Village of Hope #3
April 1, 2016
Harlequin (Love Inspired)
Available in: e-Book
Falling for the Millionaire
The Millionaire’s Mission
Millionaire Hudson Conrick is used to being liked for his family name and fortune. So when Melody Hammond cuts short their blind date, Hudson can’t help but be curious about the pretty ministry director. And when Conrick Construction wins the bid to expand the women’s shelter at the Village of Hope ministry where she works, he’ll get the chance to know her better. He soon learns that because of her painful past, Melody leads a cautious life. But as a former solider, Hudson craves adventure. Can he convince Melody that while he likes to have fun, his reckless days are behind him—and that he’s her perfect match?
Blind dates mimicked test-driving cars. Tonight Melody Hammond had another one to deal with. What would it bring? Her friends kept sending her fancy sports cars when all she wanted was a nice simple sedan.
The doorbell rang. She peered through the peephole in the front door of her small brick ranch house in her suburban Atlanta neighborhood. She couldn’t tell much from the distorted image except that the man was tall and had dark hair.
This was one date that carried some consequences. Tonight’s fundraiser for The Village of Hope Ministries was an event intended to raise money for Melody’s pet project—building more housing for abused and troubled women. Too often the ministry had difficulty finding space for all the women who needed help and had to turn many away. She planned to do everything within her power to see this project funded.
People had paid a lot of money to attend this formal dinner dance, including her date. She hoped it would go well, so she could represent The Village properly. She wanted to believe anyone who had an interest in helping a charity was a decent person. Unfortunately, she’d learned over the years that not all donors to good causes were good people. Some had ulterior motives.
Melody took a deep breath, then tried to produce a genuine smile as she opened the door. That breath caught in her throat as she stared up at Hudson Paine Conrick, the Fourth. In his black tuxedo he was handsome beyond description. His dark hair curled and waved in a rumpled kind of way. The five o’clock shadow he sported gave him a dangerous look—at least where a woman’s heart was concerned.
He gave her a lazy grin. “Ms. Hammond, Hudson Conrick. Nice to meet you.”
Melody nodded, hoping her brain would engage her tongue. “Please come in while I get my wrap, Mr. Conrick.”
“Certainly. You look lovely, though it’s a shame you have to cover that stunning red evening gown with anything.” He stepped across the threshold.
“Thank you, but a pashmina doesn’t cover much. Thankfully, it’s not too cold tonight.” Smiling, Melody tried not to assign any connotation to his compliment as she grabbed her purse and wrap from the nearby hall table.
“Fortunately, Atlanta is having a mild January.” Hudson opened the door for her.
“Thanks.” She threw the wrap around her shoulders, then locked the door. Turning toward the driveway, she stopped short at the sight of a black limousine. She caught herself before she blurted, Wow! A limo! Was he trying to show off? She shouldn’t question their mode of transportation, just enjoy it.
As they approached the vehicle, the driver appeared out of nowhere and opened the door. Melody slid across the black-and-gray leather seats, a combination of butter and silk beneath her fingers. The smell of cleaner permeated the warm interior. A television in one corner broadcasted business news while soft music played in the background. A lighted workstation with a laptop computer and a bar filled with rows of glasses sat across from her.
Melody pressed her lips together to keep her mouth from hanging open at the obvious display of wealth. Who was entitled to this much luxury when people were starving?
She had to stop her judgmental attitude. This man was donating a lot of money to her cause. She had no right to disparage his wealth.
As Hudson slid in beside her, he turned off the TV. “Sorry about that. I’m sure you don’t want business news blaring at you.”
Melody shrugged and let her pashmina fall from her shoulders. “No problem, Mr. Conrick.”
Smiling, he reached for a glass from the bar, filled it with ice and poured water into it. “Would you like one? Or a soft drink?”
“Water’s fine, thanks.”
He poured another glass of water, then handed it to her. “Shall we toast to a wonderful evening?”
“Sure.” She clinked her glass against his and wondered what she should talk about now. Hudson settled back and looked at her, his eyes, the color of maple syrup, filled with amusement. “Let’s set aside the formality. Please call me Hudson. May I call you Melody?”
The tension in Melody’s shoulders began to wither away. “That would make for a better evening.”
“Agreed.” Hudson grinned. “So you and Ian work together?”
Nodding, Melody wondered whether Ian Montgomery, her co-worker who had set up this date, had any idea how mismatched she and Hudson were. “Yes. In addition to being The Village’s legal guy, he’s the administrator of the nursing facility and senior center.”
Surprise registered on Hudson’s face. “That’s interesting. I knew he handled your legal stuff, but I didn’t know about the rest.”
“All of us in the administration at The Village have multiple roles. I came there to head up the women’s ministries, but I also coordinate the children’s one, too.”
“Must keep you busy.”
“It does.” Melody searched her mind for something to talk about that didn’t sound like a commercial for The Village. “Ian said you went to law school with him. Where do you practice law?”
Hudson gave her a lopsided grin. “I don’t.”
“Oh.” Did she dare ask him what he did? Maybe he was one of those trust fund babies who did little work and spent time vacationing in trendy locations. Ian had mentioned that Hudson had been overseas.
He chuckled. “I suppose you’re wondering what I do with my time?”
As a heated blush crept up Melody’s neck and onto her cheeks, she was thankful for the dim lighting in the limo. She might as well be honest. “Yes, I’m curious since you don’t practice law.”
A smirk curved his lips for a moment. “I went to law school because my father insisted on it. Otherwise, he would’ve cut me off without any money, and I couldn’t have that now, could I? Without that money, I wouldn’t have been able to be your escort tonight.”
Was he joking, or was he serious? She resisted the urge to rub away the headache that was forming at her temples. How would she endure a whole night with a guy whose only thought was living off his daddy’s money? She had to be thankful for that money. It was helping to fund this much-needed project.
Melody forced a smile. “That still doesn’t tell me what you do.”
“I try my best to stay out of my father’s hair.” Hudson gave her a sardonic smile.
Another cryptic answer. Maybe he really didn’t do anything, and he didn’t want to admit it. Sounded as if he didn’t get along with his father. Sad. Hudson had a father he didn’t have much use for, and Melody wished her father was still alive. He’d died too young in an airplane crash. “That’s your job? Staying out of your father’s hair?”
Laying his head back, Hudson laughed out loud. When he finally looked at her, his eyes still sparked with laughter. “That’s a good description of what I do.”
“And how does one accomplish that?”
“Excellent question.” Hudson jiggled the ice cubes in his glass as if he would find an answer there. “I work wherever he sends me. I’ve spent the last year in the Middle East looking out for our oil interests. I’ve only been back in the States for a few weeks. My mother insisted that I come home for Christmas.”
Melody’s stomach roiled at the mention of that region of the world. So much trouble. So much misery. So many deaths. “I’m sure your mother was happy.”
Hudson nodded as he smiled wryly. “Yes, and I managed to stay on my father’s good side for all of Christmas Day. You might as well know that my presence at your fundraiser tonight is all about pleasing him.”
There is was—the ulterior motive. Pleasing his daddy. As reasons went, that one wasn’t all bad. At least Hudson was honest about why he was her escort. She realized she was judging the man again. Maybe his daddy was a real reprobate and staying out of his way was a matter of wisdom. She stared at her glass of ice water. Why couldn’t she put her critical attitude on ice? “I’m glad you could join us this evening.”
“Me, too. It’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of going out with a beautiful woman.” Hudson’s gaze didn’t waver as he looked at her.
Melody produced another smile that she feared came across as pretentious as his flattery. How did she acknowledge it? Believe he was sincere? “Thank you for sharing your evening with me and contributing to this very worthy cause.”
He set his glass in the cup holder. “Tell me more about The Village of Hope.”
“Sure.” Melody took a deep breath, wondering whether a wealthy man could begin to understand what it was like to be poor or down on your luck and without resources. “It’s a multifaceted ministry. We provide shelter for women who have fled an abusive situation or women who need a helping hand while they recover from addictions. As you know, we provide legal help for those who can’t afford it. We have a dozen children’s homes for abused, neglected or orphaned children. The Village has a nursing facility and an assisted living center. We also have job counseling and job training.”
“Amazing. I had no idea The Village had so many programs. My father only told me about the women’s ministry.” Hudson laced his fingers behind his head. “Do you have a rehab center?”
Melody shook her head. “We help folks after they’ve been through rehab to get back on track with their lives. Many facilities send their clients to us after they’ve completed their program.”
“Looks like we’re at the hotel.” Hudson slid toward the door.
“The dinner’s in the main ballroom.” Melody wrapped the pashmina around her shoulders.
After the limo stopped, a doorman immediately opened the door. Hudson stepped out and extended his hand to her. “Ready for a wonderful evening?”
Her heart racing, she placed her hand in his as he helped her out. The callouses on his palm surprised her. She had expected to feel no signs of physical work. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Hudson tipped the doorman, and Melody guessed from the expression on the doorman’s face that the tip had been very generous. As they entered the lobby, he smiled down at her. That and the warmth of his hand sent a little shiver up her arm and down her spine. Attraction. Should she be feeling it? A sedan, not a sports car. That’s what she wanted, but maybe she should enjoy the sports car just for tonight.
While they walked through the lobby toward the ballroom, Hudson slipped her arm through his. For a moment, Melody felt like a princess on the arm of her prince. People turned to look at them. She glanced up at him. Gorgeous didn’t begin to describe the man. No wonder people stopped to stare. He seemed oblivious to their interest. Did he expect the attention, or was he really a down-to-earth, modest guy?
There was a lot to learn about Hudson Paine Conrick, the Fourth. So far she’d only scratched the surface. Did she want to know him better? What did it matter? After tonight his obligation would be over, and she would probably never see him again. Their circles didn’t intersect.
Surveying the area, Melody hoped to see someone from The Village, but few people had arrived yet. As the chandeliers sparkled overhead, she wished Ian and his wife, Annie, could be at their table to help with the date Ian had arranged for her, but folks who worked at The Village would be scattered throughout the ballroom in order to talk to the donors.
Melody glanced at her ticket. “We’re at table four.”
Hudson raised his eyebrows. “I thought a very important person like you would be at table one.”
“We’re right in front of the speakers. So we’re at a VIP table.” Melody waved a hand toward the front.
As she made her way across the ballroom, she stopped to introduce Hudson to folks she knew from area churches. With great ease, he engaged them in conversation. He seemed to know someone or something that related to every person he spoke to. He should be the fundraiser instead of her.
After they found their seats, Melody set her wrap on her chair. “I hope you don’t mind if I leave you here while I check on a few things.”
“Trying to get rid of me already?” He grinned as he pulled out his chair.
“No. I wouldn’t want to miss another ride in that limo.”
He chuckled as he waved her away. “Do what you have to do. I know this evening is more business than pleasure for you.”
“Thanks. I won’t be long.” Striding toward the doors at the back of the room without a backward glance, she hoped his jovial manner meant he was teasing. Despite their congenial conversation on the ride over and his seemingly pragmatic attitude, being with him put her nerves on edge. She didn’t want to do anything to alienate the man. Although the folks in attendance tonight had already made a substantial donation, the object of the event was to convince many of them to make their support ongoing.
Melody hated fundraising—begging people for money. She struggled with that part of working for a nonprofit entity. Doing cartwheels across the ballroom might be easier. A smile and a prayer would get her through the evening.
Hudson had never met a woman who could walk in heels and an evening gown as fast as Melody. She’d raced away as if some evil force was chasing her. Despite her statement to the contrary, maybe she really was trying to get away from him.
What was it about her that had him second-guessing himself? He usually had to fight women off although most of them were only interested in his money and the status a relationship with his family would bring. During college, he’d fallen hard for one of those women. Nicole Griffin had fooled him into thinking she loved him, but she’d only wanted to marry a man with influence and wealth. Thanks to his sister Elizabeth, he’d found out before he’d made a big mistake and married Nicole.
Sometimes he wished he could be anonymous. He wanted to be liked for himself and not his connection to the Conrick millions.
Hudson had promised himself that his presence here tonight would end the bowing and scraping to his father’s wishes. He wanted to prove to his dad that he could be his own man and not have to depend on the family business. How could he make his father understand? He could thank his money and Ian for one thing. Melody Hammond. When he’d knocked on her door and found a beautiful woman on the other side, his resentment over having to attend this fundraiser had dissolved.
Although Melody was with him tonight because of the donation his family had made to The Village, she didn’t hang on him or try to impress him like so many women did. There was something different about her—something he couldn’t decipher at the moment, but it was something he liked.
Her less-than-genuine smiles puzzled him. He could always look on the positive side of things and believe she was merely nervous about the success of this event. From what his father had told him, lots of dignitaries and movers and shakers were here. He’d been to plenty of these types of functions—most of them boring. But he was looking forward to his evening with Melody.
The sight of her in that red evening gown, with a skirt that swished and flowed around her like the cape at a bullfight, had set his heart racing. The color accentuated her blond hair swept away from her face in a fancy hairdo, set off with some kind of sparkly stuff that matched her dangly earrings. She reminded him of the storybook princesses his nieces were so fond of. As far as blind dates went, she was a ten.
“Look what the cat dragged in.” Ian’s voice shook Hudson from his musings.
Hudson stood and shook his friend’s outstretched hand. “Good to see you. It’s been a long time.”
Ian glanced around. “Where’s Melody?”
“She went to check on something and should be right back.” Hudson looked at the petite dark-haired beauty standing next to Ian. “Who is this lovely lady?”
“My wife, Annie.” Ian smiled as he looked lovingly at her. “Annie, I’d like you to meet Hudson Conrick.”
“Nice to meet you, Hudson. Are you associated with Conrick Industries? I did some consulting with one of their companies years ago.”
Nodding, Hudson shook Annie’s hand. He couldn’t even meet an old friend without his family connections being brought into the conversation. “Yes, my great grandfather started Conrick Industries in the early 1900s.”
Before anyone could make another comment, Melody returned. “Ian, Annie. I’m glad you’re here. Where are you sitting?”
“Table three.” Annie pointed to the table next to them.
“Oh, good. We’re right here.” Melody placed a hand on the back of her chair. ‘We’ll be able to talk after the formalities are over.”
Hudson took in the relief on Melody’s face. Was she merely happy to have her friends nearby, or was she uncomfortable with him? The woman was a riddle—confident and self-assured, yet vulnerable.
“I see my parents.” Annie looped her arm through Ian’s. “We’d better say hi to them. Talk to you later.”
As they walked away, Hudson looked over at Melody. “Ian and I haven’t been in touch much since we left law school. I thought I remembered him getting a divorce. Is Annie his second wife?”
Melody stared up at him with her light brown eyes, flecked with green. She looked as though she didn’t know how to answer. “I’m not sure what to say about that. It’s complicated. Maybe you should ask him rather than me.”
Shaking his head, Hudson let out a halfhearted laugh. “Did I step into a minefield with that question?”
Melody’s face turned ashen, and she took a deep breath as she placed a hand over her heart. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” Hudson motioned toward their seat. “Let’s sit down and forget I made the inquiry.”
Melody nodded, the color still not returning to her cheeks. He pulled out her chair, and she sat down without saying a thing. As he took his seat, Hudson tried to figure out why the discussion had triggered Melody’s reaction. Had she and Ian been involved before he married Annie? While Hudson stewed over Melody’s reaction, two middle-aged couples approached their table. Melody got up and hugged them all.
Hudson stood as she turned to him and introduced him to Ian’s parents, Doreen and Jordan Montgomery, and to Adam Bailey, the administrator of The Village, and his date, Debra McCoy. After the two couples left, Melody greeted the folks who would share their table, an advertising executive and his wife, a couple who owned a printing business and a couple who were both doctors.
The laughter and conversation that buzzed through the ballroom came to an end as Adam Bailey greeted everyone from the podium at the head table. After Adam’s greeting, Jordan Montgomery gave a blessing for the event. Immediately following the prayer, the waiters and waitresses served the food.
The discussion during the meal centered on the ministries of The Village. Hudson admired the way Melody maneuvered their talk toward supporting The Village without being pushy. Thankful that she controlled the conversation, he sat back and watched. He didn’t have to say a thing, and he appreciated that. Best of all, no one asked him about his family connections. That made for a perfect dinner.
While the servers removed the plates and brought out the desserts, Adam Bailey came to the podium once again and gave a quick talk about The Village. Jordan Montgomery followed with a short but motivational speech that encouraged people to look beyond themselves and help those in need. Soon after, they began the auction of donated items, as well as the silent auction that would be going on during the evening.
The auctioneer entertained the crowd as he moved each article along. Hudson watched Melody’s joyous reaction as a quilt made by Lovie Trimble, the receptionist at The Village, garnered five thousand dollars.
When the auction concluded, Adam came back to the podium. He thanked everyone for their participation, then turned and picked up something from a nearby chair. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to honor someone tonight who deserves a lot of credit for this evening’s activities. She’s the dynamic force behind this project. Please give a huge round of applause for Melody Hammond.” Adam looked down at their table. “Melody, come on up here.”
The surprise on Melody’s face as she stood made Hudson smile. He’d learned from the discussion tonight that her whole life revolved around the women’s and children’s ministries at The Village. She obviously deserved this award. While she made her way to the stage, the applause grew louder.
Adam gave her a hug and handed her a plaque when she reached the podium. “Considering all the work you do, this isn’t much, but we wanted you to know we appreciate everything you’ve done for The Village.”
Taking the plaque, she wiped a tear from her cheek as she faced the audience. “This is certainly a surprise. I want to thank everyone who came out tonight. Thank you for your support of this very important project. You’re helping women and children have a better life. I want to especially thank my coworker, Annie Montgomery. Thanks again.”
People stood and more applause filled the ballroom as Melody made her way back to the table. Hudson resisted the urge to give her a hug. He didn’t know how she would take it. Despite her giving nature in regard to The Village, she seemed personally guarded. He wanted to find out why.
After Melody resumed her seat, Adam announced the dance portion of the evening. When two of the couples from their table went to the dance floor, Ian and Annie came over, sat down and congratulated Melody on her award.
Melody picked up the plaque and looked at Annie. “Did you know about this?”
Annie shook her head. “Adam said he wanted to do something for you, but he never said what.”
Melody put the plaque back on the table. “It wasn’t necessary.”
“Yeah, but it’s always nice to get some recognition.” Ian nodded his head. “The auction went very well. It brought in a lot of funds.”
“I wish Lovie could’ve been here to see her quilt produce so much money.” Melody rubbed a hand across the shiny face of her plaque. “She’s attending a grandchild’s birthday tonight.”
Hudson took in the discussion, his admiration for Melody growing. She’d rather have recognition for a coworker than for herself. He’d been hanging around the wrong kind of women.
“So what are you doing with yourself these days?” Ian looked at Hudson.
“Not much.” Hudson shook his head.
“You could join us at The Village. We could use another attorney now that our financial situation has improved.”
“Ian, I’ve never used that law degree. I wouldn’t be of much help.” Hudson wished he had a better plan for his life, but he wasn’t interested in being a lawyer or a corporate executive. He wasn’t sure where he belonged, but he wanted an adventure of his own, not one his father had planned for him. “When the weather gets warmer, I intend to do some skydiving instructions with an outfit near here that does tandem jumps. Anyone want to give it a try?”
Melody’s look slipped from astonishment to fear. “You skydive?
Hudson nodded. “I was a paratrooper in the army. Since I left the service, I’ve become a certified skydiving instructor. I missed doing that when I was working overseas, so I aim to get back into it. And I have plans to do some race car driving.”
“Wow! Impressive, but I’m not sure I’m that brave.” Annie chuckled.
“Enough of this discussion.” Standing, Hudson waved a hand toward the dance floor, hoping Melody didn’t think he sounded like a spoiled rich kid. But he probably was. “There’s some good music playing, and I’ve got a beautiful woman to dance with.”
“I’ll definitely take the dancing over the skydiving or racing cars.” Melody stood.
Hudson chuckled as he held out his hand. “While we dance, maybe I can change your mind.” When Melody put her hand in his, the rush he felt was as good as skydiving or speeding around an oval track. How had this woman triggered his interest in such a short time? He’d better be careful or he’d be jumping without a parachute. His experience with Nicole had taught him caution when it came to women.
“Hardly. I don’t have to leave the ground when dancing.”
“Then you’ve never danced the jitterbug with me.”
“Not something I plan to do in this evening gown.”
“Probably not.” Hudson put an arm around her as they joined the other couples dancing to a slow romantic tune.
She looked up at him. “I have to let you know the last time I danced was at Ian and Annie’s wedding.”
“Never fear. Just follow my lead.”
“Easier said than done. I’m not used to following.”
“Somehow I knew that.” Smiling, Hudson guided Melanie across the dance floor.
“You do dance very well.”
“I should. I had enough lessons when I was a kid. While the other boys were out playing ball, I was gliding around Miss Smithers’ dance studio with some girl I didn’t like and hating every minute.”
Melody laughed. “Must’ve been rough being you.”
Happy to make her laugh, Hudson let the sound wind its way into his heart. “It’s always been tough being me. I was the youngest kid with three older sisters. Three. They ganged up on me constantly.”
“But they must’ve been a window into the lives of women.”
“I never thought of it that way.” Hudson shook his head. “I should’ve taken notes, but sadly I didn’t. I was too young to appreciate the knowledge I could’ve gained. I was merely a nuisance to my older sisters.”
“I can see that.”
“You wound me, and here I thought you were a kind person.”
She laughed again, and the sound filled his chest with warmth. He pulled her a little closer as another slow number started. For a few moments they danced without talking. He hadn’t felt this unguarded in years. This was one date he wished didn’t have to end.
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