"Yes, ma'am," Walter said, still smiling.
A minute later, he pulled the car as close as possible to the entrance of the West Wing and jumped out to open the door for her. Melanie stepped out of the SUV, holding her Dior bag protectively under her suit jacket so the fresh snow wouldn't touch the leather. She wished she'd worn a coat, but she'd stopped dressing for the seasons years ago. It could be ninety-seven degrees outside, or minus seven, and the climate was always a cool sixty-six degrees inside the West Wing, where she'd be for the next sixteen hours. Melanie climbed the single flight of stairs to her office and walked inside. Her assistant, Annie McKay, was already there.
"Happy birthday," she whispered, even though no one else would have heard her if she'd yelled at the top of her lungs. Melanie always arrived before anyone else on the senior staff.
"Thanks, Annie," Melanie said.
"Let me see it," Annie said.
"What?" Melanie replied innocently, opening her suit jacket.
"Oh, my God, it is amazing?totally worth the splurge. It has elegant and expensive and woman of substance written all over it," Annie exclaimed, standing to get a better look at the bag. Melanie smiled. She settled in at her desk, casting an admiring glance at the fire that had already been lit in the fireplace. Cozy, Melanie thought. Maybe today won't be so bad.
She looked around her spacious office on the main floor of the West Wing and wondered if it was her elevation to this most lonely job on the White House staff or growing fatigue from so many years in the political trenches that had made her reflective to the point of distraction.
Every room in the White House brought back a memory of a time when she had felt fortunate to be there. These days, she usually found herself standing in these rooms, asking?sometimes begging?the walls to talk to her. Sometimes the history that she and Charlotte were making struck her as embarrassingly overdue?many other countries had been ruled by women. And at other time, it was exhilarating to think that a new generation of women would grow up knowing that the glass ceiling had been shattered once and for all. But the vast majority of the time, Melanie's life was exhausting, her assignments unseemly, and the rewards nonexistent.
She read the intelligence reports from the overnight, a memo from the national security advisor about troop reductions that would go to the president that morning, and the jobs report number that would be kept secret until eight-thirty a.m. She finished the front sections of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Washington's first official tabloid, the Washington Journal.
When she noticed that the sun had come up and brightened her office with an orange glow, she glanced up at one of her five televisions. She unmuted one of the stations just as it was teasing its lead story: "Coming up at seven a.m.: Is President Kramer AWOL on the economy? We'll have some surprising reactions from our viewers to that very question."
"The president is on her way to the Oval," Annie said, appearing in Melanie's door. "You should probably walk over. She'll want to see you about the speech, I'm sure."
"I'll head over in a couple minutes," Melanie said.