The low hum of music and laughter droned in Samantha Monroe’s ears, and she began to feel woozy. Maybe it was the two margaritas. Maybe it was the hellish week she’d just put in at the salon. Maybe it was the latest threatening letter from Wee Ones Academy beginning with the ominous sentence: “Due to your child’s unresolved toileting issues, we must ask you to find other daycare arrangements within two weeks.”
“. . . and then, you’re not going to believe this!” Sam’s best friend, Monté, continued entertaining the table with her blow-by-blow of last Saturday’s date with the Mad Unzipper. Since Sam was quite familiar with the tale, she let her eyes wander through the happy-hour crowd at the Lizard Lounge, noticing the group of young, carefree women at the bar, enjoying life, and she had to wonder . . . had she ever looked that happy? Had she ever felt as wild and sexy as those girls clearly did? Did she ever wear spike heels that high? Was she ever that young? Should she call Lily again to make sure Dakota ate his fish sticks and that Greg didn’t indulge in more than an hour of PlayStation?
“. . . and the man just stands his ass up from the couch, unzips, and says, ‘Monté baby, I got your python right here!’ ”
The explosion of laughter made Sam smile to herself, and she returned her attention to her friends. She loved each woman at that table, even if their behavior was bordering on obnoxious. That was the whole point of their Drinks & Depression Nights, anyway. The last Friday of every month, they’d have a couple drinks, bitch about work, life, love (or the lack thereof), and laugh a lot. Then make plans for the next time.
Sam looked past the zebra-striped upholstered lounge chairs and out the picture window. It was a wet and cold early November evening, and the season’s first snow was spitting down on the streets of Indianapolis. It was nearly pitch-dark by six o’clock these days. The holidays were just around the corner. No wonder tonight’s group consisted of only the most hard-core D & D Night attendees.
Sam glanced to her right to watch Monté McQueen tell her story, her black braids swinging with the rhythm of her words. Monté had been her coworker for thirteen long years at Le Cirque. She was a damn fine stylist and the most steadfast friend Sam had ever had. When Mitchell left three years ago, Monté had held Sam’s hand and advised her that a woman with kids didn’t have the luxury of giving up. Monté certainly knew of what she spoke.
To Sam’s left was Kara DeMarinis, one of her most loyal clients, looking fabulous and powerful in her usual fabulous power suit yet managing to be one of the most down-to-earth people around. Also at the table were Le Cirque owner and general business goddess Marcia Fishbacher and veteran salon patrons Denny and Wanda Winston, identical twin sisters with wildly divergent lifestyles.
And every one of these women was howling with laughter and smacking her palms on the tabletop at Monté’s story. Every one but Sam. She knew she should force herself to be more cheerful tonight, because these get-togethers were her therapy. Unfortunately, she was too damn tired for cheerful. She was too tired for therapy. In fact, Sam knew that if the most gorgeous man-babe in the world were to saunter through the front door of the Lizard Lounge at that very instant, partially clothed and completely raring to go, she’d be too tired for him, too.
With a sigh, Sam managed to use her last bit of energy to order an unheard-of third margarita, and when it arrived, she ran the tip of her numb tongue along the freezing cold glass, scooping up a few coarse grains of salt. As she swallowed what would be her only solid food of the evening, a variety of concerns wafted through her weary, tequila-soaked brain. Rent was due in three days, but Mr. Westerkamp hadn’t fixed the garbage disposal as promised—so would she face eviction if she refused to pay? Lily was still gunning to go to France with her class next year, but where the hell was Sam going to get an extra three thousand dollars to send her there? And Greg refused to get back into speech therapy, deciding the stutter itself was less painful than the teasing his classmates gave him for going to a “special” class.
Sam took another sip—a gulp, really—and felt her insides wash with the heat of the alcohol. Her mouth began to move. “I never did understand what is so wrong with being a kept woman,” she muttered. “If I could find a way to do it without damaging the kids, I’d gladly live in a penthouse with a chauffeur and a maid and a chef in exchange for giving some old geezer a little nooky every once in a while. I mean, where’s the harm in that?”
Dead quiet settled over the table, and Sam realized she’d uttered those rambling thoughts out loud. Kara gripped Sam’s upper arm and stared at her with big, brown eyes.
“If he’s not too old or geezery, of course,” Sam added as clarification.
“Well, sure.” Marcia rolled her eyes. “A girl’s gotta have her standards.”
“Tell me if the old coot has a brother,” Denny said. “I could use a sugar daddy myself, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt if he was partial to lesbians.”
“I don’t think lesbians have sugar daddies,” Wanda told her sister.
“I’m cuttin’ you off, Sam.” Monté pried the stem of the margarita glass from Sam’s tingling fingers. “And I’m drivin’ you home and puttin’ you to bed. We have a wedding party coming in for updos and makeup at nine tomorrow and you need your rest.”
“God. I just haaaate weddings,” Sam moaned. “I hate brides. I hate updos. I hate all those damn hairpins and all that freakin’ happiness, and at nine in the morning! It’s just not natural! I want to grab those brides by their shoulders and shout, ‘Don’t do it! Run away! Run before it’s too late!’ ”
Marcia blinked in concern, and Sam was making a mental note to never again have more than two drinks in the presence of her boss when Monté scooped her from her chair and stood her on her feet. “C’mon, Cinderella. Time to take a ride in the carriage before it turns into a big, fat pumpkin.”
Kara DeMarinis leaned back in the leather armchair and studied Jack Tolliver at leisure, aware there wasn’t a woman in the world who would classify the man as geezery. Oh, she’d heard him called a few other choice things over the years, such as misogynist asshole, arrogant dickhead, and booty-call bastard, but never geezer. So at least that was one hurdle she’d already cleared.
Jack finished laughing and relaxed his long athlete’s body against the antique cherry desk that once had belonged to his father, the late, great Indiana governor Gordon Tolliver. Jack shook his dark head and wiped his eyes. Apparently, Kara’s suggestion had made him laugh so hard he’d cried.
“I’ve always loved the way you think outside the box, but Kara, babes, you’re thinking outside the known universe with this one.”
“It’s doable, Jack. Remember when Errol Binder borrowed a neighbor’s golden retriever for his publicity shots? The man hated pets. And how about when Charleton Manheimer used his press secretary’s kids to stand in for his own grandchildren in that thirty-second public education spot? The grandkids were in boarding school in Vermont.”
Jack blinked. “No way.”
“Yes. So there’s some precedent for this. And I’ve known Samantha Monroe for twelve years. She’s great. She’s hardworking and responsible and middle-class—everything you’re not. And she deserves a break. She’s perfect.”
Jack raised an eyebrow and quirked those infamous lips of his. “You cannot be implying that I’m an irresponsible trust-fund slacker.”
Kara smiled back at him cheerfully. “Well, you are.”
“Fine, but if we’re being blunt, then let me just remind you that no woman is perfect, especially the ones that you can buy.”
“She’s not for sale. She would be more of a rental.”
Jack produced another hearty laugh. “Good God, Kara! I will not rent a fake fiancée! It is immoral and reprehensible, not to mention pathetic!”
Jack raked his large hands through his waves of dark hair, pushed himself up from the desk, and turned his back to Kara. He began to pace through the office as he thought aloud. “Besides, if I want to benefit from her strengths, I’ll have to eat her weaknesses, won’t I? Does she have a criminal record? Speeding tickets? How about her credit rating? Is she even registered to vote?”
Kara smiled to herself, watching the sway of Jack’s muscular bottom as he paced, the way the wide ledge of his shoulders rolled with each step. She knew there was no man less in need of dating intervention than Juicy Jack Tolliver. But Kara also knew that at this crucial point in his political career the emphasis needed to be on the quality of the women in his life, not the quantity, and Jack’s tendency to focus on the latter had suddenly become a bigger liability than ever.
“I’ve already started opposition research on Samantha—anything and everything your challengers could come up with I’ve got covered. So far, a spotty credit rating after her divorce is all I’m seeing, and that’s understandable. Makes her more sympathetic even.”
Jack shook his head, still facing away from Kara. He spoke so softly she could barely hear him. “What about Tina? Damn. She was a redhead. You know how I love redheads.”
“You’ve only been dating her a month.”
“It’s been a real good month.”
“She’s a twenty-five-year-old belly dancer, Jack, which may be entertaining to you personally but won’t exactly send the right message to voters. Besides, I don’t think she’s a natural redhead.”
“The color might be from a bottle, but it looks good on her. And for the record, Tina is a pediatric nurse who only moonlights as a belly dancer. And she’s incredibly flexible.”
“Good. Then she’ll recover nicely when you break up with her.”
“No one’s going to believe I’m engaged anyway.” Jack chuckled, staring up in exasperation at the room’s ornate pressed-tin ceiling. “I’m just supposed to wake up one day and bam!—I’m suddenly overcome with the urge to commit? Please. Who’s going to believe that crap?”
“People change, Jack. The voters would accept that you’ve matured, that you found the right woman and decided to settle down. It happens to men all the time.”
He glanced over his shoulder, one eyebrow arched, a green eye narrowed at her in doubt.
“And there’s plenty of time before the primary,” Kara continued. “A dinner here, a basketball game there, an anonymous tip to the Star’s city desk, and pretty soon you’ve got a blossoming romance in place before the February filing deadline. It doesn’t look rushed. And you’re golden.”
“Or I’m dead meat.” Jack whipped around. “Surely you realize I’d be nailing down my own coffin lid if someone discovers this little business transaction? Maybe, I don’t know, someone like Christy Schoen?”
Kara had anticipated this concern, and she nodded crisply. “I will micromanage the hell out of the media. I will personally keep Christy on a short leash.”
Jack roared. “Careful. That little bitch will yank your arm right out of its socket sniffing out a lead story for Capitol Update.”
Kara smiled. She’d been a guest on Christy’s Sunday TV show more times than she could count, and she knew all about the journalist’s pathological disdain for Jack. Kara couldn’t exactly blame her—no woman likes to get kicked to the curb in public. “You really were a real ass to Christy, you know.”
“Yes, I was. But pardon me if I feel the time for apologizing is long gone.”
“Well, we’ll handle Christy, because we have to,” Kara said. “As for the rest of the media, the secret will be a light touch. A little public exposure will go a long way with this. And you can always explain that Samantha and the children treasure their privacy.”
“Children?” Jack’s eyes went huge. “This rental woman comes with children?”
Kara shrugged good-naturedly. She knew this part would be the hardest for Jack, but it was also the piece that was going to appeal most to voters. “Three kids. I know them. They’re great. Her baby, Dakota, is the cutest little—”
“Stop right there.” Jack began laughing again, and this time his chortle had an edge of madness to it. “Sure, I’d like to be the newest senator from Indiana. I’d like that just fine. But Kara, there will be no babies rented in order to get me there. No kids. This is insane.”
Kara waved a manicured finger in the air. “Think about it, Jack. What would scream reformed more than having a hardworking divorced hairstylist and her three kids at your side? You can play it down. Let the voters make their own inferences. I’m telling you. It will work fabulously.”
“Absolutely not.” Jack shoved his hands down into the front pockets of his chinos and glared at her. “And I would think that after four campaigns and twenty years you’d know me better than that.”
Kara tilted her head and paused for a moment, then sighed. “That’s just it, Jack. As your longtime campaign manager and dear friend, I can tell you the truth, and the truth is that you’ve just been handed your last shot. Allen Ditto’s decision not to run for the Senate again is a gift, and if you don’t make it happen now, you never will.”
“That’s just one possible scenario.”
“It is the only one.” Kara eased out of her chair and walked to where he stood by the wall of bookcases. She gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Look, Jack, it’s been four years since you ended your lieutenant governor gig and two years since Christy helped the voters decide you were a punk-ass, sexist pig not fit for the Seventh District congressional seat.”
“Every focus group and poll we’ve commissioned has said the same thing—voters want to support you, but they can’t get over your reputation as a player, especially women voters. That’s all that’s keeping you from winning, Jack. The money is there—the Tolliver name still opens checkbooks—and we’re already well on our way to the three million it will take for this campaign. But honestly, I don’t think there’s enough money in Fort Knox to get you elected unless you make a gesture of the grandest kind.”
Jack squeezed his eyes shut and let out a hiss of disgust. Kara was pretty sure it was self-directed.
“You’ve got to show voters that you’re not the same man who was caught ogling a speaker’s booty at a teachers’ convention two years ago! They have to see that you’ve changed. That you have a new perspective on life and family and can better represent hardworking Hoosiers in our nation’s capital.” Kara paused, making sure Jack was following along. He seemed less pissed, so she continued.
“It’s creative campaign strategy. It’s a business arrangement. It’s a way to tweak your private life into shape on incredibly short notice.”
“Oh my God,” Jack mumbled.
Kara smiled big. “Let’s say Sam Monroe and her kids hang around for six months or so, then after the primary you can have a quiet, amicable breakup and, once again, ask that the public respect her privacy. No one gets hurt.”
“And how could we be sure she wouldn’t talk?”
“A simple nondisclosure clause. If she talks, she has to give back the money, and she’ll want that money. Trust me.”
“And think about it! Remember how Manheimer droned on at that homeless roundtable about how the Tollivers were too rich to identify with those in need and even owned a mansion that no one even lived in? Hey—Sam and the kids could move in here. It would be seen as an act of compassion and generosity. Am I a genius or what?”
Kara watched Jack chew his lip. She watched his fiercely intelligent green eyes scan his surroundings, calculating the truth of her observations, weighing the risks of her plan, and plotting his next move. Kara had known Jack since their freshman year in Bloomington. Jack was sharp. He was a man who could think on his feet, keep a clear view of what was critically important, and make his move right in the nick of time. It’s what had once made him the NFL’s hottest quarterback. It’s what made him a natural politician, like his father and his father before him.
Kara waited for Jack to say something—anything. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Jack’s bright green eyes flashed and he gave her a decisive nod, exhibiting the kind of clarity of purpose he’d need to pull this off. At that moment, Kara felt truly proud of Jack the politician—and Jack the man—and waited for his pronouncement.
“By any chance, is this woman a redhead?”
Copyright © 2006 by Susan Donovan