THIRTY-ONE

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Spinelli stepped out first, only to be met with rapid fire flashing and voices yelling his name. He turned back to the limo, offering Virginia his hand. She joined him, running a palm down both sides of her dress to smooth out any bunching. A second flurry of flashing ignited around them while she stood by his side. The competitive calls from the photographers had her laughing.

He brought his mouth to her ear to be heard over the noise of the crowd. "I see you like attention."

"It's beautiful . . . like fireworks."

"Like you."

He hooked her arm inside of his and headed down the carpet that had been laid out, leading to the door. Barricades on both sides held the photographers and other spectators at bay, but they leaned over the wooden supports, trying to get a better angle for their shots. She took it all in with a sense of wonderment.

The noise from the crowd dissipated as soon as they stepped inside the building. The foyer was expansive and spectacular in its own right, but for the evening's event it was glorious. Cascades of flowers tied onto strings of tiny lights made a canopy that hung from the ceiling and threw out a heady scent. They made their way over to the greeting table to check in and retrieve their table assignment.

Virginia recognized the Governor as he was walking up to them. Elected late in his career, he was an older man, totally gray, but in excellent shape for his age. Having a reputation as a fair and smart politician made him a favorite in most political circles.

"Stan, you're looking well," Spinelli greeted.

The Governor reached his hand out and Spinelli grasped it in his. "Mark, how are you?"

"Fantastic—especially tonight." The glance in her direction needed no further explanation.

Her breath got tight as heat rushed to her cheeks.

The Governor was quick on the uptake, looking over at her with a knowing smile. "Glad to hear it," he said.

"Stan, this is Lieutenant Virginia Robins of the LAPD."

"Lieutenant." His smile widened as he extended his hand to her. "I'm always happy to meet one of our men and women in blue."

"It is nice to meet you, Governor Mitchell."

"Call me Stan. We are all friends here, right Mark?" He had to reach up in order to clap his hand on Spinelli's shoulder. "This place turned out better than we could have imagined, and we have you to thank for that. I don't know how you found the time to handle this while running all those businesses you oversee."

Spinelli smiled. "I had a lot of help."

Stan turned his attention back to Virginia. "Did he tell you he's receiving an award tonight?"

She looked at her date with surprise. "No, he failed to mention that."

"I didn't think so, forever modest, eh?" He flashed Spinelli a teasing grin.

"You're wasting your awards on me."

"Well, at least you've got your own security. You don't have to worry about anyone stealing it in the parking lot." The Governor winked at Virginia as she laughed. "Enjoy the entertainment—we have some pretty good performers tonight. I'll see you in there." He shook both their hands once more and went off to mingle with the other guests.

Entering the main hall, she took a moment to look around. Candle-lit arrangements decorated every table throughout the massive room. A stage took up most of the front wall, the majority of its surface obscured by a closed black curtain, a spotlight shining down on it with the words JOHNSON CENTER reflecting out to the audience. A podium stood near the front of the stage, flanked by two seven-tiered pyramids of champagne glasses set up on round, skirted tables. The crystal sparkled under the bright stage lighting.

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