The Love Gov ~ Opening Chapters





Ben Collins is running for governor of South Carolina. He has an ulterior motive that has little to do with politics and everything to do with love. He’s going after the one who got away—Evony Millwood, the woman who just got engaged to his opponent. He's determined to run the state with a clean conscience, a balance sheet in the black, and Evony by his side.

But all the dirt that Ben's opponents will sling Evony buried with her own hands. That's why she ran. Can she keep a lid on her misdeeds or will the brewing storm sweep aide their last chance at love?


•1•




June, 2030

Cigarette smoke made a blue haze throughout the exclusive Columbia men’s club. At the back of the dim room, a man got to his feet. Maybe five-seven, his red hair gleamed despite the lack of light. When I approached, the political advisor’s smile slid across his face like an oil slick. His hazel eyes lost the look that made me want to put my fist through his face, but I left my hand clenched, in case I changed my mind.

“Mr. Collins. So nice to meet you.”

“Thank you for taking the meeting, Mr. Gaines.”

The man didn’t respond, but that might have been due to the fact he was busy kicking me in the ankles under the pretense of settling down to talk. Fucking Napoleon complexes. This is a waste of time. This man was my third choice for a manager, but by the time I’d made up my mind to run, the first two had already signed on with other people.

“What are y’all drinkin’?”

“Bourbon,” I snapped.

Gaines lifted a hand. A waitress scurried to his side. The asshole stared at her thighs, not her face. “Darlin’, we need two fingers of bourbon in two glasses.” He raised his eyes long enough to wink at the poor woman. Something told me he was a bad tipper. Like the fact the twenty-something server barely smiled.

“Let’s get right down to business. I want to run for governor.”

“On the Democratic ticket.”

I despise being interrupted, but fought to keep my tone smooth. “Yes. And I need a campaign manager. When I asked around, your name came up.”

“Of course. Gaines men have put governors in office in this state since the first settlers landed at Charles Town. But it’s been a minute since a Democrat sat in the governor’s seat.”

Oh, right. Rub your blue blood in my face. I nearly asked what fault in his family DNA led them to strive for second place, but the waitress’s return stopped me. The way the young woman flinched suggested Gaines ran his hand down the back of her leg. Disgust burned my throat far more than my big gulp of liquor.

“The Tea Party has ruined the GOP. People are fed up with this ultra-conservative bullshit. I have the backing of some powerful men. I just need someone experienced to guide this campaign.” Ultra-conservatives called this land home, but the winds of change were blowing.

Gaines swirled the amber liquid in his glass. “Let me be blunt, Mr. Collins. You’ve done a helluva job raising your public profile. I mean, restoring the governor’s mansion with your own funds? Getting PBS to film a documentary while you did it? Talking the producers into letting your movie-star ex-husband narrate? Brilliant. But that’s hardly enough to overcome the fact that you were, indeed, married to Jericho James. If you’ll pardon my French, no one in this state will vote for a man who’s sucked a dick.”

You mean no straight man. I clenched my glass so hard, the cut crystal bit into my fingers.

“You’re overlooking one thing, Mr. Gaines. There’s a significant gay constituency here, whether men like you want to admit it or not. They’ll vote for me. When George Millwood’s candidate gets beat in the primary, the black vote will swing to me.”

He kept his eyes on me and smirked. “That’s not going to happen. The black ministers will fall over themselves to condemn an un-Christian lifestyle.”

Don’t throw the glass. My lawyer might not show up to bail me out of jail.

“Besides, I don’t think you can beat Keelan Bonner in the primary.”

Bonner started out as an investigator for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and worked his way into to the top job after a huge scandal a few years back. He stood for law and order in a state that believed in that above all.

And if I didn’t beat anyone else, I’d spend whatever it cost to take down Bonner.

I slid out of the booth. “Sorry to have wasted your time, Mr. Gaines. Thanks for the drink.” Blood pounded in my ears, but I forced a smile. “For the record, a man who’s unemployed might want to hide his shortcomings the next time someone offers him big bucks to do a job.”

I recounted the meeting to my driver on the way home. “Your restraint was remarkable, Ben. I can’t believe I’m not down at the Columbia jail, coughing up bail money. What a jackass.”

I stared out the window at the downtown buildings, wishing I had the guts to order him to head for Melrose Heights.

“Listen to me, Ben. You will be governor of this state. You’re not giving up. Find someone else to run your campaign. You deserve to sit in the governor’s chair.”

Nicholas was a sweet kid. “What about Bonner? Why wouldn’t you vote for him?”

“It doesn’t matter how many people vote for Bonner. He can’t win because he won’t pull a single white majority district. And Ben, thanks to centuries of gerrymandering, they’re all white majority districts.” Nick struck the wheel with a closed fist.

Bonner would become the first African-American on the ballot for governor of South Carolina. An historic moment, to be sure. I could hardly wait to wreck it.

A few miles flashed by.

“We headed home, boss man?” Nicholas asked.

I growled. “Stop for cigarettes.”

Nick tut-tutted, but he got me a pack of Marlboro Reds and a lighter. “You know, they say smoking will be eradicated in another generation. Think about your lungs, chief.”

I ripped the cellophane off the pack and made a mental note to look for a reason to let him go.






•2•
“Dessert, darling?” Keelan patted his lips with the linen napkin.

I shook my head. “No. I want a piece of cheesecake in the worst way, but it’s not worth the added miles on my morning jog.”

“Your father called. He’s going to join us for coffee, if that’s all right with you.”

I couldn’t drink coffee this time of night. Keelan knew that, but I nodded. I’d have to endure more endless campaign talk, but with any luck, Kee would break things off at a decent hour. I had an early class the next day. 

Keelan stood when my father wound his way toward us through the close-set restaurant tables. “George, so nice of you to join us.”

“Honored to be asked, Keelan.” Dad bent to kiss my cheek before the men shook hands. “Evony. You’re looking beautiful tonight.”

Because Kee had made it sound like Dad asked to come, and not the other way around, my bullshit meter revved into high gear.

Dad took a seat, but to my surprise, he didn’t lead with his favorite topic, Keelan’s campaign for governor. In fact, he didn’t say a word.

Keelan cleared his throat. “You know I’m an old-fashioned man, Evony.”

Was he looking to win a prize for understatement of the year? I loved the man, but… Gotta put my tough week aside. He’s really trying. The campaign had already put stress on our relationship. I worked long hours, hoping for tenure at the University of South Carolina. We just couldn’t seem to make time for each other. This dinner was the first time I’d seen the man in days. We aren’t kids. Time spent apart isn’t going to kill us.

Keelan reached into his jacket. Dad folded his hands on top of the linen tablecloth, leaning forward slightly. My gut clenched as I looked from one man to the other.

“Mr. Millwood, you’ve been my closest friend and advisor for years. I respect you more than any man I know. So, I’m sweating bullets here, but I’d like your permission to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

For fuck’s sake. I’m nearly forty-two. There’s old fashioned and then there’s archaic.

My father beamed. “Took you long enough, son. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see Evony settle down with, Keelan.”

Kee pulled his hand free. I stared at the box, admiring the robin’s egg blue. The crisp black logo sent my pulse racing. “Evony, I love you, darling. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?” He placed the box in my shaking hands.

Aware that conversation had ceased at the tables around us, I managed to lift the lid and pry the black velvet ring box free. Lifting the lid, I gasped.

The oval-cut solitaire threw off rainbows from the candle in the table center. I tugged the white metal setting free, unable to resist a peek at the inside of the band. The bold ‘950’ stamped beside the elegant Tiffany maker’s mark told me the lacy fretwork around the stone was platinum.

I raised my eyes to Keelan’s. He’ll make a good husband. He’s solid. Dependable. He loves me. “Yes.”

Polite clapping broke out. My father’s laugh seemed a bit too loud. Keelan took the diamond from the box. I extended my left hand. He slid the ring on my finger, holding onto my hand. Leaning over, he pressed a kiss to my lips.

Pulling back, he stared into my eyes. “I’m going to put you in the governor’s mansion as First Lady, Evony, if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

“Hrmph.” My father only cleared his throat before he delivered bad news. I wanted to admire my diamond, but turned my attention to him. “Ben Collins asked Perry Gaines to handle his election campaign. He’s planning to run against you for the Democratic nomination.”

Oh, shit. He can’t do that. The press will go digging. Daddy will go digging. Ben has no idea what he's walking into.

Thanks to me.






•3•
I opened my eyes to a painful shaft of light peeking through the drapes. My head pounded, but an echo made me think someone was at the door. My Irish setter leaped to her feet. Rather than investigate the source of the racket, she pounced on me.

“Oof! Goddamn it, Izzy, you’re the reason I don’t date redheads.” I shoved the dog off my chest. It was Sunday. Or was it Monday? Either way, I had no appointments. Clamping a pillow over my head, I rolled to my side. Izzy shoved a cold nose down the back of my pajama bottoms.

With a growl, I flopped onto my back. I tensed, but she decided not to investigate my balls. A minute went by, then two. The banging continued, alternating with blasts on the doorbell.

I staggered into the living room and peered through the peephole. All I could see was a  riot of curls the color of new pennies. Their owner wasn’t tall enough for me to get a look at the face. “I don’t eat Girl Scout cookies, but I’ll write you out a donation.”

The figure looked up. Hazel eyes dominated her face. The freckles on her nose made my eyes cross. The wouldn’t sit still.

“My name is Kerry Anne Gaines, Mr. Collins. I’m going to make you the next governor of South Carolina if you’ll open the door.”

Gaines? I threw the latch and steeled myself for a blast of winter sunshine. Izzy blew past, trodding on my bare foot with all four paws.

Kerry Gaines was the spitting image of her father, only the freckles looked cuter on her shorter version of her old man’s nose.

She bounced on the balls of her feet, like she’d had too many energy drinks. “When I heard Daddy turned you down, I nearly passed out. Mr. Collins, I’ve never run a campaign by myself, let me say that right up front. But I grew up in a political family and I know where all the bodies are buried. Please let me come inside.”

I gripped the knob with one hand. I held the other out flat, palm down, and lowered my hand past her eyes. “Shh. Hangover. How old are you? Fifteen?” I squinted, scanning the street to see who’d driven her. The red Mazda parked on the street appeared empty.  

“Twenty-seven.” She dropped her voice to a bearable pitch. “I have a master’s in political science and a law degree and I’ve worked every campaign my father ever ran since I was six years old and if you’ll just give me a chance I’ll make you the first gay governor of this state.”

“You need to buy some commas at least, if you can’t afford a proper period.” Turning, I scanned the tables for my sunglasses. “Breathe, woman, breathe. I’m in no damn shape to resuscitate anyone.”
I found my sunshades and stuck them on my nose.

She skirted the coffee table and headed for the fireplace. “Is this your… wedding portrait?”

“It’s one of ‘em.”
She laughed. The sound was solid, not shrill, to my relief. “Okay, Mr. Collins, lead me to your coffee pot. Let me start showing off my talents.”

Shaking my head, I retraced my steps. “Pot.” I stabbed a finger toward the counter. “Filters in the cabinet by the sink. Coffee’s in the freezer. One shot of sugar, one of cream. If you really want to impress me, get a press release together. If you want to impress me two times over, get my announcement on the evening news. If you really want the job, fire my driver. Give him three weeks’ severance and find him another job.”

“Why?”

“Because he sucks dick better than he drives.”

Her eyes went wide, but I turned away. In the bedroom, I gave the bed a longing look, but shuffled into the bathroom. A half-hour later, I stuck toilet paper to the worst two cuts. Unable to bear the idea of a tie, I opted for a sweatshirt and Bermuda shorts.

In the kitchen, Izzy lay curled in her crate. With the door open. She wasn’t even chewing anything. Raising my eyebrows hurt like hell. Two red-and-yellow pills decorated the saucer beneath a cup of steaming coffee. I gulped the over-the-counter pain relievers and collapsed into the chair. I couldn’t focus my eyes enough to read the piece of paper beside the saucer.

“Nicholas Bradley has resigned in favor of a better position. He does thank you for the generous severance check. I do hope it’s okay that I wrote it from your personal account. Oh, and I forged your signature.”

“Who’s he working for now?”

Her smile grew so wide, I could see that her eye teeth ended in sharp points. “My daddy.”

“If your daddy sent you to make me look foolish or desperate, I’ll peel every inch of skin off your dead body and boil you for soup.”

The midget shook her head. “He’s the one who’s going to look foolish. You might be the dark horse candidate, but voters under twenty-five already love you. Grew up in a mill village. Didn’t attend college. Made millions. Been married to a woman and a man.”

“I went back for my degree.”

Under the heavy layer of freckles, Kerry’s cheeks turned pink. “If you’ll pardon my French, you’re the goddamn poster child for following your heart. You inspire people, Mr. Collins. You inspired me to come over here and knock your door down. Believe me when I say, I’m going to inspire people to vote for you.”

My campaign staff had just doubled.

“I’m booking you to speak on every college campus in the state. We need to cobble your platform together. I’ll have a website up by weeks’ end. But first, we’re going to have to meet your detractors head-on. I recommend a series of candid interviews about your relationships of the heart. I already have a reporter pitching the series to her editor. She’s bright with a good following.”

“Relationships of the heart. What a delightful phrase.”

“And if you have anyone in mind to marry, now’s the time to pop the question,” Kerry announced.
Izzy broke out in frenzied barking. The cacophony spiked my headache, which in turn, made me heave. Kerry had her phone in hand when I returned from the bathroom.

“You’ll be forgiven for following your heart as a young man. But now, the voters will want to see maturity in your choice of mate. Got anyone in mind?”

“Oh, Kerry Anne, running for governor is all about me getting married again. If you’re as smart as you seem to think, you’ll figure out who I have in mind. Telling you who it is would spoil the fun.”
Bet you come running now, pretty girl. With the thought, my headache disappeared.





•4•
I paced, glaring at the wide screen mounted to the living room wall in my Melrose Heights bungalow. Grabbing the remote, I muted the sound so the closed captioning would come on. Keelan was still sleeping.

The smiling female news anchor stared through the screen. Ignoring her, I watched the white type roll across the black box on the bottom of the screen.

In other news, self-made millionaire Ben Collins has thrown his hat into the ring for the governor’s race. You may recall that Collins was once married to movie star Jericho James, another local son-made-good. Collins’ company, Molecule, LLC was embroiled in controversy a few years ago when the FBI accused the construction company of using their savings and loan subsidiary to launder money for the Mafia.

My phone rang. Dashing to the table, I eyed the caller’s name with a groan. Stabbing the button, I put the phone to my ear and slid the patio door open. Frost stung my bare feet.

“Aunt Bonita?”

“Evony, you’ve gotta talk some sense into that man. I have no intention of enduring a public censure by the Ethics committee. I’ve fought too hard to get where I am.”

“Right.” I hadn’t slept a wink and I wished bitterly I’d faked a headache rather than an orgasm. I couldn’t explain why having sex with my fiancĂ©e made me feel like a cheating bitch, but it had. Probably because I hadn’t thought of a thing except my former lover since my dad’s stunning announcement. “I’ll take care of this.”

“You’d better.” She disconnected.

Ben wouldn’t listen to me. Not now. Not any more. That left me one option. I had no choice but to drag Jericho back to South Carolina. Since I’d been the one to put my foot up his ass to be sure he left Ben for a career in the movies, that was going to require some fast talking.

I dialed my department head. “Karen, I won’t be able to teach my classes this week. I’m sorry, but a personal emergency’s come up.”

I ran inside, scurrying to my laptop. I booked the first flight to L.A. I could find that left me time to sling some clothes into a suitcase and get to the airport.

“What’re you doing, angel?” Kee sat up, rubbing his eyes.

“I’m going to buy my wedding dress on Rodeo Drive.” Grabbing two dresses off their hangers, I tossed a smile over my shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few days.”

“Well.” He scowled, but the expression faded to a smile as he came awake. “I’m glad to see you getting into the spirit at last.”

Didn’t I fake it good enough for you, baby?



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