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Senator! Can I ask a follow-up?"
"What about tomorrow's speech, Senator?"
"Senator, will you be commenting on any personal romantic relationship developing between you and Francesca Waverly? One of the tabloids has allegedly received some pictures"
As usual, the barrage of shouted questions followed Senator Jonathan Warner up the aisle toward the restricted section of his Boeing 757. He calculated the number of steps between him and a chance to relaxless than ten, he thoughtand wondered how soon he could get to the other side of that precious divide.
A smarter man would've kept his butt up there in the front of the plane, where it was safe, rather than come back here and spend a few minutes with the press corps, but he'd been riding the high after the campaign rally in Detroit and wanted to see what kind of feedback he'd get from the press.
But then one answered question had turned to five, and now it was after midnight and he hadn't begun to prepare for tomorrow's events, much less sleep. Sleep. Ha. He remembered it well. Something about getting in a bed, putting your head down on a pillow and closing your eyes.
Unfortunately, he'd given up the idea of sleep for the duration, and so had his cohorts here. Everyone on the jet was bleary-eyed and exhausted, and since the primary season was just getting under way, the widespread sleep deprivation would get a whole lot worse before it got better.
Pausing, he glanced back over his shoulder into the bright lights of various camcorders, pushed his rolled shirtsleeve past his watch to check the time12:39 a.m. now, wonderfuland considered which, if any, of the additionalquestions he should answer.
The pause, naturally, gave the reporters the chance to shout more questions in a never-ending cycle. If he stood right here and had the pilot circle Detroit until they ran out of fuel, the reporters would still be shouting questions at him as long as the coffee ran hot and strong.
The life of a presidential candidate. Nothing but glamour.
She hadn't asked him a question.
The object of his unwilling and unrelenting fascination was Liza Wilson, the newest addition to his traveling family of fun, who sat in the back and attracted his attention the way a mirrored ball attracts disco fans. Thirty-seven and divorced, she was the popular senior Washington correspondent for one of the big three networks.
As if that didn' t keep her busy enough, she also worked on that network's cable news affiliate as an analyst and was reputedly in negotiations for the evening news anchor position. If she got the joband she had the chops for it, no question, having covered both political and military warsshe'd be both the youngest and the first African American anchor, ever.
She had a reputation for brashness, and the word was that her executive producers had their hands full managing her. He could believe it. A Chicagoan born and bred, she'd graduated from Northwestern and had a Georgetown MBA in journalism. Brilliant, ambitious and hardworking, tough but fair in her coverage, which was always scrupulously ethical, she'd won a handful of Emmy Awards and a Peabody or two, and he supposed she wanted to win another handful of awards for primary coverage now that she was embedded with him.
Embedded. In bed with.
Something deep in his gut awakened and sizzled with awareness. That thing, whatever it was, fixated on Liza Wilson with unnerving focus even though he had zero time, opportunity or desire for romance here in the fishbowl. If he did have time, though, she would be the first and only name on his list of potential lovers.
Unfortunately, it was a moot point.
His life was about one thing only: winning the nomination and then the presidency.
Period. End of story.
So, look away from the pretty woman, Warner.
Point-three seconds was all he could manage before his gaze was drawn right back to where she sat in her remote corner of the plane.
What was it about that woman? Why couldn't he ever remember that she irritated him like a pebble in his shoe or an un-scratchable itch between his shoulder blades? Why weren't his overactive hormones getting the message?
Yeah, he didn't like her. It was the arrogant tilt of her chin that did it, her thin veil of contempt, the way she gave the clear impression that she was deigning to acknowledge his bothersome presence whenever she asked a question in that husky-sexy voice. As if his existence was an annoyance to her even though she made her livelihood off him and his activities.
But she was, as the Commodores would say, a brick house.
He'd noticed over the years, sure. The problem was, seeing her on TV and seeing her in person were two very different things.
Seeing her on TV was pleasant. Seeing her in person was startling.
If he could've put together a Perfect Body Wish Listbreasts, butt, legs, hips, in that orderLiza Wilson would have been the spectacular result. And yet that didn't fully account for her appeal; last week, during one of his fundraising stops in L.A.,
he'd been propositioned by threeno, fourmouth-watering starlets, but starlets didn't interest him. Liza Wilson did, for elusive, intangible reasons that seemed to have nothing to do with her body.
Partially because of her wide brown eyes, which were tilted at the edges like a cat's and mocked him every time she spoke to him. Partially because of the velvety warmth of her brown skin as it disappeared beneath the neckline of whatever she was wearing on any given day, revealing a hintalways just a hint of breasts that would overflow his hands. Partially because of the way her tender lips curved and her sleek black hair, which was short and angled on one side, always slipped over the corner of one eye like she was giving him a come-hither lookyeah, right, Warner, you wishor had a delicious secret to tell.
His gut tightened with unrequited lust.
As a candidate who had the misfortune of being both widowed for the last ten years and the focal point of enough media and print reporters to fill a football stadium, he was doomed to celibacy until at least the first Wednesday in November, if then, unless he was prepared to jeopardize the campaign by turning it into a tabloid circus focused on his private life, which he wasn't.
Votes were too hard to come by without risking them for something as ultimately meaningless as sex. Why take the chance? It wasn't like he was in the market for a wife.
Attractive women everywhere, therefore, were an annoyance to him, and this one was no different. There was, in other words, nothing special about Liza Wilson.
So if he didn't like her and wasn't going to seduce her, why couldn't he just ignore her? Why did he always feel this gnawing compulsion to engage her?
The reporters had quieted down a little, and he spoke into the dull roar.
"What was that, Liza?" he asked on impulse. "I didn't hear you."
Five rows back, Liza started with surprise and looked up from her notes.
Even though John knew damn well she'd been the only journalist on the plane who hadn't asked him a question, he cupped a hand to his ear, cocked his head and waited for her reaction. No journalist worth her salt would pass up the chance to ask the candidate a question, Liza least of all.
All the other reporters shut up and looked back over their seats at Liza, craning their necks to keep her in sight. John felt a moment's guilty pleasure at catching her unawares and forcing her to acknowledge his existence in one fell swoop.
Guilty pleasure and the slow burn of excitement. Mostly the latter.
But then she gave him a shrewd smile, studied him with those cool, disdainful eyes and asked a question on the one lousy topic that had been simmering along without erupting into the full rolling boil he'd hoped to avoid.
"I was just asking" she lied smoothly in that smoky voice that was like the stroke of her fingers low across his belly "whether your spending time here with us at the back of the plane is part of a new policy for you?"
John schooled his features, refusing to wince.
"A new policy?" he echoed, stalling for time.
"A new policy of greater press access." Those arched eyebrows inched higher, making her look wide-eyed and earnest and not at all like the circling shark that she was. "Because it's been three days since you answered any questions at length, and when you do talk to us here on the plane, you almost always insist on things being off the record. Meanwhile, Senator Fitzgerald gives her press corps twenty minutes every day
Liza let the delicate innuendo hang. Senator Warner hides from the press while his opponent, Senator Fitzgerald, gives her correspondents free access.
The moment stretched, but John refused to squirm even though he saw a clear gotcha in Liza's bright eyes. Even if no one else could see it, he could. As he scrambled to frame an answer that wouldn't land his butt in the frying pan with the heat on high, only one thing was on his mind, and it wasn't the press and its level of access to him, free or otherwise, and it wasn't his opponent or the primary season.
Why didn't he know by now not to mess with Liza Wilson?
Don't blink, Liza. Don't. Blink.
She met Senator Warner's irritated gaze and kept her chin up, acutely aware of her skittering nerves, the rolling cameras and the digital voice recorders picking up every inflection of both her voice and his.
This was the ultra-civil Gentleman from Ohio? Ha. A primitive light shone pretty bright in his eyes right now, and he'd probably be happier to share his plane with his opponentor even several thousand poisonous snakesthan Liza. The brilliant senator from Cleveland, he of the reputation for honesty and fair dealing, wanted her out and would no doubt be thrilled to personally do the ejecting. If they happened to be at thirty thousand feet at the time, so much the better.
It was amazing the way his blazing dislike for her radiated out from his piercing dark gaze, bypassed all the other journalists, traveled back to her row and tightened around her throat like flexing fingers. That animosity followed her to rallies and campaign stops, trailed her when they were all on the campaign bus and pretty much enveloped her whenever they occupied the same zip code.
What the heck had she ever done to him? She searched her memory banks for the billionth time and came up blank. Again.
She hadn't spent fifteen years as a journalist and gotten to her positionsenior Washington correspondent at a major network, thank you very muchwithout stepping on a few toes and making a few enemies. Fine. No problem. Sometimes people were wounded or irritated by her coverage. Againno problem.
But what was up with Warner? Why did his hostility feel so intense and personal even though they'd never exchanged more than a few public words? Her reportage of him had been no worse than her colleagues', so what was the deal?
Oh, and add one more item to the list of things she didn't understand: her powerful reaction to him.
Well yeah, she did understand it. It was just that she didn't like it.
To her everlasting dismay, she reacted to him the same way women all across the globe reacted, which was pretty much an Oh, my God.
Forget attractive. Forget handsome. He was way past all that. The senator was, in fact, breathtaking. At forty-four, he had severe dark looks, intense eyes, heavy brows, a long straight nose and granite-sharp cheekbones.
A few lines at the corners of his eyes and bracketing his mouth made him all the more intriguing. Ruthlessly athletic, he played soccer and had the kind of muscular, broad-shouldered body that practically made a woman come just by looking at him.
More than that, he was tall, imposing, fierce and presidential. Other than an early loss when he ran for the House of Representatives, he'd been a power broker all his adult life, a winner. He walked in the room and brought an aura of prestige, brilliance and sophistication with him. People instinctively knew that if the North Koreans launched a missile at some unsuspecting target, Senator Warner was the man they'd want in charge.
And God help them all whenever he switched gears and made a joke or teased a reporter. Suddenly those harsh cheeks turned dimpled and boyish, and his flashing white smile reduced all nearby womenLiza includedto quivering masses of hormones laced with desire wrapped in want.
He was that political rarity, a man who was charming and natural rather than charming and smarmy, and it drove Liza crazy because she couldn't write him off as another soulless politician.
Charisma was one thing, but they weren't dealing with charisma here.
What Senator Warner had was charisma to the millionth power. A pheromone that got women hot, bothered and squirmy with no conscious effort on his part. A lethal weapon that would lay waste to mountains and dry up rivers if he ever fully unleashed it.
And Liza was supposed to ignore all that.
As a TV news correspondent, it was her job to ask the tough questions and hold the man's feet to the fire. No one had ever said it would be easy to overlook his sexual appeal, and it wasn't. Still, Liza tried. Every single day she did her best to ignore her thrumming pulse, fluttering belly and hot, thick blood. She worked hard to focus on her questions and listen to his answers without wondering how his mouth tasted.
Like right now.
"Did you hear me this time, Senator?" Liza kept her shoulders squared and her voice cool.
Senator Warner's eyes glinted with just a hint of the anger she knew he was trying to control. "I'll have to see what I can do about giving the press more access, Liza." That famous grin started at one corner of his mouth and his dimples deepened. "Maybe I can work out a deal with you folksI'll give you more time, and you can give me better coverage. How'd that be?"
This little joke, naturally, broke everyone up. If there was a single person in the cabin, from the most battle-scarred war correspondent to the greenest intern, who didn't laugh, Liza couldn't see who it was. She glanced around, disgusted, because they were all giggling like a bunch of teenage girls. Again.
Why didn't they all just start wearing I Heart Senator Warner buttons along with their press badges and be done with it? Even the groupies for the Rolling Stones were more dignified than this.
"Your coverage has been pretty good, Senator," someone called.
Warner shook his head, looking wry. "That's a matter of perspective." He flashed the whole smile this time as he edged toward the front of the plane. With a wave, he turned to slip through the doorway to the private area. "Y'all get some sleep now.