Lady’s Choice

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LADY’S CHOICE

Can she change everything she thought she was? What will the lady’s choice be?

Melanie Vandergriff mapped out her life’s course at a young age and it paid off. Now, with her fiftieth birthday approaching, she has everything she wants. She’s never had a rock star, though, and since her sister is involved with the lead singer of Illicit Mel has a hankering to see what all the fuss is about. After a backstage encounter with the rhythm guitarist unlike anything she’d ever experienced, she decided she had to see more of Drew Cooper.

When Illicit decided to take a long hiatus from recording and touring, Drew Cooper was eager to reconnect with his thirteen-year-old son and be the hands-on father he always wanted to be. But when he discovers his son is on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent it throws Drew’s plans into chaos. When he’s asked to be in his lead singer’s wedding near Dallas Drew takes the opportunity to find a home there where he and his son can live far away from the bad influences that threatened the boy.

With Drew now in close proximity after his move to Texas, Mel is drawn into a deeper relationship than she’d ever experienced. But when things start to seem serious it threatens to tilt Mel’s well-ordered world on its ear. Does she want to succumb to a life she’d never envisioned for herself or stay on the course that has served her so well for so long? What will the lady’s choice be?

Book 3 in the Illicit Series

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READ CHAPTER 1

Copyrighted Material Juli Page Morgan 2022 – All Rights Reserved Carey On Publishing LLC

Chapter 1

SINCE HER SISTER had been banging the lead singer for Illicit for almost two years, Melanie Vandergriff thought it was damn time she herself got to go backstage and scope out some rock stars. After all, Illicit was the hottest rock band on the planet, and from the pictures Mel had seen its members were all just as hot as her sister’s lead singer.

At the moment Rhys James, said lead singer, was sitting at the table in her breakfast nook drinking coffee with Rhett, said sister.

Mel cupped her chin in her hand and stared at Rhys. “So, am I invited to this shindig tonight, or what?”

A smile that had charmed the panties off females for almost thirty years lit up Rhys’s face. Mel had to admit it was an awesome smile, but she herself was immune to it. After all, this man, although he was drop-dead gorgeous in the most sexy way possible, was taken, tied up lock, stock, and barrel and by Mel’s own sister. Taken men, even if they weren’t her sister’s, did not interest Mel in the slightest.

“Of course you’re invited,” Rhys said. “I thought that was a given. After all, we’re practically family now.”

More information was needed. “I get to go backstage, too?”

“No, Mel.” Rhett cast her a withering look. “I’m going backstage, but you have to sit out in the audience the whole time and wait for me. Yes, you’re going backstage.”

“Wonderful.” Mel smiled like the proverbial cat. “I’ve always wanted to be a groupie.”

Rhys choked on his coffee the minute the words were out of her mouth. Mel administered a few helpful thumps to his back.

“Don’t worry, Rhys,” she said. “I’ll do you proud. Now, is there any important, need-to-know info I should hear about the other members of the band? After all,” she said with a pointed look at her sister. “It’s not like anyone’s bothered to introduce me to any of them before.”

Rhett shot her a look that clearly said really? “Well, Ross is married, so paws off.”

“Ross.” Mel’s brow creased in a thoughtful frown. “Which one is he?”

“Lead guitar,” Rhett said. “Can’t miss him. He looks just like a Viking bent on pillaging a village.”

“Viking, married. Check.”

“Parker’s wife left him over the summer for their kids’ orthodontist and has filed for divorce,” Rhys said. “He’s rather vulnerable at the moment, so you might want to give him a wide berth.”

“Which one is he?”

“Bass player,” Rhett told her. “Beautiful high cheekbones, very dark brown hair almost to his waist.”

“Okay,” Mel said. “Bass player, vulnerable and heartbroken. Check.”

“Watch out for David,” Rhys warned her. “He’s been married five times already and doesn’t seem averse to making it six.”

Before Mel could ask, Rhett supplied identifying characteristics. “Drummer. Dark and dangerous.”

“Drummer, dangerous. Check.”

“Then there’s Drew,” Rhett said. “Divorced and single, very unique gorgeous eyes, rhythm guitar.”

“And he’s my closest friend.” Rhys frowned at Mel in warning. “Let’s not throw a spanner into that, hm?”

Mel smiled at him in the most innocent way possible. “Gorgeous eyes, Rhys’s best friend. Check.”

Rhett grinned at her. “Think you can remember all that?”

“No problem.” Mel tossed her hair behind her. “The Viking is married, and all the rest are fair game.” She ignored Rhys’s moan. “When do we get this show on the road?”

It turned out that Rhys got on the road just before two o’clock. There was mention of something called a sound check and other things Mel didn’t comprehend. A car would be sent for her and Rhett at seven.

As soon as Rhys left, Rhett’s cheery façade faded. It had only been a few days since a maniac had attempted to kill Rhys after the band’s concert in Little Rock. Rhys’s head of security had shot the perpetrator before he could get to Rhys but the fact that a lunatic had managed to get that close to Rhys with a gun had freaked everyone right the hell out. When Mel heard about via a rather rushed phone call from Rhett, she’d had to shut her office door so she could engage in a private, silent breakdown. Even though Rhys had come directly to Dallas to reassure Rhett and apologize for being a total dick to her the previous month, it was still the most frightening thing Mel had experienced. She’d never thought anyone she knew could be the target of such an unhinged mind and be in that much danger. That shit was stuff you heard on the news, not real life.

But now it was real life, and had brought home just how much a public figure Rhys was, and what could happen to him. Rhett wasn’t going to recover from that near miss any time soon, no matter how brave a face she put on in front of Rhys. Mel hugged her in sympathy.

“I know you’re scared.” She added a gentle squeeze for emphasis. “But he’ll be okay.”

“I know he will,” Rhett said. “It’s just a little too fresh right now. If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to go take a nap.”

“Not a lot of sleep last night?”

That got a smile out of her sister. “Very little.”

“Atta girl,” Mel said. If she had been in her sister’s place she would have spent the entire night screwing Rhys’s brains out, not only in thankfulness, but to reassure herself he was alive and breathing. Apparently, Rhett had been of the same mind. “When do you want me to wake you?”

“Four-thirty should be good.” Rhett squeezed Mel’s hand. “Thanks, Mel.”

With Rhys gone and Rhett napping, Mel took the opportunity to begin preparations for her first foray into the world of rock ‘n roll. She started in her large walk-in closet.

She flipped through and rejected anything that could be considered slutty. Not that she couldn’t pull it off, but she didn’t want to be too obvious. Besides, that many-times-married guy might take it as an invitation, and the last thing Mel wanted was to be targeted by a wife-seeking missile.

She pondered the not-trying-hard combo of jeans and a graphic tee. With the right hair, makeup, and attitude that could be sexy, but she didn’t want to come off looking like she didn’t care.

Any business attire she wore to work at the bank was right out. Too stuffy, and she wasn’t going there to offer these guys financial advice. No, tonight was fun only.

That left evening gowns and fancy clothes, clothes strictly for vacations, unseasonable outfits not meant for February, and stuff she wouldn’t dare wear out of the house.

The caress of supple suede across the back of her hand made her pause, and she pulled a dress forward on the rack. The caress of that suede brought up the memory of another dress, a dress that changed Mel’s life when she was twelve.

Susannah Long’s birthday sleepover ended with a trip to Hughes Brothers, the nicest department store in Claiborne. Susannah’s mother loaded all six girls into her Country Squire station wagon, drove them to the store, and turned them loose in the Junior Girls department.

It was a wonderland of bell-bottom jeans, off-the-shoulder peasant blouses, gauzy maxi dresses in fabrics printed with paisley in swirling purple, turquoise, and fuchsia. Fringed vests with colorful beads around the neck vied for attention with soft linen poet’s blouses with full sleeves and crisscross lacing down the front.

Mel was entranced, and from the comments and expressions of her friends, she knew she wasn’t alone. Each of them had dreamed of the day they would graduate from dressing like children and be allowed to wear the same clothes as the teen girls they envied for their cool stride down the sidewalks, their otherworldly hipness. And now Susannah, in honor of reaching the age of twelve, was to receive her first grown-up cool girl outfit.

Mel ached with envy, a real ache that radiated from her chest down into her midsection. She hid it behind excited smiles and pretend laughter, but slashes of jealousy carved themselves into her heart, her mind, her soul, and left behind grooves that wouldn’t ever heal. God, why wasn’t her mother rich like Susannah’s family?

Even though the birthday girl would receive the new clothes, all the girls crowded into the dressing rooms to try on those beautiful clothes, exchanging outfits, and squealing with delight at their images in the big three-sided mirrors. All of them but Mel.

She hung back even though she would have loved to wear those things. But even at her young age a sliver of practicality told her that if she tried on the clothes she yearned to wear, it would break her heart to have to take them off and know she couldn’t have them. Her family didn’t shop at Hughes Brothers. Her clothes, and those of her little sister Rhett, came from the dollar stores, and from thrift shops. At least her mother took them to thrift shops in Fort Worth so Mel and Rhett wouldn’t show up at school in their classmates’ discarded, out-of-date outfits. But nothing they owned came from Hughes Brothers, and it never would.

Susannah turned from admiring herself in the mirror and caught sight of Mel still attired in her green cotton shorts and plain yellow T-shirt.

“Melanie, why haven’t you tried on anything yet? Come on!”

Susannah grabbed Mel’s hand and towed her back to the clothing racks.

“No, Suse, it’s okay.” Mel tried to pull her hand loose, but Susannah clung to her with a surprisingly strong grip. “I don’t really feel like trying anything on today.”

“Baloney. That’s why we’re here, to play dress up and have fun.”

Baloney, indeed. They were here for Susannah to choose an outfit to buy, but Mel stopped herself from saying the words that would put a damper on her friend’s birthday excitement.

By this time the other girls had joined them, and Mel let them choose what they would for her to try on. Already her friends seemed different in their teenage attire. It might have been her imagination, but Mel thought they even talked differently, their voices more confident and lazier than the usual adolescent tones she was used to hearing. Even the way they searched through the racks of clothing had a hint of cool nonchalance that hadn’t been there a half-hour before.

It wasn’t long before they hauled Mel back to the dressing room, and pretty much forced her into the dress they’d picked for her. The minute it slithered over her skin Mel forgot her objections. The touch of the material was sinuous. It moved with her like it was a part of her. Butter-soft tan suede caressed the backs of her bare arms, and she ran her hand over the short skirt of the dress to feel it against her fingers. Nothing she’d ever touched had felt so good before.

Just as Susannah finished lacing up the back of the dress, one of the other girls pulled the hair tie from Mel’s hair so that it fell down her back in waves almost to her waist.

“There, now,” Susannah said. “Turn around so we can see.”

Mel turned to face her friends, and they all fell silent. She searched their faces for some sort of hint as to what was wrong, but all she saw was a sort of amazed astonishment.

After a few moments, Mary Katherine broke the silence.

“Wow, Melanie. You look like you should be in a magazine or something.”

“No kidding.” Susannah looked her up and down. “You look like you’re sixteen.”

“Nuh-uh.” Mel stepped past them to the mirror and stopped in shock.

They were right. The dress fit like it had been made for her. It hugged her body the way her normal cotton, poplin, and polyester double-knits never did, and accentuated her budding breasts and hips. Her bare arms looked tanner, her hair a brighter blonde, and even her eyes seemed more green and less hazel.

“Here.” Mary Katherine rushed up and handed Mel a pair of brown leather sandals. “Put my shoes on and let’s see how it looks.”

Mel tore her gaze from the image of the girl in the mirror long enough to slip on the sandals. They were a little big, but not too bad. When she checked them out in the mirror, she stifled a gasp. Her legs! They looked twelve miles long. And shapely. When did that happen?

“Girls? Are y’all in here?” The voice of Susannah’s mother broke whatever spell they were under, and they rushed out to show her their finery.

Mel stood off to the side as her friends twirled and modeled for Susannah’s mom, and she laughed at their antics.

“You know,” she said. “I shouldn’t really do this, but you all look so nice that I’ll get each of you one of the things you have on.” She raised her voice to be heard over the excited squeals. “Just one, though, so pick what you want the most.”

“Mom? Mom?” Susannah plucked at her mother’s blouse as she took her checkbook from her purse. “You should see Melanie. She looks like a model.”

The next thing Mel knew she was being presented to Mrs. Long like the grand prize on a game show.

“Isn’t she beautiful mom?” Susannah asked. “I know you said only one thing, but it’s not Melanie’s fault that she’s only wearing one thing. She didn’t pick out the dress, we did. So, she can have it, right Mom? It’s only one thing. She can have it, can’t she?” Susannah’s attention was caught by Mary Katherine who twirled past them. “Mary Katherine, have you decided on the shirt or the pants?” She abandoned her mother and Mel and rushed to help her other friends decide on what they’d keep.

It hit Mel then that Mrs. Long hadn’t yet said anything about Mel’s dress, or the way she looked. In fact, after one shocked glance, the woman hadn’t looked her way again. That glance had been off, too. As quick as it had been, Mel had seen something in her expression that said in no uncertain terms that something was wrong. That look was at odds with the way her friends had looked at her and was the complete opposite of what Mel had seen in the mirror.

Uncomfortable silence stretched out as Mrs. Long wrote the date on a check and ignored Mel. And as she stood there next to Susannah’s mother, Mel had a kind of out-of-body experience. She could see herself in the beautiful suede dress, and saw the way she looked at Mrs. Long, her eyes full of pleading and hope, like a puppy in a shelter would look at the people who came to adopt a pet. And she saw the too-big, too-bright smile stitched on Mrs. Long’s face, a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, eyes topped by plucked brows raised high on her forehead as her silence told Mel that the dress wasn’t going to be purchased.

Mel took one step back, then another, and slipped around a display of necklaces at the end of the sales counter.

Shameful silence wrapped around her as she made her way back to the dressing room. She loosened the laces at the back of the dress and took it off. Her hands shook as she put it back on its hanger, dressed herself in her second-hand shorts and T-shirt, and exchanged Mary Katherine’s sandals for her own fifty-cent rubber flip-flops.

She crept from the dressing room, and by hugging the wall was able to avoid her friends. Quietly she made her way through the women’s department, and past the perfume and makeup counters where older women bought small bottles of Youth Dew to wear on Sundays. When she reached the front door, she burst through it like someone escaping from an inferno.

A thirty-minute walk later, and she reached her own house.

Susannah’s mother never called to see if Mel made it home.

Mel came back to the present with a start and shook her head to clear the memory of her humiliation from her mind. Humiliated she might have been, but the experience had also solidified a determination in her. Even though she was only twelve, she’d vowed that she would work her ass off, but not the way her mother did. Mel knew she’d have to take low-paying jobs like her mother’s waitressing position until she was out of school, but she decided that day that her eventual career would be one that brought in money. Lots and lots of money. And she’d use that money to buy whatever she damn well pleased without having to plead with anyone else for favors. It was the day that Mel set her course, and she never looked back, never regretted anything she’d done, and never, ever let tears of humiliation burn her eyes again.

She knew now what Susannah’s mother had seen that day. The woman had recognized the promise of the beautiful woman Mel would one day become. She’d recognized it and rejected it, because no way would she be a party to assisting that trashy Vandergriff girl attain more beauty than her own daughter or the daughters of her high-class friends.

When Mel was sixteen, she’d examined herself in the mirror and determined it was time to start using that beauty and her own strong-minded personality. She decided marriage and children weren’t something she ever wanted for herself. The desertion of her father when she was ten left her with no desire to form a lasting relationship with the male species. However, she found them fascinating and knew she could have a damn good time with them. That was the day she’d whispered into her sister’s scandalized ears that she intended to fuck her way across Texas with any man who took her fancy.

And oh, she did have fun with all those men. Her refusal to take them seriously led to a freedom she embraced whole-heartedly. She enjoyed the physical delights they gave her but never let them hinder her education or her career. Whenever one of them did start to get too attached and wanted to “make an honest woman of her,” a phrase she detested because she’d never been a dishonest woman, thank you very much, it was easy to extract herself from the relationship in a way that hurt no feelings and left no regrets.

Mel inspected the dress that had brought back the memories of that awful day of Susannah’s shopping trip, the dress that was now bunched in her hand. There weren’t as many small beads on it as that 1970s dress had, and it wasn’t as short, but the color was the same, and the way it felt against her fingers was exactly the way the dress at Hughes Brothers caressed her hand thirty-six years ago.

It had been an impulse buy and was the only thing made of suede Mel had ever bought.

Before she could change her mind, she snatched the hanger from the rack and hung it on a hook at the front of her closet. She nodded in affirmation then set out to find the perfect jewelry and shoes to wear with it that night to see Illicit in concert.

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