Read an Excerpt
"I knew it," Gavin Callahan said, aiming his fork at his sister Shana. "I knew you had an ulterior motive for inviting me to lunch."
The downtown Sacramento bistro teemed with lunchgoers whose voices echoed in the small space. Gavin had been thoroughly enjoying a well-prepared Cobb saladuntil Shana dropped her bombshell.
"Hear me out before you dismiss the idea altogether," Shana said, flicking her golden-blond hair out of her face. "You'd only be pretending to be someone's husband for two days. That's all. Two short days out of your life. Really, Gavin, what else are you doing, anyway? You're on leave from work. You're single. You're free to come and go. It could be fun."
"It doesn't interest me in the least. And I took a leave of absence for a reason, Shana."
"Please, please, please," she begged. "You won acting awards in high school. You were good! It'll be fun, and you'll be doing me a favor that could end up boosting my career with the agency. Pretty please, Gavin. You want to help a single mom struggling to raise a baby girl, don't you? Your own sweet niece "
Gavin laughed at her dramatic cajoling. At twenty-nine, she was five years younger than he. They hadn't been particularly close while growing up, and until recently they hadn't even seen each other for ten years, although that hadn't been his fault.
"You're aware of what I've been through in the past year," he said. "I was assaulted by enough lies to know I wouldn't want to deliberately participate in one myself. Plus, I respect the institution of marriage. And another thing, how do you think anyone successfully fakes being married, even for two days?" He shook his head. "I'll pass."
Shana reached across the table and grabbed his hand. "I'm serious about this helping my career," she said earnestly. "Julia Swansonshe's the one who owns the temp agencyis desperate. If I can find a man to take the job, she'll think of me first for the really good jobs that come in. The more money I make, the less dependent I am on anyone else. I want to stand on my own, Gavin."
"Now you've stooped to emotional blackmail?" he asked, although his heart did twist just a little.
"Did it work?" She looked hopeful and expectant, with just enough mischievousness in her eyes to make him smile.
He took a sip of water, watching her, letting her wait. Finally he said, meet with this Julia Swan-son and see what she has to say."
Shana bounced up and ran around the table to hug him, almost choking the breath out of him.
"I'm not promising anything," he said sternly.
"Julia can talk anyone into doing anything." She looked smug as she sat down again. "You have a one-o'clock appointment with her, so hurry up and finish your lunch."
"Pretty sure of yourself," he said, catching their server's attention to get the bill.
"'Be prepared,' you know," she quipped. "Her office is on the third floor of the building across the street. I'll go with you."
"You've done enough, thank you. I can take it from here."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Call me when you've decided, either way, okay?"
"You'll be the first to know." They walked outside. Shana pointed to the building. "Don't get your hopes up," he said, then hugged her, relieved to feel the few pounds she'd put on recently. She was still too slender, but it was progress.
Gavin made his way to the office of At Your Service, a high-end clerical and household staffing business. For the past few months Shana had been working temp jobs through the agencynicknamed by its clients "Wives for Hire." Or in this case, Gavin thought, "Husband for Hire." He wondered if this spin on their nickname had ever happened before.
"Ms. Swanson will be right with you," a pretty brunette receptionist said to him after he entered the quiet, tasteful office. "Please make yourself comfortable."
Although several chairs were lined up in the reception area, Gavin couldn't sit. Instead he wandered over to a window overlooking the busy street below. He could almost feel the energymostly negativecrackling inside him. He didn't like being placed in this position. He wanted Shana to be successful, but
"Hello, Gavin," said a smooth, female voice from behind him. "I'm Julia Swanson. Please come in."
The woman was ageless and elegant, from her demure ash-blond upsweep to her sage-green suit to her four-inch heels, which brought her within a couple of inches of his six feet. He followed her into her office. On the wall behind her wide, mahogany desk was the company logo, along with the words When you need the personal touch printed in gold-script lettering, classy and subdued, like everything else about Julia Swanson's business.
"Have a seat," she said as she sat behind her desk.
"Thanks," he said, glancing at her window. "I've been living in San Francisco for so long, I forget Sacramento has a distinctive skyline of its own."
"I love this town. It's a big city but with a neighborhood feel." She opened a folder on her desktop. "Your sister wasn't exaggerating."
"Knowing Shana, I'm not sure I want you to explain that."
Julia smiled. "She said you were tall, surfer-blond and handsome."
"Surfer?" He shoved his fingers through his hair, long overdue for a cut. "That's payback for me calling her Goldilocks since she was a kid, I suppose."
"I understand a man in your position would normally never take nor even need to take a temporary job like this," Julia said. "It pays well, but I think that's beside the point for you. Frankly you'd be doing me a favor, and you don't owe me anything."
"On the contrary. Shana has blossomed since she got involved with At Your Service. My sister Dixie and I are grateful. A favor wouldn't be out of order here. Which is why I'm here talking to you, at least."
"Thank you for that. Someone gave me a big break once. I never forget it."
Gavin had also gotten a few breaks here and there.
He remembered how grateful he'd been, had tried to repay the generosity when he could.
"I admire Shana," Julia said. "She's incredibly hardworking but also flexible, which is often an even more important quality in this field. What describes you, Gavin?"
"I've been accused of working 24/7, which is not true. It's more like 18/7. And in my line of work, being flexible is also critical." He shrugged. "You do understand that I'm here only because Shana begged me? The job itself doesn't really interest me, especially the lying. I doubt I could do it."
Julia settled in more comfortably, a small smile on her face. He could usually pinpoint a woman's age, but this woman could be on either side of forty by several years.
"That goes both ways, Gavin. I'm not sure about you yet, either, even with your sister's glowing recommendation. I did find a lot about you online."
He waited for her to follow up on that statement, but she left it there, hanging.
"I take it I passed or I wouldn't have gotten this far in the process," he said.
"The only blemish anywhere in your background was your recent legal problem, but that's resolved, I see. I do require your permission to run a credit check before I recommend you to the client. It speaks to character, you know."
"My 'recent legal problem,'" he repeated, wondering how long it would take before it stopped hurting when he thought about it. "Resolved but not forgotten. And your client has been vetted also? I don't want to worry about her trying to take advantage of my virtuous nature."
Julia laughed softly. "Yes, she's been thoroughly investigated. On paper and in person, she comes across as decent, except."
He waited through her silence until he couldn't stand it any longer. "Except?"
"I'm trying to find the right word. She's desperate, but I think that's her current state, not her norm. I imagine you're a pretty good judge of character, so why don't you just meet her and see for yourself?"
He found it interesting that Julia called the client desperate. Shana had called Julia that, yet the cool, calm woman gave no hint of desperation. "And if I don't take the job?"
"We've got nine days. fill the position. Maybe not with someone who meets the requirements as well as you do, but that's not your problem, is it?"
Oh, she was good. A velvet steamroller. He saw why she was successful, especially in the high-end market, where charm and good taste mattered a lot.
"All right. talk to her," he said, not promising anything else.
Julia passed him two forms. One gave her permission to run his credit check, the other was already filled out with the name Rebecca Sheridan and an address. call you on your cell phone to cancel the interview if something in your credit check doesn't cut it. Otherwise, she'll be available at six o'clock at home. I'll let her know to expect you. If you'll call and leave me a message when your interview is over, I'd appreciate it."
They stood and shook hands, their eyes meeting. He wondered what her story was. She didn't wear a wedding ring. No personal photos sat on her desk. Women tended to have pictures visible, especially of their children.
"Thank you, Gavin. Shana deserves a bonus."
"I haven't said yes."
Julia smiled slowly. "Yet."
Gavin said goodbye and left the office, taking the stairs, not willing to wait for the elevator. He emerged into the late-April day breathing normally for what seemed like the first time in well, in a year, if he was being honest. He had something other than himself to focus on at last.
He could thank his bossy kid sister for that. Maybe, in time, he would.
Becca Sheridan was running late. Like the rest of her coworkers she rarely left work before seven o'clock. Today she had an appointment at six, which meant she had only fifteen minutes to walk to her downtown, high-rise loft and tidy things up a little before the candidate arrived. Gavin, she recalled. Gavin Callahan.
A nice name, she decided. He sounded professional.
Suki Takeda leaned into Becca's open doorway. "Are you excited?"
"I can't believe I'm going along with this ruse."
"It'll get your brothers off your back, won't it?"
"If I can convince them it's true." Becca gave her best friend a doubtful look then grabbed her briefcase. "You know them. They're suspicious by nature."
"If you convince Eric, the other three will buy it." Suki looked around as if she were a spy, her short black ponytail quivering with the quick movements. "You made a good decision to use an agency instead of asking one of the guys here."
"I couldn't take that chance. This way it's a business deal only. No strings. No repercussions."
"Call me when he leaves." Suki pointed a finger at Becca. "If you don't, you can bet show up on your doorstep. I really do think you ought to meet at a coffee shop, you know."
"I know. But the agency checks everyone out. be fine." She hugged Suki as she rushed out her office door. "Wish me luck."
The cheerful shout stayed with Becca as she was leaving the office, waving goodbye. Craig was tossing a basketball into the air over and over, as usual, doing his best thinking at the same time, according to him. Jacob and Morgan were challenging each other with online search games, part of their job. Chip, the president and CEO, might be in his office or playing Ping-Pong in the company rec room.
No one asked why she was leaving early. Staff came and went at their own hours, for the most part. It only mattered that the work got done and that the only arguments between coworkers were about creative differences.
Becca couldn't remember the last time she'd walked home when the street was this noisy with traffic and crowded with people. What she needed was a moment of calm. Maybe the man would be late and she could catch her breath first..
Although it wouldn't bode well for him if he wasn't on time for their first meeting, she thought.
She rushed into the lobby of her shiny, modern high-rise, then took the stairs to the fourth floor. When she turned the corner of her hallway she saw a man leaning against the wall next to her door, his hands in his pockets.
Her heart skipped a beat. She'd heard the expression for years but hadn't known how it felt. Her heart did skip, then it pounded once, a loud, powerful thump to jump-start itself. He was gorgeoustall and lean, with streaked blond hair, long enough to curl against his neck.
And green eyes, she noted when she reached him, direct and intelligent. Straight white teeth.
She'd hit the jackpot.
"Gavin Callahan?" she asked, finding her voice. "Yes. Rebecca Sheridan?"