One Night of Misbehavior
Author:Shelley Munro

CHAPTER Ten



The flight from Napier to Auckland was full of screaming teenagers, excited about a school trip to the city. Charlotte winced at the harsh shriek from the seat behind them.

“Headache?” Ash’s fingers curled around hers.

“I get them sometimes when I’m tired.” She smiled ruefully and whispered against his ear. “It appears that dirty weekends can contribute to headaches.”

“I’ll have you home soon. You can have an early night and catch up on your sleep.”

“But we were going to talk about the campaigns.”

“I’ll email you the details. Read through the notes. I have a busy day tomorrow, but I can meet you for dinner tomorrow night.”

“Sounds good.” She tried not to recoil at the stab in her brain. “I’ll go to bed when we get home. Take a couple of headache pills.”

The flight landed and transit through the airport went smoothly. Soon they sat in the rear of a cab, on their way to Remuera.

Twenty minutes later, the taxi driver made the turn onto Charlotte’s street. He let out a disgusted sound and jammed on his brakes. “What the devil is that kid doing?”

Charlotte gaped at the teenager who ran across the road waving a T-shirt in his hand. The cab pulled into the driveway of Elizabeth’s Remuera house. The door opened and Elizabeth carried out an armful of books. She dumped them on the ground beside a suitcase bulging with clothes and more books, and the crowd converged to paw through the items. Without a glance at the people milling around the driveway or their cab, she stomped back inside. An instant later she was back with another load of possessions.

“What the hell?” Ash said. “I thought they were going to stay in Taupo for two weeks.”

“Those are mine.” Charlotte jumped out of the cab and stormed to the door, meeting Elizabeth face-to-face when she emerged with yet more items. “What are you doing with my stuff?”

“This is my house,” Elizabeth said in a terse, low voice. “I choose who I have living in it, and I don’t have to put up with you any longer.” She shoved past Charlotte, a music box teetering on top of her armful of jeans and sweaters. Charlotte gave a cry of alarm and grabbed for the treasure her mother had given her when she was six. Elizabeth ducked to avoid her, and the music box went flying. Tinny music played when the lid opened, halting abruptly when it crashed onto the concrete driveway.

Charlotte cried out and fell to her knees. Her vision blurred as she picked up the lid and the tiny ballerina, cradling the broken pieces in her hands. Apart from the framed photo of her parents, the white music box was the sole item of remembrance she possessed.

Ash crouched beside her. “Charlotte?” Concern layered his voice. “What’s going on?”

Charlotte turned to him, a choked laugh squeezing past the tightness of her chest. “Elizabeth is kicking me out of the house.”

“She couldn’t ring you to tell you? Discuss it in a civilized manner?” He shot a look of disbelief as Elizabeth disappeared inside the Victorian house and slammed the front door shut. “What if we hadn’t come along when she started throwing out your possessions?”

“She doesn’t care.” The shock of defeat held her immobile. People still sorted through her things while others stared and whispered. Her shoulders slumped as she blinked back frustrated tears. Her head ached so much she could barely think. Overwhelmed, she picked up the rest of her music box and slowly turned to survey the remains of her stuff. “What am I going to do?”

“We’ll rescue what we can and pack it into the cab,” Ash said, already stooping to pick up several art books and some paint brushes.

“But I don’t have anywhere to go.”

“Of course you do.” Ash squeezed her shoulder and sent her a comforting smile. “You can stay with me.”

The front door flew open and Elizabeth lobbed a pair of battered boots, a red T-shirt and a box of tampons through the air. Tampons bounced in all directions, drawing laughter from the bystanders. Elizabeth ignored the amusement and raked a chilly glare over Charlotte. “That’s the last of your stuff. If you’re not out of here in ten minutes I’ll call the police and get them to remove you from the premises.”

“Fine.” Somehow, Charlotte forced her frozen limbs to move and ignored the murmur of voices from the group of onlookers. She picked up the photo of her parents, favorite books given to her by Gran. Both Ash and the cab driver scooped up other belongings, piling them in the trunk. Heaven knew how many of her things had been picked up and spirited away before she arrived.

“This is better than reality television,” a teenage girl said.

Charlotte’s cheeks burned. She didn’t glance at the bystanders, but continued picking up her books while resigning herself to publicity and further humiliation.

“Isn’t that The Beast?” a man asked.

“It is,” an elderly woman said. “I recognize his scars. She must be the mystery redhead.”

Phone cameras pointed at her and echoes of The Beast rippled through the group.

“Is that everything?” Ash asked, his calm manner going some way to tamp down her growing despair and bitterness. She had done nothing to deserve this treatment from Elizabeth.

“Yes, I think so.” Charlotte scanned the driveway and grassy lawn to the right. Tampons still littered the grass along with broken pastel crayons and spilled paints. Elizabeth had dropped a box full of oil paints on the driveway. Some of the tins had burst open on impact, dribbling bright blue, gray and yellow paint over the concrete. Luckily she’d had her most prized possessions with her—her laptop, her e-reader and few pieces of jewelry.

Ash grasped her arm and tugged. “Let’s go then.” He led her to the cab and seated her in the rear, then slid in beside her.

The driver backed out of the drive after Ash gave him directions to his house. Ash pressed her against his chest, his arms comforting and familiar. Yet Charlotte’s mind whirled, anguish bringing a wave of nausea.

“I can’t stay with you. People will talk.” Despondent, she refused to meet his gaze. Her presence in his life would bring the publicity he loathed. Her head pounded afresh, sharp darts digging at her temple as she admitted the harsh reality. With little money and no job or home, she couldn’t afford to turn down his offer.

“Newsflash, sweetheart. They’re already talking. Besides, I’ve suffered through their worst. Stay with me as long as you need.”

“What about when you get sick of me? I don’t want to outstay my welcome.” He never dated the same woman for long. He’d tire of her soon, and what would happen then?

“We’ll discuss the details when we get home.”

Home. She didn’t have a home. Heck, she hadn’t felt comfortable in Elizabeth’s house from the day she moved there with her father. Silent and defeated, she closed her eyes, trying not to think about her future.

When they arrived at Ash’s house, the taxi driver helped them carry her belongings inside. While Ash took care of the cab fare, Charlotte stood mutely in the hallway, unsure of what to do next.

“Charlotte, I’ll show you to your room,” Ash said, taking her arm.

The room was delightful with walls painted a fresh lemon. Accents of green in the bed coverings and in a set of plant paintings contrasted to produce a soothing haven. If she opened the balcony doors, she was sure the perfume of roses would waft up from the gardens below.

“This is your room. If you require privacy, shut the door and I won’t bother you.” His fingers lightly gripped her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. “But I want you to know you’re welcome in my bedroom day or night. I enjoy your company and will not kick you out of my life. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” she whispered, but she accepted his words as an act of kindness, a promise made with invisible restrictions and terms—a temporary type of benevolence. The truth was she needed to forge her own way and create a future for herself. She was responsible for her own happiness, and it was what Gran had wanted for her.

“Let me get you some headache tablets then I’ll leave you to sleep.”

“No!” A shaky laugh emerged in her effort to appear calm. The last thing she wanted was to be left alone with her misery. “I’ll take the tablets, but I’d prefer to keep my mind busy. Maybe I could watch television.”

“You don’t want to sort out your belongings?”

Her second attempt at an untroubled laugh was better. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Ash gave her a long look, his brows furrowed as if he saw through her bravado to the writhing mass of insecurities lying beneath the surface. Finally, when it felt as if his gaze were flaying her skin, he gave a curt nod. “I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready.”

Once he disappeared, Charlotte sank to the bed. She scanned her things, piled in a heap on the floor and dresser. The clothes and damaged books appeared incongruous against the expensive furnishings in the chic room. They reminded her of Elizabeth and the calm fury burned into her features during their last meeting.

Gran had said Elizabeth envied Charlotte’s mother and the bond Charlotte shared with her father. But her father had died years ago, and he’d loved Elizabeth or he wouldn’t have married her. He’d always treated Jenny and Rachel in the same manner he treated her—no favoritism in his household. She sighed and stood abruptly. Her life had turned into a tangle and her brain was too tired to unravel the knots.

She scooped up her laptop and went in search of Ash. Despite her headache, she’d ask him about the campaigns. She’d need some sort of income, and this would be a start. Besides, work would help focus her mind on something else. She found him in the kitchen, rifling through the pantry.

“What do you fancy for dinner? How about risotto?”

She shrugged, uninterested in food. “Anything is fine. Do you know of any firms that are hiring? I don’t have experience, but I’m a good worker. Motivation has to count, right?”

“I’m sorry we can’t afford to take on another junior,” Ash said, clear regret in his expression.

“I don’t expect you to offer me employment. It’s not your fault I turned the job down.” After Elizabeth’s pleas. She’d thought her stepmother might have changed, but she’d wanted to manipulate her. Again.

“We use freelance people sometimes. That might be a better way to go for you.”

“But I don’t have any experience.”

“No, you don’t, but you’ve stacks of natural talent. You don’t know the design conventions most people learn at technical colleges and universities and—”

“I know,” Charlotte said with regret. “Maybe I should do some night courses and get a qualification. I could find a job of some description meantime.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Ash said, handing her a glass of water and two tablets. “I was going to say because you haven’t done the formal training you’re not constrained by conventions. Your approach is original and it shows in your work. You won’t have trouble finding freelance work. I’m willing to help and advise you. All you need to do is ask.”

“You’re not just saying that?”

“No.” A flicker of what might have been frustration leaped across his face, but the expression faded so quick she wasn’t one hundred percent sure. “Even if we weren’t sleeping together, I’d still make the offer. I had help when I started out, people who believed in me. I want to pass on the baton. I believe in you, Charlotte.”

She stared at him before nodding. “Okay.” It wasn’t as if she could fall any lower. Even if—no when—they broke up, she’d still have his help to that point. No matter what he said, people always ended up leaving her behind. It was better for her to embrace independence because she could count on herself. “I’ll need a job meantime. I can work on the campaigns in my spare time. Is that all right?”

He skewered her with his blue gaze. “As long as you make the deadlines.”

“I presume I’ll need to sign a contract?”





“Yes.” Ash fought to remain calm. This wasn’t the time to grab Charlotte by the shoulders and shake the stupidity out of her. She’d had a shock and was still grieving Ivy’s death. He needed to make allowances, but it was damn difficult when he wanted to scoop her up and carry her to his bedroom. Somehow he needed to make her understand he was there for her, and he wanted her in his future. He wanted a partner and a lover. He needed her. “I’m going to make tea. Do you want one?”

“Thanks.”

So he went through the tea-making motions while talking about the two campaigns. Her face lit up with interest as he explained about the beauty salon and the motorcycle shop. She transferred files to her laptop, and they spent the rest of the afternoon throwing thoughts back and forth. By the end of dinner, they’d thrashed out several ideas for her to develop.

“That’s enough for now,” he said, holding out his hand to her. “Come and watch a movie with me.”

“No, I don’t think—”

“It’s a motorcycle movie.” He dangled the info in front of her in the manner of a parent bribing a child to do their homework.

“Motorcycles?” Her features lit with interest, and he sighed inwardly as she took his hand. Way to hack his ego off at the knees.

At least she cuddled against his chest while they watched the movie about male bonding and shenanigans on a motorcycle trip. As the credits rolled, Ash yawned.

“I might go to bed. Coming?”

Her hesitation cut him—invisible slices through his confidence. Hell, if people knew, they’d laugh themselves silly.

She chewed her bottom lip, tugging on it with her teeth. “I don’t feel like sex tonight.”

“Who said anything about sex? I want to hold you. I’ve had a rough day. You’ve had a shitty one. I thought we could comfort each other.” His breath caught, in a strange—for him—surge of doubt. Words spoken long ago by his father flitted through his mind. Even if you want to hide in a dark hole, put yourself forward. Pretend you know what you’re doing and that’s half the battle.

“Okay,” she said in a decisive manner. “That sounds nice. Which is your room?”

“This way.” He felt his grin widening until it hurt his stretched lips. His pulse rate did a little shimmy when she reached for his hand of her own accord. Maybe the mountain between them wasn’t a range but a single peak.

Ash showed her to his room. “Do you want something to sleep in?”

“Skin is fine.”

Half an hour later she lay in his arms, a warm weight pressed to his chest. Her soft breathing filled the room, the scent of flowers filling each of his inhalations. A lock of her hair tickled his nose, and it made him smile. He was the luckiest guy in Auckland. Now if only he could make this arrangement permanent.




* * * * *

It was strange standing alone in Ash’s house. He’d left for work five minutes ago, kissing her first before leaving his house whistling. She puttered around in the kitchen, stacking dirty plates in the dishwasher and wiping down the counters.

After that she wandered into the spare bedroom and started making order out of her stuff. She folded and sorted clothes, most of which needed a wash. Some of her books were damaged, pages crumpled and spines broken. They went into the trash and she made herself a mental promise. When she had money, she’d replace them.

Her cell phone rang. “Hello, Ash. You’ve only just left.”

“Is that Miss Charlotte Dixon?”

“Yes.”

“This is Frank Batchelor. I’m a lawyer with Batchelor, Stone and Partners. Ivy McDougal informed me of your contact details after I visited the house to help her redraft her will, not long before she passed. She’s left you something in her will. There will be a reading at the offices today at two this afternoon. Are you able to attend?”

“Yes, of course.” A dart of pain pierced her chest at the mention of Gran, and she took a hurried breath to maintain her equilibrium. “Could you give me the address please?” She grabbed a pen and scrawled the details on one of the torn book pages. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll be there.”

At one thirty she left the house on foot. As she walked past a parked car, a man shouted at her. “Hey, Red! Gonna give us a scoop about The Beast?”

She turned to see a camera pointed at her. The bearded photographer who sat in the passenger seat focused it and started to feverishly click the shutter button.

“What’s your name, Red?” the driver demanded. “What happened yesterday?”

“Snow White,” she said and marched away.

The rev of a car engine told her the men intended to chase and she increased her speed. They caught up, slowing the vehicle to keep pace with her.

“Are you and Ash getting married?”

“You’re driving in a bus lane,” she said. “You’ll get a fine if you’re not careful.” Stupid! Ignoring them was the best way. She kept walking until she reached a bus stop. Two elderly women sat on a seat inside the shelter.

“Red, tell us about Ash,” the passenger of the car shouted.

“Who are they?” one of the women asked.

“I’ve no idea,” Charlotte said. “They’ve been following me and shouting questions.”

“The bus is coming,” the other woman said. “If they don’t watch out, they’ll cause an accident.”

The bus pulled up behind them, and the driver honked his horn, gesturing through the window. Frustrated, the driver of the car merged with the rest of the traffic to let the bus pull up at the stop.

Safely on the bus, Charlotte let her shoulders relax. Ash coped with reporters and photographers every day. How he managed to keep so calm under the constant glare of publicity, she had no idea.

The lawyer’s offices were in central Auckland and she alighted from the bus, entering the plush offices ten minutes later to find Elizabeth, Rachel and Jenny ensconced in the waiting room—a trendy space with chrome and glass, black leather couches and red accents. She checked in with the receptionist, a buxom blonde whose tailored gray suit did little to hide her curves. Her bright red lipstick was a nice touch—another perfect accessory for the waiting room.

“What are you doing here?” Elizabeth demanded.

“The lawyer asked me to come,” Charlotte said, dropping onto a seat on the far side of the room. Luckily the daggers Elizabeth shot at her were visual rather than physical. Charlotte picked up a magazine, pushing aside her discomfort. She’d dressed in her jeans and a cotton jumper. Elizabeth, Rachel and Jenny wore smart business attire, making Charlotte stick out like a weed in a flower garden. The reading material was years out of date, but she flicked through the pages, stopping at an article on school balls and another on a society wedding. Hmm, women from both groups would enjoy using a beauty salon.

A phone buzzed a summons, and after a few brief words, the receptionist stood. “Ladies, Mr. Batchelor will see you now. This way please.” She indicated with a sweeping hand, the sun coming through the window catching the gemstones on her bejeweled fingers.

“Ah, you’re all here,” Mr. Batchelor said, standing at their entrance. His bald head gleamed in the muted sunshine creeping through the blinds of his large corner office. “Good. Have a seat. You must be Ms. McDougal. I understand you retained your maiden name on your marriage, and you’re standing in for your brother and sister today.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said briskly. “That’s correct. These are my daughters, Rachel and Jenny.”

“Which makes you Charlotte,” Mr. Batchelor said. “I’ll read the will for you and answer your questions.” He retrieved a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses from his pocket and settled them on his nose. His voice was rich, his diction precise as he started to read.

The first part of the will dealt with gifts to Gran’s favorite charities before he reached the meat of the content.

“‘To my children, Elizabeth, Jacinta and Charles I leave my entire estate in equal portions. To my grandchildren Jenny and Rachel, I leave the sum of twenty thousand dollars each.’”

“That’s wonderful,” Jenny blurted. “I can move into my own flat.”

“Hush,” Elizabeth said. “Let the man finish.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Batchelor said. “‘To my step granddaughter Charlotte Dixon I leave the sum of five hundred thousand dollars. During the last few—’”

“No!” Elizabeth cried. “No, I won’t have it.”

“Please let me finish,” Mr. Batchelor said, his urbane expression turning implacable at Elizabeth’s outburst. Silence fell and he continued reading.

Charlotte stopped listening after she heard how much Gran had appreciated her company and the way she’d taken care of her during her last years. Tears of gratitude formed as she thought of what this money meant—security and the chance to follow a new path.

Mr. Batchelor finished reading and removed his glasses, setting them on his desk at a right angle to the will. “Any questions?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “How do I contest the will?”