“Charleston isn’t the only thing that’s beautiful.” Preston does a weird bobble head move as the skin draws tight all over my body. “And if you’d like a tour, I’m your man.”
“If she needs a tour,” I snap off. “I’ll be the one to give it.”
Silence falls over the group, but I don’t break eye contact with Preston. Maybe I don’t have any right to send this message, but I’m sending it nonetheless. Back the hell off. You’re not good enough for her.
“Elijah, look.” I’m still trying to stare a hole through Preston when Chris gets my attention, pointing toward the television. “Your opponent is conceding the race.”
Pride replaces my anger. The spell breaks for now, the conference room filling with cheers. Preston fades away and my mother puts her arms around me for a hug, my father shaking my hand over her shoulder.
But I can’t help it…I look for Addison. It doesn’t feel like a victory until she smiles at me.
“Congratulations,” she mouths. “You’re still cooking tomorrow.”
Lord. I deserve an Oscar.
My stomach has been in knots since I arrived earlier tonight, but I don’t think anyone was the wiser. Hopefully I succeeded in fooling Elijah, too, something I have ample experience in doing. It was naïve not to anticipate having my mother’s decisions thrown in my face at some point. I didn’t expect it to be Elijah’s mother. Nor did I expect to have him standing beside me when it happened. Watching me. Trying to read me. But I was determined not to let anything ruin his election night. I’m glad I brazened tonight out.
The past came up. It happened. And I’m still standing.
I even made it through Virginia’s obvious attempted set-up between me and Preston. Elijah’s body language made it clear right away that he didn’t like the younger man and I don’t blame him. Later on, after the election results were announced, I caught Preston watching me from the back of the room in a way that made me feel yucky and unclothed. A far cry from the polite charmer he pretended to be in front of Elijah’s parents.
Now, Elijah and I stand in the dark lobby of City Hall, waving off Lydia and Chris as they climb into their Uber. Elijah’s parents and Preston have already left, although I think the mayor would have stayed all night celebrating and reminiscing about his thirty-five years in office if his wife hadn’t overdone it with the champagne. He definitely didn’t want to leave Elijah and me here alone, which is laughable considering we’re alone almost every night of the week.
Rest easy, mayor. Your son pretty much only touches me if I’m ill or falling to my death.
I lean against the receptionist’s desk, smiling at the faded collection of Cathy cartoons taped to her work station. But as usual, my attention drifts to Elijah, where he leans against the wall, all casual male power, his tie loose around his neck. Big, beautiful Elijah. “Um. Are you coming over tonight or heading to the hotel?”
“Coming over. I can pick up my truck in the morning.”
“I can drop you off on my way to work.”
“Thanks, Goose.” Elijah takes out his cell phone. “I’ll call the driver.”
Now that we’re on the verge of leaving City Hall, I remember my secret mission with a jolt. “Oh! I…can you hold off? I have to use the ladies’ room.”
He drops onto a leather bench and manspreads like a pro, the picture of a guy who runs shit but isn’t immune to the effects of bourbon. “Take your time,” he drawls, squinting at me through one eye. “You were something tonight, you know that?”
“So were you,” I breathe, my face flushing. Oh God, I’ve had too much bourbon, too, haven’t I? “Be right back.”
Ducking into the hallway, I bypass the ladies’ room and creep up the stairs, rounding the turn and stopping outside Elijah’s soon-to-be office. I had to look it up on the hallway directory when I arrived tonight. The mayor’s corner office has belonged to his father for over three decades, but Elijah let it slip recently that he’d be occupying it the morning after election day, providing he won. And he has.
Now, I retrieve the shopping bag I left sitting outside the door. Careful not to make any noise, I let myself inside and begin to remove the bag’s contents. One by one, I place picture frames on the desk, angling them so they can be seen by whoever sits in the chair. There’s a photograph of Elijah in his army uniform shaking his father’s hand. One of Elijah, Chris and Lydia posing beside a cannon at the Citadel. Another one of—
“I knew you were up to something.”
I trap a shriek inside my throat at the sound of Elijah’s voice. “Why couldn’t you just leave me to it?” He only smiles in the face of my deadliest glare, which really takes the fun out of it. “This was supposed to be a surprise.”