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Lee Ann Lawson leaned toward her dressing table mirror and fastened the diamond studs into her ears, just as the booming voice of her father called out to her from the other side of the Louisiana mansion.
"Coming!" she called back, tightening the belt of her white silk robe around her slim waist and wondering as she padded barefoot along the winding hallway what it was that he couldn't find. She smiled inwardly and prepared herself to fuss over her daddy for the next few minutes. She was stopped halfway when one of her twin sisters, Dominique, leaped out from her bedroom door, hands planted boldly on her round hips.
"Sis, would you please tell my darling dull twin that this dress does not show too much cleavage!" She flashed a scowling look at her mirror image, who sat demurely on a cushioned foot stool.
Lee Ann looked Dominique up and down. Of the two, Dominique was always the flamboyant one, ready at the drop of a hat to be the center of attention. And her dress definitely did that. Cut in the front to nearly her navel, the sparkling silver floor-length gown barely held her size Cs in place.
"You sure your dolls aren't going to pop out and introduce themselves at the party?" Lee Ann asked, only half in jest.
Desiree covered her mouth and laughed. "Told you, Dom. And it's the same thing Mama would have said."
Dominique pouted. "I have a cover-up."
"Be sure you have it with you," she warned. She peeked around Dominique. "You look beautiful, Desi. And you, too, Dom," she said with a big-sister wink.
"Lee Ann!" Branford bellowed.
The sisters exchanged a knowing look as Lee Ann hurried down the hallway. The voices of her brothers Rafe and Justin floated to her from the main room below. She couldn't wait to see her handsome brothers all decked out. She tapped on her father's door.
She pushed the partially opened door and stepped inside. Even after five years, she still had not adjusted to the reality that every night her father slept alone and that their beloved mother was no longer with them. As the oldest girl, she'd stepped into the role of caregiver for her mother during her mother's long illness and then the caregiver for her familyher father in particular.
"Hey, Daddy. Sorry, I got waylaid by those girls." She laughed lightly and crossed the circular room to where her father sat on the edge of the king-size bed struggling with his cuff links. "Here, let me." Her slender honey-toned fingers moved expertly to insert the onyx cufflinks and fasten them.
"You fix me up just like your mama, God rest her soul," he murmured and affectionately patted Lee Ann's hand.
The ache in his voice twisted inside of Lee Ann and settled where it always didin the center of her heart. She leaned over and kissed her father's cheek then sat back and adjusted his tie, turning her head right then left as she did.
Her father was one of the most powerful men in the state of Louisiana. Senior Senator Branford Lawson not only carried clout but respect across both sides of the aisle. Some of his closest friends were those who for the average person were only seen on television and in newspapers, but to her they were Aunt Hillary or Uncle Bill. At any given time, the Lawson mansion would become the epicenter for political gatherings. She remembered one day as a young girl waking up and seeing former president Carter sitting in the kitchen sipping coffee with her father.
It had been her mother, Louisa, who'd overseen the Lawson household and clan like the queen of England oversaw her country. She was the consummate Southern hostess, the nurturing but watchful mother and loyal and devoted friend. Lee Ann became the woman she was because of her mother.
Lee Ann pushed back the memories as they threatened to overtake her. With her mother's passing, Lee Ann stepped into her mother's role. It was a big responsibility, but she did it with love.
"Perfect," she announced of her handiwork. "Now stand up and let me take a good look." Her father dutifully did as he was asked. "Looking good, Daddy."
He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "That's what all the ladies say," he teased. Then he looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. He frowned. "Why aren't you dressed?"
Her right brow elevated. "That's what I was doing when I was summoned."
He pretended to miss her point. "Well, don't stand around," he said, flinging his hand in her direction to shoo her out. "Get yourself together. You know how I hate being late."
Lee Ann shook her head and grinned. "Yes, Daddy." She returned to her room, took her dress from the walk-in cedar closet and was wiggling into it when her brother Rafe came knocking.
"Now look at you," he hummed in that tone he reserved for when he wanted something.
Rafe leaned against the frame of her door, a glass of bourbon in one hand and his other hand tucked into the pocket of his tuxedo slacks, as smooth and sleek as a panther and just as deadly to the ladies. Raford James Lawson, the eldest of the Lawson clan, was a notorious playboy not only in the United States but abroad as well, although he swore, with a wink and a smile, that those rumors weren't true. At thirty-six, he was unattached, wealthy, handsome, smart and came from a powerhouse family. He'd been profiled countless times in major magazines as one of the country's most eligible bachelors, sexiest man and heir apparent to his father's Senate seat. Rafe would agree to the first two, but the last stood as a bone of contention between father and son. He'd rather spend his days traveling, loving women and playing his sax. Politics weren't in his blood. But his father wouldn't hear of it.
Lee Ann pursed her cherry-tinted lips and ran her hazel eyes along the long lines of her big brother. "A little early for bourbon, don't you think?"
"Never too early for bourbon, cher," he teased, raising his glass to her in salute before taking a sip.
"At least make yourself useful. Come zip me." She turned her back to him and waited for his real reason for descending upon her.
"Listen, sis "
Here it comes, she thought. "Yes, sugah, what is it?" She turned around to face him, looked up into his bottomless black eyes, framed by silky lashes, and knew without question what women saw in her brother. And no matter how much warning they were given they kept coming.
"Yes?" She buttoned the top button of his shirt then began fashioning his bow tie.
"I know Daddy wants to show me around like some prized pony and have me glad handing all night, but there's this new blues club down in the Quarter. If I can get there before midnight, I can get in on the last set."
His smooth face and midnight eyes literally danced with excitement and matched the almost childlike urgency of his voice.
"Rafe," she cautioned. "You know how Daddy feels about that."
"I know, baby sis. That's why I need your help to distract him while I get out of there," he cajoled. He leaned down to her ear. "Please."
Lee Ann playfully pushed him away. "Don't start your foolishness with me, Rafe Lawson. I'm not one of your starry-eyed ladies."
He chuckled. "You wound me, cher."
She put her hands on her hips and then wagged a warning finger at him. "I'll do this for you again. But I'm warning you, Raford. You get yourself in any trouble tonight and you're on your own. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am." He leaned down and put a sloppy wet kiss on her cheek.
"Aggg. You know I hate when you do that! Ruining my makeup. Get on out of here."
Raford laughed on his way to the door. "Love you, too," he called out.
Lee Ann shook her head in affectionate amusement, walked over to her dressing table mirror to inspect the damage then touched up her makeup.
She turned. Her younger brother Justin had his head sticking in her door, the spitting image of their mother with his sandy-brown complexion, tight curly hair and to-die-for dimples. Although he was still growing into his looks, Justin was one handsome young man.
"Daddy said if you aren't down in two minutes we're leaving without you. I'm to make sure you get downstairs," he said with a twinkle in his eyes. They both knew that Branford Lawson was more bark than bite, and the last person he'd get on the wrong side of was Lee Ann.
"Coming. Don't you look handsome?" She crossed the room and stood in front of him. Lee Ann was the only one who could make Justin blush. He, like his brother, towered over their petite sisters, and Justin, at twenty-three, beat his brother out by an inch of Rafe's six-foot-three-inch height. By habit, she straightened his tie and smoothed her hands over his broad shoulders. "Let me get my purse and I'm ready."
The family filed into the waiting limo, and it sped off into the balmy Louisiana night.
By the time they arrived at the estate of Congressman Jeremiah Davis, the reception portion of the evening was getting underway. Waiters glided between the bejeweled guests with platters of mouthwatering appetizers and flutes of champagne. The thousand-dollar-per-plate affair was a fundraising event for the incumbent congressman. And with the downward spiral of the economy on the watch of the Democrats, he needed all the support he could get.
Jeremiah and Branford had been friends since they were in knee-highs and had followed each other throughout their school years, served as each other's best man at their weddings and were godfathers to their children. There was a bond between them that was stronger than most brothers, and the Lawson clan adored their Uncle Jerry.
"It's about time you all got yourselves here," Jeremiah said, kissing cheeks and shaking hands.
Jeremiah could only be described as round. Everything about him was round, from the top of his head down to his bowlegs. He often reminded Lee Ann of one of those children's toys that rocked back and forth and rolled around without ever falling over.
"Hi, Uncle Jerry," Lee Ann said, becoming enveloped in his hearty embrace. He held her back at arm's length and looked her over.
"Looking more like your beautiful mama with every passing day," he said softly.
Lee Ann smiled. What could she say? She'd run out of words from the often heard comment. A part of her felt so complimented to be compared to her mother, then there was another part that felt overwhelmed by the comparison that she felt she could never live up to.
Her sisters and brothers had already dispersed into the crowd. They'd been trained well, since they were old enough to be introduced to the world. They knew how to work a crowd, gain information without giving any, befriend newcomers and leave an indelible impression on everyone that they met. They were the epitome of the political elite family, which was often as much of a burden as it was a badge of honor.
Lee Ann slipped her arm through Jeremiah's. "And where is Aunt Lynn? I don't see her."
"Probably worrying the waiters to death." He chuckled good-naturedly. "You know your aunt. Walk with me outside. I need some air already."
Lee Ann laughed lightly, and it stopped as if a cork had slid down her throat. A warm wave fluttered in her stomach as they drew closer to the group assembled near the balcony.
She'd only seen him from a distance in the past, although she'd watched him closely during his run for the junior Senate seat and listened to her father extol his virtues. Although Lee Ann worked closely with her father as his personal consultant, she tended to steer clear of the interactions of the power brokers, rarely visited Washington and worked out of the family home or occasionally at her father's local office in Baton Rouge.
"Congressman," one of the ladies announced. All eyes turned in their direction.
Jeremiah let out a hearty laugh. "Now that's the way I like to make an entrance, introduced by a beautiful woman." The group dutifully chuckled. He turned to Lee Ann. "I'm sure most of you know Lee Ann Lawson, the real power behind the senator."
Lee Ann's face heated. She looked from one to the other. "He gives me too much credit."
"All deserved, my dear." He slipped her arm out from his and patted her hand. "Senator Preston Graham, have you met Lee Ann?"
"I'm sure if I did I would have remembered," he responded, his dark eyes doing a slow stroll across her face. He extended his hand toward her.
Lee Ann stretched out her hand, and he leaned down and kissed the top of it. "My pleasure." A smile teased the corners of his mouth. "I feel as if I already know you."
She tilted her head slightly to the side. "Why is that?"
"Your father talks about you all the time."
Her gaze darted away for an instant. "He does the same about you."
"Is that right? Hope it's all good." Light danced in his eyes.
"Yes, it is. He thinks very highly of you. And congratulations, by the way, on your win."
"I'm still getting my feet wet. Your father is an excellent mentor."
"That he is."
"Can I get you a drink?"
"Yes. Thank you."
After they both realized that he was still holding her hand, Preston chuckled. "Maybe it's a sign that we should go out together."
Lee Ann's soft laugh brushed against him like a caress. He tucked her hand in the curve of his arm.
"I'm surprised we haven't officially met before," Preston said as they crossed the expansive room.
"I try to stay behind the scenes except when my father needs me front and center." She smiled and tried to keep her feet moving one in front of the other even as the electric energy of Preston Graham bounced off her, short-circuiting her brain.
"You do a very good job of it, considering that you are his political adviser of sorts. At least that's my understanding."
"I do oversee his activities, but it's more like a personal assistant," she said.
They reached the bar. "What will you have?"
"A white wine spritzer."
He gave the order to the bartender and ordered a bourbon for himself.
"My brother's favorite drink," she commented as they were served.