Hidden Agenda – Chapter 1 to 5
Melissa Shayne walked out of the bus terminal and sighed.
It was a typical spring afternoon in the heart of Virginia; warm, a slight breeze rustling the leaves of the budding maples that lined Main Street. As she stood on the curb, her bags next to her, she took in the familiar scene before her.
Nothing changes, a little voice inside her seemed to say, although with relief or resignation, she didn’t know. Water still trickled a timeless rhythm against the white marble of the fountain near the Lewis and Clark Memorial at the corner of South and Main. A solitary pigeon perched at the apex of the statue, its stillness a contrast to the movement all around it. I am as alone as that bird, she sighed as she made her way down the sidewalk, only I can’t fly away from here. She looked at her cell phone. “It’s too early to call,” she rationalized out loud. “I’ll wait. Give myself time to take in the old sights.” Give yourself time to grow a spine, you mean, the little voice inside nagged. Putting it off isn’t going to make it any easier.
Strolling past the street-front shops along the avenue, Melissa made her way to an inviting park bench underneath a tall maple. Setting down her suitcase and overnight bag, she gingerly sat down and absorbed the peaceful scene. Gradually she relaxed, removed her jacket, and curled her legs underneath her. Winter still reigned up north, but here the softness of spring surrounded her. In spite of her misgivings, it felt good to be somewhere where the pace of life was much more deliberate. She closed her eyes and leaned back, savoring the clean air and sunshine filtering through the leaves. It was so different from New York City, yet different from her memories too.
* * *
A deep, rough voice startled her out of her meditation. She opened her eyes and found herself staring at a silver belt buckle shaped like a bird of prey. Her eyes quickly wandered up from narrow hips to broad shoulders and up to a pair of hazel eyes. No, more like gold, she decided, shivering. She remembered a trip to a zoo as a little girl, when she walked through the big cats exhibit and stared into feral, powerful eyes. His eyes were similar to those of a cougar, taking on a speculative gleam as she continued to stare, mesmerized. Suddenly realizing her rudeness, she blushed furiously.
“And who is asking?” she asked, proud that her voice was level and cool despite the turmoil inside. The stranger was tall, almost regal in appearance. A conservative grey suit and white silk shirt encased a powerful frame. The crest on the jacket was of her father’s company. He grinned lopsidedly.
“Welcome back to Charlottesville. Congressman Shayne, uh, your father sent me.”
As his voice reverberated in her ear, she uncurled from her position on the bench and rubbed her tingling toes. My feet are asleep, she rationalized, distracted by the grin staring at her. Then his words registered past the confusion that seemed to muddle her brain.
Her father? How did he know? She had only decided yesterday to take the bus, to give her time to come to terms with returning to Virginia and her family estate. She straightened up and looked at the dark stranger. His piercing gold gaze seemed to almost read her mind.
“Your father had his secretary call your apartment, and she spoke to an Emily Marston. She said you were on your way. He was surprised you decided not to fly.”
Emily. It figures. Fresh from Owensboro, Kentucky, with dreams of Broadway and fame and entirely too trusting of a voice on a phone. Then again, Melissa hadn’t told Emily not to say anything. Melissa shrugged and waited for an answer to her question.
“I am Nicholas Alvarez, your father’s driver. He told me to pick you up here and take you to the house.”
* * *
Nick took a steadying breath, praying she hadn’t noticed his reaction to her unconventional beauty. He had been shown a photograph of Melissa, but it didn’t do her justice. Damn, but she was beautiful. He had expected a typical rich female: rail-thin, with an artificial look and an attitude to match. It took several moments, watching her with her eyes closed and her head tilted back, before he realized how very wrong he was. He considered himself lucky to have had some time to regain his equilibrium.
She had an earthy quality that was markedly different from those oh-so-fashionable yet business-type women he had seen from his chauffeur’s seat. Instead of a half-starved frame and sharp angles, her generous curves reminded him of the gently rounded sand dunes found along the barrier islands of the Eastern Seaboard he visited as a child. His body suddenly clenched at the thought of running his hands up her sides to her womanly shoulders. Her deep brown hair was smooth and gleaming, otherwise falling below her shoulders but today gathered up into a loose ponytail with a silver clip. Sky blue eyes, open now and frowning in thought, were framed by soft lashes of sooty black. Her skin was cream, glowing slightly against a purple t-shirt. With a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, she was definitely ‘muy bien’, as his grandparents would say. Watching her on the bench, he thought of a cat contentedly stretching in a beam of sunlight. Seeing her sudden blush, he schooled his thoughts so quickly that he hoped no emotion crossed his face.
* * *
Melissa took a deep calming breath, and, sighing, stood up. No sense staving off the inevitable. Until she received that telephone call last week, she had no intention of ever coming back to Virginia. In one moment, though, her plans for the immediate future had changed. Her grandmother was dead, and the family attorney said it was imperative she be at the reading of the will.
Nick picked up her suitcases and loaded them in to the waiting trunk of a silver Lincoln. Opening the passenger door, he turned and took her elbow to help her in. He heard her sharp intake of breath as an almost electric shock suddenly coursed through his hand and centered somewhere around his chest. Madre de Dios! The blood began to pound insistently in his veins. He paused to gather himself, then gently handed her in, quietly closing the vehicle door. Sliding behind the steering wheel, he steadied himself with a firm grip, willing his body back to a controlled state. Whatever just happened must not be allowed to occur again. Miss Melissa Shayne was quite an attractive package, but she was irrelevant to his investigation.
Nick had been undercover for six months, watching Raymond Shayne, former CEO of Shayne Enterprises. Since his rise in politics, actual day-to-day operations were handled by his right hand man, T.C. Livingston. However, Shayne still kept a close watch on the business, often visiting the corporate offices in nearby Richmond. Shayne moved in many powerful circles; circles where it was hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Shayne’s company came to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation after several low-level criminals in the Washington DC area provided information that the company was either a front for mob activity, or it served a link in smuggling operations between Virginia and New York. As one of the premier shipping magnates along the Mid-Atlantic coast, it was in a position to control and monitor a significant portion of the Bay and surrounding ocean. Nick had been sent undercover as a chauffeur to infiltrate the company at the highest levels possible and investigate.
As the grandchild of immigrant migrant workers, Nick grew up with stories of the poor or indifferent treatment his grandparents received as they toiled between New York and Florida, following the harvests. Only an agent’s unrelenting pursuit of the truth kept his grandparents from being entangled in a farm conglomerate’s criminal activities. Nick ultimately chose a similar career; becoming a Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation seemed a good way to support and protect the weaker members of society.
As sad as the circumstances were, the death of Raymond’s mother was a golden opportunity for information gathering. The rich and powerful from all over the east coast would be there, ostensibly to pay their respects. There was a high probability that some of the attendees were involved in the illegal activities of which Shayne Enterprises was suspected, and that Nick would discover the linchpin that brought the case together.
The lowlifes that had been arrested claimed that shipments of guns and drugs were being regularly transported by from Virginia to New York by Shayne employees. Nick was charged with determining whether senior management was involved. If there was any evidence to be found supporting the allegations against Congressman Shayne, Nick was bound and determined to find it and bring him to justice.
As he steered the vehicle to the outskirts of the city, Nick inwardly seethed. Congressman Shayne had ordered Nick to be exclusively at Melissa’s disposal. Being at the daughter’s disposal put him out of position. He needed a way to stay within close proximity to his target, not out squiring the Congressman’s daughter. But based on the history he was provided between Shayne and Melissa, he realized that was not going to be easy. He returned his focus to the refined but solid profile of his current charge present in the rear view mirror.
“Is there anywhere you wish to visit before heading to the house?” he said, careful to keep his voice neutral.
Melissa glance away from the window and looked at his face, those golden eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. “No, thank you. Home is fine.” Her brows came together in a slight frown as she shifted her eyes back to the scenery flowing by. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” The answer lapsed into a momentary silence. On impulse, Melissa decided to start a conversation.
“So how did you come to work for my father?”
Nick was ready with his carefully crafted background. “I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. There wasn’t much in the way of work when I graduated from high school. I found some odd jobs, none of which were interesting enough. Then, I saw a flyer about a special driving school where they train you to handle dangerous situations and keep your passengers safe. I signed up, and once I completed the training, their employment assistance office helped me find a position with your father’s company. I became your father’s driver about six months ago.”
Melissa was puzzled. “Why would my father need someone like you? Are you a bodyguard?”
Nick shrugged slightly as he smoothly accelerated through the green light. “It was part of my training, but it’s not part of my current employment contract.”
As the vehicle continued northward, Melissa sat back against the smooth leather seat and lost herself in her own thoughts for the remainder of the ride.
* * *
The ancient oaks lining the driveway created a moiré of shadows and light through the windows of the Lincoln. As the road opened in to the wide circular drive, Melissa felt her muscles tense. The historic red brick house graced a slightly rising hill, the black shutters around the mullioned windows and the white columns of the portico, giving it an elegant feel. The vehicle pulled to a stop in front of the wide steps leading up to the entrance.
As Nick walked to the rear door and opened it, an older woman appeared just outside the front door. Dressed in dark blue livery, she had wide brown eyes edged with laugh lines and strands of silver threading her chocolate brown hair. Melissa smiled as she recognized an old friend.
Margret Keane had been the housekeeper and head of staff for many years, often entertaining a lonely little girl in the large kitchen area in the rear of the house. She was instrumental in Melissa’s move to New York, the two of them pouring over college catalogues spread across the large servant’s dining table, back when Melissa dreamed to escaping the mansion and her father’s heavy-handed edicts.
Melissa climbed the steps and hugged the older woman, marveling at how little seven years had changed her friend. The housekeeper’s eyes glistened with tears as the hug was briefly but enthusiastically returned. Nick opened the trunk and removed the luggage, carrying it to the top of the steps where the two women were enjoying their reunion.
“Welcome home, miss,” Mrs. Keane beamed as she pulled back and surveyed Melissa; “You look well, but I bet you could probably use some good southern cooking. Thank you, Nick.” Mrs. Keane picked up one suitcase and proceeded into the front doors. With a brief murmur of thanks, Melissa took the other bag and followed the housekeeper. Nick watched them go, then turned around and made his way back to the Lincoln.
The two women continued to chat as they walked into the foyer, with its double staircase over the archway that led deeper into the house.
“Would you like something to eat now?” the older woman said, “Dinner won’t be ready for another hour or so.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Keane. Actually, I’d like to freshen up, and maybe look around a bit.” She had always loved that Mrs. Keane always referred to lunch as ‘dinner’. It annoyed her father tremendously. As they climbed the right staircase, Melissa paused for a moment, “Will l be staying in my old room?”
“Bless me, yes! Although there were some changes, Mr. Shayne always left it available for you. Your personal items from the room have been stored if you want to go through them.” Melissa swallowed past a sudden lump in her throat. While in New York, she had wondered if her father had destroyed her things after their final argument.
* * *
The hallway was eerily similar to her memories. The thick cream carpet runner muffled the sounds of their footsteps; the HudsonSchool paintings along the walls displayed their timeless landscapes. They halted at the last door on the right. Mrs. Keane handed the suitcase to Melissa.
“Here you are, miss. If there is anything you need, just dial “1” on the bedside phone.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Keane. Is my father joining us for dinner?” The housekeeper’s kind face fell.
“No, miss. He is in Richmond today. He left word that he will not return until later tonight. Would you like me to send up a tray to you?” Melissa thought for a moment.
“I think I’ll take my meal in the kitchen, if that is not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all, miss. I’m sure everyone will want to see you.” Melissa reached out and squeezed Mrs. Keane’s hand. Mrs. Keane patted their hands, pulled back and quietly went down the hall.
The familiar door opened to a very different room. Melissa left her suitcases by the door, sat on the double bed, and looked around. Gone were all the frilly pink accessories that had adorned the room since she was small. The walls were now papered in blue toile; her white French Provincial furniture freshened with a counterpane quilt of wildflowers. The dresser was bare of all objects save a porcelain dish Melissa recognized as her old jewelry holder and a tall, thin lamp with a blue shade. The expected rush of memories did not occur; it was a soothing but impersonal room, and she felt her muscles slowly unknot.
Melissa stood up, opened her suitcases, extracted some clothes, and walked to the attached bathroom. After a short shower, and dressed in jeans and a green cable knit sweater, she left the room and paused at the mirror in the foyer to tuck in a strand of hair. She briefly wandered around the upstairs area until she felt herself being drawn downstairs to the conservatory.
This used to be her favorite room, with its lush greenery and comfortable furniture. Nestled in the corner, her mother’s harp sat mute against a backdrop of leather-bound books. A gleaming black baby grand piano stood on a dais near the fireplace. Melissa walked over and stroked the smooth ivory keys. Many an hour was spent with fingering lessons at that keyboard.
A discrete cough echoed behind her. Melissa turned around and saw a young maid.
“I’ve been sent to inform you dinner is ready, if you would like to follow me to the kitchen”. Melissa nodded, closed the keyboard cover and proceeded out of the room.
Even before reaching the kitchen door, the smells and sounds enticed Melissa. She walked into the bright, cheerful room, nodded to several people, then walked over to the sideboard. Plates including fried chicken and bowls of mashed potatoes and green beans greeted her. She picked up a plate, added a little bit of everything, walked over to the dining table, and sat down. She bit into a crunchy drumstick, almost sighing in pleasure at the texture and taste.
“Is this seat taken?”
Melissa choked, swiveled around and looked up to the familiar golden eyes of her driver. She couldn’t prevent a small shiver as she made a tiny shake of her head. The noises around them suddenly receded as Nick smoothly slid in the chair to her right. After a small pause, she continued eating. She relaxed further as he applied himself to the meal and did not attempt to engage her in conversation.
The clean smell of the woman next to Nick gently wrapped around his senses. Suddenly, the plate of food in front of him wasn’t nearly as appetizing as the company. Melissa chuckled at something the employee to her left said. His mouth sudden dry, Nick felt like an intruder, but couldn’t help trying to overhear the conversation and continue to listen to her voice.
Mrs. Keane said from her place at the cutting table, “Your father has seemed very busy these past few weeks. He’s been coming and going quite often. When he’s been home, he’s spent a lot of time in the conservatory, going through the bookcases. He told me he was cataloguing the books for insurance purposes but didn’t want any help with it. Since so many of the books were your mother’s, maybe he was feeling nostalgic.”
Melissa was perplexed. Her father had never seemed all that interested in her mother’s collection of old classics and contemporary mysteries before. In fact, the bookcases in the conservatory looked exactly as she remembered them; the collection hadn’t changed much in her absence. Melissa shrugged it off and continued to chat with the employees around the table, unaware that Nick’s eyes had narrowed in thought.
Pleasantly full, Melissa finally stood up from the table and carried her plate to the cleaning racks. She was aware that Nick had risen from the table at the same time, but she gave no indication she noticed. In silence, they placed their dishes in the stand, then turned and faced each other.
“Will you need me at all this afternoon, miss?” Nick asked, his sharp eyes probing hers. Melissa suddenly felt heat creeping up to her ears. Something inside her caused her to murmur, “Call me Melissa”.
“Will you need me at all this afternoon, Melissa?” Nick asked again, a slight smile on his face. Melissa suddenly became distracted; was that a dimple on the left side of those firm lips? He stopped smiling, as if realizing her focus.
“No, thank you. I’ll be staying in for the rest of the day.”
“I’ll see you in the morning, then?” he questioned.
“Yes, thank you Nick.”
“A pleasant evening, then,” he replied with a slight nod of his head, and he turned to go.
As he walked away, Melissa’s eyes strayed to his firm rump. The soft grey pants hid more than they revealed, yet she had no doubt there was a hard body underneath. It held her thoughts all the way up to her bedroom. She spent the rest of the day unpacking and catching up with Mrs. Keane.
Melissa woke to an unfamiliar room. Cheerful sunbeams streamed into the room through gauzy curtains, and she remembered where she was. Stretching, she sat up and took a deep breath. The funeral was tomorrow morning; the attorney assured her that the reading would be done the afternoon of the service. She was at loose ends for the day and decided to rediscover the estate. She quickly showered, changed into her oldest jeans and a Columbia University sweatshirt, and walked down to the kitchen. Her father had not returned home before she had gone to bed. Better to see him after a good night’s sleep, she rationalized.
“It’ll just be a few more minutes, miss,” Mrs. Keane said, placing a steaming cup of coffee and a creamer bowl on the table. Melissa added milk to her coffee as she absorbed the scene in front of her. She never grew tired of the organized chaos of the kitchen; some employees had finished their breakfast, some had just begun, and the chef shuttled from stove to prep table and back again. It was so different from the silent breakfasts at the big dining room table, where she would sit, kicking her chair waiting to be dismissed, while her father read the newspaper over his morning coffee.
“Is my father up yet?”
“He called down to say he will take breakfast in the main dining room in ten minutes.” Melissa sighed, stood up, and cradled her coffee cup as she left the kitchen. There was a small breakfast area for the family as well, but her father always preferred the cavernous and formal dining room for the majority of his meals. As she stepped into the room, Congressman Shayne was just sitting down at the end of the polished mahogany table, his newspaper sitting neatly to the right of the place setting.
“Good morning, father”, Melissa carefully spoke as she sat down to his left, where silverware had already been placed, and took a sip of orange juice.
Congressman Shayne glanced up, frowned at Melissa’s attire, and said, “I trust you slept well?”
“Yes sir,” Melissa answered, “Will you be here today?”
Her father sipped his coffee and wiped his lips with the snowy linen napkin next to his cup. “No”, he said, “I have a teleconference this morning here, then a luncheon meeting in Richmond. What are your plans for today?”
Nothing like a warm reunion, Melissa thought sarcastically, we’re nothing but strangers. “I thought I’d check out the grounds a bit, and then maybe head into town.”
“I am having a dinner at the house tonight for my business colleagues, and I expect you to act as hostess. Guests will begin arriving at 7 o’clock, and I want you on your best behavior.”
Melissa bristled at the tone of his voice. “I am here because of Nana, not to be at your beck and call.”
She well remembered his cavalier manners before, when, after her mother died, he insisted on her attending all sorts of parties and dinners, polished and dressed in uncomfortable clothes, trying to avoid making an unforgivable mistake. At age 26, she was no longer that timid girl but now mingled freely with the students and staff at Columbia University, secure and confident.
“As a member of this family, I expect you to be available. We have to make a good impression for all our business associates, constituents and those who look up to us.”
“I’m not part of the wheeling and dealing you do, father. What difference does it make whether or not I am present to make a good impression?” Melissa felt herself tense for the onslaught. She was not disappointed.
Her father slammed his hands on the table, the glasses chiming in protest. “Our family’s standing is not something to be gadded about in some rag newspaper or subject to rumors and gossip. It is your responsibility to behave in a responsible manner, not in your usual embarrassing way!”
“I have no doubts that you have a long list of my failings. I’ve heard your litany many times,” Melissa cried, as she pushed away from the table and stood up, “and you seem to delight in hanging them over my head! Would it make you happy if I wrap myself in sackcloth like a leper??”
“If your mother were alive, she would be appalled at how you are behaving towards me. I am your father and I deserve your respect!”
Her appetite gone, Melissa took a deep breath and decided for the sake of peace to give in. After all, she would only be in Virginia for a few days. Then, she will resume her life in New York and put him behind her forever. “I am tired of you constantly throwing an incident that happened a decade ago in my face. Fine, I will perform hostess duties for you tonight, but only because I choose to. But it will be the last time.” She watched as a dull red creeped into her father’s face. For a moment, she thought he looked shocked and vulnerable, but it was probably a trick of the light. Turning, she swept out of the dining room before he could say another word, past Mrs. Keane carrying her father’s breakfast. Mrs. Keane looked after Melissa with a forlorn look and a shake of her head.
Once out of eyeshot of the congressman, she leaned against the wall as she felt her spine collapse. She closed her eyes, covering them with a trembling hand, and tried to slow her breathing.
The vision of Melissa, shaky and sighing, greeted Nick as he walked from the kitchen. Again, he was struck by her beauty, but at this moment, she seemed small and frail. He walked over to her and touched her shoulder.
“Are you ok, Miss Shayne?” At the sound of his voice she started, opened her eyes and looked deep into his.
Nick was shocked by the angry glints behind those beautiful eyes, swimming with tears. Without a thought, he pulled her from the wall and tucked her into his chest, rubbing his hand soothingly along her back. He felt her shudder and relax as she burrowed deeper into his warmth. After a few moments, he felt her gently push his chest. He didn’t want her to leave his arms, where she fit perfectly under his chin. Reluctantly, he released her after one last stroke along the small bones of her back.
“Thank you, I’m feeling better. I’m sorry you saw me this way.” Embarrassed, she began fussing with her sweatshirt, smoothing down the front as she avoided his eyes. “I don’t usually burst into tears like that.”
“No apologies needed, Miss Shayne.”
“Melissa, please,” she replied.
Nick decided to revert to a professional approach, to get things back on an even keel, although he was well aware of the damp patches on the front of his shirt. “Where would you like to go today?”
Melissa suddenly felt the need to escape the house; the exploration of the grounds could wait. “I suppose I will need to find a cocktail dress for tonight.” She obviously had not brought anything fancy with her but maybe she should have known better. Melissa knew the dark grey pleated pantsuit, while appropriate for the funeral and the business to be conducted afterwards, would not work for a dressier affair. “Do you know of new clothing stores here?”
“Not in Charlottesville, but I know of a couple in Richmond that might be appropriate. What time do you want to leave?”
She offered him a wan smile. “Nine o’clock will be fine.”
I hope a couple of hours is enough time for Mattie and Susan some time to find a place, he mused.
“Very good then, I’ll have the car ready.” Nick watched as she walked away, impressed by her grit. He had overheard conversations among the older servants regarding the history between the Congressman and his daughter and knew of the strained relationship and frequent arguments. The background check he had run showed an intelligent, respectable young woman; the one bump was a situation where Melissa was identified in a grainy tabloid photo of underage carousing at a debutante party ten years earlier; after which, her father clamped down hard on her social activities. From that point on, she had become the model daughter, quiet and contained. Nick realized, however, that her father still had not forgiven her for her teenage lapse of judgment.
After casting a final admiring glance at her retreating figure, he turned to make his way back down the hall toward the dining room, knowing that the Congressman might still be there. As he approached, Nick heard Shayne’s voice; it appeared he was talking with someone on the phone. He paused to eavesdrop on the conversation.
“Yes, yes, we will be able to talk this evening at dinner. Yes, I know she might be involved, but I haven’t been able to get a copy of the will, and she never told me what she planned to do with the certificates and deeds.” Nick suddenly felt cold; it appeared that Melissa might possibly in danger. “Yes, I’m driving myself today to the office. No one else will be there.” He filed away the information; the Congressman concluded the conversation but did not say any names. Nick hurried to contact his watcher, both with the additional information and to arrange a little shopping trip.
After washing her face and straightening her bedroom, Melissa came down to the foyer. She didn’t see Nick; perhaps he was still in the garage area. She headed out that way.
Carefully attaching a small transmitter to the underside of the blue late-model Chrysler that the Congressman had requested today, Nick knew he didn’t have much more time to finish. He had already placed several bugs discretely in interior of the sedan. Fortunately, the car already had a GPS unit, and his team had simply tapped into the appropriate frequency to keep track of the congressman’s whereabouts. He couldn’t let his reassignment impede the investigation in any way.
Melissa found Nick underneath her father’s car. While she wondered why he was under the car, she couldn’t help but imagine his long, lean legs inside the baggy denim coveralls at her feet. She swallowed as her eyes travelled to his center, where the coveralls dipped around his waist, exposing the telltale bulge of his virility. Good Lord, she chastised herself, I’m ogling this man! She cleared her throat.
Startled, the legs went ramrod stiff, and she heard a ‘thump’ and swearing. She stepped back as Nick rolled out from under the sedan, a socket wrench in his hand and a red mark on his forehead.
“Sorry,” she said with some amusement, “I didn’t mean to startle you”.
Nick looked up at Melissa. From his angle, her denim-clad legs seem to go on forever, up to the sweet curve of her derriere. The lion on her sweatshirt winked with each breath she took. As if she realized his scrutiny, she crossed her arms over her chest. Nick scrambled to his feet.
“I need to move the car to the front of the house for your father and then I’ll be ready to go,” Nick said, wiping his hands against his coveralls. It was either that or give in to the temptation to reach out and stroke the curve of her hip. “Wait here.” Nick pointed out several wooden benches near the garage door. Melissa nodded, walked over, and sat down. Nick quickly skinned out of his coveralls, slid into the driver’s seat, and backed the Chrysler out of the garage. Looking in the rear view mirror, he blew a sharp breath. Why was he so distracted by her? He had a job to do; worrying about Melissa was not part of that job. Yet she was undeniably desirable.
* * *
While Nick drove toward Richmond, Melissa stared pensively out the window. The city showed deep shadows as the sun slowly made its way across the valley, which gradually brightened. Hopefully, their little trip will brighten her mood, too. The Lincoln smoothly pulled in front of a simple storefront. The marquee read “La Maison de Couture” in script. Nick walked around and opened the rear door to assist Melissa out. A frisson carried up her arm as the sensation of Nick’s hand in her registered on her nerves.
She quietly thanked him, surreptitiously wiping her hand against her jeans as if to restore feeling. As she walked to the entrance, a tall, attractive brunette opened the glass door.
“Welcome to La Maison”, she said, in a smooth voice that held a trace of New England accent. “I am Susan. How can we help you today?” Nick grinned secretly.
“I’m looking for a cocktail dress for this evening.”
“We have a very nice selection to choose from. You are a size 6, correct?” Susan led Melissa to the rear of the store, where a discrete fitting room and three-sided mirror stood.
Nick stood back as the two women chatted amicably by the colorful racks. Susan was his partner, and the leader of this investigation. She had had to move fast when she learned of Melissa’s task for the day. They certainly had not expected a last minute shopping trip. Fortunately, their young support technician, Mattie, quickly found a place where the manager was cooperative, and Susan could have been a personal shopper for any starlet in Hollywood. Nick felt a twinge of, guilt perhaps, at the subterfuge. But it couldn’t be helped.
As Melissa walked behind the curtain with several items, Susan strolled over to where Nick was leaning against the wall.
“She’s sweet”, commented Susan. Nick only grunted in reply. Susan knocked her shoulder against his as she walked back to the mirrors.
Melissa came out of the dressing room wearing a black velvet sheath dress. Nick straightened and watched as the two women discussed the merits of the outfit. He, of course, had his own opinion, but they didn’t ask for it. The next several dresses tried on were cocktail length in neutral tones, but none had the impact of the first one. Nick figured she would choose one of the neutral ones, since this was sure to be a staid affair amongst the Congressman’s business partners; however, he knew that no matter what she wore, Melissa would stand out in the crowd.
After an interminable time, Melissa emerged from the rear of the store, back in her comfortable clothes, followed by Susan toting a burgundy garment bag on her arm. They gave no recognition of each other as Susan handed the bag to Nick, who thought with some surprise that the bag was heavier than he expected. Susan murmured, “shoe compartment” as she caught up with Melissa by the cash register.
“I’ll go to put this in the trunk for you”, Nick said to Melissa in a low tone.
“Thank you, Nick”, Melissa replied.
Nick opened the trunk, laid the garment bag down carefully, and unzipped the lower pocket. Nestled in a pair of taupe high heels, he found a thumb drive, earpiece and click microphone. He quickly secreted them in his pocket, zipped the compartment, and closed the lid. By this time, Melissa had walked out of the store, into the sunshine.
“Where to next?” Nick asked.
“Actually, I’m starved. I didn’t have breakfast. Is there anyplace nearby you would suggest?”
Nick thought quickly. Smitty’s was not too far away. He spent a lot of time there waiting on her father, and they had great she-crab soup. “You like seafood?” he asked as he helped her into the car. She nodded. And they were off again.
A few minutes later, Nick pulled into the parking lot of a weathered redbrick building tucked between modern commercial structures.
“It might not look like much, but the food is great,” Nick answered the questioning look on Melissa’s face.
As they approached the entrance, a heady smell of spices drifted out as someone exited the red-painted doors.
“This place is casual but has the best she-crab soup,” Nick commented as he held open the door for her.
The front door opened to reveal various displays of fresh foods, baked goods, and a hot bar. It was crowded, and the chattering patrons could be heard over the jaunty music. They decided to eat outside rather than look for a table in the small food area.
After selecting she-crap soup, deep fried crab cake platters, and mesclin salad, Nick carried the tray to a outside picnic table under a tree, to ensure both some privacy and to keep an eye on the Lincoln, which he could see from the corner of the building. Melissa set down the drinks. Her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as she took in the scene before it. “I like this, especially if the food is as good as it smells!”
“Best food around,” Nick replied, smiling, flashing that elusive dimple, “a lot of the staff from the nearby offices eat lunch here. Melissa grinned back; she had never found a comfortable place for casual dining and seafood in Manhattan, and she began to sense that Nick was a kindred spirit. This was just her kind of place.
They chatted impersonally while they ate. Even though it was the small talk of strangers, Nick felt a growing connection to this complex and beautiful woman in front of him. Then, Melissa threw a curve ball into their conversation.
“I have to ask, how did you know about the store? It was the perfect choice.”
Damn, he swore to himself. I hadn’t thought about that. He paused for what seemed like forever, then said, “I had an old girlfriend who insisted on dragging me shopping with her”, and he shrugged.
“Oh,” Melissa replied bemusedly. He’s such a paradox. One minute he’s totally officious, the next he’s a prototypical guy, she thought as she sipped her iced tea. “This was one of the best meals I’ve had in a while. I’m surprised you knew about this place since it’s so far from downtown.”
Nick paused for a moment. “Actually, we’re right on the edge of downtown. It’s grown quite a bit with the revitalization projects that have been going on recently, which is remarkable considering the economy.” Nick quickly steered the conversation back to what was fast becoming his favorite subject.
“What made you decide to go to Columbia?”
“In my younger days, I used to do a lot of water sports, you know, skiing and scuba. I also worked as a volunteer part time at the hospital. That’s probably when I decided to go into social work. Ultimately, helping people gives me a good feeling, and when I leave the office, I feel like I’ve done some good in the world.”
Melissa grew contemplative, and Nick feared he has caused painful memories to surface.
“It was my grandmother. As you have probably guessed,” Melissa replied wryly, “my father and I don’t always get along. Nana always stood as a buffer between us. When I told her of my dream to go into social work, she helped me research the best programs. We found that Columbia University had a renowned School of Public Health, and I was accepted there. I received my bachelors in three years, and then worked on campus through both my Masters and PHD in social-medical sciences in Public Health. I’ve been working for New York City Social Services for about nine months now.”
“That’s amazing”, Nick smiled at her with admiration, “to have that much direction at such a young age.”
Melissa blushed furiously as her heart gave a sudden leap. She quickly steered the conversation away from herself. “What about your family? Any siblings?”
Nick replied, “I have a sister who is a nurse practitioner in Tampa. My parents are retired and living in Florida on the GulfCoast near my sister. My paternal grandparents still live in North Carolina.”
“And your mother’s parents?”
“They were migrant workers. They followed the harvests along the East Coast for many years. About five years or so ago, they moved back to Mexico, where they now have their own small farm.”
“Did you see them often? It seems they would be hard to follow if they constantly moved while you were growing up.”
Nick softly smiled as he remembered his younger days. Melissa saw the flash of his dimple. “When I was in my teens, I would constantly get into trouble, so my folks would ship me out to my grandparents during school breaks to minimize my free time. I worked beside them, harvesting and carrying containers, and I earned a little spending money. It was hard. They were strict but fair, and I ended up enjoying the feeling that came from hard work. The muscles helped with the girls too!” “As time went on, I noticed some things about their lifestyle. Some farms we stayed at had cottages and cabins, but most had only bare places to stay, old trailers with no electricity or plumbing. I tried to speak with them about demanding better working conditions, but they shrugged and said it was still better than being poor in Mexico.”
“And when did you last see them?” Melissa asked. Before he could answer, a loud voice shouted “Melissa! Oh my gosh, Melissa, is that you?”