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Standing in the back of a town hall meeting, Gia Duncan looked at her watch again. She was itching to get this thing started. This was her opening act and it could make or break her and her organization's future. This was a monumental undertakingone that had never been openly tried. Each time the main door opened, she held her breath and looked over anxiously, hoping this was it. Her edginess was just about to get the better of her. "Come on, come on," she muttered under her breath.
"What did you say?" Bill asked, leaning over to her.
"Nothing, just talking to myself," she said quietly, briefly glancing over to her business associate, Bill Axelby.
"Gia, you have to calm down," Bill whispered again.
"You know this is ridiculous. He's an hour and a half late. Seriously, who does he think he is? Is the whole world just supposed to stop and wait for him to decide when he's gonna get here?"
"He's not scheduled to be here until four. Besides, he's the last speaker to go on. And by the looks of that guy up there now, we're gonna be here for the rest of the night."
"That's not the point," she said, staring at the empty chair on the stage. It was obvious that her anxiousness was getting harder and harder to mask.
"Gia, everything will go as planned, trust me. We went over this a dozen times. Everybody knows what they need to do."
She nodded. "Yeah, I hope so."
"Never get discouraged when you're doing the right thing."
She nodded. Bill was right. He repeated her grandmother's words exactly. Her grandmother would have never been as anxious as she was now. And even if she was, you'd never see it. Julia Duncan was the ultimate fighter. She had courage, integrity and intelligencea lethal combination that scared politicians to the core. But most of all, she was always in control.
She had never gone up against someone like this though she had had the opportunity plenty of times. It seemed her grandmother, like most of the city of Philadelphia, believed Blake Washington and his family were superstars. They could do no wrong. And the popularity index tipping over seventy-eight percent proved it.
The main door opened again. She turned to look. It wasn't him. "Crap," she muttered.
Bill opened the program he'd received earlier. "Who is this guy and what's he running for again?"
"His name is Preston Hodge and he's running for city council. He's thirty-one years old, single, a stockbroker and he wants Lester Jameson's council seat since he's running against Blake Washington for mayor," their assistant, Bonnie Axelby informed them. "He's good and has some really forward-thinking ideas. I think he's really going places in this city."
Both Gia and Bill turned to her. She smiled happily. "What?" she said, surprised to see their stunned faces. "I do my research. I know the personal and professional background ofjust about everybody on the ballot."
Gia shook her head. "Bonnie, I'm impressed."
"Come on, Bill, this is totally interesting," Bonnie, Bill's younger sister, said excitedly. "Just think about it, this is what our Founding Fathers meant when they created the democratic process. Every man has an equal opportunity to get up and expand on the issues and toss his hat into the political ring."
Gia looked at their young assistant. Her naivete was admirable, but Gia knew it would soon vanish just like the belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Sadly, innocence lost can never be regained.
She remembered her own moments of true realization.
She was idealistic and innocently full of hope and ambition. She once believed that right would always triumph and that good always won over bad, but that was a long time ago. Gullible was what her grandfather had called her the day he kicked her out. That day her father and grandfather had taught her the ways of their world. It was a basic philosophy that they lived their lives by: only money matters.
But she soon learned that money and power weren't the answer, and she intended to prove it. They expected her to fail and come running back to them, but she had proved them wrong.
She was never going to let another rich man take advantage of her. Her paternal grandfather controlled her grandmother, and her father usurped her mother. When she refused to take it anymore he divorced her. There was no way she was going to follow their mistakes, not even for love. She was too strong for that. Her last two ex-boyfriends found that out quickly.
She knew better. Politics was a dirty business that thrived on the money and power and only those with deep pockets and unlimited resources made it to the top. She'd learned quickly that it wasn't about the politics of governing and doing the right thing; it was about the prestige and power of ultimate control.
She looked around at the crowded assembly. No one was really paying much attention to the current speaker. Partly because everyone had heard his type of rhetoric a dozen times before and partly because he was just plain boring. It was obvious everyone was waiting for the same person to arrivethe mayor. Coincidentally, just then, Preston Hodge mentioned the mayor's endorsement and the crowd applauded and cheered.
She shook her head. They were like lemmings jumping off a cliff. Just mention his name and the crowd cheers. Granted, as politicians go, he wasn't the worst, but she just assumed he hadn't been found out yet. Yes, there were others with much worse reputations. But they weren't the current mayor of Philadelphia and they weren't running for a second term, having failed miserably to get much of anything done in the first.
This wasn't personal, and political affiliation had nothing to do with this. She was an independent, meaning she voted for the best candidate. She was well informed and wanted other voters to be just as prepared for whom they were casting their vote. Four years was a long time to sit and do nothing while the city crumbled apart beneath their feet.
"Oh, my God, there he is, there he is," Bonnie said excitedly.
Gia looked over at the main door quickly. Wouldn't you know it, the second she wasn't paying attention, he arrived, but she didn't see him. "The mayor, where is he? I don't see him."
"No, not the mayor, his oldest son, Keith Washington. He's over there," she said dreamily, letting her voice trail softly as she stared with her eyes glazed over. "Damn," she said, exhaling at length, her voice raised two octaves. "He's even more gorgeous in person than in his pictures on the internet. No wonder he's got half the women in the city knocking down his door. Look at him, he's just too, too sexy, isn't he?"
"Bonnie, focus. You sound like a groupie," Bill snapped tightly through gritted teeth. She rolled her eyes at her brother's impatience with her. As half brother and half sister, theirs wasn't an easy alliance. "You do this all the time," he continued. "You never take anything seriously. This is a job. It's important. Not everyone is sitting on a massive trust fund like you. We don't have"
"Hey, it's not my fault you gambled and blew through all your money in a day and a half," Bonnie said, interrupting his tirade. "Just because you're broke "
"I'm not broke," Bill snapped again. "I have money. I invest. My money's tied up in my future."
"Okay. Okay, enough," Gia whispered, seeing that their conversation was beginning to draw attention. "Where is he, Bonnie?" she asked, looking at the main entrance again.
"There he is, over by the side door," Bonnie said, completely ignoring her brother. "Isn't he gorgeous?" she said rhetorically. Gia didn't respond and Bill just shook his head.
"Okay, can we get back to reality now? If Keith Washington is here, that means the mayor is here, too. Get ready."
Gia nodded with excitement and then glanced at the side door again. "So that's Keith Washington." Good Lord, Bonnie was right. Just looking at him made her stomach flutter excitedly. The photos she'd seen didn't come close to what he looked like in person.
She knew who he was, of course; most Phila-delphians did. But like everyone involved in the mayoral race, she had also researched him online, getting about what she had expected. According to his business profile, he was the typical big-city attorney working in a typical big-city law office. He specialized in political lawsuits, working mostly in New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
There was nothing in his resume and profile that was out of the ordinary. And that in and of itself made her suspicious. She knew a PR job when she saw one. It was obvious that the Washington family publicity machine had whitewashed everything that appeared in their online profiles. It was something her grandfather and father did, as well. She wondered what he was really like. Driven, calculating and arrogant, she quickly assessed.
His mother was a judge, his father was mayor, his two brothers were attorneys and his sister was a fashion merchandiser and also married to the number-one quarterback on the Philadelphia Knights football team. Bottom line, Keith had a family with power, prestige and clout. But she knew there was more to him than what she had read in his pristine online bio and what she saw of him standing across the room.
He was tall, over six feet, and standing majestic with broad shoulders and long, slightly bowed muscular legs. He wore an expensive suit that looked as if it had been tailored onto his body, and beneath, she could only imagine the fine firmness of his lean muscled body. No lie, the man was seriously built and the ease with which he carried himself showed that he was very sure of himself. Control and confidence covered him like a lover's embrace.
She saw his face as he looked around the hall. He was classically handsome with a firm angular jaw and warm brown bedroom eyes. He had full sensual lips that looked tender and succulent. Gia smiled to herself as several "I wonder " stray thoughts eased into her mind. Her mouth moistened and her legs tightened as the itch of wondering grew stronger.
"Aren't you supposed to be seated up front?" Bill asked.
Gia startled, ending her erotic musings as Bonnie sucked her teeth and shook her head. "Seriously, who has a town hall meeting on a Monday evening?"
"Bonnie," Bill snarled.
"Fine, I'm going." Then she looked at Gia and smiled. "I'm right, aren't I? He's too, too sexy."
Gia didn't respond. She couldn't. Her mouth had gone bone dry.
It had been a long day and now Keith Washington sat in the backseat of his father's SUV looking over the event's program. It was a typical small-venue town hall meeting. It was time-consuming and off the usual grid, but no big deal. Though this wasn't one he'd sanctioned.
There were several sponsors involved, some of whom he didn't know. That, he didn't like. But this was a favor set up by his father for an old friend who'd been working at the community center for years. Having Blake show up brought people out, and that helped the event and the center. But ultimately he'd wished he had more information up front about the other sponsors. He knew in a setting like this, anything could happen.
The last-minute strategy meeting in the backseat of his father's SUV came to an end just as the car stopped. Keith sent a text to his assistant, who was already inside; there were no last-second changes. Everything was as planned. They were ready and everything was set. It was time. "Are you ready for this?" he asked his father before getting out.
Blake smiled and nodded. "I am. These are my constituents, but they aren't just the people voting for me. These are the people hoping and praying that I make their lives better. I know it's small comparatively, but the second I become complacent about the small things is the time I need to get out of office."
Keith nodded. He knew his father was right. Each and every campaign appearance was essential, not only for the candidate, but also for the office. He knew his father would give one hundred percent and more. "That's exactly the answer we need. Let's do this."
Just as Keith got out of the SUV, Blake's cell phone rang. "It's your mother. Go ahead in, I'm right behind you," Blake said, answering the cell phone smiling.
Keith nodded and continued walking inside. Megan Keats, the law firm's publicist and the campaign's PR specialist, met him at the door and handed him a few notes. He read them quickly, then shook hands and briefly spoke with a few associates and businessmen as he entered. The news media were there. He smiled, answered a few questions, then excused himself and headed to the main hall. He stopped at the side entrance and looked back. His father had entered the building and was smiling, shaking hands and chatting briefly with those standing around waiting. He took a few photos, waved and shook more hands.
Keith shook his head. Practicing legislative and regulatory law was nothing compared to being his father's political strategist and campaign manager. In that position he headed an impressive inner circle of senior advisers that included a media strategist, a communications and policy research director, a chief pollster and a financial director. And every day dozens of resumes were delivered for his vetting.
Everyone wanted to get on board the campaign train because everyone knew this was only the beginning. His father's political aspirations were modest, but the party was already looking a decade ahead to a very prominent Washington, D.C., position.
Keith stepped inside the main hall and looked around. The small area was packed as he had expected. His father always drew a crowd. Preston Hodge was at the podium speaking. Keith watched him for a few seconds. He'd already assessed Preston as a nonthreat. Still, he was a wild card. He had bold aspirations and a heart to do well, but his troubled background would either hold him back or propel him forward.