Authors: Ginna Gray
But she still didn't like it.
* * *
After dinner Matt and Sean returned to the living room and resumed their discussion while Joanna and Claire dealt with the dishes. When the women rejoined them, Sean had to bite back a smile.
Claire Drummond is probably the only woman in the world who can make a pregnant waddle look graceful, he thought wryly as he watched his hostess make her way to the sofa. But then, he doubted that anything could make Claire look awkward or unattractive. Her poise was an inherent part of her, like her beauty or intelligence. It was no wonder that Matt loved her to distraction.
Four years ago he'd come close to falling in love with her himself, Sean remembered, and his soft sigh held just the barest touch of regret. But it simply wasn't meant to be. From almost the very beginning, even before they had realized it themselves, he had known that Matt and Claire belonged together.
As Claire began to gingerly lower her bulky girth onto the cushions Matt jumped up to assist her, and the smile that Sean had been so valiantly holding in check broke through. When she was settled Matt picked up her legs and slid a hassock under them. Squatting on his haunches, he slipped off her shoes and began to massage her feet.
"How are you feeling, sweetheart?" he asked solicitously.
"I'm fine, darling," Claire replied in the softest of voices, her eyes warm as she gazed down at him.
The look that passed between them brought a tightness to Sean's chest, and his amused smile faded. Suddenly, inexplicably, he was swamped with a curious mixture of gladness and envy.
Jeez! What the hell's the matter with me?
Sean shifted restlessly and battled down the uncomfortable surge of emotions. It was stupid to be envious of their marriage. He was
the marrying kind, for Chrissake.
But then... neither had Matt been.
And Sean had to admit, he'd never known two people more in love, or more content with each other than Claire and Matt. Watching them, it was difficult to recall that they had once come very close to not making it.
The thought drew Sean's gaze to Joanna. He had never known what had caused the breakup between Claire and Matt four years ago, but he'd always had a sneaking suspicion that Joanna had been behind it.
Looking at her now, though, it was difficult to believe. There was a softness about Joanna, a vulnerability that hadn't been there four years ago. And the look of affectionate tenderness on her face as she watched Matt fuss over her mother clearly revealed her feelings about the marriage and the coming child.
She really is a lovely young woman, Sean mused. She'll never be the elegant beauty her mother is, but she is striking... in a well-bred, reserved sort of way.
"Did Sean tell you that he is being urged to run for the Senate?" Matt asked as he settled onto the sofa beside Claire and draped his arm around her shoulders. "Bob Rasrin is retiring after this term and the Virginia seat will be up for grabs."
"Why, Sean! That's marvelous," Claire declared. "You'll make a terrific senator."
Abandoning his study of Joanna, Sean turned to his friends with a lazy grin. "You mean
decide to run, and
"What do you mean, If? You've told me for years that you want to run for office."
"Yeah, well... now I'm not so sure. I've been thinking lately of opening up my own public relations firm."
Claire gave him a long, shrewd look. "Well, whatever you decide, you know that Matt and I will back you. But I'm sure, once you've given it some thought, you'll decide to run," she said confidently.
"Actually, think about it is exactly what I'm
going to do. At least, not for a while. I've thought about it until my head is spinning, and I still don't know what I want. So I've decided to put the whole thing out of my mind for a while and concentrate on fulfilling one of my fantasies."
"I'm almost afraid to ask what that might be," Matt drawled.
Sean smiled smugly and relaxed back against the chair in his habitual indolent pose. "I've been working my tail off for the past few years and I've decided I deserve a break. I'm going to treat myself to a Caribbean cruise. Beginning next Saturday, I'm going to lie in the sun for two. weeks and relax and unwind and watch pretty girls." The smile grew slowly into a wicked grin. "I may even catch a few."
Matt groaned and rolled his eyes, and Claire laughed.
No one noticed the dismayed look on Joanna's face.
* * *
The next morning Joanna hesitated before the closed door of Matt's study. Chewing at her lower lip, she wiped her damp palms down over her slender, jean-encased hips and tried to still the flutter in the pit of her stomach.
"Oh, good grief," she muttered under her breath, suddenly impatient with her own dithering. "It's no big deal. The worst he can do is say no." Joanna drew a deep breath, and with a toss of her head, flipped her long brown hair back over her shoulder and raised a hand to knock.
A deep baritone carried through the oak door. Opening it partway, Joanna poked her head around the edge. "May I speak with you for a moment?"
Surprise flickered across Matt's rugged face, but it was followed quickly by a pleased smile. "Sure. Come on in." Tossing aside his pencil, he leaned back in his chair and motioned toward the rust suede sofa opposite his desk. "Have a seat."
When she had complied Matt smiled again and raised his dark brows. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Trust Matt to get straight to the point, Joanna thought with faint amusement. He was a "take the bull by the horns" type, as different from her own father as night and day. Senator Joseph Andrews had been a born politician: diplomatic, smooth talking, clever, evasive when need be, a master at convoluted maneuvering and manipulation. Matt was direct, bold and decisive.
Which, Joanna freely admitted, was why he was such a force to be reckoned with in Washington. He knew the rules, written and unwritten, and when the occasion called for finesse, Matt could employ it with exquisite delicacy. But basically he was a mover and shaker, a man who was known for getting things done by going right to the heart of the matter.
"Yes. At least, I hope so. I have a favor to ask."
Matt's keen blue eyes sharpened ever so slightly. "Oh? What's that?"
"Well... uh, how do you feel about Sean running for the Senate?"
If Matt was surprised by her question he didn't let it show. Pinching his lower lip between his thumb and forefinger he tugged on it meditatively. "Actually, I think he's an excellent choice. Probably the best New-comb and his group could have made. Sean's a good man, and he's had plenty of experience. He's a little weak when it comes to public exposure but that shouldn't be a problem. When he puts his mind to it, that Irish devil can charm the birds right out of the trees." Matt pinned Joanna with his penetrating stare. "Why do you ask?"
"Because Senator Hartwell and several others agree with Harry Newcomb. They all think that Sean should seek the nomination. The consensus is that he can easily beat the opposition's candidate. But, as you saw last night, for some strange reason Sean is being—" Joanna lifted both hands, palms up, then let them drop back into her lap "—noncommittal. Which is why I'm here, You see, Senator Hartwell thought that since you and Sean are such good friends, maybe you could persuade him to run."
"Ah, I see." The thoughtful expression on Matt's face did not alter one whit, but inside he was filled with reluctant amusement. Subtle pressure. That was the way the game was played. Though she didn't know it, he had pulled a few strings to get Joanna her job on Senator Hartwell's staff. Normally he didn't resort to such tactics, but Claire had been worried about Joanna, and to ease her mind he had used his influence. And now the Senator was pulling a few strings of his own and using Joanna to do it.
But Matt didn't give in to pressure easily.
"I don't think that's a good idea. After all, it's Sean's decision, and he's perfectly capable of making it on his own."
"Yes, of course he is," Joanna agreed quickly. "And the Senator says he is seriously considering it. But it's such a big step, I thought.. .that is, Senator Hartwell thought that it wouldn't hurt if he got some encouragement from you. Oh, Matt, please talk to him," Joanna pleaded. She sat forward on the sofa, leaning toward him, her face animated and full of hope. "A nudge from you is probably all he needs."
"I don't know..." Frowning, Matt braced his elbows on the arms of the chair and pressed his spread fingertips together, gazing over them out the window at the crisp winter day. The flurries of the night before had stopped, and now a thin layer of patchy snow lay like tattered fleece over the rolling Virginia hills. As Matt idly watched, one of his thoroughbred mares trotted across the near paddock, her breath coming out in puffs of white mist that trailed away in the wind and vanished.
But Matt's mind wasn't on the mare or the scenery, or even the classified papers he had been studying, but on his stepdaughter's request. Sean was well suited for politics. Matt had no doubts on that score. But he knew that it was useless to pressure him. Many people were fooled by that laid-back easygoing veneer. Few realized that behind it was a razor sharp mind and a fierce determination. Or that those slumberous black eyes could snap with temper. No, Sean Fleming was not a malleable pawn. If that was what Senator Hartwell and the others thought they would be getting they were in for a shock. Sean was his own man. When he wanted advice, he asked for it. He would listen to your opinion, weigh it carefully, but in the end he always made up his own mind. He was not a man you could prod.
Besides, even if he had been, Matt didn't believe in pressuring a man on a career decision.
Still, he hated to turn Joanna down flat. Claire was worried about her. With good cause, Matt felt. In the past three and a half years Joanna had changed drastically. Before, she had been a spoiled, self-centered brat, but at least she had been full of spirit, a vibrant, sparkling girl, filled with the zest and eagerness of youth.
Matt's eyes narrowed on his stepdaughter. They had once been enemies. Unconsciously, his jaw clenched as he remembered that time. Even now, when he thought about how close he had come to losing Claire, he felt a cold trickle of fear race down his spine. Dear Lord! Life without her would be unbearable.
But he had won, Matt reminded himself. Now he could afford to be compassionate.
Joanna's scheme to come between him and Claire had backfired on her. In the end she'd had to face a lot of unpleasant truths, perhaps the hardest being that the father she had idolized had not been the golden god she had thought him to be. Since then she had been subdued and serious—too much so for her mother's liking. His too, for that matter, Matt admitted. After that fiasco, Joanna had done an abrupt about-face. She had worked hard in college and had graduated with honors, and during the past six months, had buried herself in her job to the exclusion of everything else.
Matt cast a curious glance at Joanna's anxious face, his eyes narrowing once again. This was the first time in almost four years that she had shown even a trace of her old enthusiasm.
"Why is it so important to you that Sean run for Congress?" he asked quietly.
"Well....because I think he'd make a terrific senator, of course," she said in a voice that was just a shade too assertive, a shade too high. Not quite meeting Matt's eye, Joanna waved her hand vaguely. "He's bright and young and honest. Likeable. And as you said, he has that charismatic charm. He shouldn't have any trouble pulling in votes, and our party needs another seat in Congress."
"Mmm." Resting his chin in his palm, Matt studied her flustered face and waited for her to continue.
Joanna shifted restlessly on the plush sofa. After a while, she looked up and met Matt's steady gaze guiltily. "All right. I admit my motives aren't totally altruistic," she said with a rueful twist of her mouth. "If Sean does decide to run, I'm hoping I can get a job on his campaign staff."
Amusement tugged at the corners of Matt's mouth. "Things too dull for you in Hartwell's camp?"
"Something like that. Oh, Matt, he doesn't even come up for reelection for years yet. And anyway, he's held that office for so long he's practically an institution in his state. I'd like to be involved in something... I don't know...something with a little more challenge to it I guess."
Yes, Joanna was a campaigner, Matt recalled. She thrived on the excitement and challenge, the constant thrust and parry of a hard fought political race. Four years ago, during Claire's bid for her late husband's Senate seat, Joanna had worked tirelessly and had loved every minute of it. Claire's ultimate withdrawal from the race had been one of the biggest disappointments of Joanna's life.
Disillusionment. Disappointment. It had been a difficult time for the girl, Matt mused. Joanna was a mature, responsible, even loving young woman now, but sadly, she had had to gain her maturity the hard way.
Matt drummed a pencil against the desk top. If Sean did decide to seek the office, she would be an asset. There was no denying that. But still, even if it were possible, he couldn't in good conscience talk a man into making that kind of decision just to give Joanna's life a boost.
He was about to tell her so when Claire tapped on the door and poked her head into the room. "Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?"