"I'm going to jail."
"No you're not."
"Oh, yeah, I'm going to jail," Alyssa Wingate muttered as she readjusted her crooked name tag again. "I guess I can always plead temporary insanity. Yeah, that's it. I'm sure the courts will be lenient with me. After all, this is my first real offense, if you don't count that bat incident a few years back."
"I've always played by the rules, never broken any laws
well, except for that mattress-tag thing, but that wasn't my fault. I was only trying to see the price. And besides, I bought it anyway, even though I didn't really want a fourteen-hundred-dollar king-size mattress. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm getting tossed out of here and then I'm going to jail."
You're not going to jail," Nina Hall whispered, as she stood beside Alyssa.
"Yep, I'm going to jail," Alyssa repeated with certainty as she glanced around, ready to be handcuffed and taken away.
"Would you please stop saying that? There's no reason we shouldn't be here. This is a major event and we were invited."
"Correction, our boss was invited and couldn't make it. We swiped the tickets, then snuck into the VIP reception."
"That doesn't matter as long as we're cool."
"Maybe I'll get lucky and just get probation and have to do, like, a million hours of community service. I could do that," Alyssa said, nodding to herself.
"And stop rambling on like that, people are beginning to stare," Nina hissed, smiling and greeting a passerby. "Good evening, how are you? What a wonderful turnout."
"I'm not rambling. I'm just practicing what I'm going to say, so that when I get arrested for stalking a U.S. senator, the judge will see that I'm truly sorry as I throw myself on his mercy."
"Oh, God, you're insane and overly dramatic. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were pretending, but your goody-two-shoes act is far too perfect."
There was a buzz of excitement across the room. Heads turned, but Alyssa looked the other way, straightening her name tag one last time. "I'm going to jail."
"Shh, and stop fidgeting."
"I'm not fidgeting."
"Then what are you doing?"
"It's not me. It's my name tag. It keeps drooping, slipping, flopping
"Whatever, enough with the seven dwarfs already."
Alyssa finally straightened her name tag, took a deep breath and looked up, smiling. Her pecan skin shone, her smile radiated and her almond-shaped, dark eyes sparkled with crystal clarity. She was the spitting image of her grandmother. "Okay, I'm ready."
"Good, you look fantastic. You need to smile more often."
"Thanks," Alyssa said, appreciating the compliment. It was something she had to teach herself to do. Compliments were rare growing up.
"You'll be great." Nina nodded her assurance.
"Yes, I'm calm, I'm cool, I'm collected and I'm relaxed. I know everything there is to know about the honorable senator from California. He's single, served two terms as a congressman, then was elected to the Senate at twenty-nine years old. He took office a year ago on his thirtieth birthday, making him one of the youngest senators in U.S. history. He sits on several congressional committees and subcommittees, inherited a vineyard in Napa Valley from his grandfather and, by all accounts, is drop-dead handsome."
Nina stared at her while shaking her head in growing dis-belief. "Wow, girl, you are obsessed."
"I prefer the term well informed," Alyssa corrected.
"Still, of all the politicians to pick, you chose the one who is firmly against lobbyists."
"It was a no-brainer. He may be staunchly against political lobbyism, but he's also pro universal health care and Social Security reform. And if I can pull him in, Pete will have no choice but to offer me a position as a lobbyist. And to clarify his position, he's not against political lobbying, he's against 'excessive lobbying and the perks that follow, which make politicians useless to the people they're supposed to represent.' That's a direct quote from his Web site, by the way."
"I have no doubt. But be that as it may, he's still a tough nut to crack. I heard that as soon as he hears the word lobbyist he calls security and has the person thrown out."
"I doubt that," Alyssa said.
"Well, you know him better than I do. Hell, you know him better than anyone does, probably even his assistant."
"You make me sound like some kind of stalker."
"If finding out everything there is to know about a person is stalking, then the shoe fits, dear."
"I did it to help others."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Alyssa asked.
"You know what it means. You like him, you're attracted to him."
"Of course I like him. He's a good politician."
"Nah, not like that, you like him as a man and, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you more than liked him," Nina said as she stared at her friend suspiciously.
"Well, now, it's a good thing that you know better," Alyssa said sternly, hoping to end this conversation. She looked around, feeling Nina's eyes still on her. She was right, of course; her little investigation had turned into more than professional interest. She did feel something for him. She wasn't sure what it was, but she definitely felt something.
"Okay, I'm ready, let's do this. Where is he?" She smiled through clenched teeth.
"Umm" Nina looked around the crowded reception area quickly "it doesn't look like he's here yet."
"But he's got to be here. I'm ready now." She raised her voice slightly, drawing glances from those around her.
The he whom she referred to was Senator Randolph Kingsley, one of the most discriminating senators on the hill and one who personally vowed to limit the influence of special-interest lobbyists. He and another senator were cosponsoring a bill that would curtail influence by capping the amount of gifts, services and political donations lobby-ists could make. It was an uphill battle, but it was successful so far.
Most lobbyists stayed far away from Senator Kingsley. Approaching him at a public function was risky, but one that Alyssa was willing to make for her cause.
"Alyssa Wingate, would you please stop that and calm down? You're a nervous wreck. You'll do fine. Just relax. You know all the material.You practiced a million times on the way over here, so chill," Nina said, then jumped when a passing waiter startled her by offering her an hors d'oeuvre from his tray. He stared at her strangely. "Thanks," she said breathlessly, then grabbed a miniature crab cake off the tray and dropped it into her mouth before the waiter could even offer her a napkin.
"Now, look. You've got me all jumpy and nervous."
Alyssa adjusted her bogus name tag again and continued to look around, knowing that she didn't belong there. These were the powerful political elite, senators, congressmen, business executives and corporate heads, community leaders. And then there was her, no status, no family name, no money and no nerve. "I need to leave. People are staring at me," she muttered to Nina.
Nina smiled warmly and turned away. "That's because you're acting as if you don't belong here."
"I don't belong here. We don't belong here."
Just relax and smile as if this is the most natural thing in the world, a simple after-work reception on Capitol Hill. We do it all the time." She smiled and greeted another person.
"Hello, how are you this evening? Wonderful turnout, isn't it?"
"Maybe he's not coming tonight." Alyssa looked around.
"He's coming, just relax. I spent all afternoon on the phone finding out his itinerary for this evening. He's got three events scheduled tonighta Senate meeting, a photo shoot for a magazine, this reception and one other reception later on. So if we don't get a chance to talk to him here, we can catch him at the next one."
"Brilliant," Alyssa said. "I like to think so."
"What if he skips both?"
"Hey, that's not three things, that's four things."
"Whatever, he's coming, so stop stressing, and if everything I hear about him is only half true, he's probably half-a-second ahead of schedule."
Alyssa squinted and continued to look around. "Stop that. Just put your glasses back on. I swear, you're gonna get frown lines squinting like that."
"No, I won't, and I can see fine far away. It's up close that things get a bit blurry."
"Honestly, if you don't want to wear your glasses, then why didn't you just wear your contact lenses like everybody else?"
"I was too nervous to put them in."
"You should have done it."
"And intentionally poke my finger in my eye, are you kidding? Why would I want to do that?"
"How about so that you could actually see and not squint, maybe?"
"No, I mean, do you know all the things that could go wrong?"
"Only for you,Alyssa. Knowing you, you'd probably try to put the lens in and cause a blizzard in the Brazilian rain forest."
"Ha-ha, not funny."
"Actually I was going for reality and not so much humor." Nina looked around again, smiling warmly. "You know, what we need is a drink in our hands. Everybody has a drink. We'll blend in with a drink. Wait here, I'll go get us a"
"What, are you crazy? I'm not waiting here by myself, looking like a nut. No drinks. I don't drink anyway. Well, maybe a glass of champagne to celebrate the new year and maybe a small glass on my birthday. Oh, and I did have a glass when my grandmother celebrated her birthday and"
"You're rambling again."
"Okay, you're right. No rambling, got it."
"Relax, I'll be right back."
"Nina, no, wait
" Alyssa said as her friend walked away, and several guests turned and glanced at her. "Hi, how are you? Good evening. Miserable weather outside, isn't it?" She plastered a fake smile on and nodded until they turned away.
"I'm going to jail," she muttered again.
Alyssa froze in place, hoping that if she didn't move and didn't breathe, the person tapping her shoulder wouldn't notice her anymore. She was obviously wrong.
"Excuse me, aren't you"
"No, sorry, not me. You have the wrong person," she said, turning away slightly and looking desperately for her friend.
"Funny, I could have sworn that you were ...