“I gave you the names of those seeking both the Democratic and Republican noms months ago.”
“Her name totally slipped by me. Didn’t recognize it at all. Guess I was too focused on building my independent platform.”
“Well, buddy, you know it now.” Bryce nodded toward the paper. “How she did it, and why her candidacy is potentially problematic, is all there in black and white.” He replied to a text message and stood. “I have a meeting with a couple pastors about your speaking to their congregations. Let’s talk after you finish the article and discuss how you want to handle this unexpected development.”
“All right. Will do.”
Niko’s gaze was speculative as he turned toward the window that looked out onto one of Paradise Cove’s busiest streets. In the heart of downtown, he’d opted to run his campaign from this virtual epicenter where 75 percent of the businesses were located instead of from the stately offices of Drake Realty Plus, located closer to the Golden Gates community. So far the move had proved highly beneficial. On any given day he rubbed shoulders with company owners and their staff, and customers of the gift stores; art gallery and framing shop; travel agency; insurance companies; coffee shop; medical and dental offices; dog-grooming service; floral shop; New York–style deli; and middle-to-upscale boutiques. Once or twice a week he made sure to eat at Acquired Taste, one of the larger restaurants in the city, and made an equal amount of appearances at The Cove Café, the town’s casual diner.
With six months to go until the election, he felt he’d locked up at least 60 percent of the vote. The other opponents weren’t exactly lightweights, but didn’t carry Niko’s kind of clout. Monique was new in town. No one knew her. “Who in the heck is Mo Slater?” he’d asked himself when reading the name. Some local nobody, he vaguely remembered thinking. With almost no name recognition, how did she figure she could compete against one of the town’s most popular native sons? The Republican candidate, Dick Schneider, had the seniors, Buddy Gao, a Libertarian, the fringe element. Which only left everybody else: the liberal Democrats, progressives, independents, those fifty-nine and younger and most of the town’s female population. One would be shortsighted to leave out this pivotal bloc of voters.
As far as he’d been concerned a mere ten minutes ago, this election was in the bag. That was until Monique Slater, the only woman who’d beaten him at almost anything, had entered the picture and put a hitch in the proverbial giddy-up. He’d dismissed that guy named Mo with a wave of his long, thick well-groomed fingers. But not this woman; not Monique. He’d underestimated her once before and paid the price.
Picking up the paper once more, he studied the image smiling back at him. She was prettier than he remembered; softer, more feminine. Perhaps it was because in this photo her shoulder-length hair fell in soft curls around her face and neck, and her smile was bright and welcoming. The day of the debate, which was coming back to him as if it were yesterday and not over a decade ago, she’d worn her hair in a bun secured at the nape of her neck, as stark and conservative as the dark-colored pantsuit she’d also worn. Niko’s thoughts whirled as he continued to study her picture. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that aside from the debate question and the fact that she blew his argument to smithereens, he didn’t remember much else about her. Had they even had a conversation beyond the stage? He didn’t think so. He remembered being angry and embarrassed at being out-argued, especially for the national trophy. The team had tried to ease his guilt and humiliation through teasing. A steely glare and a curtly delivered message left no doubt that for him there was no humor in any part of the affair. That night, he’d returned to California and walked straight into the arms of his latest love interest, one who’d undoubtedly been all too ready to offer comforting hugs and warm kisses to make him feel better. In time, this solid trouncing became a distant memory in what was otherwise a stellar debating record and career during a fun-filled, sexually adventurous four undergrad college years.