Winner Takes All
This job had come along at just the right time, but Ellen could see it wasn’t going to be plain sailing . . .
ELLEN shuffled forward two steps, nudging her bags ahead of her with her foot. All around her people were doing the same thing, the strain of getting up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport etched on their faces.
The queue snaked ahead of her for what seemed like miles. Ellen opened her bag and checked her passport and ticket – yet again.
“You’ll be here for hours,” a familiar voice said behind her and Ellen’s heart gave a lurch before she remembered that things had changed.
She turned to look into Edward’s brown eyes. Edward, prospective MP for a safe seat in the south of England. Her ex-boyfriend.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, irritated.
“I’ve come to see you off. This is a big step, I thought you’d like company.”
“It’s a six-month contract, Edward. I’m hardly emigrating.”
The queue inched forward.
“You don’t have to go, you know.”
Was he being deliberately obtuse?
Ellen had taken the job on a whim. Assistant Campaign Manager for someone running for Congress. She had the qualifications they specified and more.
She imagined New York, Washington DC and the cut and thrust of government. City lights and bustle.
The last e-mail had sounded less city, more small-town America, but anything would be better than what she was leaving. And, as she said, it was only for six months. Anyone could survive that.
Edward was still expecting an answer.
“I do. This job is tailormade for me.”
“I thought you weren’t interested in politics?”
“My degree is in Marketing and Politics!”
“But you acted like a typical woman when I said my career was the most important thing in my life!”
Ellen took a deep breath.
“First, I am a woman, and second, if you remember, you had just asked me to marry you!”
She’d spoken louder than she intended, and was aware of a subtle shift of attention in the passengers around them.
“I’d stand a better chance in the election if I had a wife, a local girl!” Edward hissed, then paused. “OK, I didn’t put that very well. It’s just that I have to give this election all I’ve got. You must see that?
“Anyway, you said you needed time to think it over, and you were right. No-one can make lifechanging decisions that quickly.”
“I gave you my answer, Edward, and this is hardly the place to discuss it.”
The woman before them in the queue was so engrossed that she hadn’t moved when the queue shuffled forward. Ellen leaned over.
“I think we’re moving,” she said sweetly.
The woman gasped before hurriedly moving up.
“But you didn’t mean it!” Edward whispered. “I didn’t give you enough time. Of course you’re the most important thing in my life. I’ve just got to get this by-election over with, that’s all.” He sighed.
“Can’t we just get engaged? Joe Public loves engaged couples. You can always change your mind later. You don’t need time to think about that!” Ellen stared at him. “You’re right. I don’t need time to think.” “Thank goodness.”
“I don’t want to marry you. I’m flattered that you should ask, but I can’t commit to someone who doesn’t regard an engagement as a serious undertaking!”
“I’ve said I’m sorry. I’ve come to see you off, haven’t I? You must understand I’ve other things on my mind . . .” Ellen looked at her watch. “Hadn’t you better go? You’ll get caught in the rush-hour traffic.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but was suddenly conscious of the interested spectators. He swallowed.
“Think about it.” He turned on his heel.
Barbara looked around the bedroom and sighed. This task should have been done a couple of weeks ago, when she first agreed to welcome an unknown girl into her home.
Why had she said yes? It was typical of Cindy Ward to make decisions without thinking things through. She had hired some over-qualified English girl to do a job any college student could do, without consulting anybody.
What kind of crazy person advertised a job in an international magazine before she was sure they needed someone? Or could afford someone?
The same sort of person who changed her political allegiance every two minutes! If Barbara had her way, Steve would never have appointed Cindy as his campaign manager.
How could you trust someone who’d only recently been working for the opposition?
Now this girl, Ellen, would be arriving in a few hours.
Barbara looked at the mess in front of her. Since her daughter Pattie got married, over three years ago, this bedroom had become a dumping ground. The bed was covered with scraps of fabric for quilting, books on the subject, and summer clothes destined for the thrift shop.
Barbara started on the clothes. If she put them in a plastic sack and took them to the thrift shop this afternoon she wouldn’t be able to change her mind again. They’d be gone.
She’d made it clear to Cindy that she was putting Ellen up very reluctantly.
But there hadn’t been much choice: this English girl would hardly be able to afford the local rents for the low wages the party was paying her. So the room had to be tidy.
Tidying it should take her mind off her daughter’s problems, Barbara thought, gathering up the books.
How could two children be so different? Tyler had never caused her a moment’s worry. Clever and studious and, though Barbara was biased, good-looking, he always seemed to land on his feet.
His younger sister was a constant worry. Barbara had hoped things would improve when Pattie got married, but what with her husband Steve’s political activities, and whatever else was worrying her, Pattie always seemed stressed.
Barbara was certain something was worrying Pattie more than usual at the moment. It couldn’t be her marriage – Steve idolised Pattie.
Were they trying for a baby? Unlikely, since the elections were only a few months away. If Steve was to make Congressman this time round he’d have no time for anything else.
Maybe that was the problem. Pattie would be thirty-six next birthday. She must be aware of her biological clock ticking.
Barbara shouldn’t be speculating. Still, she knew when one of her chicks wasn’t happy, and there was definitely something Pattie wasn’t telling her.
A couple of days later Ellen followed Barbara up the rusty exterior fire escape which led to a shabby room over the local hardware store.
“It’s not much to look at,” Barbara said, “but this is Campaign Headquarters.
Ellen kept her disappointment from showing on her face as she walked through the door. Everything she’d seen of America so far had been clean and bright.
She’d arrived at the weekend, and had settled into Barbara’s comfortable home. Barbara herself couldn’t have been more Follett. We’re sure glad to have you join us. I’m Cindy Ward, the Campaign Manager, and over here we’ve got . . .”
She started to introduce the various people in the room, mostly volunteer students, by the look of it.
Cindy pointed out Ellen’s desk and handed her a schedule covered with columns and arrows, which she started to explain, all at breakneck speed.
Ellen felt panic rising in her throat, but Barbara interrupted calmly.
“Your main area of responsibility is to help Cindy with fund-raising, but the big event isn’t until the middle of September. That’s a fancy dinner.
“Before then we have a good old American barbecue coming up next Saturday, but all you need to do is show up. Cindy will ease you in gently.” She gave Cindy a brittle smile. “Won’t you, dear?” Ellen frowned. “Sorry, but if the election is in November, isn’t September late for the main fund-raising event?”
Barbara and Cindy exchanged looks, then both spoke at once.
“You are so right,”
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