Leaving LA was the best decision Vanessa Hamilton ever made. Becoming embroiled in a political scandal in her seaside hometown could be the worst. Bay Point mayor Gregory Langston wants the beautiful floral designer who is so committed to their community to help run his reelection campaign. It's bad enough he's planning to tear down the town's legendary carouselnow Vanessa's attraction to the charismatic homegrown politician is threatening to spiral out of control.
Women rarely say no to Gregory, and he's intrigued by his spirited campaign manager. Falling for Vanessa is a potential powder keg, especially when he and the impassioned activist are on opposite sides of a controversial issue. But a vicious smear campaign and a long-hidden secret could destroy more than Gregory's shot at a second term. Will it cost him forever with Vanessa?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Gregory Langston jutted his fists knuckles-down against the windowsill and stared outside. The sun was at the halfway point in the sky, hanging around the corner of dusk. It would be dark soon. If he was going to see Vanessa, he'd better go quickly, before she closed the shop for the evening.
He squinted involuntarily at the orange-red orb blazing away in the distance. The California sun was gloriously dangerous yet absolutely necessary to his survival, just like the risk he was about to take.
"I have to win," he muttered fiercely under his breath.
Although he was only thirty years old, Gregory had achieved more than many men had in a lifetime. At age twenty-six, he became the youngest and the first African-American mayor in Bay Point, California. He'd won the esteemed position in a landslide victory four years earlier, an accomplishment of which he was extremely proud.
Now he was up for reelection. But this time victory would not come easily. His only rival in the mayoral race was making his campaign a living hell.
Jacob Billingsly "the Third and only," as the man liked to put it, had lived in Bay Point for only a few years, yet acted as if he'd resided there his entire life. When Jacob had announced his plan to run for mayor, no one had been more shocked than Gregory, who had taken the young upstart under his wing and given him a paid internship as a mayoral clerk for two summers. When Jacob had graduated with an MBA from Stanford University, Gregory had given him a glowing reference for a potential employer in New York City. He'd even driven Jacob to the airport on what was supposed to be his last day in Bay Point.
As it turned out, Jacob never left, and now it seemed he spent most of his time spreading rumors and lies about Gregory and his plans for Bay Point.
The knot in his stomach tightened and Gregory closed his eyes, bracing for the pain, which was happening all too often lately.
Although Gregory would never admit it to anyone, he was scared he was going to lose his reelection bid. The thought that he might have made a mistake by choosing a career in politics kept him up night after night. Maybe he should have continued working in his father's law firm instead of trying to fix the town that he loved more than anything.
His eyes drifted from the horizon to the storefronts and streets beneath his fourth-floor office. The traditional grid-like pattern appealed to his strong sense of order.
In its heyday, Bay Point was a hideaway for California's rich and famous, particularly actors and actresses from Los Angeles who sought a temporary escape from a lifestyle that often demanded too much. The whimsical shops and cheery restaurants amid the sultry ocean breeze were a balm to their weary souls. The stars still journeyed to the town from time to time, but not enough to stir headlines or the attention of entertainment bloggers.
But now Bay Point, whose population was about ten thousand individuals of all races and ethnicities, was in serious trouble. Located on the beautiful Pacific coast between San Francisco and the Oregon border, the once-vibrant beach town had fallen on hard times in recent years. Many longtime residents had moved due to the recession and high unemployment rate. Newcomers were few and far between.
Gregory knew he needed to bring additional revenue into the area to attract new residents or, at the very least, tourists. And he needed to give the people already there a reason to stay. Redeveloping Bay Point's quaint but aging downtown was the only way to begin to breathe new life into a town that was in danger of dying.
Gregory grimaced and stuck two fingers of his left hand inside his blue oxford shirt, attempting to massage away the painful knot beneath his rock-hard abdomen. The residents of Bay Point trusted Gregory to bring the town back to the prosperity it had once known. They had elected him into office, believing that he could enact lasting change. He couldn't let them down, but the truth was, he was afraid he already had.
This morning he'd unveiled his plans to redevelop downtown Bay Point in the Bay Point Courier. The three-year project, which took about that much time to actually scope and plan, would bring much-needed jobs, new retail and new housing to the area.
He'd tried to keep many of the details under wraps as the plan was being solidified so that residents wouldn't be alarmed. But Bay Point was a small town, and some folks just couldn't keep their mouths shut. Now that all the details were in print, many weren't happy.
To make way for the construction of a brand-new municipal complex, the project also included the demolition of the Bay Point Carousel. To Gregory's surprise, this seemed to elicit the most unfavorable responses among his constituents. The phone had rung off the hook all day, and his inbox was flooded with angry emails.
"Not good," he muttered.
He peered at the hundred-year-old carousel, located in the center of downtown, and wondered why it held such an appeal to everyone. He understood the structure's historical significance. But it was a drain on the city's budget, and it was almost always broken-down. It had to go.
Gregory withdrew his fingers from his shirt and cranked open the casement window. He needed the favor of Bay Point residents, but more important, he needed their votes in order to be elected to a second term as mayor. Somehow he had to get them back on his side. He had to make them see the beauty of his vision for the city. Tearing down the carousel would be a good thing. A new beginning.
He ran his hand down his face. Two knocks and a tap on the door jolted him from his thoughts.
"Come in," he grunted.
The door opened. "Mayor Langston, is it all right if I leave for the day? My son has his first soccer practice tonight and"
Mariella Vency, his executive assistant, was a single mother whose teenage son had a tendency to get into trouble. He knew that she was trying to encourage better behavior through participation in organized sports. They'd recently moved to Bay Point from Los Angeles, and the boy had few friends.
She paused and moved nearer. "Mayor Langston, are you okay?"
Gregory reluctantly turned around. "I'm fine."
Her brows knitted together in concern. "Are you sure?"
He forced a smile, nodding. "We've had a couple of late nights lately. You deserve the night off."
Mariella grinned and looked relieved. She was a pretty woman and, as far as he knew, unattached. But she wasn't his type, and besides, he valued her too much as an employeeand valued his own reputation too muchto get involved romantically.
"Thanks, Mayor. I'll just leave these phone messages on your desk."
"A parting gift, Mariella? Thanks a lot," he replied in a mock hurt tone, even though he knew it wasn't her fault that all of a sudden he was the most hated man in Bay Point.
She gave him an apologetic smile and cast a worried glance outside. "You'd better leave soon, too. It's clouding up out there."
Gregory glanced over his shoulder and saw fat gray clouds stretching and rolling like rumpled sheets across the late-afternoon sky, just above the horizon.
"You're right," he said, turning back. "A storm is brewing."
"I just hope the rain holds off for practice."
He nodded again. "Have fun, and see you tomorrow."
As soon as Mariella closed the door, Gregory cranked the window shut.
Still, he couldn't take his eyes away from the sky. It could have been his imagination, but it seemed as though the sun gleamed brighter now, ever valiant against the dark clouds. He pressed his palm against the warm glass. The low heat of April was just a kiss of what was to come in a few months, but the light ocean breezes always evened out the hot summer days.
The weather was one of the things he loved most about living in California; the other was being mayor of Bay Point.
He couldn't let anything, or anyone, screw up his plans for the city or for the carousel. People were entitled to their opinions, but the bottom line was that everyone knew things had to change in Bay Point, and he was the only one with the power to do it.
Gregory turned away from the window, slid his trademark black fedora on his head and quickly checked his appearance in the full-length mirror behind his office door.
The entire town was counting on him. He had no choice but to push aside his fears and trust Vanessa a woman he barely knew.
Th e bell on the door tinkled, and Vanessa's head snapped up. No matter how she felt on a particular day, the merry sound always cheered her and made her smile. But when she saw who had entered her shop, her lips drooped into a frown.
In his entire term in office, Mayor Langston had never once set foot in her store. Why now? she wondered, her eyes narrowing.
He shut the door, looked about the room and wrinkled his nose.
Didn't the man like flowers? she thought with dismay, watching him walk toward her.
She regarded him coolly while at the same time trying not to gawk. She had to admit that despite what she thought and felt about his politics, Gregory was as breathtaking as a drive down the Pacific coast.
His skin, burnished an even deeper brown from the California sun, held not a bit of shine. He wore a dark gray suit that looked as if it had leaped from the hanger right onto him. It was so clean and perfectly tailored. And though she knew he wasn't much older than she was, he oozed the wisdom and class of powerful men twice her age.
Mrs. Barnell, the widowed owner of Bay Point Bed & Breakfast, was at the counter fussing over her daily floral arrangement. She always had a fresh bouquet in the foyer of her establishment, and even though Vanessa offered to deliver it right to her door, she insisted on picking it up herself. Vanessa suspected the woman was lonely.
"These California poppies are just gorgeous, don't you think?"
Vanessa barely heard Mrs. Barnell's question, so focused was she on Gregory, who was now standing a foot or so behind the elderly woman.
He swept the hat from his head, a careless gesture that also managed to seem purposeful at the same time. It made her knees feel brittle, even though she was standing perfectly straight, and she grasped the edge of the counter to maintain her balance.
"I agree. Utterly gorgeous."
Vanessa parted her lips in shock. Instinctively, she knew that hidden in Gregory's seemingly offhand response was something meant to be discovered by her alone, though she had no way of proving it. In the confines of the small room, his deep bass seemed like a hum, both sustaining and drawing energy, and the vibrations from his tone played low and pleasur-ably in her belly.
His hazel eyes held hers in a way he had no right to do, and a buzz of heat rose in her cheeks. She discreetly swallowed and her insides lit up, kindled by his intense gaze. It was clear that his comment had nothing to do with California poppies and, strangely, everything to do with her.
Mrs. Barnell turned and her mouth dropped open. "Mayor Langston! I was so busy fooling with these flowers that I didn't hear you come in," she gushed, her smile warm and genuine.
Vanessa's heart beat faster as Gregory approached the counter. He rested one palm on the glass, not too far from her hand, and cleared his throat.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, ladies."
"No need to apologize, Mayor," Mrs. Barnell insisted brightly. She patted her silver-laden black hair. The style, though outdated, was attractive on her and reminded Vanessa of an '80s soap opera where the women were catty and mean.
But Mrs. Barnell wasn't anything like those characters. She was softhearted and kind. Still, her face virtually beamed in the presence of Bay Point's most esteemed political official. It made Vanessa want to gag.
She forced a tight smile. "Absolutely not. What can I do for you, Mayor? As you can see, I'm with a customer."
Vanessa hated to sound so impersonal. Maisie was more than a customer; she was a good friend. But for some reason, she found it exasperating that Maisie was being so nice to the mayor, that she was being the only person she knew how to be. Didn't the woman realize he was trying to destroy Bay Point?
Gregory smiled, his teeth gleaming white and perfect behind lips that held untold secrets.
"I need an arrangement, and I know you're the best florist in town."
Vanessa ignored the flush of heat that spawned in her cheeks and began tying a large purple gingham bow around the vase in front of her. In addition to California poppies, the bouquet held a collection of white roses, baby's breath and leafy sprigs of fresh ferns. She inhaled lightlythe fragrance seemed to infuse her troubled spirit.
So he didn't like flowers, but he wanted a bouquet for someone else. She hoped that Maisie, who was often nosy, would inquire who the lucky woman was. But to her disappointment, she didn't.
"As long as it's not like mine," Mrs. Barnell insisted. "Vanessa makes these special for me, and they're different every day. She is truly a gifted artist."
Vanessa felt Gregory's eyes trace the length of her shoulder-length dark brown hair. Goose pimples broke out on her arms under his careful inspection. She'd recently splurged at the salon and had her stylist add golden-brown highlights. She loved her new look. When he lifted his brow slightly, she knew he did, too. That pleased her, although she didn't know why, and she almost smiled with satisfaction.
He laid his fedora on the counter, stirring the air just enough to softly tickle the fine hairs on her arms.
"I agree, Mrs. Barnellshe's one of Bay Point's greatest treasures."
Vanessa narrowed her eyes again slightly and tightened the bow with a dull snap.
Laying it on a bit thick, aren't we, Mayor?
There was an awkward pause, and it seemed as though Gregory wanted to say more. His towering presence so close to her, with only the counter between them, was distracting in a way she didn't understand.
Vanessa sniffed lightly. Unless her sensitive nose was failing her at the moment, Gregory seemed to be wearing no cologne, and she almost sighed with relief. The musk of male skin was far more pleasing and would require a more careful inspection of him than discreetness would allow. She blushed at the thought, and the glass felt oddly warm against her lower abdomen as she braced herself against it.
Yet Mrs. Barnell didn't seem to notice anything was wrong, and Vanessa was grateful when she slipped her purse over one arm. She turned and regarded Vanessa.