly, but still seems shaken. “As long as you promise, then you’re forgiven.”
“At least let me grab you another drink.” I bend down to pick up the plastic cup she had dropped when I collided with her.
“What were you drinking?”
“Really, it’s fine-”
Her eyes study my face and it looks like she’s about to argue but something changes her mind. Instead she smiles softly and shrugs before saying, “Some of the Chardonnay.”
“Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
The party planner and catering staff are doing a great job, because despite the crowd there aren’t any lines or waiting at any of the bars or food stations so I’m back, drink in hand in only a few minutes.
“Here you go.”
“Thank you.” Her tone suggests she’s humoring me.
“I’m Zane, by the way,” I introduce myself, extending my hand to shake. Her hand is soft as it fits into mine.
“Zane… Abbott?” she asks, eyes assessing me.
I stiffen, for the first time noticing the camera bag slung over her shoulder. Shit. Is she a reporter? Or worse, a member of my fathers’ PR team? I nod reluctantly, releasing her hand, already making an excuse to leave.
Erik’s brother. Not the Senator’s son.
Relieved, I relax again. “You know Erik?”
She smiles, her face lighting up and I realize suddenly I was wrong. She is stunning. Once again, I can’t take my eyes off her.
“We went to college together in California. I moved to Chicago a few months ago so he insisted I come to the annual family barbecue.”
“I’m sorry he did that to you.”
Her head tilts to the side, a confused frown on her face. “Did what?”
“Insisted you come here.”
Chuckling she admits, “I wasn’t really expecting,” she gestures to the extravagance around us, “all this.”
“Is that why you’re hanging out on the edges?” I find I want to tease her, want to keep her smiling.
“Guilty. What’s your excuse?”
“That’s where the interesting people lurk.”
Her response is cut off when my brother Erik appears at her side. She visibly relaxes and it’s only then I realize she had been guarded when it was just the two of us. She’d seemed so friendly and at ease but the contrast is real.
“Hey! Zane!” Erik pulls me into a quick hug, slapping me on the back. He hadn’t arrived until after the festivities had begun, so this is the first I’ve seen him since I’ve gotten home. “You met Kyle! Great.”
Kyle. Even her name is unique. In an ordinary way.
Erik is a professor at Northwestern University and he starts entertaining us with stories of clueless undergrads. I watch Kyle as she watches him, eyes sparkling, an easy smile on her face.
Figures the first woman I’ve been remotely interested in for ages would be dating my brother.
See this first meeting from Kyle’s perspective.
And learn more about Zane’s return home here.