When Grace learns that Ethan has been hired by the other side, her loyalties—and her heart—are torn in two. Though their sexual chemistry can’t be denied, they find themselves deadlocked. Ethan believes that all is fair in love and war, but he won’t give up the fight—not even to win Grace’s heart. So what can a good girl like Grace do, but learn to play dirty?
Grace Santiago chased after the old man. Given that he wore striped suspenders overflowing with decades-old campaign buttons, a sane person might be forgiven for mistaking him as an escapee from the mental ward. But no. The spry octogenarian was her boss, Senator Kip Halloway.
“Keep up, Gracie,” the senator shouted over his shoulder. And there was nothing she could do but trot through the park after him like a hound.
Never mind that Grace had the scheduler cancel his appearance at this event on the advice of his doctors. Never mind that Senator Halloway was taking enough heart medication to fell an elephant. Never mind that she wasn’t dressed for the sunny outdoors. Never mind all those things. This morning he’d simply announced, “In forty years I’ve never missed a Crab Fest, and I’m not going to start now.”
And that was that.
If she wanted to get ahead in her career, she’d have to pay her dues. And right now, those dues came in the form of following her boss past boiling cauldrons of doomed crustaceans on what should have been a productive workday.
In truth, Grace could never figure out why folks were so eager to shell out big bucks just for a chance to gorge on seafood and hobnob with politicos, but locals with overflowing paper plates absolutely swarmed the picnic benches. Catching up with the senator, Grace scanned the crowd, taking inventory of people she knew he should avoid.
First on the list was the tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist trying in vain to keep the breeze from blowing away his crazy brochures. Because the senator was under strict orders to cut out junk food, the second person to avoid was the lady giving out free candy bars. And last but not least on her list was Professor Kim, an expert on infection control who made dire predictions that disease would destroy modern civilization.
The interns in the home office had dubbed him “Dr. Dark Ages.”
Definitely a downer.
Grace didn’t even want to think about how many germs were floating around at a Crab Fest, so she maneuvered her boss out of Professor Kim’s social orbit. The senator knew just what she was up to, and whispered, “That guy once cornered me for half an hour to lecture me about bird flu, but you don’t have to babysit me, Grace. Go have some fun.”
The Crab Fest wasn’t Grace’s idea of fun, but once the senator was glad-handing, there was no holding him back. And unlike some politicians, he didn’t like having an aide nearby whispering bits of info in his ear.
Of course, if she’d known he was going to abandon her to an afternoon of kids with dueling crab hammers and grown-ups playing beer pong, she’d have asked her best friend, Molly, to come along and share the misery. Better yet, she could have invited Blain.
Grace briefly fantasized about how Blain would finally fall head-over-heels in love with her over a plate of blue crabs. Then, at the wedding, they could give out little decorative shell-crackers as favors. A cute fantasy, but in reality, it was going to take some work because Blain Halloway was the senator’s grandson and, only occasionally, Grace’s boyfriend.
Theirs was an on-again, off-again relationship that started in childhood the moment she saw Blain’s bright white smile. Unfortunately, except for the summer after high school when he’d taken her virginity, Blain only seemed interested between sorority-blond girlfriends. Someday, though, she was sure Blain would recognize her true devotion. After all, except for one horrible mistake in law school, Blain was the only guy Grace had ever been with. Surely that kind of loyalty had to be rewarded!
Loyalty. Grace frowned. That really did make her sound like the Halloway family hound. Come to think of it, whether she was panting after Blain or coming to heel whenever the senator called, sometimes she felt as though her cell phone was her own personal dog whistle. Thinking about it was starting to make her…crabby.
So she took stock of the pickings. Almost nothing was safe enough to eat in a white silk blouse. Although tempted by the scent of fresh corn on the cob, corncobs violated Rule #23 of Grace’s Personal Life Handbook, which strictly forbade the public consumption of foods that had a distressingly high chance of getting stuck in her teeth.
Hovering mournfully over a pile of crabs covered in Old Bay Seasoning, she felt a prickling sensation up her spine. Some kind of weird Spidey sense, as though someone were watching her. Straightening her blouse self-consciously, she looked up to see…the worst mistake she’d ever made in her life.
In the flesh.
Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
He looked just the same as he did seven years ago. No, he looked better. Intense green eyes that would make any woman go weak in the knees. Dark hair tousled and too long, spiking out above the collar of his cream-colored suit. For a few years now, Grace had watched him on television handicapping elections for CNN. But even if Ethan hadn’t been a rich jet-setting celebrity, crisscrossing the country to work one exciting campaign after the next, she’d have known him anywhere. She just never expected to find him standing behind a picnic table offering her a bug-eyed crab at the end of a pair of tongs.
Grace must have been wearing a similar boiled-alive expression of shock, because he asked, “Don’t you like seafood, Grace?”
Her whole body came awake at hearing him say her name. Damn. Was there any chance at all she could play it cool? Flipping her black hair over one shoulder, she said, “I can’t eat crab without getting Old Bay on me. Trust me, the local delicacy is total carnage.”
Ethan shifted uncomfortably and Grace hoped it was because, like her, he’d rather be somewhere with air-conditioning. “Good to see you again. What happened to the ponytails and frayed sweaters?”
Apparently, the most eligible bachelor in her party only remembered her for the bad fashion sense of her youth. Awesome. “I sure left you with a flattering image.”
Ethan’s mouth curved into a sensual line. “Oh, you left me with some great mental images. And here you are now, looking sexy as hell.”
So he was still about as subtle as a crab hammer to the head.
She certainly didn’t feel sexy in a black skirt, which was sober enough for Capitol Hill but totally out of place at an outdoor picnic. Even if this was a more relaxed event, this was still, for people like her and Ethan, a business setting. Which made his comments totally inappropriate. Even less appropriate was her own urge to tell him how sexy he looked. Nor did she want to admit her heart was pounding the same way it did back in law school, when she’d fallen for him and temporarily lost her mind. But she had to say something. “What’s with the Gatsby outfit?”
“I was going more for Miami Vice,” he teased, spreading his arms to show off his linen suit, cream-colored, and so closely tailored she could see the outline of a well-formed biceps underneath. Grace wasn’t a fashion diva but she knew quality when she saw it, and the damned designer jacket alone had to cost more money than her monthly paycheck. He made it look like casual, everyday wear. And boy did it work for him. The open shirt collar, the rumpled jacket, the stubble on his chin.
Good God, he was sex on a stick.
Ethan smirked as if he could read her mind. “I guess Beltway insiders like you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything but black or navy, even on a hot day.”
“I don’t know about that,” Grace replied with an airy calm she didn’t feel, pointedly ignoring the black blazer draped over her arm and the trickle of perspiration down the back of her neck. “Sometimes we walk on the wild side with a gray pinstripe.”
Ethan turned on that gazillion-dollar-an-hour political consultant’s smile. “Is that what passes for wild in your life these days, Grace?”
Oh. My. God. Two minutes back in her life and already, Ethan Castle was giving her hot flashes. He was the last person she’d expected to see and just about the last person she wanted to be seen with. Her stomach was doing somersaults; he had her way off-balance, and if she’d learned anything from campaigning with her boss, it was to stay on the offensive. “So what are you doing here, Ethan? I wouldn’t expect to find a celebrity like you in these parts.”
“I’m interviewing with a fresh crop of candidates in DC. The campaign season is upon us, and I gotta pick my guy…” Before she could object, he held up his hand defensively. “Or girl. I’m an equal opportunity spinmeister, remember? I worked for Alberta Meechum in Iowa.”
Grace sighed, unable to hide her admiration. “That was an amazing campaign.”
Ethan flashed a bright smile that didn’t contain even a trace of modesty. “Alberta’s shaking things up in Congress, too. Sometimes I get to be really proud of what I do.”
Ethan was also great at what he did. In the business, he was known for being both creative and fiercely competitive. He’d once hired someone to dress up as a turtle and follow the opposition around, deriding him at each campaign stop for being too slow to act on the issues of the day. Ethan’s originality and hyper-competence were part of his appeal. Unfortunately, he knew it. And Grace had no defense against it. “Whose campaign are you working on this time?”
He grinned. “Dunno yet. Might go with McLanahan in Ohio, or Wagner in South Carolina. So I’m not sure how long I’ll be in town, but Maryland’s just outside the Beltway and I never could resist a Crab Fest this close to the Potomac. What about you?”
“I’m here with Senator Halloway.”
Somehow, Ethan made his green eyes flash greener with feigned jealousy. “Isn’t he a little old for you?”
Grace managed to suppress a snort. “Senator Halloway is my boss. And since an event like this practically begs for a statement on the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay and the crabs in it, I get to tag along.”
“Ah, so it’s all business. I hear you’re a legislative director now.”
“You heard wrong,” she said, testily. This was a sore spot. If Grace hadn’t left law school, she could have been a legislative director by now. But thanks to her equally torrid and foolish fling with Ethan Castle, she’d flunked out and had to settle for a special assistant’s slot. Her career was stalled. And because everyone knew Senator Halloway treated her like family, she spent every moment of her professional life just trying to prove that she deserved the job she already had.
Thinking about all the doors that were closed to her because of the mistakes she’d made with Ethan put this little chance encounter in perspective. “I should really go get the senator something to drink. He gets overheated at outdoor events.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Ethan said, setting the tongs down.
“No, really, that’s okay.”
Grace started walking without him, but Ethan fell into stride next to her, slinging a backpack over his shoulder. “What, are you stalking me?”
“I just want to talk to you and you know I’m not good at taking no for an answer.”
Oh, he didn’t have to remind her of that. She remembered that quite well. And God knows that when she was with him, she never wanted to say no, either.
As they walked along the path next to the river, the band in the pavilion played a cheerful but forgettable tune and every woman in the vicinity watched her with envious eyes. Given Ethan’s well-deserved reputation as a playboy, she wondered how many of the women giving her the stink eye were also former flames. “Grace, the last time I saw you—”
“Ethan.” She cut him off before he could bring up the details of their past. “Let’s not make this awkward, okay?”
They paused beside a table covered with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. He stared down at it as though he were strategizing on a game board, and when he looked up again his eyes were determined. “I don’t care if it’s awkward. What happened to you in law school? One day we were together. The next day, you were gone.”
That wasn’t exactly the way Grace remembered it. She’d been young and naive. He’d been charming and irresistible. And because of him, Grace had wrecked her life. Or almost wrecked it, anyway. The jury was still out on that. “Together? Is that what you call what happened between us?”
Ethan scowled. “Did you want me to be crass?”
That’s exactly what she’d call it, Grace thought. It was just a crass hookup that went too far. The kind of thing that happened on campuses across the country every day to countless women—just not to women like Grace. “Look, I was going through a lot back then.”
He swatted away a bee with one hand. “Like what?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
She wasn’t about to let him smash his way through her thick shell to get to the tender insides. “This isn’t the place.”
Two children holding balloons aloft chased each other around the picnic table, and one of them darted between Grace and Ethan. Grace’s blazer got caught up in the balloon ribbons and, flailing with both arms to recapture them before they floated away, Grace only succeeded in getting herself tangled like a bird caught in a net.
Her cheeks heated. “You could help a girl out…”
“If you want me to untangle you, you’re going to have to talk to me. Strike that. You’re going to have to go to dinner with me.”
What the hell? Was he asking her on a date? “I can’t.”
“Why not? Are you seeing somebody?”
“Yes, I am,” she said quickly. It wasn’t exactly a lie. She saw Blain Halloway all the time. But they hadn’t dated in a while.
“Who is the lucky guy?” Ethan asked, finally helping Grace to get free of the balloons and shooing away the kids.
Grace stammered. “I—I’m not seeing anyone, as in seeing them, but…”
When she couldn’t finish her sentence, she started walking again. Ethan followed. Again. “Let me take you to dinner.”
So he was asking her out on a date. And dates were something Grace was decidedly bad at. She always obsessed over what to order and how far she’d have to walk in her high heels, and inevitably made a bad choice about both by the end of the night. “I’m sorry. My calendar is booked solid until after the election.”
He laughed, and it wasn’t even his television laugh. It was that charming know-it-all amusement that used to make her feel so warm inside. “The election is more than a year away. So where are we going?”
His insistence made her head spin. “I didn’t say yes.”
“No, Grace, I mean, where are we going right now?”
She looked up abruptly, totally disoriented. She’d intended to get the senator a drink from the coolers in the grass. Somehow—perhaps in her desperation to flee—Grace had led him right past the coolers and into the service parking lot. Now she found herself trapped between Ethan and the hood of a dirty catering truck she dared not lean against lest she ruin her skirt.
Standing this close to him was a rush, but she reminded herself that it was the rush of danger she felt.
“Grace, just let me take you out to dinner.”
Just let him. Oh, the things she’d just let him do. For two wild months during which she could only excuse her behavior as stress-induced delirium, she’d behaved like an oversexed nymphomaniac every time they got together. But Grace was wiser now, and it didn’t matter how telegenic, talented, or impossibly tempting he was. Grace had plans for her life, and she wasn’t going to let Ethan Castle mess them up again. “I’m sorry. I don’t have time.”
It was a complete blow-off. Any normal guy would have taken the cue. But Ethan Castle wasn’t normal. Maddeningly, he moved in closer. “It’s just dinner, Grace. Even in an election year, you have to eat.”
“I swipe stale cookies off conference tables at Elks Lodges while the senator campaigns…”
“Do I need to join the Elks Lodge so we can talk over stale Oreos and flat soda?”
“Now there’s a glamorous offer,” Grace said, though the idea secretly pleased her.
“I don’t need glamour,” Ethan said, leaning way too close. “I get by on pure animal magnetism.”
Yes. Yes, he did. But Grace couldn’t let him get away with that ridiculous line, so she rolled her eyes. “Sorry, I’m busy.”
“Make time for me.” He said it with the arrogance of a man used to getting his way. He was so damned sure of himself.
And that flustered Grace.
She waved her hands to keep him at bay. “Look, the only opening in my schedule is a two-hour window next Sunday between ten and noon during which my big excitement will be a trip to the EZ-Clean Laundromat.”
“Great! It’s a date.”
With that, Ethan Castle adjusted his backpack and walked away.
Grace called after him. “That wasn’t an invitation!”
Ethan put his hand to his ear and pretended he couldn’t hear her. “See you Sunday!”
Grace stood in the parking lot wondering how that had just happened. She felt as if she’d been in some kind of drive-by accident, left dented by the side of the road. This unexpected reunion with Ethan had completely unsettled her.
And Grace really preferred to be settled.
There’s no way he would actually turn up at her laundry facility, right? Since law school, Grace had been scrupulous about her privacy, so she was certain Ethan didn’t have the faintest idea where she lived. Besides, Ethan was a busy guy. He was too important to spend time with a mere special assistant. His attention had been as flattering as it was distressing, but fortunately, she’d probably just seen the last of Ethan Castle.
Turning back toward the picnic tables, she noticed people clustering on the lawn. Something wasn’t right. Taking a few steps, she heard the band cut off abruptly. That’s when someone shouted, “Quick, call an ambulance! Senator Halloway has collapsed!”