She was saved from having to ponder further when one of the organizers approached them. “If we can have everyone take their seats, we’re going to begin the speeches shortly after the salad course. Mr. Gao is up first, right after the welcome speech by our president and a few words from Mayor Bachman. Ms. Slater, you’ll speak next, followed by you, Mr. Drake.”

“What about Dick?” Niko asked.


Monique wondered the same thing. She’d read up on both candidates but had yet to personally meet them.

“Dick has a prior engagement and if he makes it here in time will be offering his campaign message at the end of the evening. Now, if you’ll follow me you’ll see your names, on table one for you, Ms. Slater. Niko—excuse me, Mr. Drake, you and your family are at table two.”

As the soup was ladled and the salad consumed, the mayoral candidates made their case for being elected. Monique felt confident about her platform but was admittedly taken by the Drake dynasty. After seeing four of these men in action, she couldn’t call their family anything but that. The father, Ike Drake Sr., had a debonair quality and naturally exuded a confident charm. His salt-and-pepper hair was close-cropped and his neatly trimmed goatee gave an air of sophistication that his eloquent conversation about Drake Realty—a conversation Monique heard following the dinner—only emphasized. Warren oozed a good-old-boy quality that made him easily approachable, while Ike Jr., who Monique assumed was the eldest child, seemed like a chip off the old block who had embodied all of the best qualities of all of his elders. Niko was all of these things and more, wrapped in lickable chocolate.

The evening ended just over two hours after it had begun. She was making her way out of the auditorium when the sound of sirens pierced the space. Everyone near her turned in the direction of the blare. They watched as a farmer decked out in a plaid shirt and overalls rushed up the walk.

“Where’s the mayor?”

“Inside,” the man standing next to Monique responded. “What’s going on?”

“Fire at the school,” the farmer replied. “I drove by, saw the flames and called 9-1-1. Explosion is what I’m hearing. It looks real bad.”

Monique looked around at the worried faces, unaware that her countenance looked even more troubled. “Which school?” she asked, hoping against hope that it wasn’t the one she feared.

“Elementary.” The farmer pushed past her and walked to the mayor, who rushed out of the auditorium in search of news.

Monique’s heart dropped. Without another thought, she raced to the parking lot.

Niko, who’d been watching her while listening to the farmer talk to the mayor, was hot on her heels. “Monique!” She didn’t slow down, so he broke into a trot to catch up with her.

“Where are you going?” he asked once he’d reached her and placed a firm hand on her elbow to slow her pace.

“The school.” She broke free from his grasp, pointed her remote at her car and unlocked its doors.

Again, Niko reached her. “Wait!” He placed a hand on the open door so that she could not close it. “Ride with us. We’re both too upset to drive.”

Monique didn’t argue. She didn’t want to waste time. “Where’s your car?”

“Right here,” Niko said, as a black town car pulled beside them.

Niko’s dad and brother Ike Jr. were in the front. Niko opened the back door, then stepped aside to let Monique enter first. Even in his panicked state he admired the view, how the well-constructed suit skirt clung to Monique’s curves and the toned definition of her shapely calves. He saw a familiar SUV and waved as Warren headed to his ranch. When Monique moved to scoot to the far side of the car, Niko held her close.

“Are you calling Lawrence?” Ike Sr. asked his namesake. Ike Jr. nodded. “He’s probably left already, son. I know you’re worried but try to stay calm.”

The sons agreed. Monique did as well, pulling out her own phone to make a call. She knew why her heart was in her throat but, aside from the obvious loss the fire had caused, wondered why Niko was so worried.

“Who’s Lawrence?” she asked.

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