In her debut novella, author Nikki London is quick to introduce readers to her strong sense of character development, relationships, and her killer intuition when it comes to dialogue. The plot behind SOUTHERN COMFORT might be familiar, but with its characters, humor, quirks, and heart, this is one ride you won’t want to miss.
We start with Kris Meadows, the faithful assistant to career politician Jay Rosenberg. Their rapport is quick and familiar, and with just a few lines, Ms. London establishes a relationship that is cozy but wrought with tension. You can sense the affection between her main characters from the start, be it between Kris’s close relationship with Jay’s mother or Jay’s teasing Kris over her obsession with ghost stories. Jay’s mother, Edith, manages to convince her son to take a vacation, which by itself would be considered a feat. Throw in that their getaway is in Mississippi, and it’s practically a miracle. A last-ditch effort to save face results in Kris finding a plane ticket with her name on it, though she has no idea how she can pretend to be nothing more than Jay’s friend without the familiarity of an office setting.
Ms. London doesn’t play coy with the characters or their relationships. We enter the story very much aware that Kris is in love with Jay and that Jay harbors a crush on her as well. Furthermore, the characters themselves seem to be aware, but mutually tacit due to what it could mean for their working relationship. It’s not as though there are no obstacles: Ms. London establishes Jay as a workaholic playboy, whose selection of arm candy is almost always politically motivated. Yet it is clear from the start that Jay’s love life is less the result of his being a chronic womanizer, and more due to his attraction to sharp women whose ambitions are much like his, not to mention his need to put work first. Without motivation, his close friendship with Kris might never escalate to something more, though he wouldn’t be opposed to it. And Kris, having had a front row seat over the past several years of working with Jay, knows every relationship he enters has an automatic expiration date. That doesn’t stop her from loving him, but it does keep her from pursuing him, or thinking it possible they could ever work.
With a company of additional characters, including a cranky old woman, a pair of horny college coeds, and a bed-n-breakfast owned by what Jay sees as a walking contradiction, SOUTHERN COMFORT will keep you rooting for their characters, grinning at their snappy dialogue, and falling in love with the story’s overall amazing heart.
“So, how are you, Kristen?”
Kris Meadows twisted a strand of long blonde hair around her finger, rolled her eyes, and tilted the phone against her ear. “You wouldn't believe what your son made me do last night.”
A gentle sigh came across the line. “I can only imagine. Jason seemed very determined to get that Foreign Ops bill passed.”
Kris lowered her voice to a whisper. “He made me stalk someone.” Not that she was all that traumatized by the experience, but she liked telling on her boss...especially to his mother.
“What?” Edith Rosenberg snapped.
“Well, he seems determined to find out if Jennings is running for Senate before he leaves Brooks alone.”
“Believe it or not, I'm pretty sure he wasn't raised like that.”
Kris could hear the woman’s disgust. “Edith, the greatest saints in the world couldn’t make him tolerable.”
“Speaking of, where is Jason?”
“He had a meeting in Senator Brooks’s office to gloat about the bill finally being passed. He should be back any moment.”
“I'm going on vacation in the next couple weeks.”
“Oh.” Kris was at a loss of words. Not only was it a complete change of topic, but she couldn't remember the last time she’d had a real vacation; it was well before she embarked on the career of a lifetime as Jason Rosenberg’s personal assistant. While the last four years of employment under one of D.C.’s premiere political strategists and campaign organizers provided plenty of travel, she rarely had a chance to get away and relax. “Where are you going?”
“Oh, it's lovely,” Edith gushed. “Well, at least the photographs I’ve seen and stories I've been told. My good friend, Olivia, is president of the Glendale Community Garden Club. She makes regular trips to Natchez during their spring pilgrimage.”
“It's the height of their tourist season. Lovely. And we're going together this year. I'll send you an email with some information.”
Kris sighed with envy. “It sounds nice. You should enjoy it.”
“What about Jason?”
She looked for a sign of her boss. “Oh, he still isn't back yet. But I did just see Ted so he shouldn't be far behind.”
“No, I meant do you think Jason would like Natchez?”
“Depends on whether there's federal legislation that depends on Natchez Pilgrimage information.”
“For a vacation.”
Kris laughed. The idea of Jason Rosenberg, Washington’s hottest political asset, taking a vacation was as ridiculous as George Washington having crossed the Rubicon rather than the Delaware.
Though knowing today’s educational system, she wouldn’t be surprised if some people actually thought that was the way it happened.
“I know.” Edith apparently interpreted her response. “But he hasn't visited since he started working with Brooks and I’m beginning to worry about his health. All that stress can’t be good for him.” She paused. “I think I'm going to ask him to come to Natchez with me.”
“Good luck,” Kris said earnestly. She doubted Jay’s mother truly knew how much the stress was getting to him. In December, he’d gone to the hospital with chest pains; Kris knew his health was the main reason he’d stuck with Brooks rather than delving into the next big race. “I hope you convince him to go. Besides the obvious fact a vacation for him means free time for me, I really think some time away would be good for him with the election and...everything. Not to mention spending some quality time with you.”
Behind her, the man in question cleared his throat and whispered, “Please don't tell me you're using government time to arrange your next disastrous relationship.”
She inhaled sharply. The sensation of his breath on her neck made her shiver, but she wasn't about to let him know how much she enjoyed their close moments. Instead, she whacked his head. “It's your mother!”
In Kris’s other ear, Edith said, “Oh, tell Jason that I'll have to call him back later. My bridge game starts in ten minutes and I really want to beat Morgie Parker.”
“Okay.” Kris smiled. She loved this woman. In many respects, she maintained a much healthier relationship with Edith than with her own mother. She talked to her constantly, since Edith often called Jay at the office to avoid catching him during a meeting. Plus, Kris didn’t have to deal with the nagging and guilt trips she often got when she checked in with her parents.
Edith continued, “But I will send you that email. You would love the history there. A place like Natchez would be perfect for you to come and visit.”
“I’d really love to, but my boss is kinda a jerk.”
“Hey!” Jay grumbled. “Let me talk to my mom.”
Kris ignored him. “Love you, Mom. Enjoy the game and I'll be looking for that email.”
Jay waved his hand. “Stop stealing my mother.”
“Bye,” Kris chirped before placing the phone on the receiver.
Jay gave her a dirty look and grunted. “I wish you two would stop doing that. I'm beginning to think she wants to put me up for adoption and take you in instead.”
Kris beamed. “Well, she does tell me I would make a lovely Jewish girl.”
He tilted his head and smirked. “You are cheap and have a guilt complex that would make my grandmother jealous.”
She feigned a laugh and glared at him until remembering how embarrassed she felt last night while wandering around the Capital. “I'm still annoyed with you.” She grabbed a yellow folder and handed it to him.
“You were doing your job. I can't help it that you felt silly.”
“You made me a stalker. That’s illegal, mind you. And your mother said she would call you later. She didn't have time for you.”
He frowned. “You take too much pleasure in stealing her away from me.”
“You take too much pleasure in making me do things that are immoral.” She caught a glance of an approaching shadow along the wall, but ignored it. The office was always bustling with activity.
“It wasn't stalking—”
“You had me follow a man around the Hill for three hours in order to report every office he stopped by and every hand he shook. Please tell me how that doesn’t coincide with the legal definition of stalking.”
Jay blinked. “Bite me.”
“Wow, could you save the hot stuff for after hours?” Ted, Senator Brooks’s chief of staff, growled, walking up behind Jay.
Kris noticed Jay blushing while they tried to pass off the exchange with identical eye rolls. Jay nodded to Ted. “What's up?”
“I wanted to go over the senator's remarks for this afternoon.”
As the men retreated into Jay’s office, Kris shouted after them, “Your mother is going to call you after her bridge game.”
“Why does she know more about your mother than you?” Ted asked.
“A question I stopped asking a long time ago.”
“You knew about this, didn't you?” he snarled.
Her eyes went wide for a moment. She really wanted a good quip to begin the exchange, but none was forthcoming. “What?”
“You knew. Probably had a whole conversation about it.”
“Jay, I have many conversations in which I plot against you. Would you care to give me a few more details?” She had to smile at how cute he was when annoyed. The way he furrowed his brows made his forehead wrinkle in the most adorable way. He also had a tendency to fold his arms and stomp his feet like a small child during a temper tantrum.
He pouted. “I was caught so off guard that I couldn't refuse right away. The best I got out was that I'd think about it.”
“I'm not going to go to Mississippi and call it a vacation.”
Kris giggled with realization. “Natchez is lovely. Your mother sent me pictures of the B&B she has booked for her and her friend. And there were some sites with amazing reviews of visits during Pilgrimage. The history alone would make a good vacation, but the flowers, food and ghost stories sound so fun.”
Jay stared at her. “You did hear the part about vacationing in Mississippi?”
“You should go!” she cried. “Besides the break from work, it would mean the world to your mother to spend some quality time with you.”
“Damn you woman.” He turned and stalked down the hall.
Jay was at a loss. He mindlessly poured himself a cup of coffee, and then headed toward his office. How could he argue against Kris’s logic? He loved his mother and knew Kris did as well. While he wanted to please them both, he sure as hell could come up with something better than this. Better than Mississippi. Kris seemingly read his mind. When he passed her desk, she said, “You should really look at the books your mother is sending. They should be here in the morning.”
“Why?” Jay gazed heavenward. “Why Mississippi and why did you give them a chance to collude against me?”
“Once you get done admonishing God, you better head down to Brooks’s office.”
He met her eyes and tried not to get lost in the vibrant blue. It was harder remembering on some days that she was his assistant and not his girlfriend. “Okay,” he said before forcing himself to walk away. By the next morning, Jay felt his routine return to normal. Granted, his life wasn’t normal, but there were certain degrees of chaos he’d learned to live with.
Jay Rosenberg loved his life. He’d been blessed with good genes and an unruly head of thick brown hair that curled if he didn’t keep it extra short. His dimples gave him the ability to disarm friend and foe with as little as a wink and a nod. Though he could have his way with nearly any woman in the district, he was a workaholic, and most women, like his ex-girlfriend, grew distant in the end. While he had developed an obsession with the gym and warding off the chances of dying young like his dad, he couldn’t let go of his stress, which constantly brought him down. Elections and politics fed his soul. And he wasn’t about to change, especially to accommodate a woman.
He spent most of the night devising a plan to evade a potential vacation in Mississippi. Really, his plan was ultimately aimed at keeping him from any vacation at all, but he figured this was a one-step-at-a-time thing. Kris enacted the first stage by ignoring the entire previous day of mother-oriented Natchez conversation. Instead she began the morning by addressing the need to create less congestion during the Cherry Blossom Festival.
After spending the morning on the Hill, negotiating things that didn't make complete sense to him, Jay headed back to the office for lunch and the dreaded conversation with his mother. He only hoped she didn't guilt him to the point he cried—again—about the vase he broke when he was twelve. Jay had made it to his office door before Kris spoke.
“Did you know that Natchez was largely unaffected by the Civil War?”
He hoped he was hallucinating.
She kept talking. “Of course there was some damage and destruction, but considering that the town was located on the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and New Orleans, it was minor.”
Jay turned around to glower at her. “You have got to be kidding me.”
Though he was sure Kris knew full well what he meant, she chose to take it in a way that furthered her enjoyment. Her creamy flawless complexion didn’t show a single hint of crimson guilt as she gave him an innocent smile. “Oh no. Not kidding at all. In fact, while the war caused many to lose their fortunes, such as the case of the owners of Longwood, the only deaths during the war were a seven year old girl and a man who had a heart attack while watching the Battle of Natchez.”
“So, Mom sent you some stuff?”
Kris shook her head. “I just enlightened you with quality information found on Wikipedia.”
“I'm going to work now.” He bit his cheek to keep from smiling back at her.
“You mean you are going to go eat lunch and break your mother's heart when she calls to say she's found the best deal on plane tickets for you to fly down and vacation with her in Natchez.”
“Did you really say there was a thing called Longwood?”
“Are you really going to make a perverted joke about the home Dr. Haller Nutt built for his wife?”
“With a name like Longwood, do I really have to make an actual joke about it?”
Kris scowled. “Your mother should be calling you at any moment. Your sandwich is getting cold.”
The look on her face had his defenses deflating. Since the day Kris walked into his office four years ago with her resume and freshly printed degree in Politics and Government, Jay had been attracted to her. She shared his ambition and drive in making Washington accountable to the electorate as opposed to the lobbyists. Her eyes were a window to her soul, and he’d immediately seen she wasn’t corrupted by agenda like so many others. Having her by his side kept him in check. She was his daily reminder he was fighting the good fight.
He hated the look in her eyes now. He hated when his Krissy was disappointed in him.
He had forgotten to figure that into his plan.
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