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Authors: Teresa Carpenter

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“I will.” Faith raced into the house, leaving Dani alone with Cole.

She should have known better than to doubt him. He hadn't charmed women the better part of his life without learning how to counter an awkward moment.

He showed he'd listened, addressed the question in a global manner, and then used his questioner's own interests to distract her from the original query.

Very effective.

“So you do want kids someday?” she asked.

“Sure. I like the little guys and I think I'd make a good dad.”

She angled her head, considering him. Yeah, she did, too. “Are you planning to have a wife, too, or just a few of the little guys?”

He shot her a mock glare. “Of course I plan to have a wife. I know how the whole family unit works.”

“Do you? Then you know it takes some serious stick-to-it-iveness.”

He met her gaze straight on. “Contrary to popular opinion, I have been in a few long-term relationships.”

“Really? How long? When?”

An arched eyebrow berated her for the rapid-fire interrogation. Surprisingly, he answered. “I was with the same girl most of my junior and senior years in
college. And a few years ago I was in a relationship for over a year.”

“So what happened?”

“What do mean? Nothing happened.”

“So why didn't you settle down with one of them, start a family?”

He rolled his shoulders, obviously ill at ease with the direction the conversation had taken. “I wasn't feeling it. I liked both ladies—a lot—but not enough to build a family on. I didn't love them, but I didn't like hurting them either. Now I keep it casual and short-term. We have some good times and no one gets hurt.”

Dani studied him with narrowed eyes. Really? He expected her to buy a noble excuse for playing the field?

She found it convenient, but…unpracticed. Being in foster care taught a kid to read people early in life. From the sincerity in his eyes and the lack of tension on his face, Cole truly believed in his love-'em-and-leave-'em system.

Which made her wonder why he kept spending time with her. She had a child—already too attached to the man—and even before she had married and had Faith, Dani hadn't done short and sweet.

Was she high maintenance? No, she didn't think so, but commitment, yeah, she wanted to know the man was planning to make an effort. She'd had too many people come and go in her life for her to risk
her heart easily. And she preferred no affection to the false affection of instant sex.

“If you don't stick around and work at a relationship, how will you know when you've found the one?”

He looked around the yard, and she thought
evasion
, but he kept looking until he landed on her, sweeping his blue gaze over her hair until she felt the need to tug at her unruly ponytail. Then that intense gaze moved down, measuring the cling of her sweatshirt to her breasts and lower to the valley and curves of her body. When his eyes met hers, it took a blink to clear the fog from her mind. He made no effort to hide the awareness, the desire, in his.

“Oh, I'll know. It won't be work, for one thing. And being with her won't be something I can walk away from. That hasn't happened yet.”

“Sounds like you have it all figured out.”

“It's working so far. Actually, this conversation reminds me I wanted to ask you for a favor. I want to have a thing—you know, a brunch or buffet thing, at my place, to celebrate the christening. Since I'm not currently seeing anyone, I wondered if you'd help me put something together.”

“Oh, but—” Dani sat up straight “—Samantha has done so much for me, I wanted to have something here.”

His assessing gaze rolled around the yard again. “This is nice, but we're a big crew when the whole family gets together. With kids, cousins and friends,
it would be a crush out here. Plus in late October the weather can be unpredictable. My place is bigger inside and out.”

She frowned, reluctant to give up her plans. “It wasn't too crowded at Gram's at Sunday dinner.”

“Sweetheart, that was a fraction of the people Sami will want at the celebration.”

Resigned, she asked, “What kind of help are you looking for?”

“Menu, decorations, preparations.”

“In other words, all of it?”

He grinned. “Pretty much. But I'm not looking for you to cook. I thought we'd cater, and I'm willing to help. Whatever you need. If I can't do it, I'll find someone who can. What do you say?”

“Okay,” she agreed, because she really wanted the day to be special for Samantha and her family. “It's only a couple of weeks away. I need to see your place soon so I can start making plans.”

“Sure. We can go over there now.”

“Oh.” Dani hesitated, not sure she was ready to invade the intimacy of Cole's home. The two weeks decided her. With campaigning added to her regular schedule, time flew by these days.

“Cole, I got 'em all.” Faith erupted from the house, waving her drawings in her hands, colorful pom-poms of artistic effort.

Cole winced and amended. “Actually, we can go right after the viewing.”

Dani nodded and reached for the used paper plates. “Just enough time for me to clean up.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

R
IDING SHOTGUN
in the front of Cole's truck, Dani wondered about his home. No doubt it had a fabulous garden, or maybe not. Maybe after working with plants all day, he kept his yard simple and clean.

To her dismay she was alone with the man. Faith had fallen asleep in his lap, so Dani called the teenager next door to come over and babysit.

They rode in silence, not surprising. The easiness of it did throw her. Whenever she spent time in his company, her awareness of him hummed beneath her skin. It buzzed there now, a faint reminder she was alive and a woman. But mostly it felt good just to ride along in the peace of early evening.

He headed in the general direction of the nursery, turning a mile before the entrance. People tended to pick homes near where they worked for convenience's sake. When she had worked as a nurse in Phoenix, she'd lived in a condo two blocks from the hospital.

After he turned, they began to wind up the side of a hill, threading through spearing pines, weaving steadily in the direction of the nursery.

“The nursery must be right in your backyard,” she said as they made another turn.

“Close,” he confirmed, and pulled into a long driveway, facing a large, sprawling house with rolling decks and a wall of windows. A spectacular view of the valley spread out before them. And Dani knew when she stood on the deck she'd be overlooking the nursery below.

He owned the house on the hill.

But wow. He'd said his place was big; understatement. The downstairs alone could swallow her little home, yard and all, and have room left over for dessert. And she couldn't get over the view.

“My God, this is beautiful,” she breathed, hearing the awe in her voice and not caring. The setting sun reflected off low-riding clouds. Pink and orange blazed across the sky, casting the hills and valleys of Paradise Pines in rosy hues. Heaven must look a lot like this.

“I want to see everything.”

“Come on, then.” Cole stood there holding out a hand.

She blinked in surprise. “Where did you come from?”

“Yeah, it still does that to me, too.” Wrapping an arm around her waist, he lifted her from the seat and set her on her feet. “Welcome to my home.” Taking her hand, he led her forward. “Come on, I'll show you around and then we can make plans.”

Dani cherished her little place. It was hers, a safe
haven for her to raise Faith. And she'd give it up in a heartbeat for Cole's house on the hill. The open floor plan, the gourmet kitchen, the way the tall windows brought the outside indoors—she loved it all. The house spoke to her on an elemental level.

She couldn't wait to play house.

Maybe she shouldn't assist Cole after all. He already got to her more than she found comfortable. Now that she knew his master suite had a private deck complete with a spa, she may not be able to resist him.

His large, comfortable furnishings were dark brown and gold with touches of navy blue and a soft buttery-cream. A large island separated the family room from the kitchen, which was fashioned in dark cabinets, stainless-steel appliances and granite counters in rich amber.

Sighing, she watched him make coffee: decaf, though he'd made a face. Time to get down to business. She tapped a pen on the pad she'd taken from her purse.

“What type of food did you want to have?”

“My brothers are meat eaters, so I thought prime rib or ribs.”

She shook her head. “This is a christening. Ribs are too messy. Prime rib is better.” She made a note.

“I thought we could rent tables, set them up on the decks. And I want real tablecloths. This should be a classy event for them.”

Dani saw the day forming as they talked. This was so much better than she could have done alone. For all their differences they worked well together, quickly making plans for the special day.

And she'd only hesitated for a moment at his casual use of the word “we.”

 

As much as the sunsets were one of the things Cole loved most about his home, tonight it had paled in comparison to the woman basking in its glow. How stunning she'd looked bathed in the glorious reds and magenta of the fast-fading sun. Her auburn hair had darkened but was lit up with fiery highlights, the rosy glow of her skin, the sheer wonder in her wide silver eyes.

He wanted to taste the wine-red of her lips, change the flush in her cheeks to internal heat.

May as well forget it, though. His campaign committee was pushing for an answer to the debate question. Once Dani heard the proposal, he wasn't likely to be her favorite person. Probably not even in the top ten.

For sure she wouldn't want to be locking lips with him.

When she started making noises about heading home, he knew he'd delayed as long as possible.

Trying for a positive tone, he dove into the deep end.

“How would you like to participate in a debate?
Have a chance to get the specifics of your museum/garden plans in front of an audience.”

Immediately she straightened in her chair. Her shoulders went up and back and excitement lent a spark to her silver eyes.

“A public debate? That would be great.”

He literally saw her mind begin to buzz with the possibilities as she pulled her notebook back out of her purse.

“When? Where?”

He cleared his throat; this was where things were going to head south. “At the Paradise Pines Small Business League.”

She deflated before his eyes, stuffed the notebook back in her purse. “The Small Business League? Thanks but no thanks.”

“It's a chance to get your issues out there, to be heard by an influential element of the community.”

“Please, this is the group that had the plans drawn up for the sports complex.” She singed him with a chiding glare, her disappointment clear. “I wouldn't be heard, I'd be dismissed. And I've already had plenty of that without magnifying it times thirty. Is your faction so threatened by mine it can't entertain the idea of a real debate?”

“This would be a real debate.”

She rolled her eyes. “Right. We both know it's a bone being tossed to the underdogs. You're hoping we'll stand down if we feel we've been heard. Guess
what? We have our own campaign to reach the public. We don't need your pseudo debate.”

Legs crossed, arms closed in front of her, she kicked one sandal-shod foot, toes painted the palest of pinks. She studied him as if he were one giant puzzle.

“If you don't like politics and you don't want to win, why are you running? Why agree to the appointment in the first place?”

“I didn't agree to the politics, I agreed to help out. Our last mayor died, heart attack. The board fractured, they needed someone to bring them together.”

“And they chose you?”

He shrugged. “People like me.”

“You don't appear to have been suffering this last year.”

“I'm a social guy, so the public forum doesn't bother me. Hard decisions have to be made, that doesn't bother me either. You gather your information and make the decision.”

“So what's the problem?”

Giving himself a moment to gather his thoughts, Cole fetched the coffeepot, filled her cup and then his. He rarely revealed his deep thoughts, or talked about his feelings or what motivated him. He preferred to skim the surface. Somehow that wasn't enough with Dani. Not when she looked at him with those genuine gray eyes. There was nothing false
about Dani and she deserved to know what she was getting into.

“There's no downtime,” he said, reclaiming his seat next to her. “Whenever, wherever, you're always on. Everyone has their own agenda and they all want something from you. I don't mind getting my hands dirty, but I prefer they be in the earth when I do.”

Her eyes narrowed and he fought not to squirm. He swore she saw clear through him to all those places he kept carefully hidden, some even from himself.

“They all thought they could sway you, get you to do what they wanted,” she guessed.

It had to be a guess. How did she do that, see so deep into him? It was disconcerting and oddly flattering. She cared or she wouldn't make the effort.

“They were wrong.” Still it galled that they'd thought he was so easy.

“It's your own fault, you know. If you acted more seriously, they'd take you more seriously.”

His head reared back as if he'd taken one on the chin—it stung just as bad. “Do you really want to get into shrink talk? You really want to cast some stones?”

She stiffened at his tone, and her chin shot up.

“I wasn't casting stones, I was stating a fact. It bothers you when people dismiss you, but you let them believe you don't care. You can't have it both ways.”

“People see me as I want them to see me. It's nobody's business if I keep part of myself private. If
you're serious about this election, you should learn to do the same.”

“Why? Are you going to reveal me as a fraud? Tell everyone I'm afraid of my own shadow? That I worry over every decision to the point of pain? Are you going to tell them I'm a coward and that I have to force myself to let my daughter out of my sight each day?”

“Dani,” he whispered. Shocked and concerned, he covered her hand with his.

“Oh, God.” She stopped her rant, ducking her head to hide her features.

For a moment silence reigned over the table, their wounds raw and exposed.

Avoiding his gaze, she reached for her coffee. Inhaling a deep breath, she released it slowly over the steaming brew. “So much for decaf. I could have enjoyed the high-octane stuff.”

Cole took that to mean she didn't expect to sleep much after her mini meltdown. The woman needed to give herself a break.

Before he could say so, she jutted out her stubborn chin again and soldiered on.

“Go ahead, do your worst,” she challenged. “Because I don't expect to win. I just want our proposal to get a fair hearing.”

After a moment, he blinked, all signs of vulnerability disguised by harsh control hidden behind his customary facade. She may see him better than a
lot of people, but she didn't know him, not if she believed he'd throw her to the lions.

And she didn't know herself either.

“You think any of that makes you weak? You lost a husband in a violent act and he became a hero in the eyes of the world. That's pretty hard to live up to. Everyone's scared of something, it's how you handle the fear that defines you. Have you fallen apart? No. You moved your daughter to a new state and started a new business. That takes guts and planning. And being a single parent isn't easy. I lost my parents when I was eleven. I know what it's like to feel an emptiness inside you think will never go away. To spend each day wondering what might happen next, and would anyone else be taken from you.”

“But it's been two years.” Chewing her bottom lip, she repeated what so many had told her. “I should be over it by now.”

“There's no getting over it.” He leaned forward, stared into silver pools of despair. “You just learn to cope, and you're doing that.”

“You don't know.” She bowed her head.

“What's to know? You may be scared, but you're making major decisions. And you're building a life for yourself and Faith. You're a fierce mama bear but you don't project all your worry and fear on Faith. You're the hero. If anyone can get this town to listen to the museum proposal, it's you.”

She slowly lifted her head, her hand a balled fist
on the granite counter. The hope in her eyes nearly broke his heart.

“Do you really believe that? That I'm strong?”

“I do,” he said easily. “And you better be prepared,” he cautioned. “Because your beauty shop brigade could push you all the way into the mayor's seat.”

“That won't happen.” She shook her head, her rueful tone a clear indication she had her composure back. “We both know the museum proposal doesn't stand a chance. And most of my brigade—as you call them—knows that. But connecting citizens of Paradise Pines through history, tradition and education is important and shouldn't be dismissed as laughable. We just want respect.”

“So you'll agree to the debate, then?”

“That's a no.”

He sighed. “Will you tell your people to start cooking again?”

“Certainly.” She agreed too easily, all signs of tears gone. “As soon as you're ready for a real debate.”

 

He had given her the keys to his house.

Dani sighed and shook the thought away. She refused to let the man disrupt her concentration.

Forcing herself to focus, she smiled at the young mother in her chair and asked what she wanted done today.

But after she helped her client into a robe and sat
her back for a wash and condition, the woman fell silent and Dani's thoughts began to wander.

Cole Sullivan was a dangerous man. His charming smile and easygoing attitude hid a man of unrelenting persistence, surprising responsibility and devastating vulnerability capable of sliding through the best of defenses.

He threatened everything she'd built for herself and Faith here in Paradise Pines. Dani needed to keep her distance and keep her cool.

Easier said than done when the cosmos and the good citizens of Paradise Pines kept throwing them together. Or so it seemed.

Just when Dani had convinced herself she had a handle on her emotions, he managed to weaken her resolve with random acts of intimacy. And he always knew exactly what would get to her.

Like giving her the keys to his home.

With the christening only three days away she'd already bought new outfits for Faith and herself and had the accessories all planned out. However, much still needed to be done in preparation for the celebration brunch. With the ceremony at ten in the morning, she wanted everything ready the night before so she could concentrate on getting herself and Faith to the church on time.

BOOK: Sparks Fly with Mr. Mayor
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