A Christmas Night to Remember
Author:Helen Brooks


HOW could you have longed for something with all your heart, lived through endless minutes and hours and days and weeks anticipating the moment it happened, and be numbingly terrified now it had?

Melody shut her eyes tightly, wrinkling her face as she told herself to get control. She could do this. She had to do it actually. There wasn’t a choice. By tonight her hospital bed could be occupied by someone else, and topping and tailing was strictly against the rules.

The brief moment of dark humour helped to restore her equilibrium. She slowly unclenched her hands, which had been fists at her sides, and opened her eyes. The small room—one of four off the main ward—had been home for three months since the accident. Early on one of the nurses attending her had told her it was mostly long-term patients who were placed in the more private en-suite rooms. She suspected Sarah, the nurse in question, had been trying to warn her not to expect miracles. The damage she’d done to her spine and legs when she’d stepped in front of a lorry one morning wasn’t going to be a quick fix. As it happened she hadn’t needed it spelling out. She’d known she’d changed her life for ever when she’d looked into Zeke’s contorted face as she’d emerged from the fog of anaesthetic after the initial emergency operation.

Enough. Don’t think of him. You need to be strong this morning.

Obeying the inner voice, Melody reached for her thick, warmly insulated jacket. In spite of the hospital’s hot-house central heating, she knew it was freezing outside. The experts had been predicting a white Christmas for days, and it seemed they were going to be right for once. There had already been an odd flurry of snow this morning, and the sky was low over the rooftops beyond the hospital precincts.

Melody walked across to the window and gazed at the view she would be seeing for the last time. The car park was busy—it was always busy—and beyond the walled grounds the streets of London stretched away full of houses and offices and industry and people going about their everyday business. Normal people. She bit hard on her inner lip. Girls who wouldn’t have to think twice about wearing a short skirt in the summer or a bikini. She had been like that once. Now every advertisement on TV and every magazine she read seemed full of perfect women, girls with long beautiful legs and flawless skin.

Enough. She turned from the window, hating herself for the self-pity which always seemed to hit when she least expected it. She was lucky to be alive, she knew that, and she was grateful for it. The damage to her spine and mangled legs, not least the huge amount of blood she’d lost at the scene of the accident, had meant it was touch-and-go for days, apparently, although she hadn’t known much about it. She had vague memories of Zeke sitting by her bed, holding her hand in Intensive Care, but it had been a full week before she had woken one morning and found her mind was her own again.

That all seemed like a long time ago now. As soon as she could be moved from the hospital in Reading she’d been transferred to this one, which specialised in spinal injuries. She hadn’t known Zeke had been instrumental in accomplishing this, or that with her type of injuries expert care was essential for good long-term recovery until recently, when her consultant had mentioned it. Not that it would have made any difference to her decision to end their marriage.

Melody limped across to the narrow bed, staring down at the suitcase she had packed earlier that morning. She had all the relevant documentation and had said her goodbyes. It only remained for her to leave the place which had become comfortingly womb-like in its safety over the past weeks and months, even as she’d longed to be in charge of her own life once again. But here it didn’t matter that she walked with an ungainly gait. The nursing staff were so proud of her that she’d fought to walk at all. They didn’t wince at the sight of her scars, but praised her for the way she’d tackled the painful physiotherapy day after exhausting day.

Outside the walls of the hospital was the real world. Zeke’s world. She swallowed hard. A realm where the rich and beautiful had the power, and nothing less than perfection would do. She had inhabited that world once—briefly.

She straightened her shoulders, telling herself such thoughts would only weaken her when she needed to be strong, but somehow today she found she couldn’t control her mind the way she had done since she’d told Zeke their marriage was over and she didn’t want him to visit her again.

Zeke James—entrepreneur extraordinaire, king of the show-business world he ruled with ruthless detachment. She had heard of him long before she’d met him while auditioning as a dancer for a new show. Everyone in the show-business world had heard of Zeke. He was the living embodiment of a man with the Midas touch.

She had arrived late for the audition—an absolute no-no if you were serious about a job. For every dancer selected there was likely to be over a hundred or more who were disappointed—competition was fierce and jobs were scarce. But old Mrs. Wood, the elderly widow who had occupied the ground-floor bedsit of the house she’d been living in, had found her beloved cat dead in the road first thing that morning, and had been so upset she hadn’t felt able to leave her until the frail little woman’s married daughter had arrived. Consequently she had raced into the theatre where the auditions were being held breathless and red-faced, and had been given a dressing-down by the dance director in front of everyone without being allowed to say why she was late. By the time she had ventured onto the stage to dance her piece she had given up all hope of gaining a place in the chorus line, much less that of lead female dancer which was what she’d applied for.

Perhaps that was why she had performed the routine she’d practised every evening so perfectly—she’d had nothing to lose. She had felt as if her body was a musical instrument, tuned and played as finely as a violin, and she’d responded to the piano, any nerves melting away as she’d flowed with the rhythm, her timing faultless.

Melody’s mouth trembled for a second. Never again would she feel like that. One momentary loss of concentration and the career she had worked so hard for had been smashed for ever. All the training since she had been a child, the sacrifices, the time spent pushing her body to reach levels of physical fitness and agility greater than that needed by most top athletes had been for nothing. The years dancing in clubs and pantomime and cabaret as she’d honed her craft, the waitressing and bar work she’d done to pay the rent between engagements, the lack of opportunity to put down any roots since most dance companies undertook tours both at home and abroad, the poor pay and constant discipline—all pointless now.

But none of that mattered as much as losing Zeke.

Melody continued to stand staring into the compact little room but she was miles away, lost in memories.

The first time she had seen Zeke was when she had finished the audition and someone had risen from the small group sitting in the auditorium and begun to clap slowly. She’d stood, panting slightly and unsure how to respond, and her gaze had focused on a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair and rugged features.

‘Excellent, Miss…’ he had consulted the notes in his hand ‘…Miss Brown. Better late than never. Or do we have a prima donna on our hands who expects us to be grateful that she bothered to turn up at all?’

She had instinctively known he was Zeke James; everyone backstage had been buzzing with the fact the great man himself was present. She had also disliked him on the spot. She detested sarcasm, and the deep, faintly husky voice had been oozing with it. Drawing herself up to her full five-foot-ten-inches—something which had spoilt her chances of becoming a successful ballet dancer but which hadn’t interfered with her career as a modern stage dancer—she’d tried to keep her voice from betraying her when she said, ‘I’m sorry I was late but it was unavoidable.’

‘Really?’ he’d drawled. ‘I would like to know what came before a place in my production, Miss Brown? I presume it was nothing less than a life-or-death matter?’

‘Death, actually.’

She could see she’d taken him aback—whether because of the hostile note she’d failed to keep hidden or the content of her reply she wasn’t sure; whatever, it had been immensely satisfying to see him at a loss for a moment, even if she knew she’d just blown the faintest chance which had remained of being offered a job.

He’d recovered almost immediately, of course. ‘I’m sorry.’ His eyes had narrowed as he’d stared at her more intently before sitting down once more.

Once in the wings, a couple of the other dancers she knew had gathered round her and she’d filled them in on what had happened as they all waited to find out their fate.

‘A cat?’ Katie, a tall redhead who was easily the most ambitious person Melody had ever met, had stared at her in disbelief. ‘When we heard you say a death we thought it must be your nearest and dearest to stop you trying for the part of Sasha, but it was just a cat?’

‘It might be just a cat to you, but it was Mrs Wood’s companion and best friend and she was heartbroken this morning,’ she’d answered, knowing even as she spoke Katie would never understand. Like acting, dancing was highly competitive, and only about one in ten dancers registered with Equity was in work at any one time. Prospects were always poor. Every dance teacher she’d ever had had hammered home the fact that it was only the most dedicated and talented dancers who succeeded, and if you had a thick skin and were ruthless to boot it was all to the good.

Katie, who was also trying for the lead female dancer’s role, had unwittingly confirmed her thoughts when she’d said, ‘Darling, you’re a sweetie, you really are, but I wouldn’t have kept Zeke James waiting if my dear old mother had kicked the bucket in front of my very eyes this morning. You have to look after number one in this world because no one else will, take it from me. It’s dog eat dog.’

One of the other dancers had chipped in at this point. ‘And we all know you’d step on any one of us, Katie, if it gave you an edge in getting what you want, never mind an old lady and her cat.’

‘Too true.’ Katie had grinned, completely unabashed. ‘And the only difference between me and you is that I admit it up front. You’d do the same, Sue. And you, Christie. We all would except perhaps Melody, our own little angel of mercy.’

It was only at this point that they had become aware of Zeke James, the dance director and the producer standing having a cup of coffee some distance away. That the three men must have been able to hear their conversation became apparent when Zeke strolled over a few moments later, his face deadpan as he murmured softly, so no one else could overhear, ‘It’s the first time I’ve played second fiddle to a cat, Miss Brown. A novel experience.’

He had walked on before she could retaliate, and when she had glanced over at Katie something in the other girl’s face had made her suspect Katie had known Zeke James and the others were within earshot all the time.

Ten minutes later they were all called back on stage. She had got the part of Sasha and Katie was her under-study. And when she had left the theatre later that day Zeke’s black Ferrari had been waiting for her…

Enough. Melody shook her head, forcing the memories back into the little box in her mind where they remained under lock and key most of the time. Today, though, she didn’t seem able to prevent them escaping.

Flicking her silky, shoulder-length strawberry-blond hair—which just missed being Titian—free from the collar of her coat, Melody reached for her suitcase. Her hands were trembling. Taking several deep breaths, she composed herself, and when she studied them again they were steady. A small victory, but heartening.

She was going to be fine. She nodded to the thought. Her plans had been carefully made. All she had to do was take it a day at a time now. The hospital thought she was going to stay with friends, but once she’d known she could leave the day before Christmas Eve she had phoned numerous London hotels until she’d found a room, reserving it for a full week. Due to a mix-up with her paperwork her departure had been delayed for a day, but the hotel had kept her room when she’d let them know she would now be arriving on Christmas Eve instead. The room had been expensive, but with it being the holiday period she’d been lucky to find one at all. It would give her the breathing space she needed and that was all that mattered. She nodded again.

Once in the main ward Melody was touched by how the nursing staff gathered round, despite her having said her goodbyes earlier that morning, but then at last she was free to leave and make her way to the lifts. She hadn’t expected to feel so shaky and overcome, and as the lift sped her downwards to the hospital lobby it was as though she was venturing into hostile alien territory. When it stopped and the doors slid silently open she had to force herself to move.

A large robust man brushed past her on his way to the lift, and although the action was slight it was enough to knock her off balance due to her injuries. Melody stumbled, the weight of her bulging case hampering her regaining control, and to her horror she knew she was going to fall. She had firmly resisted all suggestions of a stick or crutches, but walking the length of the ward and pacing her room was very different from negotiating a crowded hospital foyer.

And then suddenly a pair of strong arms was holding her, steadying her, and the next moment the suitcase was taken out of her hand.

‘Hello, Melody.’ Zeke’s voice was expressionless, his ebony eyes unreadable as they stared down into her startled green ones.

‘What—?’ She was so surprised her brain wouldn’t compute. ‘How—?’

‘Questions later.’ He was leading her towards the huge automatic doors with a firm hand at her elbow and she had no choice but to walk with him. ‘For now let’s get out of here.’