Authors: Lynn Emery
“I have an appointment with Senator Collins,” Talia said crisply.
“I'll let him know you're here, Ms. Marchand,” the young blond secretary said with a professional smile.
Talia did not sit down. She waited another twenty minutes before she was shown into his office. With no trace of the irritation she felt in her expression, Talia extended a hand to him and smiled widely. Senator Collins, his hair silvery gray, was a tall man. The senior senator was known to be ultraconservative. He was also famous for his acerbic wit, mainly aimed at feminists and minorities. Both in private circles, of course. She had her work cut out for her, but Talia was ready. Half the battle was knowing your opponent much better than he suspected. Though leaning toward the right on a number of issues herself, Talia found him hard to stomach.
“Senator, I very much appreciate your taking time to see me,” Talia said.
“Nonsense. I'm here to serve the people of my district, Ms. Marchand. Sit down, please. Drink?” Senator Collins nodded to his chief aide. Felicity Allgood stood at attention, waiting to do his bidding.
“Bottled water is fine. Thanks.” Talia accepted the bottle of Kentwood Spring Water Felicity handed her. “Congratulations on getting funds for the highway project.” Pork barrel project was a more accurate description.
“Thank you. I'm very pleased that my esteemed colleagues saw the light.” Senator Collins wore a crooked grin. They both knew he'd called in political favors to get what he wanted.
She smiled back at him. “Yes. Which of course means much needed jobs.”
“Nonunion jobs so hardworking people can feed their children,” he replied in his best politician's tone.
“Exactly. Putting children first is the reason we need child welfare reform. A substantial percentage of juvenile and adult offenders are products of a flawed foster care system.” Talia performed a neat segue into the reason for her visit.
“The government interferes in family life too much, Ms. Marchand. Speeding up the process of separating biological parents from their childrenâ”
“Parents who have consistently shown an inability or unwillingness to make a safe home for their children, Senator. We're not talking about railroading parents,” Talia cut in smoothly.
“Throwing money at the problem is a liberal failing. I would have thought your outfit wouldn't advocate such an approach.” Senator Collins took a sip of pineapple juice from the bottle Felicity provided.
“The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges address that issue as well.” Talia nodded. She gave a concise summary of costs as calculated by a council task force.
I see.” Senator Collins waved a hand at his aide when the young woman pointed to her wristwatch. “I'm sure you brought a report for me.”
Talia took out a blue folder with the council's justice scales logo on it. “Yes. Please don't hesitate to give me a call if you have questions.”
In short order she made one last pitch, inquired about his wife and kids, and made her exit. She removed her cell phone from the leather briefcase. Talia glanced around. She found a spot away from a clump of people.
“Hi, I just left his office. Pompous as usual. Yes, call the good senator and remind him he needs help on the farm subsidy bill. Thanks.”
She flipped the tiny phone closed and put it away. Talia smiled to herself as she proceeded on her way. Lobbying Congress for nonprofit advocacy organizations was part of her atonement. She made a substantial salary as a highly paid political consultant for three large insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Not that she was at all ashamed of her work for them. Still, taking on the cause of foster care reform had hit close to home. She'd shunned any kind of social work or social services profession. Instead she'd taken business and public policy courses in college. Talia had always meant to follow the money. Yet influence and control were just as important to her. As she walked purposefully down the halls of the Capitol Complex, she mentally ran through her list of appointments for the day. As usual she made time to schmooze with congressional staffers along the way. A tall man the color of mahogany waved to her. Jarrod Thompson worked in the Department of Justice, one of a legion of sharp young lawyers. He was ahead of the pack since he had an MBA and spoke four languages. All her friends said they were the perfect power couple.
“Hello, Ms. Get-things-done. Got time for me?”
“Sure, I've always got time for you.” Talia beamed at him. Jarrod had helped her out more than once.
“I'm talking purely social. No pumping me for inside tidbits to help your clients.” Jarrod wagged a long forefinger at her.
“Agreed. Besides, I don't need anything right now,” Talia added with an impish grin.
“Sure, sure. You only lust after my mind,” Jarrod quipped.
“Don't forget those killer contacts,” Talia shot back.
Jarrod put a hand on her elbow as they exited one crowded hallway into another. “So how has your day been so far?”
“Packed, but I'm on schedule.” Talia glanced at her Seiko sterling silver watch. “I've got a two o'clock with Representative Westin. The honorable House member from Montana is being difficult.”
“I'm sure you'll handle him. What about B. Smith's?”
“Perfect. Iâ” Talia stopped short. “It can't be,” she murmured.
A tall, imposing figure rose head and shoulders above the crowd around him. His smoky topaz eyes gazed straight into hers. With at least twenty feet between them, she felt the impact of his presence. She hadn't seen him in at least five years. Distance in neither space nor time had lessened his effect on her. Six feet four inches tall, Derrick Guillory radiated power. His hair was longer than she'd ever seen it before. The tight dark bronze curls lay in waves combed back from his face. He wore a light tan suit and crisp white shirt, with a silk tie the color of vintage burgundy. The suit coat stretched across a broad chest and shoulders. Derrick stood against the wall allowing the flow of humanity to pass him by. More than a few women turned to give him a second look. Derrick caused a stir without noticing. His electric gaze never left Talia's face.
“Whoa, what's up with this?” Jarrod stared at her, then followed her gaze. “Talia, you look like a ghost just popped up in the crowd.”
“He's real enough,” she whispered.
Talia could have added an unwelcome one. Except that the tingle spreading up her spine felt pleasant. Derrick brought the good and the bad with him, as always.
“What?” Jarrod looked at her.
“Nothing,” Talia mumbled low. She brushed a hand across her brow.
Jarrod frowned as he continued to scan the crowd. He moved closer to her protectively. “If it's someone you don't want to see, then let's get out of here.”
As if he sensed what was about to happen, Derrick strode forward. He moved with the grace of a seasoned running back, easily shortening the distance between them.
Jarrod caught sight of Derrick seconds later and walked in front of Talia.
“Okay, this brother obviously doesn't see me. I'll make sure he does,” Jarrod said.
“Wait, I knowâ” Talia tried to moved around him, but a large woman bumped into her.
“Hello.” Derrick's basso voice rolled out like quiet thunder. “Talia,” he said simply.
Talia stepped from behind Jarrod a bit breathless, but not from being jarred by the solid, fleshy woman. “Hello, Derrick.”
“You know each other?” Jarrod said in a flat voice.
“From home, in Louisiana,” she said slowly. “Derrick Guillory, this is Jarrod Thompson.”
Talia stared at Derrick. The strong line of his jaw made him look like a man both dangerous and exciting. The muscular frame encased in expensive fabric made him look like a beautiful African warrior prince dressed in Western clothes.
“Hi.” Jarrod did not look pleased, but he stuck out his hand anyway.
“Hello.” Derrick shook it briefly. Both men seemed eager to break contact.
“An old friend from home, huh?”
Derrick looked Jarrod straight in the eyes. A slow, easy smile spread across his face. “We go back a long, long way.”
“Is that right?” Jarrod tightened his hold on Talia's arm. “What brings you to the big city?”
“Business,” Derrick said shortly, then glanced at Talia. “Your office said you'd be with Senator Collins. I took a chance I would catch you before you left.”
“Oh.” Talia could not stop looking into his eyes.
“We're on our way to another meeting,” Jarrod put in.
Talia snapped out of her reverie. “Let me catch up with you later, Jarrod.”
“But you know these folks don't like to be kept waiting,” Jarrod said with an edge to his tone.
“I'm sure you can answer all their questions. I'll call you,” Talia said pointedly.
“Fine, I'll call you later. Tonight. Remember, we have plans later this week.” Jarrod strode away, looking back over his shoulder at them.
Talia watched him leave through narrowed eyes. His possessiveness rubbed her nerves raw. She'd set him straight soon enough. “Right,” she tossed after him.
“I get the feeling your friend was talking about more than a meeting,” Derrick rumbled. He wore an impassive expression.
Talia faced him. “How did you find me so easily?” She swept a hand out. “This place is like a maze.”
“I'm an investigator. I'm good at finding people.” He smiled, revealing dazzling white teeth against his smooth, brown skin.
The effect of such a stunning contrast made Talia gasp. She looked away from his face to recover. “I see.”
She didn't really see at all. Talia struggled with conflicted emotions. Part of her wanted to ask more about him and why he had made it a point to find her. At the same time she didn't want to know. She'd run from him and Louisiana years ago. Yet no one had made her feel safe and cared for the way Derrick could. The only exception had been Mama Rose. Between the two of them they'd brought her through a dark and scary period in her life.
“I talked to Miss Rose last week. I'm glad she's doing better.”
Talia looked at him sharply. She trembled from the chill that spread through her. Like Mama Rose, he could read her.
“I'm sorry I didn't get to see you when you visited three months ago,” Derrick added, when Talia didn't speak.
“I was really busy.” She looked away from his gaze.
They both knew she'd had no intention of looking him up.
“I need to talk to you,” Derrick said, and closed a large hand over her wrist.
Talia looked down at the way his long fingers wrapped around her flesh. His touch sent heat up her arm and into her heart. Memories rushed in on her.
“Please,” she murmured, her thoughts far from talking with him. “Not here.”
“Of course not here, Talia,” Derrick replied. “Come on. We can go to B. Smith's.” He pulled her gently, yet firmly along with him.
“No, Iâ” Talia stammered, her voice barely audible to her own ears above the noisy crowd.
She didn't want him bringing Rougon or the past into her life in Washington, D.C. Yet his hold on her
was more than physical. She'd avoided him for years for this very reason. Now Talia realized how foolish she'd been in her confidence. She'd convinced herself her adolescent need for protection and love explained his potent effect on her. After all these years she wanted to lay him down, burned to feel his lean, hard body stretched atop hers. Once they were outside, Derrick hailed a taxi. They were inside and pulling away from the curb before she knew it.
“I hear you've practically conquered this city. At least that's what Miss Rose says.” Derrick stretched one arm across the seat behind her.
Talia cleared her throat. She resisted the urge to snuggle in the shelter of his embrace. “Well, you know Mama Rose likes drama.”
“She's just proud of her baby girl, and with good reason. You've got a great reputation. My boss kept hearing your name in meetings.”
“Really?” Talia inched away from him to further clear her head. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“Weâ” Derrick broke off when the taxi came to a stop. “Here you go, keep the change.” He handed the fare to the driver.
Talia followed him inside the elegant restaurant. A handsome young man greeted them with a big smile.
“Hello. Table for two?”
“Yes,” Derrick replied.
He led them through the large dining room to a smaller, more intimate section. They were seated at a table with fresh Louisiana irises. B. Smith's boasted the finest nouveau soul cuisine in the city and featured Louisiana-inspired entrÃ©es.
“Tony will be your waiter. I'll give you time to look over the menu. What would you like to drink?”
Talia ordered diet soda and Derrick ordered sweetened iced tea. “You're still hooked on sugar.”
“Yeah, I guess I should cut back in my old age.” Derrick grinned as he opened his suit jacket. He patted his flat stomach. “Gotta keep fit.”
Talia took in the outline of his hard body beneath the fine cotton shirt. “I don't think you have to worry just yet.”
Tony appeared with their drinks. Talia felt absurdly grateful for the interruption. She gulped down the cold soda, hoping it would cool her off.
Okay, try to remember you're not a horny sixteen-year-old now.
After they ordered, Derrick blasted her attempts by turning on the full strength of his presence. He gazed at her with an expression of intense, caring interest.
“How are you doing?” He leaned toward her, one hand on the back of her chair.
She glanced away. “Not bad. I don't exactly run the nation's capital. The president and Congress have some say,” she joked, hoping to deflect the real question in his eyes.
“At least they think they do, again according to Miss Rose.” Derrick's sensuous lips curved up.