Erin clenched her hands together and willed her stomach not to grumble. She had no idea why her boss, Congressman Tom Whitmeyer, had dragged her out to this apartment just off DuPont Circle. Instead of allowing her to take her lunch break, he’d insisted she accompany him here and now they stood waiting for the concierge to open the door.
The congressman had been particularly coy on their way over, refusing to tell her where they were going or why. Erin had just wanted to eat the ham and cheese sandwich with pickles that she’d brought with her and then get back to work. She had a stack of correspondence to get through that afternoon.
Keys jangling in empty hallway, the concierge in front of them flipped through the giant ring trying to find the right one. “No, not that one,” he mumbled to himself. “No… ah! Found it!” he said triumphantly to the congressman.
“Excellent!” Congressman Whitmeyer said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. He was like a child waiting for a special treat, he was so excited.
The concierge fit the key into the lock, flipped his huge ring of keys around twice and was rewarded with the satisfying click of the door opening. He stood back to allow the congressman to walk past him into the apartment and then nodded for Erin to follow.
She gave him a smile of thanks for his trouble, but before she could even pass through the door he called out, “Sir, if you’ll just stop by the front desk on your way out…”
“Oh, not necessary,” the congressman called back, his voice echoing, sounding hollow as if he were speaking through a tunnel, “we’ll be going directly to the real estate office from here.”
“Oh. Very good, then, sir. Thank you,” the concierge said. He gave Erin a nod and then left them alone, retreating back down the hall toward the elevators.
Erin walked through the door, but her head immediately began to reel as she stepped into the apartment. Somehow her hand found the railing just inside the front door. She clung on to it as her vision was filled with nothing but endless pale blue and a few light clouds so close she felt as if she could reach out and touch them.
The sky called to her, pulling at her, whispering in her ear: come.
She pulled herself back on trembling legs and readjusted her eyes. It was a window—or well, she supposed, a number of windows—but the framings around each one was so thin you could see beyond without noticing. The whole wall facing her—rising ten, maybe fifteen feet high—was just windows. Erin swallowed, now thankful that she hadn’t eaten after all. A cold sweat had sprouted on her forehead and upper lip.
Still, her body swayed forward. It would be so easy, so easy to just take that step—and then she’d be gone. Tumbling down, falling eighteen stories to the pavement below.
“Come in, come on in! Isn’t it fabulous? Have you ever seen such a view?” The booming voice of the congressman, ricocheted throughout the empty apartment, cutting into Erin’s consciousness and bringing her back into the present… into this bright apartment with its terrifying windows.
With effort, she pulled her eyes away from the sky and locked them on Whitmeyer as he moved further away from the short flight of stairs Erin was standing at the top of—unable to move. He cut across a huge expanse of beautiful pale wood floors toward those windows… her body swayed toward the sky once more, her stomach turning in a somersault.
She couldn’t move. If she did, she would fall. She knew she would.
No! This is ridiculous. It’s an apartment. It’s just an apartment with a huge window, that’s all. Get over it! Mentally, she shook herself.
The congressman stood in the center of the room bathed in sunlight like a messiah. A campaign-brilliant smile lit up his whole face. “Don’t you love it?” He leaned forward and added in a stage whisper, “It’s all yours!” He then pulled back and added in his normal voice, “Well, almost.” He laughed at his own joke, but Erin was confused and still feeling nauseated.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand.” She kept her eyes on her boss, trying her hardest not to succumb to the pull of those windows.
“It’s yours, Erin. You are going to rent this apartment—for a fraction of the actual cost, I might add,” he said, giving his eyebrows a wiggle. Laughing, he added, “You could never afford the rent on your own, unless your parents helped you out—but they’ve never offered to do that, have they? Ha! Not with seven kids.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Well, I am.”
His smile could have swallowed her whole, but the anxiety the rolling off of the man made Erin’s stomach give another twist inside her abdomen. She swallowed hard, pushing aside the senator’s feelings. She had enough to deal with on her own.
“I’m sorry, I still don’t understand. Would you mind explaining this a little further?”
Congressman Whitmeyer sighed, his shoulders dropping. He plodded back over to the stairs. Propping one foot on the bottom step, he said, “You are going to rent this apartment. I’ll pay half since you really can’t afford it, but the lease will be in your name.”
Erin hated being spoken to like a child, but she had to ask, “Why?”
The congressman pushed off from the bottom step strolling away, forcing Erin to follow him with her eyes. The room swam before her, the sky beckoned.
“I, er, need a place, Erin. And this is it. You live here, but every so often I’ll call and tell you that I’m coming. And then you skedaddle for a little bit—for the night.”
For the night? Oh my God, the Congressman was having an affair! And he wanted her to live here, in his pied-a-terre, until he needed it? Oh, my God, oh, my God! She couldn’t do that! That was…
She had met the Congressman’s wife, for goodness sake! They’d been over to her parent’s house for a barbecue last summer. Mrs. Whitmeyer had a great sense of humor and was even kind to her father’s many pets. Why in the world was the congressman cheating on his wife? And could she, Erin, abet him in this? No, no, no, a thousand times no!
She started to turn back towards the door.
“Erin, let me put it this way,” the Congressman said, stopping her. “If you don’t rent this apartment, I’m afraid I’m going to have to find someone else to take over your position in my office. And it would be such a shame if I had to do that because, naturally, I’d have to tell people why I had to replace you.”
He shook his head, his face set in practiced sincerity. “Your parents, all their friends and colleagues… they will all be so disappointed to learn that you’d been stealing funds from the government’s coffers.”
Shock and hurt must have glared out from Erin’s eyes because the congressman dropped the mask and continued in a more businesslike manner. “I don’t have all the details worked out yet—and I sincerely hope that I won’t need to—but it shouldn’t be so difficult to prove that you’ve been pocketing money set aside for some good cause or other for which I’d appropriated the funding. Such a shame. You’ll never be trusted again. I’ll make sure of it.”
Erin could feel a red burn begin to work its way up her throat. She bit down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming all of the obscenities that shot through her mind.
This was beyond believable! How could this be happening to her? She’d been so good, working hard for this man for so many years—and this was how he repaid her?
“Oh come on, Erin—where’s the problem? You are going to love this apartment! Susannah will have a great time furnishing it, you won’t need to do a thing. And you have to admit the location is fabulous—so close to Dupont Circle. the clubs, restaurants, bookstores… There’s a gym in the building, a media center, a roof-top deck and, of course, you’ve met the concierge.”
“My parents are never going to believe that I could afford something like this even at half the rent,” Erin said, grasping on to the first real argument she could come up with.
They’d probably think Hugh was paying for it, she realized with an inward cringe. Her boyfriend had offered to help her rent a place only a month ago, but Erin was not only absolutely unwilling to become indebted to him, she wasn’t even certain how much longer she was going to stay in the relationship. And besides, she liked sharing a house with four other people. It was comfortable. This wasn’t. Living alone wasn’t. And she really didn’t want to think about what Hugh was going to say when he found out about this.
“True,” the congressman said, bringing her mind back to the matter at hand. “But, since you have been such a loyal employee, I am, of course, going to give you a raise.” The congressman’s smile was so innocent and he seemed genuinely proud of her for her hard work. “To celebrate, you’re going to splurge a bit and take advantage of an incredible offer from…” he waved his hand in the air randomly, “oh, I don’t know, some diplomat I know–a friend of mine–who had to return suddenly to his country and was willing to rent this place to you dirt cheap because we’re so close, yada, yada, yada. You can figure out those details later. Be creative.”
“Me? You want me to make up the story?”
“Why not? I trust that you’ll do a good job of it, just like everything else you do.” His campaign smile flashed on and off. “This is going to do wonders for your career, Erin, you know that.” He started to turn away, but then stopped and turned back. “But honestly, Erin, if you’re going to be a politician, you’ve got to stop letting your every thought show so clearly on your face.”
Erin clamped her teeth together so that her mouth wouldn’t fall open. Instead, she forced her lips up into a smile and tried to ignore the feelings of victorious glee that had slowly replaced the anxiety coming from the congressman. His own expression could have easily said, “Gotcha!”
“Thank you so much for the advice, sir. I appreciate it.”
He gave a small nod of his head, then turned away and walked to the other end of the room and toward a hallway Erin hadn’t noticed earlier. “The lease is here for you to sign.”
If only he hadn’t moved toward those windows again! Erin’s knees almost collapsed under her as her gaze was pulled toward the sky once more. She clamped her eyes shut.
She could do this. She had to do this.
She couldn’t believe she was going to do this!