SITTING AT A SMALL table in front of the restaurant’s only fireplace, the senator’s head is tipped to his cell. The few patrons left from the morning rush have a singular focus and I fall in line with them, relieved he misses my inspection. More relaxed than I saw yesterday, he’s wearing a dark blue cable-knit sweater with a high collar. It hangs open, exposing a muscled neck and the white T-shirt hidden underneath. I can’t look away, and it’s not because his sleeves are pushed to his elbows, exposing thick forearms as if he’s more professional athlete than presidential hopeful. It’s a feeling, like we were separated years ago and our reunion took too long to occur. Now that we’re together, I don’t want to miss a breath or a word or smile.
He looks up and the feeling spreads below the belt. I might say my world stands still. If people remain in the near vicinity, I stop caring. In a simple moment it’s me watching a cute boy with my heart somersaulting in my chest. But fairytales don’t exist in real life, and the connection is broken by a shattering crash in the kitchen.
I glance to the hostess and her batting lashes when she deposits me next him. He stands in greeting. “Is there anything you need, Senator McKenna?” she asks in a voice much too breathy for a day job.
He shakes his head a fraction and says, “Charlie.”
That one word lives within me as a shiver. This pull, the draw I feel toward him, is beyond surprising. It’s never happened before. I can’t figure out why now, why him? Then it hits me. I’m not alone, everyone has this reaction. Few people possess the type of magnetism that casts a spell, yet he has it in spades. With my inexperience I don’t stand a chance to fight off his magic.
Keep it professional, Carter. I let the chant loose in my mind and hold out my hand, not expecting the sparks when he makes contact or the sudden lump I can’t swallow when his thumb draws warm circles on my skin. We stand staring; his eyes seek out mine and I wonder what he sees: the injured child or the sheltered adult?
A diversion comes by way of the waiter offering coffee. “Yes, please.” I beam with gratitude at him as he pours it, and then at the senator for pulling out my seat.
“Thank you,” I say and sink down.
He’s just as quick to relax next to me. “I hope you slept well?”
Okay, I can do this. He is, after all, a man; there are no lions at the table for breakfast. A smirk lifts the side of his mouth and I forget why we’re here. Oh, right: conversation, campaign, social media. “I did, and you, did you sleep well?”
The smirk stretches to a smile. “Better than I have in months.”
“Good.” I wish I knew what he’s thinking. Yesterday he was completely unreadable. Today it’s as if he’s lowered his shield and stepped away from battle, allowing me a glimpse of the man behind the mask. I glance to the fire snapping next to him, appreciating the heat on my bare legs.
“Are you cold?”
I shake my head. “It feels nice; I didn’t have my thermals to keep me warm last night.” I clench my jaw to hold a straight face.
He tips his head back and laughs. “Thermals?”
It’s deep and genuine, warming me from the inside out, and it spurs me on. “It’s very cold in Michigan, at nighttime especially. Thermals are warm; you should try them.”
“I think you say that in jest, Charlie.”
“You doubt thermals are warm?”
“No, I doubt you wear them.”
I shrug. He’s not subtle as he looks over my face and hair and then he catches sight of my shirt, his right brow lifting in question.
“A sudden fan of the Fighting Irish?”
“You like it?” I ask, opening the jean jacket I had stashed in the Blazer. Underneath is a kelly green T-shirt sporting the college’s logo. “I wasn’t prepared for the overnight stay, so I improvised with a gift shop find. Who knew they sell everything.” And I do mean everything. My ass is peppered with the same logo because apparently there’s a market for Notre Dame panties. Combine everything with my skirt from yesterday and I look more student than business professional.
“It’s the same color as your eyes.” There’s heat in his voice, so much so my stomach flutters. Okay…. It’s time for coffee when all I can think about are his lips, and what his mouth tastes like, how it would feel on my neck.
I focus on my mug, and the cream and sugar. “I like kissing sweet and light. No….” I hold out my hand, horrified. “I mean coffee—coffee should be sweet and light. How do you take yours?”
He smiles behind his cup and now his eyes spark like the flames by his feet. “Dark and strong.”
As in deep and wicked. Oh, for the love of God. I stop to think as the strangest thing sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear, you’re not nervous or intimidated. And this is not like me. I don’t flirt or banter with boys, let alone a lion. The ease of it, though, is what’s sending warning signals to my brain in bright blinking lights. A sign blaring careful-Charlie-this-is-life-changing is blinking in neon in the near distance, yet I can’t help but follow its stated course.
“Was that your first question?” he asks with a dimple digging into his cheek.
“One of many, yes.”
“You don’t want to know my credentials?”
I contemplate him, the soft wave of hair that escaped from the rest to lie on his forehead and the day’s growth of whiskers covering his jaw—smooth yet rough. In a flash of recognition I know his charm can win over the most difficult conversations, but underneath the perfection he has the potential to lose control. And that’s what I need to discern—how dangerous is he?
“No. I’d expect Evan Daugherty and the rest of your team vetted you against the pack before you spent millions to get where you are today. You’re asking me to leave my family for months, and to do that, I want to know the man under the suit. Tell me who Colin McKenna is.”
He tilts his head and I get the same calculated assessment. His eyes trip on my lips and then he pulls at his bottom one with his teeth before it pops free. “We don’t have anything between us but words, Charlie,” he says, leaning in. “But I need one thing from you.”
He rests his hand on mine. I hadn’t noticed I’d clenched the edge of the table, but the underside of the wood is rough where I’ve dug into the grain. I stare at his long fingers; feel the warmth and the weight and the zing of possibility that travels up my arm.
I drag my eyes to his. Green to blue, and I willingly sacrifice myself to the slaughter. “Anything,” I whisper
“Trust,” he says. “I’ll always give you my honesty and I expect the same from you.”
Oh. I nod, but sense he’s hungry for more. He wants my truth: the dark secrets of my soul.
My heart stumbles over the prospect and I get lost in a vat of overwhelmed. I don’t do change. I lived with my parents until they cut the tie and urged me into adulthood. I like my people, my places, and the familiarity of my day-to-day. The safety all of it brings. And he’s offering—what exactly? Rein it in, Carter. This is an interview, not a proposition. But I fixate on his left hand, still lingering over mine. There is no wedding ring and no indentation of one on his finger. He’s beyond gorgeous, successful, and running for president; I’m surprised he isn’t married.
“My wife died.” He pulls away and rubs the spot as if in memory of the ring that once was.
My eyes cling to his. “I’m so sorry, I….”
“It was years ago. Are you hungry?” he asks, motioning for the waiter.
Starving. But not for food, for the something new he’s offering. For the change that scares me as much as it excites. I swallow my heart as it pounds in my throat and pick up the menu. “Um… I’d like the blueberry pancakes with bacon, please.”
“And I’ll have the president’s special. What?” he asks when my brows shoot up. “It’s on the menu.”
I wave away his grin and set aside the crazy notion this conversation is anything but straightforward. “So what did you do before politics?”
“I rehabbed failing businesses. They still do. When I ran for office I transitioned the firm to my COO, but I remain the key stakeholder. My forte is determining why a company is deteriorating, get it moving in a new direction, and sell it for a profit.” He looks directly into my eyes as he finishes, “I like to find broken things, discover their secrets, and make them whole; mend and repair until they’re far better than before my interception.”
I squirm under the weight of his stare, as if he’s looking into me, searching again for my truth. “What’s the secret to your success?”
“I learned very quickly that it wasn’t about me; it’s not about my title, or the skills I have, or what I can do. It’s always about the people: their capabilities and motivation. People won’t follow someone because they have a title; they’ll support and do the right thing when influenced by someone they trust. Honesty and transparency are pivotal to a successful endeavor. With those principles and hard work, I push the companies and the employees beyond expectation, surpassing what they believed themselves capable of. Once it’s successful, I sell it and start all over again.”
“So why did you make the change to politics?”
He shrugs. “It’s always been my dream. Fundamentally, the business concept is the same, yet it’s on a bigger level. Very simply, it’s about peeling back the layers one at a time, identifying the problems, fixing them, making it better than it ever was and moving on to the next layer. It’s the ultimate challenge and I do it justice.”
I nod. It makes sense. “But you’re so young.”
“Should I wait until I’m fifty?”
“Maybe. I thought you had to, actually.”
“Thirty-five is the minimum age to run. I’m thirty-six; I’ll be thirty-seven by inauguration, if I’m elected. You think I’m not qualified?” he challenges.
“No, I don’t know you well enough to say that. I think there are a lot of people who will jump to that conclusion, though.”
“It’s one of the reasons why I need you.” My heart free-falls. I know very well he’s talking about business, but I feel his comment deeply.
Get a grip, Carter.
My reaction is bizarre. How is it that for years I’ve been immune to desire and at first sight of this gorgeous, completely out-of-my-league man, I’m salivating like a hormonal teenager? None of this makes any sense.
“I have so little experience. What if I fail you?” This is the truth; why would he look to me to assist him in this lifelong endeavor?
“Don’t make yourself uneasy. I’m very familiar with your experience. I don’t leave many things up to fate, Charlie, not in pursuit of the position I hope to have. I need you,” he says again. “You’re young with a fresh perspective.”
“But how do you even know who I am?”
“Evan has read many of your articles and came across a website you devised for Jay Tyler; he’s impressed, as was I when I did my research.”
My head swims. It makes sense he would delve into my past and qualifications, just as I would have done with him if I’d had time. The senator would be very thorough and in depth. He’d uncover everything.
“Think about how good we could be together,” he says as our food appears.
But all I can think about is the loaded meaning behind those words. We suspend conversation while we eat, and I’m amazed at how easy it is to be with him. The moment stutters into déjà vu, as if we’ve had a hundred mornings like this one.
“How are they?” he asks, pointing to my plate.
“Delicious. And your president’s special?”
“Are you turning your nose up at my choice?”
I shake my head. “No, I’d never call scrambled egg whites boring.”
He chuckles. “It’s called healthy.”
Boring, I mouth. “Here, try some of my pancakes; you can taste the difference between dull and insanely good.” I push my plate toward him an inch, encouraging him to take a bite.
He cuts away a triangle from the stack and I watch as he raises it to his mouth. Our eyes connect and the heat is back, raging uncontrollably at our table for two. It was only a pancake, for the love of God. How can it turn into this unbearable tension?
I have to look away. My appetite is suddenly gone; I can’t concentrate on anything but my heart and the thrumming energy under my skin.
“Charlie?” His voice is deep, with a rasping edge to it. I peek at his face where a small smile offers encouragement. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything insanely good, so thank you—for the pancakes.”
So he’s sweet too. Damn man.
“Will you leave today?”
“As soon as breakfast is over.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t expecting that. “And if I accept, when will I join you?”
“Will you accept?”
Now is the time to make a choice. To take a chance on living outside of my box. Albeit a comfortable and safe haven, it’s time to stretch into a new me.
His response spreads into a heart-stopping grin. “Good. I’d like you to spend a week at my campaign headquarters here in Indiana, and then meet me and the others on the trail.”
“Who are they?”
“My team, the people I trust the most. You’re a part of them now.”
“Oh.” The weight of the endeavor is heavy on my shoulders. “I’d like a few days to get my things in order. Will you send me the itinerary? I’ll also want an outline of your expectations for the blog and social media sites. With your input, I’ll put together a proposal.” It feels good to talk business.
“Yes, absolutely.” He glances at his vibrating cell. “McKenna.” His tone is different on the phone, different than his tone with me. Looking directly into my eyes, he responds, “Give me ten minutes… In addition, I’ll need you to get Ms. Carter specifics on the campaign as soon as possible… Yes, Monday.” After a pause he hangs up. His face, once relaxed and at ease, is fierce and he’s back on the hunt.
A second later he removes his napkin from his lap and stands. I assume he has the bill routed to his room because we’re done. Just like that. Breakfast is over and I have a new future. He steps behind my chair to pull it back.
“Thank you, Senator.” I stand and turn. Lost in a to-do list the size of the Himalayas, I head to the door.
“Charlie!” His sharp tone snaps my gaze from the paisley carpet to the waiter: a huge platter full of dishes is barreling toward me. The senator grabs my waist and tugs my back to his chest to avoid an embarrassing collision. In an instant, an absurd, illogical force grips tight and I’m its marionette, a puppet controlled by an unseen figure, bound to its demands. Closing my eyes, I bask for an instant in his embrace; the heat radiating from him to me fractures my heart into scattered palpitations.
A low rumble vibrates between us as his fingers dig into my hips. Oh, God. I swear his lips brush against my ear. I know he whispers, “Tell me you feel it too.” His breath is rough, it is, I feel it, but then he pushes me away. None of it can be true when I turn to find he’s raking his hand through his hair from root to tip, jaw tense.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t see him.”
“Please,” he says, motioning me to take the lead and past this crazy moment. He doesn’t have to worry; I’d jog if it’d fast-forward through my awkward reaction. He pushes the door open from beside me and we exit the restaurant together. When we’re alone in the lobby he takes hold of my arm and I swing around to face him.
He looks me over one more time, getting stuck on my lips and then my hair. His gaze lands on my eyes and I see a struggle rolling around in his blue storm. But he shakes his head, as if freeing himself from confusion.
“Evan will send you everything you need to be comfortable with a Monday start. I’ll meet you the following week in North Carolina.”
I reach for his outstretched hand and stare at our connection. He’s warm, firm, and electric, very much like his eyes that draw me in and hold me captive. It would be very easy to get lost in them; lost in him.
“Colin, have a safe trip.” It’s the first time I’ve said his name. I know it and I think he may too, from the parting of his lips. “Good-bye,” I whisper. Pulling my hand from his, I turn and rush toward the exit. I don’t dare look back; if I do I may say or do something I can’t recover from.
The sting of the cold January air is a welcome slap against my face, breaking through the haze created by this crazy intensity. Imagined or real, it’s profound and disturbing. Holy shit; we’re going to work together for months. Now that I’m away from him, I’m rethinking my agreement; I need to stay away from Colin McKenna.
Text copyright© 2014-2016 by Elizabeth Miller