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Am I doing the right thing? And if I am, why doesn't it feel like it? Why do I feel as though I'm teetering on the edge of a precipice?
The questions whirled in her head as they'd been doing for the last twenty-four hours, but outwardly the façade held. Anyone surveying her would see Melody Taylor, cool and collected as always and certainly not the type of woman to panic.
You asked him here because he's the best lawyer there is and that's what your mother needs right now. Personal issues don't feature in this so get a grip.
The self-admonition was sharp and brought her full mouth tightening in determination as her thoughts sped on.
You're going to show him that you're managing just fine without him, OK? It's easy as long as you don't lose your nerve. You handle difficult situations every day and you can handle Zeke Russell too.
The sitting-room door opened and her mother walked in, cutting short Melody's reverie. The look on the older woman's pale face brought Melody hurrying to her, her voice soft but firm when she said, "Don't look like that; it'll be all right. I promise.'
"You don't know that, Melody.'
"Yes, I do, and you've got to believe it too. It's half the battle with something like this.'
"Oh, darling.' Anna Taylor touched her lips to her daughter's cheek in a fleeting kiss. "What would I do without you?'
The endearment revealed the extent of her mother's distress. Melody had always known her mother loved her but Anna never demonstrated this physically or verbally except on the rarest of occasions.
The two women looked at each other for a moment and then Anna said, "I don't like you having to ask a favour ofZeke either, not after everything that has happened.'
"I'm not asking him for a favour. We'll explain the situation and if he thinks he can take the case we'll pay him like any other client.'
"You know what I mean.'
Yes, she knew what her mother meant. And if she was being truthful she'd have to admit that if there had been any other way out of this than contacting Zeke she'd have taken it. But there wasn't. As a lawyer he was second to none and he won cases that appeared hopeless to everyone else. Those were the facts, unpalatable as they might be.
Melody shrugged. "He agreed to come here so at least we don't have to go to his offices,' she said shortly. She didn't add "and see Angela', but it was in both women's minds. Angela Brown was Zeke's sexy secretary and mistressif their affair was still continuing. Melody ruthlessly put the thought of the other woman out of her mind. She had enough to concentrate on with Zeke arriving any minute.
The ring of the doorbell caused them both to freeze for a second, then Melody pulled herself together. "That must be him now,' she said calmly, as though her heart wasn't trying to escape from her chest. "Why don't you go and put the coffee pot on while I let him in?'
Another imperious ring made her soft, full mouth tighten. Forceful, determined, arrogantZeke obviously hadn't changed in the six months since they had last seen each other, not that she'd expected otherwise.
Her mother having fled to the temporary sanctuary of the kitchen, Melody walked out into the hall, taking a deep breath and composing her face into a polite smile before she opened the front door. She felt her eyes widen but hoped the tall dark man standing on the doorstep hadn't noticed. In spite of the way she'd tried to prepare herself for this moment all morning, the sight of him still took her breath away.
"Hello, Melody,' the deep, masculine voice murmured. There was only a faint trace of the American accent which proclaimed his early origins. "How are you?'
"I'm f-fine.' She heard the slight stammer with an annoyance which provided a healthy shot of adrenaline. Her voice her own again, she continued, "And yourself?'
"Wondering what your mysterious phone call is all about.' His head tilted slightly in the characteristic gesture she remembered when the razor-sharp brain was trying to make sense of something. "I gather Anna's in some kind of trouble?'
Melody nodded. "Do come in,' she said courteously, trying to ignore how very overpowering his presence was. At six feet four, Zeke was taller than most men and broad with it. She knew from experience there wasn't an ounce of fat on the massive frame, however; it was sheer muscled strength which padded his shoulders and chest. His face, with its sharply defined planes and angles, was attractive rather than handsome, the overall impression of hard cynicism etched into each feature. But his eyes His eyes had always had the power to make her weak at the knees. A curious golden-amber colour, with thick, coal-black lashes which matched his close-cropped hair, they had the ability to hold an onlooker captive with seemingly little effort, an attribute he used to devastating effect with hostile witnesses in the courtroom.
The thought lingered as he strode past her into the hall, whereupon she shut the door and turned to face him again. By the end of their relationship, when everything which had been so right was so wrong, she had felt just like one of those poor unfortunates, she thought wryly. And it had been then she'd really understood why he was considered such a brilliant and formidable lawyer in spite of being a relatively young thirty-five years of age.
He waited for her to lead the way into the sitting room and she was careful not to brush against him as she passed. Nevertheless she couldn't help catching the faintest whiff of the delicious aftershave he used and her stomach muscles contracted and tightened as her heart galloped for a moment.
Steady, girl, steady, she warned herself silently as he followed her into the wide, pleasant room. This is a man who is an expert in reading people's faces to discover what they're thinking. You know that. Don't give anything away or you'll live to regret it. She turned, her voice civil and her eyes devoid of emotion. "Sit down, Zeke. Mother's bringing the coffee through in a moment.'
The words hadn't left her lips before her mother appeared in the doorway, a large coffee tray in her hands. Melody moved to help her but Zeke got there first, taking the tray out of Anna's hands as he said quietly, "Allow me. You're looking well, Anna.'
"Thank you.' Anna had adopted the role of hostess, her earlier distress hidden. "So are you.'
Zeke Russell placed the tray on the long beech coffee-table in the middle of the room before straightening and surveying the two women. Still as alike as two peas in a pod, he thought in the moment of silence which ensued. You only had to look at Anna to see what Melody would look like in twenty years' time. Even at fifty, Anna was still quite dramatically lovely, her blonde hair shiny and sleek in an expertly cut bob and her skin showing little signs of ageing except round the eyes. Tall, slender and finely boned, the two of them could have passed for sisters rather than mother and daughter, albeit Anna seeming a somewhat older sibling. Of course their eyes were different, Anna's being a light blue which could be chilling on occasion, certainly when they focused on him. Melody's, on the other hand, were a warm, smoky grey with passionate undertones
His body hardened but his voice was mild when he said, "So, how can I help?'
It seemed to bring the two of them to life.
Melody pushed her mother down into a chair as she said, "I'll see to the coffee, you explain what's happened.' And then, when Anna seemed incapable of beginning, Melody said, "It's the business,' looking straight at him as she motioned for him to seat himself in a chair opposite her mother. "You remember Julian Harper, Mother's personal assistant?'
Zeke nodded. Of course he remembered Anna's lapdog. He didn't think he'd ever met such an obsequious little toad as the small, greasy-haired individual who prided himself on being at Anna's beck and call, but whenever he'd made his feelings known in the past Melody had defended the man to the hilt. Julian was devoted to her mother, she'd protested. Absolutely devoted. Her right-hand man in the business and a good friend too.
Zeke raised his eyebrows when it appeared Melody found it difficult to continue. "Julian?' he prompted quietly.
"He's been fiddling the books.' It was Anna who cut in and her voice was steely now. Zeke recalled the tone. She had rarely spoken to him in any other way.
He turned his gaze to Melody's mother but she was looking somewhere over his left shoulder and wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Along with other dubious business practices,' she added bitterly. "False orders, altering advice notes, inferior material ' She took a deep breath. "And he's been clever too, making it look as though I was in on everything.'
"How?' Zeke had sat up straighter, his face suddenly intent. "Forging your signature?'
"Nothing so obvious as that. I I have signed things apparently that I shouldn't have. He'd bring a batch of papers for my signature and if I was busy ' Her voice trailed away before she added, "I'd just sign them.'
Zeke looked at her with very real astonishment. He privately considered Anna Taylor to be one of the hardest women he had ever come across, a beautiful ice queen with a heart as frozen as the North Pole. He disliked her intensely and he knew the feeling was fully reciprocated. If someone had told him Melody's mother would ever sign a paper without reading it first he would have laughed them out of court.
She glanced at him and he knew she was fully aware of the nature of his thoughts.
Melody broke the contact by passing him a cup of coffee.
It was black and strong, exactly how he liked it, but then if his former fiancée didn't know his preferences, who would?
Their hands touched for the briefest of moments before Melody jerked hers away so abruptly the coffee was in danger of landing in his lap for a moment. A dart of dark satisfaction followed. So, not quite so together as she would like him to believe?
Zeke stretched his long legs, taking a pull at the coffee before he drawled, "Do I gather this is in the public arena in some way?' as he glanced at Anna again.
The older woman inclined her head in confirmation. "One of my main customers is claiming substandard material we supplied cost them hundreds of thousands,' she said flatly. "Which I'm sure it did. It was a special order for a new line in lounge suites they were promoting. Within a matter of months the material was giving out and they had irate purchasers screaming the odds. They had to recall all the furniture, of course, but their reputation suffered as a result. When it first came to light I offered monetary recompense but they're looking for blood and intend to take me through the courts.'
Zeke nodded. He could have said it couldn't have happened to a nicer person in his opinion, but he didn't. Nevertheless he had to admit to a certain gratification that Anna was in this position. If it wasn't for Melody's mother's persistent manoeuvring and interference he and her daughter would be married by now, but Anna had plotted and schemed to split them up from day one. Of course, she couldn't have succeeded in her vendetta against him if Melody hadn't allowed her to.
His mouth hardened. "Doesn't look too good for you, Anna, does it?' he murmured softly.
"I know that!'
The words were snapped out and Zeke saw Melody send her mother an anguished glance which said all too clearly, Don't lose your temper; be nice. Remember what's at stake.
And what was at stake? Anna's precious textile business. The business she had started twelve months after Melody's father had walked out on the pair of them when Melody was just three years old. He thought Melody's father needed a medal for staying that long!
Melody spoke now, her voice rushed as she said, "Zeke, this is all so unfair. Mother could lose everything just because she trusted Julian. You do believe she didn't have anything to do with it?'
He allowed his eyes to rest on her face. It was flushed, her eyes deeply troubled and dark with emotion. She looked so lovely his guts twisted. He waited just long enough for his reply to carry a thread of insincerity when he said, "Of course.'
"I knew this was a mistake.'
Anna spat the words, but when she went to rise to her feet Melody's voice was sharper than he'd ever heard it. "Sit down, Mother, and don't be so stupid. You need Zeke far more than he needs you.'
He was surprised for the second time in as many minutes. In all the six months he and Melody had been together before she'd broken their week-old engagement and ended the relationship, he'd never heard her raise her voice to her mother. In fact he'd often wondered how she'd resisted Anna's demands that she come into the business when she'd left university. But it appeared that was the one time she hadn't indulged her mother, instead following her own star and becoming a speech therapist. He had met her when she had liaised with a partially deaf client he was defending.
Melody's gaze left her mother and centred on Zeke's expressionless face. She knew what that impassive look meant. He was thinking furiously behind the blank mask. She took a deep breath and attempted to sound matter-of-fact when she said, "Like I said, Mother could lose everything if this goes against her. Regardless of whether you believe she's innocent or not, will you take the case and defend her?'
He stared at her without responding for a moment or two, then his voice was equally matter-of-fact when he spoke. "I don't defend anyone I think is guilty, not unless there are extenuating circumstances, anyway.'
Melody swallowed against the tightness in her throat, hoping her mother wouldn't jump in again. "Is that a yes or a no?'
In answer he turned and looked at Anna. "Do you want me to defend you?' he asked quietly. "It's clear what Melody wants, but how do you really feel? Do you want me as your lawyer?'