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Bride Of Convenience
By Susan Fox
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE lady was broke.
She was dressed just as richly and stylishly as before, but this time in a sleek, shimmery teal designer original that showed off her blond coloring and perfect body. She looked like a million bucks, but she was worth little more than a few thousand dollars.
He was here to change that.
Oren McClain had taken on a losing prospect or two in the past. Mostly ranches or abused horses. He had a modest gift for spotting potential in some failure or misfit. The right management or backing or retraining might turn a respectable profit or reclaim something of value. Or bring it out.
The willowy blonde across the room carried a few of those little potentials that always got his attention. He sensed her quiet desperation as she nursed yet another glass of wine.
Everyone else at the crowded penthouse party was too self-absorbed to see the shell-shocked dullness in her pretty blue eyes. None of them would have realized that her talent for regularly getting the waiters to bring the drink tray around for a discrete exchange of empty for full was partly the need to anesthetize herself from the pretentious bores and tiresome elites at this big city soiree. She might be too snookered to let herself realize it, but he knew she would later. He meant to point it out as bluntly as possible, if need be.
There was a weary intelligence in those lovely eyes, along with a dispiritedness that could be expected of a woman bored out of her mind with her shallow, aimless life. A life that had spoiled and sucked almost everything worthwhile out of her. That's what happened when life held no greater challenge than could be met by beauty and a charming smile. Or a hefty tip.
And yet it was clear she was in mourning for the shallow privileged life that was rapidly coming to an end. Oren McClain was certain he was one of the few at that stuffy penthouse party who knew Stacey Amhearst's days of bartering beauty and charm, and bestowing hefty, persuasive tips wouldn't last another week.
But she knew it. Which was part of the reason she looked morose and standoffish. And panicked.
He'd learned a lot about her in the past few months, so this wasn't idle speculation. The lady truly was broke. Her spacious apartment and all the other costly doodads that went with it suddenly had the shelf life of Beluga caviar. All the beautiful, wealthy snobs around her who didn't already know, would very soon find out the jarring truth.
And then the invitations would dry up. Most would stop taking her calls, stop reading her phone messages. Their butlers and maids wouldn't answer the doorbell or, if they did, they'd recite some polite little fib to deny her entry. She'd be the hot topic of gossip as they nattered to each other in hushed, horrified tones, as if leery of attracting the same unthinkable misfortune.
Most would be eager to put her downfall out of their minds and move on. As if forgetting her quickly and pretending she'd never been part of their rarified society might somehow inoculate them against contracting the same terrible fate. Fate like bad luck or bad investments or embezzled fortunes, along with the poverty, and the shame and shock of being shunned by peers.
A few of the men, both the single and the unfaithful married who appreciated class and education and beauty, might come her way and offer some sort of arrangement, respectful ones or not, but those would fall through. He'd see to it.
Oren McClain hadn't come back to New York after all these months because of some paltry bit of business. He'd got wind of her trouble weeks ago, but he'd stayed away, waiting for a pampered thoroughbred to lose a few more important races and show up at sale where she could be had for a song.
The flashy little high-stepper who'd danced, delighted, and set his blood on fire, then kidded him about his marriage proposal, hadn't taken him seriously. She'd thought the things he'd offered her were nothing more than the quaint exaggerations of a Texas rube too inflamed by his libido to be telling the truth about what he could provide for a wife.
She might see him in a different light now. After all, she'd need someplace to go after next week. Texas would be as good a place as any for a woman who'd had her privileged life stolen and was about to suffer the abandonment of peers.
And once he got her to Texas and she learned something about how to live a useful and satisfying life, she might even grow to love him.
She was half finished with her latest glass of wine, and had just located one of the waiters to watch for a chance to give him a subtle signal, when Oren McClain started toward her.
As a farewell party, it was a crashing failure.
Perhaps that was because few suspected it was a farewell party. She might as well have stayed home.
Stacey Amhearst quickly changed her mind about that. It was depressing at home. She couldn't pretend anymore that it was cook's night off, or that her butler had gone out to see his ailing mother. She'd come here for comfort and edible food.
There was little comfort to go with the food. What had she expected? That her pedigree-obsessed friends would crowd around sympathetically and offer to help her raise money with a charity auction? She really would throw herself in front of a limousine if anyone but her closest confidants found out about her outrageous misfortune before her lease was up on Thursday.
Was it better to live in an embarrassed state in financial exile somewhere, or let everyone think she'd tragically died rich? The fact that they'd only find out later that she was a pauper had helped her to squelch that fleeting thought of limocide.
Excerpted from Bride Of Convenience by Susan Fox Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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