Excerpt- The Winner Takes It All

“We got the lead story.” Nathaniel Riley’s voice sounded over the car speaker.

The news didn’t surprise Cecilia. Reporters don’t shove a scoop like this to the back page, especially since it gave them another way to trot out the “senator recovering from a blackmail scandal” angle.

Cecilia stabbed the speaker’s volume button until it lowered to a reasonable level. “Then everything is going according to plan.”

“I trust you’re happy.” Her father’s purring tone made it clear that he, at least, was one satisfied cat.

She clenched the leather steering wheel.

Happy. Now there’s a word. When was the last time she’d been happy?

Stop. This was not the time to get philosophical. If she wanted a chance in hell at winning the congressional seat come election time, this was what needed to be done.

It was the smart move.

And she needed to win.

She’d get over the distaste curling into a knot in her stomach. She always did.

A green highway sign came into focus. Revival. Fifteen Miles. Where everything was sunshine, laughter, and genuine happiness.

Her skull throbbed.

“Cecilia?” Her father’s voice fractured her thoughts. “What did you think of the article?”

She didn’t read it. This morning, she’d thrown the unopened paper in the trash and deleted the Google alert links sitting in her e-mail. It was a fluff piece, carefully crafted by the senator’s finest. The first of many that would lead to a final press conference where she’d announce her bid for congress. It was all part of a perfectly planned public relations strategy, designed by her.

A fine sheen of sweat spread over her back. She punched down the air conditioner button in her understated Mercedes sedan and let the cool air wash over her face.

“Paul did an excellent job.” After years avoiding the truth, the evasion was smooth as silk.

“Since you were unavailable, Miles and I had final approval,” Nathaniel Riley said in his polished politician’s voice.

“Of course.” While her tone rang with a practiced strength, her stomach rolled. What was wrong with her? She needed to get it together. This was the price her dream demanded. She wasn’t losing anything really important. Nothing that mattered.

Life in politics was all she’d ever wanted. When other little girls were pretending to be princesses in faraway lands, she played at being president in the Oval Office. It was the only dream she’d ever known.

She’d been content putting her career aside for her father’s aspirations, but that ended when his scandal broke. She’d sat at her kitchen table, reading that dreadful headline, and saw her whole world crumbling under her feet.

The young woman who’d attempted to blackmail the senator had eventually been caught and her schemes exposed, but not without damage. Cecilia had managed the fallout to perfection, minimizing the whole sordid affair, publicizing how he’d been a victim of greed. It worked, the senator was well on the road to political recovery, but she couldn’t shake the worry.

This wasn’t the first mess she’d helped him escape. At some point his bad decisions would have to come back and bite him. And where would that leave her?

It had been a slap in the face. A wake-up call delivered by a five-alarm fire truck.

“I’m proud of you, Cecilia,” Nathaniel said, and she could practically see him sitting there in his office in Washington, scotch in hand, smug in his oversized leather chair.

Six months ago she would have lapped up his approval like a grateful puppy, but now she recognized the lie. He wasn’t proud of her. This latest plan helped him. How, she wasn’t sure and didn’t care, but it had nothing to do with her.

It never did.

The truth only made her more determined.

A speed limit sign whipped past and she checked her speedometer to see the needle creeping past eighty-five. Easing her foot off the pedal, she started to say thank you for his sparse compliment but instead blurted, “Don’t you have any reservations?”

“We talked about this,” he said in a patient tone that grated on her last nerve. “This is your best shot.”

Clammy sweat broke out on her forehead, forcing her to turn the air down to arctic levels. Wasn’t thirty-three too young for a hot flash? She swallowed the taste of the bile clinging to the walls of her throat. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“Why would it?”

Because I’m your daughter? The truth pained her, causing her voice to crack. That he hadn’t even noticed she was upset made the cut that much deeper.

She shook her head. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting out from under his thumb. She squared her shoulders. “Never mind. Is there anything else?”

A momentary silence fell over the car, filled with nothing but dead air. She prayed for a dropped connection (one would expect it in farmland Illinois), but the squeak of Nathaniel’s desk chair quelled her hope.

“Are you almost there?”

Her jaw tightened and her ever-present headache beat at her temples. “I’m about fifteen minutes outside town.”

“And your mother?” The question was clipped.

Part of Cecilia still wanted to believe that under all his bluster and power trips he genuinely cared for his wife of forty years, but she had no more delusions. “She’s already there.”

The green mile marker sign came into view. Revival. Twelve Miles.

She hadn’t been to the small town since her grandma’s funeral.

A sudden, unexpected tightness welled in Cecilia’s throat and she swallowed hard.

“I see,” he said and another silence descended.

She dreaded spending the next two weeks in a house filled with strangers, watching her brother fawn all over his bride-to-be. Not that she begrudged Mitch his happiness, she didn’t, but witnessing it caused a strange yearning she didn’t want to contemplate.

She gripped the steering wheel, tight enough her knuckles turned white. “I still think a couple of days before the wedding would have been plenty.”

“Cecilia,” Nathaniel said, in his patient tone. “Voters love a wedding and we need the family solidarity. This will help your image.”

The logic couldn’t be refuted, but she tried anyway. “And two or three days doesn’t accomplish that?”

“Under normal circumstances, yes, but with Shane Donovan already at his sister’s side and that football player on his way, it doesn’t look good if we’re not there.”

An image of Shane snapped through her mind like the lash of a whip. He was one of Chicago’s corporate giants, and his sister’s impending marriage to the senator’s notorious son had been a hot topic on a slow news day. If it wasn’t for him, she’d be home where she belonged.

“So you get to stay in Washington but I have to play nice,” Cecilia snapped.

“I’m in committee,” her father said.

The whole situation annoyed her and she spoke without thinking. “And God forbid the voters find out your wife and son aren’t speaking to you.”

“That’s enough. I’m still your father.”

Something tightened in her chest. Was he? He didn’t feel like it. She straightened her shoulders and modulated her tone to neutral. “All I’m saying is I’m not sure it’s necessary.”

“Trust me, it’s necessary.”

She laughed, a hard, brittle sound. “Trust you? You almost ruined your career.”

“But I didn’t,” he said, his voice cold as ice. “I’m doing what I need to do, and if you want to win, I suggest you do the same.”

She fought it—the pull that longed for his approval—but the habit was too old and her anger too new. She took a deep breath. “I understand.”

Sometimes it was best to concede the battle to win the war. Or at least that was the political spin she sold herself today.

“Good. Remember the plan.”

Ah yes, the plan. She ate, slept, and lived the plan.

Revival. Eight Miles.

Two weeks with Shane. Two weeks with his sharp, disapproving gaze. Two weeks of playing the ice queen he expected, pretending he had no effect on her.

She was exhausted just thinking about it. “I remember.”

“And on that note . . .” Nathaniel said, his voice rich and pleased.

Her stomach dropped with dread.

“I spoke with Miles and Paul this morning and we decided right after the wedding we’ll announce you’re running for office.”

She frowned. “What do you mean, ‘right after’?”

“At the reception. We’d call in a few reporters to cover the wedding. You could let it slip and have a press conference the next day.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. Was nothing sacred to him? “It’s Mitch’s day. Let him have it.”

“The timing—”

She cut him off. “No. This is my campaign, and I’m putting my foot down.”

She might not be close to Mitch, or have the slightest clue what to say to him, but she respected what he’d done and how he’d turned his life around after the senator had gone and fucked it all up. She wasn’t about to ruin his wedding to gain a few points in the polls.

“Cecilia, let’s be frank. You’re a long shot.”

Yes, the factors working against her were endless, but she was sick of him pretending he wasn’t part of the problem. Venom filled her tone as she spit out, “Thanks to you and that little intern I told you not to hire.”

He scoffed. “That’s easy for you to believe, but we both know your image needs work.”

Nausea roiled in her belly. “I didn’t get blackmailed, you did.”

“The voters forgave me. After all, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Ha! You didn’t get caught. There’s a difference.”

“Perception is reality, my dear. You know that better than anyone.”

What did he mean by that? He sounded smug, as though he knew something she didn’t. “I’ll build my own perception.”

As soon as she figured out what she wanted that perception to be.

A long, put-upon sigh. “You can’t connect. You’re logical and pragmatic, which can be a benefit, but it doesn’t win votes. People don’t love you. You don’t inspire them to act, or empower them to believe that government is within their grasp. You have no voice. No vision.”

The truth. It was like a stab to the heart, but she refused, absolutely refused to give in to the tears that pricked the corners of her eyes. She did not cry. Ever. Instead, she steeled her spine and said sweetly, “Awww, you always give the best pep talks.”

Never show weakness. Never break.

“It’s up to me to tell you the truth.”

A cocktail of riotous emotions threatened to bubble to the surface, but she pushed them back down. “I will not let you ruin Mitch’s wedding so you can play father of the year in front of a few reporters.” Her training had served her well, because there wasn’t even a hint of a quaver in her voice. Her hurt was hidden down deep where it belonged.

And since he was so keen on truth, she’d dole out some of her own. “As your adviser, let me return the favor. If you want a chance in hell at winning your wife back before the next election, you’d better stop using your son to gain points in the opinion polls. You’re losing her. She’s starting to loathe you. Maybe because you had sex with an intern younger than your daughter?”

“Watch your mouth.” His voice filled with outrage. Unlike her, he’d never been a pro at hiding anything unless he had an audience. “I did not sleep with that woman.”

She laughed, the sound filled with rough, bitter edges. “Do you think I’m an idiot? You think I didn’t see how you fawned over her? How you preened at her ego-stroking?”

Fifteen seconds must have ticked by before he spoke. “Have you told your mother this?”

She scoffed, shaking her head. This was so like him. All he cared about was covering his ass. Another mile marker sign flew by. “Good-bye, Father.”

He hung up without a word.

She exhaled a slow, steady breath.

Well, that was ugly.

She’d held her own and scored her point, but the victory was hollow.

Revival. Next Exit.

She slowed to fifty-five and changed into the right lane. She had to block out this noise—her family crisis, Shane Donovan, the wedding—everything, and concentrate on what was important.

Winning the election.

It was the only dream she’d ever had and she couldn’t let it die along with everything else.