Shake some hands. Kiss some coworkers.
Cutthroat political consultant Thom Morgan is thriving, working on the governor of California's presidential campaign. If only he didn't have to deal with Clay Parker, the infuriatingly smug data analyst who gets under Thom's skin like it's his job. In the midst of one of their heated and very public arguments, a journalist snaps a photo, but the image makes it look like they're kissing. As if that weren't already worst-nightmare territory, the photo goes viral--and in a bid to secure the liberal vote, the governor asks them to lean into it. Hard.
Thom knows all about damage control--he practically invented it. Ever the professional, he'll grin and bear this challenge as he does all others. But as the loyal staffers push the boundaries of "giving the people what they want," the animosity between them blooms into something deeper and far more dangerous: desire. Soon their fake relationship is hurtling toward something very real, which could derail the campaign and cost them both their jobs...and their hearts.
When he cared enough to try, Thom Morgan was great with people. For one thing, he was very handsome, which led most people to believe that he was charming. He also had bulletproof bullshitting skills, thanks to a lifetime in politics. And it was especially easy to win people over when they were caught up in emotional crap—like at a wedding.
So it wasn’t a surprise that he was a hit at his girlfriend’s sister’s wedding. Her family was eager to meet the boyfriend that Ashley had told them all about, and not just because of his looks or his charm. Everyone loved politics these days, and every Californian had an opinion of his boss, their governor, Leonora Westwood. Luckily, whenever someone tried to ask him something boring about the true business of governing—What’s she doing about forest management? Don’t you think taxes are too high? There’s a pothole outside my house—he could remind them what he really did for a living.
“Actually, I’m the governor’s top political consultant,” he said, injecting just the right amount of apology into his tone to make the boast go down seamlessly. “So I have less to do with the day-to-day and more—”
“Ahh, I got it, your eye’s on the White House,” said—Thad? Chad? Something bro-y, Thom hadn’t been listening. They were with the rest of the wedding party in a wallpapered bedroom, waiting for the ceremony to begin.
“Oh, no, of course not,” Thom said. “Right now we’re just focused on keeping forty million Californians happy.”
“Right now,” Chad said predictably. “But when the primaries roll around?”
Thom feigned a gaping mouth, as if he didn’t pretend to be caught off guard by this question dozens of times a day. “I mean, by then, who can really say…”
“Sure,” Brad said, looking fucking ecstatic to be in on the world’s biggest open secret: that Leonora Westwood would be running for president next year, which was exactly why she’d hired Thom.
Thom winked at him and took a swig of his beer. Then he glanced at Ashley across the room and sent her a silent plea for help with his eyes. She muffled a laugh behind her hand before quickly crossing the room to them, saying to Thad, “Excuse me—I have to steal him away for a second.”
Out in the elegant hallway of Ashley’s parents’ home, Thom slumped against the wall in relief. “Thank god,” he said, phone already in hand. “Any more small talk with the yokels and I would’ve melted down.”
“Uh, hey,” Ashley said, batting his hand away before he could look at his phone. “Don’t I deserve more thanks than that?”
“You’re right,” he said, grinning and reeling her in with his arms around her waist. “Thank you, thank you…”
He trailed off as he kissed her. After a moment, she made an unhappy noise against his lips. “What?” he asked, pulling back. “Don’t like my technique?”
“I can feel your phone in the small of my back,” she said.
He grinned wider. “Is it a turn-on?”
“Definitely not.” She pulled away. With a sigh and a glance down the hall, she said, “I should go make sure my sister’s ready. It’s almost time.”
“Fine,” he said. “Leave me here alone.”
“Don’t stay on that thing the whole time,” Ashley said as she backed down the hall. “Go mingle! Network. Do your thing.”
“Trust me,” he told her, “the only person here I care about is you.”
A small, happy smile flashed across her face. Then she ducked away, down the hall.
That left Thom alone with his phone, so that he could finally—finally—check on news from the office. Governor Westwood—or Lennie, as her staff called her—had just wrapped up an incredibly successful trip to Singapore, and he was eager to see how it was playing in the news. International trips weren’t exactly standard fare for governors, but given the size of California’s economy, it made sense for Governor Westwood to travel overseas to develop the state’s trade relationships. Of course, the real reason for the visit would come across plain as day but go tastefully unspoken: an international trip made Lennie look like a head of state.
Like, say, a future president.
Thom grinned as he scrolled through all the good headlines the trip was generating so far. Lennie’s plane should have just touched down in Van Nuys, so she’d be back in the office soon. Itching with impatience, he slid his phone back into his pocket and strolled over to a window at the end of the hallway. He was in no mood to rejoin the other groomsmen, so he took his time scanning the crowd that was milling around in the garden among the spindly white chairs that had been set up for the ceremony. Ashley’s family was vast, well-off, and very well-connected, and he’d met many of them at other pre-wedding events. Unfortunately, it seemed that some of her most notable relatives had decided not to attend. Shame.
His phone pinged in his pocket. When he checked it, he jolted in excitement: it was an email from a Politico reporter he’d been chasing for months. Finally, the guy had gotten back to him—he wanted to stop by the office to chat about a possible article on the Singapore trip, and he wanted to do it now.
National coverage. Thom’s mouth watered, and he made a quick but easy decision.
Sliding his phone into his suit pocket, he strolled back down the hallway to the room Ashley had disappeared into. He knocked gently, and when he poked his head in, he was greeted by a cloud of perfume and tulle. “Hi, ladies,” he said with a grin. “Ashley, can I grab you for a sec?”
She rolled her eyes, clearly thinking he wanted to get her into a dark corner to make out some more. “Give me a second, girls,” she said, and followed him out into the hall.
Outside, she ran her hands up the sides of his suit jacket, looking put-upon but also warmed by the attention. “What now?” she asked. “More small talk you want to avoid?”
“Mmm,” he said, and kissed her before pulling back. “No, sadly. Um, I hate to do this—”
She frowned. “What is it?”
“Nine-one-one at the office,” he said, grimacing as if this was paining him. “I have to go.”
“Go? What do you mean, go?” She blinked, confused. “Thom, you’re in the wedding.”
“You—you asked me to be in the wedding,” she said in dawning outrage. “You bothered me about it constantly until I forced my sister to make you a groomsman.”
He winced, saying, “I know, but—”
“No, are you kidding me?” she demanded. “You’re really going to leave?”
“They need me over there!” To fluff a reporter. “It’s an emergency.”
“No,” Ashley said firmly, shaking her head. “You work all the time. I’m sure they can spare you long enough not to ruin my sister’s wedding.”
“I’m so sorry, babe,” he said, pouting. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“No!” Ashley shouted quietly, seemingly struggling between her anger and her desire not to cause a scene. “I’m serious, Thom. No.”
He said nothing. As she realized that he was really about to leave, she stared daggers at him and whispered, “If you leave this wedding, we’re over.”
Thom pressed his lips together, making a point of looking pained and indecisive. When he felt like it had been long enough, he sighed and said, “Okay.”
Ashley was stunned. “You’re…you’re breaking up with me?”
“I don’t want to,” he said. He kind of did want to. The relationship had really reached the limits of its utility for him. “But babe, I told you—”
“You have to go to work,” Ashley said bitterly. “You always cared about your job more than me.”
True, but he’d been willing to put in his time anyway—after all, her uncle was a Supreme Court justice, which made her family nothing short of DC royalty. But being a groomsman had paid off a lot less than he’d hoped in that regard, and her uncle hadn’t even bothered to fly out for the wedding, which probably meant he was going to die soon anyway. So much for that connection.
Thom took Ashley’s hand in his. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice low and passionate.
Ashley glared at him, tears hovering in her eyes. Thom was used to that look—he saw it a lot when his relationships ended, if he even bothered doing it face-to-face. He just couldn’t understand why the women he dated got so invested in him. Most of them were in politics too, or in similar fields, where winning and advancing were all that mattered. Why did they let emotions get in the way of that?
Ashley yanked her hand out of his and walked away. Thom blew out a relieved breath and jogged outside to meet his Uber.
Once he was on the way, he scanned the headlines on his phone again. Right now they were in the midst of one of the most delicate stages of campaigning: the pre-primary. The first presidential primary contests were so far-off that it was too early, and would be viewed as unseemly, to be openly campaigning. Instead, Lennie had to achieve a favorable position for the upcoming primary without seeming like she was doing anything at all. It was like trying to win a race she couldn’t afford to be seen running in.
And she had her work cut out for her, because the current front-runner in both the pre- and actual primary was not Lennie but Senator Samuel Warhey. A veteran and former elementary school teacher, he’d become famous for having saved dozens of students during a dangerous flood in the eighties. That star-making moment had propelled him to the governor’s mansion and then the Senate, and he maintained the glow of nonpolitical celebrity. He was on the older side, but young enough for it to come across as gravitas. He was moderate in his voting record but passionate on the stump. He was experienced, he was popular, he was good on TV, and his staff had not returned any of Thom’s calls.
So, he’d ended up taking a job with Lennie. And that was to his liking, anyway: he could stay in the city that he loved. Technically, the office of the Governor of California was in Sacramento, but Lennie was smart enough to know that she wouldn’t recruit any top-flight talent if she forced them to relocate to that shithole. Interns and volunteers were thick on the ground in Los Angeles, and so were many of the top political reporters on the West Coast, who were much easier to entice to cover Lennie’s campaign when it was in their backyard.
Thom had grown up in the sleepy inland California suburbs, but he’d moved to LA as soon as he’d had a chance. As his ride traveled from the secluded, leafy neighborhood where the wedding had been to the dense heart of the city where Lennie’s office was located, glittering high-rises surrounded them. A shadow fell on Thom’s face as the sun was blotted out, and he smiled to himself.
Senator Warhey was from Indiana. DC, Thom would relocate for, but the Midwest? No fucking thank you.
Anyway, taking Lennie from the middle of the pack to the White House would be his crowning achievement. Thom had managed some mayoral and state senate campaigns in his day, ghostwritten a few speeches, done a few good media hits, but it hadn’t been enough to build him a national profile, not just yet. He’d have been one more aspiring staffer to Warhey. To Lennie, he was a lifeline.
The plan was this: in three months, right after New Year’s, Lennie would officially announce the launch of her campaign. She’d follow the announcement with a nationwide tour of stump speeches and town halls, highlighting her bio and her accomplishments. From there it’d be Iowa, debates, the general election, and Thom getting a sun-soaked apartment in Foggy Bottom with a nice short commute to the West Wing.
He could see it already. Propelling Lennie to the White House was a crucial part of his life plan. Since joining the campaign he’d already gained some much-deserved notoriety—he’d finally gotten that blue checkmark on Twitter, and he was racking up followers. With the Singapore trip having gone so well, it felt like all the pieces were finally falling into place.
At the office, three separate staffers congratulated him on how the trip was playing. Every TV in the bullpen was set to news coverage of the trip so that he could drink in the spoils of his plan.
And leaning against his desk, the cherry on top of his perfect day, was Felicia Morales. Felicia was Lennie’s chief of staff, and had been with her roughly since birth. As usual, she held a cooling coffee in one hand and her phone in the other. Her black hair was coiled in a neat bun at the nape of her neck, and her golden skin somehow always glowed even though she saw as little sun as Thom. Her lips and eyebrows were set in a perpetual, subtle smirk that said Don’t fuck with me.
He had definitely thought about fucking her anyway. But he and Felicia had built a good working relationship over the last year. As one of Lennie’s newer hires, it had taken time and patience for him to win her trust. Sure, she was gorgeous, and there was occasionally a tension between them that hinted there could be more, but Thom was fine with things as is. He didn’t want to rock the boat.
“Seems like it’s going well,” Felicia said mildly, not looking up from her phone.
Thom grinned and shucked his jacket, draping it carefully over his chair. “Where’s the governor?”
“Her plane was scheduled to land a few minutes ago, so she should be en route.”
Thom sat down. “You’re not going to congratulate me?”
That finally got her to glance at him. “I said it was going well, didn’t I?”
He leaned back and closed his eyes, basking in the glow of his success. “Hey, great job,” another staffer said as he walked past Thom’s office.
Before he could respond, another voice called out, loud and brusque, “Fuck yeah!”
Thom rolled his eyes as Clay Parker strolled into view, pointing at the guy he’d thought was talking to him. He stopped when he reached Thom’s office doorway and added, loudly to make sure he’d be overheard, “Man, it’s good to finally be getting some recognition around here.”
Clay was one of the governor’s most recent hires, brought on to helm their data analytics department, whatever that was. As a person, Clay was both thoroughly unimpressive and massively impressed with himself.
“Uh, Clay?” Felicia said. “He was congratulating Thom.”
Clay scowled. “For what?”
Thom stood up and walked over to him. “The real question is, what would he have been congratulating you for?”
Clay crossed his arms as Thom came closer. He was a tall guy, but his frame wasn’t intimidating so much as gawky. It didn’t help that he wore ugly bargain-basement suits that he clearly didn’t get tailored, based on the way they gaped and bunched in strange places. His sandy-brown hair was tufty and bowl shaped, like his mother cut it for him, and he had broad, blunt features that could have made him look brooding or mysterious, except that every single emotion Clay felt appeared immediately on his face.
And every single one of Clay’s emotions was terrible.
Clay answered smugly, “Uh, for being the guy who’s single-handedly keeping this campaign afloat?”
“Oh, god,” Thom muttered.
“What do you even do around here?” Clay asked. “Oh, you sent her to another country? How is that helpful, Thom, she’s running for president of America.”
“Well, we can’t all sit in our offices and tweet all day,” Thom said.
“Hey, I’m generating the most valuable currency this campaign will ever have—page views and clicks, baby.” Thom shuddered as Clay rubbed his fingers together. “I’m building buzz.”
“Ew,” Felicia said.
“Clay, what can I do to get you to leave my office?” Thom asked. “Wait, I have an idea.” He reached for his door to slam it in Clay’s face.
Clearly predicting this, Clay jerked to the side and quickly said, “You’re just jealous about the article.”
Thom narrowed his eyes. “What article?”
Clay grinned in a way he probably thought was intriguing. “You didn’t hear?” he asked, and brazenly sauntered past Thom into his office. Thom stiffened, but Felicia held up a hand as if to say Let’s see where this goes.
Clay stopped by the TV in Thom’s office, which had been silently playing cable news. He tapped around on his phone until the screen flickered off, then lit up again with what must have been on his phone. “Read it and weep,” he said.
Thom sighed and looked at the screen, which was showing a profile of Clay on some website he’d never heard of.
“Ousted Pinpoint Founder Clay Parker…” He read the start of the headline and didn’t bother to read the rest.
Clay’s past career, if you could call it that, had been in Silicon Valley, where he’d cofounded a database management program with his college roommate. The software had taken the tech world by storm, but right before they’d all gotten rich, Clay had been unceremoniously dumped from the company. The rumor was that his roommate had invented the whole thing and Clay had just hitched on for the ride. There was no way to tell for sure, but just weeks after the company sold, Clay’s roommate had been snapped up as the head of data analytics for Senator Warhey, and they’d gotten a nice round of press coverage about their cutting-edge campaign. Lennie had hired Clay the next week.
Clay was standing by the big-screen version of the article with his arms crossed, smug satisfaction radiating from every pore. “Great,” Thom said. “You got another gullible journalist to write about your sob story.”
“My quest for justice,” Clay corrected him. “My noble quest.”
“And why the hell did you do this now, anyway?” Thom asked, irritated. “This whole week is supposed to be about my Singapore trip.”
“The governor’s Singapore trip,” Felicia interjected.
“Hers, ours, the trip,” Thom said, waving his hand back at her and then at the screen. “This was not on the message calendar this week.”
Clay’s cocky smile just widened. “Wow. You are jealous.”
Thom ground his teeth. Felicia, meanwhile, seemed more concerned about the substance of the article, squinting as she quickly skimmed it from the screen. “Clay, this is all about you and Pinpoint,” she said. “You don’t even mention the governor. How is this supposed to help the campaign?”
“I work for the campaign,” Clay said, as if this was obvious. “So an article about me brings publicity to the campaign.”
“Uh, guys, I’m a celebrity,” Clay said, emphasizing the word so hard it made Thom’s jaw crack. “That’s why you hired me.”
The only way in which Clay was a celebrity was that he’d become a meme based on some footage of him having a meltdown outside the courthouse where he’d been locked in a legal battle with his former roommate. Clay had gone in close to one of the news cameras and yelled, “Lawsuit, bitch!” These days people mostly used it as a reaction GIF.
“You’re not a celebrity, Clay,” Thom said. “You’re like a D-list Winklevoss twin.”
He smirked. “At least people know who I am.”
“Then I feel sorry for them.”
“Oh, come on,” Clay said good-naturedly, turning back to the screen and scrolling on his phone so that the article jerked downward with a pixelated blur. “You don’t—”
“Clay,” Felicia interrupted him, staring down at her phone with a taut expression. “Is your stupid screen mirroring thing interfering with our Wi-Fi?”
“What?” Thom bleated, feeling an instinctual jab of panic as he looked at his own phone. Shocked, he realized that he hadn’t gotten any new emails in the last two minutes. Horror flooded him.
“It may have jammed the signal a little,” Clay said defensively. “But only because the office’s Wi-Fi already sucks, which by the way I’ve been trying to get you to—”
“Fix it,” Thom hissed, grabbing Clay’s tragically off-the-rack jacket in his fist. “Now. I cannot be off-line.”
“Wait,” Felicia said. “It seems like it’s coming—oh. Shit.”
Thom went cold. “What? What is it?”
Felicia’s phone was buzzing intensely, dozens of backdated messages flowing in as the network came back online. Thom’s phone did the same a second later.
“Uh, guys?” A staffer poked his head into Thom’s office, an ominous look on his face. “I think you might want to see this.”
Dread climbing up his throat, Thom followed Fe out into the bullpen, where another staffer was turning up the volume on one of the TVs. On the news, a clip was playing of the governor at the airport just a little while ago. It was a shaky handheld video of Lennie walking across the airport tarmac to her car, smiling and laughing as she bantered with reporters. She looked a bit disheveled from her long plane ride, and a lock of hair was sticking up oddly on one side of her head, like she’d slept on it funny. As she drew even with her car and someone opened the door for her, one of the reporters shouted, “Governor, what’s with the hair?”
Lennie frowned and put a hand on her head. Then she rolled her eyes and said, at a volume the mics picked up distressingly well, “Well, that’s what happens when you have no gays on your staff.”
The clip froze, and silence fell across the office.
“Fuck,” Thom said.
“Double fuck,” Felicia said.
This was going to fuck them in the campaign. It would kill all the good press Thom had gotten from her international trip. In the invisible race, this was like falling into a sinkhole.
The comment made Lennie look homophobic. It made her look retrograde. It made her look like a senile relative everyone dreaded seeing at Thanksgiving. Their base voters were liberal—hate-has-no-home-here, we’re-glad-you’re-our neighbor, the-A-is-for-Ally liberal. Bigotry was basically the worst thing they could be accused of.
On the TV, the clip had ended and the cable news anchor was shaking his head, looking incredibly disappointed as he cut to a six-person panel. Felicia had a look of fixed dread on her face that Thom was sure matched his own. In his palm, his phone buzzed again, and he glanced down to see a text from that Politico reporter he’d promised to meet up with: Almost there. Spoiler alert: I’m writing about the gaffe now, not the Singapore trip.
“Fuck.” His week of perfect news coverage was crashing and burning before his eyes. “Why?” he heard himself whine to Felicia. “Why the fuck would she say that?”
“Because I know I can always count on assholes like you to clean it up for me,” a silky-smooth voice said from the doorway.
Lennie Westwood was exactly what you’d want in a political candidate: beautiful, charming, and ruthless. Most voters thought of her as a down-to-earth farmer because she mentioned her family’s beloved almond farm every chance she got, despite the fact that most of her millions came from massive agribusiness and GMOs. She picked her policy positions with the help of Thom and Felicia’s polling data, and she was smart enough to seem warm instead of smart on TV. She had honey-brown hair and big hazel eyes that usually seemed wide and understanding.
Right now they were staring daggers at Thom. “Uh. Madam Governor,” Thom said feebly. “I—I didn’t—”
“Oh, I know you didn’t, Thom,” she said warningly. “I know you wouldn’t be so fucking disrespectful after I just worked the whole way back on a sixteen-hour flight that you sent me on.”
“Ma’am,” Thom said, swallowing, “I really—”
“Maybe we should do this in private,” Felicia broke in, glancing around the office.
“Great idea,” Lennie said, with a poisonous smile. “Thom, grab us some coffee, would you? Maybe that’s a job more suited for your talents.”
Meekly, he responded, “Happy to, ma’am.” As Felicia followed the governor into her office, he grabbed her arm and said under his breath, “The blinds.”
Felicia glanced at the blinds on the interior windows of the governor’s office and nodded. Reporters were always drifting in and out of the office looking for quotes or consulting with someone on a story, and Thom didn’t want any of them to see the campaign in crisis mode. After the door shut behind her, Felicia drew them closed.
Thom turned around to find the entire bullpen staring at him. In the background, the cable news coverage was still dissecting the gaffe, and Thom heard one commentator say, “Is this the end of the Westwood campaign?” His heart was racing, and everyone in the office seemed as on edge as he was. Everyone except one.
Clay strolled past Thom, whistling under his breath. Thom straightened the cuff on his jacket and followed him down the hallway.
When they were sufficiently out of view of the bullpen, Thom grabbed Clay by the arm and threw him against the frosted-glass wall, balling his fists in Clay’s jacket and leaning in close to hiss, “You. How do you always manage to fuck up everything?”
“What?” Clay protested, though he didn’t actually push back against Thom’s arms pressing him into the wall.
“It’s always you making this office look ridiculous,” Thom spat. “If you ever fucking cut me off from the internet again, I will personally cut your balls off of your body, okay?”
“Let me go,” Clay said, squirming against him. He was a good deal taller than Thom and should have been able to fight back, but instead he was like a child, huffing and clawing at his wrists ineffectually.
“God, you’re pathetic,” Thom commented.
“Shut up,” Clay said. “You’re just pissed because you’re threatened by me.”
Thom barked out a laugh. “Threatened by you?” He tightened his fist in Clay’s shirt, pinning him in place. Clay’s whole face was flushed, his mousy hair frizzed and sticking up in all directions. Thom lowered his voice and leaned in. “Do you not understand what a joke you are?”
“My god,” Thom breathed. “You’re so useless you don’t even know how useless you are. I bet you think you’re like me, some power player with real influence around here. But you’re not. You’re nothing.”
As Thom spoke, Clay’s face went from furrowed in anger to slack with shock and humiliation. As always, Thom could read every thought that flitted across his face. It actually made his blood run cold, imagining what it would be like to be that transparent, that vulnerable—to have no poker face whatsoever.
Clay’s breath was coming fast, his wide shoulders taut where Thom was pinning him. But his pale green eyes were fixed on Thom, blinking sluggishly. As the seconds ticked by, it became clear that he was searching for a comeback, but couldn’t quite think of one.
Thom wondered what that was like. To not always have something venomous on the tip of your tongue.
The silence had gone on too long, and Thom felt more exhausted than victorious. His heart was still pounding, though it was starting to slow. He let go of Clay’s collar, shoving him away.
“Fuck you, Thom,” Clay said hollowly, and lumbered off.
From around the corner, Thom heard Felicia call his name sharply. “You coming?”
He sighed, and followed her into the lion’s den.
Excerpted from LOVE, HATE & CLICKBAIT by Liz Bowery, © 2022 by Liz Bowery. Used with permission from MIRA/HarperCollins.
Cover Story is her debut novel.
Author website: https://www.lizbowery.com/