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Authors: Donna Hill

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BOOK: Heart's Reward
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A sudden clap of thunder startled him out of his mind games and none too soon. His imagination was on the verge of taking him someplace he didn't need to go. Melanie Harte was not an option.

Claude crossed the room to the window and closed it. He stood in front of the arched panes of glass as the heavens lit up with a burst of brilliant white light, illuminating the sky.

The ringing phone drew his attention from the spectacle of light. He picked up the phone from the end table and recognized the cell number right away.

“Traci…how are you?”

Her laughter filled the phone lines. “Don't you simply hate technology and what it has done to the element of surprise? I'm fine. Better than fine and I'm in town for a few days. I was hoping we could get together if you're going to be around.”

“Where are you staying?”

“The Marriott in midtown. Lucked out and got a suite.”

He and Traci had met about five, six years earlier when he was at the U.N. conference with the senator. Traci was an attaché and spent most of her time traveling, as well. Never married, career politico with
aspirations to run for office. Smart, easy on the eyes and low maintenance.

Claude glanced at the clock. Almost eight. He listened to the ping of the rain bouncing off the windows. An hour drive into the city and then back. What the hell. He could use some uncomplicated company. “Late dinner?”

“Sounds great. I'll meet you in the bar whenever you get here. The restaurant closes at eleven but…room service is available until two.”

Her offer was clear. If he decided to stay, it wouldn't be a problem.

“I'll see you soon.” He hung up the phone and prepared for the rest of his night.

 

Claude strode into the lobby of the Marriot shortly after nine-thirty. As usual for midtown Manhattan hotels, the lobby, the bar and the restaurant were pulsing with activity. He slipped out of his black linen jacket and draped it over his arm as he wound his way around the bustling bodies and headed in the direction of the bar.

He spotted her before she saw him. Her fiery red hair with sunset highlights was like a beacon, falling in a tumble of silken waves to her bare shoulders. She wore black, as he did. Her snuggly fitted dress hugged every inch of her, at least the few inches that were covered by fabric. She was in an animated conversation with a man who seemed intent on dis
covering what she may have hidden between her very inviting cleavage that rose above the scoop neck top of her dress.

Claude smiled. Traci was still being her devilish self. He moved into her line of sight and when she spotted him, her emerald-green eyes lit up like fireworks. She put down her glass, patted her conversation companion on the shoulder and walked away, leaving him with his mouth hanging open.

“Claude.” She walked right up to him, slid her arms around his neck and kissed him full on the lips.

He hooked one arm around her narrow waist and pulled her tight against him for a quick trip down memory lane before breaking the kiss. “I would ask how you're doing, but I can tell you're doing just fine.”

Traci laughed and linked her fingers with Claude's. “Girl has to have some fun. I'm starved. How about you?”

He thought of the plate Lin had fixed and left in the oven that he'd never had a chance to touch. “Me, too.”

“Good. Come on.”

 

“So, catch me up. How is life in the fast lane?” Traci asked as she cut into her steak.

“Well, you know the senator has his hands in as many pots as the law allows. He's chair of two major
committees and sits on a half dozen others. My plate stays full.” He chewed on his forkful of steak, which nearly melted in his mouth.

“Do you think it was the job or the whole black, white thing that kept us from getting together?” Traci asked casually.

Claude drew in a breath in concert with the rise and fall of his brows. “Hard to say. Maybe a little of both.”

“Or maybe,” she wagged her fork at him, “we were both living out some jungle fever fantasy. Know what I mean?”

Claude chuckled. “Maybe you're right,” he said, adding to the repartee.

“But the truth is, neither one of us was or is ready to slow down.”

Claude chose not to comment. He sipped from his glass of wine.

“Hey, did you get to the embassy party the other night? I know you don't usually attend, but I heard this was a good one, as embassy parties go.”

Claude's thoughts flashed back to that night and meeting Melanie for the first time. Now that's the kind of woman he would consider slowing down for.

Traci was waving her hand in front of his face. “Earth to Claude.”

He blinked the image away.

“Where'd you go?”

“Sorry…just thinking about the party. Yes, it was nice, great food, music…” His voice drifted off.

Traci angled her head to the side and tucked her palm beneath her chin. “Who is she?” Her eyes gleamed in the light.

Claude leaned back and wiped his mouth with the napkin. “Why must there be a she?”

“There's always a she…or a he when someone gets that look in their eyes.”

“Really?” he said, deadpan.

“Scientific fact. So, come on, tell.”

“There's nothing to tell.”

She gave him a skeptical look. “Hmm. Then you're free and clear to spend the night with me, like old times,” she said, a hint of challenge in her voice.

Had it been a week ago he wouldn't have hesitated. It was crazy to think that something could go on between him and Melanie. They barely knew each other. Not to mention that he'd laid down twenty-five big ones. The only thing between them was business. He focused on Traci. She was beautiful, fun, smart and hot as a volcano. He reached across the table and took her hand. “If I tell you this, you have to swear you won't laugh.”

“If it's funny, I'm going to laugh,” she said, totally serious.

Claude threw up his hands. “Okay, forget it.”

Traci surged forward. “Okay, okay. I won't laugh. I swear.” She crossed her heart and stared at him with wide-eyed innocence.

Claude stared her down for a minute, drew in a breath and debated about what he was on the verge of saying. He linked his fingers together. “I went to a dating service.”

Her mouth opened but Claude's warning glare kept anything from coming out.

“I'm not talking about some online stuff. It's classy, high tech and cost fifty grand to get on board.” He went on to explain what had transpired and how it was Alan's idea to find someone for him.

“Alan Harte? You're kidding. Mr. Footloose and Fancy Free?”

Claude laughed. “Yes, him. His sister Melanie runs the family business.” Just saying her name made his stomach jump. He went on to tell her about The Platinum Society, how it operates and their money-back guarantee.

Traci was genuinely fascinated. “The Platinum Society, huh?” She twisted her lips in concentration, then turned her focus on Claude. “It all sounds fantastic, but why are you doing this? It's so out of character for you.”

“That's what I kept telling myself. But the truth…I'm getting tired of looking to the future and the only one in the picture is me.”

“I should be hurt and insulted,” Traci said, “that I'm not even in consideration.”

“Traci…I…”

She held up her hand to ward off an explanation that wouldn't change anything. “I'm a realist, Claude. I know what goes on between us does not a forever make. I'm fine with that. You deserve someone, someone special.” She lifted her wine glass. “To The Platinum Society and finding the perfect woman for a perfect man.”

They touched glasses.

“You think maybe if I got a serious tan?” she teased and they both fell into laughter.

Claude opted not to stay the night, but they did spend a few hours over dessert and drinks catching up on Capitol Hill gossip, unrest in the Middle East and the ridiculousness of airport security, to which Claude declared, “Before it's all over we're going to be down to our birthday suits going through airport security.”

“Hopefully not before I leave for Turkey,” she said over her laughter as they prepared to depart. “I'm heading out next week.”

Traci walked with him to the entrance of the hotel, where they shared a hug and kiss for the road, and as he lay in bed that night, alone, he could have kicked himself for not taking Traci up on her generous offer as nature and hormones conspired against him. He
turned onto his side. Hopefully, TPS was as good as they claimed. Then maybe he could stop turning down beautiful, willing women and get his mind off of Melanie.

Chapter 5

“T
hese are the two that I came up with for Mr. Montgomery,” Veronica said as she pressed a button on the remote to activate the video projector. “The first is Dayna Grant. She runs several art galleries/lounges along the East Coast,” Veronica said. “She's thirty-three, five foot eight, one hundred and thirty eight pounds, divorced, no children. She has an MBA from Stanford and loves to travel.”

Melanie made some notes as she listened to Dayna talk about herself in the interview and what she was looking for in a man.

“And then I thought that Grace Freeman was also a good choice. She's not as high-powered as Dayna,
but she can hold her own. I've seen her work a room during one of her book launch parties. She has class and style to match Mr. Montgomery.”

“Yes, I remember her. Really nice woman. I liked her a lot.” Melanie continued to make notes. Either of these women would be perfect for Claude, certainly on paper. The real test would come once they'd met and had gone out a time or two.

The screen darkened. Veronica turned to her aunt. “So what do you think?”

“I think you're very good at what you do,” she said, her gaze glimmering with pride.

“Thanks, Aunt Mel.”

“Get it set up. And give Max a call at Deity Supper Club.”

“In Brooklyn?”

Melanie grinned. “Yes, take them both out of their element. Deity is super classy, great food and the drinks are to die for.”

Veronica nodded slowly as the idea took hold. “And since we're going off script, how about sending Claude and Grace to Madame X in the Village in Manhattan for a Lady Jane Salon reading?”

Melanie giggled and clapped her hands. “I love it. Perfect. And maybe we can work it out so that Grace can do a reading.”

“I'll get right on it.” Veronica looked at her aunt.
“We usually do the yacht or fly the couple somewhere. Why the change?”

Melanie paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. “Generally we make it so easy for the couple on the first date. We set them up in the lushness of what they are used to.” She lifted her chin and folded her arms. “I think they need a bit of a challenge. If they can get through it, experience something new, then we can pull out all the stops.”

“I'll take care of it.”

Melanie nodded. “Keep me posted. Give Mr. Montgomery a call, bring him up to date on what we have for him so far.”

“Oh…” The one word from Veronica hung in the air.

“Problem?”

“No, it's just that, well it's what you usually do.”

“We're doing things differently, remember?” was all she said and walked out.

 

Melanie went to her room to change into her running clothes. The air was cool, almost chilly, but her body was on fire. She needed to douse the flames. A run along the beach and around the property always helped to clear her head.

Dressed and ready she told Evan that she was going out for a run in case anyone was looking for her.

She pulled her headband down over her ears and
wrapped a towel around her neck. Her midnight-blue running jacket came just below her hips. Her running pants in the same blue clung to her legs like a second skin.

At the front door, she did several minutes of stretching before taking off. She began slowly, heading down the path from the mansion onto the bluff then to the steps that led down to the beach. The sun was pale today, barely strong enough to give off any rays of warmth. The sky was slightly overcast and storm clouds could be seen in the distance. The water was gray and choppy. She took this all in as she started out on her run. It was a picture of solitude and loneliness, emotions that she was unable to shake lately. And as a result she'd quietly begun to question her ability to manage the business. Between having the hots for her client and questioning her own feelings, she wasn't sure of anything anymore. How effective could she continue to be in helping perfect strangers find love when she couldn't even put together a relationship of her own?

She started off along the beach, following the horizon for about a mile, willing her mind to simply turn off and relax for a few minutes. But her thoughts refused to obey.

The truth was, after Steven, she'd dived into work, putting all that she had into finding love, the kind of love she'd shared with her husband, for others. And
for a long time, that was enough. She felt fulfilled. There had been men from time to time, men that she met at parties or while traveling. She'd even received several proposals over the years. Yet there had been no one that made her want to say “I do.” She'd seen the rainbow, crossed the colors to the other side, but she never got her pot of gold, her reward.

A low ominous rumble caused her to look outward. The oncoming dark-gray storm clouds sped across the foamy waves. In the distance a zigzag of terrifying bright light cut across the sky. She had maybe five minutes before heaven and earth collided. She picked up her pace and headed back toward the house and none too soon. Halfway there, the first drops of rain began to fall and within moments, it was nearly blinding. If she hadn't run this road a million times she would have never found her way back. The rain splashed against her face, whipped up by the frenzied wind, pinning her clothes to her body, determined, it seemed, to push her away from where she wanted to go. Her legs suddenly weighed a ton as she ran across the sand that sucked her feet like a vacuum. The added exertion accelerated her heart. She wiped water from her eyes as she rounded the bend and could just make out the shape of the house up ahead. If she wanted a workout, she'd certainly gotten one. She reached the steps and fought against the rising wind and rain to make it to the top then
across the lawn and down the pathway to the front door, ignoring everything except the refuge of her home.

She came through the door, dripping wet and shivering cold. She stripped out of her jacket, took off her sneakers and walked toward the stairs when the sound of male voices drifted to her from the living room. One she recognized immediately, the second made her pulse race. She quickened her steps in the direction of the stairs and the safety of her bedroom. Just as she zipped by the partially opened door, Alan stepped out.

“There you are. We were getting worried. I was just telling Claude that if you didn't show up in the next two minutes I was coming out to look for you.”

Melanie froze. Her nieces and nephew crowded the doorway. Claude stepped out behind her brother. She was mortified.

“I really have to get out of these wet clothes. Then I can talk.” She gave Claude a brief smile and it took every ounce of willpower not to run like a rabbit chased by a fox up to her room.

Once behind closed doors she fought back a scream of disbelief. What in the world was Claude doing here? She was going to have a serious talk with her brother. She headed for the bathroom, turned the
shower on full blast and peeled out of her dripping wet clothes.

Thunder erupted like dynamite in the sky, rattling the windows. The lights flickered for a moment then settled.

As she stood under the steaming water she wondered what she could possibly say to her brother: Don't bring Claude here without telling me so that I can be presentable because I have a thing for him, I think?

She held her face up to the water. Of course that was out of the question and ridiculous. Claude was Alan's longtime friend. Both of them were in town and it stood to reason that they would hang out together. In addition to which, this was where Alan's family could always be found.

She sighed, gave her body another lathering then turned off the water. Wrapped in towels, she walked barefoot back into her bedroom. What she wanted to do was curl up under her comforter, sip on a glass of brandy and watch a
Criminal Minds
marathon. None of which she could do without seeming totally rude. Instead she blow dried her hair, lotioned her body and put on a casually fabulous outfit in a silver-toned cotton-knit jersey fabric. The lounging pants and top flowed softly against her skin. Slippers for her feet and a dash of her favorite perfume behind each ear
and she was ready. She took a last look in the mirror, then joined her family and guest downstairs.

When she entered the room, Claude was in an animated conversation with Alan about the New York Knicks' latest game. Her nieces and nephew were gone. Heads turned in her direction. Claude stood.

Melanie crossed the room toward him. She extended her hand. “I see my brother has managed to get you all the way out here again and in the middle of a storm no less,” she said good-naturedly.

He took her hand and held it. “When a black SUV with tinted windows pulls up in front of your door and a voice from deep in the recesses of the interior says ‘get in,' you get in.” He chuckled.

“You make it sound sinister,” Alan said while he fixed himself a drink at the bar.

“My brother has always fancied himself a spy,” Melanie said in a moderately bad attempt at a British accent. “That's why he works at the State Department and no one really knows what he does.”

“Very funny.” Alan took a sip of his drink.

The lights flickered.

Melanie moaned. “Not a good sign.”

“Do you get power outages up here a lot?” Claude asked.

“If we have really bad electrical storms we have been known to lose power for a few minutes or a day or two. Fortunately for us, and most of the town,
we have a backup generator. So the problem isn't so much with the homes but getting in and out of town. No lights and the inevitable flooding.”

Claude hummed deep in his throat.

“My brother is a lousy host, always has been. Can we get you something to eat, drink?”

“No, I'm fine, thanks.”

“Evan should be fixing dinner. But just let me know if you want something beforehand.” She turned to her brother. “Were you planning to stay for dinner?”

Before he could answer, the sky lit up and the inside of the house was swathed in darkness.

“The generator should kick in in a minute if the lights don't come back on,” Alan offered.

Several moments passed. Voices of concern coming from the hallway drew closer.

“Hey, what's going on with the power?” Vincent asked from the other end of a flashlight. His sister was right behind him.

“The generator should be on by now,” Veronica complained.

“Hey where is everybody?” Jessica yelled from the basement, her voice coming closer as she bounded up the stairs.

“We're in here,” Vincent replied.

Jessica, a bit breathless, joined the group just as
another bolt of lightning provided the only other illumination.

Alan walked to the window. “This is a bad one. No lights on the entire shore.”

“What?” the group chorused in disbelief and joined Alan at the window.

Veronica picked up the phone and brought it to her ear. “Dead.”

“What about your cell, Alan?” Melanie asked.

He took his BlackBerry out of his pocket.

“Weak but usable. Government has to be good for something.” He put it back in his pocket.

Evan entered the room bearing a tray of lighted candles. “I found the hurricane lamps in the cabinets.” He set the lamps down, then placed the lighted candles on the tables and shelves around the room.

“Thanks, Evan,” Melanie said.

“Fortunately I'd already finished dinner when the lights went out. Should I bring everything in here or should I set up in the dining room?”

Melanie moved away from the window. “In here is fine.”

He nodded and walked out.

“Guess we can pretend we're camping,” Jessica offered, “like when we were kids.”

Veronica and Vincent laughed. “Oh, you mean the times that you used to cry because you were scared of the dark?” Vincent taunted.

“No, I was thinking of the time that you got chased around by a bee all day and it finally bit you on the nose, which blew it up to five times its normal size. And Cheryl Adams wouldn't speak to you for a week. That's more like the time I was talking about,” Jessica replied with deadpan sarcasm.

Veronica whooped with laughter. “I remember! You were a mess.”

“I'm gonna call my wife,” Vincent said. “Someone loves me.” He walked over to the corner near the window and took out his phone. Shortly he was in conversation with his wife, assuring her that if at all possible he would get home.

“From the look of it out there, you're going to have to camp out here today, buddy,” Alan said to Claude.

“The rain isn't letting up.”

“You really think so?” His shadow lengthened and shortened in the candle light.

“If nothing else it's too dangerous to drive in weather like this. The chances of flash flooding are almost certain and it's pitch black outside,” Melanie said. “We have plenty of room. Don't even worry about it.”

Claude inhaled slowly then shrugged. “The locals know best,” he conceded, knowing that he had no qualms whatsoever of spending the night under the same roof as Melanie Harte.

Evan rolled the food cart into the room and began
setting out dinner on the long serving table that braced the wall. The silver covered trays couldn't contain the mouth-watering aroma that wafted from under the lids.

Braised baby lamb chops in Evan's special sauce, saffron rice, a mixed greens salad, fresh string beans and fingerling potatoes.

“Enjoy,” Evan said before leaving the room.

“I'm going to check the generator. It should have kicked in by now.”

Melanie put a gentle hand on Vincent's shoulder. “It can wait. Sit down and eat first. The generator will either come on or it won't.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “It'll be fine. Everyone help yourself.” She found herself standing behind Claude on the short buffet line. In the semi-darkness she could satisfy her longing to see him without being seen. She felt small in his presence—not tiny or overpowered but rather enveloped. His solid broad back called out to be touched and measured by experienced fingers. The back view was equally as stimulating as the front as her eyes drifted down below the leather belt.

BOOK: Heart's Reward
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