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The words echoed in Stacia Kendall’s brain, numbness and shock blinding her to all else. Failure closed in, an unrelenting, suffocating mass, numbing her to everything else at the campaign headquarters. One thought stuck in her mind. She had planned the perfect political campaign, but it had one flaw—the representative and his damned libido.
She inched toward the back door of the hotel ballroom, only murmurs and whispers filling the room, not the expected celebration and noisemakers. Stunned campaign volunteers pulled red, white and blue victory balloons from the air. Strategically placed confetti containers silently disappeared from the hall. The dull hum set her teeth on edge and the sensation of several sets of eyes boring holes into her back, blamed her for the failed primary campaign.
The vibration from her cell phone rippled up her arm from her clenched fist. The familiar face of Senator Kendall appeared on the screen. Nausea churned in her stomach.
“Father.” The hushed tone escaped her tight throat. “Hold on while I find somewhere private.” She backed out the door and walked the few steps down the hall to a small alcove, formerly a telephone booth. She hunched on the little bench inside and said, “Okay, I’m alone.”
“I don’t give a damn if you’re alone or not.” A gruff voice shot out from the cell phone, puncturing the remains of her self-confidence. “What the hell happened? It was a primary, and should have been an easy victory.”
Stacia tried not to cringe. After years of hiding her feelings, she still fought the urge to duck her head and cower.
“I know Representative Glazier was your hand-picked candidate, and I was assigned to keep him under control, but he made a few unfortunate comments about the governor…”
“He’s the most popular governor in all fifty states. Where were you?” he barked.
A flash of anger darted through her and she gripped the phone until her hand ached. “He went off-script. What was I to do?”
The silence at the other end was unbearable, but she had learned, from the time she was a little girl, to wait for her father. To speak would be more unforgivable than losing a primary race. Be a Kendall. Stand strong. Never show fear. And take your punishment without tears.
His voice, when he spoke, was much quieter, calmer but with a bite sharper than an adder’s fang. “Unacceptable. We hired your firm, and you, to keep him on script. Your job to ensure his message. Your job to avoid all embarrassments.”
A chill snaked up her spine and exploded in goose bumps along her arms. “This isn’t just about the speech? You’re talking about the hotel incident.”
“What do you think? Pictures of him coming out of another woman’s hotel room are devastating. If you had listened to me and accepted his proposal, you would have been by his side, and his campaign wouldn’t have been sliced, diced, and now iced.”
“His proposal? Don’t you mean your proposal?” As if Representative Glazier, who owed his political career to her father, would ever say no directly to Senator Kendall. No, instead, he would sneak around with an intern with double-d cup breasts and nothing between her ears. “It’s not my job to make sure his zipper stayed zipped.”
“Don’t be naive. It was advantageous to both of us. And it was your responsibility, your job to smooth out the rough edges, show a polished image, and for God’s sake bury any bad publicity.”
Her father’s dismissive attitude sent tendrils of anger down her spine. She took a deep breath and counted to ten, then twenty. Never react. Never let him get to you. Never let him know how much his words bite.
The sound of voices drifted down the hall, and a group of volunteers walked by, glancing curiously into the small alcove. She forced a grin and a half-hearted wave, indicating everything was fine, when she could feel her world crumbling. Her whole life had been spent striving to be a political asset, constantly reminded of her position and family. Now she was a political liability. Her father’s displeasure was worse than any punishment; his anger tore the skin off her back without lifting a hand.
After a moment struggling with control, she was proud to speak collectedly. “What about me? Where was the advantage to me?”
“I didn’t raise a dumb girl. You could do worse.”
“It sounds like you’re pimping me out for political gain.”
“Don’t make it sound cheap.”
“But it is.” She struggled to keep her voice low and composed, while sweat broke out on her back. “I’m your daughter. Shouldn’t that count for something?”
“Exactly. You know the score, your responsibilities. Honestly, Stacia. I don’t understand you sometimes. I raised you in the political arena, since you were barely out of diapers. You were calling voters as soon as you knew how to dial the phone. I expect this kind of screw-up from your sister. She doesn’t have your brains. Maybe, if you dressed a little less Jackie O, and a little more …”
“Madonna? Lady Gaga? My new stepmother?” A warmth spread from her chest, chasing away the ice from the earlier comments.
“Enough, Stacia. Don’t be disrespectful.” His words slapped her down, reminding her who was the boss.
“You don’t want to hear my input. You just want me to do whatever you say. I don’t want a political marriage, Father.”
“Senator, young lady. Maybe if you had been his fiancée, he wouldn’t have felt the need to seek comfort elsewhere. Apparently, I was wrong.”
“It would be easier to show a clean televangelist than the representative. You should be having this discussion with your favorite son. He’s the one who screwed his campaign, while screwing his intern.”
“Don’t be crude.” He sighed. “It’s obvious you can’t remain with the campaign, if he decides to continue running as an independent. Your services are no longer required. I’ll speak to your boss and have you reassigned.”
Blood pounded in her ears. The walls of the small alcove seemed to close in on her, the room tilting and swimming around her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, striving for serenity in the midst of the storm of fear. His displeasure—the death knell on her career, the same way he had been killing off her dreams her whole life.
“Just because I wouldn’t marry him?” She forced the words out between numb lips.
“Don’t be stupid. You let him be embarrassed in public. His poll numbers tanked and he lost the primary. Clearly, you’re not ready for this level of campaign. Maybe after a few more years of experience, you can work on my campaign under my direct supervision.” The subtle emphasis on direct told her how much respect she had lost in his eyes.
The phone clicked, signaling the end of the conversation. She lowered the device, surprised to see her hand shaking. Someone reached into the booth, handing her a Kleenex. Sophie Duncan, campaign photographer and one of her few friends, peered around the corner.
“You okay?” The sympathy in her blue eyes almost made Stacia lose control.
She shook her head, struggling to contain her anger against the unfairness of the situation, her life really. “I’m good. You’ve been supporting me and drying my tears since we were six. You can’t help me this time.” She tried to stand but her legs shook.
Sophie pushed her back down. “Sit for a few minutes. You’re allowed to be human, you know, despite the robot who supposedly fathered you. What did the asshole have to say?”
Stacia smiled through burning eyes. “Your father would be appalled to hear you swear.”
She shrugged. “Not really. We’ve come to an understanding. He leaves me alone and I try not to embarrass him, at least not publicly.” She leaned against the small opening. “So, what’s the deal?”
Stacia stood up finally, shaking off her father’s words like water. “No, I’m good. Let’s go deal with Glazier. Then, I need a drink. Several.”
Stacia hesitated at the door of the local bar, a hand resting on the brass handle. She shuddered at the memory of the vile accusations thrown at her from the campaign advisers and even her own father, all who were quick to point the finger, diverting blame from themselves to anyone else. Stacia was expendable, even to her father. Blood never mattered when it came to politics. She had had years of experience with that. Now all she wanted to do was crawl into a bed somewhere with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s finest, a bottle of wine and hide until it had all blown over.
Yet here she stood outside a bar, a block away from the scene of her defeat, about to celebrate the end of a long project with Sophie. Celebrate being the wrong word.
“Excuse me, miss. Are you going in?” Three guys stood to her right, looking like they had come from their job, probably construction, judging by their jeans and t-shirts coated in a fine layer of dirt. Not to mention their dark tans from working outside.
She shook her head and stepped aside. One of them held open the door and gestured for her to precede them. They were more gentlemanly than the people with whom she had spent the past seven months. Those guys in polished suits and designer clothes either tried to get in her bed or shoved her aside as a coffee girl. She let her eyes wander over the tight shirt and the muscles displayed in the working man clothes and a low hum of arousal started in her lower region, an area that hadn’t seen action since the beginning of the campaign, maybe longer. That feeling, and the tingling along her nerve endings, reinforced her intention to finally cut loose and enjoy herself, forgetting about the disaster that was her life.
Tomorrow was another day, as another famous Southern belle once said. Scarlett was a woman to emulate. Stacia wished she had Scarlett’s forthright, get-it-done-no-matter-what attitude. Hell, she had stood up to the Yankee army! Stacia only had to stand up to her father.
The man cleared his throat and exchanged glances with his buddies. Aware she was still standing in the doorway, she smiled quickly and slipped through the door. She stepped aside and let her eyes adjust to dim lighting. The guys pushed past her with barely a glance, shouting a greeting to friends gathered around a round, wooden table on what probably was the dance floor if a band was playing. On a Tuesday night, the TV showed a baseball game and the local major league team was playing, the Georgia Knights. She scanned the room, looking for Sophie amidst the groupings of mostly men hanging out after work. A group separated and she spied a lone man sitting in a corner booth in the dim corner. He was sipping what appeared to be scotch and scowling at the people around him. Despite the scowl and the go-away aura he was projecting, something drew her gaze, more than the group of young construction workers.
This man was older, experienced and something told the woman inside he knew his way around the female body. A girl would not be disappointed after a night with him, if she could break through the thick warning signs and barrier of foul temper. He was dressed different than many of the men in the bar. They were mostly blue-collar workers, blowing off steam from a long day in the August sun. Nice enough guys, but they tended to leave Stacia, who usually dressed in a Neiman Marcus business suit, alone, her armor that was as much a prison as a fashion statement.
Tonight, however, she had ditched the suit and dressed in an Ann Taylor blouse and Old Navy jeans, in which she was still too obvious in this bar. This man, this loner, was dressed in designer clothes, yet he wasn’t a businessman. Something about the clothes and the attitude didn’t scream business.
At that moment, his eyes shifted from the alcohol and met hers. The banked heat in them almost scorched her already raw nerve endings and electricity coursed along her skin, like the sizzle in the air before a summer thunderstorm. His gaze sent tingles of sexual awareness to areas she had ruthlessly suppressed for seven months because the campaign and her boss owned her body and her father owned her soul for as long as she could remember. Now they awoke, stretched, and stood at attention.
“Stacia, over here!” A blonde woman waved wildly from the bar area.
With one last regretful glance at the man, Stacia weaved her way to her friend. Sophie gave her a quick hug and, holding her shoulders, stared into her eyes, studying them for some hidden message.
“Those assholes. They fired you, didn’t they? What about your father?”
Stacia looked away, the hot sting of tears prickling just behind the eyes. “I think is the politically correct term is that I’ve been removed from the campaign effective immediately.”
Sophie steered her to the bar and slid a drink in her hand. “Southern Comfort sour. Thought you could use it tonight. He’s an ass. They all are. You’re the only reason Glazier had any chance at all after he was caught with his pants around his ankles humping that damn intern.”
She choked back a laugh. “Thanks, Sophie! I needed that.”
“Seriously,” Sophie continued her outraged tirade. “What did they expect you to do about it? Jump into bed with him and be his dick guard? He’s a dog. No wait, that’s an insult to dogs everywhere. What’s worse? A pig?”
Stacia avoided looking at Sophie, instead fixing her gaze on the television behind the bar where the candidate, her former boss, was about to give his concession speech.
“Can you change the channel, Deon?”
The bartender gave her a sour look and slid the remote across the bar. “Do it yourself.”
He flipped her the bird and grinned, softening the blow. He slid two more drinks in front of her and Sophie.
“So, what are you going to do?”
Stacia shrugged. “No idea.” Away from the magnetic pull of the dark stranger, the brief stirring of life, of heat, dissipated and the numbness returned, blocking the paralyzing fear that had been her first reaction once the primary results had been announced. “I’ll talk to Michael tomorrow. Maybe he has something else for me.” She turned from the bar, trying to find the man she had spied when she had first walked in. “Meanwhile, I need a diversion.”
“A diversion?” Sophie gaped at her. “You just got fired. Several more drinks might be in order, I think.”
Stacia shrugged. “I would have thought you would be happy for me. You’ve been telling me I need to get out more, loosen up. I’m ready to loosen up. Now, to find the right guy.” She scanned the bar, seeking, then finding. The crowd parted, revealing a dim back booth and the man, sitting alone, partially hidden by the shadows. The same man who started awakening her long-dormant desires.
The half not hidden showed promise; mainly he didn’t appear to have a beer gut; he’d dressed in something other than a stained t-shirt or designer suits, and was under forty years old. She wasn’t looking for suave businessman or out-of-work alcoholic. This man may just be right for her, for this moment in time. A brief fling to help her forget the pain of the day. A brief lapse in the control she had to maintain over her life. A brief chance to be herself, for once.
Now, how to play this angle.
“That’s my only offer?” Jason Friar slumped in the back booth of a local, no-name bar, cell phone pressed to his ear. Thank God they were on the phone. Maybe his agent wouldn’t catch the stink of desperation as he hoped for some news—a position with a major league baseball team, any team.
He really should be careful what he asked for.
“The Georgia Knights? The cellar-dweller team filled with minor league hopefuls and major league has-beens?” Disbelief and disappointment warred deep in his chest.
“I’m sorry, Jason. I’ve been calling around both leagues. It’s mid-season. No one needs a first baseman.” Regret tinged his agent’s voice. Scott Thomas continued, “The Knights are in first place this year. They have a real shot at the league championship.”
Jason sipped the twelve-year-old, single malt scotch to create distance from the words stabbing his soul. If only the whiskey could dull the pain of his trashed career. “Is there anyone else? Anyone at all?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. If Scott hadn’t sighed, Jason would have thought they had been disconnected. “I’m going to lay it on the line. Two years ago, teams would have been lined up for you. A Gold Glove. A batting championship. You had it all. Since then, your shoulder injury severely limits your worth. A first baseman post rotator-cuff surgery is a risky option. Most players retire or are never the same. You know this.”
“Yeah, but it’s fine now. Healed and strong. I took the time off. Did the rehab. Even the doctor said it’s solid.” He sipped his scotch, wishing he could ignore his reality, the one he had spent too many months diving into drink to avoid. “That’s not the only thing, is it?”
“Karma’s a bitch. I told you years of partying and rumors scare teams off now. Especially after the Senate hearings on steroids.”
Jason slammed his fist on the table, almost knocking over the glass and shaking popcorn out of the bowl on the table, the familiar bolt of anger still stinging after a year. The people in the booth next to him gave him an alarmed look. He inhaled deeply and exhaled as a former lover, a yoga instructor had taught him.
Slightly calmer, his voice was lower when he finally spoke. “I never took steroids. No one could prove it. That damned Senator Kendall and his witch hunt, all for his own publicity.”
“That certainly didn’t help. Teams are gun shy. They don’t want an injured player with bad press.”
“No one wants me.” He let the bitterness strangling him lace the words.
“No.” Scott paused, clearly unsure how to proceed. “The Knights need an experienced player and a first baseman. It’s not a great contract, but it’s a start. No matter what happens, if you keep your private life clean, bat in the 300s, and field your position, you’ll be in a better place for next season. Maybe even back on top.”
Scott’s voice took on a note of pleading, as if saying it over and over would make it real. Based on the past year, nothing could change his reality.
“The contract is insulting. I’m worth far more than a lousy million. It’s a contract given to journeyman utility players, not a proven major leaguer.”
“Do you really have a choice?” Scott’s words bit deep, reminding Jason of the mess he’d made of his life. “You’re lucky to be offered anything at all.”
“Damn it. You know I don’t. My money’s gone, stolen by that weasel of an accountant. I have my pride, Scott.” A pride he would have to choke down if he wanted back into the game he loved. Or watch his career head to the showers like a worn out has-been, with no fanfare, no celebratory victory runs, no applause. Just a long, slow, solitary march down the tunnel into forced retirement and to a walk-on role at old-timers’ day. If he was lucky. At this point, being a greeter at Walmart was more likely.
“You can’t afford pride,” his agent quietly reminded him.
Pride dictated that he reject the offer. Practicality warred with pride, telling him that playing the sport he loved was more important and accepting the offer was his only choice, especially if he wanted to have a roof over his head and food on the table. But the insults and comments he was sure to hear from players and commentators would be worse than a bad hop right to the crotch.
He took a deep swallow of his scotch and let good judgment control his words for the first time in his life. “Get the details, and set up the meeting. I’ll be there.”
“Jason, watch yourself. Everyone is concerned about your image.”
“I’ll grab something to eat then go back to the hotel. To sleep. Alone.” He clutched the phone, its edges digging into his palm. “There are no groupies hanging around me anymore. Nothing to see. No one to do.” He snapped the phone shut and slouched in the booth. Resentment wafted out in waves, scattering the locals, who steered clear of him, the odd wary glance or suspicious look the only attention he received.
He had to accept the offer. It grated on him to let the team dictate his private life, like a teenager with the parents out of town. He glanced around the dim bar, more from habit than any real interest. His ego taunted him to find a playmate and blow off some steam, prove he was in charge of his own life, not some pencil-pushing general manager. Prove he still had something people wanted, even if it was only sex, because his fame, fortune, awards, respect were all gone. No one wanted him for anything, not even a lousy endorsement selling Viagra.
The crowd parted. An auburn-haired siren, perched on a barstool, sipping a real drink, not a white wine spritzer or something feminine, one of those frou-frou drinks. A real woman. A woman who dared him not to look.
He never could resist a challenge.
As if sensing his interest, she turned sideways on the stool and crossed one knee over the other, her legs going on and on and on, ending in a high heel that could have doubled as a weapon.
Damn. His groin tightened and pressed against his jeans.
She was not the typical barfly, not for this dive. Even though she was in jeans, they were too new and the blouse too high-class, too expensive, too perfect for this mostly blue-collar bar. The patrons recognized quality, judging by the half-hearted, lame pick-up lines being served to her like yesterday’s bread. Her auburn hair was twisted up into a knot, a few tendrils tickling a long, creamy neck. He wanted to loosen that rich hair, feel it cascade over him, bury his face in her neck, and inhale her subtle perfume.
Stupid. Fantasizing about a woman after being told specifically not to get into trouble. He passed off the interest as a by-product of a year-long celibacy. Too bad his rebel side thumbed its nose at being controlled.
The woman deliberately loosened a button on her blouse. She licked her lips, a come hither look in her eyes. Lust slammed him deep in his groin and he felt a stirring that had everything to do with things he should not be doing. Yes, he still had something, sex appeal, the one thing he never lost.
She would be perfect to forget his lousy life.
She met his gaze and flicked a couple of buttons open, displaying more than a little cleavage. Whoa. What a look, sex and sin all rolled into one hot stare. The room temperature rose several degrees. “Yum,” she murmured, not intending anyone to overhear, but she should have known Sophie, her conscience, heard everything.
“Yum, the drink or yum something else?” Sophie followed Stacia’s gaze to the back of bar.
“Yum. Tall, dark and, most importantly, not my regular type.”
“What are you doing, Stace?” Sophie groaned. “I know I said to open up a little. But this?”
“It’s time for this good girl to cut loose. Just once, I don’t want to make decisions. Just one night. I know we talk about a one-night stand all the time, but tonight, it’s my night.”
A man next to her swiveled on his stool to look at her through bleary eyes, not too drunk to miss her declaration. Clearly, he had been here awhile, judging by the slight sway in his posture and the shake in his hand bringing the beer to his mouth. He grinned, the typical drunken how-you-doin’ pick up grin and opened his mouth.
“I’ll stop you right there, Randy,” Stacia interjected, not willing to patronize the local drunk. “We’ve been over this. Not interested. I’m flattered, but no thanks. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever.”
He shrugged and turned to the woman on the other side, who swayed almost as much as he did, but seemed flattered at the attention.
“Okay, that’s it. You’re cut off.” Sophie snatched the glass away from the bartender before he could set it down then moved it out of reach. “A one-night stand is the last thing you need. As of seven o’clock tonight, you’re unemployed, remember?”
“Not unemployed. Just no assignment. You’ve been suggesting this for years. I wasn’t ready back then.” Stacia grabbed the glass and took a healthy swallow. It was time she took control of her life, if only for one anonymous night.
“Now you are?” Sophie frowned, looked more like a headmistress at a girls’ school than her best friend. “I meant to start with some flirting, some conversation. Not tonight. Impulsive isn’t who you are.”
“Maybe it should be.” Stacia continued to study the man in the dark corner, heat building deep in her belly, anticipation growing, along with a reckless excitement.
“Maybe it’s the four Southern Comfort sours talking,” Sophie insisted, her words growing more strident.
“Does it matter?” She leaned forward slightly, displaying more than a little cleavage, exposing a hint of lace.
“You’re not really considering this are you? Crap, you are.” Sophie grabbed Stacia’s shoulders and turned her around. “This is the alcohol talking. You’ll regret this in the morning on top of your already crappy day.”
“He looks lonely. Maybe he could use some Southern comfort.” Stacia glanced over her shoulder, her eyes fixed on the corner booth. She slipped off the stool, and straightened her clothes, opening her blouse to hint at the cleavage exposed. A moment of nerves had her pausing. This was completely out of her comfort zone. What if he laughed at her? What if he wasn’t even looking at her? What if he took her up on her offer?
She fiddled with the buttons again, uncertainty holding her back. “How do I look?”
“Like you’re looking for sex.” Sophie smiled then smacked herself. “Not what I should be saying right now. This is still a bad idea, Stace.”
“Perfect. Wish me luck.” Stacia grabbed the drink from the bar and walked toward the back booth, hips swaying in what she hoped was a provocative manner. His stare was bold and he assessed her frankly. A feral smile crossed his lips, promising wicked fun and plenty of orgasms, if she wasn’t burned by the heat. Her steps faltered and her mouth dried. She took another sip of her drink to steady her nerves.
“Wait. Right now? How about something to eat, or another drink?” Sophie called after her, and then muttered, “Like she needs more alcohol in her system. Wait for me!”
Stacia ignored her friend, drawn by the magnetism in the stranger, all doubts erased by the promise in his gaze.
End of Excerpt