Authors: Mia Caldwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Women's Fiction, #Romance, #Multicultural, #New Adult & College, #Multicultural & Interracial
She sounded offended. “No, I don’t have a husband or children—not that it’s any of your business, Mr. Blackwell. I need a sitter for my little brother. He’s autistic and can’t be left alone.”
He barely smothered a curse. “I don’t beg anyone for anything ever, Angelina, but I’m begging you now. I really need your help here. I’d consider it a huge favor, and one worth a large bonus.”
She hesitated for another moment, agonizing seconds ticking by in which he was certain she would refuse. Finally, with a sigh, she said, “I’ll ask my next-door neighbor if Kevin can stay with her for a couple of hours. She’ll probably say yes, but I don’t really have any fancy dresses.”
“Go for basic black. You’ll fit in just fine.”
Clearly denied any further excuses, and obviously feeling sorry for his pathetic ass, she sighed once more, the heaviest so far. “Very well, Mr. Blackwell—”
“Connor,” he corrected, needing her to use his first name to add some authenticity to the fiction he was trying to project. He would spring the rest of the surprise on her when she got there, because she’d be less likely to refuse him once he already had her physically trapped and mired in the situation.
“Connor,” she said repeated with a hint of exasperation. “I’ll be there soon as I can.”
“Thank you.” After hanging up, he started to pace, though it aggravated his hip. As he paced, he searched for a solution, but nothing was forthcoming, at least nothing practical. Had his father finally maneuvered him into doing what the old man wanted? That was a daunting prospect, and he would have chafed against it more aggressively if he hadn’t been concerned about William’s health.
She must be out of her damned mind, having yielded to the plea in Connor’s voice. She didn’t know what trouble he was in, or what he needed from her, but she was resolved that she wouldn’t capitulate easily or do something that wasn’t good for her.
Goodness knows, she should have quit the job months ago, when she started dreaming about his voice at night, which soon turned into the kind of sexy dreams she would never have told her mother about, if the other woman was still around.
“No, she would’ve understood,” she conceded to her expression in the mirror as she adjusted her breasts in the push-up bra. It was her grandmother who wouldn’t understand sexy dreams, and since she was the one who had really raised her, she was more concerned about Yvonne’s opinion than her long-gone mother’s.
She closed the compact after double-checking to make sure she wasn’t showing too much cleavage and looking at her teeth for errant lipstick marks. She was ready. From the outside, she looked poised and polished, which was a miracle considering she had thrown herself together in twenty minutes and wore a simple black dress that hadn’t been a hundred dollars when it was first in stores—and she certainly hadn’t paid retail for it.
It had been a markdown, and she remembered now why she rarely wore it, though it was too late to change her mind. The dress tended to show too much cleavage, so she’d have to keep that in mind all evening. What a bother
The whole thing was a bother, but the idea of a lucrative bonus was tempting, along with the thought of seeing her elusive boss again. Skype didn’t do him justice, and the mental image she’d retained from two years ago had started to appear alongside his voice in her dreams. His flashing blue eyes and honey-brown hair, slicked back as it had been the last time she’d seen his picture on television before that catastrophic crash of his prototype, never failed to make her heartrate skyrocket.
It was crazy to be attracted to someone she barely knew, other than over the phone or through email. On the other hand, she knew very nearly everything about her demanding boss, because it was her job to ensure his day went smoothly no matter where he was in the world, or where she was located.
She was the one who arranged his traveling itinerary and selected hotels. It was up to her to call and speak to the concierge service to ensure they had his preferred brand of bottled water and assortment of fruit and nuts on hand for when he was ready to snack.
She was the one who kept track of his bills and paid them, reordered his toiletries and forwarded them to various hotels as needed, and kept his penthouse apartment ready for his occupation at any moment, should he jet through New York on his way to some other international destination so he could drive around at breakneck speeds and try to kill himself before the other drivers on the circuit did the same.
“We’re here, miss.”
Startled from her reverie, she reached into her purse and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill for the driver. It was an exorbitant fee, but it was a long way from her apartment on the Lower East Side, and she reminded herself there was a bonus in her future to pad the expense. For that matter, she could simply submit the receipt to petty cash as a business expense the next day. With that thought in mind, she added another twenty dollars, deciding Mr. Blackwell—Connor, at least for tonight—could be a big tipper.
She flashed the driver a smile as she got out, taking one more chance to adjust her dress before she walked up the marble stairs and tapped on the ornate wooden door. It was only after she had done so that she saw the doorbell, but when the door opened a moment later, the uniformed butler-type didn’t seem bothered by the fact that she had knocked rather than rang the bell. He simply bowed to her at the waist and cocked a thin eyebrow. “Good evening. Do you have an invitation?”
“I’m with Connor,” she said with what she hoped was a confident smile.
The butler frowned slightly. “I see. Will you wait here for a moment, miss?”
She shifted impatiently on the too-high heels as she waited for the butler’s return, presumably with Connor, or at least his okay to let her in. There was a slight chill in the early May air, and she wished she had taken time to grab a shrug on her way out. She’d skipped it because she didn’t really have anything dressy to match this kind of party, but now she regretted not taking anything, even if it had stood out amid the glitterati.
Fortunately, the butler opened the door for her a moment later, allowing her to walk inside. “Thank you for allowing me entry,” she said with only the slightest hint of irony as she stepped into the opulent home.
She had barely felt the breeze of the door closing behind her before Connor appeared, putting his arm around her waist to draw her close to him. She stiffened at the familiar touch, trying to pull away. “Let go of me,” she hissed at him.
“Play along, and I’ll pay you triple your annual salary, and I’ll cover the taxes. I’ll give it to you in cash tonight, after this party.” He had whispered the words in her ear in what probably appeared to be a tender gesture from anyone observing them.
She quickly realized someone was definitely observing them as she looked around him to see an older man who bore a striking resemblance to Connor, flanked by a pale woman. With her silvery blonde hair, ivory complexion, and large silver eyes, she should have been an ethereal beauty. She probably would have been if she hadn’t been giving Angelina the stink-eye. As soon as the other woman realized she was looking at her, the expression changed to one of welcome, though there was no warmth behind the smile.
Feeling frozen, she sort of shuffled along when Connor stepped back from her, his arm remaining around her waist as he steered her toward the older man and the cold angel beside him.
“Dad, this is Angelina. She’s my assistant, and I couldn’t live without her.”
She gasped, and the other woman echoed the sound when he lifted her hand to his mouth to brush his lips against her knuckles. What the hell was Blackwell up to? She glared at him with her eyes, though struggled to find a more pleasant expression when she looked at his father. “How do you do, Mr. Blackwell?”
The older man gave her an appraising look before nodding. “Call me William.” He turned his gaze back to his son. “She’s definitely not one of your cheap girls that usually hang on you, son. Looks like you did a fine job.”
“Fine job of what?” she asked, eyes focusing on Connor. From the intensity of her gaze, she would bet he felt like a bug pinned to the wall at that moment.
“Selecting a fiancée,” said William before Connor could reply.
She actually dropped her evening bag in her shock as she turned to look at the older man. “What?” she asked in almost a screeching tone. “I’m not his fiancée.”
Suddenly, before she could say anything more, Connor had pulled her into his arms completely, and his mouth slanted over hers. The kiss broke her concentration as passion stirred to life. Words fled her when his fingers threaded through her kinky curls, which she hadn’t bothered taking time to straighten in her rush out the door.
He held her tightly against him, and his mouth ravaged hers, his tongue slipping between her lips to taste her mouth and turn her insides to goo. She moaned again, pressing her hands to his chest in a feeble attempt to escape. Instead, her treacherous hands simply grasped his lapels and tried to drag Connor closer.
When he lifted his head a moment later, she was dazed and confused, having a difficult time remembering what they were discussing before he had kissed her so abruptly. And why had he kissed her?
“We aren’t engaged yet, Dad, and thanks for blowing the surprise.” He sounded genuinely annoyed with his father.
She turned her dazed eyes to her employer, silently begging for an explanation.
“I was saving this for later, but since Dad has ruined the surprise, I might as well do it now.”
“Do what?” she asked through lips that felt slightly bruised and plumped from his possessive kiss. Why had he kissed her? Why was he… Oh no, he’s wasn’t…was he? He absolutely was. The crazy man in front of her was getting down on one knee and holding out a ring.
She stared at it with shock and horror before transferring her gaze to his. His eyes were pleading with her, and she remembered how he’d implored her to go along with events in exchange for triple her salary. She absolutely couldn’t do that, could she? It was completely unethical to consider doing such a thing.
“The last two years with you have been amazing, Angelina. It’s your voice I hear in my ear before I get ready to race, and you’ve made such a difference in my life. I can’t imagine living without you. Will you marry me?”
She opened her mouth, prepared to snap a furious no, and shocked herself by whispering, “Yes?” in a questioning tone instead. She wanted to pretend like it was the money that had swayed her, because goodness knows old-fashioned greed was a much more sensible motivator than being unable to deny the pleading in his gaze as he had silently asked her to say yes.
She was a weak fool, no doubt the world’s biggest sucker, but she couldn’t help a small shiver of delight as he slid the ring onto her left ring finger. It was a perfect fit, as though the universe was trying to send her a message.
That message was he was insane. She came to that conclusion all on her own as the evening progressed. She was being quiet and watchful, trying to glean as many details as she could without revealing too much, but when she heard Connor calmly agree to hold the wedding in this house in a month’s time, she quickly lost her ability to be quiet and watchful.
Through gritted teeth, she took his hand and led him away from his father and that Brenda woman, who watched her with suspicious eyes. The party was in full swing, and it wasn’t strange for them to slip onto the dance floor. She cuddled close to him, denying the thrill that shot through her at the feel of his body against hers, and wrapped her arms around his neck. She was certain she looked like she was stretching on her tip tiptoes, despite her high heels, in order to brush her lips against his cheek.
In reality, she was using the opportunity to whisper furiously close to his ear. “What the hell is going on here? And what are you up to? You told me to go along, but we’re not getting married.”
The slippery bastard chose that moment to spin her, forcing her away from close proximity and ending her tirade, and she wasn’t going to project it for those around them to hear. She didn’t know these people, and she didn’t owe them anything, so she shouldn’t care what they thought of her, but it was humbling to realize she did. She wanted to fit in and not be remembered as the loudmouth former associate of Mr. Blackwell.
Or the fiancée
, she remembered with another surge of anger as she clung to him when he pulled her back from the spin. “I want answers, and I want them now.”
He pressed his lips against her cheek in a tender gesture that also brought his lips near her ear. “Do me a favor and play along for another hour. Then we’ll get out of here, and I’ll tell you everything.
She was fully prepared to tell him no, to refuse the idea completely, but then she made the mistake of looking into his eyes again. She could see the quiet desperation there, and though she didn’t want it to, her anger faded slightly, even as her bewilderment grew. It was clear Connor was in over his head, which was a scenario she had never expected to hear about, much less witness, especially first-hand.
He needed her help, and that shouldn’t sway her, but she was dumb enough to let her hard-nosed stance soften. She gave him a brief nod, and when he moved his lips to hers, she wasn’t entirely certain if this performance was for his father, Brenda, the crowd around them, or perhaps even for him?
The idea was heady and almost as insane as this whole evening already. A man like him wouldn’t go for a girl like her, and she shouldn’t want him to anyway. They had nothing in common and were nothing alike, and even though his engagement ring rested on her finger, it meant nothing. Just like she meant nothing to him. He could replace her in a heartbeat, and if he didn’t provide a good enough explanation and an escape plan for whatever was going on here, he would have to do so.
With three times her annual salary as a bonus, she could retire from her job as his assistant and have time to find something else. A pang shot through her chest at the idea, and she tried to squash the reaction. She had to do what was best for her, and she was certain what was best for her had nothing to do with Connor Blackwell, at least not getting more involved than she was in his daily life at the moment.
He drove her home after the party, trying to be quiet and unobtrusive as she went next-door to bring home her brother. He’d expected a younger kid, so it was a bit startling to see a young man in his late teens or early twenties walking in behind Angelina. He smiled at him, but the kid didn’t look his way. And though he had an adult stature, his demeanor suggested he was still childlike.
“Kevin, this is Mr. Blackwell, my boss.” Angelina introduced him, and she seemed unfazed when her brother didn’t even look in his direction. He sent her a questioning look, and when she nodded, he said, “Hello, Kevin. It’s nice to meet you.”
Very briefly, the young man’s dark eyes flicked in his direction, but almost immediately drifted away again. “Tired,” he said to Angelina with a hint of whining in his tone.
“I know, big guy. Let me tuck you in.” She looked over at Connor, her eyes daring him to leave before she returned. “I’ll be back to deal with you after I get him settled. Don’t even think about departing.”
He lifted his hands, uncertain what prompted him to provoke her, but unable to deny he enjoyed the way her eyes flashed with rage when he said, “I wouldn’t leave my fiancée just hours after getting engaged.”
She glared at him, but didn’t answer as she steered her much larger brother through the living room and down the hallway. When she disappeared from sight, he took the opportunity to snoop through her living room, hoping to learn a little bit more about his assistant.
It was a small apartment, but scrupulously clean, and the furniture was in decent shape, though clearly on the cheap end. There were pictures all over the walls, mostly of a man in his forties with a younger version of Angelina in almost every picture, and Kevin beside her in most of those as well. There was also an older woman in many of the pictures, but no woman who was obviously the right age to be the mother.
That roused his curiosity, and by studying the middle-aged man and the older woman, he was fairly confident in discerning they were related. Perhaps she was his mother, which added another element to the puzzle he was piecing together.
It appeared Angelina and Kevin had been raised by their father and grandmother, and judging from the absence of the man in pictures as the girl and boy got older, he must have passed away sometime when she was in high school. The picture of a beaming Angelina holding up her high school diploma, complete in graduation regalia, but with only the older woman at her side, supported that supposition.
When she returned to her living room almost a half-hour later, she looked frazzled and far removed from the polished woman who had stood by his side for most of the evening. He eyed her with concern as she collapsed on the couch, finally noting she had taken time to change out of her black dress into comfortable lounge pants and an oversized T-shirt. Trying to ease her into the forthcoming conversation, he pointed to a random picture, which showed the older woman, the man, and younger versions of Angelina and Kevin. “Where was this?”
“At the Adirondacks,” she said with a tired sigh. “My father used to like to go there every year to get away from the city and show us nature.” She shuddered slightly. “I’ve seen enough nature in Central Park to last me forever, but it was something that Kevin always responded well to, which made it worth going.” A hint of sadness flashed across her features. “After my father passed away, we never went back. There wasn’t really the money to do it, plus Granny and I couldn’t be sure we could manage Kevin between just the two of us.”
Cautiously, he approached the couch where she sat and took a seat beside her, leaving a cushion between them. The couch was kind of mushy, and he winced a little bit when a spring jabbed him in the left buttock. Trying to hide the reaction, he attempted more small talk, hoping it would facilitate getting to know each other and make her more receptive to his request to continue the façade. “Your brother is autistic?”
She nodded. “He’s always been distant, and sometimes prone to angry outbursts, but it’s definitely gotten worse over the last several months.” Angelina sighed heavily. “His doctor has recommended he move to a facility, where he’ll get full-time care and reach his full potential, but I can’t…couldn’t afford it…until now. I’ve also kept him home because I know Granny would hate putting him anywhere, but I can’t handle him any longer and haven’t really been able to since Granny died eighteen months ago.”
He frowned, trying to remember her mentioning anything about her grandmother’s passing around that time frame. “Did you take time off or anything? I don’t recall you saying anything about it.”
She lifted her shoulder in a half-shrug. “We don’t have that kind of working relationship, Connor. Mr. Blackwell,” she corrected with a determined set of her lips, one that boded ill for him. “Until this evening, we had the kind of relationship where I did what you told me, and you sent me a paycheck for doing so every two weeks. Our communications were professional and certainly didn’t involve fancy parties or fake engagements.”
As she spoke, she started tugging at the ring on her finger, her irritation obvious when she frowned down at it. “The damn thing was a perfect fit earlier, so why can’t I take it off my finger now?”
Perhaps it was a touch of divine intervention, but he didn’t offer that suggestion even jokingly. He figured she might slap him if he said something so lighthearted at the moment. “Perhaps your finger swelled. All that sodium in the
?” he suggested tentatively.
She rolled her eyes at him, but leaned back against the couch again, clearly abandoning the attempt to get the ring off, at least for the moment. “I’m sure it will come off by tomorrow morning, and I’ll return it then.”
“I wish you wouldn’t. I mean, at least for a little while,” he hastened to add upon seeing her look of panic. “I really need you to play along with this for a while, Angelina.” He allowed a hint of desperation to show in his gaze.
She glared at him, appearing unmoved, but he was certain she wasn’t completely impervious to his pathetic ass. “What is going on?”
“My father was terrified after my accident.”
“Who wasn’t?” she muttered.
At least he thought that was what she said under her breath, but he couldn’t be certain, and it really made no sense that she would be terrified at the thought of losing him. With a slight frown, he said, “I guess my life flashed before his eyes, and he didn’t like what he saw. He wants me to leave a legacy and start a family. He gave me an ultimatum tonight, which was essentially that if I didn’t agree to marry Brenda, he was going to sell the company out from under me and my sister Lizzie and give it all to charity. Or maybe he’s going to sign it over to charity. I don’t remember exactly, because I was upset at the time.”
She stared at him impassively, her expression revealing nothing. “And why am I being dragged into your family drama if you were supposed to marry that Brenda?” The way she said the other woman’s name held a note of distaste.
That rose his hackles, but he struggled not to call her on her tone. The two women had barely had a chance to get to know each other, and he was certain they would warm up to each other eventually—not that it really mattered, because Angelina was only his fiancée until he could maneuver a way out of the situation for both of them.
He had to think quickly and find that solution if he was going to persuade her to cooperate though. “I can’t marry Brenda. She’s like a sister to me, and I’m sure she found the idea equally reprehensible. My dad’s health is failing, and I’m afraid the stress of my accident, paired with his devastation if he actually goes through with signing over the company to someone else, would trigger a heart attack that might kill him. It’s clear Brenda came to the same conclusion, so she was willing to play along with the insanity to calm my father. That’s basically what I did too, so I told him I had a girlfriend.”
If possible, her expression closed further. “From what I’ve seen in the celebrity gossip magazines and rag papers from Europe and the United States, you have several girlfriends from which to choose, so that still doesn’t explain why I’m here.”
He winced at the bite in her tone, along with the faint hint of judgment underlying her words. She all but called him a man-whore, and while he would like to disagree with her, now wasn’t the time—and, to be honest, he couldn’t really defend that accusation, because it bordered on true.
“My lady friends aren’t the kind of ladies my father wants to see me settled with, and so I had to invent someone else. I ran out of creativity when he expected to meet you…that is her…tonight, and you were the first person who popped into my mind. You’re in the city and always do an excellent job of accomplishing any task.”
She rolled her eyes. “This is quite a bit different from ensuring your favorite bottled water is imported to a hotel in Bangkok, Mr. Blackwell.”
“I know, but I have a plan.” She looked surprised, but it could only match his own surprise as he said the words, because he had no plan and no clue. He opened his mouth, allowing words to spill from it that he hoped made some semblance of sense and sounded convincing.
“I just need you to go along with it for a little bit. Once Dad calms down, you and I can fake an argument and a spectacular breakup. You’ll be off the hook, and he’ll be content for a while that I’m not a complete reprobate incapable of commitment.” He didn’t think there was a chance that would actually work, but for the moment, he simply needed to secure her agreement. “It’s just for a few weeks. Will you do it?”
She frowned at him. “I distinctly remember you and your father setting our wedding date for a month from now, Connor, so how is that supposed to work?”
“Easy. We just go along with everything. We’ll pretend we’re setting up a wedding, and then you can dump me at the last minute, and Dad will be certain my heart is broken and give it a rest for a while. Anyone would need time to recover from devastation like that.” Enthusiastically, he added, “If you jilted me, he’d really feel sorry for me and let me live my own life while saving the company for my sister.”
She let out a sound of outrage. “Not only do you expect me to pretend to be your fake fiancée and ingratiate myself to your family, but you also expect me to be the bad guy who ends the relationship too?”
He gave her a puzzled look. “It wouldn’t do anything to soothe my dad, or calm his need for me to settle down right away, if I’m the one who ruins the relationship, would it?” At the shake of her head, he continued on. “It’s much easier for the relationship to disintegrate by your choice. I’ll give you a huge bonus, and when this is all over, we can go back to the way things were.”
She snorted. “I doubt that, but I don’t think there’s any going back to the way things were after tonight either way, so I guess I’ll help you.”