by Riley Scott
Jo Carson has spent months biting her tongue and biding her time working in Mayor Madeline Stratton’s office. That she doesn’t share the mayor’s politics is her secret, and it’s not the only secret she’s keeping in conservative Oklahoma City.
Madeline Stratton believes that you reap what you sow. Yes, she has allowed her marriage to become one of bitter expedience, but she is devastated by the magnitude and viciousness of her husband’s sudden scandal that erupts into off-color headlines and late night comedy routines.
When her young staffer offers a hideout no one will suspect she gratefully accepts—and finds Jo’s sympathy and advice increasingly useful and needed. Until one night feelings far beyond gratitude will no longer go away…
Politics and passion collide in this debut romance from Riley Scott!
Jo stared at the screen of her laptop, fingers hovering above the keys, yet unable to strike.
In three hours, she had written one word. “Bullshit.” It stared back at her from the screen, seeming to resonate within her. It summed up her life pretty well—certainly her job at least.
She finished the last few gulps of her beer and crunched the can, satisfied to have something fold under her pressure. Lately she was the one folding and giving in to whatever her boss wanted.
Most days she got along fine, pretending and dancing on the tightrope that everyone in politics had to manage, but today’s assignment was simply too much.
Maybe that’s why she had put it off until after her trip to the bar. Nonetheless, Jo had to find some way to write a speech for her boss advocating for the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act.”
How great would it be if her ultraconservative boss just got up and recited what Jo had written? “DOMA is bullshit.” Jo grinned, picturing the agape mouths of reporters, supporters and everyone else present. It would be a glorious day—but also her last one as an employee of the mayor’s office. Unfortunately, Jo had to stick to the guidelines she had been given.
Not that they were really guidelines, she thought. They were more like the spewings of a homophobic monster frothing at the mouth and uttering Tarzan-like phrases: “Man and woman, good. Man and man, perverted. Woman and woman, abomination.” Add in some lines from the Bible and maybe a line or two about how gays are out to destroy the universe and families, and she’d have the speech written.
Time to channel your inner judgmental church girl. Shouldn’t be that hard for a preacher’s kid whose mommy is still praying and pushing for a white wedding.
She thought about her upbringing in the church, the exposure to the judging and being judged and sighed. “Hate the sin, not the sinner.”
She clasped her hands over her mouth, realizing she had spoken the words aloud.
“Shit,” she whispered. The sounds emanating from her bedroom told her that her latest mistake had woken up and was getting ready to leave. The night’s events came blaring back with the speed and force of a giant semitruck. Not only had she decided to blow off steam at the bar after work, ignoring her deadline, but she had also brought home a one-night stand. She closed her eyes, wishing away the conversation that was impending, as the noise of footsteps sounded again in her bedroom.
She had to stop doing this. Sooner or later, it was all going to come back and bite her in the ass. When it did, there’d be hell to pay. Headlines shouting the news, all her secrets laid bare, no job…and no family.
At twenty-seven, people were supposed to be a little more at peace with their lives, weren’t they? If so, she was certainly an exception.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the opening of her bedroom door.
“Uh, hi…” The gorgeous blond spoke awkwardly. “I didn’t know where you had gone to, so I thought I’d take off.”
Lauren…or Laura…or maybe Lisa. The name just simply would not come to Jo’s mind.
“All right. Have a good night,” Jo said instead.
“Thanks, I had a good time,” the blond continued. “What are you doing up, by the way? It’s four a.m.”
“Just working on some stuff for the morning.”
“Oh, that’s right. You said you were a law student, right, Sarah?”
Jo simply nodded and forced a smile. “That’s right.”
“Okay, well, call me.” With that the blond was gone.
“Sarah, the law student…” Jo laughed to herself. She was getting too old to play these games. She wasn’t a law student; she was a professional liar. Camping out in the closet did that to people. Not that she had much choice, given how high-profile her family was and her job. She couldn’t have girls running around telling people they’d slept with Jo Carson.
Still, everyone needed a good lay every now and again, so she had perfected the art of deception, just as she had perfected the art of attracting just about every woman she’d ever desired. Sometimes, she silently joked to herself, she could basically talk a girl out of her clothes. With eyes that dazzled and words that dripped of sweet honey, she had had her way with as many women as she wanted—but never for more than one night and never out in the light of day. Jo wasn’t sure if that made her a superhero or a super villain, but either way, she’d take it.
Stretching her neck from side to side, she tried to think back to the sex she’d had with the blond or the buzz still rolling around in her head from the beer. All she could think of, though, was that stupid DOMA speech and what a hypocrite she was.
She had to write the speech. She needed this job to prove herself professionally. If she wanted a future as a writer in any shape or form, this was her foot in the door. Besides which, people like Jo Carson didn’t just come out of the closet. There was too much at stake. There was always too much at stake for the offspring of Michael Carson, who didn’t dare be anything but perfect cookie-cutter children.
She was reminded of that every time she called home. Her sisters, Tori and Alli, had dutifully acquired everything a good little Carson was supposed to have—the dashing husband, the kids, the nice little suburban house—and her mom never let her forget it.
Blah, blah, blah. Jo had heard it all before—and it was getting worse. Last time they had spoken, her mom had thrown her for a loop. “You’re going to meet him this year, I just know it.”
“Who, Mom?” Jo had asked, hoping that she didn’t already know the answer.
“Well, your Mr. Right, of course, darling. I just have a feeling. You’ll meet him this year, and then we can plan another wedding. Now I’ve been thinking, turquoise would be a beautiful accent color, and you could use black for the bridesmaids’ dresses…”
Jo had stopped listening. Martha Carson had gone into overdrive while planning both Tori’s and Alli’s weddings and was dying to see her middle child walk down the aisle. Nothing in the world was worth having to listen to her planning yet another wedding.
Would she have any interest at all if she knew the person I wanted to marry was female? Jo couldn’t help but wonder, though she knew the answer. Of course she wouldn’t. It would roil the empire her family had worked to create, and it would divide the Carsons forever. She had a pretty solid feeling that even her sisters would turn their backs on her if it ever came to that.
With a sigh, Jo ran her fingers through her long dark hair.
“Well, Jaws,” she said, reaching down to pet the shih tzu half asleep at her feet. “It looks like it’s time to spread some hate.”
The all-too-familiar ding of her work-issued BlackBerry produced a stinging pain in Jo’s right temple. She craned her head to the side to crack her sore neck, then opened the email.
“Meet me in my office in 5. Need to discuss DOMA speech."“M”
Unable to do anything else, Jo burst into laughter. Whatever could good old “M” want to discuss about the DOMA speech?
For a brief moment, she fantasized about coming out right there in her boss’s office. “Ma’am,” she’d start. It was always best to be polite and recognize authority—or so she’d been taught. “The reason your DOMA speech isn’t quite up to your standards is because you asked me to write it and I might possibly be the biggest vagina lover on the planet.”
Stifling her laugh and shaking her head, Jo gathered up a notebook and headed off to receive a list of rewrites.
Calm, steady and collected, she knocked lightly on the door and prepared to turn on the charm.
While she waited for permission to enter, she ran her fingers over the elaborate brass nameplate on the solid oak door. “Madeline Stratton, Mayor of Oklahoma City.” It wouldn’t have been out of place in a European palace; like almost everything in the office, it was over the top. Although the ornate décor was largely a holdover from the previous administration, anyone who had observed Madeline’s air of authority and her ability to captivate an entire audience at first entrance into a room could have easily assumed she was the one who had decreed it to be so extravagant. Jo knew that was not the case, though. Reflecting upon her boss’s true demeanor made her smile, despite the uncomfortable task awaiting her.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jo replied, sticking her head in the door. “Are you ready to see me?”
The Honorable Madeline Stratton waved her hand welcomingly and nodded. “Of course. Come on in and have a seat.”
Jo cleared her throat and took the offered seat. “So, about the speech…” she began.
The mayor held up her right hand to silence Jo. “First things first, Josephine. I liked the overall tone of the speech. It flows nicely. Ups and downs in the right places, good message points, everything.”
Mayor Stratton was known for her dramatic pauses when speaking, personally as well as publicly. The time she was allowing to elapse now was painful. Jo was sure everyone within a ten-mile radius must be able to hear her heart pounding out of her chest.
Could she know? Was this the end? She forced herself to breathe, cringing when the exhalation came out loud and anxious-sounding.
Quickly the mayor spoke up. “It’s all right. I liked the speech. There was only one thing I wanted to address.”
Jo nodded, giving her the go-ahead.
“It doesn’t quite pack the punch I would like for it to, especially when dealing with such an important issue.”
When Jo didn’t reply, the mayor added, “What I mean is, you use all the right messaging and wording, but it has the propensity to appear to some—your father’s friends, the conservatives on the city council, for instance—as though I’m accepting of this lifestyle. Not supportive, but accepting—and you and I both know that we can’t let our opponents use trivial stuff like this to torpedo our reform agenda. I can’t stand the thought of all our hard work being in vain. The people are trusting us to do what we said we would. If we let a marginal issue like this distract or divide us, we’ll lose the support of half of the city council and some very important donors. If that happens, we can kiss reelection next year goodbye and the last of our reform agenda with it.”
The cold calculation behind the words hit Jo like a slap in the face, but she didn’t let on. Her stomach churned, as she battled internally with the words. The mayor seemed to be coming from a place of legitimate concern for most of her constituents—to the detriment of a minority. Though the words stung, she couldn’t help but admire the strategy behind them. “Yes, ma’am. I will make some edits, but may I ask one question?”
“How would you like me to go about making these changes?”
“Josephine, you’re a brilliant writer. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Just make sure that you are crystal clear about my disapproval of the gay lifestyle. Also, include information on the importance of preserving the sanctity of marriage and how gay marriage, even civil unions, will undermine family values.”
Biting her tongue, Jo smiled and nodded. “Will do.”
She stood and turned to leave.
“Oh,” the mayor exclaimed fervently. “And put something in about the actions that I plan to take to prevent gay marriage…”
Jo spun on her heel. “What type of actions?”
“Right now, we’ll work to support civic and city groups that want to protect traditional marriage. We’ll also stand behind the city council if it needs us to put forth any related proclamations. And…and…and…” Madeline tapped her fingers on her desk as if trying to drum up the perfect answer.
“Burning gays at the stake?” Jo offered and silently cursed herself for the answer.
Her boss broke into laughter as if this was the most humorous thing she had ever heard. “Oh, you truly do have a wicked sense of humor. Your father was right about that one.”
The mention of Jo’s father still stung—as if she could never have landed a job such as this one without his help. She forced a smile and nodded in agreement.
“That’ll be all, Josephine. I’ll look forward to reading through it again when you’ve finished the rewrites.”
The piercing blue of Madeline’s eyes captured Jo’s gaze for a second longer than was necessary—or advisable. Quickly, she exited, afraid of making the moment awkward. Well, more awkward.
As her heels clicked slowly down the tiled hallway leading back to her cubicle, Jo mulled her job situation over in her mind for the millionth time. She was, she had been told, the best speechwriter the office had ever had; reviews of the mayor’s speeches were off the charts. It was more than being good at her job, though, that was keeping her chained to a place she should want to leave. She had always loved politics. It was fast-paced, ever-changing, exciting. She was actually doing things to make a difference in the world.
Politics was where she had always wanted to be. But…did she really want to be working here, for Mayor Stratton? It hadn’t felt as if she really had a choice, thanks to the “Daddy connection.” Her heart wrenched. As much as she wanted to fight it, she let out a sigh of acceptance. This was her life, and she was who she was.
If only Mayor Stratton didn’t hate the one thing Jo was sure that she was…Jo would have liked her just fine. She was a good boss, fair and loyal. She was a strong woman, and Jo loved strong women.
Hell, if the woman weren’t so damn conservative, she might even have considered taking Ms. Madeline out for a spin. She let her mind contemplate that thought for a little while. No doubt about it, with that blond hair, those long legs, and those gorgeous blue eyes, Madeline Stratton was hot. She also possessed an incomparable intellect, something that Jo always found so enticing. Accomplished, beautiful and sharp as a tack—she was the full package. Forty-two, but with the body of a twenty-five-year-old, she could have been the poster child for a “Republicans Are Sexy” campaign.
“What the hell, Jo?”
Gabe, the mayor’s scheduler, had popped out in front of her while she was walking and moved quickly aside now to avoid a collision. She gasped; she’d nearly plowed into him. She blushed, thinking that somehow he had read her mind. What was she doing, anyway, thinking about sleeping with her boss?
“Oh! You scared me!” she finally sputtered.
“Chill out, man,” Gabe said, laughing. “Did you seriously just make a joke in Madeline’s office about burning gays at the stake?”
A sheepish grin spread across Jo’s face. “Maybe,” she replied with a shrug. “But, in all seriousness, Gabe, I think she’d take it almost that far if that’s what was needed to get her programs passed.”
“Do what we all do,” Gabe said. “Just go with it. Take it to the extremes she wants to take it. If we need to rein her in before the speech, we will. But it’s her career.”
Jo never tired of this—the team ethic the mayor had engendered in the office. She was the new kid on the block—she’d been working for the mayor for less than a year, replacing someone who’d left for a job in DC—and most of the others had been there since the beginning of her term over three year ago, but people were still looking out for her. It felt good knowing they had her back—just as she had theirs. “Okay, thanks, Gabe. I’m going to ‘go with it.’”
He patted her on the shoulder. “Go get ’em, tiger. Or attagirl. Or some cliché that’s supposed to make you want to grab the bull by the horns and seize the day.”
She shook her head, laughing and thankful for phenomenal co-workers. “Thanks, crazy.”
“Wait, they didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“You’re in the nuthouse, sweetheart.” Gabe laughed at his own joke.
“No, they didn’t mention it,” Jo quipped. “But the padded cell gave it away.” She gestured to her cubicle as she walked in that direction. Most days, it did feel like a psych ward here. Being overworked, underpaid and typically underappreciated was enough to drive any group of people insane.
“One more thing, Jo.” Gabe had followed her to her desk.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“I like the speech as it is. I wish she didn’t want it to be more hateful.” His eyes were sincere, and suddenly Jo wished she could hug him.
She didn’t think she could manage words, so she just nodded.
“My brother is gay, you know?” He pitched his voice low, too soft for anyone else to hear.
“No, Gabe, I didn’t. Does anyone else here know that?” She responded out of curiosity, hoping that her question didn’t come out sounding as judgmental in any way.
He laughed. “No, ma’am, and they won’t, I trust.”
“Oh, of course not. Your secret is safe with me. But I think it’s awesome that he has a supportive brother.”
“Yeah, they don’t look too highly on that around here, unfortunately.”
She felt like she was being issued a warning, even though she knew there was no possible way Gabe could know she was a lesbian. Still, she heard the message loud and clear. DO NOT SLIP UP.
As the day passed, she felt the tension in her shoulders ease somewhat, but not enough. There was something unsettling about discussing “the gay lifestyle” with her boss and Gabe suddenly opening up about his gay brother. Jo wished it were a normal day—one in which the word “gay” never came up in conversation. Things were so much more comfortable in her nice little closet on days like that.
She reviewed the computer screen in front of her, making last-minute edits and reading for tone. “The Bible defines marriage as between a man and a woman…As our society has become more accepting of the homosexual lifestyle, we have seen the traditional family dissipate…Gay marriage is not only wrong; it defies the principles upon which this nation was founded—and which still hold true today.”
With each word she typed, a little piece of her heart chipped off and fell away. If only she could write what had come to mind when she was first crafting the speech: “BULLSHIT!” Instead she was choosing to save her job. She hit the print button and grabbed the sheets of paper as they shot out of the printer. Silently begging for this to be the last time she would have to look at it, Jo carried the revised speech to the mayor’s office and handed it to her.
There was a “hmm,” an “mmhmm,” a “yes” and a “how about that?” Stratton was scanning the document as if she were sifting grains of sand on a beach.
Finish the damn thing, Jo screamed inside her head.
After what felt like an eternity, the mayor lifted her gaze to meet Jo’s. The deep blue in her eyes sparkled, and Jo’s heart turned over in her chest. Pretty eyes had always been Jo’s weakness. Come to think of it, though, Madeline Stratton also had a beautiful mouth. Full, soft lips and with perfect, impeccable, shining teeth that lit up a room any time she smiled.
“Did you hear a word I said?” The mayor’s voice snapped her back to reality, only to make Jo realize she was biting her lip.
“Sorry,” Jo recovered quickly. “Long day.” She tried to get her emotions under control, hoping that her face didn’t show the panic going on in her head.
The mayor laughed a genuine laugh, the kind Jo rarely heard escape from her lips. “I understand. We’ve all had those days.”
Being rundown and overworked in a place like this was so common that everyone was able to get away with acting a little crazy now and then. Jo was thankful for that, especially in this moment.
“So what was it you were saying?” Jo asked innocently.
“Well, I said that I hope you are enjoying this speech because you get to spend another night with it.”
“But it’s everything you asked for.” Normally, Jo wouldn’t challenge her boss, but she couldn’t bear the thought of writing one more homophobic sentence.
“And what is that?” the mayor asked.
“It affirms the constitutionality of defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, the biblical basis for this definition, and most importantly it affirms your disapproval of the ‘gay lifestyle’ and the concept of same-sex marriage. It quotes the original Defense of Marriage Act and many other prominent figures who share your position. I really don’t know what more we can add without sounding like we literally want to burn gays and lesbians at the stake.”
The mayor threw her arms up in mock surrender. “Easy, girl.” She smiled, and Jo felt her breath catch in her throat.
“That’s all I wanted,” she continued. “I wanted you to claim it, to own it and to sell it to me. You did a damn good job on this one, Josephine. I’m proud to call you mine.”
Like a child who had been chosen to receive a gold star sticker, Jo beamed, unable to speak. Madeline Stratton was not known for giving out pats on the back.
Finally, words came. “Thank you” was all she could muster.
The mayor winked. “By the way, you stopped just short of the burning at the stake.” She laughed and shook her head. “I appreciate that. I’d hate to get into more trouble with the progressives, who paint me as too far right on the political spectrum as it is. I hate that label. And as you all know around here, I hope, it’s not necessarily accurate. Now, go home and get some rest.”
Drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, Madeline wished for the millionth time that day that she still smoked—or at least that she could sneak one.
Unfortunately, though, she was deemed a fireball by the media. A no-nonsense woman in a man’s game. And the cameras seemed to find her wherever she went. There would be no sneaking a smoke, just like there would be no letting on that her life was even slightly imperfect.
“Everyone had secrets.” That’s the motto she had lived by in her younger days, and she still believed it. Everyone had secrets, that is, except for those in the spotlight. Not for very long, anyway. These days she felt like nothing more than a target of the city’s paparazzi, constantly running and ducking beneath the bushes for cover. It was inevitable: one day her baggage would be discovered and displayed all over the Internet, all over the tabloids, like Britney Spears’ crotch had been. Until then, however…
Madeline glanced at the clock on the dashboard—she was already twenty minutes late. Hanging her head, she was moments from tears. Couldn’t one thing go right? How could her life be circling the drain in such a dramatic, yet furtive fashion?
Finally, the traffic budged slightly, allowing her to slip off the highway and exit. She would have to take a back road to get to the restaurant with a prayer of receiving a small bit of understanding.
“Please, John, give me a break.” She whispered the words, wishing there was a way to telepathically signal him. She tried his cell one last time. Nothing. Straight to voice mail.
When she finally arrived, she was an hour late. Scratch that. An hour and seven minutes. She knew there was no way that John would let her forget the extra seven minutes.
She sighed and slammed the door on her Suburban. When John caught her eye through the restaurant window, she could swear she saw complete indifference in his expression. Hoping for a sign that he still cared, she probed deeper but found nothing.
It was the look she got every morning over breakfast, the look she got as he pulled his car out of the drive, the look she got as he walked past her each night on the way to his room down the hall. The look that she got everywhere but in the public eye.
Then, and only then, would he turn on the affection. Under the examining eye of the photographer’s lens, he was Mr. Charming, holding her hand, smiling lovingly at her, twirling her around the dance floor and placing his hand protectively on the small of her back while he led her through a crowd.
Sometimes she wasn’t sure she could take even one more second of the lies. In the back of her mind, though, she knew it was her only option. Being mayor was not only a dream come true for her, it was what she was meant to do in life. She could make the tough decisions. She was a leader, and at last she was right where she belonged.
She was a Republican and as such had long known she would need a ring on her left hand to get votes. Her party seemed to think there was something downright scandalous about a single woman being in politics, although she could not figure how anything was more sordid than the sham of a marriage she was parading in front of the press.
Gracefully, she straightened her shoulders, put on the camera-ready smile she was known for and strode elegantly into the restaurant.
Our restaurant, she thought. At least it was, once upon a time…
Where she and John had come on their first date, where he had proposed, where he had taken her to celebrate her election as a city councilor years before, where they had celebrated her mayoral race victory just three short years ago and where she had always envisioned they would celebrate her statewide and even national election wins. Where their dreams had come true and then crumbled. All of it had happened in that corner booth by the window.
He stood and took her coat. Kissing her on the cheek, he hissed, “Where the hell have you been?”
She smiled and leaned in for a long, lingering hug. She stole affection whenever possible and knew that he would give it here.
“Sorry, honey.” Her voice was too chipper, she noticed. She hoped no one else did. Let’s not spoil the show for anyone now.
“I simply couldn’t get out of the office until late. We’re planning for the unveiling of the new education plan, you know?”
As if scripted, he smiled perfectly. “I’m just glad you’re here now.”
He directed her to her seat, always a gentleman.
“I’ve already put in our order.” He smiled at the waiter as he walked past. “Good old Geoff here always remembers your order.”
She smiled at Geoff, hoping it would calm the waves of pain surging through her heart. Was this what they had become? Were they really just two strangers—people who once knew each other who now could only talk in public?
They talked animatedly over wine, which she limited to one glass. Never let the public see you weak, single or drunk was a rule she stuck to hard and fast. It was all a show, and, though she hated to admit it, they were becoming very skilled at acting in it.
For a moment or two, she allowed herself to wish that it were real. To wish with all she had that, even for an evening, she’d see that smile of his cast in her direction in the dark, loveless halls of their home.
But as soon as dinner was over they walked arm in arm out to the parking lot.
He kissed her on the check tersely.
“I’ll see you at home?” she asked hopefully, longing to extend the show of harmony into something less public.
“That’s none of your business,” he hissed back so low that anyone watching from the restaurant or parking lot would have no chance of hearing.
“John?” Her voice came out sounding like a plea, and she cursed herself for showing weakness yet again. She was always too soft where he was concerned.
His smile was perfect, but there was no disputing the fact that their discussion was over when he whispered, “Have a good night.”
So that was it. She’d drive home alone and climb into an empty bed, where she’d toss and turn and wonder where he went when he didn’t come home. She hated it when he slept in the room down the hall, but at least then he was home.
She exhaled loudly once in the safety of her vehicle.
It was the first time she’d allowed herself to actually speak the words, although she had thought them for a long time.
“It’s over,” she repeated as the tears began to fall.
Glancing toward the restaurant, she realized she was being watched from the windows of the restaurant by other patrons. It was time to go. She put the Suburban in gear and drove away, to the one place she could fall apart without being in the public eye.