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"You don't think I could make it work?" Tate Price asked his friend and business partner, Evan Daugherty.
Evan shook his head, his mouth quirking into a faint smile. "No. For an hour or so, maybe. But not for an entire weekend."
"Want to make a bet on that?"
Kim Banks shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Um, guys?"
The two men in the party of five at the restaurant table ignored her, even though she was the one who had unwittingly initiated this good-natured confrontation.
"I'll take that bet," Evan said, his gaze locked with Tate's smiling amber eyes. "Say, a hundred bucks?"
Tate's firm chin lifted in response to the provocation. "You're on."
"Seriously, guys. We're not doing this. My mother will just have to be disappointed in meagain."
Kim might as well not have spoken at all, for the reaction she received from her regular Wednesday lunch mates.
"I tend to agree with Evan." Kim's coworker Emma Grainger absently speared bamboo chopsticks into the noodles on her plate as she focused on the conversation. "I'm not at all sure this scheme would work."
Before Tate could reply his sister, Lynette Price, another coworker of Kim's, jumped in. "Tate could definitely do it. He's, like, the king of practical jokes."
Emma tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear and shook her head. "Married people give off a certainwell, vibe. Tate and Kim just don't have it."
"Because they haven't tried for us," Lynette countered logically.
Growing increasingly uncomfortable with this line of talk, and hardly able to even look at Tate now, Kim cleared her throat. Maybe she should not have told her friends about the bizarre appeal her eccentric, five-times-married mother had made during an out-of-the-blue phone call last night. It turned out that, unbeknownst to Kim, her mother had been lying for more than a year that Kim was happily married to the father of her nine-month-old daughter. Now her nutty mom had asked Kim to bring the babyas well as someone pretending to be Kim's husbandto an upcoming family reunion.
Kim had learned years earlier to shrug off Betsy Dyess Banks Cavenaugh O'Hara Vanlandingham Shaw's antics, because she would drive herself as crazy as her mom if she took it all too seriously. Humor and avoidance had become her two weapons of choice against her mother's periodic campaigns to draw Kim back into the chaos from which she had escaped nine years earlier, as soon as she had turned eighteen and graduated high school. Though Kim had assured her amused friends that she had no intention of complying with this latest wacky request, somehow the conversation had wound around to whether anyonespecifically Tatecould hoodwink Kim's extended, estranged family into believing he'd been married to Kim for some eighteen months.
She shot a quick look at Tate then. Despite the incredible twist their conversation had taken, he lounged comfortably in his seat, looking as fit and undeniably hot as ever. Seeing her looking at him, he winked, and she dropped her gaze quickly to her plate, feeling her cheeks warm. For the past five months, Kim had been trying to hide her attraction to Tate from her friends, and she thought she'd done so successfully. She'd tried just as hard to deny it to herself, but that had been a much more futile effort.
"Tate would also have to convince them he's her kid's dad," Evan pointed out. "So not only would he have to pretend to be in love with Kim, he'd have to look comfortable with her kid. Having the kid shriek every time he picks her up would hardly help his case."
"Her name is Daryn," Kim muttered. "And I"
"That wouldn't be an issue," Tate said with a chuckle. "I just wouldn't pick her up. Kim could be the hovering mom who doesn't give anyone else a chance to take the baby."
"And it's not like Daryn is old enough to talk, so she wouldn't be a problem," Lynette agreed.
Emma propped an elbow on the table as she looked at the men with a contemplative frown. "This still doesn't sound like a very good bet for you, Evan. Why would anyone openly challenge Kim about whether she and Tate were really married? You'd need a more definitive sign to prove Tate was able to convince Kim's family that he's her loving husband."
Evan looked intrigued. "Like what?"
"Grandma's ring," Lynette chimed in eagerly.
Kim choked. "Oh, now that's going too far."
She had confided in her friends that her long-widowed maternal grandmother was disgusted with her children's and grandchildren's dismissive attitudes toward their marriage vows, resulting in an appalling number of divorces among them. Grandma Dyess had informed everyone that the first of her grandchildren who entered into a union that Grandma herself believed would last would receive her diamond engagement ring. So far Grandma had refused to endorse any of her grandchildren's choices, and rightly so, since only one of the seven was currently married and Kim had heard that union was a shaky one. Still
Lynette waved a hand dismissively in response to Kim's protest. "I didn't say you should take the ring under false pretenses. Obviously, that would be wrong. But if you and Tate could convince Grandma to offer it to you, that would mean he'd won the bet."
"And that's not wrong at all," Kim murmured sarcastically.
Lynette just beamed at her, visibly pleased with herself for coming up with such a perfect solution.
"That would definitely work," Emma agreed. "If Grandma offers the ring, it would be clear that Tate pulled off the charade."
"That would be the ultimate proof," Evan conceded.
"But I still say if anyonegrandmother or other relativeexpresses doubt, the bet would be lost."
"Well, since you won't be there, how would you know if anyone expressed doubt?" Emma asked. "Tate wouldn't have to tell you if they did."
Both Lynette and Evan looked offended by Emma's naive question.
"Tate wouldn't lie to me to win a bet," Evan disputed loyally.
"He'd only lie to my entire family," Kim said with a shake of her head, both exasperated and reluctantly amused by this insane conversation.
"Well, yeah," Lynette agreed matter-of-factly. "That's the challenge, right?"
Setting down her chopsticks, Kim looked from one of her friends to the other with a frown of disbelief, her gaze sliding rather quickly past Tate. "Are you guys really serious? You're actually suggesting Tate should accompany me to my family reunion in Missouri and pretend to be my husband? My daughter's father?"
"You said you wouldn't mind seeing your ailing grandmother one more time," Lynette reminded her. "And that your mother would never forgive you if you exposed her as a liar to her entire family. Seems like the perfect solution."
"The perfect solution is for me to skip the reunion altogether, which is what I told my mother I plan to do. Just as I've missed the past three Dyess family reunions."
"Lynette's right, this would give you a chance to see your grandmother without permanently alienating your mother. And if he can make it work, Tate's a hundred bucks ahead," Evan agreed with an uncharacteristically mischievous laugh.
Tate shrugged, his smile easy, his eyes inscrutable as he looked across the table at Kim. "No one's given you any say in all this."
"It's about time someone acknowledged that."
He chuckled. "It's a crazy idea, of course. Would probably get awkward as all get-out. But if you want to give it a shot, I'm in."
She blinked. "You would really do this?"
"Sure. I could use the extra hundred bucks," he added with a quick grin toward Evan.
Kim wasn't fooled that the money had anything to do with his offer, but she was not quite certain how to read the expression in Tate's amber-brown eyes. She'd had lunch with him almost every Wednesday for the past five months, but there were still times she couldn't tell what he was thinking.
Kim, Lynette and Emma had started the Wednesday lunch outing six months ago as a little break from their usual, frugal practice of brown-bagging. A month later, Lynette had impulsively invited her brother to join them when he'd mentioned that he would be in the area. He had brought his business partner, Evan, and somehow Chinese Wednesday had evolved into a weekly ritual after that. Occasionally other people came along, and sometimes one or more of the core group had other obligations, but most Wednesdays found the five of them gathered around a table in this popular Little Rock, Arkansas, restaurant. They ate, chatted casually about a variety of topicsusually work-relatedthen Kim, Lynette and Emma returned to the medical rehabilitation center where they all worked as therapists and Tate and Evan left to check on their ongoing landscape projects.
Kim always looked forward to these get-togethers. She told herself she needed the break from work and deserved the weekly splurge. The conversation was always lively and sprinkled with lots of laughter, a nice midweek pick-me-up. During the almost seven months since she'd started working with them, Lynette and Emma had become her friends, and she considered Tate and Evan friends, as well. They all carefully avoided any intra-group drama, which meant no real flirting between any of them. It was nice to just be pals without complications.
Which didn't mean she was unaware of exactly how attractive Tate and Evan were. She had no intention of getting involved with either of them, but she was far from oblivious to their appeal. Especially Tate, she had to admit, if only privately. If she were looking for someone with whom to have a toe-curling flingwhich, as a hardworking single mother, she had neither the time nor the inclination forbrown-haired, tanned and fit Tate Price would most definitely qualify as a candidate. Evan was a great-looking guy, too, with his thick, near-black hair and gleaming, solemn dark eyes, but there had always been something special about Tate .
Not that she would want to hook up with the brother of a good friend anyway, she always assured herself hastily. Way too much potential for awkwardness involved there. And Tate had stated on more than one occasion that he had no interest in any commitment until he and Evan were comfortable that their fledgling landscape design business was established and successful.
His business was just about the only thing Tate took seriously.
Lynette bounced a little in her seat, all but clapping her hands in excitement. "You should do it, Kim. It's not like anyone would be hurt by the game. And in a way, it would serve your mother right if she has to scramble to keep up the ruse she started."
Lynette thought of this as a game? Having Tate pretend to be a husband and father?
"It would be kind of funny," Emma murmured, her almond-shaped dark eyes crinkling with a smile as she looked from Kim to Tate and back again. "I would love to see you towing Tate around like a bossy wife."
Tate eyed Kim in teasing appraisal. "You think she'd be a bossy wife?"
Emma giggled. "No, I just think it would be funny if she acted like one toward you."
"I have no interest in being any kind of wife," Kim reminded them, aware that embarrassment made her sound more cross than she intended. "Daryn and I get along quite nicely by ourselves."
Lynette's smile faded. "I know your father and stepfathers all left you eventually, but that doesn't mean all men abandon their families, Kim. I could name lots of couples who have been together for a long time, including my parents. You'll meet someone someday who'll always want to be there for you and Daryn."
Kim shrugged, having no intention of discussing any baggage she carried from her past with her lunch companions. "You know what they sayif it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'm quite content with the life I have. Now if only I could convince my mother of that."
"She'd never understand it," Emma said perceptively.
"Not if she's the type who always has to have a man in her life to feel complete."
"Bingo," Kim murmured.
"Then maybe you should just skip the reunion rather than risk a permanent falling-out with your mother," Evan remarked. "Besides, I still believe it would be hard to fool everyone. Even for Tate."
"Maybe Kim's the one who doesn't think she could make it work," Tate said, his ego still piqued, apparently, by his partner's doubts. "She said she didn't want to go to the reunion and pretend to be married because she's a terrible actor."
"I said I'm a bad liar. It's not necessarily the same thing as being a bad actor. And that's not the only reason I don't want to get involved in this."
"Of course not."
She frowned at him, trying to decide if he was patronizing her.
"Well?" Lynette prodded impatiently. "Are you going to at least think about doing what your mother asked? Especially if Tate's willing to go along?"
Feeling everyone's gaze focused on her, Kim bit her lip, warning herself not to let her friends sweep her into this impulsive plot. "I'll think about it. But I'm still inclined to say no, even if it makes Mother mad. She'll get over it. Probably."
Lynette's dimples flashed again. "You take your time deciding."