Excerpt: Love Will Always Remember

Excerpt: Love Will Always Remember

Book 3: Shades of Love

Chapter One

Leighton Clarke knew the moment the Honorable Mr. Fred Ramsey from the State of Illinois saw her.

His pale eyes widened and he stiffened, the tumbler—containing more than a splash of amber liquid—abandoned midway on its journey to his mouth. His throat bobbed while his gaze darted left and right seeking an exit.

Leighton’s lips quirked in a canary-eating grin. Don’t leave on my account, Freddy.

Not when moments before he’d stood next to the makeshift wooden bar set up in the far corner gesticulating grandly, unaware or simply not caring that surrounding himself with younger men only made his graying hair and sagging jowls more pronounced.

She wrinkled her nose. He shouldn’t be here—the attendees simply too young to be his peers—but like a leech scenting a nearby blood supply, he was physically unable to pass up the opportunity to check out fresh meat.

And this annual celebration of DC’s next generation of foreign policy leaders provided it. In spades. Leighton didn’t miss being part of the incestuous dealings on the Hill with people who lived, drank and fucked politics. Been there, done that for years. No, she was here for a specific purpose, and once accomplished, she’d be on her way, well before the DJ replaced the string orchestra and the subsequent commencement of random hookups.

She navigated the space between her and Ramsey, embracing the telltale tingle of being watched prickling the nape of her neck. After a lifetime of living in the most powerful city in the world, as the daughter of a well-known diplomat, she was accustomed to the attention. When she’d been younger, the notion made her crave burrowing her head in the sand and hiding. Now, she knew how to use it to her advantage.

She nodded to several acquaintances, bestowed benign smiles on anyone brave enough to meet her gaze, but her stride didn’t waver. Shoulders slumping, Ramsey succumbed to the inevitable and waved away the audience encircling him. He might be vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade but she was an influential lobbyist. He might not like the fact that he saw her there, but he would see her.

When she was several feet from her quarry, a Mack Truck masquerading as a bodyguard blocked her path. “You can’t approach him.”

Members of Congress received twenty-four-hour protection at the Capitol, but only a select few rated private security detail away from the building. And of that select group, only a tiny percentage would be assigned protection by the Secret Service.

Fred Ramsey wasn’t in either group.

Rocking the requisite ear piece, the guard might fool the average person, but he wasn’t Secret Service. His inability to blend into the background was evident, not to mention the missing distinctive lapel pin that would identify him to other agents.

But she was counting on Ramsey’s need to appear more impressive than he was. She’d dealt with men like him before.

Leighton didn’t spare the rent-a-cop a moment of her attention. She shifted her weight to glance around his wide berth and stared at the congressman.

“It’s okay, George,” Ramsey said.

“Are you sure, sir?” George’s dead eyes scoped her from the top of her head to the tip of her Manolos. He licked his thick lips. “She looks dangerous. I may need to frisk her.”

Leighton addressed Ramsey. “What did he say? I speak four languages, but I’m afraid ‘asshole’ isn’t one of them.”

A muscle erupted in George’s jaw, but he stepped aside.

Finally. “Congressman Ramsey.”

Predictably, Ramsey’s eyes scrolled down her body. Her hands tightened on her purse. Had these men never seen tits, hips and legs before?

“Miss Clarke, no one told me our little soiree would be graced with the presence of DC royalty. Tell me, do you intend to follow me all over the city?”

He projected his normally thin, reedy voice so it carried over the sedate string music. Several heads swiveled in their direction, followed by whispered asides and nods.

So that’s how he wanted to play it: the big man on campus, in demand, and she was seeking his counsel.

She placed her Edie Parker clutch on the bar. “If that’s what it takes.”

He gulped his drink, the ice in his tumbler rattling against the glass. “We’re in recess—”

“For a few more weeks.”

“And when we return, the bill will be in conference with members from both houses. They’re the ones who’ll reconcile the differences between the two versions the House and Senate passed.” He shrugged. “I may not get chosen for that committee.”

Leighton eyed him while he signaled to the bartender for a refill. When a trusted source had disclosed Ramsey’s presence at the gala, she’d instructed her driver to make the detour, despite being on the way to meet Thomas. She abhorred tardiness, but with Ramsey dodging her calls for the better part of two weeks, confronting him when he least expected it held a certain appeal.

And this little diversion has nothing to do with delaying where you’re meeting your fiancé or who else may be there?

She squelched the penetrating thought and quickly amended her plan of attack. Scratch the idea of a simple, civil conversation. Ramsey would require a firm touch. Similar to how she’d dealt with Senator Kessler two years ago.

“Don’t bullshit me, Congressman. You’ll get chosen, but you think you’ll lose me during the committee process.” She leaned into his personal space, ignoring the alcoholic odor already seeping through his pores. “I assure you, you won’t.”

“It’s out of my hands. If they strike your amendment—”

“It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“How?” He shifted on the stool. “You have to understand. I’m in a difficult position.”

Time for the hard sell.

“Really? Nothing about this should be difficult for you. We’ve done the research, put the presentation together. All you have to do is give it. Talk it up to your colleagues, support it. You’ve done this in the past. What’s your problem now?”

Ramsey stared into his glass. “There’s been talk about safety concerns . . .”

Though her insides morphed into a frozen tundra, she rested her hip against the bar and evinced a nonchalant air.

She’d worked hard to keep those issues concealed. Concord Tires guaranteed they could correct the situation, but Leighton knew attaching the amendment to this bill was their only shot to get it passed. It wouldn’t survive scrutiny on its own. So she’d pressed forward. This had to work. It was on her if it didn’t.

She angled her head and gentled her demeanor. “You’ve seen the report. This device will change the automotive industry. You have the opportunity to ensure safer travel for millions of people.”

“I know what the report says, but my legislative assistant is worried—”

Her irritation overrode her caution. “Who? Andrew? The pimply faced boy who just left elementary school, his breath smelling like baby formula?”

“He may be young,” Ramsey conceded, “but if it’s true—”

“One whiff of a safety hazard and you’ll kill this deal. You’re willing to fuck up a billion-dollar enterprise on the word of some kid?”

“If your client doesn’t want that to happen, we can let the amendment fail in committee. That way no one will ever hear about the serious security issue. Concord Tires can still sell the device on the market and make some money.” A nasty smile corroded his features. “Better luck next time, honey.”

Red feathered the edges of her vision. She hadn’t risen in the ranks to become a major player at Faulkner & Ingersoll, the city’s top boutique lobbying firm, by losing her temper when things didn’t go her way. But sometimes . . . It was the disrespect that angered her, so prevalent on the faces of the older white men who resented the fact that their mirror image wasn’t sitting across from them.

She inhaled and studied her surroundings, using the moment to compose herself, and to allow him to wallow in his assumed victory. Hundreds of twinkling lights dotted the ceiling and gossamer-thin white tulle draped the crown of several doorways and cascaded down both jambs. A too-large full moon sat against a black velvet backdrop and more lights emblazoned the silhouette of a city skyline, its centerpiece: a ten-foot-high Eiffel Tower gleaming in amber uplights.

She’d come up with the Midnight in Paris theme, and these same decorations, eight years earlier when she’d chaired the planning committee for the State of Affairs gala. Apparently, imagination and originality, along with her idealism and naivete, had been abolished long ago.

The orchestra finished their set and a smattering of applause rippled through the room.

Her temper reined in, Leighton refocused on the task before her. Ramsey thought he’d won this round, that he’d gained the upper hand, but she was well-versed in the game of DC one-upmanship. Some might say she’d earned her doctorate.

“How’s life back in Illinois’s Fourteenth congressional district?”

He took another gulp of his drink. “Great.”

“I’m glad. And your constituents are happy with your service on their behalf?”

He hesitated, his insouciant posture straightening, his bushy brows straining toward one another. “Of course.”

Leighton slapped her hand down on the smooth lacquered wood of the bar. “Wonderful! Then you’ll have nothing to worry about from Brad Bagley.”

“Who?”

“Brad Bagley. Bagley & Sons Funeral Home. From your district.”

He swallowed. “Why would I worry about some mortician?”

Leighton allowed one corner of her mouth to ascend. “Mr. Bagley just prepared his papers to declare his candidacy for your seat.”

Ramsey shot to his feet. George the Bulldozer moved closer, but Ramsey indicated he stay put.

“How do you know that?” Ramsey asked in a furious whisper.

Leighton laughed, but not from any real amusement. “You’d be surprised at what I know. About your mistress, your gambling and some of the gifts you’ve received.”

With each complication she unmasked, his complexion grew paler and more waxy.

“A leaked picture, the release of an audio recording, any of those could cause you problems.” Leighton shook her head and narrowed her eyes. “But that’s bush league. That’s not how I operate. Besides, you’d probably talk your way out of any real trouble.

“Running for office can be so expensive,” she continued. “You know what I’d do? I’d find the person running against you and back them. Put all of my considerable resources and expertise behind them. Flood your area with so much of his propaganda that even if I disclosed your indiscretions, no one would care because I’d rendered you irrelevant.”

He slumped down hard on the bar stool, dropping his head into his hands. There was a time when she’d have been shocked by what she’d just done. That time had come and gone.

“So, we can count on you to push the bill through committee?”

His body stiffened, but without looking up, he nodded.

“And no more slanderous talk about safety issues?”

He finally lifted his gaze and though he shook his head in response to her question, his eyes telegraphed his impotent rage.

Too fucking bad.

This may be your first experience with disillusionment, but I tasted it years ago. Never again.

She adjusted the diamond cuff on her left wrist, a splurge with her first lobbying paycheck. The first time she’d made money in politics without her parental installed and approved blinders on. “Excellent.”

Time to go. She’d cut it close. The DJ was setting up his station.

“You’re nothing like Ambassador Clarke.”

Refusing to acknowledge the twinge in her heart at hearing her father’s name, Leighton arched a perfectly sculpted brow. “God, I hope not.”

She’d idolized her father. Her entire life, Career Ambassador Eugene Clarke had proselytized, “To whom much is given, much is required.” The Clarkes had wealth and pedigree; her father had been vocal about his expectation that his only child follow him into public service. She’d been happy to oblige.

After his death six years ago, she’d learned he’d been less forthcoming with the truth that his long absences from home hadn’t been a necessary sacrifice for his country, but rather a result of the international affair he’d been carrying on for over a decade. But thanks to her mother, no one had ever discovered her father’s public persona didn’t match the private one. Leighton still couldn’t reconcile Beverly Clarke’s actions. What kind of woman accepted, condoned and then covered up her husband’s affair?

A woman who enveloped herself in an irrational shroud of love.

Something Leighton would never do.

Their actions cemented her reigning belief that people only acted in their own best interest. Effective insight for her line of work.

Considering her mission completed, she grabbed her clutch and—

“You’re a bitch, you know that?”

She stopped on a dime. Did he think she would dissolve into a puddle of tears because he’d called her a name? But if he wanted to see a bitch . . .

She turned, braced her free hand against the bar and stooped to stare into his eyes. She lifted the veil off the emotions she usually kept in check and allowed him to see the full extent of her ruthlessness.

His chin trembled but she wasn’t done.

“Did you mean to insult me? Better luck next time, honey,” she said, tossing his words back at him. “You didn’t, because bitches get stuff done. You should remember that the next time you want to measure your balls against my ovaries. I’ll win every fucking time.”

When she left the gala five minutes later, the humidity rose up and smacked her in the face like a harassed congressional intern. DC was beautiful at night, the glittering lights from the cars, restaurants, office buildings and monuments providing an ever-changing tapestry.

But in the summer . . .

Maybe Congress had it right, taking one of their many “recesses” during the months of July, August and September, while the city careened between throat-clogging heat and air-crackling thunderstorms that did little to offer relief once they’d passed.

The encounter with Ramsey had yielded the result she’d wanted but not without creating a bad aftertaste. A side-effect from thinking about her father.

She pulled out her phone and sent a quick text to her driver letting him know she was ready to resume their trip. Thomas was leaving for London for an extended period of time tomorrow and he’d made a special evening appointment with their jeweler.

She spared her bare left hand a brief look. The engagement ring didn’t matter to her, but it was essential for Thomas. As was everything about their wedding. Some grooms wanted no part of the planning. They showed up on the morning of the ceremony having contributed nothing to its preparation. Not Thomas. He wanted input.

“It’s a display that will benefit us both.”

Her wedding. Their marriage. A display.

She didn’t care. He got the cachet of being associated with her family, the wedding of the season and their ascension to the top tier of DC power couples. She got one of the city’s most eligible bachelors as a husband and the appearance of stability, something the partners at her firm desired before she could join their ranks.

She squinted ahead to check out the traffic. Bright red brake lights as far as the eye could see.

Shit.

She wasn’t late. Not yet. But with the notorious gridlock of Friday night traffic snaking through the steep side streets and narrow lanes, the six-mile trip could take up to forty minutes. It’d require a miracle for her to get from this neighborhood to Shaw in time to meet her fiancé.

At his brother’s restaurant.

She was unable to prevent the butterflies that soared in her belly at the thought of the unbearably sexy Jonathan Moran and she cursed her body’s traitorous response. She was constantly surrounded by rich powerful men and some of them were attractive. Did they cause her breath to quicken or send her heartbeat soaring?

Of course not.

But the first time she’d met Jonathan, his laughing, mocha brown eyes had swept over her, exploding tiny bombs of unreason and lust in her chest. Tall, dark and gorgeous, the resemblance between the two brothers was striking, though Thomas was slightly shorter and a tad stockier than his sibling. But somehow, the genetic combination of the younger Moran affected her in a way her fiancé’s did not.

She’d been intrigued by him and the anticipation he’d inspired in her. He’d smiled and her gaze had wandered to his lips, imagined how they would feel against her own. Would his kiss be fleeting and soft or hard and fierce? Staring at him, she’d forgotten she was standing next to the man she’d planned to marry.

Horrified, she’d slapped a steel lid on those emotions and riveted it shut. Despite the example shown by her parents, she wouldn’t use “feelings” to excuse a selfish and harmful decision.

It had been an unexpected, momentary lapse, never to be repeated. Now, she knew to be on guard. And as a bonus, Jonathan lived on the other side of the country. Since the brothers didn’t get along, she wouldn’t have much contact with him.

That all went out of the window when he decided to open a restaurant here.

Her driver pulled up to the curb in a black luxury sedan and she slid into the blessedly cool interior.

“You know how I feel about being late, Herb.”

“Don’t worry, m’am. I’ll get you there on time.”

Leighton leaned back, closed her eyes and immediately opened them upon seeing Jonathan’s red-tinged image imprinted behind her lids.

No, no, no!

She’d figure out a way to get past this. She’d been in meetings with some of the most powerful people in the world, had dined and interacted with European royalty, Hollywood celebrities and world-famous musicians.

She’d be damned if she’d allow an inconvenient attraction to her future brother-in-law to get the best of her.