Liza Palmer couldn't be happier when her best friend and sorority sister, Chante Britt, and her closest guy friend, Robert Montgomery, hit it off. And she's beyond thrilled when they announce their engagement. Robert is an up-and-comer running for the North Carolina senate. Chante is a partner at a prestigious law firm. They're a power couple made in heaven--until Liza discovers Robert in a compromising position--with another woman. . . Liza can't possibly continue to support Robert's campaign, much less let him marry Chante. But when she tries to reveal the truth, Robert pulls out every corrupt trick in the book--including turning Chante against her. Her only choice is to seek out his opponent, Jackson Franklin, and help him take Robert down. But to Liza's great surprise, Jackson won't play dirty--and Liza finds him irresistible. As sparks fly, personally and politically, Liza and Jackson may become a winning team in more ways than one. . .
Release date: May 1, 2015
Print pages: 368
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Rumor Has It
“Slow down,” Robert said. “You’re talking as if I’m one of the brands you represent.” She frowned at him and Robert threw his hands up. “Not saying what you do isn’t serious, but I don’t think marketing me like a cashmere sweater is going to work. People are going to have to connect with me and know that I’m going to Raleigh to represent their best interests.”
Liza rolled her eyes and toyed with the lid of her cup. “Of course not, but a grassroots campaign got Barack Obama into the White House. You need a Twitter account, Facebook fan page, and website where people donate to your campaign.” Liza pulled out her iPad and started taking notes. Robert laughed.
“You take that thing everywhere, don’t you?”
She nodded. “Got to stay connected. You know who would be a great campaign manager for you: Dominic Hall. He has been behind some of the biggest campaigns in the city and the state. Remember that contentious fight for the chairmanship of the board of county commissioners? Dominic was behind the winner. And he systematically shut the other guy down.”
“Funny you should say that,” he said. “Nic and I met this morning and he agreed to work with me.”
“Awesome! But you still need me.”
Robert placed his hand on top of hers. “I know. One thing I know for sure is that you have my back for real. Together we’re going to be unstoppable.”
“That’s right, Senator Montgomery. Now, about your social media life. Do you tweet?”
“As the law firm, but I don’t have a personal account. I don’t understand that whole Twitter thing.”
“Good, I’ll be happy to explain it to you. More people get their news from Twitter than the local TV stations. So, you kind of need to get on board,” she said, then stroked her cheek. “Your personal life is going to be under a microscope—especially because you’re single. Anything or anyone out there with an ax to grind?”
“Did you just say ‘anything’?”
Liza rolled her eyes and flipped her shoulder-length auburn tresses back. “I’ve seen some of the women you’ve dated, Rob. ‘Anything’ was being kind.”
“And you don’t have much room to talk. Remember your thug life stage? You really can’t hold my hood rat phase in college against me.”
Liza giggled. “Where did you import those hood boogers from? I wasn’t aware of a hood within walking distance to Chapel Hill.”
“See, you can’t be saying stuff like that.” He looked around the semi-full coffee shop to make sure no one was paying them any attention.
“Well, if you’re running as a single candidate, you need to be seen with a higher class of woman.”
“Are you suggesting a fake relationship?” he asked, raising his right eyebrow. A frown marred his handsome cocoa brown face.
“No, people would see through that like glass. I’m suggesting you meet some nice ladies at my dinner party on Saturday, which you didn’t RSVP for.”
“I’ll be there.”
“When are you filing?” Liza asked.
“Dominic and I are going to discuss that tomorrow. I need a war chest and Dominic said he has a list of donors willing to help.”
“What platform are you running on?” Liza asked in between sips of her cold latte. “You really need to consider the problems in the district. There are three issues getting military family behind you and . . .”
“Business development is my main thing. I know the military’s important, but Charlotte and the surrounding area need jobs.”
“Yeah,” she said, then drummed her French-tipped fingernails on the lid of her cup. “But people are wary of politicians who are for big business. You need to play up your roots.”
Robert’s handsome face darkened. “I don’t want to be some sad-sack politician that people are drawn to because of their shortcomings.”
“Whoa! You’re starting to sound like a Republican.”
“No, you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’ll acknowledge everyone who helped me, but I’m not going to tell the state and the world that I was born to a crackhead who left me at a fire station.”
Liza held her tongue; she knew how hurtful Robert’s past was. But the public relations professional inside her knew people would cheer for a man who came from absolutely nothing to go on and breeze through college, then law school. Maybe he’d listen to Dominic about telling his story. “Anyway,” she said, “I am so proud of you, Rob. I remember when we were in that political science class together and you did that mock campaign for president. I knew two things that day.” She brought her cup to her lips and took a final sip of her latte.
“That you’d be president one day and I wasn’t going to get a degree in political science.”
“President, huh?” Robert smiled and Liza knew his picture-ready smile would win hearts even if he didn’t talk about his past. “You expect a lot from me, huh?”
“Actually, I do,” she said, then pushed her cup away. “I believe in you, Rob. And I don’t say that lightly. You’re the embodiment of the American dream and the people of North Carolina will be lucky to have you.”
“Great, that means I have one vote.”
“You’ll have more than one vote. How many people are going to be in the primary, I wonder,” she said, then looked down at her iPad as it chimed. “Oh, hate to run, but I have a meeting in twenty minutes with the Hornets’ new player relations manager.”
“There you go, moving and shaking things in the city,” Robert said as he watched his friend collect her things.
“Next, we’re going to move and shake this election.” Liza gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then dashed out the door.
Jackson Franklin hated the term hero. He wasn’t a hero. He was a soldier. He’d joined the Army to serve his country and to earn money for college. He went to war because the commander in chief had ordered it. He saved his platoon from a roadside bomb in Kabul because that had been what he was trained to do. But when he returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was branded a hero. However, the injuries he sustained in Afghanistan forced him out of active duty. And damn it, he missed it. Big-time. Working as a transition counselor for the Veteran’s Association in Charlotte made him feel alive again. Feel as if he was still serving his country by helping broken men and women become whole again.
Sitting behind the oak desk in his small office, Jackson knew there was more work to be done and he knew he couldn’t do that by just working with the veterans at the center. He looked out of the windows in front of him and watched the men and women in the lobby filling out forms. Some of them had been in and out of the office more than a dozen times. What were they going to do if these doors closed to them?
The center needed a huge influx of cash in order to keep helping veterans. He’d written to the district representative in the General Assembly. He’d reached out to some of the city council members but help never came. But more and more veterans kept walking through those doors.
“Sergeant Franklin, we’ve got a problem out here!” Natalie Johnson, the receptionist, exclaimed from the doorway of his office.
Jackson rushed into the hallway expecting the worst. But he was greeted with a bunch of balloons and chocolate cake, followed by a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Jackson smiled for two reasons: one, he’d actually forgotten his birthday, and two, the staff knew in order to get him out of his office they had to fake an emergency.
“You guys didn’t have to do this,” he said. Jackson was happy to see so many of the men and women he’d worked with over the last year standing there ready to celebrate with him. Their healing had begun. But in the back of his mind he was pissed because this time next year, the doors to this office could be closed.
“Come on,” Natalie said, “let’s go cut the cake.”
Jackson wanted to send them down the hall without him; he had to figure out who to lobby to for money.
“Hey, Sergeant Franklin,” Dena Washington, one of his clients, said. “Have you heard about the new district the General Assembly carved out?”
“I must’ve missed that,” he said. “What’s this new district supposed to do?”
Dena smiled. “Give us another voice in Raleigh. Maybe we’ll finally get someone in there who gives a damn. You should think about running.”
“I’m not a politician.”
“That’s why you’re just what this district needs.” Dena walked toward the conference room and Jackson stood there bewildered. What did he know about running for political office? Then again, he knew what the people he worked with needed. Was it too much of a long shot for him to throw his hat in the ring?
When Jackson walked into the conference room and saw all of the veterans, he knew just what he had to do if he wanted things to change. But what did he know about politics? He couldn’t be worse than the clowns already in Raleigh. Where was he going to start? Should he even run, or was he just dreaming out loud?
“Why are you scowling? It’s your birthday?” Natalie said, then bumped him with her hip.
“We need to talk about a letter I received,” he whispered.
“No bad news today.”
“Today, tomorrow, the news isn’t going to change.” He folded his massive arms across his chest.
Natalie sighed. “Do you want to disappoint them?” She nodded toward the people enjoying cake and soft drinks.
“No,” he said. “Let me get a slice of cake and smile.”
After the surprise party was over, Jackson and Natalie were in the conference room again, this time with the head of the counseling center and the other doctors who worked there. There was no laughing or balloons this time.
“We’re closing,” Daniel Keter said without preamble.
“Are you serious?” Jackson exclaimed. “Why are we closing when there is a strong need for the work we do here?” The letter he’d received said the center was in debt, but closing?
“The state won’t accept federal money and they aren’t funding us. I can’t pay you guys, and no matter how much you love what you do, I know each and every one of you has to eat.”
Natalie looked at Jackson and shook her head. “This is stupid. I feel like marching to Raleigh and . . .”
“Listen,” Daniel said, holding his hand up to quiet the rumbling. “We have thirty days, and I need you all to line up referrals for our most serious cases.”
“They’re all serious,” Jackson growled. “So, let me get this straight. Because the governor and the General Assembly have issues with the president, our soldiers are going to suffer?”
Daniel shrugged. “Jackson, there’s nothing I can do. If I could, I’d recall the governor and send those greedy bastards in Raleigh to South Carolina. Or better yet, to the hellholes that our clients came from and see if they will stop this political bickering.”
A chorus of “Damned straight” rippled through the conference room. “What are we going to do?” one of the doctors asked. “I mean, we need to stay open. Too many people are going to suffer if we close up in a month.”
“I don’t disagree, but we need funding.”
“How much?” Jackson asked, then frowned. It wasn’t as if he had a few million dollars sitting in a bank account to give the center. Hell, he didn’t even have a spare thousand.
“More than we have,” Daniel said with a defeated tone in his voice. “We’ve been running in the red for a few months. To get out of the hole, we need a hundred grand. To stay open, we need twice that.”
Jackson shook his head. “I’m going to run for that new senate seat because this is ridiculous!”
He was surprised by the applause that came from his coworkers. “You would be a great senator!” Natalie said.
“And I know the person who can run your campaign,” Daniel said.
“I’ll volunteer,” Natalie said, followed by a bunch of other people promising to volunteer.
A smile spread across Jackson’s face. If he had this level of support in this room, would he be able to win the senate seat?
“All right,” Daniel said. “While this is great news, we have to get back on task and work out how we’re going to provide seamless service until we find some mental health providers who will accept our clients.”
Everyone returned to the work they needed to complete, and Jackson looked up a few doctors with a military background whom he could send his list of clients to. Being trained to work with mental issues was a lot different from actually understanding what the client was going through, in his opinion. When he’d worked with his own doctor, the fact that his doctor had also seen combat allowed him to open up more.
About two hours later, Daniel walked into Jackson’s office with a wide grin on his lips. “Sarge,” he said.
“Are you serious about this senate seat? Because if you are, we’re going to have a hell of a senator in you, and I know the best person to run your campaign.”
Jackson leaned back in his chair. “You really think I can make a difference, because I want to be clear, this isn’t about me. The budget cuts that the VA is facing make no sense. It’s as if we sent these men and women to fight and then after the parade when they get home, we don’t give a damn about them. When’s the last time we heard any of our representatives say a word about the military?”
“You don’t have to sell me.”
Jackson squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, but what do I know about politics?”
Daniel clasped his hands together. “You don’t have to know anything because Teresa Flores knows enough for all of us. Quite honestly, she’s one of the reasons that we’ve been around as long as we have.”
“She knows the right people in Raleigh—hell, in Washington too. We’ve been up for closure three years in a row.”
“If she’s so good, why are we getting shut down now?”
“Too many god . . . too many rich people sitting in the General Assembly, and with the gerrymandering of these districts, we’re going to be in trouble. That’s why you have to run and you have to let Teresa help. She’s tough but clean.”
“That sounds good because I don’t want to be a part of some mudslinging . . .”
“Listen,” Daniel said, “it’s not as if we have an incumbent to fight. No one has ever represented this district. The main thing we have to do is make sure that the new senator cares about what’s important. And once in office that he can rally people to his side.”
Jackson nodded. He knew it wasn’t just the veterans and their families who were hurting. There was education, the economy, transportation concerns, and voting rights. There was a lot of work that needed to be done in North Carolina. Jackson had to make sure he was up for the task. He couldn’t run off of emotions.
“When can I meet Teresa Flores?” he asked.
Daniel smiled. “I’ll call her right now and see how soon we can set something up. This is going to be great, Jackson. Just great.”
When he was alone in his office, Jackson logged on to the state board of elections’ website to study what he needed to do to get his name on the ballot.
Liza tilted her head to the side as she updated her client’s Twitter feed and listened to the caterer for her party. “No,” she said as she hit the tweet button. “I do not—I repeat—do not want a buffet. That’s not the vibe I’m going for. I want servers to roam the room with trays of hors d’oeuvres. And I really want some of your famous canapés.”
“Famous? You think so?” the caterer asked excitedly.
Liza rolled her eyes, glad that she wasn’t Face-Timing with her caterer. “Oh, yes. And after this party, they are going to be Beyoncé famous. Then for the main course, everyone will be seated, so, if we can do some sort of festive plating . . .”
“What do you mean?”
Liza sighed. “This is a dinner party for some people who have the potential to change the politics in this state. The next North Carolina senator may even be there. So, be creative. I know you can do this. And, I know this isn’t protocol, but that chocolate cake from Hometown Delights is to die for. Please make sure we have one.”
“You want me to get another person’s food and serve it under my name?”
“No. That cake is for later. But it needs to be in the building,” Liza said while she silently formulated a plan to get Chante and Robert alone sharing coffee and cake.
“All right, I’ll make it happen.”
“And that’s why I love you. I have to go; call me back with the menu.”
Liza hung up the phone and rose to her feet, stretching and smiling. She was actually done with her work for the day.
“I guess I should go pick out a dress for the party,” she muttered as she dropped her iPad and iPhone into her oversized leather purse. But before she could walk out the door, her office phone rang.
“Liza Palmer,” she said.
“Liza, it’s Claude Richards. I need your help.”
Dropping her purse on her desk, Liza knew this call from her troubled NBA client meant that dress shopping would have to wait. “What’s up, Claude?”
“I’m in trouble,” he said. “There’s this woman who says she’s having my baby.”
“This is the third time this month.”
“And it’s the same girl,” he said. “You have to make her go away.”
“I work in public relations; I don’t make people go away. Why don’t you talk to this woman? Request a DNA test. But you need to stop treating women as if they are disposable sex toys.”
“It’s not my fault,” he said. “These women are after my money.”
“Then why are you letting this happen? Ever heard of saying no?” Liza sighed and silently contemplated giving up her professional athlete clients. “What do you want me to do?”
“Maybe I should just give her what she wants,” he sighed.
“And what would that be?” Liza was now sitting at her desk with her feet propped on the edge. She was going to drop him as a client, for real. The financial hit wouldn’t be that bad.
“An engagement ring.”
“Richards! Didn’t I tell you to stop coming to me with your relationship problems?! So, this pregnant girl is your girlfriend? What’s the problem with committing to her?”
“What about my image and fan base?”
Liza closed her eyes and silently counted to ten. “This is Charlotte, North Carolina. People love a family man. Now, if you want to be a man-whore and build a fan base, get traded to L.A.”
“What are you saying?”
“That playboy stuff doesn’t work here. Do you love this woman?”
“She’s all right. I mean . . .”
Liza blew into the phone. “Let me get this straight. She’s all right but you slept with her without a condom. Did you use your scholarship to learn anything in college?”
“Wow, you’re being really mean right now.”
“Richards, grow up. Either you’re going to accept responsibility for your child or you’re going to be the stereotype of the NBA player who makes babies and runs. Which one do you want to be?”
“So, if I marry her and it doesn’t work out . . .”
“Then we can go all Dwayne Wade, show you as a great father and go from there. But you can’t allow her to start talking to Media TakeOut, Bossip, and those blogs that will make you look like the biggest jackass in America.”
“I guess you’re right, but I think she already went to the blogs.”
Liza shook her head. “Give me her number and you need to call Eli Millou.”
“Who is Eli Millou?”
“Your new best friend, the guy who’s going to design the engagement ring that women are going to ooh and ahh over. And, I’m charging you double for this.” Liza hung up on him, then sent him a text with Millou’s number before tossing her phone across the room.
She couldn’t stand an unfaithful and wishy-washy man. That’s one of the reasons why she focused on her career. The other reason: Alvin Thorne. They’d come close to getting married, until she overheard a conversation with him and his lover two days before their wedding. In legendary Liza fashion, she’d called off the wedding and wrote a press release about the end of her relationship and posted it on her blog, which had about a hundred thousand followers at the time.
Alvin, who’d worked as an investment banker for a boutique firm, tried to make it up to Liza after he began losing clients. Of course, she turned him down, and then she became the most famous client of It’s Just Lunch, a dating service that paired busy professionals together for lunch dates. While she hadn’t made a love connection, she’d helped the company grow because of her blog posts about her dates and her willingness to talk about her love life—or more accurately, her lack of one.
While Liza’s star rose, Alvin had been branded a cheater and disappeared from the social scene. It was a wonder that she represented someone like Claude Richards. But the money was good, she had to admit.
Was it worth it, though? Maybe that’s why she was so excited to help Robert in his effort to do something meaningful. Being the next state senator was important, and Liza was going to do everything in her power to give Robert the image of being the perfect candidate. Picking up her desk phone, she called her best friend and sorority sister, Chante Britt.
“This is Chante.”
“I hate that lawyer voice of yours,” Liza said with a laugh.
“Girl, why are you calling me in the middle of the day?”
“What am I interrupting? Brief writing? A settlement offer because no one wants to face you in court?”
“You’re gassing my ego. What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything. I just want to make sure that you’re coming to my dinner party.”
“Umm, about that . . .”
“Don’t you dare cancel on me!”
“Liza, I have work and . . .”
“If you don’t come to this dinner party, you’re going regret it. And you might even pick up a potential client.”
Chante sighed. “Really, L? You’re trying to hook me up with some dude, aren’t you?”
Liza laughed as she imagined her friend sitting at her big oak desk dressed in her lawyer gear while throwing a temper tantrum. “Chante, not just some dude, but the next state senator for district forty-five. You two will be perfect for each other. I don’t know why I didn’t hook you two up sooner. Oh, because you’re always working.”
“If you’re talking about your friend Robert Montgomery, we’ve met before.”
Liza rolled her eyes. “Yes, you’ve met him at several professional events, but you’ve never talked to him on a one-on-one level.”
“And . . .
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