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"And what, exactly, might that be?" Mitch Deveraux retorted dryly. He didn't have a clue what she was talking about, but he couldn't say he minded spending a little time alone with the young and beautiful shipping heiress. She was a sight to behold, in a fitted coral blazer, clinging white silk blouse and slim coral-plaid skirt that ended just an inch above her knees. The low-heeled pumps she wore were sensible but sexy enough to make the most of her trim, spectacular legs. And her beauty didn't end with a knockout figure. Her golden-brown hair looked soft and touchable as it fell to her shoulders. She had parted it on the side, and tucked it behind her ear. Mitch had never been much of a touchy-feely guy, but as he took in the delicate, aristocratic contours of her oval-shaped face, he found himself wanting to run his fingers through the golden-brown mane and experience the shimmering softness of her hair for himself.
Oblivious to the overwhelmingly sensual nature of histhoughts, Lauren marched closer yet. "The two of you are trying to marry me off by proxy!" she charged as she inundated Mitch with an intoxicating patchouli perfume, and the clean, sexy smell of her skin and hair.
"Why would I want to do that?" Mitch deadpanned as their glances meshed and sexual electricity sizzled between them. He barely had a love life himself these days - he sure wasn't taking on the task of trying to manage anyone else's. Even if, up close, Lauren Heyward had the most beautiful dark brown eyes and softest lips he had ever seen, and was a very successful businesswoman in her own right with a professional savvy that reportedly rivaled his. In her personal life, Lauren Heyward's father had told him, Lauren was a flake who'd already weathered - and ended - two engagements.
Abruptly looking as taken with Mitch as he inexplicably was with her, Lauren looked deep into his eyes and seemed to consider him for a long moment before she said softly, "That's a very good question."
"And one I'll be happy to answer for you both," Payton Heyward interjected as he walked in and shut the door to the executive suite behind him. A folder of papers in his hand, Payton moved behind his desk. The silver-haired executive was dressed in a black suit, sage-green shirt and tie. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his brown eyes were direct, his manner both disciplined and imposing. "Why don't the two of you have a seat?" Payton directed, gesturing at the two chairs in front of his desk.
Lauren sat down - but only out of respect for her father. She had no patience whatsoever for what he was trying to do.
"I know dowries and arranged marriages have gone out of favor," Payton continued pragmatically as he also sat. "But I got to thinking the other day that maybe it's time they made a comeback."
In your dreams, Lauren thought fiercely, ignoring the oh-so-handsome man seated beside her.
"Especially in cases like yours, where you are both from wealthy families and are both unmarried as you reach your thirties," Payton continued.
"I'm only twenty-eight," Lauren said, trying to ignore the delicious scent of sandalwood and spice teasing her senses. Now was not the time for her to be thinking how incredibly virile and sexy Mitch Deveraux looked. Or consider how his solid six-foot-six-inch frame would match up with her slender five-foot-ten-inch body. Sometimes men as tall as Mitch seemed awkward and ill at ease in their own skin. Not Mitch Deveraux. He moved with a calm deliberateness that radiated both strength and control. And probably, Lauren thought recklessly, made love the very same way.
"Mitch is thirty," Payton retorted, giving Lauren a steady look that insisted she and Mitch would hear Payton out, whether they wanted to or not. "And twenty-eight is close enough," her father added firmly.
"I've also been married and divorced," Mitch pointed out.
Everyone in Charleston knew that, Lauren thought as she took in Mitch's short, dark brown hair and arresting deep blue eyes. Mitch's divorce from Jeannette Wycliffe had been both sudden and mysterious - to the point people were still speculating about the possible reasons for it, two years after it had become final.
"You're free now, and so is Lauren, and that's what matters," Payton countered. "Especially given the fact neither of you is getting any younger."
Lauren set her jaw and glared at her father. She had been under increasing pressure from him to do something about her single state before he did, and she resented it. "I'm not a spinster," she said. And felt Mitch's hot gaze slide over her from head to toe before returning with heartstopping accuracy to her face.
"No, but you very well could be if you don't settle down and marry and have a family soon," Payton told her.
"I think we're jumping the gun here a bit," Mitch broke in peaceably.
Lauren would have been grateful to Mitch for that, had he not been hand-selected as her beau. Ignoring the unsettling way her senses stirred at his nearness, she said, "I agree."
Payton frowned. "I had a feeling you wouldn't have an open mind about this," he said.
Her father's feeling had been right. "Look, I've no doubt Mitch is a very nice person," Lauren said.
Reportedly, all the Deveraux were. Although she didn't know them that well, since she had gone to Charleston's all-girls schools from kindergarten on up, and they had entered the city's most renowned coed establishments.
"Not to mention he is very knowledgeable in the shipping business, too, since he is set to one day take over the Deveraux Shipping Company," Payton interjected.
"Then I'm sure Mitch has a lot in common with you, Dad, since you run our family shipping company," Lauren said patiently. "But Mitch doesn't have a lot in common with me. I work in the real estate business."
"Which makes it even more important that you marry someone capable of running Heyward Shipping when I'm no longer around," Payton countered.
"That won't be for years. And if and when it comes to that, I'm sure one of your vice presidents will be able to step into your shoes admirably," Lauren replied passionately.
"I want family running this company, Lauren. Family protecting your interests. And since there is no one else ..." Payton leaned back in his chair and let his voice drift off.
Lauren could see that Mitch Deveraux was beginning to look interested in whatever her father was about to propose, but as far as she was concerned, this travesty had gone far enough. She vaulted out of her chair and began to pace her father's luxuriously appointed office restlessly. "I don't care how much sense it makes on paper. Or how the family business might stand to benefit from a relationship between Mitch and me. I'm still not going to date him." Lauren pointed at Mitch. Not even if you think he's perfect for me.
"Not even for one week, if at the end of the week you get the historic property you've been wanting ever since you were a kid?" Payton asked, smiling magnanimously. Ignoring her look of stunned amazement, her father continued bartering with her smoothly. "I bought 10 Gathering Street this morning, lock, stock and barrel. You do what I want, Lauren, and it's yours."
Excerpted from His Marriage Bonus by Cathy Thacker Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.