THE MARRIAGE CAMPAIGN
For nearly two years, Congressman Wes Phillips has struggled to balance his new responsibilities with being there for his eleven-year-old son, still grieving after his mother’s death three weeks before his Wes’s election. But will hiring the generous-spirited Blythe Broussard to update Jack’s “little boy” bedroom help Jack let go of the past…or only further muddle the present when Wes realizes that not only is he falling in love with his decorator, but that Blythe’s past could seriously jeopardize both Wes’s and Jack’s future…
It wasn’t that Blythe Broussard hated Valentine’s Day as much as she had no real use for it. Like camping gear. Or a garlic press. Not that she was above glomming half-price chocolate the day after – if, you know, she happened to be out and there it was, languishing. Because if bargain chocolate was involved, what cared she what kind of box it came in?
Not that there hadn’t been a time when she’d wake up on Valentine’s Day, hope blooming in her heart that she’d maybe least get a card from a boy in her class. However, those memories were as relegated to the past as the few cards she’d received, from the few boys not intimated by a girl who, by the fourth grade, towered over them – an imbalance Mother Nature hadn’t rectified until well into high school.
At which point Blythe latched on to the first boy whose eyes met hers without getting a crick in his neck. And he, her. With far more enthusiasm than expertise. Or staying power. Unfortunately, by the time Blythe realized her deflowering was going to be memorable, all right, but for all the wrong reasons, it was too late to ask for her virginity back.
And naturally, said inauspicious event happened on Valentine’s Day. Fourteen years ago to the day, Blythe thought morosely, slumped in the faded blue velvet couch in the wannabe chichi bridal shoppe – yes, with the extra “p” and “e” – while her cousins Mel and April tried on bridal gowns in adjoining dressing rooms, for their double wedding four months hence. For which Blythe, God help her, had not only agreed to be their maid-of-honor, but to coordinate the event. Because decorating people’s houses somehow qualified her to be a wedding planner.
But as children, when they’d spent their summers together at their grandmother’s house in nearby St. Mary’s Cove on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the three had been like sisters. And despite drifting apart as teens, when they’d reunited some six months before to settle their late grandmother’s estate, it was as though the intervening decade had never happened. So Blythe would do anything for them.
Even plan their weddings.
Beside her, Mel’s ten-year-old daughter Quinn squealed, then bounced off the loveseat and over to the window, her bright red curls glimmering in the pearly light.
“Look, Blythe! It’s finally snowing!”
Sure enough, fat, lazy snowflakes floated from a flannelled sky, already clinging, Blythe realized when she joined Quinn, to the strip mall’s sidewalk, the dozens of cars huddled in front of the supermarket on the other side of the lot. She frowned, not looking forward to driving across icy bay bridges to get back to her house in Alexandria, on the outskirts of Washington.
“So it is,” Blythe said, checking her cell phone for the time. Two hours, they’d already been here. Behind her, she heard April’s musical giggle from the nearest dressing room. Please, God, she thought as she returned to her seat, let this be The One…
Quinn tromped back to join her, her momentary excitement about the snow yielding to the agony that was waiting for not one, but two brides to decide on their gowns. On a huge yawn, she collapsed against Blythe’s side. Smiling, Blythe wrapped one arm around her younger cousin’s shoulders. “Remember, you wanted to come along.”
“Because I thought it would be fun. Jeez, how long can it take to pick out a stupid white dress?”
Blythe chuckled, even though she totally empathized. “It’s a process,” she said, cramming memories of own wedding back inside her jam-packed brain. Although she hadn’t spent much longer picking her outfit – first white suit she saw, done – than she had her groom. Perhaps if she had, she’d still be married.
Or not. Although Giles hadn’t been…untalented, she thought with a quick twist to her mouth. Unfortunately, “talent” by itself hadn’t been a strong enough glue to keep them together. Which they both admitted, divvying out the blame for their marriage’s demise three years ago as equitably as they had the Williams-Sonoma cookware and Pottery Barn lamps.
At least April and Mel, now running their grandmother’s inn, had both had picked good men, men who were crazy about them, but not crazy. And both cousins seemed so confident in their choices, their love bubbling from some perpetually flowing spring Blythe could never quite seem to find—
“Ohmigosh, Mom!” Quinn popped up straight when her radiant mother appeared in a draped, corseted satin gown. “You look amazing!”
Kid did not exaggerate. Not only did the gown hug Mel’s generous curves in all the right places, but it was…Mel. Simple but not plain, elegant but sexy as hell. Exactly like the brunette wearing it, her gray-green eyes glittering underneath dark brown bangs.
“Oh, God, Mel…” Maybe the thought of getting married again made Blythe break out in hives, but she was truly happy for her cousin. After ten years of single motherhood, the woman deserved the something wonderful that was Dr. Ryder Caldwell, whom Mel had loved even as a little girl. “You look so damn good in that dress I could choke. And don’t you dare repeat that,” she said to Quinn, who rolled her eyes before rushing her mother and hugging her.
A moment later their youngest cousin April swished out from the dressing room in a beaded, strapless, tulle confection that oddly didn’t swallow the gingery blonde’s petite figure.
“April!” Mel said, planting her hands on her hips when April climbed up beside her on the platform. “Holy cannoli.”
“You got that right,” April said, her huge grin the only thing brighter than the blingified bodice, flashing like mad underneath the salon’s lights. Of course the alterations department would have to lop a good foot off the front of April’s hem and do some creative molding around Mel’s ample boobage, but other than that, the dresses were bang on. And, as different as they were, complemented rather than competed with each other.
“Well, come on – jack us up!” April said, waggling her hands at the two black-outfitted, smugly grinning consultants standing off to the side. A minute later, April sported a beaded, elbow-length veil that made her look like a fricking Madonna, while Mel opted for a clutch of silk camellias over her left ear. And it was all amazing and wonderful and too perfect for words.
As opposed to the weather, which, Blythe was horrified to note, was not.
Because by the time both brides were back in their regular clothes, the fluffy, lazy flakes had given way to a blizzard. A blizzard not even April’s hotsy-totsy Lexus, in which they’d all trooped up from St. Mary’s, was going to like a whole lot.
So much for getting back to D.C. Or anywhere, for that matter, a thought that made Blythe’s head hurt.
Or her cousins any too happy, either, apparently. The two cousins with Big Plans for the evening, what with it being Valentine’s Day and all.
“Can you drive in this?” Mel asked April as they pushed through the glass doors into the snow scene from The Nutcracker. But without the magic factor. Or the glorious music.
“I grew up in Richmond, what do you think?” April sighed out, then looked from Blythe to Mel. “I’m good with either of you driving, though—”
“No way,” Mel said, draping a protective arm around her daughter before spearing Blythe with her gaze. “And don’t even think about it. The way you drive in ideal conditions is scary enough.”
“And the pair of you,” April put in, shivering inside her jacket as she put her phone to her ear, “can hush up right now. There’s a Howard Johnson’s right across the street. And that big supermarket over there.” Both of which were barely visible through the wall of snow. “So if we’re stranded, at least they won’t find us dead of starvation in the car.”
Always the optimist, that April. “What about your guests?” Blythe asked.
“In February? Not to worry, we don’t have any bookings for the next two weeks—” She held up one finger as whoever she’d called answered. “Hey, sugar,” she said, in all likelihood to her fiancé Patrick. “It’s snowing real bad here, it looks like we’re stuck…”
This in stereo with Mel’s having virtually the same conversation on Blythe’s other side with her honey. Blythe, of course, had no one to call, no one to worry about her. Or disappoint, that she wouldn’t make it home tonight. No one who’d even know or care that she was marooned in some lame strip mall in a town so tiny it didn’t even show up on Mapquest unless you hit the magnify dealiebobber five times. Most of the time, she found it liberating, even exhilarating, not having to answer to anybody about her comings and goings. Tonight, though…
Probably something to do with the drop in the barometric pressure.
“Okay, I’m gonna go snag a couple of rooms,” April said, all sparkly-eyed and whatnot. God bless her. “So why don’t y’all go get some food? I’ll make sure there’s a fridge in one of the rooms…”
And off she went, trudging through the storm like the intrepid little pioneer woman she was clearly channeling. Nobody could accuse any of them of being wimps, that was for sure, Blythe thought as she scurried to catch up to Mel and Quinn, laughing like a pair of goons as they slipped and slid across the parking lot.
“Ohmigosh,” Quinn yelped as they got closer to the store, swarmed with people clearly convinced this was Armageddon. “Look…it’s Jack and his dad!”
Jack, being Quinn’s good buddy Jack Phillips, who lived a few houses down from the inn, and Jack’s dad being Blythe’s worst nightmare.
Or fantasy, depending on where her dreams decided to take her on any given night.
As if she needed this day, or her headache, to get any worse.
Oh, yes, Blythe was well acquainted with Wes Phillips, he of the dimpled, dashing politician’s grin that had, in all likelihood, gone a long way toward garnering the freshman congressman 62 percent of his district’s vote in the last election – despite Wes’s being that oddest of odd ducks, an independent candidate. Along with, Blythe had to reluctantly admit, policies that made him as easy on the nerves as he was on the eyes. Because the dimples came as part of a package that included honest, direct hazel eyes – complete with sexy crinkles, natch – and a jawline that would make Michelangelo weep. Also, he was tall. As in, tall enough that she could be standing in front of him in four-inch-heels – like, say, now – and those damn bedroom eyes were still level with hers.
Since this was one of those never-gonna-happen things, for many, many reasons, Wes Phillips could darn well keep his eyes and his jaw and his dimples to himself, thank you, and Blythe would content herself with the occasional, random, toe-curling dream, and all would be well.
“Ladies! What on earth are you all doing out in this nasty weather?”
“Um…bridal gown shopping,” Mel said in a might-as-well-come-right-out-with-it voice. Sure enough, Wes’s smile faltered. Not a lot, but enough if you knew what you were looking at. In this case, what Mel’s upcoming wedding probably meant to a man who’d lost his wife in the same car crash two years before that had also killed Ryder’s fiancée. While Mel’s return to St. Mary’s had obviously been instrumental in binding Ryder’s wounds, Wes was clearly still grieving.
Reason Number One why Blythe Had to Ignore the Dimples.
And Reason Number Two would be his son, who, even while talking to Quinn shot a hurt-littered glance at her mother. As often as Blythe had hauled Quinn and Jack around over the past few months, she’d had plenty of opportunity to observe, and listen to, eleven-year-old Jack. Caught in that horrible limbo between childhood and adolescence, the boy bore all the earmarks of a good kid ready to erupt…earmarks Blythe knew all too well. Earmarks she wished she knew how to alert his father to without sounding like a buttinski. Or, worse, like she was looking for a way to make herself, you know. Available.
Because – and this would be Reason Number Three, aka The Biggee – making herself available had only ever led to heartbreak and confusion and wondering why she’d even bothered.
However, the good news was that she’d finally caught on, that she was a much saner, nicer person alone than when she was in a relationship. So, hallelujah, she’d never have to fight for the bedcovers again—
“And what brings you out?” Mel said to Wes, and the smile ratcheted up again.
“The usual,” he said, hunkering down further into his olive green down parka. “Meeting with constituents, getting an earful. Trying to reassure while not making promises I know I can’t keep.”
Oh, and there was the issue of Wes being a politician. Almost immaterial on top of everything else, but definitely a contributing factor to Blythe’s ignoring how he was looking at her right now. Because she knew all too well what life was like for politicians, having worked with plenty of clients in the trenches. Or close to those who were. Their work was their life, the hours often horrendously long when they were in Washington, their time at “home” still eaten up with travel and meetings and glad-handing the people who’d voted them into office. That is, if one was the conscientious sort, which from everything she could tell Wes was. For that, she had to give the man props—
Mel looked around. “No entourage?”
Wes chuckled. “Not today. Sometimes I just get in the car and drive, stopping where the mood strikes, see if anyone’s up for chatting.” Dimples flashed. “Someone usually is.” His expression softening, he smiled for his son. “Gives Jack and me a chance to hang out. Catch up.”
But it was that very conscientiousness that caused, she had no doubt, the look she’d seen all too often in his son’s eyes – the son still smarting over his mother’s loss – even as it sometimes made her want to smack Wes Phillips upside the head.
True, it was none of her business. Nor was the kid neglected – Wes’s parents lived with Wes and Jack, and seemed to be the most doting grandparents, ever. But still. It was obvious how much the kid needed, wanted, his dad. And how much he resented having to share him with the entire Eastern Shore. And, having endured similar crappage from her own parents while growing up, Blythe’s heart broke for the boy.
Meaning there was no way she’d ever let his father anywhere near it.
Dimples be damned.
* * *
Happened every damn time he saw her, that kick to the gut that made Wes wonder if he was losing it. Because it was insane, the way Blythe Broussard got his juices flowing. Insane, and inexplicable, and highly inconvenient, what with his barely having time to figure out the why behind the insane, inexplicable attraction, let alone pursue it. Even if he wanted to, which he didn’t. He didn’t think.
But there she stood, holding his gaze hostage even from several feet away. Man, she looked at him like she wanted to do a Feng Shui number on his brain, her eyes huge, somehow accusing, a weird shade of deep blue in a pale, sharp-boned face. Her hair was almost as short as his and nearly a white-blond, her mouth a dark red few women could pull off and not look macabre.
She wasn’t even pretty, not in a conventional sense. And so unlike Kym, who had been. Still. Juices. Flowing.
Like the flippin’ Potomac.
He deliberately turned to Mel, as short and curvy as Blythe was tall and…not. “So are you headed back to St. Mary’s?”
The brunette snorted. “In this?” She gestured toward the snow, now coming down as if intent on beating all previous records. “No way.”
Wes liked Mel, was more grateful than he could say that her daughter Quinn and Jack had become close friends. Losing his mom and then, ipso facto, Wes as well, had been rough on the kid. And he was glad, he really was, that Ryder had been able to move on after Deanna’s death. But then, he hadn’t known her – loved her – for twenty years, like Wes had Kym.
“We decided to camp out at HoJo for the night,” Mel said. “And yourself?”
“Now that you mention it…I’m not wild about driving in this, either. Hey, Jack!” He called over to the two kids, standing in the parking lot, trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues. “You okay with hanging out here tonight?”
The kid turned. “At the Food Lion?”
“No, goof – at the hotel over there.” Then his eyes grazed Blythe’s, and the punch to his chest knocked his breath sideways. Not that he’d doubted the attraction was largely sexual, but after all those months of feeling like he’d mainlined Lidocaine…holy hell.
Must be the weather. Or the buzz left over from the afternoon’s schmoozings, reminding him of the reason he tossed his hat in the ring to begin with. That he’d left it there even after…
Wes jerked his gaze, and his thoughts, back to Mel. “If there’s a room?”
“I’ll see if April can book a third room,” she said, pulling out her phone as Blythe walked away, dodging a family coming out of the store, their three kids jumping around like snowsuited fleas. And he saw her smile, watching them, before their eyes met again and she flicked the smile off like a switch and turned away. Right. Because maybe all that gut-kicking and chest-punching had less to do with sex than it did aversion. On her part, that is.
Hey, it happened. He was a politician, after all, even if the term still didn’t feel right, like a pair of new shoes he couldn’t seem to break in. Plenty of people disliked him, simply because their vision didn’t mesh with his. Just came with the territory. And God knew nothing to get his boxers in a bunch over, even if his time in office – not to mention his campaign manager and half his staff – would try to convince him he was too nice for his own good.
Well, tough, he thought, as Mel gave him a thumb’s up – about the room, he presumed, before ducking into the store with the kids – because while sacrifice also came with the territory, he wasn’t about to slap his integrity on the altar. For anyone. Or anything. He’d thrown his hat in the ring for his own reasons, reasons many might consider idealistic, even naïve. But at the end of the day none of it meant diddly if he lost his self-respect. Not to mention his son’s.
“You’re not going in with them?” he called to Blythe.
She glanced over, then shrugged. “Nah, I’m good with whatever Mel gets.”
Wes nodded, feeling oddly out of his depth. Closing arguments, no problem. Ditto giving speeches, or discussing issues with constituents. Although he wasn’t an attention-seeker for its own sake, neither was he an introvert. Words, ideas, usually came easily to him, and one of his “gifts” was his ability to work a crowd. And yet, he hadn’t felt this tongue-tied around a woman since those agonizing months in the ninth grade working up to asking Kym out.
Not that this was anything like that, of course.
He closed the space between them, wondering what she was looking at so hard out in the parking lot. Boldly, Wes regarded her profile, the harsh, store-front lighting emphasizing the almost grim set to her mouth.
“Flurries, the weatherman said,” she said.
Wes faced the lot, his hands in his pockets. “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“Do they ever get it right?”
“Not a whole lot, no.” He cleared his throat. “So did your cousins find their dresses?”
“What? Oh. Yes. They did.”
“Weddings,” he said, shaking his head, remembering.
After a long pause, she said, “Was yours large?”
He shoved out a breath through his nose. “Yeah.” He laughed. “I barely remember it, though.”
Surprised at the tease – if that’s what it was – he laughed. “No. Too scared. Not that I didn’t want it – I would’ve married Kym at eighteen, if I could have – but when the day came, I panicked. You know – what am I doing? What if it doesn’t work out? That sort of thing. Then she started down the aisle, and all I saw was her smile…” He shook his head. “And for the rest of the night I blotted out everything but that smile. Only thing that got me through.”
A long pause preceded, “I’m sorry. Not about your wedding, about—”
“I know what you meant. Thanks.”
Blythe nodded, wrapping her arms around herself. “So. Guess we’re all stuck with each other tonight.”
“I wouldn’t worry too hard about it,” Wes said, ridiculously irked. “After all, we probably won’t even be on the same floor. So we wouldn’t, you know, have to see each other.”
Beside him, he heard her mighty sigh. “So much for hoping that didn’t sound as bitchy as it did in my head—”
Mel and the children burst out of the store, all carting bulging plastic bags. “Let’s hear it for self-checkout lanes!” Mel said, then started across the lot, her yakking charges in tow.
“We should probably follow,” Wes said, moving to take Blythe’s elbow; not surprisingly, she avoided him. Whatever. Still hugging herself, she cautiously stepped into the rapidly accumulating slush, completely at the mercy of her high heeled boots. Ahead of them, Mel – in far more sensible flats – was deliberately skidding in the snow as much as the kids. Laughing as much, too.
No wonder Blythe’s cousin been able to help Ryder move past his grief – even if they hadn’t already been childhood friends, Mel was exactly what Ryder had needed. With a pang, Wes realized he was envious, that Ryder was getting a second chance at something Wes doubted he ever would. Because despite everyone – his parents, his campaign manager, even his dentist, for God’s sake, pushing him to remarry – there’d never be anybody like Kym, ever.
The screech, not to mention the dramatic flailing, made him jerk his head around, then down, to see Blythe on her butt in the snow, swearing like a sergeant.
Grinning, he held out his hand. And prayed the woman wouldn’t bite it off.