He carried his cup across the break room, set it down on a table, and took a chair. Beneath unruly blond hair and striking gullwing eyebrows, his blue-gray eyes fastened on the man seated across from him.
Randy Stevenson's dark eyes returned Shelby's gaze. His sensitive, enigmatic face, surrounded with shaggy black hair, betrayed not a hint of mirth. "Keller's more than a tax-and-spend liberal. He's a leftist, a socialist. Somebody's got to challenge him."
"Not you." Shelby took a careful slurp of coffee. "His political machine will tear you to pieces. And the public at large will help 'em."
Randy shrugged. "I got thick skin."
"No, what you've got is crap for brains. Now, listen. You're one of the Verona Three. They'll dig up everything they can about that. You've seen how politics works. The whole story doesn't come out until after the damage is done. You're also a Southern Baptist. That makes you a sexist, a racist and a homophobe."
Shelby went completely still as realization sprang into his eyes, followed quickly by alarm. "And it's horrifying, what they'd do to Claire and Denise. Have you thought about that?"
The back door opened, briefly admitting the sound of morning traffic, a burst of bright, winter sunshine and a chilly draft. John Mark Jordan stepped inside and traded greetings with the other two as he got coffee for himself and brought it to the table, his netbook under his arm. His remarkably handsome face and stylish apparel often led people to mistake him for a client of a nearby modeling agency.
"What's going on?" The question was rhetorical because he didn't wait for an answer before opening the netbook to skim the business section of the Jacksonville Post Herald.
Shelby aimed a thumb across the table. "Brilliant here says he's thinking of running for Congress."
John Mark's head snapped up. His brown eyes, wide with astonishment, fastened on Randy. "Have you gone crazy?"
Randy lifted his chin. "How many times have we sat at this table handwringin' about the future our children will have to live in? How many times have we said something has to be done? Well, I'm gonna do something. I don't know if it'll help, whether it'll be too little too late, whether I'm even capable of doing it--but I have to try."
John Mark remained incredulous, his netbook forgotten. "You'll get slaughtered. There's a zillion things they'll attack you for. Without mercy."
"Don't try to tell him anything," Shelby muttered. "I've already tried. He says his skin's thick."
Randy raked a thumbnail across his lips and considered the other two. Their opinions and advice were crucial to him. They were not only his business partners; they were also his best friends, going back to grade school. For over two decades, the three of them had been closer than brothers.
"I know what's in my life better than they do. Whatever they attack me with, we'll preempt them with highly crafted press releases, get the message out with a dynamite web site, produce online videos so powerful they'll go viral. Of course, I'd still have to raise an obscene amount of money to afford ads in the traditional media, but the three of us could pull it off. Turn it all to my advantage. I know we could."
Silence filled the room as his friends stared at him, the import of his words sinking in.
John Mark murmured, "How does Claire feel about this?"
"Totally supportive. We've talked about it, imagined worst-case scenarios, up to and incuding violence against us, although we aren't paranoid enough to assume it would come to that. She has realistic expectations and she's looking forward to the challenge. But her main concern is the next generation and the kind of world they'll have to live in if the country doesn't change where it's headed."
The men's expressions grew pensive. They'd discussed numerous times the grim world that awaited their children--all children--in the foreseeable future. Now they were looking at an opportunity to do something about it on a national scale--or, at least, to try--and it was both sobering and exhilarating.
Randy gave his companions an appraising look. Their demeanor had gradually changed as he spoke, and he could see their resistance weakening.
"You realize that both of you will be dragged through the mud, too, especially if you help with the campaign. And you have your own families to think of."
John Mark grunted. "Are you kidding? If you do this, Ainsley'll be your biggest cheerleader."
Randy's eyes crinkled with the beginning of a smile at the thought of Ainsley--John Mark's wife and Shelby's sister--but only for a moment. He wanted all considerations out in the open. "One other thing. A political campaign will take us away from the company for months."
"That's not an insurmountable problem." Shelby pushed his mug aside and leaned back. "We can work that out."
Conversation again paused. This time, they felt an undercurrent of excitement vibrating through the silence.
"I'm driving down to Saint Augustine after work to talk to Missy and Tommy," Randy said. "Saturday, I'll take the family to Verona to discuss it with Mama and Daddy. If nobody can give me a powerfully good reason for not doing it, I'll announce my candidacy in mid-January." He looked at each one for a couple of seconds.. "I want you two with me in this."
John Mark gave his earlobe a tug. "Well, you know we can't let you do this by yourself, so you've got us."
Shelby nodded. "Unless we can talk you out of it."
Mirth finally sparked in Randy's eyes. "You got two months. Start talking."
Copyright © 2011 by Connie Chastain.
All rights reserved.