One Night of Misbehavior
Author:Shelley Munro

CHAPTER Seven

Ten days later



Charlotte bolted upright in bed, her heart pounding with fear. Panic clutched her chest and she had to gasp to fill her lungs with oxygen. Once she could breathe through her dread and realized she was sitting safe in her bed, she cocked her head, listening.

She slipped from the bed and was in Gran’s room in seconds. “Gran?”

Gran didn’t respond, not even when she flicked on the light. Charlotte froze for a moment, scarcely breathing. Gran’s expression was peaceful, and somehow she knew.

Just knew.

Biting back her cry of anguish, she reached for Gran’s wrist. When she didn’t find a pulse, she reached for the phone and rang the doctor.

The next hour passed in a blur. The doctor came and confirmed Charlotte’s fears. Gran was gone. Elizabeth took control, as was her way. Charlotte went back to her bedroom, pulling the door shut. A heavy weight sat squarely on her shoulders, making each pacing step around her tiny bedroom hard and physical. Finally, she sank onto her single bed and placed her head in her hands.

Gran was gone.

She’d known this would happen, thought she’d prepared for the fact, but the reality of death stripped her bare. She couldn’t think, couldn’t feel, not when numbness seeped to her bones. She’d promised Gran she wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t mourn for a life well lived. Her throat worked in a hard swallow. The promise had been easy, but keeping it…keeping it might be the hardest thing she ever had to do.

Hours passed and her alarm went off. Charlotte pulled on jeans and a T-shirt. She spotted her cell phone, hesitated and pushed speed dial for Ash before she could rethink her actions.

“Charlotte.” Even hearing his deep voice sent some of her inner terror skittering away. Her breath puffed out and some of the pressure bearing down on her chest lifted.

“Ash.” Her voice croaked and she swallowed, starting again. “Ash, Gran died last night.”

“Aw, sweetheart, I’m sorry.” He paused, and she clutched the empathy in his words to her. The comfort meant a lot, and she hadn’t realized how much she needed the ease, the soothing words from another human being. “Can I drop by to see you?”

“Yes.” Too bad if Elizabeth objected. “I’d like that a lot.”

“I’ll be there before nine,” Ash said.

In the kitchen, Charlotte went through the motions, making coffee and toast. A knock on the door pulled her from breakfast preparations.

“Ash, that was quick.”

“I wanted to see how you were.” A car screeching to a halt drew a succinct curse from him. “Fuck. Inside,” he ordered, pushing her back inside the house and closing the door behind them.

Charlotte feared she knew the answer, but asked anyway. “Who is that?”





Ash let out a heavy sigh of frustration. “Ever since they caught the photo of us outside my house, they’ve been following me around. That’s why I’ve communicated via phone rather than visiting you. They’re trying to discover your identity and won’t stop until they have the info.” Not for the first time he cursed his success and his playboy image.

“They want to know about me?”

He laughed and heard the hard edge in it, the anger. “Evidently I’m newsworthy. My private life makes for interesting reading. My face.” He gestured at his scars before looking at her. Dark shadows underlined her brown eyes while her red hair hung around her shoulders in tangles. During the weeks since he’d met her she’d lost weight, and it showed in her face. “Enough about me. How are you? Can I hold you?”

Her shoulders slumped, and it was easy to see how hard her grandmother’s death had hit her. “In the kitchen,” she said. “I’ve made fresh coffee.”

Ash slipped his arm around her shoulders as they walked down the hall. The scent of coffee drifted to him when they entered the kitchen.

“Would you like a cup?”

“Soon,” he whispered, tugging her against his chest. He bent his head, savoring the flowery scent of her hair and just being with her.

“I’m going to miss her so much. She was my best friend.” Her voice was muffled against his chest.

“Of course you’ll miss her,” Ash whispered. “She was an amazing woman.”

“What am I going to do without her? She made living here bearable.” A shudder went through her, and Ash’s heart ached. He wanted to say he’d take her away with him. All she had to do was ask. But he held the words back, knowing it was too soon, and she would want to exert her independence. He brushed a kiss across the crown of her head, stifling his protective instincts. No, it was best for him to play the long game and woo her to his way of thinking.

Ash wanted her trust. Hell, he wanted it all. He wanted her love.

When her trembling eased, he pushed her away in order to see her face. “Have you eaten?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I could do with a piece of toast and a coffee.”

“I’ll do it. I need to move,” she said, forestalling his argument. “Gran, Esther and I worked on the cupcake campaign off and on all week. It’s finished.”

“Can you email everything to me?” He checked his watch and sighed. “I have client appointments this morning. I can’t cancel them.”

“I don’t expect you to.” Her shock at the idea was evident in her wide eyes and parted lips.

“You never expect anything for yourself,” he said. “Did it occur to you I want to be here for you, to help you get through the next days? I might have been young when my mother died, but I remember the anguish and grief.” Even though they’d kept him sedated in the burns unit, even though he’d been young he remembered the pain, the loss of knowing he’d never see his mother again.

She stared at him, a crease on her forehead. “But we don’t know each other well.”

“Which is the reason I’m taking things slow. I don’t want to scare you off.”

“Me? You want…”

He froze, afraid to blink. She sounded so surprised at his statement of intent. “You must have noticed the way I can’t keep my hands off you.”

“But that’s sex.”

Not for him it wasn’t. It might have started that way, but things were different now.

“What are you doing here?” a tart voice demanded from behind him.

Ash turned, taking in Elizabeth with her tear-ravaged face and Jenny standing behind her. “I stopped by to see Ivy.”

“You didn’t know her,” Elizabeth said.

“Not well, no, but she went to school with my father’s mother. We’ve talked on the phone.” He glanced at Charlotte. His grandmother had told him to look for the princess in an apricot dress. Between his grandmother and Ivy they’d been set up on the sly. A favor had turned to his advantage, thanks to them. He didn’t think Charlotte had worked it out yet. “I’m sorry to hear about her passing. She was an amazing woman. My grandmother will miss their correspondence. Why don’t you take a seat, have a coffee and something to eat?” He’d managed to wrangle that much out of his grandmother, that she and Ivy corresponded by mail and sometimes phone several times a month.

Elizabeth’s frown smoothed out, and she silently took a seat. Jenny sat next to her while Charlotte poured coffee and set toast in front of them.

Rachel joined them, cast him a curious look. “What are you doing here?”

Ash went through the explanation again. “My grandmother and Ivy were friends.”

“Is that how you met Charlotte?” Jenny demanded.

“Yes, she introduced us, although she was subtle about it.” He hoped the news that she’d been set up at the ball didn’t upset Charlotte.

Rachel’s brows rose as she turned to Charlotte. “She did? Neither of you even hinted at it.”

Charlotte’s expression blanked. She remained silent and Ash continued.

“I told you she was a determined woman.” He turned to Elizabeth, his gaze sobering. “When will the funeral take place? My grandmother will want to attend.”

“I’m not sure yet.” Elizabeth pulled out the snobby matron. “If you leave your number I’ll make sure you’re contacted with the details.”

“Charlotte will let me know.” He needed to make allowances for Elizabeth under the circumstances. Ash walked over to Charlotte and kissed her cheek. “Will you be all right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll give you a call later tonight. Make sure you eat something,” he whispered, confining himself to running his fingers over her cheek before walking away.

The instant he stepped outside two photographers straightened and pointed their cameras in his direction. He ignored the shouted questions and demands to look their way, climbing into his car and backing out of the driveway.

His morning was a busy one, but each spare moment, he thought of Charlotte. He picked up his phone and rang his grandmother, letting her know the news, and all the while he willed Charlotte to ring him again. The urge to say to hell with work and go to her, warred inside him.

“Ash?”

Ash jerked from his thoughts to find his assistant staring at him.

“Something wrong?”

“Just a bit distracted,” he said. “Is my next appointment here?” While he spoke, he checked his email, his heart leaping when he noticed one from Charlotte. She noted that she’d designed some artist trading cards and large poster-size drawings as well as the files she’d attached. He clicked on the attachment and his breath caught. He let it out in a low whistle. “Laura, come and look at this.”

“This is for the new bakery account? Who did this? It’s perfect,” she said. “Fresh and new.”

“I’ve been working with Charlotte Dixon. I started her off, but she’s done the design work. Which one do you prefer?” He clicked on another attachment, the simple yet elegant idea very different from the first more modern design.

“They’re both perfect as they are. I’d let the client do the hard work of choosing. You didn’t do any of this?”

“No.” Satisfaction throbbed through him. “I showed her how we set up our files, and we discussed the sort of thing the customer wanted. I left her to her own devices and gave her a deadline. She’s finished early.”

“We need to hire her. She does good work,” Laura said.

“How are the two new hires?”

“Good,” Laura said. “But not as gifted as Charlotte.”

The phone rang in the outer office, and Laura went to answer it. She was back in minutes. “Your appointment is here.”

“Thanks.” Ash closed Charlotte’s work and stood to greet his client. Marlborough Media didn’t need another trainee. Their more senior people were stretched with training and their existing work as it was, yet if he didn’t offer her work of some description, he sensed he’d lose her. Not just as a potential employee but maybe as a lover too.

Shoving aside his unease, he grinned at his long-time client. “How is your wife? And the kids?”

“Suzie, my youngest girl, still wants to marry you when she grows up,” Brent Wendell said with a chuckle. “She drew you a picture of your wedding day.”

Ash accepted the crayon drawing and studied it. She’d even drawn in his scars. “I don’t know about marriage, but she might have a future in design.”

“My wife will be pleased to hear it. She says you’re too much of a player for one of our daughters.”

Not anymore, Ash thought, and he didn’t feel so much as a pang at the loss of his freedom.




* * * * *

Gran’s funeral was held four days later. Charlotte walked into the church behind Elizabeth, Jenny and Rachel, together yet apart as always. Gran’s death was a hollow void in her world, and she’d attempted to fill the emptiness with cooking and cleaning. The kitchen bulged with an abundance of food for the visitors who’d descend on the house after the funeral. She slipped into a pew behind her stepsisters and stepmother, as instructed earlier by Elizabeth. She was to leave space for Gran’s other children.

Charlotte waited for everyone to settle, keeping her gaze off the casket sitting at the front of the church, and trying not to cry as Gran’s favorite songs played from concealed speakers. A cold, hard knot sat in the pit of her stomach. It expanded to clog her throat so she couldn’t choke out the grief, the rage and the sense of loss that pervaded every thought and action. It clouded her mind, not allowing her to focus on the thing she should concentrate on—her future. Now that Gran was gone she needed to find a job. Elizabeth had already mentioned she’d need to pull her weight and get a job to contribute to the upkeep of the house.

Someone sat beside her, touching her knee. She jumped, biting back a gasp, only relaxing when she recognized Ash.

“Thanks for coming.” Her voice emerged as a hoarse croak.

He took possession of her hand and squeezed it. “My grandmother asked me to attend in her stead. I would have come anyway,” he said in an undertone, his breath warm on her ear. His silent strength, his comfort given without reserve cracked the lump of ice inside her. Warmth crept into her, and when he would have released her hand, she clung. With a gentle smile, he maintained the contact, and she listened to the words of the minister, the tearful memories of family and friends. She stood and sang Gran’s favorite hymn with everyone else, clutching Ash’s hand while saying goodbye to the woman who’d been more than a friend.

The formalities at the cemetery passed rapidly. The sun blazed overhead and a tui gurgled non-stop from the branches of a nearby tree, competing with the minister. A quiver went through her when she spied a pair of fantails flitting nearby, the tiny birds often associated with death in Maori legends. Ash stood beside her, holding her hand, his solid presence helping her through the ordeal.

Soon it was time to return to the house and prepare for the influx of guests.

“Charlotte, I’m sorry, but I need to go back to work. There’s a client from Wellington and this is the only opportunity we have to meet. Can I drop you back at the house?”

“Please.” Elizabeth wouldn’t think to make sure she had transportation back to Remuera. Too many things on her mind.

Ash left her at the house, giving her a brief kiss on the cheek before driving away.

Charlotte was the first back and started tea and coffee then set food in the dining room. When she heard the first people arrive, she removed the covers from the plates.

Elizabeth stalked into the dining room while she was carrying in the first pot of tea. She surveyed the spread and gave a stiff nod. “Thank you, Charlotte.”

The rest of the afternoon raced away. Charlotte made more tea and coffee and ferried plates of sandwiches and cakes back and forth. Who knew funerals stimulated the appetite so much? Maybe it was something to do with affirming life, Charlotte thought.

She smiled at one of Gran’s brothers, offering him a refill of his tea cup and received a polite nod. She sighed, feeling more than ever like a sparrow amongst a nest of cuckoos.

Gradually, the guests started to leave, and Charlotte busied herself with the constant stream of dirty dishes.

Elizabeth walked into the kitchen, her eyes bloodshot, her cheeks pale beneath the rounds of blusher she’d applied earlier in the day. “Charlotte, a light dinner tonight please,” she said in a crisp voice. “There will be six of us since my sister and her husband and my brother are staying the night.”

Six? What about her? Charlotte bit down on her inner lip. Not the time for a smart-ass comment, but obviously, she’d been relegated to hired help status. She was meant to make dinner from the goodness of her heart.

Charlotte made pasta served with pesto, a large salad and baked a focaccia bread to have on the side. She also whipped up an apple crumble in case any of them wanted dessert. Deciding to eat later, she cleaned up in the kitchen while the others ate in the formal dining room.

“Mum said you can clear the table and bring in the dessert now. We’ll have coffee later,” Rachel said. She disappeared before Charlotte could answer.

Charlotte gripped the edge of the counter until the color bled from her knuckles. Deep breaths. “I’m not a servant, damn it,” she muttered while getting dessert bowls from the cupboard—the good china as Elizabeth had requested. Taking another fortifying breath, she set them on a tray along with the apple crumble and a jug of fresh cream. After counting silently to ten, she carried the tray into the dining room. Tonight was not the time to assert her rights and independence, not the day of Gran’s funeral.

Silently Charlotte cleared dinner plates, distributed bowls and placed the crumble near Elizabeth to serve. Wordlessly, she carried the empty dinner plates along with the salad bowl, which contained a lone slice of cucumber.

Resentment built in her, layer by layer, empty dish by empty dish, but pride and decency wouldn’t let her unleash her ire—not today.

The cleanup took another hour. Charlotte made herself a sandwich and escaped to her bedroom. She fell asleep listening to an audio book about a world populated with vampires where nothing was as it seemed and humans unknowingly walked amongst danger.





“Charlotte.” Elizabeth stalked into the kitchen the next morning, five minutes short of nine. “Jenny, Rachel and I are driving to Taupo with my brother. We’re going to sort out Mum’s house ready for sale. I want you to clear Mum’s room here.”

“Don’t you want to keep anything?” Charlotte asked, surprised by the request. Don’t you mean order, Ms. Feisty snapped in her ear.

“No, send everything useful to charity and trash the rest. Don’t bother making breakfast. We’re going to stop at Tirau.”

Five minutes later, they were gone.





previous 1.. 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 ..15 next