Her mouth opened, to gasp or deny, only nothing came of it but a slow leaking breath that might have been regret. Once upon a time she had been so in love with him. She would have given Chance anything. Done anything he asked. She was only sixteen, but Melora had always been an old soul in a young body. And loving Chance has been the most profound feeling she had ever experienced.

          If he’d decided to use her as a means of payback or revenge or whatever motivated him back then, Chance would have found no resistance. Only the eager willingness of a girl desperate for him to see her as a woman. And the consequences…

 “Brando would have gone out of his mind.”

          After hearing her words, Chance let out a bark of laughter.

“Yeah... Well, rest assured it wasn’t the concern for your brother that stopped me.”

          A tide of warmth washed through her and Melora took a quick glimpse of Chance. Her knight in shining armor, her hero, always and in the most unconventional ways. Only he’d walked away from her as if their friendship meant nothing. As if she meant nothing to him, just another normal person passing through his life.

“You look quite tired, Chance. Where have you been all this time? What did you do? What is this secret you’re trying to protect and that requires my help?”

          Her quietly posed questions brought a pause, and the faint lines around his eyes lost their laughter. Melora knew very well that expression. She saw it so many times in the past.

 “Well, the last six months I’ve spent mostly in Europe.”

          He shifted in the nest, stretching out one long leg before them.

“Diving into a new venture that didn’t take off the way I’d anticipated.”

          It wasn’t what she’d meant, not entirely. She’d been thinking more of where he’d been for the past ten years. Why did he disappear from her life so suddenly, so abruptly? They’d been close. They’d been friends. And then one day, he just wasn’t there anymore. Except now Chance was back, asking her to be the friend he needed to help him.

“Could you, please, tell me what’s this all about? Since you still hate my brother so much, why do you need the help of a Channing?”

          Chance ran a wide palm over the heavy line of his jaw.

“Honestly, I’d like to get out of your little panic room here.”

           Pushing to his feet, Chance dug into his pocket for a handful of bills he then tucked under the champagne bottle left atop the rolling cart. He looked so uncomfortable, so Melora touched his hand slowly.

“Please, tell me why?”

 “Because you are the only innocent part of the Channing family. Because you always did me good, since the first moment I met you. Melora, you are the only one who could help me without asking too many questions. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.”

          Catching her hand, he pulled her up with him.

“So, what do you say, Melora? Are you in or out? Should we head back into the reception and give them something to talk about? Are you going to be with me in this?”

          Oh, he was so tempting. This was so tempting. Made even more so by the warmth radiating up her arm from Chance’s casual touch. She didn’t want it to end… not now, not ever.

          But as he led her out into the kitchen access hall, Melora’s steps dragged and old memories came back. She stopped and looked around, then at him. No, this wasn’t right. She didn’t need this… Not now when she was almost free.

          Melora stilled, shook her head, and then started walking towards the utility room. That was a safe place from Chance, from Brando’s rage, from the entire world.

“What is it?” Chance asked turning, not understanding her hesitance. “I thought you were going to help me.”

“I-I can’t…” she said slowly stammering. “I… I need to think about this. Please, I have to.”

“Melo, help me…” he whispered and took her hand in his pulling her slowly towards the ballroom.

          The idea of the talk surrounding her laced with something other than pity or mockery was thrilling, was what she wanted. And the opportunity to spend some time with Chance again, after all those years… Well, she didn’t quite know how she felt about that.

          Then everything hit her in the face. The reason for her hesitation was coming towards Melora from her past and had always been there. She was still attracted to him. She was still very much in love with Chance Benson.

          Yes, she could pretend to have a relationship with him just to fool the people around. But she couldn’t pretend that her attraction wasn’t sincere. Chance never mentioned love… for him, this was just taking care of a business.

          But for her it was different… And Melora knew she won’t be able to hide her true feelings for long. One look from him and Chance will see this as an invitation to hurt her once again. He promised he wouldn’t do it, but… she was a Channing and she was Brando’s sister. Which was making her a perfect target for late revenge.

          Out of the kindness of her soul and for the old times' sake, Melora wanted to help him. She knew him and how hard must’ve been for him to come to her. Chance wasn’t a man to ask for favors lightly. He really must have needed her. And, she needed him. In the end, this was a simple case of quid pro quo. He would have what he wanted and she was going to have the life she wanted, away from the Channing Empire.

          Still, she needed some time to view once again all the pros and the cons. A decision of this magnitude deserved at least one night’s consideration. Melora wanted to look at this entire situation from every point of view, to be absolutely sure. Take everything into consideration before making a decision.

“Chance, please, give me a few hours to think about it and I’ll call you tomorrow. I promise.”

          Ahead the door to the ballroom opened a crack as a waiter or some guest prepared to back through it. Melora took a step in retreat, only to have Chance draw her to a stop.

“Here’s the thing, Melora.”

          His dark eyes had her now, cool and deep and dangerous. And so captivating…

“I’ve already thought about it. This is a fine opportunity and the results will benefit us both.”

“Chance, I don’t think I can… I know I can’t…”

          His loose grasp on her hand shifted, tightened as though he thought she might bolt.

“Trust me, Melo,” he urged in a tone of pure seductive persuasion.

          Her chin shot up. She’d known Chance back when he was cultivating that tone and, while she couldn’t say she was exactly immune, Melora wasn’t wholly susceptible either. Not even if he was adding to it the nickname, he once gave her.

“No… No, I can’t…”

          He could forget about luring her in the way he did every other man, woman, and child on the planet. She knew how Chance operated and the last thing Melora needed was another overbearing man trying to control her.

          She wasn’t one of his devotees, some Wall Street junkie determined to live as Chance lived and follow in the footsteps of the financially infallible. And she wasn’t one of his bimbos either, hanging on his arm and his every whim, smiling stupidly, and saying yes.

          No, damn it! She was Melora Channing, determined to secure her independence, and she wasn’t giving into this man just because his voice stroked like rough velvet over her every independent thought!

          The corner of his mouth quirked up a degree and something about his smile, one she’d seen countless times before and knew promised pure mayhem, put all her senses on alert. Her stomach jumped and she tried to escape.

“Oh, no, you don’t! I can’t!” she gasped, backing down the hall with Chance matching her step for step, still holding her hand captive within his.

          She glanced over her shoulder, and nervous laughter erupted with the realization she’d somehow ended up moving toward the ballroom rather than away. So stupid!

“Come on, Melo… Trust me.”

          That grin… That nickname… That voice… What was he doing to her once again?

“I don’t trust you,” she shot back, her pulse rocketing in response to the predatory intent blazing in his dark as night eyes.

          She’d be a fool to trust a man leering at her like that as if she’d made his week with this little game of cat and mouse.

“Well, you should,” he sweet-talked her, this time taking a step into her space. “I’ve got a talent for making things work.”

          Melora peered up at him as he drew her closer, to the point where their feet tangled, legs touched. Oh, Chance Benson was so bad. So incredibly, unrepentantly bad.

“You’re still arrogant as hell,” she accused, laughing bitterly as she nearly stumbled into his chest.

“And you like it,” he challenged, with a pointed jut of his chin, just daring her denial.

          She’d always loved his crazy confidence. Chance’s unwavering ability to fly in the face of convention and come out on top. He was free and, contrary to popular opinion, didn’t take himself too seriously… so neither did she. Only, if Chance pulled her any closer, ‘serious’ would become inevitable. Her hands moved ineffectually to his chest.

 “What are you…?”

          But then the door to the ballroom pushed fully open and, with an expertly maneuvered tug, Chance caught her up against his body in a hold so provocatively intense she couldn’t think of anything beyond the miracle of its fit.

           Deep dark eyes slid over her in a chilling caress that left her skin pebbled with goosebumps. Flashing a quick wink, Chance caught the back of her neck.

“Trust me. I’ve done this before.”

          Lips parted in protest, Melora didn’t manage to say a word before he moved in and, with deadly accuracy, captured her mouth in the most passionate kiss she’d ever experienced.

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What has Chance done before? Kiss a woman no surprise there

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