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Let me say and do the right thing, Melissa Chanley prayed as she entered the Colorado State Capital.
It wasn't going to be easy, no matter how she approached David Ardell. The contents of the folded note in her purse were going to shake up the handsome young attorney's life the minute he laid his eyes on it.
How would he react? She'd never met him personally, but she'd seen his picture in the newspaper with the governor, and on television. He was in his early thirties, had wavy hair almost the color of old gold and dark brown eyes. In public he was poised, articulate and successful -- but what kind of person lay under that successful political veneer? Was there a compassionate nature that she could appeal to?
As she opened the door to the outer office, Melissa hoped she wasn't embarking on a fool's errand. A middle-aged secretary with graying hair sat behind a computer. A wooden desk placard identified her as Elsie Shaw. She gave Melissa a practiced smile and an enquiring raise of her eyebrows. Curiosity was evident as her frank gaze assessed Melissa.
"May I help you?"
"I'm Melissa Chanley. I have a two o'clock appointment."
When Melissa made the appointment, the secretary had enquired as to the reason for the meeting, but Melissa had sidestepped the question. In her capacity as freelance writer for Colorado's Women of the West magazine, Melissa had learned to save explanations for the person she was interviewing, and even though her appointment had nothing to do with her professional occupation, she wasn't about to share that with his secretary.
"Oh, yes, Ms. Chanley. I'll let him know you're here." She spoke briskly into the intercom,listened a moment and then nodded. Turning to Melissa, she said, "He'll see you now, but only for a few minutes. Mr. Ardell has a busy schedule this afternoon." She left her desk, opened an adjoining office door, motioned Melissa inside and then quietly closed the door behind her.
Melissa hesitated just inside the office as her sweeping gaze quickly assessed the room, which was crowded with more furniture than any decent interior decorator would allow. Large windows were banked by bookcases and a collection of scenic western oil paintings was mounted on the opposite wall. A ring of chairs took up space in the center of the room as if left by a previous meeting, and a large executive desk was loaded with books and papers. The leather office chair behind it was empty.
"Please, come in, Ms. Chanley." The masculine voice edged with a hint of impatience startled her.
She saw then that the lawyer was sitting on a dark leather couch in a far corner of the room. As he stood up, he put down some folders on an already loaded coffee table. His eyes traveled over her as she walked toward him.
"I'm David Ardell." He introduced himself as if he wasn't certain that she had come to the right office.
"Yes, I know." She felt a smile hover on her lips. He was definitely more attractive in person than on television, even though a slight frown marred his handsome features. "Thank you for seeing me."
What now? David thought. At any other time, he might have enjoyed the interruption of an attractive dark-haired woman, but the governor was waiting for a report that was only half finished, and he had to attend a committee meeting in a few minutes. He caught the waver of a smile and the confident lift of her head as she came toward him. Who was she, anyway? Some socialite wanting him to serve on a community committee as representative of the governor? Then he remembered his secretary had told him that she was a reporter for a local woman's magazine. Great, he thought wryly.
"How can I help you?" he asked, already forming a routine dodge for handling the matter, whatever it was.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Mr. Ardell, but this is important."
That didn't surprise him. Heaven knows, half of what crossed his desk was stuff somebody at the capital thought was urgent and needed his immediate attention. Sometimes he felt like a firefighter with a dozen fires to put out. "Yes, Ms. Chanley?"
From his tone Melissa knew that he was ready to get rid of her as quickly as possible. Only the dire necessity of her visit stiffened her resolve to take as much time as she needed to make him understand the situation.
"I'm here at the request of someone else," she said evenly. "And when you know who, I'm sure you'll agree that my mission is important enough to take up a few minutes of your time."
Something in her tone warned David that his intention to dismiss her in short order might be premature. For a moment he let himself appreciate the way she held her slender shoulders and kept her unbelievable pansy-blue eyes locked on his face. Even the trim summer suit couldn't hide feminine curves or lovely long legs showing under a modest-length skirt as she stood in front of him, her head high, her eyes fixed directly on his as if she was the one in control of the situation.
"May I ask who sent you?" David's involvement in the political world had made him appreciate a worthy adversary. He sensed that in some fashion Melissa Chanley was here to challenge him.
"This will take a few minutes," she said smoothly.
"Shall we sit down?"
"Of course. I'm sorry." He chuckled to himself at how deftly she'd taken charge of the interview by that simple request. Maybe this was going to be interesting, after all. Her firm yet gracious manner was fresh and appealing, and in spite of himself he was intrigued with the reason for her visit. He couldn't ever remember meeting her at any of the political fund-raisers or rallies, and he was certain he would not forget a woman as attractive as she.
"Please, sit down." He motioned her to the leather couch and he eased down into a chair opposite her. Moving a few things around on the coffee table, he said, "As you can see I'm trying to dig out from under some paperwork that the governor's office unloaded on me. I'm sorry I don't have time to offer you some coffee. Unfortunately, I have a meeting in a few minutes. Perhaps you'd rather make an appointment on another day when I have more time?"
"No. I'm afraid this can't wait." Melissa's heart began to race. Speak into my words, Lord. Give me the wisdom I need.
"All right, Ms. Chanley." He raised a questioning dark brown eyebrow. "I understand that you're a writer for Women of the West magazine?" He allowed himself a smile. "I really can't see that I have anything to offer in the way of material for your publication."
"I'm not here in my professional capacity," Melissa explained as she reached into her white leather bag and took out a piece of paper. "I have a message for you from Jolene McCombre."
He stiffened and for one startling moment he wondered if he'd heard the name correctly, but something in the way Melissa Chanley was looking at him said that there had been no mistake. Just hearing the name jerked the scab off a wound that had never quite healed. Until that moment, he'd thought that he had successfully buried everything having to do with his high school sweetheart.
They had planned to marry as soon as he finished law school, but Jolene had jilted him a month before their wedding, disappeared from his life and married a serviceman who was home on leave. David had never gotten over Jolene's cruel betrayal, and even though some protective instinct warned him not to open that door again, he knew better than to lie about knowing the woman who had left him at the altar.
"You have a message for me from Jolene," he repeated in a tight voice. "What kind of message?"
Melissa fingered the letter in her hand, unsure how she should prepare him for the contents. His expression had become a closed mask, and hardness flickered in the depths of his brown eyes. She knew that the success of her mission depended upon how well she handled the next few minutes. "Before I give you the letter, I want to explain how I got it."
David gave her a noncommittal nod and remained silent. Better not to say anything until he knew exactly why this woman was here and what her intent was. She was a writer, after all. Had Melissa Chanley stumbled into this juicy tidbit of his past and planned to use it for some nefarious purpose of her own? Busy with his life and career, he had lost all track of Jolene through the years. Why would she be sending him a letter through this stranger? A flicker of intuition warned that this meeting was going to challenge his determination to leave the past buried.
"My magazine does profiles on women, past and present, who have shown strength and dedication in a lifetime of helping others," Melissa explained. "I was doing an article on May Bowers who founded the Denver Christian Shelter for homeless women and children. While spending time with May and collecting information for my article, I made friends with some of the women in the shelter, and they shared their stories of abandonment and poverty with me." Melissa drew a firming breath. "Jolene was one of them."
His eyes widened in disbelief. "She was one of the women at the shelter?"
Melissa nodded. "Yes. Penniless and homeless with two little boys. Apparently, the father of the boys died when they were two and three years old, and she raised them by herself until last year when she married a man who took her for everything she had. The scoundrel ended up in prison for fraud, and left her with huge bills and no money. She came to Denver, hoping to find a job and start again, but she became ill before she could find work and ended up at the shelter. I befriended her two little boys, Richie and Eric, and when Jolene was taken to the hospital she asked me to take care of them instead of leaving them at the shelter."
"Is Jolene there now? In the hospital?" When she shook her head, he said, "Oh, I see. You took her home with you." Now, he understood. Ms. Chanley was here to get money from him for Jolene and her kids.
"No, I'm afraid Jolene never made it out of the hospital."
He swallowed hard. "She died?"
"Yes, I'm sorry. She gave me this letter in the hospital, and asked me to read and deliver it if she didn't make it." She handed him the folded sheet of paper.
David's stomach took a sickening plunge as he focused on the familiar handwriting. Jolene had written him every week while he was in law school, and there was no doubt that she had penned this letter. For a moment he wanted to hand the note back without reading it. Then he took himself in hand. He was not the same person he'd been ten years ago.
Melissa watched as David read the letter written by a mother who knew she was dying. Jolene had simply reminded David Ardell of the love they had once shared and asked him to look after her sons now that she was no longer able to care for them. Her greatest fear was that they would end up in foster homes, and she begged David to use his resources to assure their care and happiness.