Read an Excerpt
The Boss's Fake Fiancé
A Bencher Family Novel
By Inara Scott
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Inara Scott
All rights reserved.
Do not panic!
Melissa Bencher repeated the statement like a mantra, forcing the air in and out of her lungs. She plastered a smile on her face as her miserable, lying, cheating ex-boyfriend approached from across the crowded convention hall.
Do not hyperventilate. Do not faint. Do not vomit on his shoes.
On second thought, the last of those three didn't sound half bad.
Melissa tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. Waves of remembered humiliation washed over her as she thought about the last time she'd seen him, his pants around his ankles, screwing her best friend.
It wasn't your fault.
She wanted to believe this, but it was hard when she'd missed all the signs. The late nights at the lab. The secret emails. His new cologne. Things any other woman would have noticed, but she hadn't wanted to see.
She straightened her skirt, maintaining her smile through sheer force of will. She had known she might run into him here. The robotics and artificial intelligence community was actually rather small, and given that her new boss, Garth Solen, was there to give one of his rare keynote addresses, everyone who was anyone had come out to listen.
Melissa darted a look at the elegant, dark-suited figure sipping from a bottle of water in the AV area beside the stage. Garth was the founder of Solen Labs, a technology company that specialized in building advanced computing systems. Called one of the most brilliant businessmen and inventors of his time, he had built a technology empire in a little over a decade through sheer force of his will, creativity, and intelligence.
That's what the papers wrote about him. In person, of course, the first thing you noticed wasn't his mind: it was the sexy curve of his mouth, his broad, rangy shoulders, and thick black hair. Right now, he was clean shaven, but by the end of a long day he would have an astonishingly sexy five o'clock shadow that only seemed to accentuate his piercing gray eyes.
Not that she looked.
Okay, she looked. Some might say she had a crush. Melissa didn't think so, but if staring at someone's hands during meetings, finding herself occasionally unable to concentrate after a conversation in the hall, or memorizing the way he took his coffee was a crush, then fine, maybe she had one.
An AV tech stood next to him, showing him to how to adjust a headset. Garth didn't do podiums. It was remarkable he could work at a computer at all, given the amount of restless energy that constantly surged within him. In meetings, he'd spend half the time pacing around the room. He didn't slow down and didn't explain things twice.
It was like working for a tsunami.
Or a tornado.
Except way, way hotter.
Melissa hadn't expected that when she met him. She'd seen pictures, but they didn't do him justice. His mouth alone gave her goose bumps ... Really, it wasn't fair that one man could combine sexy and smart in one six-foot package.
Not fair at all.
His only flaw — if one could call it that — was precisely the same thing that made him so intriguing. No one, it seemed, really knew Garth Solen. In the three months she'd worked for him, they'd seen each other almost every day, but she still couldn't get past his polished exterior. She knew his mind and the way he thought; he bounced ideas off of his employees constantly, challenged them to think beyond their assumptions, and never gave up when it came to making a product better. His ethics were absolute; he refused to take short cuts and was rigid about delivering quality.
But the person behind that? The human, vulnerable part of Garth Solen? He so rarely engaged in normal human rituals — small talk simply wasn't part of his vocabulary — she couldn't even guess what movies he liked, or which books lay beside his bed. He didn't do cocktail parties or social hours. When he came to conferences, he delivered his speeches, answered a few questions, and then left.
Mark stopped a few feet from her. "Melissa, is that you?"
She jerked her gaze away from Garth. Luckily, her unholy fascination with her boss had momentarily distracted her from Mark's approach, eliminating the need for a paper bag over her head.
"Mark?" She assumed a pleasant, nonchalant tone, though her insides shrank. "Fancy meeting you here."
He stopped a few feet away. Melissa forced herself to look straight into her ex-boyfriend's eyes for the first time in a year. Mark was five-seven, almost the same height as she was, but at thirty-eight — ten years her senior — he also had a touch of gray at the temples of his curly hair. He liked to call himself the absent-minded professor, but she knew he obsessed over his wardrobe, and never missed a date with his personal trainer.
She took in his appearance with a strangely clinical perspective. Was this really the man she'd dreamed about marrying? The one she'd moved across the country for? The one who'd broken her heart and left her in a dark, depressed state for months?
Hard to believe.
His eyes narrowed as they traveled from her high-heeled shoes to her long brown hair, with brand-new bangs and golden highlights. The hairdresser told her it made her blue eyes pop, and she hoped it was true.
"You look different." He said it with a hint of disapproval, or displeasure.
Melissa decided she liked the tone, either way. "Thanks." She made a point of running her fingers through her hair. "I'll take that as a compliment."
She knew she would never be a beauty queen — she was too thin, her chin too pointed, her eyes too big — but the experience of dealing with Mark's infidelity had changed her. It had been difficult to accept just how badly she'd been treated like a doormat, but once she had, she vowed to make some changes. The first had been her appearance. To her shock, she discovered that it felt better to wear a fitted pencil skirt and snug sweater than her usual outfit of oversized T-shirt and jeans.
When she'd been with Mark, she'd never had much interest in dressing up. She thought he loved her just the way she was — even if that wasn't particularly sexy or beautiful. Though secretly she'd always longed to know what it might feel like to have someone think she was beautiful, she told herself simply that wasn't what they had. They had something more, something different.
Or so she thought.
"Of course it is." He smiled gently, like a benevolent king. "How are you? Deanna and I ... well, we worried about you. Leaving the way you did."
You mean, leaving because my best friend was screwing my boyfriend? In my house?
Melissa longed to shout it out loud, but people were milling all around them, taking seats and preparing for Garth's address, and she refused to make a scene. "I'm fine."
"You've lost weight. Are you sure you're okay?"
The way he said it — the obvious pity and not a hint of guilt — sent a fresh surge of fury rushing through her. How dare he act like he'd done nothing wrong? Like he'd done her a favor by dating her at all? He'd said something in the moments that followed her discovery of him and Deanna that had lingered in her memory, and she heard it again now, echoing in her mind.
Melissa, I'm sorry, but men like me ... well, we can't be expected to settle ...
"I'm better than okay," she retorted, the remembered words rubbing like sandpaper against her skin. "I've got a new apartment and a great new job. I'm happier now than I've been in a long, long time."
Even as she said it, Melissa realized her words were actually true. Rebuilding a life wasn't easy and she'd put her family through hell along the way, but things had changed. She knew that every time she fell asleep thinking about a project from work, instead of imagining Mark and Deanna together. And every time she did her hair, or slipped on a new outfit, and didn't have to question whether it was worth it. Whether she was worth it.
"Working for him?" Mark indicated Garth incredulously. "You can't be serious. I've heard he's a nightmare."
"He's brilliant," she countered. "I've learned more in the last three months than I did in the past three years combined."
All of which were spent with you!
Mark frowned. "There's more to business than a big IQ, you know."
A tingle of interest pricked her spine at the petulant response. Was he jealous? Of Garth?
"Oh, it isn't just IQ," she replied airily. "He's got it all. Business savvy, an eye for design ... it's no wonder he's been so successful."
She couldn't believe how enjoyable it was to watch the color leave Mark's face. Or see him clench his fists in anger.
"Come on," he scoffed. "I can't believe you've fallen for all that nonsense. He's got a great PR person, but is there really anything special underneath it all?" He made a sound of disgust. "I don't think so. He's nothing more than an outsized brain with a big ego."
Melissa fought the urge to punch her ex right in the middle of his supercilious face. A tiny voice in her head screamed to turn away and ignore him. But months of hurt and pain took over, and she couldn't seem to stop herself.
She leaned forward and touched his arm. "Sorry, but I have to be honest. Without a doubt, Garth Solen has most impressive ... er ... mind ... that I've ever come across."
A thin line of white appeared around the corners of Mark's lips. Her immature revenge-seeking inner child danced with joy.
"Melissa," he said, voice strangled, "I hope you aren't suggesting that you've gotten mixed up with the man. You know what they call him, don't you? The human computer. He's got no emotions, 'Lis. I don't care how smart and rich he is. He's still a freak of nature."
Deliberately, she shrugged and gave a tiny, private smile. One that implied she knew the truth about such rumors. "If you say so."
Garth would kill her — absolutely massacre her — if he ever found out what she was insinuating. The truth was, even the people at Solen Labs who worked with him the most had little personal contact with him. The shield around his interior life was impenetrable. He didn't give out his phone number to anyone and never invited guests to his house. When he dated, the women were wealthy, gorgeous ice queens who exuded a chilly sophistication and never talked to the press.
But this wasn't about thinking, or planning. No, her head had stopped functioning a long time ago. She had given herself over to pure emotion.
"Never underestimate a computer," she added.
"He's just using you to get to me," Mark proclaimed, his voice gravelly with anger. "He's milking every bit of your experience in my lab so he can shut me down. Don't fool yourself. He'll drop you like a hot potato once he's gotten what he wants."
Melissa jammed her hands onto her hips. "How dare you," she said, low and furious. "You know nothing about it. Absolutely nothing."
"If you're so close to him, how come I haven't heard about it before now?" Mark leaned toward her, eyes narrow. "Is he ashamed of it? How long has this been going on, anyway?"
She stepped back, the intensity of his response bringing her down to earth with a thud. She mustn't start describing her imaginary relationship with Garth. If Garth found out she'd said something about him, she'd lose her job — and whatever respect he'd begun to feel for her — in a heartbeat.
Desperately, she sought a way out, short of admitting she'd made the whole thing up. But she didn't actually have to explain anything, did she? She hadn't said they were dating. She'd suggested it, but she'd never actually said it, right?
She shot another quick look at Garth before turning back to Mark. "Believe what you want. I'm through with this conversation. I have no interest in seeing or talking to you ever again. Understand?"
He caught her arm. "Melissa, this is ridiculous. I don't want to fight. I came over here because I've been thinking that maybe I made a mistake. I wanted to say I was sorry."
"Sorry?" She drew back in disgust. "You think maybe you made a mistake? Are you kidding me?" She tried to pull her arm away, but he refused to let go. She straightened, rigid with anger.
"You should come back to California."
"Why? Because your lab is getting crushed by the competition?" She smiled with satisfaction. "You arranged the business so I had no control, remember, Mark? When I left, I didn't take anything with me other than my brain. Your lawyers couldn't do a thing about me working for Garth and I have no interest in getting back into business with you, especially not when your business is tanking."
Soon after she'd started working for Garth, Melissa had received a letter from Mark's attorneys requesting that she immediately cease and desist performing any work for Solen Labs. Her brother's fiancée, Tori, had quashed that effort with a few sharply worded letters of her own. Melissa hadn't violated any agreements or shared any confidential information. The law was clear: as long as Melissa was careful not to reveal any trade secrets, Mark was helpless to stop her.
"You vindictive little bitch." He bit out the words. "I told Deanna you weren't worth it."
Melissa stepped back, unprepared for the venom spewing from him. She jerked her arm free. "You're disgusting. I've moved on, Mark. You should, too."
He called after her, but she turned on her heel and marched away, toward Garth and the soundstage.
She had the feeling she'd won, yet it didn't fill her with joy. Mark was pissed, and Melissa knew from experience that when pushed, he would do anything to strike back.
God help her if he succeeded.
Pulse racing, Melissa half-ran to the stage. Garth waved her over. He didn't smile — Garth guarded his smiles almost as closely as he guarded his email address — but he did give a worried frown when she reached his side.
"What was that all about?" he asked, looking back in the crowd.
"What?" She followed his gaze. It took a moment for her to realize what he was talking about. A flush of guilt warmed her cheeks, coupled with utter amazement that he'd noticed the dispute. "You mean Mark?"
Garth nodded. "Is he bothering you?"
Pleasure mixed with even more guilt. Was he worried about her?
He had a way of asking questions that demanded utter honesty. "Absolutely." She smiled, and even though Garth didn't return her smile, she thought she saw something soften in his eyes.
"Good." He straightened, and just like that, she knew the matter had been erased from his mind. "How's my tie?"
It was a tiny thing, but it was something a man would only ask a woman. And while she knew he saw her as nothing more than one of the many people who worked for him, the barest suggestion that he did see her as a woman — coupled with his concern that she was being bothered by Mark — sent a tingle straight through her body.
"May I?" She gestured toward his tie, and he nodded. She reached up to straighten it, and shivered when her hands touched the smooth cotton fibers of his shirt. The heat of his skin burned right through them and she quivered inside.
He's your boss! Stop it!
Melissa knew she was being silly. But her body didn't know that. And the warm rush of excitement that followed from the brief, almost imperceptible contact didn't know that, either.
As she adjusted a wrinkle from the knot, Melissa had the odd feeling that she was being watched. She shot a quick look over her shoulder to see Mark staring at her from across the room. With a fresh surge of pleasure, she left her hands on Garth's tie a fraction of a second longer than was necessary. Not long enough so that he'd notice, surely, but long enough so that Mark would.
"You're perfect." She forced an easy tone as she dropped her hands.
"Has anyone asked you about ThinkSpeak?"
ThinkSpeak was Garth's pet project — an artificial intelligence system that read and interpreted the brainwaves of children with severe autism, enabling parents and caretakers to understand their basic needs. Many doubted the technology — which was, admittedly, incredibly expensive — could ever be made commercial. Just last month, several members of the Solen Labs board of directors had suggested the company shelve the project indefinitely. In response, Garth had dumped millions of his personal funds into the development, but even his pockets weren't bottomless. He needed a big investor to sponsor continued development of ThinkSpeak, and he was determined to find one.
"I've had a few questions. I dodged them."
Excerpted from The Boss's Fake Fiancé by Inara Scott. Copyright © 2012 Inara Scott. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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