Author: Emma Swan


          Paparazzi everywhere exploded. Shutters snapped like automatic fire around him as all those vultures from tabloids of all caliber called for his attention, each voice clamoring to rise above the rest.

          Being here, participating at this wedding, was the ultimate sacrifice one could’ve asked of him, but Chance knew he had to do it. This was the only way since she was going to be present for sure and he needed her help.  

“Mr. Benson! One more over here!”

          Beneath the awning of the ‘King of Prussia’, one of the most exclusive hotels in New York, Chance Benson offered up a stock smile, responded to a few light questions with a handful of ambiguous words, and waited for the question he knew would come. It didn’t take long.

“Mr. Benson! Care to explain your sudden absence from the social circuit these past few months?”

          The question shot through the early autumn evening, silencing all others with its gathering strength while narrowing the focus on him like an interrogator’s spotlight. They were like sharks, sensing the blood in the water. They knew when they were onto something. But he was ready for the assault. Invited it. Feigning surprise at the inquiry, Chance paused in mock consideration before answering.

“I guess I’ve been so caught up in business, I hadn’t realized I’d gone off the map.”

          His answer wouldn’t satisfy even the most limited curiosity. And more than that, it was a lie. He’d spent the last six months laying low. Flying under the radar to avoid notice while the nightmare of his life slowly, painfully, worked itself toward an unsatisfactory resolution.

          Six months out of the limelight, away from the cameras, only to find his absence conspicuous enough in itself to fuel new rumors and speculation as to the cause.

          Who’s the beauty behind Chance Benson’s broken heart?

          The squelched headline had hit him like a sucker punch to the gut and he’d spent a fortune making it go away. Buying time. But if Chance didn’t put his hands on this situation, the trash hounds would dig and dig until they found the truth.

          And then they’d keep digging, making such a muck and mess that the dirt slung in their quest for ratings would reach anyone and everyone even remotely tied to his life.

          His father didn’t need that. Neither did Sophia, the tiny baby who’d dragged a commitment from his jaded heart with a fist too small to wrap around his thumb. She was pure, precious, and new.

          And though Sophia didn’t belong to him, he’d sworn to protect her from whatever hardships he could. And preventing a media circus from assailing her home and her mother, who wasn’t in any shape to defend against it, was top on his list.

          Which brought him to tonight. The first important gala event available to spin the press off his scent. As always, he smiled his best fake smile for the cameras.

“Better find out if any of the ladies still remember me.”

          And with that parting sound bite, Chance jogged the few steps through the grand entrance, looking for all the world as though he didn’t want to miss a minute. As though he wouldn’t rather be in his physician’s office turning his head to the left to cough, than heading into the ‘wedding of the season’.

          He needed a diversion, and the sooner the better. So, this was it. He’d dive headfirst into tonight’s sea of snobbery and silk, and put on a show for everybody. He’d reel in a beauty he could splash across the tabloid pages. The one he had in mind was absolutely perfect for this game.

          Chance knew he’d had to let her know that this wasn’t the real thing. He didn’t do soft. He didn’t do love. And he didn’t do forever. She would get a one-time-only card, as a thank you note. And she’ll agree since she was single and hurt. And she knew him for the man Chance really was.

          He always made certain his women knew what they were getting into with him, and then he did them with enough attention and skill they didn’t care there wasn’t anything deep or lasting between them.

          Scanning the throngs of social elite gathered within the gold-domed ballroom, he searched for his perfect wave-maker. Strange… She wasn’t in the ballroom. She should’ve been… Chance had checked the guest list three times before coming to this wedding.

          Chance looked around the room once again. There were at least a hundred good candidates batting thick-fringed lashes at him. But with each toss of perfectly coiffed hair and every lingering glance, the apathy that had kept him so easily unattached these past few months turned to something darker. More suffocating.

          Everywhere Chance looked, false claims and secret agendas lurked beneath the guise of enticement, and he found himself backing away rather than closing in. And then Chance saw her… The sweet breeze from his not so forgotten past, the reason for his presence amongst people he couldn’t care less about.  

          Melora Channing, slinking through the crowd, using every evasive technique at her disposal to dodge the conciliatory hand pats, air kisses, and general gossipy blood sport that occurred post-nuptials, regardless of the social strata involved. The sweet, wonderful girl from his past. Miss ‘Cutie Pie’ herself. And, unfortunately, Brando’s little sister.

          She was absolutely perfect for what he had in mind. Melora was part of the richest family in the country. She wouldn’t go after his money. She wouldn’t want his name. She wouldn’t create trouble. And she’d help him regardless of what went down with Brando all those years ago because she habitually did the right thing. Or she mostly did the right thing.

          The corner of Chance’s mouth quirked as, while he watched, Melora stole a dinner roll from the table closest to the kitchen access hall and slipped stealthily out the door. Chance’s feet were moving before his brain had even finished processing the plan.

          Neck deep in a cloud of ill-fitting taffeta and tulle, Melora Channing pressed her shoulders into the wall behind her. Stretching across the floor of her hideout, a miraculously unlocked utility room, discovered purely by accident three weddings before, she braced a foot against the door. He just stopped near her, leaving her stunned for a second.

“Not in a million years, Chance Benson!” she said shaking her head. “The women will sniff you out like hound dogs. Go away and find your own escape room.”

          Between the gap of the door and frame, extremely dark eyes slid over her, bringing to both mind and body the heart-pounding effect that gaze once elicited.

“You open the door this instant, Melora Channing, or I’m heading straight back into that reception room, and I’m telling every single schmuck I can find in there that you’re alone in here… bawling your eyes out, waiting desperately for a hero to save you!”

          Chance delivered the last part with the smug satisfaction of a man who knew he’d already won. Her breath caught as she stared in outraged indignation.

“I’m not bawling my eyes out! And I’m definitely not waiting to be saved! Not by you and not by any other shmuck,” she replied with determination.

          Hiding, yes. Sulking, some. Bawling… when hell freezes over.

“Don’t test me, princess! One word from me and it’ll be like open season. Every guy intent on snaring himself a top-floor job in ‘Channing Industries’ moving in for his white-knight moment. And the talk…”

          Her stomach seized. It was the same talk she had heard over and over in the past few days, that had driven her into hiding in the first place. Comments like ‘Poor Melora, she’s such a good girl but so unfortunate…’ ‘She’s so desperate for a wedding of her own…’, ‘She was so disappointed when he left her…’, ‘What her father had wanted.',  'This was what he expected from her…’ were as toxic, as lethal, like a glass filled with poison.

          She couldn’t stand the sound of it anymore. They were all wrong. But even if she screamed the truth from the highest building in the world, no one would believe her. She’d done too good a job for too long of forcing herself into the mold of a quiet-souled, docile-minded lady who didn’t exist.

          And she did it for nothing. In the end, no amount of perfect behavior could save her father from the weak heart that had plagued him the last fifteen years of his life. Pushing back the well of emotion that still rose at the thought of losing him the year before, Melora shook her head.

          Nothing could upset him now. No defiant choice or willful stand for independence. He was at peace and, though his death broke her heart, it also set her free. It allowed her to take a good look at her life, at herself, and find the courage to change everything. 

          But no matter the changes she made, no one could see past the illusion she’d perfected during the last years to the real woman trying to break free. Which was why this had to be the last high-society event. She needed a real life. One she could live on her own terms. To try and set the record straight before she escaped would leave her sounding petty.

          The bored sigh directed her way, snapped Melora back to the present. To Chance, quite literally sticking his head back into her life after walking out of it all those years ago.

“Last call, princess, or I blow the horn. Lots of hopefuls out there tonight waiting for a shot.”

Comments (1)
goodnovel comment avatar
Bella Jersey
I want to meet the real Melora

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