Dwayne Hunter slid his gaze over the packed hotel ballroom, feeling a lot less nervous about his first political debate than when he first stepped onto the stage. So far, his battle of words with his opponent had gone better than he'd hoped, but he wondered how many of the attendees were now convinced that Dwayne Hunter—a political novice with no name recognition—deserved their vote.
"And now for the final question from the audience," the moderator announced, slamming down her gavel three times to quiet the room. The loud cracks did little to calm the boisterous group crowded into the Sonesta Houston Hotel to witness the first showdown between Andy Casey and Dwayne Hunter, candidates for Texas Congressional District 34.
Dwayne raised his eyebrows at the moderator, gave her a nod and then turned his attention to a man in a blue T-shirt and baggy jeans who was making his way to the microphone at the foot of the stage.
Standing taller, Dwayne rotated his shoulders and beamed a dazzling smile into the audience, hoping to appear prepared for whatever question was coming his way. However, just as he opened his mouth to welcome the man to the debate and ask for his question, Dwayne was distracted by an attractive young woman who rushed toward the stage from the back of the room.
She had tea-tan skin and short dark hair with a sweep of long bangs to one side. Her pencil-slim denim skirt was slit up to the thigh, her high-heeled black boots hugged shapely calves and her tight-fitting sweater defined obviously well-toned arms. An oversize black leather hobo bag swung from one shoulder, keeping time with gold loop earrings dangling from her ears. A generous stack of thin gold bracelets jangled as she walked, drawing everyone's attention as she slipped into a vacant seat directly in front of Dwayne.
The woman, who seemed oblivious to the rumbling voices in the highly charged audience, settled in and gazed at Dwayne with wide, steady eyes, as if determined to make sure he noticed her. The way she clamped her lips together and up-tilted her jaw forced Dwayne to narrow his eyes in suspicion. Was she going to start some trouble? Heckle him? Shout her support of Andy Casey? Or maybe she worked for the media, he silently calculated, curious about who this gorgeous sister was and what was on her agenda.
The man from the audience, who had finally reached the microphone, interrupted Dwayne's mental speculation. "Mr. Hunter," he announced, bringing Dwayne back to the moment. "My name is Bob Horton."
"Oh. Yes. Thank you for coming, Bob," Dwayne replied, shifting his focus from the determined beauty to the speaker. "Now, what's your question? "
"You're the president of the Citizens' Coalition for Public Transportation—CCPT, aren't you?" he asked.
"I am," Dwayne agreed.
"Where do you stand on the Southeast Parkway? Is the state planning to run a section of that highway straight down the middle of Fisherton?"
"That may be true," Dwayne acknowledged. "Section 27 may cut through Fisherton, but nothing has been settled yet."
"If that happens, the road is gonna split the town in half, cut my auto repair shop off from all my customers and put me…and a lotta other folks…outta business. What do you have to say about that?"
Thunderous claps of support erupted and a few people even stood and whistled. However the attractive young woman boring holes into Dwayne with her wide brown eyes, remained as immobile as a mannequin in a department store display.
A voice flew at Dwayne from the back of the room. "That's right! Keep the Southeast Parkway out of Fisherton!"
"Yeah. Scrap the damn parkway! We don't want it!" another shouted, heightening the energy in the room while extending the applause.
Dwayne held his body very still until the noisy hooting had died down. This kind of outburst was never good, but he knew how to use it to his advantage and score positive points with voters. He raised his hand to quiet the room.
"Well, Mr. Horton," Dwayne began, formulating his statement. "I'm glad you asked that question. My opponent supports the current design, but I do not. Casey has been your state senator for twenty years, but he doesn't understand his constituency's concerns. If I am elected to represent you, I will vigorously push to reroute Section 27 into less populated portions of the county."
A swell of cheers slammed into Dwayne with such force it made him jerk back in surprise. He'd struck a chord that resonated with the people, connecting with them in a positive way. Fueled by this spontaneous acceptance, Dwayne tilted forward, leaned over the front edge of the podium and expanded on the flawed rationale of the current design while offering his alternative. Staying on message, he hammered home his point, totally caught up in making his case.
"If you mean what you say, you got my vote," Bob Horton promised, stepping away from the microphone to return to his seat.
"Trust me, Mr. Horton. I always mean what I say," Dwayne called out after making a quick check of the sultry woman whose eyes had never left his face.
What is it with this woman? he thought, paying no attention to the loud applause that filled the room. It was impossible to read her nonexpressive features. He couldn't tell if she supported him, disliked him or had come to challenge him, and her impassive demeanor irritated the hell out of Dwayne.
"Thank y'all for coming out," the moderator shouted, concluding the debate. "Support your candidate of choice by voting, volunteering and getting involved. Good night and God bless."
Relieved to have his first debate behind him, Dwayne stepped away from his podium, pleased that he'd gotten a good push at the end. Five weeks into his state senate campaign he was still adjusting to the enormous differences between running a publishing company and running for office. However, managing DH Enterprises—his multimedia publishing firm that produced Texas travel books targeted to the African-American market—had helped Dwayne forge statewide relationships that were serving him well.
Dwayne crossed the stage, thinking about the weeks and months that lay ahead—to the intensity of his political race, which was rapidly turning his life upside down. Campaigning was a 24/7, nonstop slog that would not end until the last ballot was counted in September. The all-consuming nature of his political race still amazed him. The constant travel, ever-present media and delicate maneuvering among different constituencies were relentless, but necessary if he planned to build a solid political base.
To avoid any conflict of interest issues, he had turned management of his company over to his vice president, and now instead of worrying about printing deadlines, paper quality and the cost of ink, he fretted over the high price of media airtime and how to get his message out across his far-flung district.
Stepping down from the stage, Dwayne headed over to Andy Casey to thank the seasoned politician for a lively, informative exchange.
"Thank you, Mr. Hunter," Casey stressed with great swagger as he ran a hand over his silver-white hair. "Decent turnout for a Tuesday night this early in the campaign. I think the people got a clear picture of where you and I differ."
"They'll hear a lot more over the next four months. You can count on it," Dwayne promised just as Mrs. Casey arrived to escort her husband toward a knot of people who wanted to take their picture with the elder statesman.
"Dwayne! Over here!" a voice called out over the clamor of the departing crowd.
Dwayne turned and made an affirmative hand signal to Ray Foster, his campaign manager, who was motioning him toward a group of ladies holding on to cameras, prepared to snap their pictures with the candidate.
"Give me a minute. Be right there," Dwayne replied to the mastermind of his campaign while trying to check the room for the mystery woman whose eyes had been stuck on him like darts on a board. His face went slack with disappointment. Her seat was empty. She was nowhere to be seen.
Where'd she go so fast? he silently questioned, distractedly shaking hands with a well-wisher who approached him.
"Good job, Dwayne," Ray Foster remarked as he guided his boss into a photo op with a young man holding a Hunter's the One! placard.
"Thanks," Dwayne replied, smiling past Ray and into a camera. Why'd she have to leave so damn soon? he mentally grumbled, craning his neck above the head of a slim middle-aged woman dressed in red, white and blue who stepped forward and pumped his hand. "Mr. Hunter, you can count on my support," she vowed gustingly. "What can I do to help your campaign?"
"I appreciate that, ma'am," he told her. "Talk to this man," he said, gesturing toward Ray. "He can give you all the information you need to get involved."
"Oh, great," she said. "You are definitely the one to beat Andy Casey and I plan to help you do just that."
"Wonderful. I can use all the help I can get," Dwayne jokingly replied, barely paying attention to the woman as his eyes darted across the near-empty ballroom. He had to find her—had to find out who that sizzling sister was and if she was on his side or not.
From an alcove near a side exit door, Trina Powers kept her eyes on Dwayne Hunter while he posed for photographs and chatted with a parade of wide-eyed women. As Trina watched Dwayne work the crowd, her mind spun with possibilities. Damn, he was one fine brother, with charm oozing from every pore, and she could tell by the way he shook an elderly lady's hand with both of his that he knew how effective a gracious greeting could be. Every woman in the room must be fantasizing about doing more to Dwayne Hunter than voting for him, Trina thought, calculating that he probably wouldn't hesitate to use his swoon effect on her, either, if...