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Excerpt: Love Means Nothin'



Chapter 1


Melody Gray was eating an awful sandwich when a strange man sat down at her table. She hadn't invited him, but he just sat down as if he owned the entire train station diner. That was no way to behave, but she wasn't about to give in and leave. She was tired from traveling from West Virginia to New York City and just wanted something to eat. How rude was this guy?

If this man wanted to cause a problem, she'd let him have it, because her daddy had taught her how to fight. She stared at him, trying to give him the hint that she wanted to be alone. He was certainly handsome, looking like he'd be on the cover of the magazines in her Aunt Shirley's beauty parlor. Blue eyes, brown hair, definitely a ten—this man had it all. But he didn't have manners and that was one thing Melody didn't like—rude people. She'd known enough of them in her life and she wasn't about to be pushed around anymore.

"I was sittin' here," she said.

"I was here first." He pointed toward a smashed can lying on the table. "I just needed to run to the bathroom. But you can stay."

She sat back. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know you were here." She looked for another table, but the place was packed. "Thank you for letting me stay, because I don't think there's another empty table. I just want to eat and run. I'm in a hurry to get out of here." She looked off into the diner, trying to avoid his eyes. She felt badly, because she'd been the rude one. That bothered her more than anything.

The man reached over and touched her hand, the heat from his fingertips searing her skin. "You're not from New York. Where are you from?"

She yanked her hand away. "West Virginia." How did he do that with his touch? It was like a cattle prod to her skin. Could men really be that hot? And was someone truly that forward? She'd never known anyone like this, intriguing her.

He grinned and leaned closer. "Why are you in New York City?"

Now he was invading her space. She had to move away, so she inched her chair backward, making it screech against the floor. "My best friend's gettin' married and I'm a bridesmaid."

"I'd think you'd be the bride, as pretty as you are," he said. "Where are you staying?"

She knew better than to give him any extra information. "At the hotel where she's gettin' married."

He chuckled as his eyes stayed on hers. "There are a lot of hotels in New York. Which one?"

She tilted her head, wondering why he wanted to know. Was he making fun of her or did he think she was stupid because she was a woman? No one would make her feel like a second-class citizen. Not on this trip and not like at home. "I'd rather not say. I don't know you."

He bit his lips and tried not to laugh. "I understand." He thrust out his arm, offering her his hand. "I'm John Spencer. It's nice to meet you."

She shook his warm hand and met his breath-taking gaze. "I'm Melody Gray. It's nice to meet you, too."

As soon as she let go of his hand, two men stood up near their table and began to yell.

"She's my wife! What do you mean you've been sleeping with her for two years?" The blond man shoved the dark-haired one into the table where Melody and John sat. He fell right into her sandwich and knocked over her drink, making her move out of the way while the liquid poured all over the table and onto the floor.

She wasn't sure what else she should do and didn't see a quick path out of the restaurant. Getting out of here might be a problem. Maybe she should just get back on the train and go home.

John stood up and took Melody's hand. "Time to leave."

"What?"

"Trust me." He took her suitcase and she grabbed her purse, stepping around the fighting men. As soon as they left the building, police cars screeched to a halt at the curb.

"How did you know to get out of there?" Melody asked John.

His smile brightened his face. "I'm from New York. I know how it all works. Are you hungry?"

"Sure, but I can find somethin'. They didn't have anything good to eat on the train, so I'm famished. And that sandwich…" She shook her head. "How can they charge that much money for two pieces of stale meat and a few tiny slices of turkey?"

"Come with me and I'll treat you like you should be treated. Welcome to New York, Melody."

She stared at the man, stopping in her tracks. What was she doing? Why did she trust him? She even reached out and took her suitcase handle. For all she knew, he could run off with her clothes.

He tilted his head. "What's the matter?"

"I was warned about people bein' nice to other people in New York." She narrowed her eyes and clenched her jaw while her hand flew to her hip. "My daddy taught me how to fight, so if you're a rapist or a serial killer, I can take care of myself. You might just want to go find another victim—maybe some other naïve woman just got off the train. If you hurry, you might just find her." She walked away with her purse and her suitcase.

With his hand on her arm, he stopped her from going past him. His laughter started out small, but grew until he bit his lip. "Do you know who I am?"

She yanked her arm from his touch and stared down over him. "John Spencer—at least that's the name you told me."

"That's my real name, but do you watch television?"

"Sure, we have television in West Virginia." Her free hand flew to her hip. "Are ya makin' fun of me now?"

He pointed to a bench. "I need to talk to you, because it seems we're at an impasse and I really want to treat you right."

She wasn't going to be rude again. Besides, they were on a busy street and she could always scream. Someone would come running to help, she hoped.

"Fine." She sat down and he sat beside her.

He turned, putting his elbow on the back of the bench. "I'm famous worldwide, which is why I asked you if you watched television. I'm not making fun of you, and never would. You're a beautiful woman and if it weren't for your accent, I'd have thought you were a supermodel from Ireland."

"Supermodel?" She tsked and almost laughed out loud. "Why from Ireland?"

He touched her hair with a breathtaking grin, moving a strand of it off her face. "The green eyes, curly dark red hair, and light creamy skin. You look like you belong there. You're gorgeous."

"But my accent's wrong? What's wrong with a Southern accent?"

"Nothing's wrong with it. It makes you stand out as someone to get to know. Honestly. I have no other intentions and I can promise I'm not a rapist or a serial killer." He almost laughed at the last statement.

"So, you're famous? Who are you?"

"My name's John Spencer. I grew up in East Hampton on Long Island. New York's my home. I play tennis."

"You play tennis? Is that what makes you famous?"

He got to his feet and extended his hand to help her stand. "Yes, it is. Everyone knows me and I try to stay incognito. If any reporters see me with you, you'll become famous, too."

She thrust her thumb toward her chest. "Me? But I'm a nobody."

He smiled and continued to hold out his hand to help her to her feet. "You're not a nobody. You're a beautiful woman who's hungry. Let's get something to eat."

She accepted his hand, the warmth of it making her stare at him. How did he do that? Were there nice men in New York? That wasn't what she'd been told.

He took her suitcase and walked with her toward a small diner down the street. "Do you like pizza?"

"Love it, but I'm payin' for both of our meals. I need to apologize for takin' your table at the train station. I feel badly about that."

"That's really not a problem about the table. I'd have done the same thing. And you're not paying. I don't let tourists pay for my meals." He leaned closer. "It doesn't do well for my image."

"Which is…?"

"I'm a playboy, according to the papers." He moved close to her ear. "It's not true," he whispered. "But my publicist thinks it'll bring in more revenue." John held the door open for Melody, making her stare, because she'd never met a chivalrous man before. She entered the building, but couldn't take her eyes off the man treating her like a queen. It made her wonder what he wanted in return. Nothing was free.

"John?" The heavy man behind the counter wearing the apron extended his arm and shook John's hand as soon as he walked up to the counter. "Long time no see."

"I've been touring," John said. "I'm finally back in town for the U.S. Open."

Melody felt her mouth drop, sucking in the spicy scented air of baking pizza. "The U.S. Open? You're a pro?"

"Sure," he said to her. "You don't get out much, do you? I'm all over the news because I'm finally seeded with the best."

"You don't know him?" the man behind the counter asked Melody.

She shook her head. "No. I don't have time much for television. I work too much."

"You're not from around here." The man shook her hand. "I'm Tony DiGlassie, and I own this place. Where are you from?"

"West Virginia," she said. "I just got off the train."

"A tourist. I should've guessed from that sassy accent. Love Southerners. They're great for business." He turned and went into the kitchen. "The usual, John?" he yelled, glancing over his shoulder.

"Sure, Tony." John turned to Melody. "Want some pepperoni pizza with the works on it? It's really good."

"Sure."

"Make it two, Tony," he shouted into the back.

"Sure thing."

Melody leaned up on her tiptoes to whisper into John's ear. "I've never had the works. What is that?"

"You'll see. I promise it's the best pizza you've ever had."

She looked around the small diner. One man sat in the corner, watching the television mounted on the wall. "Why isn't this place crowded?"

John checked his watch. "It's almost eleven at night. This place is hopping at meal times."

"I thought no one slept in New York?"

"That's Vegas, not New York. There are places open until late, but some places close at eleven. This place doesn't close until midnight." He paused. "So who's getting married? Who made you her bridesmaid?"

She thrust her hands into her pockets. If she didn't do something with them, she was tempted to put her arm around him. "Elsie Mae Johnson is gettin' married. Wait. She changed her name. It's Elise Johnson since she moved to New York to become a dancer."

"Did she make it as a dancer?"

"Sort of, but she met a very rich lawyer named Charles Westbrook the Third."

John's eyebrows rose. "Lucky Chucky? She's marrying him?"

"Do you know him?"

"Know him? We went to high school and law school together. We grew up in the same town." He studied her face for a moment. "Would you like an escort to the wedding? I'd love to see Chucky's face when I walk into his wedding."

She hated being cornered. "I don't know ya very well. Are you sure you want to go with me to the weddin'?"

His smile grew as he looked up at her hair and then down at her face. "I'd love to. I'd be there with the most gorgeous woman in the place."

She ignored him, but her cheeks heated up. "Don't you have some place to go? Maybe y'all were at the train station to pick someone up." She inched closer to the door. "I'm so sorry if I messed up any of your plans."

He shook his head and placed his hand on her shoulder, stopping her from retreating. "You actually helped me out more than you know. Thank you for being there for me."

She thrust her thumb toward her chest. "Me? I didn't do anything."

Tony walked from the back and put two paper plates with huge slices of pizza on the counter. He turned and grabbed two colas from the display refrigerator and put them beside the plates.

"How much?" John asked, taking out his wallet.

"No, I'm payin'." Melody opened her purse. "I don't ride for free." She also didn't want to owe anyone anything.

Tony smiled. "It's on the house tonight. It's not every day I see a celebrity with a beautiful woman at his side."

"Liar," John said, smiling. He handed Tony fifty dollars. "I want you to take it, because no one saw me here tonight."

"Running away again?" Tony asked.

"Something like that. Don't tell anyone and definitely not my manager."

"Thanks, John. I'll keep it quiet."

John glanced over at the man watching television. "Is it safe?"

Tony scoffed. "Yeah. New brother-in-law."

"What number is that?" John whispered.

"I think it's six, but who's counting?"

Melody was more than surprised. "Your sister married six times?" That had to be a new record.

"It's my wife's sister and she's odd. This guy's supposed to be working for me. Do you see him working?" Tony wasn't happy. He pointed at the man and shook his head.

"No," John said. "What's he supposed to be doing?"

"Cleaning. I can't fire him, either, and he knows it. It's been like this for two weeks."

"I'll take care of this," Melody said. "I'm your new personnel director, just for tonight." She marched over to the man, took the remote from his hand, and flipped off the television. "What are y'all doin'?" She thrust her hands onto her hips.

The man looked up at her from his seat. "Cleaning. Who are you? You're adorable." He waggled his eyebrows, but Melody wasn't impressed.

"I run this place," she said. "I just got the job. Now get off your butt and clean this restaurant or you're fired. And no flirtin' when you have a wife on the side. Got it?"

"Tony!" he yelled. "Control your employee."

"Sorry, it's out of my hands," Tony said with a chuckle. "She works for the State Health Inspector and can close me down at any time."

"You can?" the man asked her. "But with that accent—"

She narrowed her eyes and clenched her jaw. "It makes me meaner. Get workin', because I'm watchin'."

The man hopped up and grabbed a mop, seeming to be terrified of her. He started washing the floor while Melody returned to John's side and calmly took her pizza and drink.

"Thank you," Tony said. "Any time you need a job, let me know."

Melody smiled. "It's all in the delivery."

John laughed and pulled her suitcase to a nearby table. He then grabbed his plate and drink and they both sat down. "You're amazing," he said. "Do you think you can help me out a bit?"

"Why?" She ate a bite of pizza, the cheese dripping down the sides. "This is absolutely the best pizza I've ever had."

He looked down at his pizza. "It is the best." He lifted his eyes, seeming to beg. "I need help."

"What can I do for you? I'm a nobody, like I said before."

He smiled. "You're hardly a nobody and I like your spunk."

The man, who was cleaning, pushed the mop around them while Melody watched. "You missed a spot," she said, pointing.

John took a bite of pizza and started to laugh.

She didn't know what was so funny, but turned to John with a solemn face. "So what do ya need?"

"Here's my problem. I'm a tennis pro, but I'm tired of my life. I want to be normal, but that's not allowed. Every time I want to go out for anything, even pizza, I get stalked by the paparazzi. My manager is awful and I'm tired of playing tennis. Do you know why I was at the train station tonight?"

"To hunt for someone fightin' in that diner? You did a good job findin' them."

He half-smiled, but Melody could see the sadness in his eyes. "No," he said. "I was there because I was running away. I bought a ticket for Seattle, hoping I could blend in like a normal person on the West Coast. No one would look for me on a train, and it would give me time to think."

"Why do you want to leave? Because of the reporters or the game?"

"I love the game, but I have no one. I'm so alone; it's not funny. Even though I have an entourage of people who travel with me, I'm still alone."

His voice seemed so sad. Combined with his frown, she couldn't help herself. She moved her chair closer. "I'm here for you. You really need a vacation. Can ya take time off?"

He sighed as if in defeat. "Not really. I have to compete to make it. I have people to pay and have to win, or I'll lose my sponsorship." His eyes met hers, seeming to weigh his thoughts. "Would you travel with me?"

She moved her chair back an inch. "I hardly know you and I have a life already."

"But you're easy to talk to and you're tough. I need someone just like that. The rest of my team is too busy to sit and talk. I could show you the world. You'd need a passport—"

"I have a passport. I want to see Europe someday, and I'm savin' money for it. But, I can't just quit my life and take off. Do ya even hear yourself?"

He smiled and thought for a moment. "Yes, I do, and it sounds fine to me." He ate a few more bites of the pizza. "I guess I have to figure out a different way to word it. So what's keeping you in West Virginia?"

She had to tread lightly, because she didn't want anyone to know about her circumstances back home. "My family and my job, pretty much. Do y'all really play tennis all day long?"

"Sure do. I have a tennis court at my home where I practice. As a matter of fact, I was in a tournament today, practicing for the upcoming U.S. Open."

It impressed her that he was that much of an athlete, but didn't want him to know it. It sounded like he hated the status, so she kept her voice calm. "Did ya win the tournament?"

"It's over tomorrow. I'm the leader."

She leaned closer to him. "And you were gonna throw all that away? Do you know how many people would do anything to be in your position?"

He watched her, silent for a few minutes. "You're right. I should be grateful and not think of it as a curse."

She was determined to make sure he understood. "You've got more talent than anyone I know with the opportunity to make a huge name for yourself and you're willin' to throw that all away?"

"You made your point."

He wasn't going to get off that easily. "I haven't even started to make my point. I don't want ya to get angry with me, but I want ya to listen. Where I live, most people try to survive from paycheck to paycheck. They work in the coalmines or at menial jobs. They usually can't go to college, but they survive because they're tough. You've been handed an opportunity that everyone in my hometown would consider like winnin' the lottery and ya want to run away from it all?"

"You're right and I'm so glad I met you. If I'd gotten on that train tonight, I'd wallow in my self-misery, kicking myself for leaving. I'd always be asking myself, what if. What if I'd stayed? What if I'd really made it?" He reached out and took her hand. "What if I'd never met you?"

He lifted her hand to his lips, but she pulled it away. She wasn't about to be thrown off her game by a kiss to her hand. No man got away with being that forward, in her book.

"You'd have been okay," she said. "Y'all went to law school with Chuck, so that makes you a lawyer, right?"

He looked frustrated. "I never took the bar exam. I had to play tennis."

What an interesting case. He had no drive in his personal life. "What do your parents think about it?"

"I don't speak to them very often. They're too embarrassed by me."

"Embarrassed? Are y'all kiddin' me?" She leaned closer to his ear. "Do they beat you?"

His expression turn confused as he leaned closer. "Beat me? As in games?"

She shook her head. "No, beat ya when they get drunk."

"Never." He studied her face for a bit. "Does that happen to you?"

She lowered her eyes. She'd said too much. "No, not really." She couldn't tell him more or her daddy would be arrested. She was surprised her father had made it this far without much of a police record.

John touched her chin with his fingertips and raised her face, his blue eyes glistening in the soft light hanging above their table. "Do you get beaten?"

"I can't talk about anything." She checked her watch. "I really have to get some sleep. Elsie—I mean Elise, told me she'd take me to see the Statue of Liberty tomorrow before the rehearsal."

He watched her for a moment, as if he were trying to get into her head, but then seemed to give up. "Ask her if I can be your date for the rehearsal. I'd love to join you in something normal."

She smiled, his blue eyes begging her. "Sure. I'll do that. Now, tomorrow, you have a tournament to win, and you're gonna do it for me. Got that?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said, grinning. "Have you ever played tennis?"

"Sure. In high school, I played on the co-ed team."

"Co-ed?"

She nodded, taking a drink of her soda. "We didn't have enough players for two teams. My school was very small, but the coach was great. Elsie and I used to be on that team together. We were like two peas in a pod."

"Elise, right?"

"Oh yeah. I know I'm gonna mess that up. She and I were friends since before my momma died."

"Your mother died?"

Melody blew out a breath with a sad sigh. "When I was eight. Daddy raised my older brother and me after that. Momma had cancer and refused treatment."

"That's sad."

She didn't want to think about it. Her mother's death had been one of the saddest days of her life, but her mother had been through so much pain, she was sure the woman was in a better place.

Melody finished her meal and turned toward him. "Thank you so much for dinner."

"Didn't they give you dinner on the train?"

Melody scrunched up her nose and grimaced. "It was fish. I hate fish."

"But the pizza had sardines on it."

She stared at her empty plate. "It did?"

"The salty stuff was sardines. I guess I should've told you that."

She looked up at him again. "I liked that part. How weird is that? Maybe I don't like fresh fish, with all those bones. It doesn't seem worth it to me to dig around all those bones."

He smiled. "You haven't had the really good stuff. The things I could show you would amaze you."

"See?" She grinned at him. "You have so much to offer and you wanted to run away."

"You're so right." He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I'm glad I met you."

Her cheek burned. She reached up to hold onto the spot, to see if it was on fire. Her eyebrows lifted and she stared at him. He really was a forward person and she didn't know if she liked it.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Uh, sure."

He studied her for a minute. "You've never been out on a date, have you?"

"No, sir. I wasn't allowed to date, and my daddy makes sure no man talks to me until I'm thirty."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-five."

"Do you live at home?"

Nosey chap, for sure. "I have to stay there to take care of my father. My brother's out of the house and is married, so I have to support my father. I've been workin' at a job since I was twelve to take care of him and the house."

The man sat back and stared, as if surprised. "Twelve? What does he do for a living?"

"He's draws welfare from the state, but it doesn't pay the bills."

"Unbelievable," he said in a slow manner. "You need someone to rescue you from that."

"No, I'm fine." She picked up both of their paper plates and put them in the trash. "Are you done with your drink?"

"Sure." He still stared at her and she wondered what was going on in his head.

She threw away the cans and glanced around the room, sitting back in her seat. Tony's brother-in-law was wiping tables, so she turned toward him and snapped her fingers, making him look up. "Good job," she said. "I think you can stay employed—for now."

Tony walked out to the cash register and counted out some money. "John, I think you and your friend earned your wages tonight." He walked over to the table and handed John the fifty dollars back. "I appreciate it so much; I'd love it if you came back every night to help me out."

John lifted his hands to show he wouldn't take the money. "I didn't do anything."

"But look at this place," Tony whispered. "It's actually clean. And I didn't have to say anything." He handed the money to Melody. "Can you take it?"

She shook her head. "No, sir. That would be dishonest and I'm not like that. I've been raised right."

"I guess you're stuck with it." John laughed. "What a problem, huh?"

Tony shook his head and sighed. "Sure is. A businessman with extra money."

"We have to go," John said. "We appreciate the hospitality, though."

"Thanks. Don't be a stranger."

John smiled and helped Melody to her feet. She took the handle of her suitcase, but he moved her hand away. "Mine. You need to take it easy after that long trip."

"I do?" She raised her right eyebrow. "But I've been sittin' down for hours."

He grinned, trying not to laugh. "You still need to take it easy. Now what hotel?"

"It's called the Monument Estate Hotel close to here. Do you know it?"

"Know it?" He almost laughed. "My dad—never mind. Yes, I know exactly where that is."

"That's the place where they're gettin' married, too. I don't know why she didn't go to a church, but it's her life. I hear it's a classy place, too. She said it has an elevator. I've never been one of those."

"Sure is classy," John said, biting his lip. "You've never been in an elevator?"

"Well, not really. There was one at work, but it only goes up one flight, so I don't take it. I've seen inside it, though."

They said goodbye to Tony and walked out of the restaurant. As soon as John hailed a taxi, one pulled to the curb, making Melody wonder if he had some sort of secret power.

"I was just gonna walk," she said. "Elsie said it was only a few blocks from the train station."

"Try ten blocks. That's a long way this time of night. No, a taxi." He yanked open the door and helped her inside, then turned toward the driver. "Can we put her suitcase in the trunk?"

"Sure," the cabbie said in a deep voice.

John did as told, gave the cab driver the address, and got into the seat beside Melody. "When's the last time you saw Elise?"

"Let's see. This is August, and it was July of…" She thought for a while. "Gosh, it's been about seven years. I bet she's changed."

"Knowing Chuck, I'm sure of it," John said.

"Really? Is he controlling?"

John laughed. "Controlling doesn't start to describe Chuck. He has rules about everything, unless he's changed. The guy couldn't even put his socks on right, without measuring the seam across his toe to make sure it lined up."

"Measuring the seam? Are ya kiddin' me?"

He shook his head, still smiling. "No. He lived with a six-inch ruler in his pocket. He was an odd duck."

She shook her head. "Livin' with a ruler, I agree. That's just weird."

"When's the wedding?" His eyes twinkled every time they passed another light. He was so handsome…but she had to put that out of her mind. He was a stranger and if her father found out she'd thought such things, she'd be in trouble.

She pulled herself back to the present to answer John. "The wedding's Saturday at seven. Won't you be playin' games then?"

"No, it's over tomorrow morning. This is just a preliminary tournament and isn't that big a deal. What time is the rehearsal dinner?"

"Seven tomorrow night, after the rehearsal which is at five."

He smiled, looking like a little kid who wanted candy. "Can I join you for that?"

"It would be nice to have someone there to talk to. I only know her family and her father's scary. He's a big shot over in Charleston."

"Why is he scary?"

She didn't want to tell him that he worked at the prison and threatened to put her father in jail more than once. No one needed to know that. "He's just so tall. Her brother will probably be there, too. He wanted to go out with me in the worst way. I had to turn him down."

"What does her brother do for a living?"

"He's a farmer, but lives at home and rents farmland."

"But you couldn't go out with him? Why?"

"My father wouldn't let me. My job is to keep Daddy happy and he told me that every day since my mother died." She turned to look out the window, because she didn't want him to see the tears filling her eyes. Her life was all about her father. She had no right to feel badly, but really wanted to make it on her own, by herself.

He touched her chin and made her turn toward him. "Whenever you talk about your father, you get sad. Why is that?"

"No reason."

The driver pulled up to the curb and Melody fished her wallet out of her purse, but not before John paid the fare.

"That's not right. I need to pay that," she said to him.

"No, you don't. I need you to do something for me tomorrow morning, early, and that's payment for doing it."

Uh-oh. She didn't like hearing that. She swallowed hard, staring at his face. "What?"

John said nothing, but got out of the car and helped her as well. After grabbing her suitcase from the trunk, he thanked the cab driver, and walked with Melody into the hotel.

"John?" The older woman at the front desk sat up straighter and smoothed out her blouse. "What are you doing here? Is your father with you?"

"No." He put his arm over Melody's shoulder. "But my friend has a reservation in this place, and I'd like her to have an upgrade if possible."

Melody turned toward him. "I can't afford an upgrade."

"Yes, you can. Your room will be comped, if I have anything to say about it."

"Comped?"

He leaned toward her, his eyes mere inches from her face. "That means free. My dad owns this hotel, and about four other ones in the city."

She looked around the lobby, decorated in gold, white, and dark green. It was gorgeous, with fresh flowers everywhere. "Your dad owns this?"

"Sure. That's why he thinks I'm a failure. I didn't go into business like he did."

"Unbelievable," she whispered. "But I'll pay my way. I don't need your daddy thinkin' your friends are moochers. I also want to pay for that cab ride." She pulled her wallet from her purse.

He smiled and pushed her wallet back into her purse. "So you're my friend now? I'm not a rapist or a serial killer?"

She held back her laughter, but was wary because he needed her help and never told her why. "No way. You're a good guy and I can tell." She glanced down at her suitcase. "Why don't you have any luggage?"

He leaned closer to her ear, cupping his hand around his mouth. "I didn't want anyone to know I was leaving town, so I hopped into a cab and never looked back. If I had a suitcase with me, someone would've noticed."

"Oh, right," she said.

The woman behind the counter had Melody sign some papers and handed her two keys to the room. "You're in the presidential suite, on the top floor."

"I am? But you don't have to—"

"Yes, she does," John said. "I'll show you to your room."

"We can have one of our bellhops take your things upstairs," the woman said.

John shook his head. "That's not necessary. I'll do it."

"But that's not like you," the woman said, and then covered her mouth. "I'm sorry, sir."

"No problem," John said with a grin. "People change."

She smiled and nodded, then glanced at Melody. He nodded back, while Melody just stared at the two of them. What an odd thing to do.

With his arm still over her shoulder, he directed her to the elevator. After they both got inside, he moved away from her, pushed the button for the twentieth floor, and the doors closed.

They kept rising and rising, and Melody held onto the railing, not sure if they'd ever stop. This elevator stuff was quite an adventure.

"You okay?" John asked, glancing at her hands.

"Sure, why?"

"You're pale and your knuckles are white. You've really never been in an elevator, and it shows."

She lowered her head and closed her eyes. "I've also never been up this high before."

"You'll be fine." She was sure he was smiling, but she wasn't about to open her eyes. "I've never met anyone like you," he said. "Have you ever been out of West Virginia?"

"Never. But Elsie—"

"Elise."

She opened her eyes and stared at his face, making her realize it wasn't as bad as she thought it was. It was as if he could make it all better, and she'd known him for a long time. "Elise said I could do it. She wrote it all out for me, so it's fine. I'm to meet her tomorrow after lunch to see the Statue of Liberty, then the rehearsal's at five and dinner's at seven. I think everything for the wedding is right here in this hotel."

"Probably. Is it possible for me to come here to get you early tomorrow morning? I need help and I think you're the only person who can do that."

She wondered why he needed help from her. But early? She had to keep her wits about her, but was curious. "What time? I seem to have a schedule already." She chuckled, but he seemed distracted, chuckling slightly. The thought of her having a schedule in New York was humorous to her, because she was a West Virginia girl, born and raised. No one really had a schedule like this back home.

"Early, before the tournament. Like five in the morning."

"Five? In the mornin'? How do you function that early?"

He smiled and unwrapped one of her hands from the railing, caressing it with his other hand. "You learn to deal with it. I just wanted to see you before the game and hit the ball around with you. That's all."

That was it? She was worried for nothing? "But why me? Aren't there other more qualified people who can do that? I'm not a pro like you are."

"I need you because my practice partner won't be able to be there until eight. The game starts at ten. I wanted to practice before that. Can you help me out?"

She studied his face, just begging for her help. How could she deny him? "Sure. I'll be ready at five."

As soon as the elevator stopped, they both stepped out into the hallway. He took her key and walked with her down the hall, pulling her suitcase while leading the way.

"I'm not in your league to hit the ball with you," she said. "Y'all know that, right?"

"I bet you're better than you think." He stopped at the presidential suite and opened the door for her, flipping on the light as they walked inside. As soon as he shut the door, his cell phone rang. "I thought I had that off." He pulled it from his pocket, looked at the caller identification, and answered the phone. "What do you need, Art?" He glanced at Melody, wincing. "It's my manager," he whispered, then turned back to the phone. "Yes, I know. I'm on my way."

Melody took her suitcase and looked around the huge room while placing it beside the bed. The room was decorated in red, white, and blue with a giant presidential seal on the carpet. "I can't believe it," she murmured. "This is somethin'!" She went to the window and opened the curtain. A sliding door was situated on the wall of windows, so she opened it and stepped out onto the balcony, seeing New York from twenty floors up. The lights were amazing all across the city, giving her such a feeling of adventure like she'd never known before.

"Do you like it?" John asked, surprising her.

She glanced at his face, then out over the city once again. The full moon was high in the sky, lighting up the blackness of the night, with a slight breeze blowing her hair. "I'm usually afraid of heights, but this is incredible."

"I used to come up here when I wanted to get away. This was my favorite room."

She looked down over the edge, then backed up to the building. "I don't think I could live up here."

"You get used to living in a place like this." He put his arm over her shoulder and leaned back against the wall. "I remember coming up here and just staring out over the city, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life."

"You didn't always want to play tennis?"

"The problem was I did want to play tennis, but Dad didn't want me to play. He wanted me to get a real job, and I had to figure out what to do. He suggested I go to law school, which is when I was discovered as a good tennis player. I took tennis lessons since I was about four, so it wasn't a surprise to me that someday it would be my job. I always thought it would be the best thing, jetting off from city to city, living in the fast lane, but I never figured I'd be doing it alone."

She studied his expression, so sad and lonely. "But people travel with you, right?"

"They travel with me, but they're working the whole time. I don't have anyone just to hang out with and laugh. I miss laughing the most. Nothing's fun anymore and all humor has left my life."

"That's so sad. So you don't laugh at all?" She tickled his side, and he backed off, chuckling.

"Not at all, usually. You're the only one who's given me a reason to laugh again. Calling me a serial killer or a rapist made me realize how isolated I was from the rest of the world. I never would've thought anyone could think that about me."

"You're in bad shape," she said.

He wrapped his arm around her waist and caressed her cheek. "I know." He moved a strand of hair from her face, and then ran his fingers through her hair on the side of her head. "You're so pretty. Do you have a temper because you're a redhead?"

"I don't think so, but other people have told me otherwise." She stared down at his arms. "Should you be up here touchin' me like this? Won't you get in trouble with your dad?"

He snorted and wrapped both arms around her waist. "Dad? He couldn't care less about me. He probably doesn't even know I'm in New York."

"Your own father? What about your mother?"

"She's even worse. Since I'm not in her social circle, she doesn't care. She's even forgotten my name when I've called her."

Melody's eyebrows hit her hairline. "Your own mother forgot your name? Holy smokes. I thought my life was tough. You are alone."

He studied her face for a moment. "Why is your life tough?"

She moved away from him and went back into the room. "No reason. If I'm to be up and ready at five in the mornin', I have to get to bed."

He was silent for a moment. "I understand. Art, my manager, wants me to stop by to see him tonight anyway."

She checked her watch. "But it's after 11:30."

"I really can't sleep much these days."

She shook her head. "If you were my brother, I'd put you to bed with a sleepin' pill and make sure you slept. That's not good, you know."

He smiled and headed toward the door. "I'm fine. Get some sleep and I'll have someone up here tomorrow. His name's Ted. He's my bodyguard."

She raised one eyebrow. "You have a bodyguard?"

"Yeah. Not a big deal." He walked back to her, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow." After heading back across the room, he opened the door and walked out, closing it behind him.

She watched him leave as she raised her hand to her cheek, the heat filling her stomach with butterflies. Why did he do that? She wondered what his real intentions were with her, because of the way he felt comfortable enough to kiss her cheek like that. It was all probably just her imagination.

She turned and hoisted her suitcase onto a table. The room was immense—bigger than the entire downstairs of her father's house. As soon as she unzipped her suitcase, the phone rang. She looked all over for it, finding it beside the bed. She grabbed it and put it to her ear. "Hello?"

"Melody? What are you doing in the presidential suite?"

She smiled. It was good to hear her friend's voice. "Elsie. I mean…Elise. How're you doin'?"

"I'm doing great. Chuck and I were out on a date tonight before the big wedding, and I just wanted to make sure you made it into town. Why are you in that room?"

"It's a long story. I met this man—"

"You met a man?" Elise asked, sounding almost scared for Melody.

"Yes. I'm to ask if I can bring him to the rehearsal dinner and weddin' with me. He knows your fiancé."

"Who is he?"

Melody flopped onto the bed and looked up at the ceiling. "He's someone famous by the name of John Spencer."

Melody heard Elise turn and say something to someone else before returning to the phone. "Chuck knows him and he's a playboy. Do you know that?"

"He said as much, but it's not true. It's all media hype."

"Chuck wants to talk to you."

Melody heard the phone change hands. "Melody?" It was a very masculine voice.

She sat up and stared across the room. "Yes, sir. It's good to talk to you. Congratulations on your weddin'."

"Thank you. I'm glad you could come to town." She could hear the smile in his voice. "Now about John Spencer. I went to college with him."

"I heard," she said. "You had a ruler to measure your socks. Is that true?"

Chuck laughed. "Good old John. It used to be true, but not anymore. I've changed, but I don't think John's changed. They used to call him Playboy Johnny. Did he tell you that?"

"No, and I don't think that's true. He just wanted someone to talk to. I don't think he's very happy these days."

"No? He's doing very well in tennis and is on the cover of every sports magazine. He has girls falling at his feet and he's not happy?"

She should've guessed he'd be on the magazines. It was just a shame that Aunt Shirley didn't stock those types in her beauty salon. "He said he's very lonely and I believed him. Is it okay if he comes to the weddin' with me, just so he can do somethin' fun?"

She heard something muffle the receiver. "A wedding is fun?" Chuck whispered. "He must be lonely."

Melody laughed. "Pre-weddin' jitters?"

"You have no idea."

"Oh, yes I do. I've known Elsie…I mean Elise almost my whole life. Good luck with that one."

He laughed. "Bring John and I'll let you know if he's worthy of you."

She waved him off, talking with her hands, even though she was alone. "I don't need to know that. We're not datin'. I just met him when he saved me in the train station from a fight."

"The train station? What was he doing at the train station?"

She'd said too much, sure that was supposed to be a secret. "Uh, let's just leave it at that. Tell Elise I'll be ready at two to see the Statue of Liberty."

"I'll let her know."

"I won't be here in the mornin'. I'm gonna meet John, early."

"I see," Chuck said. "So did John have your room upgraded? Elise just handed me a note."

"Yes, he did. He said his dad owns this hotel."

"He does, but they don't get along," Chuck said. "If you're charged full price, let me know and I'll pay for it."

"No, it's okay."

"That room's a thousand a night, at least."

She felt her eyes open wide in surprise, glancing around the room. "Dollars? That's more than my father's rent for a whole month."

Chuck laughed. "Welcome to New York."




~~~~~





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