Melinda Curtis.

The Best-Kept Secret






I have the drive.

Used to, Rosie corrected him.

Im very driven. And I have lots of friends who find me intriguing. Hudson hadnt meant to let Rosie get to him.

I call them as I see them. Her voice was flat, as if she thought Huds political career wasnt worth arguing about.

And you know this by reading my file? She didnt know him at all. Maybe there are things that arent in my file that might make you feel differently.

Ive been trained to be a judge of what works and what sells in the system. Its my professional opinion, nothing more.

Rosie DeWitt didnt know it yet, but her professional opinion was about to change.

Dear Reader,

I was excited to be included in the SINGLESWITH KIDS miniseries. Having spent sixteen years as a working mom in the corporate world, I had a lot of history to draw upon, including that all-important network of other working moms who keep you sane. More important, Id had these characters lurking in the recesses of my brain Rosie and Hud, two driven, type A personalities who were used to being in the drivers seat and were craving a book of their own. Its a power struggle from the get-go and one neither intends to lose.

Only, these two didnt count on sparks flying from the moment they shake hands. Or the way falling in love necessitates revealing the best-kept secrets.

I hope you enjoy Rosie and Huds story. I love to hear from readers, either through my Web site, www.MelindaCurtis.com, or through regular mail at P.O. Box 150, Denair, CA 95316.

Happy reading!

Melinda

The Best-Kept Secret
Melinda Curtis

www.millsandboon.co.uk

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melinda Curtis lives in Northern California with her husband, three kids, two Labradors, two cats and a circle of friendly neighbors who eagerly weigh in on everything from the best way to cut your lawn to the best haircut for a fourth graderjust what good friends are for!

To my family, who understand what it means

to have a working mom who might forget dentist appointments, singes the garlic bread and misplaces PE clothes. Your wit, eye rolls and unconditional love keep me going.

And to Thelma, who taught me about blended

families, forgiveness and stuffing a bra. You will be missed.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER ONE

I NEED YOU TO DO something for me. A small favor.

A phone call. Still, it went against Hudson McClouds grain to ask anyone for help. It came down to this: swallow his pride and ask his mother for helpor wait. And Hud was done waiting.

What is it? Vivian McCloud turned from the skyscrapers view of the turbulent waters of San Francisco Bay and the few sailboats that braved the post-Christmas Pacific Ocean tides. His mother had once been full of life, but the events of the past ten years had taken their toll.

And Hud was partially to blame.

He couldnt turn back the clock and prevent the mistakes and losses hed suffered from happening, but after two years of biding his time there was finally a chance he could restore his familys honor.

Hud crossed the Oriental carpet in his mothers office to the cabinet that held the TV and filled the room with a sound he had come to loathea newscast.

sad news for the city. San Franciscos mayor was about to deliver a speech on the steps of city hall when he suffered a brain aneurism. The mayor was rushed to USF Medical Center and pronounced dead at ten a.m.

Hud was silent as his mother came to stand next to him. As a young senators wife, shed been a prot?g? of Jackie Kennedy both in politics and fashion. Despite her silver hair, she was still a striking presence in her classic suit and pearls. Her influence as the widow of a fifth-generation U.S. senator stretched across both parties, but it was a power she rarely used.

There was a long silence between them, as the news changed to the weather. She had to know what Hud wanted and how important it was to him, to the McCloud legacy.

When his mother didnt speak, Hud smoothed his tie, cleared his throat and said quietly, This is just what Ive been looking for.

His mother gave him a sharp look. Another chance for you to be hurt?

Its what I want. Its what he had to do. Hud muted the volume. Hed turned out to be the screwup in the McCloud family, not Samuel. How in the hell had that happened?

You excel at running McCloud Inc. Any other man would try to be satisfied with the way things turned out.

But not a McCloud. McClouds didnt give up. His father had taught him that, along with duty before personal goals.

She sighed heavily. They both knew Hudson had sacrificed his own dreams for the sake of the family.

I know the public thinks I failed. These last words came out gruffly despite Huds resolve not to care what anyone else thought. He cleared his throat again. But I can make it right this time. Hud wanted his mother to be able to hold her head up once more, wanted to hear her laugh with unbridled joy rather than polite response.

Mayor of San Francisco? The party would be foolish to consider you.

And Hud was a fool to believe he had a chance. Still, he had one card left to play. They wont turn me down if you ask them. No one refuses Vivian McCloud.

ROSIE, YOU HAVE two calls waiting. Rosie DeWitts assistant, Marsha, stuck her head in Rosies office. Line one is Walter OConnell.

Just hours after the mayors death, the news media and political world was in a frenzy over who was going to run in the election to replace him. Since Rosie was one of Walters political strategists, he probably wanted her opinion. He might even want her to run the campaign for the Democratic candidate.

Line two is Caseys day care.

Anxiety pulsed through Rosies veins. She set down her coffee and quickly pushed the button for line two. Is Casey okay?

Hes fine, Ms. DeWitt. Rosie recognized the voice of Rainbow Day Cares principal, Ms. Phan. Casey attended the Rainbow center after school and during the holidays. I just wanted to make sure we get our school play on your calendar in late January.

Ouch. Shed missed the last play when Walter had asked Rosie to accompany him to Washington to evaluate several candidates for office. She glanced at a photo of her and Casey from last summer. Heads close, they had the same black curly hair, dark brown eyes and energetic grins. Was she letting him down as Ms. Phan always seemed to imply? Sometimes Rosie felt as if she were trying to sail the SS Motherhood beneath the Golden Gate Bridge without a working rudder. No matter how hard she tried to be a good mother, life seemed to conspire against her.

Rosie dutifully penciled the play on her calendar and assured Ms. Phan shed be there this time.

And Im sure you wont be late tonight to pick up Casey. It is New Years Eve, after all, Ms. Phan added. Once parents begin picking up their children Casey becomes a clock watcher.

To her credit, Rosie didnt snap a pencil or a sharp retort. She did, however, reach for her coffee. Just holding the warm ceramic mug settled her nerves.

Planning strategy, drafting legislation and writing speeches for candidates and incumbents often meant Rosie was late to pick up her kindergartener. Shed learned to leave money in her budget for the late fees she incurred from Rainbow on a weekly basis. What she hadnt completely mastered was the art of filtering all the advice she received about parenting without taking offense or feeling as if she and Casey needed to go to counseling. They were doing the best they could.

Rosie told Ms. Phan shed be there before five oclock closing, then paused to take a sip of coffee before she shifted back to professional mode.

Pressing the button for line one took her to Californias power player. Walter, how are you? She caught the dinosaur Democrat in midcough. He was currently serving as the chairman of the Democratic Party for California. With Walters approvaland increasingly Rosiescandidates were groomed by the party for various positions throughout the state.

A day short of the grave, as usual. Cant seem to shake this cough, he grumbled. Hows it feel to be a backup singer for Senator Alsace?

Im just biding my time until the next political race.

Ha! Your search for the right candidate is over. Win this one and you can write your own ticket.

Youre going to run for office? Even as Rosie joked, she was intrigued. Deals were how the American political system worked and how those involved got ahead.

Walter chuckled, a gruff sound that dissolved into another fit of coughing. Perhaps youve noticed that San Francisco needs a new mayor.

Theres an opening for a squeaky clean candidate with aspirations of glory. Rosie fidgeted in her seat, excited by the prospect of something new. Who did you have in mind?

You win this one, Rosie, and youll have a spot on the presidential campaign.

Shed dreamed of working on a presidential campaign since she was a kid. Who?

Hudson McCloud.

Rosie looked at the picture of her son again. The McClouds were the California equivalent of the Kennedys. Media followed their every step. Anyone who worked for the McClouds would receive the same scrutiny, and Rosie was fiercely protective of her privacy. She had to turn Walter down.

And yet, part of her yearned for the challenge. Pundits had dismissed Hudson McClouds career. The campaign would make national news and, possibly, a strategists career, as well. She would just have to work that much harder at keeping her professional life separate from her life with Casey.

Rosie? Rosie, dont play games with me. You wont get another chance like this anytime soon.

I dont doubt that. Had Walter lost his mind? Had she? Rosie couldnt quell her curiosity. Why me?

Because you excel at advancing the underdog. Because you dont sugarcoat things. Walter coughed. And because Vivian McCloud requested you.

HUD SAT AT WHAT HAD once been his fathers desk, in what had once been his fathers chair, and perused a file of faded newspaper clippings by the light of a small desk lamp. Usually, his Queen Anne home, built after the 1906 quake, was never quiet. It groaned and shifted like a living thing. Tonight though, as if sensing Huds somber mood, not a board in the one-hundred-year-old house dared creak.

Tomorrow hed find out if the party considered him salvageable. Hed left the string-pulling to his mother once shed agreed to inquire about the Democratic leaderships feelings toward him. But he had no idea who or what hed face tomorrow. Would they welcome him back or challenge his interest in running?

Hud read the headlines of the articles he kept to remind him why hed turned his back on his personal goals in the first place.

Hudson McCloud Flexes Power on First Day in Senate.

McCloud Accused of Conflict of Interest on Child Labor Bill.

Questions Increase, McCloud Influence Disappears.

Another Bill by Senator McCloud Crushed.

McCloud Stepping Down from Senate.

Who was Hud kidding? He may have saved McCloud Inc., the clothing conglomerate his great, great grandfather had founded, and their employees from ruin, but hed done so at the sacrifice of his own career, tarnishing the family reputation in the process. The party wanted untouchable candidates who could influence policy. Huds political power no longer existed. Hed best remember that and not get his hopes up about what tomorrows meeting might bring.

SOMETHING SMELLED good enough to get out of bed for.

I smell morning, Casey whispered from the other side of the bed. Sometime during the night, hed padded into her bedroom complaining of a bad dream that only a dog or a little brother could protect him from.

Eyes still shut, Rosie rolled over and drank in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. It was Friday. One more day until the weekend. An easy day. Casey was still on holiday from kindergarten.

No! She sat up and her head spun. It was the Friday, the day of her audience with Vivian McCloud. Rosie scrambled out of bed full of regret over agreeing to go in the first place. She was meeting Walter for breakfast at nine before their appointment at the Pyramid Center at eleven.

Wake up, Case! We cant be late today.

Rosie dreaded what she had to do, but what choice did she have? To turn down Vivian McCloud outright was political suicide. So Rosie had done her homework. She had all the ammunition she needed to sink Hudsons political aspirations. Walter would find someone more suitable for the race and the tension that had been sitting in Rosies stomach since Walters call would disappear.

The next hour was a blur of activity in between gulps of hazelnut-flavored coffee and making sure Casey ate all his cereal. There was a small ceremonial momenta lull in the morning chaosas Rosie unwrapped a pair of new Jimmy Choo pumps. Theyd been incredibly expensive but when shed seen them at lunch on Wednesday, she knew she had to have them, so shed used the money her parents sent her for Christmas. This morning they felt like success as she slipped them on her feet.

One last perusal in the mirror confirmed her springy curls were still half-tamed, pulled back from her face and anchored simply by a clip just below her crown, and her clothes lacked major wrinkles or stains. Rosie loved the way her midnight-blue pantsuit projected confidence with a feminine touch provided by long, slightly belled sleeves.

Less than an hour after bolting from bed, keys jingling in one hand, her briefcase, umbrella and raincoat slung over her other arm, she was ready to leave.

Case, lets go.

Mommy, I cant go to day care today cause I dont have any shoes that match. He lifted his pants legs to show a sneaker on one foot and a sock with a hole in the toe on the other. Its only a short day anyway.

Rosie slid out of her heels, dropped her briefcase to the floor, tossed her raincoat and umbrella onto a kitchen chair and made a mad dash around their crowded apartment to find a match for a blue-and-red Spider-Man tennis shoe.

Not by the door. Not in the kitchen. Not in the bathroom. Rosie could feel herself starting to get sweaty. Could she send Casey in sandals? Unfortunately, no. The weatherman had predicted rain.

Here it is, Casey singsonged. It was under the couch cushion.

What was it doing in there? Rosie asked, setting a record for speedy shoe tying. She stuffed her feet back into her shoes, grabbed her briefcase and Caseys hand, and then they were out the door.

Rosie tugged Casey along as fast as she could, down the stairs past Chin-Chins Pizzeria and Noodle House, spicy scents already wafting in the air, and along the familiar two-block walk to Rainbow Day Care. The wind swirled about them on the sidewalk and a glance up revealed heavy, gray clouds.

Predictably, the faster she tried to walk, the slower Casey became. Mommy, can I have hot chocolate?

Rosie glanced at her watch. No. At this rate, shed miss the bus.

Im hungry. Can we stop at McDonalds?

No, honey. You ate breakfast already. Rosie tried to at least appear as if she wasnt running a race, recognizing that Casey didnt want to be hustled off.

Mommy, you forgot your coat and umbrella, Casey scolded her when they arrived at Rainbow Day Care. Take mine. Casey dug his Spider-Man umbrella out of his cluttered cubby.

Im sure I wont need it. Rosie dismissed the dark clouds outside. The city had only been getting intermittent showers as they blew over toward the peninsula. Besides, anything with Spider-Man was precious to her son. What if the wind blew it away?

Its going to get very messy later, Ms. DeWitt. Ms. Phan leaned out the office window. What is it we always say, Casey?

Be prepared and take care of your neighbor! Casey punched the neon bright umbrella toward the ceiling, eliciting a smile from Rosie.

Ms. Phan nodded with approval, and then gave Rosie a significant look. The day-care principal always managed to make Rosie feel like the worst mother on the planet.

Thank you for your kind offer, sir, Rosie said as she took the umbrella, wondering if there was another day care in the neighborhood that offered after school services without persecution of its parents. This was just the impression Rosie wanted to make on Vivian McCloud when she rejected her sona political strategist who liked Jimmy Choosand Spider-Man.

DONT LET HUD BAIT YOU. The door to the Pyramid Center swung closed after Walter, almost hitting Rosie in the face. Hell try to test your knowledge of the issues. This is an excellent training ground for the presidential campaign.

Not a problem. Presidential campaign. Rosie latched on to the idea like a lifeline. She was about to meet one of her idolsthe woman whod shaken hands with at least six presidents, a dozen heads of state and probably a Supreme Court justice or two.

The woman who could make her life unimaginably miserable if things didnt go Rosies way.

Rosie spotted the Starbucks in the lobby immediately and clenched the strap of her briefcase against the urge to grab a cup. One of her curls escaped and fell onto her cheek.

Youll have to pass muster with his fathers campaign manager, Walter continued, passing a hand over his bald head. Stu Fenderson serves as Vivs assistant now.

She hadnt admitted to Walter that she didnt want the job. If Hudson turned out to be an ideal candidatelike that would happenRosie would recommend someone else work on his campaign.

Ive heard about Stu. Old, crotchety, a womanizer in his day. Rosie knew how to deal with himnever waffle on an issue, speak loud enough for his hearing aid to pick up and never let him have the last word.

But its most important that Viv approves of you. Make a bad impression and any chance you have at the national level will be slim to none. Everybody loves her and theyll do anything she asks. Walter pointed at Rosie. Including blackball you. So, lets not tell her youre having lunch with another candidate.

She doesnt know about Roger Bartholomew? Rosie balked as she was about to pass a large modern sculpture in the lobby. When Walter confessed this morning that he was interested in a second candidate, Rosies grip on her coffee mug had turned white-knuckled. It was either that or let out a credibility-killing shout of relief. With another option, there was no way shed get trapped into working on Hudsons campaign.

I dont plan to tell Viv about Roger unless its absolutely necessary. Thats why Im not going to lunch with you.

But

Walter gave Rosie an odd look over his shoulder as he handed the security guard his ID. I trust your assessment.

Rosie ignored the rush of excitement at the power he was giving her. But you said Mrs. McCloud

If you dont play both sides of the coin, youll be empty-handed at the end of the day. Meaning he wanted Rosie to do his dirty work so his friendship with Mrs. McCloud wouldnt suffer.

Shed been planning to build a case against Hudson with Walter at her back, but now

Certain she wore that deer in the headlights look, Rosie crossed the foyer and produced her ID.

They were followed into the elevator by a group of women each cradling a Starbucks cup. Trapped against the back wall, Rosie looked up at the small video screen playing news sound bites so she wouldnt focus on the coffee. Shed had coffee this morning. She was prepared for the meetingeven if her hair was starting to unravel, Rosie would not. She didnt need the prop of a coffee cup or the jolt of caffeine. But that didnt stop Rosie from imagining the surprised look on the face of the woman next to her as Rosie plucked the cup from her hand.

Since Walter hadnt given up his spot by the control buttons, he exited easily at the forty-second floor, while Rosie had to fight her way through the caffeine herd and was almost scrunched by the closing elevator doors. She trotted past several clear glass entryways, struggling on her short legs to catch up with Walter.

The doors to the McCloud offices had been replaced with paned, frosted ones so that no one in the hallway could see in. Walter marched through. Rosies hand hesitated on the cool, pebbled glass. Tension buzzed in her ears.

Rosie backed up a step, her fingertips almost a memory on the door. If she left, shed lose a chance to influence the agenda of the next president of the United States. What would she tell Casey the next time he asked about what she wanted to be when she grew up? How could she encourage him not to abandon his dreams without putting forth the effort if she didnt do the same? All she had to do was keep her mouth closed about Roger Bartholomew, not let Hudson get to her, control Stu and not even think about

Dont.

With a deep breath, Rosie pushed the door open and stepped into an opulent, hushed reception area decorated in muted grays and deep burgundies, coming face-to-face with a large oil portrait of Hamilton and Vivian McCloud, flanked by their two grown sons, Hudson and Samuel. The men all shared a strong cleft chin. No one smiled. It was an ominous portrait, no doubt created as a legacy marker. All the wild charm had been painted out of Samuels expression.





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