Clay plunges right in. “I’ve been looking at this guy’s specs, this Ben Christopher you’re running against this time, Grace. And here’s what I’m thinking: You need to be more relatable.”

Is that a word?

Mom squints at him as though he’s speaking a foreign language, so maybe not.

“Ben Christopher.” Clay outlines: “Grew up in Bridgeport, poor family, prep school on an ABC scholarship, built his own company manufacturing solar panels, getting the green vote there.” He pauses to butter the other half of Mom’s roll and takes a big bite. “He’s got that man-of-the-people thing going on. You, honey, can seem a little stiff. Chilly.” Another bite of roll, more chewing. “I know differently, but…”

Ew. I glance over at Tracy, expecting her to be as grossed out by this as I am, but she’s preoccupied by Flip, intertwining their hands.

“What do I do, then?” A furrow forms between Mom’s eyebrows. I’ve never heard her ask anyone for advice. She doesn’t even find it easy to ask for directions when we’re completely lost.

“Relax.” Clay puts his hand on her forearm, squeezes it. “We just show what’s there. The softer side of Grace.”

Sounds like a laundry detergent ad.

He shoves his hand into his pocket and extracts something, holding it up for us to see. One of Mom’s old campaign flyers. “See, here’s what I’m talkin’ about. Your campaign slogan last time. Grace Reed: Working for the Common Weal. That’s just awful, darlin’.”

Mom says defensively, “I did win, Clay.” I’m a little impressed that he’s being so blunt with her. Tracy and I came in for our fair share of teasing at school about that campaign slogan.

“You did”—he gives her a swift grin—“which is a tribute to your charm and skill. But ‘weal’? Gimme a break. Am I right, girls? Flip?” Flip grunts around his third bread roll, casting a longing glance toward the door. I don’t blame him for wanting to escape. “The last person who used that in a political campaign was John Adams. Or maybe Alexander Hamilton. Like I say, you need to be more relatable, be who people are looking for. More families, young families, are moving into our state all the time. That’s your hidden treasure. You’re not going to get the common-man vote. Ben Christopher’s got that locked. So here’s my idea: Grace Reed works hard for your family because family is her focus. What do you think?”

At this point the waiter arrives with our appetizers. He doesn’t miss a beat about Clay being at the table, making me wonder if this was planned all along.

“My, this looks mighty good,” Clay Tucker says as the waiter tucks a big bowl of chowder in front of him. “Now, some would say we Southerners wouldn’t know how to appreciate this kind of thing. But I like to appreciate what’s in front of me. And this”—he tips his spoon at my mother, flashing a grin at the rest of us—“is delicious.”

I get the feeling I’ll be seeing a lot of Clay Tucker.

Chapter Five

When I get home from work the next day, sticky from walking back in the summer heat, my eyes immediately turn to the Garretts’. The house seems unusually quiet. I stand there looking, then see Jase in the driveway, lying on his back, doing some kind of work on a huge black-and-silver motorcycle.

I want to say right here that I am by no means the kind of girl who finds motorcycles and leather jackets appealing. In the least. Michael Kristoff, with his dark turtlenecks and moody poetry, was as close as I’ve gotten to liking a “bad boy,” and he was enough to put me off them for life. We dated almost all spring, till I realized he was less a tortured artist than just a torture. That said, without planning, I walk right to the end of our yard, around my mother’s tall “good neighbor” fence—the six-foot stockade she installed a few months after the Garretts moved in—and up the driveway.

“Hi there,” I say. Brilliant opener, Samantha.

Jase props himself up on an elbow, looking at me for a minute without saying anything. His face gets an unreadable expression, and I wish I could take back walking over.

Then he observes, “I’m guessing that’s a uniform.”

Crap. I’d forgotten I was still wearing it. I look down at myself, in my short blue skirt, puffy white sailor blouse, and jaunty red neck scarf.

“Bingo.” I’m completely embarrassed.

He nods, then smiles broadly at me. “It didn’t quite say Samantha Reed to me somehow. Where on earth do you work?” He clears his throat. “And why there?”

“Breakfast Ahoy. Near the dock. I like to keep busy.”

“The uniform?”

“My boss designed it.”

Jase scrutinizes me in silence for a minute or two, then says, “He must have a rich fantasy life.”

I don’t know how to respond to this, so I pull one of Tracy’s nonchalant moves and shrug.

“It pays well?” Jase asks, reaching for a wrench.

“Best tips in town.”

“I’ll bet.”

I have no clue why I’m having this conversation. And no idea how to continue it. He’s concentrating on unscrewing something or unwrenching something or whatever you call it. So I ask, “Is this your motorcycle?”

“My brother Joel’s.” He stops working and sits up, as though it would be impolite to continue if we’re actually carrying on a conversation. “He likes to cultivate that whole ‘born to be wild’ outlaw image. Prefers it to the jock one, although he is, in fact, a jock. Says he winds up with smarter girls that way.”

I nod, as if I’d know. “Does he?”

“I’m not sure.” Jase’s forehead creases. “The image-cultivation thing has always seemed kind of fake-o and manipulative to me.”

“So, you don’t have some persona?” I sit down in the grass next to the driveway.

“Nope. What you see is what you get.” He grins at me again.

What I see, frankly, up close and in daylight, is pretty nice. In addition to the sun-streaked, wavy chestnut hair and even white teeth, Jase Garrett has green eyes, and one of those quirky mouths that look like they are always about to smile. Plus this steady-on, I-have-no-problem-looking-you-in-the-eye gaze. Oh my.

I glance around, try to think of something to say. Finally: “Pretty quiet around here today.”