Valentine Vote, page 1
Copyright © 2014 by Susan Blexrud.
All rights reserved.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher; exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews.
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
10151 Carver Road, Suite 200
Blue Ash, OH 45242. U.S.A.
ISBN 10: 1-4405-8011-1
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-8011-6
eISBN 10: 1-4405-8012-X
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-8012-3
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © istock.com/keithpix; istock.com/sbayram; istock.com/GlobalStock
As always, heartfelt gratitude goes to my incredible critique group, the Pink Fire Writers. Without the weekly input of Jeanne Charters, Beth Robrecht, and Sallie Bissell, my work would consist of a jumble of words in search of meaning.
Also, sincere thanks to the team at Crimson Romance and particularly to Tara Gelsomino, who elevated my little story to a whole new level.
About the Author
More from This Author
Courtney Larson flipped up the collar on her boiled wool coat, bracing herself for one of the coldest days in a brutal winter. She pushed open the door of the townhouse she shared in Foggy Bottom and squinted into the clear January sky. For a Florida girl, the weather in D.C. had been a rude awakening when she moved to the big city for law school at Georgetown University, but she loved every minute of it. Even the occasional exploding manhole cover in her neighborhood added excitement to the beat of a city that thrived on political tensions and monumental decisions. And being in the thick of it was part of the appeal.
A chilling breeze lifted Courtney’s shoulder-length hair out of her coat collar. Strawberry-blonde strands swirled around her face, sticking like fly paper to her raspberry lip gloss. Spitting wisps out of her mouth, she squared her shoulders to the wind, gritted her teeth, and ran the three blocks to her firm.
“Morning,” Courtney said to the receptionist, Elise, who jumped out of her chair, almost strangling herself with her headset.
“Mr. Champion wants you in the conference room.” Elise pointed down the opposite hall from Courtney’s office.
She smiled at Elise and then hurried to her office to deposit her coat and grab her iPad. Courtney assumed Mr. Champion wanted to talk about the tobacco vote and pressed a hand to her fluttering stomach. Everything she’d worked for over the last few years hung on this campaign.
Since her first year in law school, she’d positioned herself for a career in the political arena. As editor of the law review, she’d interned in Congress and then landed her dream job at Montgomery, Haskins & Knoll, one of the most prestigious lobbying firms in the nation’s capital. The icing on her professional cake was her first client, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. It was a major responsibility for a twenty-seven-year-old attorney, fresh out of law school, but her volunteer work had always been in support of non-profits, and she was thrilled that her firm had entrusted her with this challenge. She had until February 14, Valentine’s Day, to convince legislators to pass a bill for higher taxes on cigarettes, or as Courtney referred to them, cancer sticks.
This was more than dogged determination on her part; this was a personal vendetta. Her mother, Sylvia, a lifelong smoker, had died of lung cancer. While she’d tried to quit numerous times over the years, the addiction to nicotine always won out. Through six months of chemotherapy, Courtney watched her mom briefly rally and then succumb after a horrible few days of gasping for breath. She’d taken a sabbatical from school and was glad to have been there at the end, but the imprint of Sylvia’s death rattle would haunt her forever. Courtney blamed the tobacco companies, with their advertising targeted to young women. What had been promised to make her mother “mysterious and enchanting” ended up killing her. Though it had been more than two years, the pain of her passing still brought a lump to Courtney’s throat … every day. If her efforts could keep one teenager from smoking, her mom would smile down from heaven, and Courtney would know that another family wouldn’t experience the horror and pain her own family had endured.
• • •
Opening the door to the conference room, Courtney was surprised to find not only Bill Champion, her immediate boss, but also Alan Montgomery, one of the firm’s principals. Bill, always the height of fashion, wore pin-striped Armani, while the erudite Alan wore his signature tweed jacket with elbow patches. Her heart raced. If Montgomery was here, this was more than just a status meeting.
“Miss Larson, don’t you look rosy this morning.” Alan Montgomery was old school. No one under sixty would make that kind of comment for fear of being hit with a sexual harassment suit. “And we’ll need you rosy. Actually, we’ll need you marathon ready. How’s tobacco doing?”
“Quite good, sir. We’ve got our votes in the House. I just need to shore up a few senators. If I can convince the one senator from North Carolina with Big Tobacco in his pocket, I feel sure the remaining four votes will be ours.”
“And there’s the rub,” Alan said. Senator Eric Morrison will be a tough nut to crack. His mother’s a Roark, the family that brought us the world’s best-selling cigarette.”
“Yes, sir, but I’ve been working on an angle.” Courtney took a chair at the conference table, joining the two men. She opened her iPad and accessed the campaign’s file. She’d created folders for each of the legislators she’d been hired to sway, or rather, educate. Delving into their personal lives to find their soft spots, like kids and pets (a dog could even get asthma from secondhand smoke), she’d also identified the friends and family members each legislator could lose as a result of cancer, emphysema and heart disease—all tobacco related conditions. In addition to their familial status, she’d listed everything from hobbies to philanthropic pursuits.
Courtney clicked on the Senator Eric Morrison file. Up popped his gorgeous face—the chiseled jaw, full lips, aquiline nose, and deep-set eyes. She took a few moments to drink in the senator’s image, and then realized her superiors were waiting for her. She cleared her throat. “Here’s our guy.”
“Give me the lowdown,” Alan said.
“Never been married, but he’s not gay, or at least if he is, he hides it well. Graduated from Yale Law School. He was in a relationship with a woman he met there, but she took a job in L.A., and they evidently had a parting of the ways because, as far as I can tell, they’re not tearing up the airways to see each other. He rarely frequents bars and isn’t known as a partier, unless there’s a congressional event or fundraiser, in which case he usually makes an appearance, but he doesn’t linger. He’s known as a moderate Democrat, so at least he’s more open-minded than some of the ‘no tax’ Republicans.
“But anyway, that’s all minor stuff compared to the big kahuna. As you know, his contributions from Big Tobacco are substantial. He’s surely dug in, but I’ve got some thoughts for an approach.”
Courtney took a deep breath.
“Well, don’t keep us in suspense,” Bill said. “His background makes him a particularly valuable vote. If someone with a vested interest in tobacco can see the light … ”
“Okay.” Courtney fingered her pearl choker. “Well, the last thing he’ll want is to be perceived as pandering to the tobacco industry. It would be a major conflict of interest. So we can argue that if he supported higher taxes on tobacco, his political capital would glow with integrity.”
“Except that his constituents are from tobacco country, and those folks smoke. If I’m not mistaken, they still smoke in bars in Winston-Salem.” Bill nodded. “Check that, will you?”
“Yes sir, I will.” Courtney made a note in her iPad. “I’m meeting with Senator Morrison tomorrow, so I’ll do reconnaissance today.”
“What does he care about?” Alan asked. “Are there any issues he’d trade his tobacco vote for?”
Courtney scanned the Morrison folder. “He’s a Big Brother to a foster kid in McLean. He takes the boy to Redskins and Wizards games. There’s a photo here of them together at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.” She had to smile at the adorable image of the regal senator and a young boy holding a huge cone of cotton candy. She turned her iPad around so Bill and Alan could see. “And he’s spearheaded some efforts for Special Olympics. That’s a possibility. There’s funding for Special Olympics bundled into a non-profit bill coming up on the floor.”
“See if you can work that,” Bill said. “Anything else?”
“He’s been a spokesman for animal rights, especially for farm animals. He marshaled a bill last year for humane slaughtering.” Courtney grimaced. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Bill ignored her rhetorical question. He rubbed his chin. “The fellow’s a saint.”
Courtney wrinkled her nose. “But is he a good guy or is it all for show? I mean, really, can he be that honorable if he endorses tobacco?” She shut her iPad, and then patted it with conviction. “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I won’t be happy with anything less than complete satisfaction, and that means Senator Morrison in our camp.” She rose from her chair, tucked her iPad under her arm, and strode from the room.
In law school, Courtney had reeked geek. From her thick eyeglasses to her flat loafers, she exuded the musty fragrance of old books. Anyone that nerdy had to be at the top of the class. And she was.
Of course, part of the reason she’d been such an exemplary student was her lack of distractions. Who needed men when you could get yourself off more quickly and efficiently than any man could? At least any man Courtney had ever met. She was the only post-law school virgin she knew, but she didn’t regret the time she’d spent on her studies instead of fawning over a boy. She’d briefly dated a professor at Georgetown, but when he’d started hinting at taking it to the “next level,” Courtney had broken it off. Besides, her career was too important to have her grades called into question if it ever came to light.
Later, she had wondered if part of the professor’s appeal was his being off limits. Did she like that they had to sneak around because of his status as a professor? Maybe. Could it be that she was still a virgin because she was afraid of love? Would all she’d worked for take a backseat to a man in her life? And would sex addle her brain? She didn’t know.
These were questions that had never concerned the old, nerdy Courtney. But since her graduation last June, her roommate, Helen, who was a public defender, had spent an inordinate amount of time on trying to improve Courtney’s image. While she still wore her thick eyeglasses at home, Helen made her spring for contact lenses for work. She’d spritzed her with J’adore cologne on a trip to Macy’s, and then made her buy it. She’d shortened her skirts four inches and made sure her slacks hugged her bum. She’d gifted her with textured tights (her one monetary contribution) and insisted she trade her loafers for pumps and ankle boots that added a few inches to her five foot five frame.
“Your legs and eyes are your ‘to die for’ features,” Helen insisted. “Show them off.”
Courtney had spent her first month of work blinking incessantly and pulling her skirts down to cover her knees, but she’d gotten used to her new look. The nods and smiles of appreciation from the opposite sex were novel, but quite nice.
And today’s outfit for her meeting with Eric Morrison would say, “Yes, I’m professional, but underneath I’m all woman.” The new, hot red lingerie that lurked beneath her business suit would hopefully pump up her power. In law school, her most provocative move was pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. Now, with Helen’s help, she understood the advantage of using her beauty as well as her smarts. It could be the difference between success and failure for the upcoming vote.
By the time Courtney arrived for her two o’clock appointment at the Hart Senate Office Building, she was already fifteen minutes late. She’d been so engrossed in her research on Senator Morrison that she’d lost track of time and then an exploded manhole cover had forced the taxi to take a long detour. As a result, she knew more about Eric Morrison than was necessary … or healthy. She was developing a crush, and she hadn’t even met him. He was one of those guys who did everything well. She’d seen photos of him horseback riding (he’d won junior championships in dressage), water skiing, snowboarding, pole vaulting (how does anyone do that?), and sailing in the America’s Cup. The sailing photo looked straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad. It was a close-hauled shot with sails pulled in, and the good senator smiled broadly as he leaned against the rigging. He even had a dimple. Courtney hoped there was just one dimple. Two would just be too … perfect.
But his voting record wasn’t perfect or predictable. In fact, it was an enigma. He’d voted in favor of the smoking ban in restaurants and bars across North Carolina, but he’d voted against the last tax increase on cigarettes. What was up with that?
She checked her coat at the reception desk and passed through the atrium where Alexander Calder’s “Mountains and Clouds,” one of the sculptor’s last works, rose majestically. Courtney would have liked to spend a few moments gazing at it, but she was already late. No time for lollygagging. She took the elevator to the fifth floor.
The senator’s office was at the end of a long hall, studded with photos of notables, but again, she couldn’t delay. She took a deep breath. The air was heavy with tweed and musty books, just the kind of aroma you’d expect in a contemplative environment. It reminded her of the Georgetown law library. She tugged at the hem of her fitted jacket. Helen had chosen the color, deep purple. She said it enhanced Courtney’s blue eyes. She pressed her lips together and then used her pinky to swipe at the space between her cupid’s bow where lipstick tended to clump.
She opened the door to face a secretary who looked like she could have worked for J. Edgar Hoover. Not that the woman was that elderly, but her style was definitely from a bygone era. Her eyeglasses swung from a chain around her neck, and she had a pencil stuck in her gray-streaked chignon. “May I help you?” She put on her wire-rimmed glasses and promptly glared over the top of them.
“Yes, thank you. I’m Courtney Larson from Montgomery, Haskins & Knoll. I have a two o’clock appointment with Senator Morrison.” Courtney smiled.
“Well, you’re late.” She frowned. “Won’t you have a seat?” Lorena Eddington (Courtney read the nameplate on her desk) buzzed her boss from her desk phone then pointed to the door when a deep voice on the other end said, “Send her in, but I’ve only got a few minutes.”
Courtney had barely taken her seat, and now her knees wobbled as she got up. Must be the new boots. When she pushed open the massive wood door leading to the senator’s inner office, he rose from behind his desk and rounded it to greet her. Proffering a hand, she slipped hers
“Good afternoon, Senator Morrison. I’m Courtney Larson from Montgomery, Haskins & Knoll.” Were her hands sweating?
“I see you found your way, finally. I must say that lobbyists are generally punctual. It must have something to do with their intent?” His eyebrows rose with the question, but she didn’t miss that his eyes then traveled up and down her body.
“It’s inexcusable, but I hope you’ll grant me just a few minutes of your valuable time.” She didn’t wait for him to offer her a chair. She sat, crossed her legs, set her briefcase next to the chair, and ran her fingers up her calf before returning to his gaze. “I’m really sorry I was delayed because what I want to talk with you about is one of the most important issues you’ll decide this year. But I can be brief, and I hope, convincing.” She smiled.
“Brief away.” Senator Morrison sat on the edge of his desk, spreading his long legs out and bracing his hands on either side of his hips. Just the kind of casual, but intimidating, posture she’d expect from him.
“Your voting record would indicate that you care deeply about your constituents. You consistently support bills on education and the environment. In fact, you voted for the ban on smoking in North Carolina restaurants and bars, proving that the health of your citizens is foremost in your mind.” Courtney clasped her hands together and leaned forward in her chair. “I know you voted against the last tax increase on tobacco in 2008, but the bill that will come up next month to increase the surcharge by another paltry few cents will help your state fund educational improvements, specifically new programs in the community college system in fields like medicine and engineering.” Courtney took a breath, and was getting ready for the rest of her spiel, when Senator Morrison held up a hand to interrupt.