Hector strode into the two-story foyer where a butler was stationed during the festivities to welcome guests or bid them farewell. The man was gone, the foyer’s chandelier dimmed. Frowning, Hector peered up the grand, L-shaped staircase. People as polished as the Williamses would never retire for the night before seeing their guests off.
At the opposite end of the mansion, he detected the murmur of voices. Following the sound, he walked through a dimly lit corridor. At the end was a kitchen large enough to do double duty in a restaurant. Maids clustered at the center island sorting dishes into stacks, and drying crystal. Beyond them, the Williams’ housekeeper sat at the table jotting notes on a checklist.
He went to her. “Reenie, have you seen Meade and Mr. Williams?”
“Hector. Hello.” She set the pen down. “I thought you left with everyone else.”
“Mr. Williams—where is he?”
“Why, he’s in bed.”
“I checked on him an hour ago. He’s fast asleep.”
“In bed, I assumed.” Reading the worry in his eyes, she added, “Should I check?”
When she returned, the gravity of her expression matched his. “It’s not like Meade to leave for her apartment without telling me,” she explained. “She rarely stays there and besides, she’s planning to spend Sunday with her father. I called and left a message. She’s not picking up her cell either.”
Meade wasn’t at her apartment. He was sure of it. The housekeeper was correct—she wouldn’t leave without alerting someone, and certainly not on the night of her sister’s wedding. She was somewhere on the grounds.
“I’ll find her,” he assured Reenie.
Intuition sent him in the direction of the boathouse, a destination he hoped to reach by memory. The humidity was rising and he shrugged out of his suit jacket. Tossing it over his shoulder, he started across the lawn that formed a green necklace around the mansion. In less than a minute he was out of the glaring floodlights, his pace slowing as his vision adjusted to the night.
Clouds scuttled across the moon, leaving patches of black and grey on the estate’s rolling hills. Using the meager light on his smartphone, he rounded the cutting garden alert for the murmur of the lake’s waters. If the moon didn’t come back out, he wasn’t sure he’d find the way.
He did, despite the near darkness. The door to the boathouse was ajar. There was no one inside.
Worried now, he walked down to the beach. The lull of the waters provided a haunting music. To the left, he made out a thin band of sand merging with the night. Ears pricked, he prayed. In the distance, the faint and harrowing sound of weeping lifted on the air.
Anxiety increased the perspiration slicking down his chest. Pulling off his tie, he left it with his jacket on the bench where he’d chatted with Landon. The breeze kicked up, balmy with summer’s promise. Walk the beach with only his cell phone to guide him? He muttered a curse. If Meade chose to evade discovery, finding her would take time.
Borrowing a flashlight from Reenie would’ve been smart.
“Meade, are you here?”
The snuffling broke off. “Hector?”
The startled response got his feet going. Like a homing pigeon, he went toward her voice.
“Mind giving me a hint? Where are you?”
He found her twenty yards off, huddled on the sand with the gauzy folds of her gown pooling around her. What he could see of the dress didn’t look good. A ragged tear ran through the fabric, as if she’d torn it while walking in the dark. Her hair was unbound, flailing like streamers of indiscriminate color.
Gingerly he lowered himself to the sand.
“You okay?” Obviously not. Tears glistened on her cheeks.
“Why are you here?”
“Looking for you.” He declined to add he’d been frightened he wouldn’t find her.
“Go on back. I’ll be in later. I need to sort myself out.”
“Meade, it’s late. The reception ended thirty minutes ago. Everyone’s gone.”
“Did Birdie make it to midnight?”
“Barely. She left with a bag of peaches. Gift from the caterer.”
“Sleeping. Your housekeeper says he went to bed a while ago.”
She drew her knees up, her back curved by grief. “I tried to get him to the house. He wouldn’t let me help him.”
“He didn’t go back to the party. Hugh noticed.”
“She was more focused on the peaches.”
The news brought a sigh of relief. “Thank God he stayed away from the ballroom. He was too muddled to entertain guests.”
Hector studied the clouds scuttling across the heavens. “Did you have an argument?”
“We always argue.”
She began to cry. The tears stripped away the art and artifice cultivated by a woman of high standing. The transformation was difficult to witness. He was thankful for the darkness concealing her misery from too close an inspection.
Meade prided herself on her deliberate speech and intimidating poise. The tears felled these attributes like a scythe to wheat. Yet with Hector’s pity came unbidden gratitude. A rare gift was this, to glimpse the vulnerable heart of such a unique woman.
“Meade, it’s all right,” he said, needing to end her suffering.
“Believe me, it’s not. Have you ever known anyone with serious depression?”
Chewing it over, he said, “Not that I’m aware. I have an uncle in remission for cancer. He gets pretty low. Most of the time he manages fine. My aunt keeps his spirits up. They’re both troopers.”
“This is different. My father can go a long time, months on end, and seem fine. Then a song dredges up a bad memory or something changes in his routine. He goes off the deep end. Rages, or days of moping—he gets mean. I’ve always found it ironic how someone so thin-skinned has no consideration for other people’s feelings. Oh, he’s not like that every day. But when his depression takes hold, it’s like living with a hostile inmate.”
“Break him out of prison.”
“I’ve tried.” She dug her fingers into her hair, pulling needlessly on the flowing locks. “He refuses to leave his bedroom or he stews in the greenhouse. Like he’s stuck in a cage of rage.”
“His cage of rage,” Hector repeated, shaking his head. “A sad poetry, but I like it.”
“Meade, get him out more often. No one should live like a hermit.”
“Do I look like a miracle worker? If not for his friendship with Theodora, he’d never leave the house. She has a gift, a way of reaching through his darkest thoughts and giving him peace, if not happiness.”
“Ask her for pointers.”
“As if it’ll work. They’ve been close longer than I’ve been alive. He trusts her.”
“But not you?”
“I’m his daughter, not his friend. He doesn’t view me the same way.”
“Sure he does,” Hector protested, and the softness of his tone convulsed her back with a new wave of sorrow.
She fought to find her voice through the tears. “Caring for him year in and year out is hard, frustrating—like dragging granite. He goes as cold as stone, and there’s no reaching him. No way to end his grief. I’m tired of trying to make him happy when all he does is make me sad. I’m tired of him. Does that make me an awful daughter?”
“Not at all. You’re a great person. The best.”
“Oh, sure.” More tears, and she buried her face in her hands.
Which was all he could take. “Come here,” he murmured. “You’re on the verge of an all-out crying jag.”
Scooting closer, he took her into his arms and she let him, her head drifting to his shoulder, her chest heaving with the brunt of her heartache.
Held close, she was smaller than he’d imagined, more delicate, her fingers endearingly fragile as he curled them beneath his much larger hands. Her perfume became a lure, the light floral scent stirring his senses, the feel of her skin moist beneath his fingertips. His caresses were clumsy as he stroked her arms and murmured words of comfort that proved incapable of staunching the outpouring of grief.
She’d begun to settle down when the moon escaped from behind thick clouds. In the bluish light the beach came alive. The water brightened and the ribbon of sand grew visible. Yet the moon’s glow seemed a warning to Meade. She raised her head from its perch. Regretting the loss, he tightened his hold on her hands.
Then he saw the welt. It was an angry red on her cheek.
“How did this happen?” Careful not to hurt her, he tested the bruised flesh. Her skin was hot to the touch. Then the truth jolted him. “Your father hit you? Meade, did he?”
She flinched. “It was an accident. I tried to make him leave the boathouse.” She scooted back an inch, and he felt the loss like an amputation. “I shouldn’t have come at him. It was stupid. When he realized what he’d done, he was devastated.”
A chilling anger filled Hector. “Has this happened before?”
“No, never. Daddy isn’t violent.”
“Hector, I swear to you—he didn’t mean to strike me,” she insisted, and her voice broke on a sob.
“It’s all right. Please don’t start crying again.” He folded her back into his arms and began rocking. It was a relief when she leaned into him, her gestures tentative as she reached across his stomach to find purchase. Without stopping to consider his actions, he pressed kisses to her forehead, adding, “We should get some ice to stop the swelling. I’ll run back to the house.”
“Don’t go.” She relaxed fully against him.
“Let’s go together,” he suggested, but he didn’t move. He didn’t want the moment to end.
“I’m not ready to leave. Let Reenie get to bed. I couldn’t bear her questions. She’s so protective. If she sees me like this, she’ll be up all night worrying.”
“Whatever you want.”
She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder as if testing his strength. “Do you ever wonder why life works out the way it does?”
He grinned into the dark. “All the time. Everything makes sense when you’re young. You get older, make a few decisions with outcomes you sure as hell don’t expect, and you end up wondering how to keep score. The game changes.”
“Learn to flex. If you don’t, you’ll break.”
She nuzzled closer. “I’ve always believed if you follow the rules you’ll come out ahead. Get an education, work hard, and everything falls into place. The successes outweigh the failures. No guarantees but, for the most part, everything works out.”
“It does, for some people.”
“Luck changes. You stay in the game.”
“I’m tired of the game.”
Her fingers dug into his ribs, telegraphing fear or despair. Whatever the emotion burdening her, it brought his protective nature to the fore. He didn’t like seeing women hurt. This instance was particularly difficult. Meade was capable, accomplished, a woman firmly in charge of her destiny. She wasn’t the type easily knocked down by a bad run of luck. The injury to her cheek would heal. But the altercation with her father—what if it broke her?
At risk to his heart, he urged her into his lap, settling her in the cradle of his thighs as he would a lover. She came readily, her eyes moist and her expression open. Her compliance filled him with awe and the notion he’d unexpectedly found himself in the center of one of the most precious moments of his life.
Often the most pivotal events of life passed by unnoticed, the importance hidden until much later.
Tonight was different; he understood the portent of her willing affection, the ease with which she settled against him as if she would trust him forever. As if she might, should he prove deserving, allow him to lay claim to her heart. The possibility left him yearning to taste the forbidden fruit of her lips. In his chest, his heart thundered.
Oblivious to his dilemma, she said, “It’s pathetic, the way I try to keep everything going. What’s the point? Control is an illusion. You were right in what you said after the wedding. I can’t please everyone.”
“You mean your father.”
“And my mother before him. She had my entire life scripted. The right friends, the best schools, even my career. I never would’ve founded Vivid without her prodding. She loved France, discovering small perfumeries. She loved the pretty shops with the soaps and bath products made from recipes handed down for generations. On one of our mother-daughter shopping sprees in Paris, she hatched the idea for Vivid. Daddy thought she’d found the perfect career for me.”
“If you hadn’t gone along with the plan, what would you have done instead?”
“Who knows? I never gave my own interests time to surface.”
“You have no idea?”
“I don’t. I thought if I was the perfect daughter, accepting my parents’ choices instead of forging my own path, my achievements would bring happiness. I knew they were miserable. Oh, I wasn’t aware of my mother’s liaisons or my father’s affair with Wish Kaminsky until Birdie showed up in Liberty. But I always knew something was wrong between my parents. So I compensated for their misery by giving them perfection. Perfect Meade. My work, comportment, everything.”
“A heavy load to carry.” Too heavy in his estimation.
“Do you think I’m a fool?”
She gazed at him solemnly, as if his opinion were more priceless than the stars coasting out from behind the clouds. That she cared what he thought elevated him to the heady position of her equal.
The change, though subtle, unhitched the control he’d valiantly kept in place.
“Meade, you’re not a fool. You’re an exceptional woman.”
“Absolutely.” Torn between propriety and desire, he added, “I hope you’ll forgive my honesty. I’m crazy about you.”
Impulsively, he pressed his mouth to her throat. She bent gracefully, giving him room to explore. The invitation was intoxicating. The beach spun beneath him.
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