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Authors: Teresa Carpenter

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She opened the door then impulsively went up on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Thank you for your help. I had a good time tonight.”

“It's about to get better.” He leaned close, stopping short of her lips.

Sweet harvest peaches, what was he waiting for? A protest? For her to pull back? What? She wanted him to close the distance, to take her to wonderland. When he didn't come to her, she moved the necessary
centimeter to reach him. Which was what he wanted all along.

And it was so worth it. Her lips on his, her arm around his neck, she sank into the kiss.

Once she surrendered and he had her mouth under his, he took over, claiming her with bold thrusts of his tongue. Oh, she liked that dance. Angling her head, she showed him how much and earned a low moan from him. Or was that her?

His hands left her face to trace her curves and she arched into him, telling him with her body she longed for more of his touch. He complied, pushing his jacket from her shoulders and running his fingers along the flesh left bare by her halter neckline. Heat flared from nerve to nerve, warming her insides, melting her bones, leaving her weak in the knees.

Too much, too fast.

She pulled back a scant two inches, rested her forehead on his shoulder. His touch sent her into such turmoil. With arousal at fever pitch it was difficult to think, but instincts died hard. Desire clashed with self-preservation, putting mind and body at odds.

She should send him away but couldn't make her arms release him. It felt too good to be held.

“How come you didn't dance with anyone tonight?”

“You must not have been paying attention.” He feathered his fingers through her hair. “I danced a lot.”

“Yeah, with matrons and married ladies. Why
didn't you dance with anyone young, pretty and unattached?”

“Because the only woman I was interested in held me to one dance.”

“Oh.” The tension drained from her shoulders and she relaxed against him again. A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. He always knew what to say to get to her. “Really?”

“Really.” He lifted her chin on a knuckle so she was forced to look into his eyes.

The raw passion caused the breath to catch in the back of her throat, but the sincerity and caring prompted her to take his hand and lead him inside.

He allowed her only a step before he pulled her to a stop. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Stay.” When he looked at her, she felt he really saw her, Dani, the woman, not the mother, businesswoman or candidate. He made her feel beautiful, desirable, alive. And she wanted more. She wanted it all.

Above all, she wanted Cole.

And she got all of him. Once he had her assurances, he gave her no chance to change her mind, taking her deep with the next kiss, heightening her arousal with skill and patience while maneuvering her to the bedroom.

 

Lying in Cole's arms, Dani savored the closeness she'd missed for so long.

He burrowed his nose against her temple. “Now that's what I call dancing.”

She kissed his chest. “I'll say this, you sure know how to tango.”

He rolled so they were nose-to-nose, her feet tangled around his shins. His gaze probed hers. “Are you okay?”

She smiled and lightly traced his jaw. “Better than okay.”

Everyone made him out as just a charmer, yet he was so much more than that. He was loyal and smart and altruistic. He gave far more than he took. And he cared. More than she did.

More than she could.

“No.” He kissed her, trying to bring her back to the moment. “Stay with me.”

“I want to.”

“Then do.” He linked his fingers with hers, brought them to his mouth for a little nibble. “Let's deal with this. Tell me about him.”

She rubbed the sole of her foot over his hair-roughened calf as she gathered her thoughts. “He was the home I never had. He promised he'd always be there for me. But he lied.”

“Dani.” Cole cupped her cheek, his touch demanding she look at him. “It wasn't his fault he was taken from you.”

“I know,” she said with stark honesty. “It was my fault.”

“No.”

“Yes. I sent him to the store. He would never have been there, but I sent him for coffee and diapers.”

“That's just life.”

“No, you don't understand. I didn't think. I didn't weigh the consequences of my decision. Didn't consider what was more important, having coffee in the morning or my husband's life.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Compassion lit his eyes. “And you've been second-guessing every decision since then.”

“Second-, third- and fourth-guessing.” It shamed her to confess it, but she'd already revealed her weakness to him once before.

“It's a wonder you let Faith out of your sight.”

“For the first six months I didn't. It's still hard. Worse, once I make a decision, half the time I wish I could call it back. Like running for mayor. Thank God there's no chance I'll win, because I'm woefully unqualified to run the town.”

“It would probably be the best thing for you. Force you to get over this part of the grieving process and move forward.”

She stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“You're still in the denial phase. Once you accept—”

“I know Kevin is dead.” She pulled away and, sitting up, used the comforter to cover herself. “I live with the fact every day.”

“You mean you beat yourself up every day.” Cole pushed up to sit against the headboard, the sheet
pooled in his lap. “It wasn't your fault. It wasn't his. Certainly it wasn't your decision that killed him. The man with the gun killed him. Kevin just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Because of me.”

“That might be why he went, but it's not why he died. Did you tell him what store to go to? Did you have control of the traffic or the number of people in line at the store? A lot of factors enter into why he was in that spot at that time, most of them having nothing to do with you.”

She chewed her bottom lip, letting his words roll around in her head. She wasn't ready to say he was right, but he did have points she hadn't considered before. Things she needed to think about. Because, Lord, she was tired of being uncertain.

“Dani.” Cole swept his thumb over her tortured bottom lip, soothing the swollen skin. “I know it's hard to disassociate yourself from what happened, but consider this: you don't blame Faith because she needed diapers.”

She blinked at him, struck by his words. Of course she had never blamed her innocent baby. Faith's needs had nothing to do with the drugged-up thug with a gun. And Dani understood that was the point Cole wanted her to reach for herself.

It was something to think about, because the Lord knew she needed to get her mind to a better place, not only for herself but for Faith, too.

Moving to Paradise Pines had made such a
difference. It had given her control of her life again, forced decisions on her.

Even running for mayor had helped. Maybe because so many decisions were needed so quickly it was impossible for her to agonize over every one.

And then there was Cole, who made her feel rather than think. He defied all her good intentions, her cautious planning, her fretful denials.

Thank God.

“Hey, beautiful.” Cole trailed a finger down the naked length of her back. “I didn't mean to make you sad.”

She shivered at the sensual touch. It was just what she needed to bring her back to the moment.

Half turning to him, she eyed him through her lashes. He was sprawled in splendid male dominance, confident yet compassionate, demanding but giving. It stunned her to see him in her bed.

“I can't remember the last time I was this happy.”

His self-satisfied grin made her pulse trip again.

“I should send you home. I have a debate tomorrow, I need to be fresh.”

“You want me to leave?” The smiled dimmed, his disappointment clear and immensely flattering. Yet his gaze held no censure, no reproach.

“I didn't say that.” She crawled up the bed to him. “Why don't I see how happy I can make you?”

CHAPTER TEN

T
HE NEXT AFTERNOON
Dani opened her shop and took the Closed for Debate sign from the window. She stepped aside and let her unofficial campaign committee parade through the door.

It was a relief to sit at her station and kick off her shoes. Gram settled in the chair next to Dani. She glanced at the somber older woman, and then looked around the room at the slumped shoulders and subdued expressions. She'd let her team down.

“Tell me again why we fought so hard for a debate?” She threw the question out, knowing it was the one on everyone's mind.

“We wanted to be heard,” someone muttered.

She closed her eyes then opened them to gauge reactions. “Tell me truthfully, was that as big a debacle as I think it was or am I being overly sensitive?”

“Oh, it was bad,” Mrs. Day confirmed. “But you kept your cool. You were informed and intelligent and you tried to keep on topic.”

“Yeah, Dani,” one of the young wives said. “You did a real good job of hyping the museum/garden
proposal and the need to keep tradition and history alive in the community.”

“Not that anyone heard her.” Lydia cut to the chase in her blunt manner. “Heck, for that matter they didn't hear Cole either. So in that regard we didn't lose ground.” She sent Dani a baffled glance. “Or we wouldn't have if you hadn't started campaigning for him.”

Dani's cheeks burned.

“To be fair, he did a good job of campaigning for her, too,” Gram interjected on a wry note.

“We needed more preparation,” Samantha said, “and a better format. I thought you were brilliant to open the questions to the public. It was an opportunity to directly address their concerns.”

“Yeah, except their concerns had more to do with my social life than community affairs,” Dani lamented.

“Oh, they seemed very interested in community affairs,” Lydia said, tongue in cheek. “Yours.”

“Oh, my gosh.” Dani had to fight to hold her chin up high. “I've never been so embarrassed in my entire life.”

“I thought it was so romantic how Cole kept coming to your rescue,” a dark haired woman said. “Nobody can blow hot air better than that man.”

Dani shot forward in her seat. “That's not true. Cole is honest and sincere. He came up with those great modifications to the sports complex, adding the statue of Anderson along with the fountain and
historical plagues. Cole is a well-respected businessman who's put his own interests aside for the past year to help run this town—”

“All true,” Gram cut into Dani's defense of her grandson. “And he blusters better than anyone I know. He pulled out all the guns today. I think the crowd's biggest disappointment was they went away with no new information about the two of you.”

“Yeah.” Samantha pouted. “I'm one of that crowd.”
Call me
, she mouthed to Dani.

Dani fanned herself; her stylist's chair had just become the hot seat. “That's because there's nothing to say.”

“Uh-huh, that's not what my cousin says.” The young wife shook her finger. “She saw Cole's truck outside your place when she went out for the paper this morning.”

“Oh.” Small towns, you had to love them. Or move. And Dani was here to stay. “He dropped me off last night—”

“Dani.” Lydia stopped her. “It's all right. We're happy if you're ready to welcome someone into your life. And Cole is a scoundrel, but we love him. And he's a free agent. Plus you're right, he stepped up for the town.”

“Well, we can honestly say we made history in Paradise Pines today,” one of her more chipper supporters said. “It was our first public debate.”

There were several hums of agreement.

“And probably our last,” Mrs. Day avowed.

Everyone laughed.

“I can promise you it was my last,” Dani stated with vehemence. “I'm sorry, ladies, but I'm pretty sure I won't be winning the election. And it's pretty much a given there will be no museum and botanical garden.”

“We put up a good fight, that's what counts. The modifications Cole suggests for the sports complex sound pretty cool.”

Dani winced. She'd gotten carried away in his defense and blown the secret about his plans. He'd immediately donated the plans to the city as an example of changes that could be made to better suit the needs of the city.

“Hey,” the dark-haired gal piped up, “those plans prove they listened to us. We were heard after all.”

A shout of approval went up.

“And the debate wasn't wasted. It saved the dance.” The blonde wife chimed in. “Afterward, my husband apologized for being so high-handed. And we made up.” She giggled. “Twice.”

“Nice.” Another woman nodded. “It was the same for me. My husband said he missed me so much we left the dance early, and he promised never to try to tell me how to vote ever again.”

There were echoes of the same from all over the room and the mood changed, became downright cheerful. Dani began to feel better. They may not have won the war, but they'd definitely scored some victories.

Samantha wandered over and leaned against the counter behind Gram and Dani. “Well, it looks like the museum and garden are casualties of the battle.”

“True,” Gram agreed. “But the women wanted to be heard, to have their husbands respect their opinions. They've gotten both.”

“I'm happy about that.” Dani swirled her chair around to face the two women. “It means my running for office hasn't been a total bust. But it's a good thing I have no chance of winning, because I can never show my face in public again.”

 

J.T. won the election.

Which was both a relief and unexpected.

Late on Tuesday night, long after the city election results were declared, Dani kissed Faith's cheek and tucked a blanket up around her shoulders. Surprisingly, the election results gave her mixed feelings. Sure, she was happy—she'd never really expected to win—but she also felt an odd sense of letdown. Not really disappointment, more the end of something special.

Running her fingers over the silky softness of Faith's hair, the feeling eased. Nothing was more important than having time for her daughter.

Exhaustion from the long day started to drag on Dani. She quietly rose, set the night-light and closed the door.

Tonight she'd turned the shop into election central,
brought in food, sodas and a TV to watch the results trickle in. Despite the loss, the atmosphere had been one of a party. She and her supporters had found a victory they could accept and that's what they celebrated.

In her bathroom, Dani brushed her teeth. One thing she would keep from this whole experience were the friends she had made.

Before she stepped into the shower, a knock sounded at the door. Pulling her sweater back over her head, she wondered who was here so late, though in her gut she knew. With the election on top of them, she and Cole hadn't found a moment to be alone together since Saturday night after the dance.

The memory of being in his arms added zip to her steps.

Yep, Cole stood on her doorstep, bad-boy handsome in his black leather jacket. His crooked grin and the bottle of champagne in his arms told her he was as happy with tonight's results as she was.

He swooped in for a kiss so luscious it warmed her in the chill of the open doorway. When the caress ended they were inside.

“Hello,” he said, his breath cool on her damp lips. “I've missed you.”

“Me, too.” She grinned, suddenly revitalized. “Congratulations on your loss.”

His lips curled up. “You, too. I brought bubbly to celebrate.”

“So I see.”

“I borrowed a friend's car and parked a couple of houses down.”

She groaned. “You heard about that?”

He nodded.

“I hope your friend's and my neighbor's reputations can handle it.”

“There are three other cars just like it out there. Somebody would have to be looking for trouble to make something of it.”

“Well, then.” She kissed him softly. “I'll get some glasses.”

He followed her to the kitchen with the champagne, and she directed him to the drawer for a corkscrew. With deft skill he popped the cork and bubbles foamed up and over the edge of the bottle. Watching Cole at work in her kitchen left Dani feeling as light and fizzy as the wine spilling into the glasses.

Taking his hand, she led Cole into the living room and snuggled into the corner of the couch with him. She clicked her glass against his. “Congratulations, J.T.”

“Amen.” Cole sipped. “He's a solid guy. Paradise Pines is in good hands.”

“Hmm. I like his wife, too.” Dani smiled as the wine tickled its way down her throat. “He stayed out of the endowment controversy, do you think that's what won it for him?”

“Maybe. The sports complex took the vote, but J.T. told me there were enough write-in comments for my compromise plans that he wants to see a formal
proposal to present to the new board. And if they decide to use the donated plans, they'll hire my company to do the work.”

“I'm so glad to hear that. I'm sorry I blew your secret. But I have to tell you, my supporters look on those plans as a victory for our side. You're brilliant.” She kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”

He cupped her cheek as he lowered his head and took her mouth. She moaned her pleasure at his sensual mastery as he sought the taste of her. When he lifted his head, she sighed and shifted, nipping his jaw lightly and then soothing the small bite with soft licks of her tongue.

He took her glass along with his and set both aside on the table then turned back to lie against her. Grinning, she looped her arms around his neck and pulled him the last few inches until they met mouth-to-mouth.

With soft murmurs and whispering sighs, he lavished praise on her, telling her how beautiful she was. She could live in this moment. Did live when so often she simply existed. Equally tender and demanding, he took her from languorous to satiated until she melted in his arms.

Sighing, he turned them so they were on their sides facing each other. “You make me wish the nights had more hours so I could hold you all the longer.”

Eyes closed, she smiled. “Sweet-talker.”

She felt his sudden stillness and opened her
eyes to focus on his. The blue depths held a serious intensity.

“Just because it's sweet doesn't mean it's not true.”

“I know.” She traced his lips with a single finger.

“Yes,” he agreed. “You've always seen me better than most.”

“They've known you longer, believe the facade you've taught them to see.”

He half smiled. “They should. Even I believe the charade most the time. But not when I'm with you.”

“It's not a charade,” she protested. “It's who you are, and there's nothing wrong with being charming and friendly and funny, because you're also so much more than that. You're smart and talented, confident and caring.”

“Stop. You make me sound like a Boy Scout. What I'm trying to say is it didn't matter what people thought of me until you came along. That was my first hint you were different than the other women in my life.”

“I'm different?” she asked.

“Special,” he confirmed, his gaze steady on hers. “Which you proved when you moved the rubber plant on my advice even after you threw me out of your shop. And I was a true goner once I saw your yard. Your garden is a fairyland for your daughter. And
the backyard a safe haven for play. How could I not fall in love?”

“What?” Dani sat up and looked down at Cole. The world suddenly moved too fast. “You love my garden?” Surely that's what she'd heard.

“I love you.” He grinned, dimple flashing, confident, sexy.

“Because of my garden.” Her heart pounded out of control. She'd just gotten a reprieve from becoming an elected official; now Cole was declaring his affections. She couldn't think, couldn't juggle emotions fast enough in a spinning universe.

His avowal both elated and terrified her.

And typically he showed no hesitation.

“Partly. Mostly because you're resilient and brave, accepting and obstinate, incredibly gorgeous and a really good mother.” He reached up, caught a tendril of hair hanging in her eyes, and tenderly tucked it behind her ear. “Let's give Faith her wish. Marry me.”

She shook her finger at him. “That's not funny.”

“It's not meant to be.” He sat up, too, some of the joy fading from his features. “I'm serious.”

“Cole.” She picked up his hand, so strong yet capable of exquisite gentleness, just like the man. “We've barely got past being enemies.”

“We've never been enemies, opponents sure, antagonistic maybe, but never enemies. I have too much respect for you.”

“I respect you, too.”

“No, don't do that.” He stood and reached for his clothes. “Don't start pacifying me. Don't pretend what you don't feel.”

“I'm not,” she assured him, trying to think, to keep up with the deteriorating conversation. She knew he wanted more from her, expected a reciprocating statement, but he'd caught her off guard. “I do respect you. And…I care for you.”

His face turned stony. “I love you.”

“Cole, I'm sorry. I know you want more from me, but I haven't gotten that far. I've barely allowed myself to admit I want you. I need time.”

“Sure.” He stuffed his feet in his shoes and grabbed his jacket on the way to the door. “Take your time.”

 

“Cole proposed?” Samantha eyed Dani through suspicious green eyes.

“Yes.” Dani nodded. Just saying the words out loud gave her a brain freeze. Yet at the same time her heart pounded, not with anxiety but with longing.

“As in marriage?” Samantha clarified.

“Yes,” Dani confirmed, her gaze flicking to where Faith and Gabe played in the child's play area of Parkway Plaza. The inside mall was great for shopping therapy and Dani had dragged Samantha along with her. As they sat with bags at their feet and flavored coffees in their hands, Dani had confessed what was bothering her.

BOOK: Sparks Fly with Mr. Mayor
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