Touching Charlotte, Romancing the Guardians, Book Four


Sample first three chapters!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00074]

“Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. Through thick and thin, they’re there for you, world-class nurturers.” Dr. Judith Orloff, from Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Tristan Jameson tensed when a striking auburn-haired woman handed her coat to a butler in the penthouse foyer and walked into the crowded living room. He’d never met her, yet he felt instantly drawn to her. Despite his avoidance of female companionship over the past two years, his pulse quickened and the chatter of partygoers faded away as he watched her.

She wore a cranberry red dress with three quarter length sleeves that went surprisingly well with her auburn hair. Smiling brightly, she exchanged air kisses with Johanna Cantrell, their hostess and Tristan’s distant cousin, who had opened up her lavish Park Avenue suite for this early Christmas party. So gracious of her, everyone agreed. Of course they all knew tonight’s party was aimed at garnering backers for the lady’s upcoming mayoral campaign.

The redhead had arrived unescorted. Was she a personal friend of Johanna’s or some high-placed business executive who might be convinced to throw her support behind the candidate? Tristan doubted it was the latter. She didn’t look old enough to fill such a role.

Curious to discover her identity, he edged his way through the crowd and followed the woman down a hall toward the kitchen, admiring the slender curves revealed by her subtly flowing crepe dress. Members of the catering staff buzzed past like worker bees, carrying empty food trays to the kitchen for refilling or filled ones out to the buffet table in the spacious living room, or salon as Cousin Johanna so pretentiously called it.

Pausing in the kitchen’s open doorway, Tristan leaned against the door jam and observed the redhead as she held out a large Christmas tin to a portly, bearded man in a white chef’s uniform.

“Please arrange these cookies on a tray and set them out with the other desserts,” she said in a low, sultry voice reminiscent of actress Kathleen Turner’s.

The man scowled. “Madam, I personally prepare all food for every event I cater, including the desserts.”

“Oh, but I baked these especially for tonight as a gift for Jo . . . I mean Mrs. Cantrell. She told me to bring them back here for you to serve.”

“I doubt that, young woman,” the pompous ass sneered. “That good woman knows I never allow anything prepared by another hand to be served at one of my events.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” The redhead’s voice shook slightly, either with distress or anger.

Having heard enough, Tristan strode to the woman’s side. “There you are. What’s taking so long? I want one of your famous cookies.”

She turned her head and stared at him with eyes as blue as the sapphire broach pinned to her demurely cut bodice. A hint of pink bloomed on her cheeks, lending her ivory features a delightful glow. “Do I know you, sir?”

“Not yet, but I’ve heard of you . . . and your cookies.” Lifting the rather heavy tin from her hands, he extended it to the uncooperative chef. “My good man, set out the lady’s cookies on your best tray. Mrs. Cantrell is waiting to try them. So am I.”

The man’s bulbous lips worked like a fish gulping for air, but no sound came out. His face turned almost as red as the woman’s dress.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Tristan goaded. “Should I tell your employer you refuse to honor her wishes?”

“N-no sir. I’ll see to it immediately.” The self-important caterer grudgingly accepted the cookie tin.

“Good. I can’t wait to taste one of those delicious treats.” Winking at the astounded looking woman, he said, “Come along, my dear. Time to mingle.” He took hold of her arm and turned her toward the doorway.

She issued a startled gasp but let him guide her into the hallway. As soon as they were out of earshot from the kitchen, she halted, forcing him to do likewise. Pulling her arm from his grasp, she stared at him as she had before, but with a strange expression. Was it sadness? Were those tears in her eyes? He couldn’t be certain in the shadowed hallway.

“What is it? You needn’t worry. He’ll serve your offering.”

“I know. Thank you for helping me.” Her smoky voice trembled ever so slightly.

“My pleasure. That boor deserved a good set-down. And anyone kind enough to share homemade cookies with a stuffy bunch like this . . .” He gestured toward the crowd in the living room. “. . . deserves to be thanked, not snubbed.”

“Who are you?” she asked, rubbing her arms through the delicate fabric of her dress. “Do you work for Johanna’s company?”

“No. My name is Tristan Jameson. I’m acquainted with Johanna through my mother, who happens to be her cousin by marriage.”

“I see. Perhaps you should rejoin your mother then.” Nervously licking her delicately bowed, cherry-red lips, she glanced away.

He grinned at her obvious attempt to get rid of him. “Unfortunately she’s down with the flu. She talked me into acting as her stand-in.” Against his will, he’d shaved off his five o’clock shadow, donned a monkey suit and slicked back his hair.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Um, about your mother’s illness, I mean. Not about you being her stand-in.” She bent her head, allowing her shoulder-length hair to partially screen her features.

He chuckled. “I knew what you meant.” Undoing the button of his tuxedo jacket, he shoved both hands into his pants pockets. “Now, are you going to tell me who you are?”

“Oh, of course. I’m Charlotte Dixon. I’m Marilee Cantrell’s companion.”

“Ah. Companion as in nurse?” Marilee was Johanna’s mentally and physically disabled daughter – ‘challenged’ was the politically correct word these days, he reminded himself. The only child of her mother’s union with billionaire Lucas Cantrell, now deceased, the adolescent girl had the mind of a young child

“Nurse and live-in companion,” Ms. Dixon corrected.

“You live in the mansion out on Long Island?” He cocked his eyebrows in disbelief.

“Yes. Does that surprise you?” Crossing her arms below her nicely rounded breasts, she eyed him with an air of wariness.

“It surprises me that a lovely young woman like yourself is willing to spend her days and nights in an isolated place like that.”

“I have my reasons,” she said. “Thank you again for your help. I’d better get back to the party.” Turning, she walked away, heels clicking on the polished hardwood floor.

Frowning, Tristan strolled after her. He requested a martini at the bar and found a relatively quiet corner where he could keep an eye on Miss Dixon. He assumed it was Miss or she wouldn’t be living in Cantrell House – more of a mausoleum in his opinion – with Marilee. If she were married, her husband would want her home at night. He sure would if she was his wife.

He stiffened. Damn! Where had that thought come from? He wasn’t looking for a wife, even one as gorgeous as Charlotte Dixon.

Some time later, he checked out the buffet and spotted Charlotte’s cookies. Cut in the shape of stars, bells, Christmas trees and angels, they were frosted and beautifully decorated. They reminded him of Christmas at his grandmother’s house when he was a boy. Gran had baked cookies like these every year and had let him help decorate them.

Smiling at the memory, he picked up a star-shaped cookie topped with white glaze and tiny gold candy stars. Taking a tentative bite, he experienced a delicate burst of flavor that made him close his eyes and savor the confection. Rich with butter, it tasted lightly of almond rather than the bland vanilla of most sugar cookies. Finishing off the star, Tristan chose a pink-glazed bell with silver sprinkles and enjoyed it just as much as the first.

“Do you like the cookies?” a smoky voice asked from behind him.

Pivoting, he swallowed the last delicious bite and shook his head. “Like is too mild a word. I love them! They’re the best sugar cookies I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve had my share. Buttery, not overly sweet, and the flavor, scrumptious! Clever girl, choosing almond over vanilla.”

She favored him with a dazzling smile, cherry lips parting to reveal lustrous white teeth. “I didn’t choose it, my mother did. It’s her recipe. She’s used almond extract in sugar cookies for as long as I can remember.”

“Indeed? And what does your brilliant mother call these little wonders?” he inquired before biting his third cookie in half.

“Nothing special, just almond cookies.”

“Tsk, tsk, that will never do. They need a name as delightful as their taste. Hmm, how about Almond Delights?” He shook his head, thinking. “Better yet, Almond Dream Delights. Yes, that’s it.”

A husky laugh wafted from her delectable mouth. “You really do love them, don’t you.”

“Of course. I’d never betray my profession by praising a food I didn’t enjoy.”

“Your profession?” She gazed at him, blinking in confusion.

“Why yes.” He smiled modestly. “I’m a pastry chef, you see, and the author of one or two little cookbooks.”

“A pastry chef! And . . . and you really, truly love my, I mean Mama’s cookies?”

“I really, truly do,” he assured her with a chuckle. Her look of wonderment brought to mind angels singing, except he’d never seen a painting of an angel with such sinfully seductive lips and fiery hair. “In fact, my lovely Charlotte, I would very much like to get hold of your mama’s recipe. I’m quite willing to pay for it, of course,” he added, brushing his hand down her clothed arm to the satiny smooth skin below the edge of her sleeve.

She jerked her arm away and stumbled backward. “Don’t touch me!” she gasped, color draining from her face.

“What the devil?” Tristan blurted, scowling in astonishment. “I merely brushed your arm. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Y-you already did!” she choked out. Whirling around, she pushed through the crowd of half tipsy party guests, making for the balcony door. She opened it and stepped out into the December cold before Tristan caught up with her. Following her outside, he reluctantly closed the door on the warm interior.

“Are you crazy, dashing out here without a coat?” he barked at her back. Getting no reply but seeing her hug herself and shiver, he shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. “What happened in there? Did I offend you by offering to purchase your mother’s recipe? That wasn’t my intention.”

She shook her head. “No, no, it wasn’t that. I . . . I felt something from you, something that hurt so much, I couldn’t stand it.”

“Felt something? What are you talking about?” He suddenly wondered if she was entirely sound of mind.

She remained silent, huddled in his jacket – which he was missing more and more in the frigid air. Finally, she turned and studied him uncertainly. “I-I need your word that you won’t repeat what I’m about to tell you.”

He frowned, bemused by her strange request, but nodded. “I swear I won’t say a word to anyone.”

She shielded her eyes behind dark auburn lashes. “I don’t often confess this but I-I feel I can trust you.” Taking a deep breath, she looked up. “I’m an empath. Do you know what that means?”

“No.” Curious now, he crossed his arms. “But you’re about to tell me, right?”

“Right.” She smiled mirthlessly. “You must be freezing. I’ll explain inside.” Stepping around him, she slid open the glass door and he gladly trailed after her. Once inside, she handed him back his tux jacket.

“Come with me.” Not waiting for a reply, she wove through the crowd and led him along a hallway in the opposite direction from the kitchen, past one door then another. Halting at a third, she pushed it open to reveal a large bedroom decorated in shades of pink. Except for the queen-size bed, it looked like a little girl’s room, and Tristan realized that’s exactly what it was, although the girl in question was a teenager.

“This is Marilee’s room,” Charlotte confirmed. “The two of us sleep here when her mother allows me to bring her for a visit. No one will bother us here.” Crossing to a pink-cushioned rocker, she seated herself and pointed him toward an overstuffed chair upholstered in pink and white checked fabric.

Tristan tossed his jacket over the chair back and sat down, wondering what this was leading up to, and if he really wanted to know.

“As I said, I’m an empath. I pick up feelings from other people, especially when they touch me. That’s what happened tonight, first outside the kitchen when you took hold of my arm and again a few minutes ago.” She paused, laced her fingers together and studied the pink-carpeted floor.

He eyed her in disbelief. “I see, and what you felt from me caused you pain?” he asked skeptically.

She raised her startling blue eyes and nodded, biting her lip. “You lost someone very close to you, a year or two ago, I think. It hurt you terribly and it still does. I shared your pain when you touched me.”

Tristan went rigid with shock, clutching the arms of his chair. A moment passed before he could speak and when he did, his voice came out thick with remembered anguish. “My fiancée, Jennifer, died two years ago next week.”

Charlotte gave a wordless cry and clapped a hand over her mouth.

“She’d done some Christmas shopping and was crossing a street, loaded down with packages,” he went on, staring into space. “The police believe she never saw the drunk driver who ran a red light and hit her. He dragged her nearly a block before he stopped.”

“Oh, my God! I’m so sorry,” Charlotte choked out.

Focusing on her, he watched tears flood her eyes and slide down her cheeks. Hunching over, she tried to smother the sobs wracking her body. Unexpected warmth coursed through him. He hadn’t felt anything for another woman since losing Jenny, but watching this lovely angel cry for him and his lost love tugged at his heart. Rising, he crossed the small space between them and knelt, meaning to gather her in his arms, but he stopped. He didn’t want to cause her more pain by touching her.

“Don’t cry, angel,” he whispered, brushing back a lock of silky hair from her face. His fingers accidentally contacted her skin.

She caught her breath and raised her head. Gazing at him with tear-wet eyes, she smiled tremulously. “There’s no pain now. Y-you feel almost happy.”

He grinned. “You’re good medicine for me, honey.”

She uttered a nervous little laugh then excused herself to repair her makeup in Marilee’s private bathroom. He shrugged into his jacket and stood gazing out the window above a pink and white painted bureau, wondering how Charlotte had come by her strange ability to pick up and interpret his lingering grief. When she emerged from the bathroom minutes later, he turned to see the redness around her eyes had been cleverly disguised.

Clearing her throat, she said, “We should rejoin the others.”

“Of course.” Crossing to the door, he opened it and stepped back, allowing her to pass. “I really would like to get your recipe for the cookies if it’s not a family secret.”

She shook her head, making her lustrous hair gently swing. “No, it’s not a secret. I’ll be happy to send it to you if you give me your email address.”

“Terrific!” He started to lay his hand at the small of her back but resisted the urge as they returned to the party.

The next morning, as promised, she emailed him her mama’s recipe.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Charlotte was on her knees giving Marilee Cantrell a bath in the girl’s specially equipped tub when the phone rang. Startled, she glanced at the instrument mounted on the wall several feet away. Placed there for emergency purposes, it was out of her reach and she decided against rising to answer it. Leaving her disabled charge alone in the tub was not a good idea. Even in shallow water, she could drown if she somehow slipped off the power lift that lowered and raised her from the tub.

“It makes noise,” Marilee said, pointing at the phone and squeezing her yellow rubber duck, her favorite bathtub toy.

Char smiled and nodded. “Yes it does, sweetie, but we are too busy to answer. Whoever it is can call back.”

“Call back, call back!” the girl yelled at the phone. As if in obedience, the machine went silent. “I made it stop.” Marilee clapped in triumph.

“Good for you. You told that noisy old phone.” Char laughed as she rinsed soap from the girl’s chest with a soft sponge.

“Good for me!” The thirteen-year-old with the mental ability of a three to four-year-old gleefully repeated the phrase over and over while Char washed her paralyzed lower torso and legs. She loved words of praise, something she seldom if ever heard from her mother, who treated her as an embarrassment to be hidden from public view.

Char set aside the sponge. “Okay, we’re all done. Time to get out of the water.” She turned the lever that allowed the water to drain away.

“No! I want to stay and play with duckie,” came the usual protest.

“But I have a pretty dress picked out for you. Pretty girls have to wear pretty dresses, don’t they?”

Marilee’s pout transformed into a gleaming smile. “Yes and I am a pretty girl.”

“You are a very pretty girl.” This was no exaggeration. Although handicapped with a body that only half worked and a damaged brain, God had blessed the child with a lovely face, baby-blue eyes and silky blond hair like her mother’s.

Char pressed a button on the lift’s battery-operated control unit and it slowly raised the molded plastic seat supporting her patient out of the water. When high enough to clear the tub, she stopped it and turned the swivel apparatus so that Marilee faced her. Then it was a mater of lifting her from the seat and settling her dripping form in the towel draped power wheelchair standing nearby.

Every time she performed this transfer Char wondered how much longer she would be able to handle the task by herself. Despite her disability, Marilee was growing and becoming heavier. Another year or two and she’d require a stronger woman, perhaps two, to raise her on and off the bathtub lift, among other things.

“I’m cold,” she said plaintively, shivering with a chill.

“I know, darling. Let’s get you dry.” Char gently patted her delicate skin dry with a fluffy towel. “There, is that better?”

“A little bit.” Eagerly slapping the padded leather arms of her chair, she demanded, “Now put on my pretty dress.”

“We need to take care of other things first. You know that, missy.” Getting complaints in reply, she wheeled her pouting charge into her spacious bedroom – located on the second floor adjacent to Char’s much smaller room — and saw to the necessities associated with paralysis, catheterization for one.

By the time they completed their morning routine and Marilee sat in her power chair, wearing the rose colored frock Char had chosen for her, both were ready for a break. Taking the glassed in elevator Lucas Cantrell had had installed before his death several years ago, they came out on the first floor in the back hallway directly across from Marilee’s play room. The room had once been Mr. Cantrell’s study but he’d ordered it converted into a cheery space for his only child, a testament to his love for her.

Positioning Marilee’s chair across from a large flat screen television, Char turned in the girl’s favorite cartoon channel. “Sweetie, I’m going to make a cup of tea. I’ll be back in a few minutes, okay?”

“Uh-huh.” Already engrossed in watching bright colored images on the screen, the girl didn’t even glance away.

Satisfied that she would be okay for a while, Char crossed the hall to the kitchen entry, located near the elevator. The doorway opened into a black and white ultra modern kitchen, reflecting Johanna Cantrell’s sleek, minimalist preferences, at odds with the Victorian mansion in Char’s opinion. She ran water into a tea kettle and set it to heat on the range top.

Moments later, she sat perched on a stool at the long, black-marble-topped island sipping her tea when the phone rang. She stiffened, immediately wondering if it was the caller who’d rung earlier. She set her cup down and crossed to where the phone stood on a corner of the countertop. Lifting the handset, she glanced at the caller ID and read Tristan Jameson’s name.

Her heart speeded up. She’d received an email from Tristan soon after sending him her mother’s cookie recipe. He’d thanked her and wished her happy holidays. Disappointed but at the same time relieved because he hadn’t asked to see her, she’d thought that was the end of their brief acquaintance. What did he want, she wondered.

On the third ring, she answered, “Hello.”

“Hi, Charlotte. This is Tristan Jameson.”

“Hi. H-how are you? Are you having trouble with the cookie recipe?”

He laughed. “None at all. Am I catching you at a bad time?”

“No. Um, did you call earlier?”

“Yes, about an hour ago. When you didn’t answer, I figured you were busy with Marilee.”

“I was giving her a bath. I couldn’t leave her alone in the tub.”

“Of course you couldn’t. Listen, I have tomorrow off and I’m planning to do some Christmas shopping uptown. How would you and Marilee like to come along?”

“Oh, y-you’re kind to think of us, but we can’t go.”

“Why not? Do you two have a hot date with some other guy?”

A laugh burst from her throat. “Hardly, but I’d need Mrs. Cantrell’s limousine to pick us up, and she’s out of town. I’m not allowed to call for the limo without her permission.”

“You don’t need it. I’ll pick you up.”

“But, but you’d have to take the wheelchair and –”

“I know Marilee has a power chair but isn’t there also a portable wheelchair I could collapse and stow in the back of an SUV?”

“Well, yes, but I’d need to bring along other supplies too. And, and I don’t like being in huge crowds.”

“Hey, it’s cold out. You’ll wear a heavy coat, won’t you? That should keep you from touching people.”

True, but she’d still be bombarded by others’ emotions, although not nearly as much as with physical contact. She wanted to make more excuses not to go; then she thought of how much Marilee would love an outing, something she rarely got to enjoy.

“Could we visit a toy store?” she asked, swallowing her misgivings.

“How about two?” he replied, satisfaction in his voice. “There’s a Disney Store and a Lego Store by Times Square. Will they do?”

She couldn’t help smiling. “They’ll do fine. Do you know how to get here?”

“Sure. I’ve been to Cantrell House for family gatherings when Lucas was still alive and a couple times afterward on Marilee’s birthday. Not since you’ve been there, though. I’d remember you.” There came a short pause. His voice sounded strained when he spoke again. “You must have taken up residence sometime during the past two years.”

Knowing how torturous that period had been for him, she cleared her throat to relieve the sudden tightness. “That’s right. I’ve been with Marilee a little over eighteen months. Um, what time do you want to pick us up tomorrow?” He suggested ten in the morning and she agreed.

He arrived as promised the next day in a large, dark green SUV. Peeking out a decorative window beside the mansion’s imposing front door, she watched him pull to a stop and step out of the vehicle. Casually dressed in a charcoal-gray peacoat, white turtleneck and faded jeans, he made her heartbeat quicken. When he rang the bell she opened the door with a mix of nervousness and excitement.

“Morning,” he said, golden brown hair fluttering in the breeze, much like her heart when he smiled, forming a dimple to the right of his mouth. She’d noticed it at the Christmas party and found it just as endearing now as she had then.

“Good morning.” Struggling to conceal how he affected her, she smiled in return and invited him in. As he stepped past her she caught a warm whiff of spicy cologne.

“You’re in the mood, I see,” he remarked, pivoting to look at her and motioning at her red sweater with reindeer prancing across the front. “Looks good on you.” He smiled and winked. “But I’m sure anything would.”

“Thank you.” Nerves jumping at his compliment, she tore her gaze away. “Um, we’re not quite ready. I need to get Marilee bundled up.”

“Let me help. I’ve got a way with kids.”

“All right. She’s watching cartoons. This way.” Pointing toward the back of the house, she walked beside him down the hall, drinking in his scent again. It gave her an insane desire to rub her nose against his throat.

When they stepped into the playroom Marilee glanced their way and broke into a wide smile. “Tris!” she squealed. “Char said you are coming. I’m glad!”

Tristan crossed to her chair, bent and gave her a hug, which she enthusiastically returned. “How’s my favorite cousin?”

“I’m fine. We’re going to see toys?”

“We sure are, cupcake.”

She giggled. “You silly! I’m not a cupcake.”

“But you’re sweet as one.” He tweaked her turned up nose, making her giggle again, and straightened. “First, we’d better put your coat on. It’s cold outside.” Turning to Char, who stood admiring how he charmed Marilee, he waggled his eyebrows. “Well, Char, want to bring me her coat?”

Flustered by his teasing use of her nickname, she stammered, “Y-yes. I’ll get it.” She hurried into the hall, went to the closet under the grand staircase and grabbed Marilee’s pink puffy coat, knitted cap and mittens along with her own wraps. Hearing a high-pitched giggle accompanied by a baritone laugh, she returned to find both cousins engrossed in the antics of cartoon characters on the TV.

“Sorry to interrupt your fun but we’d better get moving if we’re going to have much time to shop.”

Minutes later, Marilee sat buckled into the back seat of the SUV which happened to have a small built in TV and DVD player, surprising Char. Hands stuffed in the pockets of her light blue parka, she stared at Tristan’s back as he popped in a disk of Mickey Mouse adventures, wondering if he might have children. He wasn’t married, she knew, because he’d lost his fiancée, but had he once been married or had children out of wedlock?

Finished setting up the movie, he pivoted to meet her wary, questioning gaze. Comprehension flashed across his handsome features. Lips twitching and hazel eyes twinkling, he said, “No, I don’t have any kids of my own, but I do have a precocious niece and nephew. Their mother is my sister and this is her SUV. She let me borrow it for the day.”

Char’s face grew hot, gaze skittering away. “I’m sorry for staring. It’s none of my business whose vehicle it is or, or –“

“That’s okay, honey. You had every right to wonder if I have a couple small fry tucked away. I would in your place.” Collapsing the wheelchair, he added, “Go ahead, get in. I’ll stow this in back and we’ll be on our way.”

Once belted in across from her, he steered around the wide horseshoe drive fronting the mansion. At its center stood an imposing fountain surrounded by snow covered grass. The octagonal base was built of the same dark red brick as the house, with huge gray granite lions perched in the center of the pool, holding up a massive bowl. Drained for the winter by the groundskeepers employed by Johanna Cantrell, the empty fountain gave Char a forlorn sensation.

Leaving the house behind, Tristan followed a curving, tree-lined lane to the electronically controlled gate, the only access to the walled estate. As they drew near, a sensor slowly swung the two halves of the gate open, allowing them to exit.

Driving west moments later, on Route 25A near Long Island’s north shore, Tristan asked, “How much do you know about this part of the island?”

Char glanced at him. “I know it’s called the Gold Coast because so many millionaires built mansions like Cantrell House here in the past.”

“Right, The Great Gatsby is set out here in that era. But the route we’re on was famous long before then. In colonial times it was named the Kings Highway. Then it became known as the Washington Spy Trail during the Revolutionary War. Members of the Culper Spy Ring and other Long Islanders risked their lives to get vital information to George Washington.

“Later, after being elected President, Washington traveled this route to personally thank those who risked their lives to help win America’s freedom.”

“Wow, that’s quite a story. I know 25A is called the Long Island Heritage Trail, but I had no idea of its significance. Thanks for filling me in.”

Tristan chuckled. “Now that I’ve bored you with a history lesson, we’ll head over to the 495 Expressway.”

“No! Please don’t,” she implored, gripping the edges of her seat in fear as blood drained from her head.

He sent her a startled glance. “What’s the matter, you afraid to go through the tunnel under the East River? It’s perfectly safe.”

“Maybe so but I . . . I’m somewhat claustrophobic.” That was a major understatement. The thought of being in a tunnel under millions of gallons of water, with no escape if they ran into a traffic jam, nearly made her hyperventilate.

He shrugged. “No problem. We’ll take the 59th Street Bridge instead.”

“Thank you.” Relief swept through her, leaving her weak.

After a moment he asked, “Have you always been afraid of enclosed spaces?”

She licked her dry lips and gazed out the side window. “For as long as I can remember.”

“That’s rough. Did something happen to trigger your fear?”

“I-I don’t know,” she lied. She knew exactly what had caused the black terror. Turning her head, she forced a smile. “Tell me more about yourself.”

“Not much to tell,” he said, eyes on the increasing traffic. “I did a tour in the navy after high school. Then I trained at the NYC Police Academy and served as a cop before quitting the force and –”

“Wait! You were a cop?” she burst out, eyeing him in stunned surprise.

He nodded. “For almost six years. Then I quit the force and took up baking.”

“But why? I mean that’s quite a change.”

“I got tired of certain aspects of police work,” he said with an edge to his voice. Then he smiled. “And I learned to love baking at my grandmother’s knee. After turning in my badge, I decided to make it my profession.” He tore his gaze from the road ahead for a second to glance at her. “But what about you? What made you go into nursing?”

Marilee emitted a loud snort at that moment. Char glanced over her shoulder. Seeing the girl was only laughing at Mickey and friends on the TV, she replied, “With my empathic gift, I thought I should use it to help heal the sick and injured. But after getting my degree, I worked at a hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, and soon realized it was a mistake. My mother predicted I wouldn’t be able to endure being around sick, sometimes dying people constantly, and she was right.”

She stared at her gloved, tightly clasped hands. “So I quit my job and ran home to Mama with my tail between my legs.”

Tristan reached over to lightly rub her shoulder, his touch giving her a sense of sincere caring. “Must have hurt to give up on your dream.”

“It did.” She sighed and shook off her sadness. “But Mama came to my rescue. She urged me to try private nursing and helped me find my position here with Marilee.” She spoke softly so as not to draw her charge’s attention.

“And you’re happy here?”

She considered her answer carefully. “I’m glad to be taking care of someone who needs me and I feel . . . secure is the best word. So yes, I’m happy with the way things worked out.”

“Is security and your work enough? Don’t you want a husband and children of your own someday?”

Stiffening, she said, “Of course I do, but letting someone close, being touched by them, is often painful for me. You know that.”

After a brief silence he said, “Maybe the right person’s touch would bring you pleasure instead of pain.”

“Maybe.” Vigorously rubbing the top of her legs, she stared straight ahead. She was grateful when he let the subject drop in favor of telling her about the restaurant he and his partner owned in the East Village.

“We call the place Gus and Tristan’s. Not too original, but we’re doing pretty well. You should give us a try.” He aimed a playful grin at her, dimple denting his cheek.

She smiled in return. “I’d love to but it’s not always easy for me to get away.” Saving her from needing to say more, Marilee demanded her attention, asking to see toys now. Thankfully they were almost to their destination.

Tristan drove to a parking garage near Times Square where he kept a reserved spot because it wasn’t far from his apartment, he explained. He parked, unloaded the wheelchair and seated his young cousin in it. Char fastened the safety belt across her hips, withdrew a fluffy pink lap throw from the tote bag she’d brought along and spread it over Marilee’s legs to ward off the cold. Not that she would feel it, but she could get frostbite, and that might cause serious complications.

“Char, do you want me to put your bag in here?” Tristan asked, indicating a storage pouch attached to the back of the wheelchair.

“Yes, thanks.” Noting his use of her nickname again and deciding she didn’t mind, she handed him the bag. While he took care of it, she tugged on her slouchy white cashmere beanie.

“All set?” he asked with a crook of his lips.

She nodded and they set off. Although crisp, the day was bright and sunny, perfect for their shopping foray. Excited by the crowds of people, the Christmas displays and music playing everywhere, Marilee chattered gaily as Tristan pushed her into the bustling square. Char walked beside them, enjoying the young girl’s enthusiasm and their escort’s masculine presence.

They headed first to the Disney Store, where Marilee squealed in delight at all the toys depicting her favorite characters. She wanted one of everything. When told no, she pounded the arms of her chair and shrieked, face red with anger, drawing condemning looks from several other customers.

Char bent close. “Stop that right now, young lady, or we will take you straight home.” Her threat worked. The girl’s tantrum ended abruptly and she settled for a stuffed Mickey and Minnie Mouse, each half as big as she was.

Leaving with both dolls clutched tight in her arms, they progressed to the Legos Store, where Tristan purchased a set of oversized blocks for her, promising to help put them together when he came to visit.

“Don’t make promises you might not keep,” Char whispered, fearing his cousin would be disappointed.

“But I mean to keep that promise, soon,” he said, dimple showing. “Now, how about lunch, ladies?”

“Yes! I’m hungry!” Marilee shrilled.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Chuckling, Tristan suggested they eat at the nearby Shake Shack, famous for its milkshakes and hamburgers. Although not her first choice, Char didn’t argue since the idea met with Marilee’s loud approval. Once seated in the busy restaurant, she drew an oversize bib and a sippy cup with straw from her tote bag. She put the bib on Marilee neck and when their food arrived, she poured the girl’s milkshake – strawberry because it was pink – into the sippy cup while Tristan helpfully cut her burger into small bites.

The meal passed without incident, if she didn’t count the stares her charge received. Most people showed compassion and averted their gaze, but one or two were just plain rude. She gave them as good as they gave until they finally looked away.

After they finished eating, Char excused Marilee and herself for a bathroom break, taking along her tote bag with necessary supplies. When they rejoined Tristan, he took over pushing the wheelchair as they left the restaurant. “There’s a gift shop not far from here. I need to find something for my mother and sister. Do you want to pick up gifts for your family?”

“There’s only my mother and I already mailed her gifts,” Char said, flicking back strands of hair that had escaped her cap. “But I would like to get something for Johanna.”

“Yeah? Nice of you to think of the woman.” His scornful tone conveyed his poor opinion of her employer, but he swiftly changed the subject. “Does your mother still live in North Carolina?” He glanced at her curiously, eyes glinting golden in the sunlight.

She nodded. “Yes, in a small town you’ve never heard of. You haven’t mentioned your father. Do you need to get him a gift?”

He emitted a wave of dull sadness. “My dad died several years ago. Cancer.”

“I’m sorry.” She touched his arm as the sadness faded.

“It’s all right. He was glad to go at the end. What about your father? Has he passed away too?”

Hating to answer, she clenched her gloved hands and stared at the sidewalk. “He walked out on my mom and me when I was five. He showed up periodically over the years to wheedle money out of Mama, or threaten her if begging didn’t work.”

“Damn! What a louse,” Tristan ground out, jaw clenched.

“Exactly. But he hasn’t come around in the past few years. I have no idea where he is or even if he’s still alive. And frankly I don’t care.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” he said dryly as they entered the gift shop. Crowded with shoppers, the store was overly warm and, since there were no toys in sight, it didn’t please Marilee. Fortunately, Tristan didn’t take long to choose delicate, hand-blown glass ornaments for his mother and sister while Char decided on a gold-plated pen and letter opener for Johanna. With the gifts securely wrapped, they ushered Char’s cranky, obviously tired charge out the door.

“I want to see more toys,” Marilee demanded.

“Let’s save some for next time, sweetie. We need to go home now,” Char said, giving Tristan a look that pleaded for help.

“Right, it’s been fun but I’m tired, aren’t you, cupcake?” he said, tugging the tassel of his cousin’s pink and white knitted cap.

She giggled. “I’m not a cupcake!”

“But you’re sweet as one,” he teased as he had that morning.

Realizing this was a game he’d probably played with Marilee many times, Char laughed along with them. He did indeed have a way with children.

About an hour later, Tristan pulled to a stop outside the gate to the Cantrell estate. He punched in the enter code and the gate opened. Negotiating the concrete lane, he said, “When I was a boy this driveway was paved with old fashioned cobblestones. That was before Johanna’s arrival on the scene.”

“Did your parents bring you here often?” Charlotte asked, tucking a lock of auburn hair behind her ear.

“Fairly often. Later, after Lucas married his much younger bride, it was just my mother, sister and me.”

“Your father didn’t like Johanna?”

“You could say that. He came with us to a family gathering once after she took up residence. She made it plain that she viewed people of lesser means as her inferiors, including us. After that, Dad flatly refused to set foot in ‘that monstrosity of a house’ as he called it, where he’d have to put up with the, um, woman.”

Tristan shared his dad’s opinion. To him, Marilee’s mother was a self-centered bitch and the mansion a brooding hulk. Built in the late Victorian era, its dark red walls, steeply gabled roof and intimidating façade made him think of a witch’s lair, appropriate except the witch was seldom here. Preferring her Manhattan penthouse, she used Cantrell House as a kind of prison for Marilee, who she obviously viewed as an inconvenient burden.

“Marilee is sound asleep,” Charlotte whispered, twisting in her seat to look at the girl as Tristan stopped outside the covered entrance.

He shut down the SUV, glanced in the rearview mirror and smiled. “So she is. Don’t wake her. I’ll carry her inside.”

“Good idea. She gets really cranky when awakened from a deep sleep.”

Tristan got out, opened the back door, slipped the Disney dolls from Marilee’s loosened grip and handed them to Char. Then he quietly unbuckled his cousin’s seatbelt, gently slid his arms under her and lifted her out. She moaned in protest but didn’t open her eyes. With her head resting against his shoulder, he carried her up several steps and followed Charlotte into the house.

“Will you take her upstairs?” she asked, unzipping her parka and tossing it on a marble-topped bench in the hall. “There’s an elevator –”

“No need. She’s not heavy.” He nodded at the carpeted staircase adjacent to the left wall. “Lead the way.”

“Alright.”

Climbing the steps behind her, he admired the gentle sway of her hips until he was distracted by Marilee. Half awake by now, she began to drowsily complain.

“It’s okay, honey. You’re home,” Tristan said softly. “I’m taking you to your room.”

Reaching the upper floor, Char waited for him to join her. “Her room is this way,” she said, pointing to a hall on the right that extended toward the back of the house. She led the way to the farthest door on their left and ushered him inside. “Lay her on the bed, please.”

As he laid Marilee down, she whimpered, “I want Mickey and Minnie.”

“Here they are, darling,” Char murmured, giving her the soft characters to cuddle while she removed her cap and mittens.

“I’ll bring in the wheelchair and other things,” Tristan said.

“Thanks.” She smiled at him as she started to work off Marilee’s coat. “I’ll need a little while to take care of her. If you need to leave . . . ?”

“Nope, I’m in no hurry.” He arched his eyebrows. “Unless you want to get rid of me?”

She darted a flustered glance at him. “No, of course not. But I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay and be bored.”

“I’m not bored. I want to be here with Marilee . . . and you.” He grinned at her sudden blush, turned and headed downstairs. Bringing in the portable chair and packages, he deposited Marilee’s Lego set and Char’s gift for her undeserving boss on the marble-topped coffee table in the living room, or drawing room as Johanna pompously called it. Then he took off his coat and sat on the white leather couch to wait.

He was paging through a coffee table book of artsy photographs when he heard a low hum and realized it must be the elevator. A moment later Char joined him with Marilee now wide awake in her power chair, still clutching Mickey and Minnie. He closed the book and stood.

“We’re having pizza,” Marilee chirped.

“Mmm, sounds good.” He rubbed his stomach. “I sure would like some.” Grinning, he cocked an eyebrow at Char.

She looked flustered again but quickly recovered. “You’re welcome to stay and eat with us. The pizza is frozen, not gourmet like you’re probably used to eating, but it’s one of Marilee’s favorite foods.”

“Mine too, and I don’t eat gourmet all the time, just when my partner, Gus, insists I try some new dish he’s concocted.”

“Okay then, I’ll heat up the oven and start the pizza baking. Would you like some salad with it?”

“Sure. Want me to put it together?”

“Actually, I’d rather you keep Marilee company if you don’t mind.”

“Why would I mind keeping company with my favorite cousin?” He gave Char a playful smile and ruffled Marilee’s fine blond hair, earning a giggle. “How about we build a house with your new Legos, cupcake?”

“Yes!” she shrieked, clapping her hands.

Char laughed and dashed off to the kitchen while he opened the box of large, bright colored blocks and spread them out on the coffee table. With Marilee choosing colors and sizes, he began to build. The house took on an odd shape but she liked it and that’s all that mattered. They’d just finished their architectural masterpiece when Char called out that supper was ready.

Enticed by the mouth watering aroma of freshly baked dough, pepperoni, marinara sauce and cheese, they gathered at the kitchen table. Marilee stayed in her chair with a tray attached across the front and wearing another large bib. She gobbled up the pizza, managing to handle thin slices. Tristan thought she would complain when Char spooned a mixture of cooked carrots, peas and corn onto her plate but she didn’t.

“Marilee can’t eat salad. It doesn’t agree with her,” Char explained as they took their seats.

“You know, those veggies look pretty tasty. Maybe I’ll steal some.” He made a move with his fork as if to spear a few bites.

“They’re mine! You can’t have them,” Marilee declared, pushing his hand away.

“Oh, alright, I guess I’ll have salad,” he said mournfully. Seeing Char cover her mouth to smother a laugh, he winked and tucked into his meal.

After supper and a quick clean-up, they returned to the living room. Marilee wanted to tear apart their house of blocks and build a different one. By the time they completed another lopsided house, the girl was yawning.

“It’s bedtime, young lady,” Char said, rising from the couch where she’d been sitting, watching them.

“No, I want to build more with Tris,” his cousin protested between yawns.

“We’ll build more some other time, sweetheart. Right now you need to sleep.” He rose and gave her a hug. She pouted prettily but didn’t fuss anymore.

Swinging her chair toward the hall, Char paused to glance at him over her shoulder. When she opened her mouth to speak he held up his hand.

“I’ll wait.”

She gave a hesitant nod and disappeared with Marilee down the hall toward the elevator. He was slowly pacing the room when she returned a short time later.

“She fell asleep the minute her head hit the pillow,” she said with a tired smile.

“You’ve had a tiring day too.” He stepped close and reached out to touch her.

She hastily backed away. “No, please don’t.” Her smoky voice held a thred of panic.

Recalling the pain he’d caused her at the party, he lowered his hand. “Sorry, I forgot. But I touched you earlier today and you didn’t even flinch.”

“I was wearing a thick coat. I felt something but it . . . it wasn’t painful.”

He rested his hands on his hips, studying her. “Have you ever been touched by a man and actually found it pleasant?”

She blinked, pivoted partially away and hugged herself. “No, but there was a boy once,” she said softly. “We were ten years old, in the same grade at school. He was sweet and his touch never hurt. Then his father caught us holding hands and yanked Robbie – his name was Robbie – away from me. He called me bad names and told me never to come near his son again or he’d make me sorry.”

Tristan swore, wishing he could make the man sorry for frightening a young girl. “Why did his father not want him near you?”

She laughed bitterly. “He thought I was touched in the head or maybe a witch, like most of the townspeople believed.”

“Because of your gift?”

Char faced him, rubbing her arms. “Yes. My mother made me wear long sleeved clothes to school no matter how hot it was. She told me to avoid touching others as much as possible and not to let on if I felt things. But I picked up flashes of emotion constantly and being just a kid, I couldn’t control my reactions. Sometimes I’d start laughing or crying for no apparent reason in the middle of class. When I babbled about what some boy or girl was feeling, he or she would want to kill me and the teacher would send me down to the office, again.” She sighed. “Being different was a curse.”

“I can see that. And since Robbie, there’s been no boy, no man in your life?”

Her eyes fled his. She shook her head, auburn hair swinging back and forth. “I can’t let anyone close.”

“You’re willing to shut yourself away, always afraid to touch and be touched? To love and be loved? You’re a sweet, kind person, Char. It’s not fair for you to have to live like that.”

She stiffened and he could almost see an curtain drop over her features. Fisting her hands at her sides, she stared past his shoulder. “It’s the only way I know to survive without being crushed by the pain of someone else’s emotions. I didn’t choose this kind of life. It chose me and nothing can change that. I’ve accepted it.”

She lifted her chin, shoulders thrown back. “Thank you for showing Marilee a good time today, but now you need to go.”

He’d pushed her too hard. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to criticize you.” He retrieved his coat from the chair where he’d tossed it and shoved his arms into the sleeves. Not bothering to button it, he strode past her into the hall. Halting, he drew a deep breath. He refused to leave her like this. She deserved better. Turning, he said, “I hope you’ll let me see you again. I’d like a chance to show what pleasure the right person’s touch can give you. At least allow me to be your friend.”

She hugged herself again, watching him. “Just go. Please,” she said, smoky voice tight with emotion. Was it regret?

He did as she asked without another word. Driving away, he forced himself to concentrate on the dimly lighted road while another part of his brain wondered why he’d said what he did, why he was so driven to pursue her. Did he really believe he was the right man for her? Could he break down the wall she’d built around her heart and give her pleasure, not pain? Was he really ready for a relationship with her, with any woman? Thinking of how he’d lost Jennifer, he found no answers to his questions.

* * *

Char stared at the retreating taillights of Tristan’s car until they disappeared down the dark, curving lane. Swamped with a muddle of her own unhappy emotions, she trudged upstairs to her room. Tristan didn’t understand, didn’t know what a burden she carried. It wasn’t only her fear of being touched that prevented her from letting him into her life; she was a Guardian of Danu sworn to protect the sacred scroll entrusted to her.

Peeling off her clothes, she recalled the day her mother handed her the precious relic, the day she’d finally understood Mama’s sometimes secretive behavior. Now she was the one who must keep secrets, the one who must not repeat her mother’s mistake by giving her heart to an unworthy man. Not that she thought Tristan would turn into a drunken brute like her father, but if she ever dared to love, the man had to be someone who would accept her as she was, a man she could trust with her deepest secret.

She donned her nightshirt and climbed into bed. Lying there, she replayed the gentle playfulness Tristan had displayed with Marilee. Might he possibly be the kind of man she’s never expected to find? Should she agree to see him again if he called? The questions buzzed through her head like annoying bees until she at last fell asleep.

Want to see what happens next? Purchase here:

US Amazon      UK Amazon     CA Amazon

Remember you can read the whole book for FREE if you sign up for Kindle Unlimited.