Excerpt from In Defense of Love by Margaret Daley
Maggie Summers sank wearily onto the chair, placing her large, brown-framed glasses on her desk. Reports were neatly stacked on its polished surface, along with a batch of letters that had to be signed before she could leave on her vacation.
Vacation! She wasn’t sure if she should call the next week’s trip a vacation. Why had she allowed Ruth to talk her into this—a bicycle tour through Virginia? Her work must really be getting to her. She was crazy. That was the only excuse she could come up with.
Maggie took a resigned swallow of her cold coffee, then leaned forward and quickly signed her name on several sheets of paper. It was extremely important for her to generate the necessary support for next month’s battle in the House concerning the appropriation bill for the PFX-47 plane that her company had developed for the military.
As a lobbyist for Cullen-Williams Aircraft, she had been working hard the past few months making sure that the bill would pass. She knew she deserved a break during the congressional recess for Memorial Day, and that when she returned to Washington, she would feel refreshed and ready to tackle the remaining problems involving the bill.
There would be long, difficult weeks ahead for her. Before it was over, she suspected she would feel as though she had been suspended on a tightrope over an erupting volcano. She loved her job, working for one of the major defense contractors in the country, but it did take a lot out of her.
Finishing her coffee, the cup cradled in her hands, Maggie surveyed her spacious office, elegantly furnished with antique pieces that she had painstakingly selected. From her picture window she could see the Capitol and the Washington Monument. She enjoyed the view and many times would find herself staring at the wide streets below or at the landmarks that were uniquely this city’s, trying to come to terms with a problem.
She had lived in the nation’s capital for seven years and still marveled at the electrical atmosphere and the challenges this place offered. Power was everywhere—in the people she saw, in the buildings she passed every day, and in the decisions that came from those buildings. The city exuded a force, often elusive and fleeting to many ambitious people. There wasn’t another city like Washington, D.C., with its beauty, its glitter and wealth, but above all, its power. That was what had attracted her here in the first place when she graduated from Harvard Law School and took a job on a senator’s staff.
Maggie stood and stretched her cramped muscles. Being confined indoors so much of the time made her hours spent bicycling even more special. It gave her the opportunity to forget her work and to forget what had happened almost a year ago. It helped her deal with the stress of her job and with life’s daily frustrations.
But to go on a bicycle tour with a group of strangers? She still wasn’t sure if that had been a wise decision. She usually rode alone or sometimes with Ruth, but certainly never on such a structured trip and with seventeen people she didn’t know.
Maggie retrieved her purse from a desk drawer, picked up her briefcase, and had started for the door when the phone rang. Impatient to leave, she almost didn’t answer, but as usual, her common sense ruled.
“Maggie Summers’s office,” she answered in a businesslike tone.
“Maggie?” a familiar masculine voice asked.
Senator Sherman! Squeezing her eyes shut, she counted to ten. When she thought of the senator, she immediately thought of the tank he shared his name with. Wayne Sherman liked to dominate or destroy everything in his path. Perhaps he was a kin to the general who had ravished and burned half of the South during the Civil War. But she had gotten used to handling men like the senator. Thank goodness there weren’t too many.
“Yes, Wayne. What can I do for you?” she replied courteously.
“Honey, you know the answer to that. Dinner?”
She cringed at the word honey and took a deep, calming breath. “I’m sorry. I was just going out the door.” She forced her voice into a semblance of politeness while her hand clenched the phone so tightly it ached.
“I thought we might discuss the bill coming before my Senate committee next month.”
It had taken Maggie a long time to cultivate the perfect balance between a no-nonsense attitude and open friendliness that was so important to establishing contacts on the Hill. She was respected for her knowledge of her field and for her professionalism. She never wanted to jeopardize that by becoming emotionally and romantically involved with a man she had to work with every day. But especially Senator Sherman, a married man.
“Oh, please tell your wife I’m sorry I can’t make dinner tonight. I’m leaving on my vacation, and as it is, I’m already late. But I would love to get together with you and Linda when I return, and then we can discuss the bill all you want.” Now to flatter his huge ego. “Your support is very important to any bill before Congress. I’ve never met a senator who knew the inner workings of the Senate so well.”
“Yes…well, I’ll talk to you in a couple of weeks.” She could almost see Wayne Sherman’s knitted brow.
“Please do.” She felt sure he would respect her answer as long as she didn’t damage his ego because she conducted her work in a professional manner.
When Maggie put the receiver back in its cradle, she half-sat, half-leaned on her desk. That vague restlessness was surfacing again, reminding her that once she had wanted more than just this job. Once she had dreamed of a family, like so many of her friends were having. Now that was impossible, but she couldn’t dismiss the longing always there.
Suddenly Maggie was on her feet and walking toward the door. She had to get out of here. She had worked too long and hard the past year, running away from her feelings, and it was finally catching up with her.
As she headed toward Fairfax and her house, she decided to ride her bike for an hour before packing and eating dinner. She needed to wipe the dreams from her mind; she needed to forget the impossible—somehow. Bike riding always relieved her tension, and right now she would welcome anything to alleviate the strain.
When Maggie pulled into her driveway, she heard her dog yelping at the living room window. That high-pitched bark could be heard clear to the street and was her welcome home every day. The minute she stepped into her kitchen from the carport, Buttons raced into the room, jumping and twirling in circles about her feet. Maggie kneeled and buried her face in her dog’s white, fluffy fur.
“Buttons, it’s so good to be home. Did you miss me?”
Maggie kicked off her high-heel shoes and shrugged out of her gray linen suit jacket. Then she removed the pins from her bun, and thick reddish brown hair cascaded down her back, gleaming copper and gold in the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window. Combing her fingers through the strands, she shook her head. She felt free, and she knew that once she was on her bike, that feeling would be heightened.
Quickly she walked into her bedroom and changed into a pair of brown shorts and a jersey that revealed the slender curves of her petite frame, often hidden under the suits she wore to work. Sitting on her antique bed, she tied her bicycling shoes, then straightened.
She loved this room the most. It was her private sanctuary, reserved for herself. It displayed a facet of her life that she kept hidden from all but her closest friends. It conveyed another side of Maggie in the bold splashes of bright colors, in the four-poster canopy bed that spoke of a romantic, swashbuckling era, and in the purely sensual satin bedspread that covered it.
The fact was, not many people she worked with had ever seen her house. She had searched during quite a few weekends until she had found just the right furniture for her place, doing without until she had exactly what she was looking for. Some people felt the results were strange, but she liked the mixture of new and old. Like herself?
Well, the modern, career-oriented woman would have to reign from now on, and the other part of herself, which longed for a husband and children, would have to be satisfied with her successful career, she decided as she made her way to the carport.
In minutes Maggie was riding effortlessly along the peaceful residential streets of Fairfax. The rush-hour traffic was over, and most of the people were sitting down at their dining room tables to enjoy dinnertime and talking with their loved ones about the events of the day.
Suddenly the need to talk with someone assailed Maggie, and she changed her destination to head for Ruth’s house. Maybe if she timed it right, she would be there to help her friend put Tracy and Adam to bed. Her cycling pace picked up speed.
Fifteen minutes later she rang Ruth’s doorbell. Blake answered.
“Come in. This is a surprise. I thought you would be packing or resting before the big day,” Ruth’s husband said.
Maggie laughed. “There’s not that much to pack. I kept most of my gear together after I brought it home. And thank goodness there will be a sag wagon. I don’t think I’d be able to make it up those mountains with all my camping equipment I bought for this trip.” She moved into the entrance hall. “I’m just too keyed up to sit home and rest. Besides, if I’m not in shape now, I’ll never make it around Virginia on a bike. So where’s Ruth?”
“She’s giving Tracy a bath.”
“Then I’ll sneak some time with Adam.”
“He’s building a spaceship in his room.”
“When’s it due to launch?” Maggie tossed the question over her shoulder as she walked down the hall.
“Don’t ask. He’s looking around for an engine. I’m just afraid someday he’ll find one. No telling what will happen then.”
Maggie paused in the doorway of the bathroom to say hello to Ruth, who was bent over the tub, trying to scrub purple magic marker off Tracy’s legs, hands, and face. The four-year-old was putting up quite a battle, her war yells reminding Maggie of Buttons’s yelps.
“She’s decided purple is her favorite color and that she wants to wear it at all times,” Ruth said in answer to Maggie’s raised eyebrows.
Tracy wriggled free of her mother’s restraining hand and asked, “Aunt Maggie, will you read me a story tonight?”
When Maggie stepped into Adam’s room, she couldn’t believe the sight before her. He’d collected what looked like every carton, box, and can the family had used for the past month, and he’d taped or glued them together to form a “spaceship.” It took up half the floor area, and he was still adding to it.
“Aunt Maggie, look!” Adam stood, pointing to his creation with pride.
“That’s certainly some spaceship.” Maggie hugged Adam and felt a tightness in her throat when he kissed her on the cheek. Until a year ago she had always assumed that one day she would have children, but the hysterectomy had changed all that. It still hurt to think she never would.
“I’m not through yet. I want wheels and an engine, some more laser guns.” He indicated all the places he would put those extra things, as if he were explaining a blueprint.
Wheels on a spaceship? Maggie wondered, determinedly pushing away her sad thoughts. Oh, well, the imagination of children and their freedom from preconceived notions were endless. There were days she wished she could capture again the unconstrained ideals of youth. But the reality of the political scene was sobering.
“I’ll show you what everything is for.” The seven-year-old squatted at the spaceship and began to describe its different compartments and functions.
By the time Maggie had talked to Adam and then read Tracy a bedtime story, her work was completely forgotten, as it always was when she spent time with the children. And more and more lately she’d felt it was essential that she grabbed as much time as she could with Tracy and Adam, almost as if she were clinging to a fragile handhold on a high cliff, knowing that she could fall at any second and lose sight of what had been important to her at one time—a time that seemed like an eternity in the past.
When Maggie joined Ruth at the kitchen table, the house was unusually quiet, compared with the last hour’s whirlwind. Maggie sipped on the coffee her friend had already poured for her and relished the feeling of belonging to a family for a few moments.
Finally Ruth broke the silence. “Riding a bike through Virginia will be a breeze after taking care of two active children.”
Ruth and Blake belonged to a bicycle group that organized a spring and fall tour every year for its members and their friends. It would be Ruth and Blake’s third trip, and they both swore by it.
“Maybe we can persuade you to join our group after next week. Most of the people are in government jobs and all of them love to cycle—two things you would have in common with them,” Ruth said, trying to press Maggie for the hundredth time to join.
“Most of the people in this area are connected with the government in one way or another.” Maggie chuckled. “Frankly, one of the things that I liked the most about you two when we first met was that you weren’t. The less I have to socialize outside my job with people discussing politics, the better. I love my job, but when I leave Washington, I’ve learned to leave it behind. I think that’s the only way I can keep my perspective and not develop an ulcer.”
“Maggie Summers! Sometimes I think you’re a cynic.” Ruth looked shocked, but the twinkle in her blue eyes belied her expression.
“I suppose I am, in a way. I’ve been in government for the last seven years in one way or another, and slowly my idealistic, Don Quixote attitude has been destroyed. For the dreamers of the world, it is a painfully slow, frustrating process to change the government. You stop dreaming after a while.”
“You don’t really mean that.”
Maggie stared at the wooden tabletop and slowly, thoughtfully replied. “No, I don’t really in my heart. But I’ve had to face the facts and work within the system to do what I can. It’s helped me with my impatience.”
“Ruth, where’s the spare tube you were supposed to pick up yesterday?” Blake stopped in the doorway, holding a half-packed pannier that would carry some of his possessions for the upcoming bicycle tour.
“You were supposed to get it,” Ruth answered.
“No, I remember you saying…”
Laughing, Ruth waved him quiet. “It doesn’t matter. We have to have it, so Maggie and I will drive over to Frank’s Bike Shop right now.”
After Blake left to finish packing, Maggie said, “I really should be going.”
“Come on. I want you to meet Frank. Frank and Anne, his wife, will be going on the trip too. In fact, they organized it. You might as well meet Frank tonight.” Ruth bounced out of her chair, as if her energy had suddenly been restored by her one cup of coffee. “Look at it this way, he’ll be one less person for you to meet tomorrow. We’ll put your bike in the Suburban, and I’ll drop you off at your place on the way back.”
Ruth quickly left the room while Maggie remained sitting, staring at the doorway her friend had disappeared through, shaking her head in bewilderment. This was how she had been talked into going on the tour in the first place. Ruth had bulldozed her.
“Aren’t you coming?” Ruth shouted from the garage.
“Would it make any difference if I said no?” When Maggie stepped into the garage, she chuckled. “No, I can see it wouldn’t.” Her eighteen-speed was already loaded in the van.
Once she had settled in next to Ruth, her friend backed the SUV out of the driveway. “You’ll like Frank and Anne. And I just thought of something —you probably know Anne’s brother, Nick Prescott.”
“The congressman from Virginia?”
“That’s him. Not only is he a congressman, but he’s also an absolute hunk.”
“Ruth! Is this what happily married means?” She clung to her friend’s solid marriage, so different from many she worked with and saw through her job. Just a few days ago, a secretary down the hall was having an affair with her boss and not doing a good job concealing it from the rest of the office. It wouldn’t last. The man went from one lady to the next like a bee seeking nectar.
Ruth shifted her gaze to Maggie for a few seconds. “A woman can always look. There’s no harm in admiring the opposite sex.”
Maggie’s eyes grew rounder as she slammed her foot on an imaginary brake. “Ruth! The stoplight!”
The SUV screeched to a halt, its front bumper sticking out into the intersection. Ruth looked behind her, then threw the Suburban into reverse. “Sorry. I want to get there before the shop closes at nine.” When the light changed, she pressed the accelerator and sped forward. “In fact, Nick will be going on the tour. And that man looks gorgeous in a pair of shorts.”
“You didn’t tell me any members of Congress were going.”
Working with congressmen, senators, and their staffs day after day, Maggie was helpful, friendly, and informative, a must for a good lobbyist, but she always kept her distance socially. It wasn’t hard, because she never talked about herself but instead asked questions about them or listened to them talk about their lives or problems. She liked keeping her personal life completely separate from her work. Now she was afraid her trip would be ruined by Nick Prescott, a powerful member of the House’s Committee on Appropriation, where the bills concerning defense spending were sent. Nothing was worse than having to be wary of everything she said and did on vacation.
“Oops. I wasn’t supposed to tell you until tomorrow, when it would be too late to back out. Blake was sure you would if you knew.”
“What have you two been plotting behind my back?”
Ruth pulled the SUV into the parking lot of the bike shop. “Nothing,” she replied innocently. “Nick’s the only one. He always goes once a year with the group.”
“And I was lucky he decided to take the spring tour this year,” Maggie mumbled as she climbed from the Suburban and followed Ruth into the building.
Inside the brightly lit shop, Ruth introduced Maggie to Frank, who was starting to close up.
Frank shook Maggie’s hand. “It’s always nice to have a new cyclist on the tour. This year we plan to hit some really beautiful places.”
“That was one of the reasons I decided to come. I’ve lived in Virginia for seven years, but I’ve never been along the Skyline Drive.”
“Then you’re in for a treat,” Frank replied before turning to help Ruth.
Maggie wandered down a row of bicycles equipped for mountain touring. She found an eighteen-speed like hers and was examining it when she heard the bell over the door ring. She looked up from her squatting position, and her gaze collided with Nick Prescott’s.
The first thing she noticed about him was his smile. It was dazzling and encompassed every feature, from the deep brackets at the sides of his mouth to his warm, golden brown eyes that reminded her of pieces of topaz.
Frank waved to Nick. “Your bike is in the back. I’ll be with you in a minute. I want to explain a change I made.”
“No problem,” Nick replied with a glance toward his brother-in-law. “How have you been, Ruth?”
“Fine. I’m shopping at the last minute, as usual,” Ruth quipped as she rummaged through her oversized purse for her wallet.
As Maggie’s gaze traversed Nick’s tall, well-proportioned frame, clad in a black tuxedo, she was struck by the formality of his attire, in such contrast to the casual surroundings. But she sensed beneath his refined clothes a body attuned to the outdoors, to harsh physical exertion. She could picture a flat stomach and slender hips that tapered to muscle-hard cyclist’s legs.
The few times before that she had seen him in a tuxedo at some work-related function, she had detached herself from her social, feminine side, which would have admired and appreciated the impact of his sheer male grace and power, and instead she had been polite but totally professional, blocking any emotional response from her mind. They were often on opposing sides over a bill.
But at the moment Maggie was finding it hard to be detached as her gaze fixed on his thick, tawny hair, barely subdued by a comb, curling on the nape of his neck. It looked as though someone had run fingers through it repeatedly. His date for whatever function he was dressed in a tuxedo?
Her feminine awareness responded instantly to that provocative thought. She’d had no time to prepare herself, and suddenly she felt vulnerable to his masculine appeal.
She quickly diverted her attention from him and tried to focus all of it on the bike in front of her. It wouldn’t do to have him discover her staring at him.
Nick took a few steps toward her and suddenly was towering over her, only a foot away. “Hello, Maggie.”
For a few seconds she was disconcerted by the warm, almost intimate tone he used to address her. But that impression was fleeting as another instantly overruled it. His eyes were alight with pure male interest, glinting with a golden glow. She allowed her gaze to slip down the length of him again, and the sense of quick, forceful strength was reemphasized in her study of him.
When her regard returned to his face, there was an innocent smile on his lips, but an imp winked deep in his eyes. A shivering weakness bolted through her, and she didn’t think she would have the strength to stand.
“Hello, Congressman Prescott,” she managed to say, trying desperately to attain her businesslike poise.
His lift of one thick eyebrow italicized her failure. “I hope it’ll be Nick for the next week.”
“You know I’m taking the spring tour?” She had to crane her neck to look up at him, and it was beginning to ache.
As though he’d read her mind, he offered her his hand. She hesitated only briefly before reaching up. His large hand, warm and work toughened, enclosed hers, managing to hint at the potential power in his grip while retaining a gentleness. That contrast sent a heady sensation through her.
When she rose, she came only to his shoulder and felt overwhelmed by his massive build. Slowly she reestablished eye contact with him and somehow composed herself dispassionately enough to stop the galloping of her heartbeat.
“This is my vacation and I like to know whom I’m sharing it with.” His words were silky smooth, his voice deeply rich and resonant.
“Perhaps I should have requested a similar list, since I want to leave Washington completely behind me for the week.” Her mantle of calm professionalism was firmly in place now, and she breathed easier.
He leaned closer to whisper, “I’ll see what I can do for you. I have connections.”
Everything about this man spelled danger. She suddenly felt very vulnerable to his open, teasing manner and wondered how in the world she would make it through the next week.
She stepped away from the pleasant scent of his aftershave lotion. “I’m sure you do. Now if you’ll excuse me…’’ She started to move around him, but his hand on her arm stopped her.
“I feel we need to establish some ground rules before the bicycle tour starts tomorrow.”
“Rules? I’ve read all the material Frank has sent me.”
His chest rose and fell in a deep inhalation. “Once a reporter decided to come along to get the inside scoop on the new congressman from Virginia. I don’t want a repeat of that trip. I like to leave Washington totally out of my vacation, too. That bicycle tour turned into a complete disaster. I came back to Washington three days early. Since then, I’ve been…” he paused for a few extra seconds as if debating what to say to her, “careful with whom I share my vacation.”
Maggie looked down at his hand still clasping her arm, then looked back up at him. “You don’t have to explain anything to me. I’m not a reporter, and I have no intentions of demanding your valuable time. Let me assure you, Congressman, that you have nothing to worry about from me.”
“From what I’ve heard on the Hill, I’m sure you’re right.” His words were accompanied by a charming grin that took any sting out of them. “How long did it take you to develop that image?” His gaze took in her hair, some stray strands loose from her ponytail framing her face.
Years of experience kept her expression blank as her gaze bored into him. “What makes you think it’s an illusion? I’m not a magician, nor am I a Madison Avenue ad person who creates images for people.”
All humor fled his expression as his eyes became perceptive and intently dark. “I’m not sure, but something tells me it’s not the real you. A sixth sense, perhaps?” His gaze moved to her hair caught in a ponytail at her nape but tumbling down her back. “This is the first time I’ve seen your hair not in a bun. You shouldn’t hide it. It’s beautiful.”
Maggie drew herself up as tall as she could, considering her disadvantageous height of five feet three inches, and said in a very polite but strained voice, “My hairstyle has nothing to do with the issue here. Good night, Congressman Prescott.”
“Good night, Maggie,” Nick murmured in a husky voice.
Maggie forced herself to walk at a normal pace toward Ruth, who was waiting at the door for her. Outside, the cool spring night bathed Maggie’s heated face, and she breathed deeply to still the rapid beat of her heart.
“I’m going to have to spend an entire week with him,” Maggie muttered between gritted teeth. “You should have told me before this evening.”
“There will be plenty of other people along to chaperon,” Ruth said as she climbed into the van.
Maggie shot her friend an exasperated glance. “Are you sure there aren’t any other congressmen going on the tour?”
“Not that I’ve heard of. And spending one week with Nick will certainly not be the kind of torture you’re making it out to be.”
“That’s your opinion. He and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.”
Congressman Prescott was one of the main opponents in the House against the bill for the PFX-47 plane. He was a staunch advocate for a balanced budget and felt that the PFX-47 plane was an expensive luxury this country couldn’t afford.
When Maggie had tried to arrange a meeting with him only a few weeks before, his assistant had given her the runaround. She knew his staff was very protective of him, but she felt he could have at least heard her arguments, especially since one of the executive vice-presidents of Cullen-Williams had been in town and had wanted to meet with as many influential congressmen as possible.
In front of Maggie’s house, Ruth turned to her and said, “I’m sure if you try, you can avoid Nick. Besides, we never talk politics on these tours. You’re safe.”
Later, as Maggie was dressing for bed, she thought about what Ruth had said in the van. Safe? For some reason she felt that word wouldn’t describe this upcoming vacation.
She had always managed to be businesslike when encountering representatives or senators, but the bicycle tour was a pleasure trip. Suddenly she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to erect the professional facade, the emotional distance that was so necessary to her job. Neither did she particularly appreciate having to adopt that attitude during a much-needed vacation.
She knew Nick’s reputation in Washington. He was much sought after as an escort or extra man at a party. But she rarely heard anything about him in connection with specific women. It had only been three years since his wife had died, and from the rumors he was still very devoted to her memory.
That was all she knew about his personal life, but professionally he was highly regarded by his colleagues. He was noted for his strength of conviction, tempered by an inquisitive intelligence that sought information on all aspects of an issue before he made a decision.
Maggie lay on her bed, her hands crossed behind her neck, and stared up at the canopy. She knew him, yet she didn’t. He was really a stranger to her in many respects—an intriguing stranger, she admitted. And one to avoid, she fleetingly thought as her eyelids slowly closed.