For Katherine, running for city council is about protecting children from the kind of grim childhood she had. And she won’t let privileged politician’s son Nick Delaney ruin her chances. Like he once ruined her dreams of true love and a family of her own.
Nick has his sights set on public office, not on rekindling a star-crossed romance from years ago. Yet as he and Katherine spend time together on the election circuit, his competitor compels him with her beauty and heart of gold. Falling for the opposition was never in his plans, but Nick will give anything to earn Katherine’s forgiveness and renew their love.
As an attorney and a senator’s daughter, Abby is used to seeing her dreams fulfilled. But there’s one exception: handsome single pastor Jeremy Walker. Abby longs for Jeremy to see her as more than a friend and member of the congregation, but every time they get close, he pulls away.
Keeping a low profile is a matter of life-and-death for Jeremy. Though he’s drawn to Abby, she lives in the limelight he’s desperate to avoid. Abby deserves a man who can give her the world, not one who has to hide from it. Can she convince Jeremy that the only attention she wants is his?
The reporter is looking for a story that’ll be his ticket out of his small Georgia town. With her political connections, legal assistant Gina Lawson could help Toby realize his aspirations. Their friendship is just an added bonus, but falling in love isn’t part of his five-year plan.
Gina’s devoted to her family and community, and doesn’t plan to ever leave. Though she finds her favorite reporter maddeningly irresistible, she must guard her heart. But when a betrayal of trust threatens to shatter both their dreams, will Gina and Toby learn that they share the same values after all?
Here’s an excerpt from chapter 1 of Gina & Toby’s story:
Her Hometown Reporter by KD Fleming
“Would you hold still for one minute?” Gina tugged hard on the two sides of his tie, steering him back in front of her. “You aren’t walking through those doors as my guest with this pathetic attempt at a slipknot—which is crooked, no less. Didn’t your daddy teach you how to tie a tie?”
Toby Hendricks cleared his throat and tried to stay as still as possible while his “friend” trussed him up tighter than a Sunday goose. It was just the recreation center attached to Grace Community Church, not the actual sanctuary. No need to feel any concern about earthquakes or collapsing roofs just because he was walking through the doors. But still, the noose around his neck cinched tighter as his throat thickened with unease. “My father was already at work by the time I got up for school in the mornings. And I only went to church when I came to visit my grandparents in the summer.”
Her fingers paused. “I’m sorry. I guess I was projecting my family onto yours.” She straightened his collar and brushed the slightly wrinkled fabric of his dress shirt smooth across his shoulders. “There. All done.”
He offered his arm and she tangled hers with his before they started up the sidewalk to the main entrance. “So, how is it that you’re a girl and you know how to tie a tie? Don’t tell me you actually learned something from your brothers.”
She didn’t slow her pace or even toss one of her caramel curls in his face. No, Gina Lawson, the best connection a reporter could ask for to the most important people of Pemberly, Georgia, wasn’t one to play coy. She was direct. Very direct. With quick fingers.
“Ow!” He snatched his arm free of hers and rubbed the stinging burn on the underside of his triceps muscle. “That had better not leave a mark.”
“Trust me, it will.” She grinned unrepentantly at him. “I simply watched while my dad taught my brothers how to tie their ties. You’d be surprised how many guy things I know how to do.” She sauntered ahead of him, swinging her little purse around her finger by the gold chain that served as a strap.
So when they’d recently had their tug-of-war over the lug wrench and who was going to change her flat tire, she really had known what she was doing. Well, he’d been there, and he could loosen the lug nuts a lot faster than she could with her girl-muscles. But he knew better than to say anything like that.
She threw him a smirk over her shoulder. He beat her to the door and held it open, ignoring the sparkle of mischief in her light cinnamon eyes as she walked past him, leaving a misty vapor of citrusy fragrance. Orange blossoms. How appropriate for the occasion.
Giving her a hard time was part of the fun of hanging around with Gina, even if he accompanied her in hopes of hearing something newsworthy. But she didn’t feed him information, and he respected her for that. Her loyalty to her influential friends ran as deep as that to her family. He wasn’t allowed to ask questions about any of them, personal, political or otherwise. Of course, he still did. And he’d improved the speed of his reflexes dramatically because of it.
But today he was dealing with a nervousness he’d never experienced before. Toby Hendricks, reporter extraordinaire, did not hang out in churches. Growing up caught between two divergent views about faith had left him wary. His grandparents were people of faith and attended church regularly, while his parents never darkened the door of a church.
They also had opposing views about people. His grandfather, Pops, helped others simply because they needed assistance. His father exerted himself to help others only if it benefited him in some way.
Gina was a lot like Pops in that regard. But in Toby’s opinion, helping others just for the sake of helping was outdated. His dad had taught him to mingle with those who could help him get ahead in his career and elevate his social standing. Gina was that connection for him, and nothing more. But it was okay because they had an understanding. Gina didn’t like to be the only one without a date, so she often asked Toby to accompany her to her many social events. It was a win-win—she had a date, and he might get a story.
Today was a special day twice over for Gina’s friends. A belated wedding reception for Jeremy and Abby Walker combined with the dedication of Grace Community Church’s new recreation center. Gina had been Abby’s assistant on the project, helping ensure it came in on time. They were celebrating a lot today.
“Before we go into the main room, remember your promise to me.” She twisted one of her curls around her finger.
“Yes, I got it the three times you reminded me on the way here. ‘No interrogating the guests, don’t pepper Pastor Walker with a million questions about why I can take his picture now and I couldn’t before. No asking him and Abby Blackmon Walker why their wedding ceremony was so private but their reception is so public.’ I got it. I’m still curious as to why, but I got it.”
“Jeremy had just lost his parents. He loves Abby. And neither one of them wanted to wait to get married. And I don’t blame him. I’d hate to be alone, too.” She blinked several times quickly as if she had something in her eyes.
Gina was the least lonely person he knew. After all, she had five siblings. He shook his head. “You want me to believe that you don’t find it strange that we never heard anything about the pastor’s parents until they died. Then suddenly he gave me a private interview, giving credit to Abby for helping him overcome his fear of cameras. Now he can pose with her for enough photos to fill ten photo albums.” He snatched his arm out of pinching range just in time.
Gina plopped her hands on her hips. “Be careful, Pinocchio. Your nose is growing and sticking itself into other people’s business.”
“I’m a reporter. It’s my job to ask the tough questions. It’s how I get the real story.”
“Tough, not nosy? How would you like it if I grilled you about your family or interviewed the long list of women you go out with all the time, hmm? I can ask them what they think their prospects are of getting you to finally commit. I bet they’d jump at the chance to talk about the possibilities of marrying you.”
He ignored the cold sweat breaking out on the back of his neck and flashed her a smile. “I would answer any questions you have about my family. And you know getting serious about someone doesn’t fit into my career plans.”
They stepped through the open double doors and into a massive room where the white concrete walls were hidden behind yards and yards of tulle in rose pink and matted gold. Balloons and streamers dangled from the tall ceiling. Potted palms created little alcoves with small tables and chairs for those looking to remain outside the main crush of people.
The room could easily hold a thousand people and looked as if it was that full at the moment. Toby checked his back pocket for his little notebook. A story could happen anywhere.
The second they cleared the doors, Gina was attacked by a small bundle of energy dressed in a caterer’s black uniform with a snow-white apron covering her middle. “Oh, thank goodness. I really need your help.” She panted for breath, her eyes darting a bit wildly around the room.
“Frannie, what’s wrong?” Gina gripped the dark-haired tornado’s hands, forcing her to make eye contact.
Ah, the older sister with the catering business.
“Paul and Mike called in sick with the stomach flu. I have Graham and Mia in the kitchen plating the hors d’oeuvres as quickly as they come out of the oven. But I need them out here serving the guests while I finish the display for the wedding cake.” Her lips trembled and she scrunched up her forehead. Pools of moisture glistened in her dark brown eyes, but she fought it.
No way. Nope, nope, nope. He knew Gina would donate a kidney to a family member for no other reason than their blood connection. And she’d have him in the kitchen with burned fingers if he gave her the chance.
Well, she wasn’t roping him into anything this time. “Uh, why don’t you go help your sister? I’ll just mingle.” When she tried to protest, he motioned toward her sister. “I’ll be fine. It isn’t like I don’t know everyone here.”
Her gaze met his and she didn’t return his smile. She didn’t trust him. She didn’t have to say it. The questioning look along with the twirling of that strand of hair around and around her finger said it all. “You promised.” Her gaze held him captive.
“Yeah, I did. You may not like my methods, but you know I don’t go back on my word.”
After one last looping of her hair around her finger, she released it and him. “Go. But behave yourself.”
As he wandered off to find someone to talk to he thought about their relationship. He liked Gina. More than he should. But she was too rooted to this small town with her big family and her close-knit friends to ever think of leaving. And he couldn’t stay because he wanted more than the small town of Pemberly had to offer. He knew that Gina’s family was always after her to find a good man. He wasn’t that man. Not for Gina and not now. She was looking for forever no matter what she claimed.
Frannie yanked on her arm again. “Will you come on and stop mooning over that Clark Kent wannabe. He doesn’t even have the right hair, or build, and he forgot to shave. Again.”
Gina twisted in her sister’s grasp. “Do you want my help or not?” At Frannie’s nod she said, “All right. Then leave Toby alone. He needs to be here. I, apparently, need to be here so I can help you. And he gives me someone to talk to when everyone else is off being couples.”
“Gigi says you can have any man you want. But you don’t want one.” Frannie shoved a bib apron at her.
Gina traded her sequined purse for an oven mitt and shook her head. She’d wanted to find Abby and see if the glow of true love was still painting everything roses or if Jeremy had been assaulted by one of the books in his office when he gave her some sass. Oh, well. There’d be time for mingling and laughing with her friends later. Her sister needed her now. So that’s where she’d be.
“Gigi’s right. I don’t want a man right now. I’m here to help you. Give me something to do or I’m going back out there and being a guest.”
That worked. Frannie blew a stray brown curl out of her eyes. “I have to finish setting up the display around the wedding cake. Was it your idea to make the thing look like Cinderella’s carriage?”
Gina grinned. “Yep. Don’t you love it?”
“Love it? I’m the one who spent the whole afternoon measuring and cutting the dowels to the correct lengths. Making sure the glass stairway curves at the same angle from tier to tier. There’s even a crystal pumpkin coach. Oh, no.”
“I saw two little boys eyeing the ceramic horses I left on the table. If they’ve taken them, I don’t care who your friends are, I’ll do the pat-down myself.”
Gina grabbed her arm. “Take a deep breath. You’ve been running a catering business for five years. You’re acting as if this is your first event. What’s gotten into you?”
Frannie pulled away from her and repinned her hair, capturing the errant curl in the grip of the barrette. “My sister decided it wasn’t any fun playing with the regular kids and had to go out and become best buddies with city councilmen, a whole flock of lawyers, a judge, a minister, and a United States senator. I heard someone say an NBA basketball player may drop in. Not to mention the US marshal who strolled through here earlier trying to snitch a crab puff off a waiting tray. This job is more important than any of my events in Atlanta because it’s for your friends. If I mess up, what will your friends think of you—of me?”
Gina walked over and wrapped her arms around her protective sister. “They will think that your cooking is amazing, the cake is gorgeous and that accidents happen. They are people just like us. Don’t downgrade the event to one of our dinners at home complete with food fights. Normal is fine. And they didn’t hire you to cater this event just because you’re my sister. They hired you because you’re the best. And you’re my sister. And I promised them a slight discount.”
“Kidding. I offered and they refused. Both Katherine and Abby felt guilty asking you to do everything on short notice.” She steered her sister toward the door. “Scram. Go save your horses, cowgirl. I have quiche, canapés, crab puffs, spanakopitas and latkes to plate.”
Gina worked quickly. If she got ahead of Graham’s and Mia’s trips back for refills, she could peek out and see what Toby was doing. She could just kick herself for inviting him to come as her guest to this event just because he’d rescued her on the highway during a tornado warning. Toby had better not pepper Jeremy with questions about his parents’ accident.
Jeremy was more comfortable with the media now, but he wasn’t outgoing enough to ride on a float come Peach Blossom Parade Day, smiling and waving while every photographer in the county snapped his picture. She grinned. Unless Abby wanted him to, then he’d do just about anything.
Seeing her two friends get the guys God had picked out for them helped her keep believing He had one picked out for her, too. Just not right now. She worked at both women’s offices and loved the challenge and the crazy schedule. When Abby’s assistant decided to quit work when her maternity leave was up, it left Abby in the lurch. But since Gina was already bouncing between the two offices, and doing well at keeping both busy attorneys caught up on paperwork, they both offered her a huge raise and let her set her own hours.
Managing Katherine Delaney’s office involved lots of paperwork but only a few phone calls because she was always in court or out on visits as the court-appointed advocate for some of the foster kids in the system. Abby was a contracts lawyer. She saw some clients, but most of her work involved an endless paperwork shuffle and countless calls and emails. Working for two lawyers handling vastly different areas of law kept Gina on her toes and gave her little time to get bored.
The stainless-steel double doors leading into the kitchen swung open as Gina put the last canapé on the tray. “Perfect timing.” She came around to offer one of her younger siblings the next batch of hors d’oeuvres and stopped. “Oh, hi.”
“Hello. Is it still considered perfect timing even though I’m not who you were expecting?” Shaun Fowler, former NBA superstar, offered her a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial.
Just then, Mia whipped around Shaun and snatched the tray out of Gina’s hand and was gone without saying a word.
She shook her head at her baby sister’s actions, picked up a new tray and started filling it. “Couldn’t be better. But aren’t you supposed to be out there basking in the success of having your name etched into the boards on the basketball court?”
He had the decency to blush. “I didn’t ask them to do that.”