Melissa entered the code in the security pad, her stomach heavy with dread. The tall iron gates opened and she drove through the entrance and up the long, lighted driveway to the house she shared with her fiancé, Steven. She parked her red Mercedes next to his black one but remained in her car, trying to collect herself. Each time she left the house, she had the overwhelming urge to keep driving and never look back. Tears burned in her eyes. Tonight was no different.
She finally got out of her car and approached the house, her heels clicking on the stone walkway. Her friends and family thought she was living a fairytale, but only she knew the truth. The truth was dark and left her feeling hollow inside.
She strode through the door and into the opulent entryway, immediately kicking her heels off. After tossing her handbag down, she climbed the stairs in search of Steven. They needed to talk, and she refused to let him blow her concerns off one more time. Engaged couples were supposed to be madly in love and inseparable, not constantly fighting and avoiding each other.
As she neared their bedroom, the sound of voices stopped her in her tracks. She stood in the middle of the hallway, holding her breath as she listened. Her heart bottomed out and crashed to the floor when she heard the voices again, and a second later, deep moans and a woman clearly saying, “Let me take care of that for you, honey buns.”
She should leave. She should storm in, pack her bags, and never come back. Wiping a tear from her face, she straightened her jacket and dress, then glanced in a mirror to make sure her eyes weren’t red. Satisfied that she appeared composed, she stormed into their bedroom, prepared to tell Steven and the other woman to fuck off.
But try as she might, nothing could prepare her for the sight that greeted her when she flung the door open. Steven sat on a chair facing the bed, and a blonde head bobbed up and down between his thighs. Two naked women were making out on the bed, apparently putting on a show for him. Clothing was strewn about the floor, and bottles of liquor covered the tops of the dressers and bedside tables. The expression on Steven’s face was one of pure bliss.
Melissa stared for a long minute, no one in the room privy to her arrival, even though she’d made plenty of noise opening the door. She looked at the women, and although she was angry with Steven for his complete and utter betrayal, a pang of insecurity gave her pause. The women all had large breasts, probably fake but huge and round nonetheless, and though none of them were standing up, she suspected they were much taller and curvier than her. All blondes. She touched her brown hair and her eyes went wide as she recalled the time, a few months ago, when Steven had suggested she go blonde for a change.
He’d also suggested she get a boob job for her twenty-second birthday next month, a suggestion she’d shrugged off. She swallowed hard. Regret flowed through her in an endless wave of grief. Obviously getting engaged so young had been a mistake. Her friends and family had supported her and encouraged her to marry Steven, but the tabloids and talk shows had cast doubt on their happiness, and while she usually ignored that sort of stuff, all the headlines about Steven’s predilection for prostitutes and hard partying sped through her mind. He worked long hours and often stumbled home after midnight. Like a fool, she’d believed his stories about business meetings with important clients. Wanting to have a picture perfect marriage, she’d ignored the smell of booze and perfume that often clung to his person. She constantly told herself she was paranoid and should be more trusting.
Seeing him in action in the bedroom they shared was a hard punch to the stomach.
She cleared her throat and the room fell silent, the moans and ragged breaths ceasing. Steven looked at her with wide, guilty eyes.
“Melissa! You’re, uh, home early.”
She smirked and gazed from face to face, noting all the women were trying to conceal smiles. Apparently the end of her relationship was funny. She glared at them coldly before meeting Steven’s gaze again.
“And you’re cheating on me. With not one, or two, but three hookers.” She sighed in exasperation and pinched the bridge of her nose, her head suddenly pounding. “I can’t marry you, Steven. It’s over.”
He shook his head and buttoned up his pants. The woman on the floor grinned up at him and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “We just moved in together,” Steven said, sounding shocked.
“So I go see a show on Broadway, a show I invited you to but you declined to come, and when I come home early I find you with a couple of prostitutes?” She crossed her arms and waited for his response, determined to keep her calm. She’d break down crying later, when no one was around to witness her tears. But under no circumstances would she allow Steven to glimpse her sorrow.
He threw his hands up in the air. “Fine, you caught me. Happy? I picked up a couple of girls on my way home from work tonight. Next time you’re going to be home early, maybe you should call first.”
His words broke her heart. He hadn’t always been so cruel, but he’d been drinking more and more during the last year. Foolishly, she’d thought he might sober up after they moved in together. But two months had passed since then, and if anything he only drank more. She had loved him, and she had been happy during the beginning of their engagement, but now she wondered if perhaps she’d been in love with the man he used to be. The young man who used to show up at her house with flowers for no other reason than because he wanted to see her, the young man who used to tell her she was the prettiest girl in the whole world.
His job hadn’t been going as well as he’d hoped, and he’d been trying to make vice president in her father’s company for years—and failing. Never one to pick favorites, even among friends and family, her father had told her in confidence that Steven wasn’t ready for such great responsibility yet, nor had he earned it. She suspected his job troubles likely contributed to his perpetual foul mood and his increasingly bad drinking habit.
Without a word, Melissa entered her walk-in closet and quickly packed a suitcase, throwing in enough outfits to get her by for two weeks. She didn’t know where to go, but she needed to get the hell away from Steven. He’d used her, he’d broken her heart, he’d cheated on her, and worst of all he’d made her feel bad about herself. Fuck him, she thought as she zipped up her suitcase. He could keep the house for all she cared. She’d wanted something smaller anyway. What the hell did they need with a fifteen bedroom house? She strode out of her closet with the suitcase in hand, knowing she’d feel somewhat better once she put a few miles—or maybe a few hundred—between her and Steven.
“Now, Melissa, don’t you think you’re overreacting?” Steven asked, blocking the doorway. “Come on, baby. You don’t really want to leave me.”
A glance around the room showed all the girls had left.
“I called Martin to drive them back to the city. Look, I’m really sorry, Melissa.”
She laughed bitterly. “I’m sure this isn’t the first time your assistant has had to play chauffer for your hookers. Now get the fuck out of my way. I’m leaving you, Steven. For good. Obviously these last few years were a big mistake.”
His face darkened and he made no move to step aside. “You’re not going anywhere, Melissa. You’re my fiancé, and we will work this out. Think about our families, and our livelihood.”
“You mean your job? That’s all you ever cared about, isn’t it?” They were both trust fund babies and had a large combined wealth, but that wasn’t enough for Steven. Nothing was. No matter how much he earned, no matter how fancy his cars or his clothes, he wasn’t happy.
“Look, Melissa, are you still angry because I laughed when you said you wanted to go back to college? Is that what this display of yours is all about? Honey, no offense, but I don’t think you’re smart enough to handle the master’s degree classes.”
She saw red and her heavy suitcase collided with his crotch. He gasped, his face turned crimson, and he cupped his center. Then he hit the floor and curled into himself, calling her vile names in a raspy voice as he fought to catch his breath.
“You fucking bitch! You’re going to pay for that.”
She tossed her engagement ring at him before heading downstairs, just in time to witness Martin drive off with three blonde heads in the backseat of his car. The scent of their gross perfume lingered in the entryway and made her stomach turn.
After uttering a quick prayer, she slipped into her heels, gathered up her keys and handbag, and headed outside into the warm night air. She heaved her suitcase into the trunk of her car and sped down the driveway, not caring where she ended up, as long as it was far from New York and Steven.
* * *
John drove through town as the sun set over the mountains in a brilliant display of orange and pink light that splintered through the trees. After a long day of driving through the most rural parts of southern West Virginia making house calls, exhaustion plagued him and he wanted nothing more than a quick, hot meal from Amy Lou’s Diner before falling into bed. Tomorrow was Friday, the one day a week his office on Main Street opened for patients, followed by a much needed weekend off, so at least he wouldn’t be driving all over God’s creation for a few days. He looked forward to the down time, but he knew he’d probably spend his whole weekend applying for grants for House Call Hope, the nonprofit business he owned and operated in one of the poorest parts of the country.
He brought his truck to a halt at the stop sign across from the diner, noting the parking lot loomed ahead, empty and lonely. As it was, he was arriving just before closing. He usually did, but Amy Lou didn’t seem to mind letting him close the place down almost every night. As he released the brake pedal, a bump rattled his truck and sent him lurching forward. He immediately hit the brake again and gazed into his rearview mirror. His eyes grew wide at the sight of a woman seated in a bright red Mercedes holding her head in her hands.
John put his truck in park, hopped out, and approached the woman. She uncovered her face and stared at him with a terror stricken expression, then cracked her window an inch. She was young, probably college age, with stunning blue eyes and chestnut brown hair that fell over her shoulders in waves. Dark circles rimmed her eyes, suggesting she was either tired or had been crying and smudged her makeup. When he noticed her bloodshot eyes, he decided perhaps both.
“Good evening, miss,” he said. “Are you all right?”
The color drained from her face. “I-I’m so sorry I hit you. I was looking around at the scenery and didn’t see you ahead. It’s completely my fault. Look, I have insurance and I will make sure the damages to your truck are taken care of.”
He eyed her again through the cracked window. The impact hadn’t even been hard enough to deploy her airbag. But still, he wanted to make sure she was okay. “Miss, I couldn’t care less about the damages right now. Are you all right? How about you open the door and let me get a better look at you.” At the obvious fear in her eyes, he stepped back and put his hands up in mock surrender. “It’s okay. I’m a doctor, and I just want to help you.”
A puzzled look took over her pretty face, and she glanced ahead at his truck. “You mean, you’re not mad I hit you?”
He chuckled. “Where are you from, darlin’?”
“Westchester, New York. It’s, um, near New York City.” Some of the fear left her gaze, and she straightened, as if trying to compose herself. “You sure you won’t try to pull my hair and yell at me if I open the car door?”
The image of him tangling a hand through her pretty brown locks and yanking her head back, perhaps so he could kiss those full pink lips of hers, caught him off guard. He swallowed hard and shook his head. “I give you my word that I won’t hurt you. Open the door, darlin’,” he said gently.
After a deep breath and another cautious glance his way, she unlocked the door and opened it a crack. John opened it the entire way, slowly, not making any sudden movements. He reached a hand out to her.
“Can you get out of the car?”
“Yes, of course.” She accepted his hand and he helped her out, but she dropped his hand the moment she stood upright. The long, blue dress she wore cascaded down her legs and swayed in the light breeze, drawing his attention up and down her body. Everything about her screamed money, from her red Mercedes to her designer clothing and shoes. But damn the poor girl looked lost. And scared. He had the urge to wrap his arms around her and tell her everything was going to be okay, even though he had no idea what had brought her from one of the richest parts of the nation to one of the poorest.
“Did you bump your head on the steering wheel?”
“Does anything hurt?”
He gave her another look up and down. Once he was satisfied she hadn’t gotten so much as a tiny bruise during the accident, he offered his hand again. “My name is John Holden.”
Color rose to her cheeks as she shook his hand, her skin soft but cool in his firm grip. “Nice to meet you, Mister—er, Doctor Holden. My name is Melissa Bennington.”
He held onto her hand long past the point of decorum, and the blush staining her cheeks deepened. Through it all, he noticed she wore no wedding ring. He chided himself for checking in the first place. She was too young to be married anyway, let alone far too young and inexperienced for a man like John, a man with particular tastes.
The sun slipped behind the mountain, and the street lamps John had helped install last summer flickered on and cast a dim glow over Melissa’s face.
He cleared his throat. “Please, call me John. I insist. May I call you Melissa?”
He swore he heard her breath catch in her throat, and after a long pause she nodded. “Yes, you can call me Melissa. I’d like that.”
Warmth filled him as he gazed down at her, the pretty but lost little girl from New York. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Melissa. Now may I ask what you’re doing in these parts, so far from home?”
She gestured at the diner. “Well, I was sort of driving aimlessly, sightseeing I guess you could say, and then I asked my GPS to take me to the nearest restaurant, and this is where I ended up. Of course the GPS constantly losing signal didn’t help either. I kept getting redirected and would have probably had better luck turning the dumb thing off and following road signs. Again, I’m really sorry I hit you. Um, shouldn’t we inspect the damage?”
They moved to look at the damage. Fortunately there wasn’t a scratch to be seen on his truck, thanks to the large hitch affixed to the back, but unfortunately the front of her car sported a dent in the shape of that very hitch.
“Well, Melissa, it would appear I did all the damage here. How about I make it up to you by buying you dinner?”
She peered at him in shock. “Let me get this straight. I just rear ended you, and now you want to buy me dinner?”
“That’s right, darlin’. Amy Lou’s has the best roast beef sandwiches around, and the best chocolate cream pie you’ve ever tasted.”
The sound of crickets and locusts surrounded them as stars transpired above. Even though they were in town and the street lights now shimmered, they were so deep in the middle of nowhere that the stars weren’t chased away by a city glow. It was one of the reasons John loved it here. He wondered how often she saw the stars in all their glory where she came from. Or even the moon for that matter.
Amy stared at him, as if assessing whether or not he posed a threat. Finally, she spoke, her eyes lighting up the darkness as she smiled at him. “Well, it has been a while since I’ve gone to dinner with a complete stranger right after I rammed my car into his, so sure, why not?” Her grin widened and she stepped forward, so close he felt the heat of her breath. “But only under two conditions.”
“You name it, darlin’.”
“One, we’re splitting a piece of that chocolate cream pie you mentioned. And two, I’m buying you dinner.”
“You had me at chocolate cream pie.”
Her laughter was a balm to his soul, and the stress of his day faded in her presence. He’d never been so happy to have had a fender bender in his life. Although she’d obviously just been through a rough experience, one he was determined to learn more about, he saw a light within her that shined brightly through the sorrow that haunted her eyes.
Once they moved their cars into the parking lot of Amy Lou’s, he escorted her inside with a hand at her lower back, unable to resist touching her. She didn’t seem to mind, though she shivered when his fingers first brushed across her back. Her cheeks flushed too, and he realized it was the good kind of shiver. She liked his touch, or at least her body did.
He led her to his usual booth and Amy Lou scampered over, wiping her hands on her apron before stopping in front of their table and piercing them with a curious stare. They both ordered sweet tea and open faced roast beef sandwiches and French fries, all smothered in gravy of course. Melissa looked at him suspiciously when he insisted everyone around here ate their fries covered in gravy, and finally she relented and said she’d try it. Amy Lou hurried back to the kitchen, calling out their order to the cook, before dropping off their drinks. Once they were alone again, he leaned forward over the table and studied his dinner date.
“How old are you, Melissa?” It wasn’t the most polite question, but the need to know her age trumped good manners.
“I’ll be twenty-two next month.”
The air was knocked from his chest. Good Lord. She was indeed a young thing at twenty-one. He opened his mouth to ask her another question when she surprised him with a bold question of her own.
“And how old are you, John?”
He didn’t want to tell her. Even worse, he wanted to lie about his age and make it closer to hers. And yet, their age difference served to remind him of her probable lack of experience, her profound innocence, and his groin tightened with desire. “I’m thirty-six.”
She sat back in her seat, an impish smile crossing her face. “My my. That’s quite old.” She paused and looked at the ceiling, her lips moving as she mouthed thirty-six in a whisper. Then she met his eyes with a smirk that was almost bratty. “Don’t folks your age typically go out for the early bird special?”
John Holden wasn’t often stunned speechless, but he couldn’t think of a reply as he stared at the young lady who’d just made a joke and called him old all in one breath. She’d been afraid of him at first, right after the accident when she feared he’d be angry over the fender bender. But now that she’d begun to trust him, her sense of humor was coming out. He liked it. He liked her. She was rich and likely very spoiled, but she wasn’t so snobby that she couldn’t enjoy a conversation and have dinner with a stranger born and raised in the hills of West Virginia.
Finally, a retort came to his mind.
“Aren’t all good little girls your age supposed to be tucked into bed at this hour?”