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Garrett McKettrick wanted a horse under hima fleet cow pony like the ones bred to work the herds on the Silver Spur Ranch. But for now, anyway, the Porsche would have to do.
Because of the hourit was a little after 3:00 a.m. Garrett had that particular stretch of Texas highway all to himself. The moon and stars cast silvery shadows through the open sunroof and shimmered on the rolled-up sleeves of his white dress shirt, while a country oldie, with lots of twang, pounded from the sound system. Everything in himfrom the nuclei of his cells outwardvibrated to the beat.
He'd left the tuxedo jacket, the cummerbund, the tie, the fancy cuff links, back in Austinright along with one or two of his most cherished illusions.
The party was definitely overfor him, anyhow.
He should have seen it comingor at least listened to people who did see it coming, specifically his brothers, Tate and Austin. They'd done their best to warn him.
Senator Morgan Cox, they'd said, in so many words and in their different ways, wasn't what he seemed.
Against his will, Garrett's mind looped back a few hours, and even as he sped along that straight, dark ribbon of road, another part of him relived the shock in excruciating detail.
Cox had always presented himself as a family man, in public and private. A corner of each of his hand-carved antique desks in both the Austin and Washington offices supported a small forest of framed photoshimself and Nan on their wedding day, himself and Nan and the first crop of kids, himself and Nan and more kids, some of whom were adopted and had special needs. Altogether, there were nine Cox offspring.
The dogsseveral generations of golden retrievers, all rescued, of coursewere pictured as well.
That night, with no warning at all, Garrett's longtime boss and mentor had arrived at an important fundraiser, held in a glittering hotel ballroom, but not with Nan on his armelegant, articulate, wholesome Nan, with her own pedigree as a former Texas governor's daughter. Oh, no. This powerful U.S. senator, a war hero, a man with what many people considered a straight shot at the White House, had instead escorted a classic bimbo, later identified as a twenty-two-year-old pole dancer who went by the unlikely name of Mandy Chante.
Before God, his amazed supporters, the press and, worst of all, Nan, the senator proceeded to announce that he and Mandy were soul mates. Kindred spirits. They'd been lovers in a dozen other lifetimes, he rhapsodized. In short, Cox explained from the microphone on the daishis lover hovering earnestly beside him in a long, form-fitting dress rippling with ice-blue sequins, which gave her the look of a mermaid with feethe hoped everyone would understand.
He had to follow his heart.
If only the senator's heart were the organ he was following, Garrett lamented silently.
One of those freeze-frame silences followed, vast and uncomfortable, turning the whole assembly into a garden of stone statues while several hundred people tried to process what they'd just heard Cox say.
Who was this guy, they were probably asking themselves, and what had he done with the Morgan Cox they all knew? Where, Garrett himself wondered, was the man who had given that stirring eulogy at the double funeral after Jim and Sally McKettrick, his folks, were killed a decade before?
The mass paralysis following Morgan's proclamation lasted only a few seconds, and Garrett was quick to shake it off. Automatically, he scanned the room for Nan Coxhis late mother's college roommateand found her standing near the grand piano, alone.
Most likely, Nan, a veteran political wife, had been in transit between one conversational cluster and another when her husband dropped the bombshell. She was still smiling, in fact, and the effect was eerie, even surreal.
Like the true lady she was, however, Nan immediately drew herself up, made her way through friends and strangers, enemies and intimate confidants to step up to Garrett's side, link her arm with his and whisper, "Get him out of here, Garrett. Get Morgan out of here now, before this gets any worse."
Garrett glanced at the senator, who ignored his wife of more than three decades, the mother of his children, the flesh-and-blood, hurting woman he had just humiliated in a very public way, to gaze lovingly into the upturned face of his mistress. The mermaid's plump, glistening lower lip jutted out in a pout.
Cox patted the young woman's hand reassuringly then, acting as though she, not Nan, might have been traumatized.
The cameras came out, amateur and professional; a blinding dazzle surrounded the happy couple. Within a couple of minutes, some of that attention would surely shift to Nan.
"I'm getting you away first," Garrett told Nan, using his right arm to lock her against his side and starting for the nearest way out. As the senator's aide, Garrett had a lot of experience at running interference, and he always scoped out every exit in every venue in advance, just in case. Even the familiar ones, like that hotel, which happened to be the senator's favorite.
Nan didn't arguenot then, anyway. She kept up with Garrett, offered no protest when he hustled her through a corridor crowded with carts and waitstaff, then into a service elevator.
Garrett flipped open his cell phone and speed-dialed a number as they descended, Nan leaning against the elevator wall now, looking down at her feet, stricken to silence. Her beautifully coiffed silver hair gleamed in the fluorescent light.
The senator's personal driver, Troy, answered on the first ring, his tone cheerful. "Garrett? What's up, man?"
"Bring the car around to the back of the hotel," Gar-rett said. "And hurry."
Nan looked up, met Garrett's gaze. She was pale, and her eyes looked haunted, but the smile resting on her mouth was real, if slight. "You're probably scaring poor Troy to death," she scolded, putting a hand out for the cell phone.
Garrett handed it over just as they reached the ground floor, and Nan spoke efficiently into the mouthpiece.
"Troy? This is Mrs. Cox. Just so you know, there's no fire, and nobody's been shot or had a heart attack. But it probably is a good idea for me to leave the building, so be a dear and pick me up behind the hotel." A pause. "Oh, you are? Perfect. I'll explain in the car. Meanwhile, here's Garrett again."
With that, she handed the phone back to Garrett.
When he put it to his ear, he heard Troy suck in a nervous breath. "I'm outside the kitchen door, buddy," he said. "I'll take Mrs. Cox home and come straight back, in case you need some help."
"Excellent idea," Garrett said, as the elevator doors opened into the institution-sized kitchen.
The senator's wife smiled and nodded to a bevy of surprised kitchen workers as she and Garrett headed for the outside door.
True to his word, Troy was waiting in back, the rear passenger-side door of the sedan already open for Mrs. Cox.
He and Garrett exchanged glances as Nan slipped into the backseat, but neither of them spoke.
Troy closed her door, but she immediately lowered the window.
"My husband needs your help," she told Garrett quietly but firmly. "This is no time to judge himthere will be enough of that in the media."
"Yes, ma'am," Garrett answered.
Troy climbed behind the wheel again, and Garrett was already heading back through the kitchen door when they pulled away.
He strode to the service elevator, pushed the button and waited until it lumbered down from some upper floor.
When the doors slid open, there were the senator and the bimbo.
The senator blinked when he saw Garrett. He looked older somehow, and he was wearing his glasses. "There you are," he said. "I was wondering where you'd gotten to, young McKettrick. Nan, too. Have you seen my wife?"
Nan's remark, spoken only a minute or two before, echoed in Garrett's mind.
My husband needs your help.
And juxtaposed to that, the senator's oddly solicitous, Have you seen my wife?
Garrett made an attempt at a smile, but it felt like a grimace instead. He narrowed his eyes slightly, shot a glance at the mermaid and then faced the senator again. "Mrs. Cox is on her way home, sir," he said.
"I imagine she was upset," Cox replied, looking both regretful and detached.
"She's a lady, sir," Garrett answered evenly. "And she's behaving like one."
Cox gave a fond chuckle and nodded. "First, last and always, Nan is a lady," he agreed.
Beside him, the mermaid seethed, clinging a little more tightly to the senator's arm and glaring at Garrett.
Garrett glared right back. This woman, he decided, was no mermaid, and no lady, either. She was a barracuda.
"It would seem I haven't chosen the best time to break our news to the world, my dear," the senator said, patting his beloved's bejeweled and manicured hand in the same devoted way he'd done upstairs. "I probably should have told Nan in private."
Ya think? Garrett asked silently.
"You work for Senator Cox," said the barracuda, turning to Garrett, "not his wife. Why did you just go off and leave ushimstranded like that? The reporters"
Garrett folded his arms and waited.
"It was awful!" blurted the barracuda.
What had the woman expected? Champagne all around? Congratulatory kisses and handshakes? A romantic waltz with the senator while the orchestra played "Moon River"?
"Luckily," the senator told Garrett affably, as though there had been no outburst from the sequined contingent, "I remembered how often you and I had discussed security measures, and Mandy and I were able to slip away and find the nearest service elevator."
The corridor seemed to be closing in on Garrett. He undid his string tie and opened the top three buttons of his shirt. "Mandy?" he asked.
The senator laughed warmly. "Mandy Chante," he said, "meet Garrett McKettrick, my right-hand man."
"Mandy Chante," Garrett repeated, with no inflection at all.
Mandy's eyes blazed. "What are we supposed to do now?" she demanded.
"I guess that depends on the senator's wishes," Gar-rett said mildly. "Will you be going home to the ranch tonight, sir, or staying in town?"
Or maybe I could just drop you off at the nearest E.R. for psychiatric evaluation.
"I'm sure Nan will be at the condo," the senator mused. "Our showing up there could be awkward."
Awkward. Yes, indeed, Senator, that would be awkward.
Garrett cleared his throat. "Could I speak to you alone for a moment, sir?" he asked.
Mandy, with one arm already resting in the crook of the senator's elbow, intertwined the fingers of both hands to get a double grip. "Pooky and I have no secrets from each other," she said.
Garrett's stomach did a slow roll.
"Now, now, dear," Cox told Mandy, gently freeing himself from her physical hold, at least. "Garrett means well, and you mustn't feel threatened." Addressing Garrett next, the older man added, "This is not a good time for a discussion. I'd rather not leave Mandy standing alone in this corridor."
"Tomorrow, Garrett," the senator said. "You and I will discuss this tomorrow, in my office."
Garrett merely nodded, clamping his back teeth together.
"It's weird down here," Mandy complained, looking around. "Weird and spooky. Couldn't we get a suite or something?"
"That's a fine idea," Cox replied ebulliently. There was more hand-patting, and then the senator turned to face Garrett again. "You'll take care of that for us, won't you, Garrett? Book a suite upstairs, I mean? Under your own name, of course, and not mine."
"Sure," Garrett answered wearily, thinking of Nan and the many kids and the faithful golden retrievers. Pointing out to his employer that nobody would be fooled by the suite-booking gambit would probably be futile.
"Good," the senator said, satisfied.
"Do we have to wait here while he gets us a room, Pooky?" Mandy whined. "I don't like this place. It's like a cellar or something."
Cox smiled at her, and his tone was soothing. "The press will be watching the lobby for us," he said reasonably. "And we won't have to wait long, because Garrett will be quick. Won't you, Garrett?"
Bile scalded the back of Garrett's throat. "I'll be quick," he answered.
That was when he started wanting the horse under him. He wanted to hear hooves pounding over hard ground and breathe the clean, uncomplicated air of home.
He went upstairs, arranged for comfortable quarters at the reception desk, and called the senator's personal cell phone when he had a room number to give him.
"Here's Troy, back again," the senator said on the other end of the call, sounding pleased. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind escorting us up there. If you'd just get us some ice before you leave, Garrett"
Garrett closed his eyes, refrained from pointing out that he wasn't a bellman, or a room service waiter. "Yes, sir," he said.
Fifteen minutes later, he and Troy descended together, in yet another service elevator. For a black man, Troy looked pale.
"Is he serious?" Troy asked.
Garrett sighed deeply, looking up and watching the digital numbers over the doors as they plunged. His tie was dangling; he tugged it loose from his shirt collar and stuffed it into the pocket of his tuxedo jacket. "It would seem so," he said.
"Mrs. Cox says the senator is having a mental breakdown, and we all have to stick by him," Troy said glumly, shaking his head. "She's sure he'll come to his senses and everything will be fine."
"Right," Garrett said, grimly distracted. He'd sprint around to the side parking lot once he and Troy were outside, climb into his Porsche, and head for home. In two hours, he could be back on the Silver Spur.
They were standing in the alley again when Troy asked, "Why do I get the feeling that this comes as a surprise to you?"
The question threw Garrett, at least momentarily, and he didn't answer.
Troy thumbed the fob on his key ring, and the sedan started up. "Get in, and I'll give you a lift to your car," he told Garrett, with a sigh.
Garrett got into the sedan. "You knew about Mandy and the senator?" he asked.
Troy shook his head again and gave a raspy chuckle. "Hell, Garrett," he said, "I drive the man's car. He's been seeing her for months."
Garrett closed his eyes. Tate had accused him once of having his head up his ass, as far as the senator's true nature was concerned. And he'd defended Morgan Cox, been ready to fight his own brother to defend the bastard's honor.
"What about Nan? Did she know, too?" Remembering the expression on her face earlier, in the ballroom, Garrett didn't think so.
"Maybe," Troy said. "She didn't hear it from me, though."
He drew the sedan to a stop behind Garrett's Porsche. News vans were pulling out on the other end of the lot, along with a stream of ordinary cars.
Film clips and sound bites were probably already running on the local channels.
Turn out the lights, Garrett thought dismally. The party's over.