also writing as
Season of Angels
Why Decker Kingston decided to run for city council...
HEART LAKE #8
“Eyes right, Kingston.” Josh Hawling drawled in his business partner’s ear.
Before answering, Decker Kingston piled an extra dinner roll on the plate of the man standing across from him in the buffet line. Like a good percentage of the male guests present at Heart Lake’s big annual Christmas party, he looked uncomfortable in his tux. It made Decker twice as glad he was pulling security tonight in a simple white catering jacket.
He waited until the guy walked away before reaching up to tap his earpiece. “I take it your wife is still in her impromptu meeting with the superintendent?” He glanced around the room and found his security firm partner lounged against the mantle of the fireplace on the opposite side of the room. Decker was amused to note the toes of his cowboy boots showing beneath the cuffs of his black tuxedo trousers. Like most of the other wives present, Hope Hawling had failed to get her husband in 100% formalwear for the evening. Apparently, Josh had refused to give up his boots.
“How’d you guess?” Decker watched his friend muffle a yawn.
“Because you are clearly bored. You should try the Shrimp Scampi while you wait. I hear they’re shrimply the best.”
“What kind of partner laughs at his partner’s misery?” Josh growled. “Just for that, I should come eat a whole plate of scampily-clad shrimps in front of you.”
“Hey, now! That would be downright shellfish,” Decker mocked, refusing to be out-punned.
Josh snorted. “Clearly, we’ve been hanging around high schoolers way too long.” He waved a hand lazily for Decker’s benefit, since they were shaking their heads at each other. “If you don’t look to your right soon, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” They’d been co-coaching football at Heart Lake High School for the last couple of years, ever since Josh’s wife had taken over as the head principal there.
Yeah, yeah. Not sure what Josh had up his sleeve, Decker finally gave the area to his right a cursory sweep.
And promptly forgot how to do simple things like blink and breathe.
Chanel Remington was headed his way. Though they were the same age, she’d left town during their senior year of high school and returned five years later with some fancy shmancy pedigree in clothing design from some exclusive Italian organization.
The high-end fashion boutique she now owned was the talk of the town for two reasons: Her Venetian line of clothing was way out of most folks’ price range, and nearly every outfit on display there was more outlandish than the last. So was her personal wardrobe. She, quite simply, did not look or dress like a small-town girl from Heart Lake.
The dress she had on tonight had folks all over the room rubber necking it, himself included. It was a form-fitting black ensemble that split away at her knees to sweep the floor like a mermaid tail. If someone had asked Decker to describe it, he would’ve started out by noting it was missing a sleeve. He would’ve had no idea how to describe the cutout area over her other shoulder.
Besides making folks’ tongues wag, which they most definitely were, he saw no point in wearing such a dress. Unlike his own broad frame, the woman had no extra meat on her bones. She had to be cold.
“Decker,” she sang out airily, as she glided up to his section of the serving table, holding out her empty plate. “Load me up. I’ve waited all day for this.”
There was no way she was asking for dinner rolls. Women like her never ate dinner rolls, which he’d always considered to be their tremendous loss. More for me, darlin’. In his world, bread was equivalent to happiness. Add a dallop of cinnamon butter, and he was in heaven.
Unsure of what she wanted from him, he reached up to unbutton his jacket. “Are you cold?”
“No, but thanks for asking.” She batted her ridiculously long eyelashes at him, which he had no doubt were fake. “There are heated cords sewn into the velvet.”
Of course, there are. He held back a chuckle. “What exactly do you want me to load you up with, then? Compliments?”
A spark of anger flickered in her eyes. They were a striking shade of cobalt that had always made him wonder if she was wearing tinted contacts or something. Since most of her was fake, there was no reason to assume the color of her eyes was natural.
“That’s alright. I don’t need you injuring yourself in the line of duty on my behalf.” She held her plate higher. “So, if you’ll just, you know, do your job.”
Just do my job, eh? Anger shot through his gut at her condescending tone. He was a business owner, the same as her. Plus, he was on duty tonight to protect the skinny little backsides of spoiled founding family members like herself. A little gratitude wouldn’t hurt. He should’ve known not to expect any from her, though. Country boys like him were like the dirt on the underside of her gem-encrusted heels.
“So, you want bread?” His voice was cold. Two could play the unfriendly game.
“Yes, I want bread,” she snapped. “I haven’t eaten all day, just so I can indulge in one of the Blue Brew’s melt-in-your-mouth creations.” The Blue Brew was a local coffee shop, tea haven, and bakery. Their services had been exclusively reserved for all things sipped and baked at this evening’s celebration.
Starving herself all day to eat one piece of bread sounded downright pitiful to him. “Fine.” He raised a single bread roll with his tongs. “Do you want one? Half a one? A sliver of one?” He aimed to please.
“Just put it on my plate already.” She spoke between gritted teeth. A vein ticked beneath the pale skin covering her temple. Her hair, which was nearly a translucent white shade of blonde, was dramatically parted in the middle and pulled severely back in a twist that was too complicated for Decker’s brain to process.
He slapped a single bread roll unceremoniously down on her white porcelain plate, enjoying the way she winced at the clatter his silver tongs made.
“Butter?” he asked with false politeness. “Believe it or not, the Blue Brew left me with salted, unsalted, organic, whipped, plant-based, and European-style.” He gave a haughty flourish with his tongs. “Whatever that is.”
“It means it was churned longer. That makes it creamier and more spreadable.” Her tone held a hint of a sigh, the same weariness one might experience from explaining something to a difficult child.
“Oh, la la,” he mocked, reaching for a dollop from the nearest butter tray. It was marked European on a white card with gold embossed letters. “European it is.”
“Hold your horses, cowboy,” she interrupted in a voice smoother than the butter they were discussing. “I’ll take the grass-fed one. Not only does it have a deeper buttery flavor, it’s healthier.”
He couldn’t have cared less. It did bother him, however, that she seemed dead set on proving him wrong, no matter what he said.
“Plus, the Remingtons own a majority share in the company that makes it,” Wheeler Remington drawled lazily as he ambled in their direction. The rangy, auburn-haired cowboy was a deputy at the Heart Lake Police Department, where his uncle currently presided as sheriff. Though he’d settled down considerably since getting married, a lot of folks still thought the only reason the privileged punk had held on to his job during his wilder days was because of his connections.
“There is that.” Chanel’s previously cold expression thawed considerably at his approach. She was back on comfortable ground now that she was talking to one of her own kind. “Where’s Dyoni?” She glanced around the deputy for any sign of his wife.
Decker mightily wished they’d continue their snobby conversation elsewhere. However, in true Remington style, they stood there, blocking the serving line from anyone else who might want a bread roll.
Wheeler’s expression grew longer. “She’s under the weather. I tried to stay home and play nurse, but she kicked me out for the evening.”
“I don’t blame her. You’re a brat!”
“You’re a bigger one, cuz. Always have been and always will be,” he retorted cheerfully as he slung an arm around her shoulders.
Decker’s eyebrows flew upward at Wheeler’s assessment of her. For once, he found himself agreeing with something a Remington said.
Chanel gave him a sharp look. “You enjoyed that way too much, Decker.” She turned back to her cousin. “And I have no earthly idea what you’re talking about, Wheeler.”
In the short time her attention had been on Decker, Wheeler had swiped her bread roll from her plate and started munching it.
“Well, let me clue you in,” he muttered between bites. “The hose draggers down at the firehouse are complaining about all those new LED lights someone anonymously ordered for the three-story Christmas tree in Town Square. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about them?”
“What’s wrong with LED lights?” She scowled at him.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Maybe the part about how it’ll require half the fire department on ladders to switch them out.”
“They’ll save electricity,” she protested. “It’s a very green initiative.”
He groaned and tipped his face heavenward. “Spoken like a true politician!” He brought his head eye-level with hers again. “Which you are not. The mayor has enough on her plate already. Quit making her job harder than it already is.”
She shook off his arm. “You do you, Deputy, and I’ll do me. When I become the first female city council member in this backwoods little town—”
“Whoa!” Wheeler did a dramatic two-step back from her in his striped tuxedo pants. “You? Running for office? Since when?”
She shrugged her one bare and one velvet-covered shoulders. “I’m considering it, since there are two positions open on the council.”
Wheeler ran a hand through his perfectly tousled auburn hair, making the ruby signet ring on his pinky finger glint beneath the chandeliers overhead. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, because you’ve got my vote if you’re running. But there’s never been a woman on the city council before. It’ll be an uphill battle for that reason alone.” His upper lip curled. “According to our first female mayor, Heart Lake is as resistant to change as ever.”
“Then y’all had better buckle up for some more change.” Her frown deepened. “There’s no way a woman could do any worse on the council than the two men who are now in jail.”
“Hear, hear,” Decker chimed in quietly. Clearly, it was a night of both firsts and seconds, because he found himself agreeing with a Remington for the second time in the space of a few minutes.
Instead of looking grateful, Chanel shot him an irritated look. “Oh, don’t even pretend I have a shot at getting your vote, Decker Kingston. I feel your disapproval every time I walk into the room.”
His jaw tightened at her tone. He hated how easy it was for her to get under his skin. Every single time. “If you don’t get my vote,” he retorted coolly, “it’s not because you’re a beautiful woman unnecessarily freezing her bones off in a torn black tent tonight.”
Her cobalt gaze turned downright stormy at his less than illustrious description of her dress. “Fortunately for you, nobody expects a backwoods football coach to appreciate high fashion.” At Wheeler’s ensuing snicker, she added, “Or a small-town deputy, for that matter.”
“Good.” Decker’s voice was flat. “I hope they don’t expect it on the campaign trail, either.” He was privately tickled when both Remingtons turned their startled gazes on him.
“You’re running for office?” Chanel’s gaze turned calculating, then amused. She assumed he was joking.
“Why not? Like you said, there are two openings.”
She spread her hands. “Not only has there never been a woman serving on the council, there’s also never been a non-founding family member serving.” She looked smug. “I wouldn’t be the only one fighting an uphill battle.” Her tone indicated she thought his climb would be the steeper one.
Wheeler gave a bark of laughter. “If you’re even halfway serious about this, Kingston, I will personally ensure you get nominated.”
“Really?” That genuinely surprised Decker. He and Wheeler got along okay, but they were far from friends. There was like an invisible line drawn between the Remingtons and most other folks in town, particularly folks like Decker, who’d been raised poor.
“Hoh, yeah!” Merriment danced across Wheeler’s high forehead. “If for no other reason than to watch you two duke it out on the campaign trail.” He gave another snicker. “And every other public forum afterward. I might start enjoying politics, after all.”
“Please don’t.” Chanel gave a delicate shudder. “Decker would oppose me on every issue, simply for the sake of opposing me.”
Decker jutted his chin at her. “Just because I can think for myself doesn’t mean I don’t have the ability to be fair. Feel free to ask any of the boys I coach. Nobody’s born into their positions on the Heart Lake High football team. Everyone has to earn their spot.”
“That was unfair.” She lifted one silver lacquered finger in his direction. “You assume I think I’m better than anyone else, simply because of my last name. I don’t. I actually attribute my success to the fact that I work harder than the average person.”
But you still think you’re better than me. Decker didn’t feel any more charitable toward her after her explanation.
“Most people would rather cut corners.” She rounded decidedly on her cousin. “And steal other people’s bread rolls instead of waiting in line for their own.”
Decker reached his tongs out to slap another roll on her plate. She spun so quickly back in his direction that their hands brushed. Her fingers felt cool to the touch.
Her subsequent shiver was unmistakable.
“Would you please take my jacket?” he growled in exasperation, shrugging out of it. He saw no point in anyone freezing their hide off simply to make a fashion statement.
To her credit, the glance she flitted at the white garment held an element of longing. “It doesn’t match what I’m wearing.”
“Fortunately, you would look stunning in a garbage bag.” He stomped around the end of the serving table to drape his white jacket around her shoulders.
Though she pulled the jacket more tightly around her, she made a face at him. “Would it kill you to say something nice about my dress?”
“Not sure what you’re so worked up about.” He stared at her, feeling his hackles rise all over again. “I’ve called you both beautiful and stunning tonight.”
Two pink spots rose on her high cheekbones. “While at the same time calling my dress a black tent with holes and comparing it to a garbage bag.”
Though that wasn’t precisely what he’d done, he saw no reason to correct her. Number one, she was already angry enough with him. Number two, he kind of did hate her dress. His amused glance down at her made the color in her cheeks deepen several more shades.
“You are so getting a nomination for the ballot, dude. And my other vote.” Wheeler was howling with laughter as he swaggered away from them.
“You are not running for office!” Throwing all decorum to the wind, Chanel tore off a tiny piece of her bread roll and tucked it between her perfectly painted lips. “It’s Christmas time. God would not be so cruel.”
Decker shook his head at her stubbornness. She was standing there in his jacket, eating a dinner roll he’d served her, in a room he was protecting. And she still assumed he had nothing to offer their town.
Unfortunately, he could only think of one way to prove her wrong. And while he was busy proving her wrong, he certainly didn’t intend to go easy on her fake eyelashes and shallow little heart.
Looks like you and I are running for office together, Princess.