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|Publisher:||Morgan James Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
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He's gorgeous." Chessa Reynolds stared at U.S. Senator Darren Richards' photo on her laptop.
"He's okay." Amy Darlington peered over her college roommate's shoulder, arms crossed, unconvinced. "I don't see why you're so excited."
"Are you kidding? This is huge! I can't believe The Spectator assigned me the story. I think Senator Richards is going places. Not to mention I think I have a crush on him."
Amy shrugged, turned and went back to burying her head in the mountain of books on her desk.
"You're just jealous." Chessa looked at her watch. "Oh no, I've gotta run. The conference starts in a half hour, and it's clear across campus." She quickly packed her laptop, recorder and notebook into her backpack, dragged a brush through her unruly chestnut colored hair, and applied some lip gloss.
Senator Richards was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the annual alumni conference at Columbia University, his alma mater. As a junior enrolled in Columbia's College of Social Work, Chessa had lobbied to get the assignment for the school paper since she hadn't written any big articles in weeks, and she figured it would probably look good in her dossier when she went to apply for jobs after graduation. Plus she wanted to see the senator in person.
She had a good view from her seat in the packed auditorium's front row, which had been saved for dignitaries and the press. She listened intently as the Alumni Association chairman introduced the senator, who was going to speak on "Facing the Future with Confidence."
"Darren Richards is a New York native from the Hamptons who received his bachelor's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, graduated from Columbia Law School and served four years in the military — two of which were in active duty in the US Marines," the chairman said. "Three years after leaving the military, he opened his own law practice and won his first bid for U.S. Congress. As a Democratic Party leader, he then went on to win the U.S. Senate seat and has quickly become a champion of New York City's poor and homeless, education and the environment.
"Won't you help me give a warm welcome to one of our most notable Columbia alumni — United States Senator Darren Richards!"
Chessa couldn't help but notice how handsome the subject of her news story was as he climbed the stage and stood behind the podium to give his address. She felt herself lean forward slightly in anticipation.
After the applause settled down, Darren Richards addressed the crowd, starting with a humorous story about his life on campus, where almost all students, especially in the School of Law, had a fiercely competitive mentality and would do anything to get ahead. "Instead of saying my dog ate my paper, one time I told my professor my roommate set my paper ablaze over his Bunsen burner when he got mad at me for not helping him with his science project. Unfortunately, it was the truth."
As the audience laughed, Chessa was mesmerized by the young politician's dazzling white smile. Craning her neck, she could see just a few flecks of gray in what was otherwise a perfect head of thick dark-brown hair that came just to his collar, blue eyes — yes, if she looked hard enough she could just see they were a gorgeous shade of blue that glittered with enthusiasm as he laughed — and
... was he glancing her way or was that just her imagination? Her heart caught in her throat. She noticed how his dark-gray suit fit his tall, muscular frame and how he talked with his hands. They looked like nice, strong hands.
"... and in conclusion, as one of our wisest American leaders in history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also happened to be a Democrat"— more laughs — "said: 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'." Thunderous applause erupted, and Chessa realized she had missed nearly the entire speech because she had become lost in stupid girlish desire.
Now what do I do?
She armed her way through the crowd, bounded up the steps of the stage, and stood in the long line that was forming to shake hands with Senator Richards. She fought to keep her voice from cracking and her knees from buckling when it was her turn to greet him.
"Hi Senator, I'm Chessa Reynolds, a reporter with The Spectator, and I know you're probably busy with all of the alumni events planned this weekend but I was wondering if I could schedule an interview with you to —"
He interrupted her with his magnetic smile, his blue eyes piercing her with curiosity and something else, and offered her his hand. "Of course, Miss Reynolds, I'd be delighted. Unfortunately I have to attend the alumni banquet tonight, but could I meet you afterward? There's a cozy pub near campus where we law students used to hang out called Rugby's. That might be a quiet enough place to meet. Is it still there?"
"Yes, um, okay, but I'm not quite twenty-one yet, almost, but —"
"That's all right, I'll get you in." He winked at her and grasped her hand — which he was still holding — a little more tightly before releasing it. "Let's say eight-thirty?"
"Okay." It was all she had time to say. An exasperated man in his sixties, standing close enough behind her that she could feel his foul breath on her neck, loudly cleared his throat with impatience. Darren Richards politely turned and shook the man's hand and continued his banter.
I am a total idiot, Chessa chided herself as she walked in a fog off the stage. I can't believe I stammered out that I'm not old enough to get in. Of course he'll get me in. She felt her pulse quicken at the thought of sitting alone with Darren Richards. During her daydreaming she had done the math and reminded herself he was about twenty years older, and probably in a relationship (although she had glanced down at his hand and noticed he wasn't wearing a wedding band.) Oh well, at the very least I'll walk away with a story.
They met as planned at Rugby's, a dark, smoke-filled bar off Broadway. It had once been a popular hangout for students, but as a number of new establishments had opened over the years, it had become seedier and emptier and mainly catered to locals who came to hang out, get a good sandwich, drink cheaply, watch football, or play a game of pool. It was a Tuesday night and the place was nearly empty. No one bothered to even card Chessa, who slid into a booth, hoping she hadn't been seen. She felt out of place and waited fifteen long, uncomfortable minutes, ignoring a few stares from the scruffy-looking men who drank at the bar, before the senator finally entered. He was greeted by the bartender, who handed him a tumbler filled with ice and some type of amber liquid — probably bourbon or scotch. He approached her with a huge grin, and seeing she had no drink before her, asked if she wanted a glass of wine. She nodded, wanting to appear experienced and nonchalant. Chessa had drank on a few occasions at college parties, but didn't really care for the taste or the effect. Almost immediately a waitress placed a glass of white wine before her.
"Thank you for meeting me, Senator Richards."
"You're welcome, Miss Reynolds. But this is only going to work for me if you call me Darren. Can I call you Chessa?"
Chessa could feel her cheeks blushing. He remembered my name, she realized.
"I'm sorry we didn't meet somewhere nicer," Darren whispered across the table. "This place used to be quiet and classy when we law school students hung out here. I had no idea it had deteriorated like this."
"That's okay; at least it's quiet." Chessa pulled out her reporter's notebook and a pencil, deciding not to bring out her tape recorder. Stay casual, but remember you're on duty, she told herself.
The rest of the evening was a pleasant blur. Darren was easy to talk to and made her feel comfortable, peppering their conversation about the state of New York and its future with funny stories about his life as a student at Harvard and Columbia, and the challenges of his first political campaign.
Chessa hadn't had much for dinner and started feeling a little tipsy after her second glass of wine. She held up her hand when the waitress delivered their third round of drinks. I need to stop before I make a fool of myself, she decided. She noticed that, meanwhile, Darren drank her glass of wine and his third martini, but she wasn't concerned. He can obviously handle his liquor, unlike me, she thought. She reminded herself that she also had to walk the two miles back to her dorm room in the dark. She checked her watch, and must have looked panicked, because Darren spoke up.
"Don't worry, I can drive you back," he said. "I've got to make sure The Spectator's ace reporter gets back safely to write a good story about me. I need all the positive press I can get." He laughed softly, and Chessa wondered if he might be flirting with her.
He stood and offered his hand to help her out of the booth, then held her coat for her. He waved to the bartender and patrons who recognized him, then opened the door and led her out into the blustery night and quickly into his sleek black sedan. Chessa was nearly as impressed with the car as she was with the man. She looked around its interior, admiring the soft leather seats and new car smell, which mingled nicely with the scent of his cologne.
The ride seemed to go by too quickly, and within minutes the sedan pulled up along the circle in front of Chessa's dorm. She thanked the senator as he opened her car door and again offered his hand to help her out of the vehicle.
"You know, Miss Reynolds, this has been the most delightful interview I've ever had, and I've had a lot of them," he said, holding her hand in his. "Perhaps I could have the pleasure of your company again soon? Could I get your number and give you a call next time I'm in town? I have to go to D.C. for the next few weeks on business, but I'll be back in New York for the holidays, and I'd love to take you out to a much nicer place."
Chessa's heart hammered in her chest as she wrote her number on a page in her reporter notebook, ripped it out, and handed it to him. Can he really be interested in me? He's a man of the world and I'm just a schoolgirl, just a ... As if to answer her unasked question, Darren leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, bidding her goodnight.
She smiled as she walked dreamily to her dorm room. Amy won't believe this one.
* * *
Being a reporter and writing for the paper was Chessa's second love. Her first was her mission to help underprivileged women who were victims of domestic violence or abuse.
She wasn't sure how she'd developed her career goal. Perhaps it started around the time her parents divorced when she was twelve. She remembered attending group counseling sessions for students in her grade school in Greenwich Village who were children of divorced or widowed parents, and admiring the woman who had led the group, thinking she'd like to be a counselor like her someday, helping others.
Chessa recalled the intense anger she had felt when her alcoholic father left her mother for the last time. Even though Stephen Reynolds had walked out the front door dozens of times over the years after the many shouting matches he had with his wife, he always returned. Sometimes it would take a day or two, but he always came back. Until the last time.
Often Chessa would try to intercede between her parents when they argued, if the argument wasn't too intense or violent. She would play peacemaker by standing in between them and trying to divert their attention, asking them for a snack, to help with homework, anything she could think of. One time she even brought home a stray cat and hid it in her bedroom until she heard the yelling start, and then brought it out to show them. That time, the yelling only got louder, and the cat was booted out the door and she was sent to bed early.
Theresa Reynolds got full custody of Chessa in the divorce proceedings. Chessa was never asked her opinion and later in life she would wonder if her father ever argued for custody, but was too afraid to hear the answer.
Her father would pick her up at the door on his obligatory semi-monthly visits and take her to the movies or the park, bowling, fishing, or out to eat. Often she had wished her dad wouldn't take her anywhere but just sit in the car and talk to her. They always had a good time, but she just never really felt like she came to know him that well. He was never the hugging, affectionate type.
Still, she had adored her father and like most children, blamed herself and her mother for his leaving. If only I had been a good girl, she had chided herself. If only Mom had treated him better, loved him more.
Chessa vowed that she would marry someone just like Stephen Reynolds one day and that she would love him enough so that he would never leave her.
The self-pity she wallowed in for years as a teenager had waned some when she eventually became wrapped up in the lives of those less fortunate whom she read about in the news while doing research for her sociology paper in her sophomore year. She had read about rape victims in the Congo, some not even teenagers yet, who were held hostage and often violently abused by enemy soldiers, sometimes whole armies of them. Some were so severely sexually abused that they ended up physically and emotionally scarred for life, unable to bear children, or were forced to become prostitutes or sex slaves.
While feeling sorry for these girls halfway around the world made her feel less sorry for herself, Chessa also struggled with her faith. She would weep for hours after reading the stories, lying on her dorm bunk bed unable to sleep at night, wondering why humans inflicted such pain on each other, trying to make the torment of those mental images go away.
Chessa had always believed in God, although her parents rarely took her to any formal religious services growing up, but she started to wonder how a God who was all-loving and all-powerful could allow suffering of such magnitude. The only thing that helped her cope was her decision to do something about it. She hoped to graduate from Columbia's School of Social Work and become a counselor. Perhaps she would never get the opportunity to visit the Congo, but she realized she could at least help on a local level. She knew that women in the United States, right here in Manhattan, suffered abuses, perhaps of a lesser degree, but painful and degrading all the same. She felt in her gut that she was meant to help.
Between her studies, her job at the paper, and volunteering at the local women's shelter, she had little time for anything else, including a boyfriend. Chessa had only had a few dates since she had attended Columbia, and she had made just a few close friends.
Her best friend was Amy Darlington, who had been assigned as her roommate freshman year.
Chessa remembered the day she met Amy as if it was yesterday.
The two girls had just stared at one another that first day in their dorm room on campus — the tall, skinny white girl with long, light-brown hair and green eyes, and the short, heavyset black girl with short, curly, raven-black hair and black-brown eyes. The first one smiled shyly and said hello. The second one just kept staring in disbelief.
Amy didn't like most white people very much. Her parents' agenda was to get ahead, get their fair share when she was growing up as a child, and white people seemed to be the 'enemy.' So Amy was wary of whites, even at an early age, and she figured Chessa Reynolds was no different than the rest.
Chessa hadn't liked Amy at first either, but it wasn't because she was prejudiced. Being raised in Greenwich Village by parents who were middle-class bohemian scholars, Chessa had grown up open-minded about a lot of things, and had been taught to be tolerant and nonjudgmental about other races, creeds, nationalities, and the like. But Chessa had detected a negative vibe and defensiveness almost immediately upon meeting her roommate. It was an imperceptible feeling that turned into the discovery that Amy felt she had something to prove as a young black female.
She had tried to be friendly, introducing herself with a big smile and an outstretched hand that fateful day.
But her hand was left dangling.
"This is just great," Amy had said sarcastically, walking right past Chessa to head out of the room. "I'm going to have to make a change."
Chessa was hurt but persistently optimistic. "What's wrong?"
Amy stopped in the doorway, turned around and looked at Chessa with a scowl. "Well as you can see we're totally different."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Peace Maker"
Copyright © 2017 MICHELE CHYNOWETH.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
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