So here I repent! Please sample this delicious appetizer of my work. The first chapter of AUDREY’S PROMISE, a contemporary romance. Enjoy!
Audrey Allen is poised to become the youngest Texas Senator, a position she’s primed for with her nickname, “Prolific Peacemaker.” But she’s unable to make peace with many in her hometown, including with her own family, where memories and grudges run deep. A decade-old tragedy looms to derail her dreams of helping others. Under the advice of her campaign manager, she brings home ambitious and tantalizing journalist, Ethan Tanner, who stirs up trouble and intense passion. Yet he helps her confront her past and steers the town toward forgiveness, though it may be too late in time for the election.
What am I doing here in front of these bloodsucking media fiends? Audrey Allen squirmed under the dozen cameras and bright lights glaring on her face. Sitting in the sofa chair across from the TV anchor might as well have been a police interrogation.
“And we’re back in five, four-” the producer counted from behind the shadows of the camera.
Because I have a sick need to constantly punish myself.
An even brighter light switched on and burned into Audrey’s retinas. Her normal motto of keeping her distance from reporters had to be sacrificed like a Mayan virgin to cruel gods, if only for three minutes. Every nerve ending in her body compelled her to stand and walk out. She pulled the collar of her sapphire blouse closer to her neck and forced a smile instead.
Breathe. Smile, Audrey. You agreed to this.
“Welcome back, folks. I’m Cathy Claise here with Texas State Senate candidate, Audrey Allen.”
Could this woman’s hair be any more bleached? Sandra Dee meets televangelist Jan Crouch in her mid-forties, desperate to look a decade fresher. But viewers had no idea she looked this fake up close. The magic of TV.
“Audrey has captured the political field by storm, stunning all of the Dallas’ 2nd district as the one candidate to take on Wyatt Williams in this surprising runoff election. Audrey, how have you managed to earn votes from both liberals and conservatives? Some conservatives criticize that you refuse to answer questions on family and religion to hide your deep-set liberal views.”
I knew this was a bad idea. Fire fused to Audrey’s throat and spread up her jawbone. Even with the oncoming heartburn, she knew this question was bound to come up. Journalists latched onto any pinprick of weakness and blasted it into a gaping wound, turning what was nothing into a hemorrhage of lies and misinterpretations. Despite her heart rate thumping against her sternum, Audrey kept smiling.
As Audrey opened her mouth to answer, she threw a glance over Cathy’s shoulder to her campaign manager, Miranda Gates, who’d stopped guzzling her Starbucks coffee and stared back at her.
“Claire, I’m glad you brought that up.” That way I can quash your attempt to sideswipe me. “First of all, I’m happy my message has reached both conservatives and liberals on the independent ticket. After all, if elected I’ll be serving both parties equally. However, the only thing liberal about me is the high-def powder on my face from the make-up crew here.”
Audrey continued through the muffled snickers from behind the cameras, and Miranda’s expectant nod.
“Just because I don’t talk about my family or religious views doesn’t mean I don’t have them. I’m proud of my family. I’m the person I am today because of them.” Even though they may not be proud of me.
“My focus right now is my campaign and the people I intend to help with my platforms. Not marriage. So many women in my district need help and a safe place to seek support. The Women’s Crisis Center I’m sponsoring will provide that refuge. “
Way to plug in the WCC, Aud. She could almost hear Miranda’s cheers, silenced by guzzling more coffee. She watched Cathy open her mouth to jab another potential zinger, but Audrey’s fire was up.
“And Cathy, my personal faith has nothing to do with my ability to be an effective State Senator. My experience in Texas politics has taught me that an ability to work with others and keep a level head is the best way to help everyone, without losing your sanity in the process.”
Cathy’s laugh-on-command was more a nervous cackle, devoid of genuine emotion. It bubbled under Audrey’s skin like hydrogen peroxide. This desperate TV anchor was more fake than half the plastic-surgery addicted women of mid-town. But also the most watched by that demographic.
“Austin has its way of piling on the body count at the Capitol steps,” Cathy quipped. “You seem more than ready to take on Wyatt Williams next week. Though the other senators from around the state might be less forgiving.”
Audrey bit the side of her tongue to keep from rolling her eyes.
“This Women’s Crisis Center has a fundraising event coming up, is that correct?” Cathy added.
Finally, something worth talking about.
“Saturday night at the W Hotel in Dallas. We’ll be auctioning off some valuable gifts for this incredible charity.”
“Don’t you think this event on Thanksgiving weekend is bad timing? Won’t many people have spent all their money on Black Friday?”
She never quits.
“On the contrary, Cathy. This is the season of being thankful for your blessings and there’s never a better time to give back to those who need a little help and compassion.”
“Well spoken, from the Prolific Peacemaker of the 2nd District.” Cathy flashed her veneers at Audrey until her cheeks cracked. A final turn to the camera let Audrey breathe, and release the pressure exerted on her big toe in her black heels. Cathy peered into the camera. “Thank you, Ms. Allen, for joining us here today. Stick around, viewers. We’ll be right back with the perfect trimming for that Thanksgiving Turkey.”
Audrey watched the producer in a massive headset hold up his fingers to count down. “And we’re clear.”
The microphone clipped to her silk blouse was the first to come off, followed by the bulky battery in her back pocket. As she fumbled with the wire, Cathy did as well with her words, fake yet again.
“Thanks so much for coming today. And sorry for that last round of questioning. My boss would have fired me if I hadn’t asked them.” Fluffing her bleached bob, Cathy motioned for her makeup assistant. But trusty Miranda stopped her.
“And just how many times will you face termination before you’ll practice ethics?”
Amazing how her fake smile dissipated so quickly into a Nancy Grace scowl. She must have practiced that in the mirror. “Politics is a brutal game, and our viewers expect us to ask the important questions.”
“I think viewers are more interested in the truth, not sleight-of-hand tactics. Good luck getting us to visit your show again in the future.” Miranda bit with a half-smile. Her hazel eyes pierced Cathy’s plastic exterior. Audrey loved Miranda’s passion and unwavering loyalty, and even more loved watching her take the graceful kill. But the election was seven days away. As much as Audrey hated to do it, they needed to give the media a sliver of mercy.
“Cathy, thank you for having me on the show today.” The gracious tone was a lot easier to muster than Audrey expected, now that she’d handed back the microphone to the adolescent-looking sound tech. “And have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family.”
Ten years of interning in the political quagmire as her mentor’s aide and eventual protégé had taught Audrey that cooler heads always prevailed on the Senate floor. But no amount of time or turmoil would ever dampen her dislike of the media. Stepping off of the artificial living room in the small studio, away from the intruding cameras, the nagging necessity of the media grew with every ding of Miranda’s phone.
“I need a Diet, Mandy.” Tension pulled at the muscles in her neck. Maybe it was all the weight of the extra makeup they made her wear, or the weight of the election taking its toll. Soon enough it would all be over, and hopefully Audrey could make the impact that her district desperately needed.
Without taking her eyes off her phone and lightning-fast thumb, Miranda reached into her massive purse and pulled out a silver can.
“You’re scary sometimes. But I love you.” Audrey opened the can and sipped the delectable bubbles, letting it run through her senses and across her taste buds. Thank God.
“Pampering you is what I do best.”
“More like handling. Have you heard back from the investors yet?” Audrey asked between gulps.
“Nope, not yet.”
“We need their support for that building, otherwise the Crisis Center won’t get off the ground.”
“Relax, Aud. They’ll come through.” Miranda shoved her phone in her pocket and readjusted her purse. “Besides, I need you to put your Peacemaker hat back on, because there’s someone you need to meet.”
“Who?” Another gulp of Diet.
“Ethan Tanner. He’s standing in the corner waiting for an interview with you.”
Soda went up her nose, burning every inch of the way up and back down.
“I thought I said I didn’t want to talk to him?” She managed to say as she grabbed a tissue from Miranda’s purse.
“Audrey, we need his interview to help us in the polls. This runoff election is getting brutal. With as much attention as his columns get and his specific series on every candidate, we can’t afford to pass this up.” The distance was closing between them and the corner as Miranda prodded her along, where a shadowy figure loomed against the wall.
“I do not want to give an interview to the Dallas Morning Journals’ most ruthless investigative journalist, just so he can write one of his infamous exposes. He’s a glorified dirt digger.” With each word Audrey lowered her voice, but emphasized every consonant.
Though hidden in shadows, Audrey could see the figure smile, or more precisely the cheeks rise, in a mocking grin. He wasn’t tall, maybe an inch higher than her, but something about his air that screamed ‘dare me.’
“Shh. Peacemaker face,” Miranda whispered back just as they approached the dreaded figure. Audrey took a deep breath, forcing her diplomatic smile once again and braced herself for another onslaught. Ethan finally pushed himself away from the wall and stepped out from the shadows.
Every impression Audrey had of male journalists consisted of pushy individuals in casual and baggy clothing, often appearing as if they just rolled out of bed and grabbed their bags from a city dumpster. Ethan’s wrinkled sports jacket and cargo pants certainly fit the stereotype, but everything else about this journalist shook her resolve.
Damn, it has to be illegal to have a smile that charming. The way it spread across his shaven jaw line and cheeks and up to the corners of his light gray eyes stunned her. The color matched his sports coat and glimmered under the studio lights as he reached out to shake hands. Strong hands, hm. Smooth chin, wide shoulders, and mahogany hair that curled at the ends. Now Audrey knew how he’d managed to dig up so much dirt in his career. He’d wooed it out of his sources with his curled crew cut and slick style.
All of his charm and momentum vanished the second he opened his mouth.
“Audrey Allen, pleasure to meet you, but I only dig up dirt on the weekends. The rest of the time I just watch the stories unravel themselves.”
“And you just happen to be watching from a shaded corner every time?” Audrey pulled away from his soft hand, amazed by his strong grip. Its warmth countered his cold words.
“That’s what makes me good at my job. And I’d love to catch you in a corner… for a quick chat.” The glimmer in his eye was hard to miss. Slippery and full of… something. A wannabe Casanova. Another check in the journalist stereotype. If Audrey wasn’t so occupied with trying to dislike him, she might feel sorry for him.
“I’m sure you would,” Audrey murmured, hiding a smirk.
“We’re interested to see how your columns for this runoff election will play out. What will you focus on for these pieces?” Miranda chucked her empty Starbucks cup in a nearby trashcan and flung her ponytail off her shoulder. Hard as nails when she needed to be, and Audrey needed it for this one.
“Well, I like more casual conversations. Fireside chats, so to speak.” He winked his long lashes at Audrey. What was he searching for, an interview or a date?
“Do you plan on asking the same questions with Wyatt Williams? The same fireside chat?” Audrey let her smirk rise to the surface. The more this guy got on her nerves, the more she liked throwing a curve ball at him.
“I’m equally fair with all my interviews.”
“And equally brutal.” Audrey wanted it to sound like an insult, but why did this feel like flirting? She never bantered with media. What are you doing?
Almost on cue, Miranda nudged Audrey’s elbow and threw her a glance. Her careful eyes asked the same question.
“But I’ll be up front, Audrey.” Ethan pulled out a hand recorder. “What ghosts do you have in your closet?” The wink he threw at her didn’t guise the seriousness of his intent, despite the playful tone.
“Don’t you mean skeletons?” Miranda interrupted.
“What’s the difference?” Miranda eyed the recorder he held up.
“Skeletons are only scary. Ghosts from your past can truly haunt you.”
“Aren’t you a little old to believe in ghosts?” Audrey asked with a catching smile.
“No. They make my job the most entertaining!”
The light flashed in Ethan’s eyes and his grin became wicked. Audrey’s heart began to thud against her sternum. It wasn’t fair to look that enticing.
“Sorry to burst your pubescent bubble, but Halloween is over.” Audrey smiled through Miranda’s chuckle. But she couldn’t take her eyes off Ethan, assessing his resilience. Would he push and badger just like every other journalist? Were his cajones as big as he flouted?
Almost on cue, his eyes darkened with hunger. He switched off his recorder and placed it back in his pocket. “Then I look forward to an adult conversation. Are you free now, or perhaps this afternoon?”
“This afternoon should be good. Unless you have plans with family for Thanksgiving.” Miranda reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone, searching for an open slot in Audrey’s schedule.
“No plans for Thanksgiving,” Ethan replied without taking his avaricious eyes off of Audrey. Crossing her arms to the sudden feeling of being an open book felt necessary, but she didn’t budge. Ethan’s smile grew more playful with every second. “So this afternoon or tomorrow morning if you prefer. Before all the hustle bustle of turkey dinners and football.”
“Can’t tomorrow morning. I’ll be driving back home for Thanksgiving, so we’ll squeeze him into this afternoon.” Audrey forced her eyes away from Ethan, the exposure crawling down her spine like worms. Pretending to browse her schedule over Miranda’s shoulder gave her a brief escape from those probing gray eyes.
“She has a few meetings this afternoon, but we could…” Miranda stopped and looked up to Ethan. “You said no plans for Thanksgiving?”
Oh no. Miranda’s sideways smile and plotting eyes was not a good sign and made the worms crawl back up Audrey’s spine.
“Nope,” Ethan grinned.
“When is your article deadline?” Miranda spoke faster with every word. Excited about something Audrey was sure she wouldn’t share in.
“Saturday night, running in the Sunday paper before the election.”
“I have a great idea.” Miranda turned to Audrey and braced her elbow for this ‘great idea.’ “Why don’t you join Audrey for Thanksgiving. She’s going back home and you can see what her family is like. Get the material you need for the interview with a more in-depth look.”
Audrey’s sharp breath rocketed through her nerves. Had she lost her mind? This was her great idea? The most conniving journalist in Dallas joining her at home was a certain recipe for disaster. Media belonged on the other side of a fifty-foot canyon, not in her hometown, and certainly not in her childhood home. Just how in-depth was this going to get?
Audrey’s reaction must have sparked a fire in Ethan’s mind, as his smile stretched across his cheeks and eyes widened, looking at her like a lamb ready for slaughter. Bringing his satchel forward, he pulled out a small notepad and pen.
“Excellent idea! You leave tomorrow? What’s the address?”
Audrey grabbed Miranda’s arm, but then immediately let it go. She was in front of media; she couldn’t look scared or pushy. It would only invite more inquiry. So instead, she faked disappointment. “Sorry, Ethan. There’s no room at my family’s house for another guest. We’ll have to keep the interview to this afternoon.”
“I’ll stay at a hotel. What time do we leave in the morning?”
The urge to slap a smile off of someone’s face had never been stronger than that moment, staring at Ethan. Until she saw Miranda beaming back at her over this horrible plan.
“Ethan, excuse us for just one moment.” Audrey turned and walked away, knowing Miranda would follow her lead. Striding calmly to the break room was harder to pull off, since every muscle wanted her to run, despite wearing her black two-inch heels. She craved something to quench the rumbling in her stomach, and Diet Coke wasn’t cutting it. The vending machine became her new target.
“What are you thinking?” Audrey spat under a breath. Miranda joined her side instantly, gripping her phone and ready for a fight. “That man broke the story of the Dallas County Commissioner’s embezzling and gambling scandal, and you just invited him to join me home for Thanksgiving?”
“Keep your friends close and enemies closer. It’s the perfect strategy.”
“I haven’t been home in ten years, and my first trip back you want me to drag along a scandal seeker?” More like rebel rouser. Audrey was familiar with those. And her hometown’s reaction to them. Audrey razed through the vending machine’s limited options and settled on animal crackers. She yanked a dollar from her wallet and inserted it into the slot. When it shot back out at her, she snatched it and flipped it over to try again.
“What’s there to be nervous about? You have nothing to hide. Once he sees how wonderful you are and your small town roots, he’ll write the piece we need to clinch the election. If he’s convinced, everyone else will be, too.”
The dollar spit out at her again and Audrey clenched her fists. She raised her leg to stomp her foot, but stopped the urge to act like a toddler and rubbed the back of her ankle with her toes.
“Here.” Miranda pulled out change from her pocket and pushed it into the slot.
“You’ve never met my family,” Audrey continued as she waited for the animal crackers to fall. “For all you know, they could be redneck hicks with a billion embarrassing stories about me they’d love to sell to the highest bidder.” Unlikely, since they’d never visited her since she left. But Miranda doesn’t need to know that either.
“Doubtful. They raised you, didn’t they? The Prolific Peacemaker. And you came out mostly normal for an obsessive control freak.”
“Don’t call me that. It’s a dumb political label from the media. Another great idea.” Audrey rolled her eyes and ripped open the bag. The first animal cracker couldn’t get down her throat fast enough and she scarfed another one.
“Dang, hyena! Slow down.”
“I didn’t have breakfast.”
“You were that nervous? We really need to help you get over this aversion to cameras.”
“It’s not the cameras, Mandy. It’s the people behind them. News people. And if they have to exist, I’d rather them behind cameras and not in my home.”
“Audrey.” Miranda placed her hand over the bag and caught Audrey’s eyes. “We need this. Poll numbers show you’re neck and neck with Wyatt, and we need something to bring you over the top. Tanner has the highest read column in Dallas. If you can convince him how great your ideas are, the election is ours.”
Miranda was right. Audrey didn’t want to say it, since something in her gut roiled again. She expected a little bird to appear on her shoulder and whisper into her ear you’ll regret this. But the voters needed her ideas to happen. The Crisis Center needed her to win the election. There was only one gut-wrenching conclusion. To win, she needed Ethan Tanner, the worst of the worst newsmen. Audrey grimaced.