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Authors: Teresa Carpenter

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BOOK: Sparks Fly with Mr. Mayor
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“The endowment is a hot topic of discussion at many of the businesses on Main Street.” Dani's chin went up as if he were attacking her full-service salon and miniboutique. “I don't censor what my clients talk about as long as they pay for the services.”

“Well, aren't you the entrepreneur?”

“What's an ontriprenear?” Faith looked a long way up to ask Cole. “What's an endowment?”

“It means your mom is a smart businesswoman. And an endowment means someone who used to live here donated a lot of money for the town to use for community improvement,” Samantha answered Faith, and then she sent a narrow-eyed glare around the table. “And that's the end of that topic.”

“Is it time for dessert?” Four-year-old Gabe wanted to know.

“Yes,” his father confirmed and waved over the waitress. After all the orders were in, Alex reached in front of the high chair to take his wife's hand. “And now it's time for us to get to our purpose for this get-together. Samantha.”

“Yes.” Samantha beamed at Dani and Cole. “You are two of our favorite people, and we'd be so excited if you'd be Jake's godparents.”

Both thrilled and appalled, Dani glanced from her friend's glowing face to Cole's only to find her nemesis looking oddly vulnerable.

“Are you sure you wouldn't rather have Brock or Ford?” he asked, referring to two of his brothers who were married with kids.

Samantha reached her hand out toward Cole, but it was Alex who answered. “We want you.”

“Jake just loves you,” Samantha added. “Nobody else can make him laugh like you do.”

“Then I'd be honored.” Cole stood to shake his brother's hand.

Dani saw Cole meant what he said. He'd been surprised by the request, and touched. Maybe it wouldn't be complete hell if they ever had to act as guardians in the future. Not that a godparent was expected to take on such responsibilities in today's age, but Dani would.

In a heartbeat. This was one decision she didn't need to worry over or second-guess, one result she'd honor with pride.

She'd take all the kids rather than let them get split up. Samantha meant that much to her. She'd been there at the worst point of Dani's life. And Dani loved the boys.

Samantha was looking at her with tear-bright eyes. “Dani?”

“Of course,” Dani answered as tears stung the back of her eyes. “I'm flattered you would ask me.”

“You're the sister of my heart. There's no one I would trust my child to more,” Samantha said.

She stood at the same time Dani did and they laughed as they met in the middle for a huge hug.

“I feel the same,” Dani assured her. “You can count on me.”

“I always have. I'm so glad you're here in Paradise Pines now. The Sullivans are wonderful. They've embraced me and welcomed me into their extensive fold. But you and Faith are my family.”

Dani's throat closed as tears threatened to spill. She had grown up in foster care. Decent homes for the most part, but always somewhat impersonal.
Except for the short time she'd had with Kevin, she couldn't remember what it felt like to be part of a family. She didn't know what it meant to have a sister, but she figured Samantha came close.

“I'm glad to be here, too. This was a good move for us. Faith loves the boys.” Wanting to lighten the mood, she leaned close and told Sam, “On the way here, Faith told me she's going to marry Cole when she grows up.”

Samantha grinned. “He is a charmer, and she is a fan of his.” She bumped Dani's shoulder. “Her mama should take note. Oh, here's the waiter with dessert. I ordered us both a double-fudge sundae with nuts. We're celebrating!”

She gave Dani one last hug before returning to her seat where she threw her arms around her husband's neck and gave him a big kiss.

Dani turned back to her chair to find Cole standing there ready to seat her.

Perfect. Playing nice for Samantha's sake, she allowed him to assist her. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” His warm breath tickled her ear as he bent over her. “It looks like I'm going to be daddy to your mama after all.”

She sent him a quelling look over her shoulder. And he winked at her.

Oh, yeah, just perfect. Then she shrugged and reached for her spoon, ready to dig into double-chocolate fudge. Let him tease. Tonight was for celebrating.


to run for mayor.”

Dani removed the curlers from her client's hair one at a time, her attention more on the view reflected in her mirror than on the woman in her chair. Across the way, Cole Sullivan stood on the shallow steps of city hall talking to the owner of the hardware store and Dr. Wilcox, a chiropractor from the practice down the street.

Casual in blue jeans and a T-shirt, Cole stood several inches taller than the other two men as he listened intently to their discourse.

“Dani.” The urgency in Matilda Sullivan's voice drew Dani's focus back to her shop. “Did you hear what I said? We want you to run for mayor.”

“What?” Dani froze, her hand poised to drop a curler into the bin beside her. “You were talking to me?”

“Yes, dear. We've decided you're perfect for the position.”

“Oh, no. You're wrong. I know nothing about politics.” It was all she could do to make sense of the
propositions from election to election. “Isn't it too late to declare?”

“Tomorrow is the deadline. We've been talking this issue over for several weeks and I've noticed you listen more than you talk and when you do speak you're always the voice of reason. You're intelligent, calm and fair-minded. Paradise Pines couldn't do better.”

“I don't know,” Dani prevaricated, though it was a lie. Everything in her screamed

Matilda Sullivan continued. “We need a strong leader, someone the voters of Paradise Pines can sympathize with, someone with strength, resolve and determination. That's you, dear.”

“Please say yes,” Mrs. Day enthused. “As the widow of a hero, you'll make a very sympathetic candidate.”

Dani blinked at the woman and then glanced at the women gathered around the room. All looked at her with varying levels of hope.

She shook her head. The woman Mrs. Sullivan described was exactly who they needed, but that wasn't Dani. Oh, God, since Kevin had died, she was afraid of everything. To pretend otherwise would make her nothing short of a fraud.

“I don't feel strong.” It took all her willpower every day to get out of bed and put on a happy face for Faith. The need to provide for her daughter was what drove her to succeed at her business. Taking care
of Faith and the shop took all her time, stole all her energy.

How could she possibly take on this challenge?

“You have more strength than you know. You're a single parent raising your little girl alone. You're making a success of this shop, no small feat in today's economy. Dani, a lot of people respect what you're doing.”

“Thanks.” While the sentiment made Dani feel good, she realized it obligated her, as well. Her success came at the expense of hard work, but also at the good will of the citizens of Paradise Pines. These ladies were regulars. Even the controversy itself had proved profitable for her as her shop was used more and more as gossip central.

If Dani refused to run for mayor, would disappointment in her cause business to slow? She didn't like to think her clients or friends were so shallow, but that only meant they wouldn't consciously dis her. Subconsciously they may decide to cut corners by doing a home pedicure, color, perm, etc. On the other hand, running for mayor meant a lot of publicity for her and her shop.

It was a lot to think about.


“Cole, we're only asking for one more term. We need you if we're going to win this endowment contest.”

“You don't need me,” Cole denied, seeing a full-time return to his nursery and landscape business slipping away. He really needed to get back to work.
He missed his plants, missed getting his hands dirty. “The sports complex benefits more people and will generate more income. There's no question how the citizens of Paradise Pines will vote.”

“The supporters of the museum project are vocal and well organized,” Dr. Wilcox argued. “And your grandmother has a lot of influence. Only another Sullivan can sway the vote our way.”

A highly visible, highly vocal member of the city council, Gram did wield a lot of sway over public opinion in the small town. “J.T. has declared. He's a good man.”

“We need a Sullivan,” Harold Palmer, owner of the hardware store, reiterated.

Cole glared across the street at the shop window for What A Woman Wants, the beauty salon his grandmother frequented, the store owned and operated by the lovely Dani Wilder. He hadn't been able to get her out of his mind.

“They don't even have a candidate. You have nothing to worry about.”

“They will,” Wilcox predicted. “My wife told me they were going to ask their chosen candidate today.” He turned to face the street. “They've over at the beauty salon strategizing as we speak.”

A bad feeling came over Cole. “Who's the candidate?”

“The new gal,” Harold announced. “Dani Wilder.”

Perfect, Cole thought. The thought of the two
women in league together made Cole cringe. One was hard willed and manipulative and the other was a single parent driven to succeed, a dangerous combination. Hopefully Dani had the sense to turn his grandmother down. But after the way she'd rallied to Gram's defense, he didn't know if she'd have what it took to deny the persuasive old gal.

There had to be a way around this mess. Cole ground his teeth in frustration. The glass door in the next building over opened and the sheriff's office manager stepped out and strolled toward them.

“Lydia.” He nodded and smiled at the approaching woman. Tall and thin limbed, she wore her black hair cropped close to her head while intelligence lit up lively blue eyes. She'd been with the sheriff's department for over thirty-seven years. As long as he'd been alive. She grinned and nodded back. “Mr. Mayor.”

He shook his head at her formality, but she insisted it was a matter of respect. Just to tease, he winked at her before turning back to the businessmen waylaying him.

“What about J.T.?”

“Come on, Cole.” Doc Wilcox shook his head. “We need someone who knows how to handle women, and nobody knows women better than you.”

Behind him, Lydia tripped over her own feet. Once she caught herself, she glared at the three of them, and then she made a smart one-eighty turn and headed across the street to What A Woman Wants.

Cole dropped his head to his chest. He should have
said no sixteen months ago, then he wouldn't be in this position. He loved his hometown, the location, the people, the history, but he wanted his life back.

Still he sighed. “I'll think about it.”

The men clapped him on the back then crossed the street to their respective businesses. Which of course drew Cole's eye to the new shop right in the middle on the opposite block. Lavender and aqua dressed the windows of What A Woman Wants, the colors suggesting a calm and soothing experience within. Or so his receptionist informed him as she raved about the new shop.

He wished he knew what was going on in there. Would Dani run for office? Sharp, stable, the widow of a hero, she definitely had weapons to bring to the table.

With Gram's support, the two women made a formidable combination, strong enough to beat a lesser opponent. He'd planned to step back this year. Truly, he didn't want to run for mayor again, but he'd do it to protect the best interests of Paradise Pines.

Running his hand over the back of his neck, he had the absent thought he needed to get a cut soon. His gaze sharpened on the shop across the way. Oh, yeah, he needed a cut, and he knew just where to get it.


The bell over the door jangled as Lydia stormed into the shop and set her purse on the counter with a thump. “Sign me up, girls, I'm a convert.”

“Lydia, are you okay?” Dani stopped teasing on her updo to address the agitated woman.

“Steaming mad is what I am. I admit I was for the sports center. I've got grandkids. They like to play ball, and comfortable seats and a misting system sounded good to me.”

“It's okay, Lydia. You're entitled to your opinion,” Dani assured the woman.

“It's not that.” Lydia gestured over her shoulder to where Cole stood talking to Palmer and Wilcox. “They're over there hatching plans on how to
us women, like we don't know how to make up our own minds.”

“Oh, surely they didn't go there,” Mrs. Day huffed.

“Oh, yes, they did.” Lydia paced in front of the counter. She shook her head. “I expected better from Cole. He's usually smarter than that.”

Dani rolled her eyes. Why was she not surprised by Cole's dismissive attitude? “That's my problem with this whole controversy. The sports complex jocks aren't even listening to our side. It's as if we're children and they have to protect us from ourselves. It's insulting.”

Mrs. Sullivan placed a warm hand over Dani's. “You have the power to stop them.”

Dani sighed and gave in to the inevitable. “I'll think about it.”


When the door opened and closed again, all chatter abruptly ended. Cole Sullivan in all his
masculine glory sauntered up to the counter. He sent a smile around the room, touching each woman individually.

Dani swore she heard a twitter and had to control an eye roll. Instead she pasted on her own anemic smile.

“Mayor,” she said, “can I help you?”

“I'm here for a cut.”

“Oh.” She hadn't expected that. She glanced at the three occupied stations. “It'll be about twenty minutes before anyone's free. Would you like to come back?”

“I'll wait.”

Dani tried to outlast Cole, hoping he'd get tired of the female chatter and peel away.

No such luck. And thirty minutes was all the proprietor in her would allow.

Her second hope, that the shop would empty out so there'd be less of an audience for the impromptu performance, was also doomed to failure.

Not only did nobody leave, new customers joined the crowd until her little shop nearly burst at the seams. The shop featured three hair stations, three pedi-massage chairs and two nail stations. Including her there were only four stylists, but no one seemed to mind. Every seat was occupied, plus two women wandered through the shop's miniboutique in the sizable lobby.

At least she'd profit from Cole's visit.

“Mr. Sullivan.” She gestured for him to take a seat in her chair.

He sauntered over, tall and lean and graceful. Dani swallowed hard but held her ground.

Before he sat he leaned close. “Call me Cole.”

“Sure.” Her smile was all teeth. Not going to happen.

Determined to play this cool, as if he were any other customer, she fought an unnatural reluctance to touch him and fanned her fingers through his hair. For a good cut she needed to get a feel for the texture, curl and resiliency. Soft to the touch, his dark brown hair clung to her fingers as she combed the thick, healthy waves.

Sexy. And sweet sugar cookies, he smelled good, like clean earth and clean man.

“What do you want done today?” she asked.

Hearing the unusual huskiness in her voice, she gave herself a quick internal pep talk.
Pull it together, girl. You're a professional, he's a client, you can do this.

“Same style, just shorter.”

“Right.” Picking up a spray bottle, she met his blue gaze in the mirror, careful to keep her demeanor cool and professional. “The cut comes with a shampoo or, if you prefer, I can just spritz you?”

“Oh, I want the whole experience.” The words challenged even as his eyes glittered an invitation to enjoy the adventure.

“Of course.” Dashed hopes were piling up. He
wasn't going away and he wasn't going to make the visit easy.
Well, let's see how he likes the smock.
She used the garment instead of the cape because she felt it gave the shop a spa vibe.

Looking at the wide span of his shoulders, she grabbed an extra-extra-large from a lower drawer.

His eyes flashed as he donned the aqua robe, but he kept his comments to himself. She bit back a smile, wishing she'd had the guts to give him a lavender one. Yeah, let him embrace that adventure. But as always she played it safe.

“This way.” She led him to the shampoo bowl behind a lattice screen.

“You have some good plants in here,” he said. “The hydrangeas are nice. Did my grandmother bring them in?”

“Nice? They're gorgeous.” Dani gestured for him to sit. “She knows I love fresh flowers in the shop, so she brought them from her garden. They brighten the place up so much.”

“Yeah, we had some good blooms this year.” He sat and adjusted his length to fit the notched sink.

On the other side of the screen the chatter abruptly ended, though Dani doubted communication stopped. Instead it changed to whispers and low hisses as the women analyzed why he was here.

As she adjusted the water temperature and began to rinse Cole's hair, she felt the weight of his intense gaze. On his back, he really had nowhere else to look but at her. She was used to being in this position, but
somehow his scrutiny unnerved her. Routine saved her. She added shampoo and began to massage his head.

Well, the good news was he'd soon smell like product instead of all male.

Her thought finally caught up with their conversation. Right, he owned a nursery; of course he'd help his grandmother with her yard. Dani squirmed, knowing she shouldn't begrudge him the compliment, but something about him scratched her wrong.

“Your rubber plant is looking sad, though. It probably needs to go outdoors.”

The criticism stung, adding to the disturbing itch. “I've seen lots of them indoors, and I really like the look of it.” She struggled for a moment between defensiveness and the health and well-being of her plant. Her love of plants won. “The corner it's in gets lots of sunlight, and I've tried some plant food. Is there anything else you'd suggest?”

BOOK: Sparks Fly with Mr. Mayor
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