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Authors: Teresa Carpenter

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BOOK: Sparks Fly with Mr. Mayor
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Dani had no business being pleased by the statement. “It's just the proximity. Between the christening classes and working together this week, we've been in each other's pockets.”

“The way he looks at you, the way he returns to your side, I think it's more than that.” Concern touched the blue eyes, but was the emotion for Dani or Cole? “Does that scare you?”

Yes, more than anything in a long time. And that
said a lot. Not that she could confess such a thing to his grandmother.

“I'm sure you're wrong. Cole doesn't do serious.”

“He doesn't do jealous either, but he hasn't let Rick or Rett within ten feet of you all day.”

“I don't understand.”

“Come, dear. Samantha's matchmaking has been less than subtle and Cole is taking no chances of one of his brothers catching your eye.”

“Oh, but…” Could Gram be right, could Cole have feelings for Dani?

Or was his grandmother simply seeing what she wanted to see? She'd made no effort to disguise her desire for him to find someone to settle down and start a family with.

Dani looked for Cole and saw him outside on the deck. He stood leaning back against the railing, Faith asleep in his arms, as he talked to the infamous twins. Rick and Rett had the Sullivan dark hair, blue eyes and good looks, only amped up a notch. Their features were more defined, bringing their male beauty into sharp detail.

Was it true Cole had been sabotaging introductions to the two men?

Dani found it hard to believe.

Even if he were interested in her, his confidence should handle an introduction to his brothers. But as she watched, one of the twins pointed inside to where she sat with Gram. Immediately Cole stood
to attention though his features remained casual. She saw his lips moving and after a moment, he shifted Faith in his arms so he could reach inside his pants pocket. He pulled out keys and handed them to one of the twins. The two men walked down and off the deck and Cole came inside.

He caught her eye and motioned he was taking Faith upstairs. Dani nodded and then turned to find Gram watching the whole flow of events.

“Coincidence,” Dani said.

“You're too smart to believe that,” Gram chided her. “I'm sure you've heard it from plenty of well-meaning people, but I'm not going to tell you it's time to move on with your life. We all grieve at our own pace. I've been a widow for over twenty-five years, so I know some men are difficult to forget.”

“It's not just that.”

“Of course not. It's never just one thing. And you're doing the best you can. But this is my grandson, whom I love very much. For all his charming ways, he's more vulnerable than he appears.” Gram squeezed Dani's hand. “Cole doesn't give his heart easily. All I ask is you don't hurt him.”

Wow, that was a switch. Worried about her own chances for hurt, Dani never considered Cole might suffer from their association.

All day she'd been playing hostess to his host. And this morning in the church Dani had realized she'd been envisioning a family for her and Faith, complete with a daddy and a new baby.

That was so not where she was.

Obviously Samantha's matchmaking and Faith's talk of a new daddy had reached Dani on a subliminal level, leaving her open to romantic suggestions.

As the mother, it was her job to help Faith get over her daddy fixation, not let Faith drag Dani into her fantasy.

Obviously, Samantha and Faith were bad influences, and Dani'd be smart to stay far, far away from both of them.

And even farther away from Cole.

 

Upstairs Cole laid Faith in his bed and carefully covered her with a throw. Brushing back a dark curl, he felt a swell of love for the child. She'd stolen his heart even before her mother had.

He'd almost gotten used to the idea of loving Dani. At first he'd fought it, convinced himself it was heartburn, a hallucination or sheer exhaustion. The flimsy excuses changed nothing, his feelings never changed.

He loved Dani.

And he loved having mother and daughter here in his home. It felt right having Dani as his hostess, and his heart expanded when little Faith climbed into his arms and fell asleep. The trust and affection of the gesture touched him deeply.

Tonight confirmed for him that they belonged together as a family. Now he just needed to convince her of the fact.

Leaving a light burning in the adjoining bathroom, the hall door ajar, he headed back downstairs. He couldn't afford to be gone long or the twins would get to Dani. No need to tempt fate.

 

Halloween followed close on the heels of the christening. Faith, dressed as the Little Mermaid, went trick-or-treating with the Sullivan boys.

Dani strolled the streets of her neighborhood with Samantha and Alex while the kids ran from house to house. The streets had been closed to nonresident traffic, so the subdivision was flooded with kids.

Her party stopped at a house decorated with a large air balloon of a Frankenstein monster and the kids tromped up to the door. Dani casually surveyed the street behind them. Keeping her tone oh so nonchalant, she finally asked the question on her mind.

“Did you say Cole was going to join the trick-or-treating? Should we wait for him before going too far?”

“No,” Alex responded. “We saw him when we went by the nursery, and he said he wouldn't be able to make it. One of his workers called in sick so he's driving the tractor for the hayride.”

“Oh.” Let down, she hid her disappointment with a smile. “I bet it's quite a party out there.”

“Yeah, it always is. And Cole stays open as long as people keep coming by.”

“Yes, he would.” Dani easily saw Cole sticking it out so the kids could have fun. He was built that way.

She'd deliberately kept her distance in the days since the christening and it surprised her how much she missed seeing him, talking to him, laughing with him.

Faith and the boys came tripping down the walk and the group moved on to the next house. As the kids repeated the process, Samantha vented about the upcoming Harvest Dance.

“The dance is only two days away and all the plans are falling apart.” Samantha rubbed her hands together to generate heat. The temperature had dropped as a cold front went through the valley.

“Sami, the plans are fine. Nobody is as organized as you. Give it a chance, everything will fall into place.”

Samantha sent Dani a frazzled glare before turning to her husband. “Alex, sweetheart, Dani and I are going to walk ahead a bit. Can you handle the kids for a few minutes?” At his assent Samantha pulled Dani into the middle of the street.

“I'll be so glad when this election is over,” Samantha lamented. “It's the darn sex campaign. Tempers are frayed.”

“It's not a sex campaign,” Dani protested. “It's meant to make the men and women supporting the sports complex listen to a view other than their own. We had to anticipate the men would get grouchy.”

Samantha snorted. “It's not just the men. Sure they snarl occasionally, but mostly they stay out of the way of the catfights. The point is tempers are short.
The Harvest Dance is the biggest deal in town, which means the women were already jockeying for position on the committee. Now women who barely get along are frustrated and fighting for power.”

“Put them all on decorations,” Dani suggested. “Let them put their frustrations into physical labor.”

“Very funny. I can hold it together long enough to get the event off the ground, but it's not going to be very festive when half the town isn't talking to the other half.”

Dani linked her arm through Sami's. “It'll be fine. Music soothes the savage breast. Once the band starts, everyone will get into the spirit of things.”

“I hope so. Otherwise, it's going to be a very long night.”

CHAPTER NINE

“I
TOLD
you so.” Samantha nervously drummed her fingers on the table as she looked around Sampson Hall.

The community center had been turned into a harvest bower with strategically placed white trellises festooned with fall foliage and strung with hundreds of tiny white and orange lights. A haunting love ballad floated on the air courtesy of a live band.

“It's magical, Sami,” Dani complimented her. “You and your frustrated committee did a fabulous job.”

“You're laughing, but nobody is dancing. You promised me they'd dance.”

“It's early yet,” Dani tried to reassure her friend even though the feel of the room was thick with tension. “Once people have tried the appetizers and had a drink, they'll settle down to dance.”

“It'll be fine, honey.” Alex settled a hand over Samantha's restless fingers. “And if it's not, it won't be your fault. You did your part, and Dani's right—the place looks great.”

“Well this place is like a morgue.” Cole pulled the chair out next to Dani and sat. He laid his arm across the back of her chair and leaned so close Dani inhaled the spicy scent of his cologne. “The work of your beauty shop brigade if I'm not mistaken.”

He wore another suit, this one a dark navy that was a near match for her ankle-length midnight-blue halter dress. The color of the suit did marvelous things for his blue eyes. Sitting next to each other, they were going to look like a couple.

How much of a coincidence was that? Glancing at Samantha, Dani truly wondered.

“No need to exaggerate.” She shifted in her seat and sent him a telling stare trying to telegraph the message he needed to remove his arm. She liked it too much, and talk about shouting
couple
.

“No. See, see.” Samantha actually brightened at Cole's disparaging comments. “Finally, someone who understands. It's a disaster waiting to happen, am I right?” she demanded of her brother-in-law.

Cole's shrug embodied careless sympathy. “When you're right, you're right.”

Dani dug her elbow into his ribs. “You're not helping.” Lord, forget the appetizers, the man smelled good enough to eat.

“Dani.” Samantha stopped just short of a wail. “We have to do something. You have to do something.”

“Me?” Dani protested. “It was Gram's idea.” She blew out a breath in exasperation. She'd known this
idea was going to bite her in the tush before it ran its course.

Looking for inspiration for a fast fix, she spied Cole's brothers Brock and Ford arriving with their wives. The foursome stopped to say hello to Gram, who was acting as part of the town council welcoming committee.

“There's no need to panic.” Dani relaxed a little. “People are still arriving. Nobody hops right out on the dance floor. It's going to be fine.”

The four Sullivans reached the table and the men held chairs for their wives before taking seats.

“Wow, it's dead in here tonight,” Rachel said as she set a tiny white purse on the table, a perfect accessory for the off-the-shoulder white sheath dress she wore.

“Dani!” Samantha groaned.

Dani stopped herself from banging her head on the table.

“Oops, my bad,” Rachel apologized. “Obviously a sore subject.”

“Sami's worried nobody's going to dance, but it's early yet, right?” Dani held her breath, needing the reassurance almost as badly as Samantha at this point. Dani disliked seeing her friend so upset.

“Not really.” Jesse shook her head, her dark hair moving softly over the shoulders of her little black dress. “This crowd likes to dance. As soon as the music starts they're usually on the floor.”

“All my hard work,” Samantha fretted, “and it's going to bomb.”

“Okay, enough.” Dani turned to Cole, found him far too close but didn't let it stop her. “I need you to agree to a debate. The election is Tuesday. We can do this. Tomorrow. My supporters will be able to enjoy themselves if they think they're going to be heard.”

He hesitated.

“You owe me,” she told him. “For keeping your plans a secret.”

His gaze ran over her and she knew he was thinking about his campaign committee and the grief they were going to give him if he agreed. “Okay. Where?”

“Here. We'll do it outside on the steps.”

He nodded, and for one brief moment she felt the heat of his thumb rubbing over her bare shoulder. His touch soothed her in ways she didn't really understand but appreciated just the same.

“I'll be here,” he said. “We'll get J.T., too, make it fair all around.”

“Thank you.” He really was a decent guy. With his agreement, she addressed the others at the table. “Okay, there are eight of us. When the next slow song starts, we're all going to take to the floor to start the dancing. Then after a minute, we split up and ask someone from the audience to join us. Pass the word about the debate. Tonight is for fun, tomorrow we can think about the election again.”

“Brilliant.” Samantha reached for Dani's hand and squeezed. “It just may work.”

“It's worth a try,” Brock agreed, and he lifted Jesse's fingers to his mouth for a kiss. “But once you get the men and women talking again, you may lose them to something more than the dancing.”

“I don't care,” Samantha declared. “At least they'll go away happy. And have good memories of the dance.”

“All right, let's go, then.” Ford stood and pulled Rachel to her feet. “I'll talk to the band, make this happen.”

“Yeah, let's go make friends.” Rachel pushed back her chair.

“You guys are great. Thanks.” Dani's throat closed up at the unquestioning show of support.

“Hey, we all want to have fun—” Brock winked “—before moving on to something more.”

Heat rose in Dani's cheeks, but she grinned through the blush. She shook her finger at him. “No disappearing until the dance is declared a success.”

Brock cocked an eyebrow.

Alex bumped his brother's shoulder. “You'll know when that is, because we'll be gone.” He took Samantha's hand and led her onto the floor as the music started.

Dani let out a slow breath. This might actually work. And she had her debate, a win-win for everyone. Well, except for Cole's campaign committee, but they deserved any grief they suffered.

“Dani?”

She looked up. Cole stood to her right, his hand extended for hers.

“Shall we dance?”

Automatically, instinctively, she hesitated.

“It was your idea,” he reminded her.

“Oh, but…if we split up…”

“I insist.” He stole her hand, pulled her gently to her feet. “Consider it the price of my cooperation.”

“Okay.” She sighed softly as her body settled against his taller, harder one. “But only the one dance.”

He moved her easily through a turn, his arm strong around her, his hand warm and steady on her lower back. Oh, yeah, the man could dance.

And this was why her mind balked, because her body didn't. Once in his arms she wanted to snuggle, to burrow in and absorb his heat, his strength, his sheer maleness.

In his arms the world went away and it was just him, just her, and pure sensation.

But that was a lie her body believed. In her head she knew better, knew it was never that simple. And you could never rely on anyone but yourself.

“Time to split up,” he whispered near her ear. “I'll take my dance later.” He sent her into a controlled twirl where she ended with her back to his front.

“I—I said only one.” She struggled to get the words out.

“This isn't a full dance. Doesn't count.” With that
he spun her out to the full span of their joined arms then bowed and released her. With an easy smile he walked to Lydia from the sheriff's office and plied his charm.

Scrambling for composure, Dani spied J.T. and made for his table. Smiling, she asked his wife, “Do you mind if I borrow J.T. for a moment? I have some good news.”

 

Well into the evening, Dani sank back into her seat with a small moan of relief. She savored the moment alone, having just said goodbye to Samantha and Alex, who were taking Gram home.

Dani had been on her feet almost constantly since that first dance. The citizens of Paradise Pines had embraced her brilliant plan and the dance had taken on a life of its own.

Jesse said it, the people liked to dance. And not just with their men. They often grabbed a girlfriend, or three, and hit the floor. Not so much the guys, but they were happy to gather in the corner and talk sports in between bouts of being dragged to the dance floor.

Dani had danced with all the Sullivans, including Gram. The women were energetic, the men smooth, and Gram could really shake it.

The only one to keep his distance was Cole. Beast. He had threatened her with another dance and then never came to claim it so the tension grew with each new song. He'd come for her when he was ready.
In the meantime she'd pretend dread, when in fact anticipation zinged through her blood.

He'd been on the dance floor almost as much as she had, with his sisters-in-law, Gram, Gram's friends, Mrs. Day—the list went on and on. But, other than family, he danced with no one under fifty.

He was approached by more than one woman on the prowl and he smiled and chatted, but it never went further than conversation.

He may not have claimed his dance, but his eyes touched her often. She felt the weight of his gaze, the heat of it. He knew exactly who she'd danced with, had followed her moves, the sway of her hips, the lift of her arms, the swing of her breasts.

His concentrated attention made her wonder if Gram didn't know her grandson better than Dani thought. Could Gram be right, could Cole have feelings for Dani?

For some reason the thought didn't scare her as much tonight as it had on the night of the christening. Did that mean she liked the idea or she'd just gotten used to it?

The music slowed, softened, and the female singer stepped up to the microphone. Cole appeared at Dani's elbow. Without a word he held out his hand and she took it.

As the singer seduced the audience, Cole pulled Dani close. There were no showy moves this time, no turns or twirls. He simply held her in his arms and moved to the sexy ballad.

And Dani surrendered. She gave up thought, worries, inhibitions. She sank into him, her head on his shoulder, right arm around his waist. Linking her fingers with his, she let him lead her into a melodic journey of sensual motion.

“You take my breath away,” he said, his lips a tickling caress on her ear. “These lights bring out the fiery highlights in your hair.”

“Hmm. I planned that with Samantha.”

He chuckled. “Just as you wore that dress because it brings out the gray in your eyes.”

“Shh. You'll give away all my secrets.”

Being in his arms changed the way the world worked. It narrowed and heightened at the same time. Everyone disappeared but him, yet her senses imploded, making everything around her come alive.

The song, one of her favorites, eclipsed all other sound, while against her chest she felt the pounding of his heart, the rhythm a match for hers. She savored the smooth texture of his shirt under her cheek and hand, and the leashed male strength below both. The spicy scent of his aftershave mixed with the homey touch of coffee and the freshness of pine when the breeze blew just right.

He surrounded her but she had no sense of being trapped. He invigorated her, challenged her to do more, be more, risk more.

The song ended, the music moving to something more upbeat, and still he held her, his lead barely more than a sensual sway. And though she knew they
received more than a few odd or speculative glances, she let him. She closed her eyes and drifted.

Finally he stepped back and said, “I'll take you home.”

She nodded then remembered. She'd come with Samantha and Alex after dropping Faith off for a sleepover at Gram's house. A set of teenage twins were hired to watch the whole Sullivan brood while the adults enjoyed the evening. And Brock and Jesse, who lived in San Diego, were staying over so they'd be there to help in the morning. Faith had been invited to join them.

“That's all right, your brothers are giving me a ride to Gram's.”

“They're not ready to leave yet.” He nodded toward the two couples enjoying the music and each other. “You'll be more comfortable with me.”

She chewed her bottom lip. Decisions, decisions. Be an intrusive fifth wheel or ride alone with the temptation that was Cole Sullivan. Fatigue decided her and he read the answer in her eyes.

“Grab my jacket and whatever you have. I'll let my brothers know and meet you at the door.”

A short time later she sat in his truck cab, the weight of his jacket warm around her shoulders. Blessed silence settled between them and Dani closed her eyes, just for a moment. She felt his hand curl around hers and didn't know anything else until the door next to her opened.

She blinked, focused on Cole's beautiful blue eyes. “Hey.”

“Hey. You're home.”

“Home.” She yawned. “Right. That was fast.” She swung her legs around and slid from the cab into his arms. “Hmm, so warm.”

“Come on, sweetheart, let's get you inside.” Tucking her under his arm, he led her toward the house. The icy crispness in the air had woken Dani some what by the time they reached her front door. It wasn't until she turned to thank him that she remembered.

“Wait. My car is at Gram's.”

“Don't worry. I'll pick you up in the morning and take you over to get it. You fell asleep. I thought it best.”

Okay, that annoyed her. But it also touched her. He'd been a good sport tonight, helping to kick-start the dance, agreeing to the public debate, keeping his distance. All right, that was stretching it, but for the most part he'd behaved himself.

BOOK: Sparks Fly with Mr. Mayor
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