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Authors: Donna Hill

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BOOK: Heart's Reward
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Chapter 7

C
laude stirred. It was the silence that awakened him. The storm had ceased and the pale moon struggled behind an army of clouds for recognition. The candles were all but burned out, their remains like fallen clothing at their bases. He turned, anticipating the warmth of Melanie's body, and met cool emptiness. He sat up, adjusting his eyes to the gray light.

He tossed the twisted sheet aside and noticed the digital bedside clock flashing 2:00 a.m. The power must have come back on while they slept, he rationalized abstractly. He stood and listened for signs of Melanie, thinking that she must be in the adjoining bathroom. On the floor where he'd tossed their
clothing, only his remained. He drew in a long breath of reality followed by a mental marathon of questions that ran in succession, never waiting for answers. Why did she leave without saying anything? How did he not hear her? Had something else happened that caused her to leave without explanation?

He reached down on the floor and retrieved his boxers. He couldn't very well go looking for her in the middle of the night, he thought, putting them on, or go knocking on her bedroom door, not that he knew which door it was, and in any case neither scenario was an option. He dropped down onto the side of the bed, then fell back against the firm mattress, throwing an arm across his eyes. What he felt inside was gray like the light beyond his window, affording the viewer just enough illumination to determine shapes and not much more. It didn't feel right at all. But there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it until he saw Melanie again.

 

Melanie showered and dressed, wanting to extend her morning ritual throughout the day and into the night. Perhaps by then Claude would have gone back with Alan to the city and she wouldn't have to face him. The muscles in her throat tightened as she struggled not to cry. How could she have been so stupid, so reckless to jeopardize the business and its reputation just so that she could live out her fantasy of getting laid by Claude Montgomery? Oh God. She
was just as trifling as some of the women TPS had refused to deal with.

How could she face her brother, her family knowing what she'd allowed to happen? It would be all over her face. She knew it.

She ran a comb through her hair as she faced the mirror and was appalled at the dark circles under her eyes. There was only so much magic makeup could do. She took her time covering up her indiscretion.

Voices from downstairs reached up to her and she tried to listen for Claude's voice among the others but she didn't hear it. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe he'd gone. Maybe last night didn't really happen. But it did, you fool.

Tossing the comb on the dresser, she sealed her emotions behind a façade of professionalism when she entered the dining room, although last night was anything but professional.

Evan was at the serving table pouring a glass of juice. Veronica and Jessica were in conversation. Vincent, Alan and Claude were not there. A momentary sensation of relief was quickly replaced by disappointment when Jessica told her that Alan had driven Claude back into the city and Vincent went home to check on Cherise.

Was he that eager to get away from her that he couldn't bother to say goodbye? Maybe she had no
reason to feel guilty. Maybe it was no more to him than a roll in the hay. The thought stung.

“You okay, Aunt Mel?” Veronica asked.

Melanie blinked her into focus. She forced herself to smile. “Yes, I'm fine. I didn't sleep very well.”

“At least the power is back on,” Veronica said. “I have tons of work to do. I told Mr. Montgomery about our choices for him and he seemed very pleased. I'll make the calls today and get everything set up.”

Every word was a blow.
He seemed very pleased.
Of course he did. What happened between them was just a fling between two consenting adults. He can walk off without a care in the world, while she was left feeling like the neighborhood good-time girl. She felt ill. She'd never done anything so reckless before. Oh my God…they hadn't used protection.

“Aunt Mel, what is it?” Veronica said, alarm present in her voice. She was halfway out of her seat.

Melanie concentrated on slowing down her racing heart with measured breaths.

“You gasped like you'd seen something horrible.”

She did. Herself. She turned her back to her nieces, reached for the coffee on the table and came face to face with Evan.

“You don't look well, Ms. Harte. Maybe I should fix you some tea.”

“Thank you. I think that might help.”

“Right away.”

“Are you coming down with something? You did say you didn't sleep well. Maybe you're catching a cold.”

“Maybe. I think I'll take it easy today, just in case,” she said, happy for an excuse to steal away to her room.

“We can handle everything here,” Jessica offered.

“Go rest. I'll ask Evan to bring your breakfast.”

Melanie waved off the offer. “Tea is fine for now. Maybe something a little later. Thanks.” She walked out of the room and upstairs. It took all she had not to burst into tears.

Quietly she shut her bedroom door. She had no reason to feel so miserable. But she did. She felt silly and she had to get over it. Claude Montgomery may have been her heart and body's desire, but he was still a paying client and she could not, even for a moment, allow him to think that his 50k bought any side favors from her.

What must he think of her? That sick sensation rolled in her stomach again. She shook her head. She would have to put it out of her mind, find a way to mentally move through it and do what she was hired to do: find the perfect woman for Claude Montgomery.

 

Asking for a refund would be petty, Claude thought as he donned his helmet and pushed his bike down the
pathway of his house toward the street. He'd tried to sleep. That was useless. His mind became filled with images and sounds of Melanie and their incredible night together. Only it all seemed like something he'd made up, a figment of his imagination. He certainly couldn't talk to his best friend, Alan, about the situation. “Oh, by the way, bro, I slept with your sister last night and it was fabulous.” Had it been any other woman, he was sure that Alan would have some great advice along with a hearty congratulatory slap on the back. But this was his sister and it was clear from how he talked about her, talked to her and treated her that he truly adored Melanie.

This wasn't his fault, he reasoned as the mighty engine roared to life beneath him. But of course it was. He'd kissed her first. Told her it was what he wanted from the moment they'd met. So what if it was true? Had he not kissed her, become tantalized by her lips, her scent, the feel of her next to him, beneath him, wrapped around him, then the fact that she was gone without a word when he awoke wouldn't matter. He wouldn't give a damn. And he was mad as hell at himself that he cared.

He took off down the street, heading for the highway. He had no particular destination in mind, he only knew that he needed to get out, find a way to clear his head. He raced past cars on the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, eliciting the blare of
horns and strings of curses from the drivers. He didn't care. He could feel his anger, humiliation and disappointment boil beneath the surface. How had she been able to get under his skin so quickly and so thoroughly to a point where he wasn't thinking clearly? He'd never been one of those guys that was led by their little head. So why now, and why Melanie Harte?

He drove further into the Westchester suburbs until the houses became less numerous, guarded by massive lawns, towering trees and electronic gates.

On the ride back from Sag Harbor he'd been withdrawn, unusually quiet with the man he'd known for most of his adult life. When Alan questioned him, he passed it off as being tired, which wasn't as much of a lie as it was a detour from the truth. He was tired after having stayed up the balance of the night wondering what went wrong. What he wanted to talk about was Melanie. He wanted to ask Alan what were the things that made her happy, why had she never married again, was she seeing anyone, what was her favorite dessert, her passion. He wanted to learn everything there was to learn about her, but he couldn't ask, and now he would never know. And that was his last thought before he heard the sound of sirens.

 

“He's coming around.”

The words were filtered through cotton, absorbing
and distorting them. He tried to focus, but concentration was impossible with the pounding in his head and the bright lights shining in his eyes. His entire body throbbed.

“Mr. Montgomery, can you hear me?”

He tried to speak. His mouth felt funny. “Yes,” he managed to whisper, his voice harsh and raspy.

“Do you know what happened to you?”

The pounding in his head intensified. He tried to remember. A deer. A deer had appeared on the road just as he'd turned the curve. He hit the brakes and swerved to avoid hitting it and possibly killing them both. The images of falling down into the ravine came in snatches like snapshots. Just glimpses.

He closed his eyes. He ran his tongue over his teeth.
Still there.

“You're a very lucky man,” the doctor was saying.

“You have a concussion and two bruised ribs. No broken bones. No internal injuries. It would have been a different story if you'd hit that deer or if your bike had fallen on you. We've given you something for the pain and we're going to observe you overnight. If everything is clear, you can be discharged tomorrow. We'll take another CAT scan to be sure. Get some rest.”

He tried to move, but his body ached too much. Did the doctor know what he was talking about,
because he sure felt like something was broken, a lot of somethings.

“What some people will do for attention.”

Gingerly, Claude turned his head in the direction of the voice and squinted against the fluorescent light.

“Traci?”

“To the rescue.”

“But…how did you know I was here?”

“Apparently I was the last number that you dialed on your cell. I guess from the night we had dinner, when you called to say you were on your way.” She drew closer to the bed and braced her arms across the railing and looked down at him. “I'm glad they called me.”

“I thought you were out of the country.”

“Postponed.” She ran a finger across his brow. “I called Alan. He said he would get in contact with the senator.”

The mention of Alan immediately brought his sister to mind, which was the last thing he needed to do—think about Melanie. Thinking about her is what got him laid up in a hospital bed.

“The doctor said you'll be having headaches for a while and that you'll need to take it easy for at least a week.”

The way he was feeling he didn't think forever would be enough time.

“So, with that in mind…” She bent down and lifted up a Louis Vuitton carryall. “I won't take no for an answer, so don't bother to say anything. I'm staying with you for a week. I know you have Lin, but she's not me. I can look after you and I swear,” she held her hand over her heart, “I'll stay in the guest room.”

He started to laugh and caught himself as his ribs burned from the effort. He swallowed down the pain. “You don't have to do this.”

“I know. I want to.”

“Can't talk you out of it?”

“No.”

He drew in a shallow breath. “Fine.” He smiled. “Thanks.”

She leaned over the rail and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “Anything for you, sweetie.”

Claude took her hand and brought it to his lips. That's the image that Melanie captured when she walked into the room.

Chapter 8

A
lan loudly cleared his throat. “Looks like you're already on the mend,” he said entering the room, holding Melanie's hand.

“Maybe we should come back,” she whispered to her brother, who ignored her and gently pulled her along.

“Traci, I'm so glad that you called me.” He walked over to her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Traci, this is my sister Melanie. Traci and Claude go way back,” he said, oblivious to the tension in the air.

So this was her. And from the look in Claude's eyes, she's more than the owner of that dating service.
Traci
extended her hand. Something green, like bile seeped through her veins. “Nice to meet you.”

“You, too.” She turned her attention to Claude. “How are you feeling?”

Claude could barely think straight. What was Melanie doing here? “Like I drove my bike into a ditch,” he finally managed to say. A lance-like pain shot through his head. He winced with agony.

Traci immediately leaned over. “Are you okay, baby? You want me to call the nurse back?”

“Naw,” he said, taking slow, deep breaths as the pain slowly abated. “They'll just shoot me up with more drugs. I don't want that.”

“I don't blame you, buddy. If you can grit through it, that's the best thing. You don't want to have to rely on painkillers.”

“But if it gets too bad, don't let your machismo make you suffer,” Traci said, stroking his brow.

Melanie wanted to run out of the room. She couldn't stand the sight of the two of them together. Alan said that “they went way back.” How damned far? It was clear that they were more than friends. If she felt sick before, there was no word to describe how she felt now.

When she'd gotten the call from Alan that Claude had been in an accident, everything stood still. For an instant she couldn't breathe or ask the question she dreaded: How bad was it? She didn't even remember
telling Alan that she would ride with him to the hospital, a two-and-a-half hour drive. She was sure that Alan had been talking to her for most of the trip, but she couldn't tell a soul what he said. She could only imagine the worst. But it was obvious that he was getting all the care he needed. She wanted to leave. Now.

“So Melanie, I've known your brother for years. I'm surprised we haven't met before, especially with both of us knowing Claude.” She turned adoring eyes on him.

“Well, people say it's a small world but sometimes it's bigger than we think.”

Traci's laugh was musical. “That is true.” She continued stroking Claude's hand.

Melanie cringed inside.

“How long are they going to keep you here, man?” Alan asked.

“They're going to take some tests in the morning. If I can get the all clear, I'll be discharged.”

“But he'll have to take it easy for a little while. He didn't tell you that he has a serious concussion and several bruised ribs.” She glanced at Melanie. “He'll be in good hands. I told him that I was going to stay with him a few days. A housekeeper is fine, but at times like this he needs a personal touch.” She smiled.

“I couldn't agree more,” Melanie said. “He's lucky to have you.”

“Well I had to see for myself that you were all right. When Traci called me, I didn't know what to think.”

Traci called? She was the person that Claude contacts in the event of an emergency? Then she was important, they were close.
Melanie pressed her lips together to keep from screaming. If things weren't clear before, they were now. She had no reason to keep beating herself up. He used her just like she used him. End of story. Except that he had someone waiting in the wings to fill any gaps. She didn't.

“Thanks for coming, Alan and Melanie.” He briefly looked at her. “I really appreciate it.” He yawned. “Hmm, 'scuze me. Meds are kicking in.” His eyes fluttered closed, then opened again but didn't quite focus.

“The nurse gave him something just before you both arrived,” Traci offered.

“We're gonna get out of here and let you get some rest,” Alan said.

“Thanks…for comin',” he slurred as the room began to drift in and out of his range of vision.

“He'll be asleep in a minute,” Alan said softly. He went around the side of the bed and kissed Traci on the cheek. “Take care of my man. You need anything,
just call. I'll probably stop out to see him after he gets home and settled.”

“Great. I'll tell him. Call and let me know when you're coming. I'll fix dinner. Melanie, you're more than welcome to come along,” she said, a layer of sarcasm lightly painted her words.

“Thank you. I'll keep that in mind.”

Alan put his arm around Melanie's shoulder. “Come on, sis, we have a long drive ahead of us.”

 

Melanie couldn't shake the image of Claude and Traci. The pictures haunted her for the entire ride back to Sag Harbor and throughout the night.

She awoke the following morning with a new attitude. To hell with Claude Montgomery. She had a business to run and a major party to plan.

 

Claude opened the door to his Westchester home and was greeted by Lin.

“Mr. Montgomery, I was so worried. How are you feeling?”

“Achy, but I'll be fine, Lin. You remember Traci.”

“Of course. Good to see you again.”

“Traci is going to be staying here for a few days.”

“I'll make up the guest room.” She hurried off.

“She's still efficient,” Traci commented. She'd
hoped to spend her time in Claude's room, but that could come later. “Let's get you settled.”

Claude inched his way up the stairs, mindful of his taped ribs. The throb in his head was still there but not as intense as the day before. The doctors said that he would experience headaches from mild to severe for a while and eventually they would disappear. That couldn't happen fast enough, he thought, as he stepped into his bedroom.

“It's pretty much the way I remember,” Traci said, setting her bag down near the six-drawer dresser.

“I'm not here often enough to do much with it.” He sat down on the side of the bed. The exertion of the ride and climbing the stairs began to take its toll. “I think I'll lie down for a while. If you need anything, Lin can get it for you.”

“I'll be fine. I'm sure I can find something to keep myself busy. You get some rest. Can I get you anything?”

“No. Thanks.”

“The guest room is still across the hall, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Great. See you when you get up. I'll check and see if Lin needs any help.” She turned to leave.

“Traci.”

She stopped and faced him? “Yes?”

“Thanks.”

“Don't be silly. That's what friends are for. Get
some rest.” She closed the door quietly behind her and wondered how she could make her short stay last permanently.

Alone, Claude stretched out across the bed and shut his eyes. Without warning, Melanie's face appeared behind his closed lids. He'd wanted to ask her a million questions when she appeared at the foot of his bed like a dream come true. But from her demeanor it was clear that she'd only come out of a sense of duty for a client, not because she cared about him.

He drew in a deep breath—and it cost him as a sharp knife-like pain shot across his body. He groaned as he willed it away. He wished that he could do the same with Melanie. But Traci was here, and according to Veronica and Jessica they had several prospective ladies in waiting. All he had to do was heal and get on with life.

He drifted off into a fitful sleep with his arms wrapped around Melanie and him buried deep inside her incredible warmth.

 

“What are we going to do about Mr. Montgomery?” Veronica asked at their morning meeting.

“Until he's healed, we'll have to put everything on hold,” Melanie said.

“I'll make the calls later today,” Jessica said. “We only had tentative dates at Deity and Madame X. So
that won't be a problem. And I'll give the ladies a call and bring them up to date.”

Melanie nodded. “Rafe Lawson called. He's back in town. Do we have a list of prospects?”

“Several,” Veronica said. “As soon as I know his schedule I can get something set up.”

“Good.” She looked around the table. “Anything else?”

They all said no.

“Okay, let's get to work.”

 

Melanie pushed through her morning and into the afternoon. Having something concrete to do kept her mind off of herself. Although she had periodic bouts of dwelling on Claude and the glorious night they'd spent together, any flame that lingered was stamped out when visions of Traci sprung to mind. What she needed was to be in the company of someone other than herself and her marauding thoughts. She reached for the phone and dialed her best friend, Cynthia Graham.

She and Cynthia had been friends since grad school. She owned an art gallery in town and one in Manhattan. Cynthia's artistic instincts ran counter to Melanie's romanticism, which made for a perfect blend. Cynthia was just the person to put the rug back under Melanie's feet.

Cynthia picked up on the third ring. “CG Gallery, how may I change your life?”

“Hey girl, it's me.”

“Mel. I was just thinking about you and the fact that we haven't had a girls' night out in ages.”

“Great minds,” Melanie said, smiling a real smile for the first time in what seemed like forever. “I was calling to see if you were free tonight for dinner and drinks?”

“Absolutely! I finish up here at seven. Wanna stop by around that time, then we can go by my place so I can change? We can talk on the way.”

“Perfect. See you at seven.”

Melanie hung up, feeling better already. She put the final touches on the guest list and approved the menu from the caterer. The date was set for the Friday four weeks from now. Invitations would go out in the morning. Her annual party was the event of the season in the Harbor, a tradition begun by her grandmother decades ago. Although it was a herculean task, the outcome was well worth the effort. The guest list always included many of her clients, those who had connected with someone and those still on the prowl, along with her long list of athletes, screen and television friends and political associates. Yes, focusing on the party was exactly what she needed, and an evening spent with her best friend would top off her day.

She shut off her computer and went to her room to get ready to meet Cynthia.

 

Cynthia was a devout believer in exercise. Although she lived quite a distance from the gallery, she often walked there, doing her part to reduce her carbon footprint. Melanie was not of the same school of thought. They took her car to Cynthia's house.

“How did you all make out the other night during the power outage?” Cynthia asked as they took the winding road to her house.

“Would you believe that our backup generator didn't work?”

“What? After all the money you paid.”

“Exactly.” She shook her head even as the memories of that night tried to intrude. “Of course the company that installed it was totally apologetic. Apparently a fuse had blown. What about you?”

Cynthia laughed mischievously. “I was tucked happily away,” she said with a wink.

Melanie guessed that it was Michael Quinn. He was Cynthia's latest conquest. He was a young up-and-coming artist who had captured more than Cynthia's artistic eye. So far he'd lasted a little longer than the others, Melanie thought absently. Two months if her calculations were correct.

“What about you? Other than spending the night in total darkness.”

“Actually that's what I want to talk to you about.”

They pulled to a stop on the paved driveway. Cynthia turned to look at her. “Sounds serious.”

“I'm trying not to let it be.”

They got out of the car. Cynthia looped her arm through Melanie's. “Whatever it is, we'll work it out.” She gave her a warm smile as they walked inside.

Cynthia's home was a total reflection of her eclectic taste. Each room in the three-bedroom, two-story home was decorated in a different style, from antique to ultra modern. The walls were adorned with her own work in addition to several rare pieces from the masters and a Basquiat that Melanie simply loved.

“Grab anything you want from the fridge,” Cynthia said, “I'm going to do a quick presto change-o and then we can go.”

“Take your time.” She wandered over to the stereo system and looked through Cynthia's collection of CDs. She picked out several and put them in the disc player.

She heard the shower overhead and the bathroom door slam shut. She went into the kitchen in search of some fruit juice while she waited. The phone rang.

“Mel!” Cynthia shouted from upstairs. “Get that for me, will you?”

“Okay.” She walked over to the phone tucked away on the counter. It was an antique white phone with faux gold trim. She picked up the receiver.

“Hello. Graham residence.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“I was calling for Cynthia.”

The voice sounded oddly familiar.

“She's busy at the moment. Can I take a message and have her call you back?”

“Sure thing, cher. Can you let her know that Rafe Lawson called and I'll try her a little later?”

For a split second all the air got stuck in the center of her chest.
Rafe Lawson. What in the world was he doing calling Cynthia?

“Of course.”

“Thank you.”

Mechanically she hung up the phone. Rafe Lawson? Cynthia was seeing him? When did that happen? She drew in a long breath. She should have told him who she was. That would have shook up his arrogant ass. But what little she did know about Rafe was that he probably would have laughed it off and made her feel like a fool.

BOOK: Heart's Reward
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