SENATOR SAMUEL Dalton shivered in the chill wind that whistled by him as he got out of his car to walk to the campaign office. The temperature—around the fifty-degree mark—wasn’t that cold for the tail end of January in Raleigh, but it was cool enough that he needed his warm, thick coat against the stiff breeze. He didn’t mind it so much; he knew there was a pot of coffee waiting for him.

Sam clutched the shopping bag in his hand and smiled to himself.

Becky is going to love me.

He arrived at the beautiful house on Richmond Run Drive and climbed the three steps to the ornate front door. Not for the first time, he considered his good fortune to work in such a gorgeous space. Mrs. Donnelly rented her former family home to their campaign every year, and Sam loved the house.

He walked into the hall and stuck his head around the door of the first room on his left, which served as the base for the telemarketers. Most of the tables were already occupied with people engaged in calls and making notes, their voices bright and cheerful.

A chorus of “Good morning, Senator” greeted him.

“Good morning, people,” he called with a smile. “Isn’t it a beautiful day too?” The morning sunlight spilled in through the large windows.

He withdrew and headed up the staircase to the second floor, where four of the five bedrooms served as offices. Curtis’s door was closed, but Sam caught the low rumble of his chief of staff’s voice. The smallest bedroom was the office of Josh Mapleton, his PR man. Sam peered around the door to see Josh leaning back in his chair, talking on the phone in an animated fashion. Sam shook his head. It was rare to catch Josh when he wasn’t talking.

He entered his office to find his secretary, Becky Watson, already going through his agenda for the day.

She glanced up as he came into the spacious room, and grinned. “How do you always manage to arrive just as the coffee machine finishes brewing?”

Sam shrugged. “What can I say? It’s a gift.” He placed his bag on the neat, ordered desk and took off his coat.

Becky was at his side in an instant. “Here, give that to me. I’ll hang it up and bring you some coffee.” She promptly disappeared through the door that led to her office.

“Have I told you lately that you’re a national treasure?” he called after her, glancing through his diary to remind himself of the day’s engagements.

“Not often enough, if you ask me.”

Sam laughed. He removed the box from his bag and followed her into her small but immaculate office, where every available flat surface had a plant. It was a sea of green in there. He took one look at her desk and groaned. “Seriously? A Will & Grace mug?” A new one, it had a photo of Will, Grace, Karen, and Jack, and was by no means the only piece of merchandise from the show that could be seen in her office. “Becky, how many years has it been since that show ended? Can’t you let it go, let it die a peaceful death—and let all its memorabilia die with it?”

Becky turned, coffee pot in hand, and narrowed her gaze. “Am I asking you to drink from my Will & Grace mug? Well?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Then hush,” she said immediately, scowling.

Sam arched his eyebrows. “Is that any way to speak to your boss? Especially one who happens to be a state senator, but more importantly in your case, has in his hand a box of your favorite pastries? A box that he bought just for you from that bakery you love over on South Main Street?” He held up the pretty pink box.

Becky stared. “You didn’t. Really?” Gone was the scowl. She almost bounced over to him, her face alight with glee. “Aw, you shouldn’t have.”

When her eager fingers were within inches of the box, Sam snatched it out of her reach and gave her an evil smile. “Maybe next time you’ll think twice before you sass me, hmm?”

“He’s just bent out of shape because you’re not drinking from one of our campaign mugs,” Curtis Tucker said as he came through the door, smirking.

Becky snorted. “What—the ones with his face on them? Why on Earth would I want one of those? If I want to see that face, all I have to do is open a door.” She turned to Sam, all puppy-dog eyes, batting her lashes. “Can I have my pastries now? Pretty please?”

Sam laughed and handed her the box. “Enjoy.”

Becky had been his personal secretary for the last six years, and while her taste in TV merchandise was sometimes questionable, he couldn’t fault her work ethic or her loyalty. A middle-aged housewife whose kids had all grown up and gone to college, she’d joined his team when her husband had died, mostly due to the need to get herself out of the house.

“You ready for our meeting?” Curtis asked, helping himself to coffee.

“I will be when Becky finishes doing what she came in here for,” Sam said pointedly.

Becky halted, hand already inside the box. “Oops. You go on in and talk to Curtis. I’ll bring the coffee in.”

Sam walked out of the room, chuckling. “I’m having a case of déjà vu here.” He sat at his desk, and Curtis took the chair facing it, mug in hand. “Good morning, by the way.”

“Is it?” Curtis remarked dryly.

“Oh Lord, what now?” Sam knew that tone.

“Our friendly neighborhood pastor has been very active over the weekend.”

Sam let out a sigh. “What’s he been saying now?” Pastor Floyd Hartsell was a particular thorn in Sam’s side. “Wasn’t there a meeting for the NCTVPC on Saturday?” He’d had no time to follow the ramblings of the North Carolina Traditional Values Policy Council; his weekend had been taken up with the store. It seemed January had brought with it the usual glut of people deciding to renovate their homes, and business at the hardware store had been very brisk.

“Oh, there was indeed,” Curtis said with a grimace. “I’m not sure whether Hartsell was speaking as your opponent for reelection or as one of their supporters, but you can guess the rest.”

“Hmm, let me see.” Sam counted off on his fingers. “Proposing yet another bill threatening to overturn the SCOTUS decision. Talking about the sanctity of marriage. How corruption is rife in our nation. The threat to our state’s youth. The—”

“Yeah, all right. Just pick one of them and he voiced off about it.” Curtis shook his head. “I know anyone can run for office, but Jesus, he gets under my skin.

“But why?” Sam asked, widening his eyes in an affectation of innocence. “He’s an honest man, remember? Wholesome image, a family guy, always talking about trust, beliefs….” He bit back his smile. “Honestly, he needs to get himself a new speech writer, because I think we’ve already heard everything his present one has to offer—at least three times.”

The door opened and Becky entered, carrying a mug and a plate with a delicious-looking pastry. She placed them on the desk in front of Sam, favored him with a flash of a smile, and then disappeared back into her office, closing the door behind her.

Sam sipped his coffee. “Anyway, don’t spoil my morning regaling me with Hartsell’s weekend activities. What about yours? I’m sure I’d find them much more interesting.” He grinned.

“Oh, not much to report,” Curtis said with a nonchalant air. “Except that I went on a date.” His eyes sparkled. “JoAnn. Twenty-seven. Blonde. Stacked. Teacher. And most definitely eager to please.

Sam stared at him. “You find time to date? And please, do not regale me with the more intimate details of your conquests.

Curtis guffawed. “We’re not all monks like you, you know, dedicated to our political careers.”

“Something’s not right about this picture,” Sam grumbled. “Why is it you can’t stand up and make a speech in front of a whole load of teachers, but you can go out to a club and dance your ass off with those same people?

Curtis sighed. “We’ve been through this. I’m not the speechmaker, remember? You’ve always been more extroverted than me, even in college. In high school too, come to think of it. That’s why you’re the one with his face everywhere.” He grinned. “Speaking of which, Josh tells me you topped another poll this weekend.”

“Oh Lord, do I want to hear this?” Sam said with a groan.

The voltage of Curtis’s grin hadn’t diminished in the slightest. “It seems they ran a poll of female voters, asking them which state senators they found particularly… attractive.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Is that the third or fourth time now you’ve been at the top of such a poll?”

“I’ve lost count,” Sam growled.

Curtis chuckled. “Hey, don’t knock it. This is why you have a higher profile than most normal senators—it’s the way you appeal to a female audience.”

“Ironic, huh?”

Curtis shrugged. “It was the same thing in college. You were always more outgoing. I’m more your ‘behind the scenes’ kinda guy, you know—all about the statistics, the one who kicks people’s asses when they don’t do what they should….” He smiled. “Seventeen years we’ve been friends. Jeez, you’d think you’d know me by now.” He tilted his head. “And no one says you have to be a monk, you know.”

Sam huffed out a breath. “Not this again. We’ve talked about this. We—”

“No, I’ve talked about this. You have ignored my advice.” Curtis straightened in his chair and glanced toward the two doors that led from the office before speaking. “Sam. SCOTUS changed everything.” His voice was soft. “You could come out now.”

Sam put down his mug and met Curtis’s earnest gaze. “Dating isn’t on my list of priorities. You know what I’m working for. You, more than any other person here. Four years from now, where do I want to be? Hmm?”

“I know, I know, the federal representative. I know Greg Miller is talking about retiring, stepping down as NC’s US Senator, and I know you’re working with him on this, but Jesus, Sam, you need a life too. All you have is your work as the state senator and your hardware store. You deserve some happiness too.” He locked eyes with Sam. “You never dated in college either.”

Sam snorted. “Oh, come on. We both knew why I chose to study politics and international affairs, right? This was always the goal. Why the hell would I jeopardize that by dating someone who could feasibly come out of the woodwork at some point in the future and announce to the world, ‘Hey! I dated Senator Sam Dalton in college!’”

“Would being out be so bad?”

“Curtis.” Sam made sure he had his full attention. “It’s okay, really. I’ve coped this long without a relationship. I can cope a bit longer.” He took a long drink of coffee and a bite of his pastry before continuing. “So, how about we leave this topic of conversation and discuss what’s on the agenda for this week?”

“Sure,” Curtis said resignedly. He pulled out his iPhone and scrolled down the screen.

Sam listened to the list of engagements, not really taking them in. His mind was on their conversation. No way was he about to let Curtis know his real feelings on the issue. No matter what he might say, the truth was Sam was tired of being alone. But he’d spoken the truth. He wasn’t about to jeopardize his political career just because he wanted a guy to share his life, his aspirations, and, of course, his bed.

He’d been a late bloomer when it came to his sexual orientation. Sam was twenty when he’d realized girls simply left him cold. The only person he’d ever told that had been his college roommate and friend from high school, Curtis Tucker. Of course, the first thing out of Curtis’s mouth had been a demand to know if Sam had the hots for him.

Sam was happy to put him straight on that score. Curtis didn’t do it for him either.

Oh, there had been guys who’d piqued his interest over the years, but Sam had steered clear, his eyes constantly on the political prize. But it did make for a lonely existence. Not to mention there was a whole lot of curiosity going on in his head. He had a feeling that if Curtis ever found out just how inexperienced Sam was, he’d march Sam to the nearest gay bar and hook him up with the first available guy.

That was not how Sam intended to lose his virginity.

Just the thought sent flames of embarrassment spreading through him like wildfire. How did anyone get to the age of thirty-three and still hold a V card? It went beyond the realms of dedication.

When Curtis cleared his throat, Sam was brought back into the present. “Are we done?”

Curtis lifted his brows. “Well, that depends how much you actually took in of what I just said.” He smirked. “Because from where I’m sitting, you were off in your own little world.”

Sam had had enough lectures for one day. And we’ve barely gotten started. Things were not looking promising for the rest of his Monday. He reached into his desk and fished out a packet of cigarettes. “You know what? I need a smoke.” He didn’t fail to notice Curtis’s grimace. “Yeah, I know, filthy habit. I’ve been meaning to quit, but it’s not like I smoke a pack a day, right? I’m lucky if I manage one or two around here.” Most of the staff were ardent nonsmokers, and Mrs. Donnelly had been very specific on the point of smoking in the house. Sam usually snuck out to the back porch.

“No wonder you haven’t got a boyfriend,” Curtis said under his breath. “Who’d want to kiss an ashtray?”

Without a word Sam got up from his chair and left the office. He headed down the staircase and out through the kitchen to the back porch. As he opened the door, he caught a delighted, “Yes!”

Gary something—at least Sam thought his name was Gary—one of the telemarketers, was staring at his phone, an expression of utter joy on his face, a cigarette in his other hand.

“Glad someone’s having a good day,” Sam said with a smile.

“Shit.” Gary froze. “Sorry, Senator, I didn’t know you were—”

“It’s fine,” Sam said with a wave of his hand, the one containing the cigarette pack. “I just needed a breath of air and a smoke, which I suppose is sort of a contradiction in terms.”

Gary chuckled. “Yeah, just a bit.” He went back to staring at his phone, that grin still evident.

Sam watched him for a second. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s got you so happy? If it’s something you can share.”

“Oh, totally.” Gary pocketed his phone. “See, right now I’m studying veterinary medical technology, and I just found out I’ve been accepted to NC State College of Veterinary Medicine. Isn’t that awesome?” His face radiated happiness.

“That is amazing news,” Sam agreed. “I am so happy for you.” On impulse he stepped forward and gave Gary a quick hug, patting his back.

Gary responded instantly and returned his hug. When Sam released him, Gary took a drag of his cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the air. He gazed at the cigarette held between two fingers. “You know what? Considering how much my tuition is going to cost, maybe it’s time to think about giving these babies up for good.”

Sam huffed. “You and me both.” He gave Gary a grin. “How about we both quit? We’ve got two months until the primaries. Think we could stop totally by then?” That would please Curtis no end, as well as giving him one less thing to complain about.

“You’re on,” Gary said, smiling broadly. “Hey, we could encourage each other. They say it’s easier if you do it with a buddy.”

Sam arched his eyebrows, amused, and Gary’s face flushed.

“I’m sorry, Senator, that was really forward of me.”

Sam laughed. “It’s fine. So if you’re going to be my quitting-smoking buddy, what’s your name?”

“Gary Mason, sir.” He held out his hand, but Sam ignored it.

“Oh, we’re past ‘sir’—we’ve hugged already.” Gary snickered and Sam smiled. “And it’s Sam, okay? But only when it’s just us, you got that?”

“I got it.” Gary’s expression was still joyful. He looked down at his cigarette. “You know what? I’m not even going to finish this.” He dropped it to the ground and stubbed it out with his shoe. Then he picked up the butt and dropped it in the trashcan.

“Seeing as you’re leading by example,” Sam said with a smile, “I shall go one better and not even light up.” Not that a cigarette wouldn’t feel great right then, but Gary’s enthusiasm was infectious.

“Way to go, si—I mean, Sam.” The tips of Gary’s ears were bright red. He glanced toward the house. “I’d better get back to work. Someone has to call all these people and make sure you get reelected, right?” His eyes gleamed.

Sam laughed. “Yeah, I’d appreciate that.” He patted Gary on the back. “Keep up the good work.”

“You got it.” Gary flashed him one last smile before heading back into the house.

Sam waited until he was alone and then drew in a lungful of clean, cold air. It was about time I quit anyhow.

The thought of that unfinished pastry on his desk was like a siren call.