"What we need is a white knight." Lillian Johnson looked up toward the big house, worry creasing her forehead above the rims of her glasses. She stood stiffly at the nose of her Volvo, slender shoulders set as if to take a blow, the summer evening breeze just teasing the ends of silver hair cut in a sleek pageboy. In her blouse with the Peter Pan collar and pleated skirt, she looked like a librarian about to be set upon by a mob of book-burning fanatics.
The sidewalk in front of the house was crowded with unhappy people, neighbors who were not inclined to feel neighborly toward the new folks on the block. Many were holding hand-lettered signs aloft. No Delinquents! Runaways Go Home! Citizens for Family Neighborhoods. A news crew from the local television station was capturing the action on videotape.
Lynn Shaw frowned as a breeze caught at strands of her long black hair and whipped them across her face. She raked them back with one hand, green eyes fixed on the crowd. "There's no such thing as white knights." She leaned down into the trunk of her middle-aged Buick and emerged with a box of kitchen utensils cradled in her arms. "Besides, I'll be damned if I'm waiting around for some man to come and save me."
Leaving her friend and employer behind, she stepped up onto the boulevard and started toward the house with a determined stride. She was a counselor, after all. She knew how to handle people. She had the skills to defuse the situation–provided she didn't lose her temper. Of course, there was an ever-present danger of her losing her temper these days.
The relocation of Horizon House should have been simple. Call a moving van, pack a few boxes, change the letterhead on the stationery. The home had been in its former location for three years without incident. Lynn doubted if most of the citizens of Rochester, Minnesota, had had any idea it existed until the building that housed Horizon's residents had been scheduled for demolition to make room for a new hotel. And the Horizon staff might have pulled off the move to this nondescript house with the neighbors going on in self-absorbed, quiet bliss if it hadn't been for one pompous, ill-informed, obnoxious man.
"We don't want you here!"
He materialized in front of Lynn as if her thoughts had conjured him up. Elliot Graham. A man who looked so normal, so ordinary, he might have been a mailman or a dermatologist. He stood before her, a man of average height, average build, average brown hair neatly combed. His face was an average face, unremarkable in every way except one–he had the eyes of a fanatic.
He looked self-important and self-righteous in his charcoal slacks, white shirt, burgundy tie. The epitome of the well-dressed protestor. Lynn caught a whiff of woodsy aftershave and knew instantly who had called the news crew. They were too late for the six o'clock news, but Elliot would look just as spiffy at ten. She, on the other hand, would look like a street person in her old jeans and faded T-shirt.
She closed her eyes briefly against the warning flash of pain in her right temple. As she opened them again a cameraman stepped into her line of vision, a minion behind him raising a blinding white spotlight on a long pole. Lynn flinched from the light as a reporter stepped up to her, microphone in hand.
"What do you have to say about community resentment against this move?"
"We don't want this institution in our neighborhood," Elliot Graham said emphatically, butting in front of Lynn.
"St. Stephen's Church has graciously donated the use of this house to Horizon, Mr. Graham," Lynn said, edging her way back in front of him, her hold on her temper slipping as the pain level of her headache escalated. "We intend to move in with or without your permission."
"We'll see about that."
The look on Graham's face was entirely too smug, too confident. He had an ace in the hole. Lynn braced herself mentally as she waited for him to produce it. Graham's teenage son, a budding right-wing extremist in an outfit that nearly matched his father's, stepped up and handed Graham a manila file folder from which he produced a sheaf of papers.
"Citizens for Family Neighborhoods has circulated a petition against relocating Horizon House to this property. I intend to present it to Father Bartholomew tomorrow morning. A copy will also be delivered to the bishop in Winona. We have over eight hundred signatures. . . ."
The rest of his soliloquy about quality of life and moral standards was lost on Lynn as she fought to contain her anger. Citizens for Family Neighborhoods. Good God-fearing people just trying to do what was right. She wanted to rail at them, shake them, somehow make them see that what they were doing wasn't right at all. They had no reason to fear the residents of Horizon House. Her girls weren't hardened criminals. They were just kids who needed a break, kids who needed love and understanding and acceptance.
It was clear they wouldn't find acceptance in this neighborhood, thanks to Elliot Graham and his band of vigilantes. After all the furor about their move, Lynn doubted they would find acceptance anyplace in Rochester. And there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing she could say would change their minds. In her experience, the voice of reason and truth was seldom heard above the shouts of alarmists. Her sense of impotence lodged like a hot rock behind her breastbone and her counseling skills deserted her altogether as her emotions rushed to the fore.
"You talk a good game about morals, Mr. Graham, but you don't seem to know the first thing about kindness or charity," she snapped, the tide of passion and pain rising together and bringing a sheen of tears to blur her vision. "Do you know what you are, Mr. Graham? You're nothing but a petty, pompous–"
The news crew turned abruptly away. With the absence of light came the easing of the sword of pain, replaced by blessed cool relief. She almost collapsed as rigid muscles relaxed automatically, but her indignation held her upright. She might have finished telling Elliot Graham what she thought of him, but he had whirled away from her. Irritation pulled her brows low over her eyes. The jerk didn't even have the decency to pay attention while she told him off!
She turned to see what had so captured everyone's attention and was immediately struck in the face once again with the death strobe. Then someone stepped in front of it, blocking the worst of the light–a tall man dressed in white. The light glowed in a golden halo around his head and illuminated a pair of shoulders that belonged on a lumberjack. The effect was reminiscent of the way Hollywood portrayed holy visions. Lynn half expected to see Christ himself walk out of that aura, or Lillian's mythical white knight, Galahad come to rescue them. Fat chance.
The light shifted, coming around to illuminate his face as the news crew adjusted their positions, dancing around him like fawning spaniels. Lynn's heart did an involuntary little jump in her chest. Galahad, indeed.
State Senator Erik Gunther. Golden boy of the Democrats. Thirty-three and charming, destined for greatness, according to the media. Lynn fought a wry smile as she took in the movie-star looks of Senator Gunther, ignoring her body's physical responses to the man with the ease of long practice. She didn't have time for relationships, and she certainly had more sense than to go looking for one with a politician.
Erik Gunther might have been easy to look at, with his strong square face and dreamy blue eyes, and his boyish smile might have been enough to win the vote of every female in his district, but looks didn't make the politician. What made men like Erik Gunther was a thirst for power, a hunger for success, a drive and ambition that left room for little else. No, even if she had been interested–and she wasn't–she wouldn't have touched Erik Gunther with a ten-foot pole. She had endured enough strained and broken relationships to last her a lifetime. No sense going hunting for one.
That he wasn't here looking for a date was a cinch, anyway. He was here to get himself a cameo spot on the late news. Lynn conceded that he had a record for backing causes, but she knew how that worked. The depth of a politician's caring was in direct proportion to the amount of good it would do his image. If she was lucky, Senator Gunther would see Horizon House as being worthy of his attention long enough for her and the girls to become entrenched in this neighborhood and prove the Elliot Grahams of the town wrong.
The television reporter planted himself in front of Gunther and thrust a microphone under his nose. "Senator Gunther, can you tell us how you became involved in the dispute between Citizens for Family Neighborhoods and Horizon House?"
Lynn watched as Gunther flashed the smile that launched ten thousand ballots. The electricity that flowed out of him hit her with a jolt that almost knocked her off her feet. He was standing not more than a yard away, looking right at her, the blue of his eyes almost startling, the compassion in his expression so real she almost believed it. Amazed, she felt herself drawn to him as if he were magnetic. She had taken a step toward him before she even realized it. She pulled herself up abruptly and gave herself a mental shake. Get ahold of yourself, Lynn. He's just a man.
"I'm always interested when people are unjustly denied basic human rights such as housing," he said, his voice a husky baritone that somehow made him seem more like one of the people than a polished public speaker who was groomed and trained for the job.
"Then you're taking a stand against Citizens for Family Neighborhoods?"
Another smile. This one was soft, with just the perfect touch of hurt feelings. "No one is more in favor of family neighborhoods than I am."
Nice bit of fence-straddling there, Lynn thought.
"But I feel that in today's world, with one out of two marriages ending in divorce, we need to broaden our idea of what a family is. We need to look at our communities and neighborhoods as families, families that welcome new members instead of shutting them out because of prejudices."
Even Elliot Graham seemed impressed by Gunther's eloquence. Graham's righteous bluster deflated like a stuck balloon. He seemed to shrink a little. Gunther had stolen his thunder and his moment on the news. He tucked his petition away in its folder and handed it back to his son. Graham Junior flashed Lynn a petulant look as if it were her fault Gunther had come to take up the gauntlet.
Lynn dismissed the boy as she scanned the crowd. The level of tension that had been building to a head as she had faced off with Graham had been cut by more than half. Whether it was the senator's words or his stunning physical presence that had done the trick, she wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. He had effectively done what she, with her many credits in psychology and counseling, had failed to do.
As her migraine took a firmer hold behind her eye, Lynn felt a stab of resentment toward Gunther. This was her fight. She should have been the one making the touching statements. Instead, she'd been upstaged by a golden boy and her own temper. It was the story of her life.
Gunther stepped toward her, lifted the box of kitchen utensils out of her hands, and tucked it under one arm like a football. The spotlight hit Lynn in the face again and she flinched away from it, leaning into the senator as if she were seeking shelter and solace in the bulwark of his strength and humanitarianism. He gave her a conciliatory pat on the shoulder.
"We need to care about the youth of our nation," he said. "We need to reach out to those in trouble, not push them away. This young lady here needs our support."
Lynn's head snapped up. Young lady? He thought she was one of the residents! Her jaw dropped and another burst of irrational anger surged through her. He thought she was a teenager! She had been blithely discounting his prospects as a significant other while he had been looking at her and thinking she needed parental guidance!
He ended his statement with a promise to do all he could to help Horizon House. The press people thanked him and dashed off to get their stories ready in time to make deadline. The crowd of neighbors began to disperse, many heading for their homes as the streetlights began to blink on and others mingling on the lawn, chatting as the mood eased.
Erik took a deep breath and sighed, rolling his big shoulders as he took a step back from the little raven-haired beauty who was still staring up at him with a slack jaw. Teenage girls. Brother! He wouldn't have gone back to puberty for all the Twinkies in Minnesota.
He handed her her box back and flicked his thumb over a smudge of dirt on her cheek. "I know you meant well, sweetheart, but you really ought to leave Mr. Graham to the directors of the house."
She made a little strangled sound in her throat and went on staring at him, one hand clutching the box to her, the other rubbing furiously at a spot above her right eye. She was a cute little thing–maybe five-six with a wealth of black hair, bangs hanging in trendy disarray above jewel-green eyes and an impudent little nose. She choked and sputtered at him, and Erik took a cautious step toward her, concern seeping in around the edges of his appreciation for her looks.
His brows pulled together and he reached a hand toward her. "Are you all right?" Maybe she was going into a seizure or something, he thought, his heart leaping to somewhere in the vicinity of his Adam's apple. Great. The girl was having an attack just looking at him. Wonderful. He hadn't felt this special since Phoebe Heinrichs had screamed out her love for him at the National Honor Society banquet in 1976.
"Teenagers . . ." he said in a low growl as he glanced around frantically for someone who looked like a supervisor.
Two gray-haired ladies came rushing toward them from the house. A wide one wearing a Vikings jersey and sporting a face like a bulldog led the way like a blocking back, elbowing people out of their path. She was followed by a tall, slender woman who wore the unmistakable aura of a Mayo Clinic doctor's wife. Erik had met scores of them at the innumerable charity luncheons women and politicians attended in Rochester. Had he been a betting man, he would have put a fiver on her being the one who had started rattling cages in the state capital.
"Ladies." He flashed them a weak smile as he took the girl by the arm and started to usher her into their care. He'd done his duty for the night, publicly taking up the fight for Horizon House and getting himself a prime spot on the ten o'clock news. All he wanted now was a clean getaway, a steak, and a cold beer.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Last White Knight by Tami Hoag. Copyright © 2006 by Tami Hoag. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.