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Fake Fiance, Real Revenge
A Three River Ranch Novel
By Roxanne Snopek, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Roxanne Snopek
All rights reserved.
The ultrarich were a monotonous lot, but they sure knew how to throw a party.
Mitchell Granger reached for another glass of champagne, feeling as if his face was about to crack, reminding himself that he was glad he wasn't like them.
They were pretentious. Predictable. Profoundly shallow.
He wasn't like them. Not at all.
Still, he hated feeling like an outsider. He was amazed that Della Fontaine hadn't noticed his discomfort, but then she'd been too busy leading him around by the nose, showing him off to her crowd of bejeweled and coiffed cronies. Plus, she assumed he wanted to be there, and people generally saw what they expected to see. Thank God she was thirty years older than he was.
Not that the age difference would bother her, Mitch thought with a shudder.
He glanced around the room. He should be mingling — that's what he was there for. But he'd never heard such inane conversation, such a waste of breath. If he heard one more exchange of "You look fabulous!" he might rip off his tux and hurl his drink at the oversize canvas wall-hanging people had repeatedly informed him was "an original."
An original what? It looked like someone threw up against the wall.
"So?" Della asked, jolting him out of his daydream. "You enjoying my little shindig?"
Della was from Detroit, Michigan, but her latest late husband had made his fortune in Texas oil, and she grabbed every opportunity to "sling a little West," as she called it. Her teeth-jarring and inconsistent accent was at complete odds with the cool, sleek mansion Mitch had built for her, but then, Mitch couldn't imagine the home that would suit her.
"Great," Mitch said. "Great shindig."
Della patted his cheek, her chins jiggling with the movement. "Liar! You hate this sort of thing. Bowing and scraping before people with more money than brains. Right now I imagine you're trying to come up with an excuse to leave."
Mitch looked away, willing his face not to react.
"Well, you can't go just yet," she said, a mischievous expression on her troll face. "I've got a surprise for you later."
He didn't think it was possible to get more depressed.
"Oh, don't worry, handsome. It's a good surprise. You'll love it."
"Really." Because their tastes were so aligned? He forced himself to smile.
"I'm going to make all your dreams come true." She waited for his reaction, but he'd gone still, afraid to hope. "Aren't you going to ask for details? Oh, hell! I've got a few more cheeks to not kiss. I don't even know why I invited half these people, but too late now."
His heart was beating so hard he could barely swallow.
"Don't worry, this crowd is used to hearing me say what I think. They can't afford to risk offending me and I confess, it's amusing as hell!"
He winced at her cackle, but the guests around her were carefully, deliberately oblivious. He tried to remember a single name, but between personal trainers, tanning beds, cosmetics and surgeons, one artfully beautiful matron was more or less interchangeable with the next. The men were hardly better; every hand he'd shaken tonight had been soft as a baby's. No calluses here.
That's what made Della Fontaine so fascinating in a must-stare-at-the-car-wreck sort of way. She didn't bother competing or pretending. She was an anomaly in this group, the richest of the rich, impervious to public opinion, able to speak and act and look and live exactly as she pleased, appropriate or not. Jabba the Hutt of Mercer Island.
And the thing about it was, if Della Fontaine decided to wear a tutu, tiny frothy skirts would suddenly be all the rage.
But she was canny enough to know that if she weren't wallowing in wealth, she'd be cut out of their circle so fast it'd send her tacky twenty-four-karat-gold tiara spinning. They didn't like her, but they couldn't afford to let it show.
Mitch would do anything for that kind of freedom. Well, he amended, remembering Della's predatory eye, almost anything.
"Welcome, darling," Della murmured again, leaning her powdered cheek toward that of yet another sorority sister. "It's been too long."
"You must tell me your secret, Della," said whoever she was. "You look fabulous."
And that did it. A crazed laugh rose in Mitch's throat, where it collided with a mouthful of champagne, sending it down the wrong pipe.
"Oh dear, Mitchell," Della said. She looked alarmed, but that might have just been the way she'd drawn on her eyebrows. She gave him a linen napkin. "Are you all right?"
He waved his hand and nodded, pointing to the vestibule.
"Of course, of course." She shooed him away. Della wouldn't want her pet to make a mess on the carpet, after all.
Mitch stumbled, coughing, through the vast and vaulted rooms until he came to the veranda overlooking Lake Washington. He leaned against the wide, curved stone wall and, his throat ready to function again, sucked in the sweet night air drifting in off the water.
Gradually, as he watched the stars come out and listened to the susurrations of waves, Mitch felt himself settle. He'd go back to Della's party, smile until his cheeks hurt, flirt as much as his stomach could handle, and finally, once he'd jumped through all her hoops, Della would reward him with the contract that would make Granger-Ellis the foremost property development company in the Pacific Northwest. His partner, Jon Ellis, was counting on him to land this deal.
Creating Della's to-be-determined destination resort would make Mitchell Granger — persona non grata in his hometown of Lutherton, Montana — the talk of the industry. They'd write about him in business magazines. Invitations to parties like this would flood in, and he'd be able to ignore them if he wanted. He'd have his pick of clients.
So for all that, he could handle a bit more of Della Fontaine, he assured himself. Reluctantly, he braced himself to reenter the phony cacophony.
"There's my boy!" Della called. She trundled to his side, reaching one beringed hand out to grasp his sleeve. "Mitchell! Come with me. I have someone I want you to meet!"
Mitch pasted a smile on his face and prepared for another hungry female.
Instead, he found himself looking down at a sweet-faced, golden-haired girl who looked as if she felt as under attack as he did. Her pupils were so wide, her blue eyes looked almost black, and her tremulous smile did not reach them. She looked twenty, maybe twenty-two.
"My stepdaughter, Paris." Della gave the girl a little shove. Paris stumbled against him as she took his hand.
"I'm so sorry — "
"Nice to meet — "
She blushed as she apologized, then swallowed, a blue vein pulsing visibly in her slender throat. This child was a baby bunny in the nest of a velociraptor.
"Isn't she lovely?" Della crowed, as if the girl wasn't there. "I think the two of you will hit it off. And why not? She's single, you're single. You'll thank me for this, Mitchell."
In the space of a second, three truths snapped into focus for Mitch. First, Della, stepmother and guardian of this shy young woman, intended for him to take Paris off her hands. Second, lovely as she was, Paris held zero appeal for him. None of these society women did and never would. And third, rejecting Della's stepdaughter would be career suicide.
After that, Mitch's brain clicked into autopilot, pure survival mode. He had no other explanation for his response.
"Paris," he said, lifting her hand to his lips. "I'm delighted to make your acquaintance."
"Me, too." The girl blushed again and shot an anxious look at Della.
"I've no doubt we will be friends," Mitch continued, then added a wistful smile for effect. "But I'm afraid anything more might be a problem for my fiancée."
* * *
The Birth on Earth Maternal Health Care Clinic of Lutherton, Montana, needed thicker walls, Sabrina Becker thought as she listened to the groans of the young woman in front of her. It was one thing to embrace natural childbirth in all its vivid reality; it was another to have the soundtrack playing on full volume for the wide-eyed prospective parents in the next room.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the young father's eyes roll back in his head.
She leaped to his side just in time to keep him from breaking his skull when he fell. "Oh no, you don't!" As it was, he'd have a goose egg to commemorate the birth of his first child. Well, she had no time to worry about him.
"Come on, Daddy, buck up. Mama needs you." Sabrina eased him into a sitting position on the floor, against the wall of the birthing room. "Press your forehead to your knees."
"I ... I'm okay," he mumbled.
"Of course you are." Sabrina gripped his chin gently, assessing his pallor and unfocused gaze, then pushed his face down again. "Stay here for a sec, okay? I'm kind of occupied at the moment."
Another cry from the mat on the floor. "I think my water just broke!"
Sabrina grabbed a towel. "Almost there now. You're doing fine, Jenny!"
She could remember the mom's name. But the dad's? Gone like self-control at an ice-cream bar.
Focus, Sabrina! You can sleep later!
Her assistant, Daphne, was wrapping up the prenatal class and then she could look after Dad. Until the next call, at least. Sabrina was thrilled that word of mouth was making her center the place to go for uncomplicated natural childbirth care. But she'd been up for two nights running now. She needed a nap. She needed more staff. And she needed more space.
She needed a fairy godmother.
The about-to-be-new-dad groaned from the floor. "Did I ... pass out?"
"Swooned like a medieval maid," Sabrina said. Surely he could manage to sit upright while his wife pushed out their child. "Come on, Daddy, coffee break's over. Hold her hand. Talk to her. Hey! Look at me! Can you handle it?"
He nodded, and then rolled onto his knees next to his wife.
"Oh God, I can't do this!" the mother-to-be cried. "Make it stop, Sabrina, make it stop!"
Transition, she thought. "Almost there now, honey. Breathe!"
The baby's presentation was putting pressure on the mother's sciatic nerve, and the only way she could get relief was to labor on all fours, on a yoga mat. Fortunately, Sabrina was set up for every possibility. If women wanted a water birth, she had a tub. If they wanted to labor in a Jacuzzi, they could. She had a birthing ball, an open-seated chair, a pole. She had music, candles, and massage oil. She had sterile instruments, monitoring equipment, and adjustable beds.
But only two birthing rooms.
What she needed was more ... of everything.
The man's eyes started spiraling again.
"Daphne!" Sabrina yelled. "Dad's losing it here."
Brad! That was his name.
"Jenny wants Brad to cut the cord," she said as Daphne jogged into the room. "If he passed out at this, he ain't gonna like what's coming."
Every midwife in the history of the universe knew that in the ultimate deciding match in the battle of the sexes, the hands that rocked the cradle really did rule the world.
Jenny moaned, moving back and forth slightly on her knees. Sabrina checked her again — almost time now. The woman had been laboring since the previous evening and they were all exhausted.
"You're fully dilated, honey. You'll feel the urge to push any time."
With that came the next contraction and a roaring grunt from the floor.
"What are you doing to her?" Brad stood up, then wavered, all the color leaching from his face as he watched his wife bearing down.
"Down, boy," Daphne said, pushing him back onto his knees. "Stay."
No matter how many classes they went through on labor and birth, Sabrina thought as she slipped her gloved hands between the woman's thighs, they were still shocked by the reality.
The baby's head emerged, a thatch of black hair, followed by a tiny, scrunched-up face.
The sight, as always, gave Sabrina a jolt of joy so pure and crisp that she felt her throat catch. Birth was primitive, earthy — but it remained the single most awe-inspiring experience of her life, no matter how many she attended. It also remained the greatest desire of her heart.
And her greatest fear.
Her one short-lived pregnancy had ended in sorrow she'd had to bear completely alone, thanks to the jerk who'd abandoned her. Didn't matter what extenuating circumstances he might claim: Mitchell Granger had left her when she'd needed him most. And if she ever got the chance —
"Aaah ... ," Jenny moaned. "It's coming! It's coming!"
"Dad! Hey!" Sabrina barked, gesturing with her chin. "Look alive! You're going to be the first face your child sees."
"I ... am?" he said, looking at her in alarm.
"You are," she confirmed. "But not if you're out cold."
"Is ... everything ... okay?" the woman gasped. The next wave hit and she bore down again with a great cry.
"Everything is just fine." Sabrina slipped her finger into the infant's mouth, sweeping it free of mucus. She cradled the slippery head with a sterile huck towel, easing out one shoulder, then the other. "Say hello to Daddy, little one!"
"Oh ... my God ... ," the father murmured. But to Sabrina's relief, he'd finally snapped to attention.
"Here we come, baby love," she crooned as the mother gave one last great push. The rest of the child slid out into the warm towel, still attached with the purple twisted cord. "Welcome to the world, sweetheart!"
Jenny, shaking with fatigue, collapsed onto the mat. "Is everything okay?"
"Baby is just great, Mom." Sabrina quickly checked the infant, swaddled him in another dry towel, and handed him to his father. Then she turned to the new mother, wrapping her with warm blankets, plumping up cushions and bedding to bring the most comfort.
"Lie back, okay? I'm going to put your son on your chest."
Brad still looked shell-shocked, but his color was fine, and he held the baby with firm arms.
Sabrina directed the young man to lay his newborn son on his wife's naked body, and together, they watched the infant crawl and creep and nuzzle his way to his mother's breast.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Jenny said, laughing and crying at the same time. "I mean, you showed us videos, but — "
"I know." Sabrina swallowed.
"I love you so much, Jenny," Brad said in a choked voice.
"I love you, too." Tears ran freely down Jenny's face. "We're a family now!"
Sabrina's throat clenched. Usually she celebrated with her clients. But today, maybe because she'd been thinking about Mitch, she couldn't watch.
"I'll, uh, give you three some privacy." And she dashed to the washroom to pull herself together.
The only thing Sabrina Becker wanted as much as a baby was to find Mitchell Granger and hurt him, the way he'd hurt her.
Maybe then that Mitch-shaped scar on her heart would finally heal.
* * *
Conversation in the room ebbed, as it always seemed to do at the absolute worst moments. All heads turned to Della, who stood blinking in confusion.
Paris looked as if she wanted to disappear.
Finally Della clapped him on the shoulder. "You're a dark horse, aren't you, Mitchell Granger? Keeping this under wraps? And here I've been thinking of what lovely babies you and Paris would make. Where've you been hiding this girl? You should have brought her tonight!"
"She's ..." His relief vanished. He had to make this convincing. "She's in Montana."
Really, Mitch? Way to limit your pool of possibilities. A fiancée in Fiji. Now that would have been convenient. And difficult to disprove.
Where, he wondered, would one go about finding a mail-order bride? Was there even still such a thing?
"Ah, yes, your hometown. Lutherton, is it?"
He should have expected Della to look him up. He hadn't offered many details about his past, but that wouldn't stop a woman like her. Memories flooded in, wounds he'd long ago vanquished — or thought he had.
You see, Mitch? You did it again. Another stupid, impulsive idea. He hadn't heard that voice for years. Perspiration broke out on his back. You don't stop to think and this is what you get. Stupid, stupid boy.
"We're, uh." Mitch swallowed, wiping the back of his neck. He wasn't that boy anymore. He was a success. Supported by his non-Fijian fiancée. Who had no name. "We're taking it slow."
Excerpted from Fake Fiance, Real Revenge by Roxanne Snopek, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2013 Roxanne Snopek. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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