Thirty-One and a Half Regrets Page 24

Joe laughed. “We’re here today to recognize the Gardner Sisters Nursery, not give y’all a show.” He winked at Hilary, then looked down at his paper and gave a five-minute speech about Arkansas being built on the backs of hardworking entrepreneurs and how the Gardner sisters were carrying that legacy into the twenty-first century. To hear him speak of us, no one would ever guess he’d been there from the beginning, even reconstructing part of the greenhouse that stood twenty feet behind us.

When he finished, Thelma handed him a cream-colored, legal-sized envelope. He turned to us and presented the envelope to Violet. “It is with great pride and respect that the Arkansas Small Business Administration presents the Gardner Sisters Nursery with a two-hundred-thousand dollar grant to expand their business.”

The crowd cheered and cameras flashed as Violet took the envelope and shook Joe’s hand. He moved on to me next, his hand engulfing mine and holding on for several seconds as he stared into my face with a longing that stole my breath.

Hilary pulled on his arm until he released me, then he turned back to the crowd. “We’ll now take any questions y’all might have.”

Hands shot up in the air and Joe pointed to a blonde newswoman. “I’m sure you’re both used to the comparison of you two to Jackie and John F. Kennedy. What we want to know is when is your wedding and will it have a Camelot theme?”

Joe grinned, then shook his head. “We don’t—”

Hilary looped her arm through his and smiled up into his face. “It’s okay, Joe, we might as well tell everyone our big secret.”

His body tensed.

She stared down the cameras, her face beaming. “Joe and I are planning a December wedding and it will have a royal theme.”

The crowd began shouting questions.

“What are your colors?”

“Will the wedding be at the Simmons Estate?”

December. While my vision had shown him married to a very pregnant Hilary, learning that they’d set a date made me want to throw up.

Joe seemed to regain his senses. “Okay, we’ll take the next question. A non-wedding question.”

But the blonde reporter shouted, “How do you feel about your upcoming nuptials, Joe?”

His mouth opened then closed; he looked like a fish out of water struggling to breathe.

“Do you get any say about the colors or the ceremony?”

A grim smile lifted his mouth. “Hilary seems to be in charge of all of the details. I guess I’ll just show up when and where I’m told like any dutiful husband-to-be.” He released a chuckle, but it sounded forced. “Next question.” He pointed to a man in the back.

“Joe, you’re a last-minute entry into what might be your first political office. What makes you qualified?”

“Well…” Joe drawled. “That’s an excellent question. After graduating from the University of Arkansas law school and rankin’ third in my class, I’ve spent the last five years working for the Arkansas state police as an undercover officer. I’ve seen firsthand the effects of crime, and as an Arkansas State Senator, I will help ensure that criminal laws are upheld. I see it as a natural extension of my experience.”

“Do you think your father’s reputation and money make you more qualified?”

Joe’s grin froze. It was such a subtle reaction that no one else would notice. But I did. I knew this man…or thought I did. The Joe Simmons standing in front of this crowd was different from any of the variations of Joe that I’d met, from Joe McAllister, his pseudonym while he was undercover, to the Joe Simmons who had walked out my door five weeks ago. This Joe Simmons was a schmoozer who said what people wanted to hear. But the set of his mouth told me that he didn’t like what he was doing and I couldn’t help but feel partially responsible for that.

“No,” Joe answered. “I’d like to think I’m my own man and I’m making my own way in this world. I’d like to stand on my own merit. Next question.”

An older man with a notepad turned his attention to me, self-consciously sweeping long strands of thinning hair over a large bald spot on top of his head. When he lowered his hand, the gusty wind instantly blew them to the side. “Anthony Blund from the Henryetta Gazette. My question is for Rose Gardner.”

“Uh…” Joe’s eyes widened slightly and he turned to me. “I’m not sure the Gardner sisters are here to answer questions.”

“We were assured that they would.”

That damned contract.

I felt a comforting hand on the small of my back, and I looked over my shoulder into Mason’s expressionless face. “Take the question,” he said, leaning down to my ear, “but don’t answer if it’s a setup.”

I nodded at the reporter. “All right.”

“What do you have to say about the allegations that you have defrauded your sister of her inheritance?”

My chest constricted and I turned to Violet. Her face paled and she shook her head, turning toward the reporter. “That’s not true. Rose has done no such thing.”

“There are witnesses who testify that you, Violet, made such a claim. Are you backing down from your accusations?”

“I…” Violet fumbled.

Mason stepped between us. “As the Gardner Sisters Nursery’s legal counsel, I advise my clients to not respond to rumors and gossip.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Deveraux,” the Henryetta reporter called out. “If you’re the assistant DA, why are you their legal counsel? Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?”

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