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Denise Watson wondered if Gideon Falcon would be on time for his three o'clock appointment. She was an if-I'm-not-five-minutes-early-I'm-late kind of person herself, but he didn't come across as a man who kept a close eye on the clock.
Anticipating his arrival, she stood at a window of her corner office, overlooking a bustling downtown Sacramento intersection. She'd moved her domestic-and-clerical-help agency, At Your Service, to this prestigious location a year ago, after four years of growing the business. She loved the view of the city skyline from her window.
From three stories up, Denise spotted a motorcycle zip into a just-vacated space on the street below. It had to be Gideon. A motorcycle would suit himhe was in the business of adventure, after all, flying planes and helicopters into remote areas, guiding office-bound executives on treks into the wilderness. He wouldn't use conventional transportation, not even in mid-December, with rain predicted by commute time.
She watched him unhook something long and narrow from the back of his bike, take off his helmet then stride toward her building.
Giving her hair a quick toss over her shoulders, Denise returned to her desk, surprised to hear her pulse pounding in her ears. She'd been more than a little attracted to Gideon that night a month ago at his brother David's wedding, had danced with him for hours, neither of them taking another partner.
What woman wouldn't be attracted? He was breath-takingly handsome, his hair a rich, dark brown, his eyes not just blue, but intense, see-into-your-soul blue. And his body He had a body, all right. He was also about as opposite from her as anyone could be. A daredevil man and a cautious woman mixed about as well as the proverbial oil and water.
Then there was also the minor point that he hadn't called her since.
Her receptionist buzzed her. It was exactly three o'clock. Denise walked out to the reception area to welcome him.
You cut your hair.
It was the first thing that popped into her head when she saw him. It hadn't been superlong before, but long enough to curl down his neck some. Long enough to fall into his face when she'd taken off her heels and he'd leaned closer while they danced. Now he looked like well, a businessman, although an edgy, rather dangerous one.
"Thank you for fitting me into your schedule," Gideon said as they shook hands, his eyes sparkling as if he knew all the secrets of the universeor at least the one about whether or not she found him tempting. He wore boots, blue jeans, a white dress shirt and black leather jacket, somehow making casual look chic, as much a dressed-for-success look for his line of work as her outfit was for hers.
"I had a cancellation," she said. They walked toward her office. "It's our busiest time of year, since lots of people need temporary help right before and after Christmas."
"This is my least busy time."
He said it easily, as if it didn't bother him. Maybe he liked the down time, which would drive her crazy. Working satisfied her. "Can I take your jacket?" she asked.
"Thanks." He leaned a cardboard tube againsther desk and slipped off the jacket. She was tempted to wrap herself up in it and savor his body heat before hanging it up.
Why didn't you call? The question she wanted to ask most was the one she couldn't ask, even as she felt him checking her out as she moved to sit behind her desk. "How can I help you?" she asked.
"I need a wife."
Disappointment landed on her. Ever since he'd made the appointment, she'd been hoping it was just a ploy to see her again. But it was only business, after all. She hadn't been on his mind as he'd been on hers.
"A wife. Okay," she said, all business now. She pulled her keyboard in front of her and brought up a Request-for-Domestic form. "What kind of skills are you looking for?"
She smiled slightly at that. "Can you be a little more specific? Our domestics do everything from errands to party prep to cleaning to child care."
"I don't need someone with any of those skills, actually. I need someone to be my wife."
She took her fingers off the keyboard. "I think you have me confused with a matchmaking service."
"You did a good job for my brothers."
He really did want a wife? "Not intentionally."
He slouched in his chair a little, crossed an ankle over a knee. "David called you uncanny, the way you match up employers and employees. You even found Noah a teacher. Not a typical staffing placement for your company, right?"
"That was pure luck. Tricia just happened to come along, and she was qualified. She wasn't even looking for a teaching job."
"And now she and Noah are getting married, and David has already tied the knot," Gideon said easily. "Don't people call your company Wives for Hire?"
"That is the unfortunate nickname that some people use, yes, because our employees assume many of the roles that a wife would."
"Except they can't have sex with the employer."
Denise's pulse fluttered. "There's that, of course, but being a wife certainly entails more than what my company provides, regardless of the sex issue."
"But in my case, what I need is a wife." He paused. "Without the sex."
"You mean a pretend wife?"
"To help me woo an investor to a project of mine."
His logic intrigued and confused her. "You have to be married to accomplish that?"
"For purely business reasons, yes."
"Well, this is a first. Would you like to hire two-point-five children, too?"
He grinned. "Not necessary. Although a little pregnancy padding could be helpful." He straightened, getting down to details. "Look, I need someone who is intelligent, articulate and isn't intimidated by men who are used to being in charge. Someone who can hold her own, whether it's business or social. I need a woman who brings presenceand stabilityto the table."
"I see. And how much are you willing to pay for this paragon?" she asked.
"How much would you charge?"
"I don't have a rate set up for what you need. We'll have to talk to the employee and decide together."
"I don't think you understand, Denise. You're the one I want."
Her body reacted to the bold statement. It took her a moment to recover. "I'm not for hire."
"I own this company. I run this company. It's more than a full-time job already."
"I could work around your schedule. Weekends and evenings would be okay."
"This is impossible, Gideon."
"No, it isn't. Have dinner with me. We'll talk about it. I brought the plans to show you."
"You think you can butter me up over dinner?"
His smile was wide. "I can try."
"No one would believe we got married," she said. "We hardly know each other."
"Sure they would. We'll tell them how we met at David's bachelor party and how the instant attraction caught us off guard. How we avoided each other for the whole week until the wedding, because neither of us had ever felt like that before, and we weren't sure we could trust it."
His eyes went tender and his voice soft as he continued with the mesmerizing words. "Then at the wedding we danced and talked for hours, our eyes meeting, hands touching, bodies brushing, and we knew, we just knew it was right. We were right. That there is such a thing as love at first sight, that we decided we didn't want to live without each other for one more sunrise. So we drove to Reno and got married, trying to talk each other out of it the whole drive, but only talking ourselves further into it. It'll be a love story for the ages. Even the most cynical men will believe it, because we'll say it with passion in our eyes. We'll be envied by all."
It took Denise a few seconds to focus again. She'd gotten totally caught up in his fairy tale. Heck, he'd convinced her, so she supposed others would believe it, too. Really, who would've thought he was a romantic? She'd figured him for the kind of hero Hemingway wrote about. A survivor. The man you hope is with you when your plane goes down.
Still "I really don't see how we could pull this off, Gideon. Why would you have kept it a secret from your family for a month?"
"There's no reason for them to ever find out. Most people will never know, only the ones I'm trying to convince to invest in my project, and I'll bet they don't ask. But just in case, we've got a story. At least take a look at what I'm doing. If I can't convince you of the merits of the project, we'll skip the whole thing. Have dinner with me," he repeated.
She wasn't going to take the job, but she could have dinner with him, as a courtesy to him as David and Noah's brother, anyway, and a potential client. She could better match him with someone from her staffing pool that way, too.
She linked her fingers and set them on the desktop, all business. "You'll have to wait or come back. I've got appointments at four and four-thirty." She didn't get to see his reaction, because he stood and grabbed his jacket off the hook, keeping his back to her.
"I'll be here at five, if that works for you," he said. He picked up the tube and passed it to her. "Can I leave this with you for now?"
"Sure." She walked him out. "Maybe I should just order Chinese here? We could use my conference room."
He put a hand on her elbow, stopping her, then looked into her eyes, into her soul, in that way he had. "Let me take you out, Denise. Please."
You couldn't have asked me out a month ago? "All right."
He slid his hand up to her shoulder and squeezed. The simple gesture kick-started her hormones again. Was her face as red as it felt? Could he tell what he was doing to her?
"See you at five," he said.
She nodded, then walked back to her office window and waited until he emerged from the building. Instead of getting on his motorcycle he headed toward the Capitol Mall nearby. He didn't strike her as much of a shopper, but then it was almost Christmas, and he did have nieces and nephews.
Denise snapped to attention at the sound of her assistant's voice right next to her. "What, Stacy?"
"I said he's cute." She gestured out the window. "Your Mr. Falcon. I assume he's David and Noah's brother."
"Yes. The middle brother."
"Is he looking to hire someone, too? Wouldn't it be funny if he also found the love of his life like his brothers did?"
"I would say that's a long shot."
Stacy shrugged, her short black hair bouncing a little. At twenty-eight, she was a year younger than Denise, six inches shorter, and a size two to Denise's size twelve. Stacy had been Denise's first hire when she'd started the business, and was being groomed to take over when Denise went ahead with her expansion/franchise plans. They'd also become good friends.
"What's he looking for?" Stacy asked.
"You? Oh, I see. It's not business. It's personal."
Was it personal? Didn't he know anyone else who could play the role of his wife? "We met at the wedding," Denise said, not knowing whether it truly was business or personal. Maybe both?
"You could do worse," Stacy said.
Stacy laughed. "So, are you going out with him?"
"Yes, for dinner tonight."
"I'll bet he's a good kisser." She sighed.
Denise hadn't gotten the chance to find out, even though he'd had opportunities at the wedding, especially when he'd walked her to her car at the end of the night. There was something about him that said he knew how to please, that he gave every experience his all. She'd felt it a month ago, and had been staggered by it again now.
"Let me know," Stacy said over her shoulder as she left the office.
"You'll be the first," Denise answered, but she knew it was a lie.
She'd learned her lesson. This time she wouldn't kiss and tell.
In a quiet restaurant a block from her office, Gideon sipped a beer as he waited for Denise to finish reading his business plan. He admired her all-black, all-business outfit of silk blouse, slim skirt and three-inch heels, which brought her almost eye-to-eye with him. She was exactly as he rememberedand had been trying to forgetfive feet eight inches of perfect proportions, deep green eyes that were too serious most of the time and hair a shiny brown that flowed over her shoulders .
Hair whose roots told another story. A blond story. He'd been wondering for a month why she dyed her blond hair brown. Hiding something? If so, what?
Their server brought their salads. Denise set aside the papers. "So," she said. "You're trying to buy a crosscountry ski resort."
"The Trails. It's on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe." He stabbed a tomato and gave his spiel. "It has hugely underutilized potential, as you can see. Except for during the snow months, it's being used as grazing land. The owners, Ed and Joanne Baker, built fifteen cabins on the property in the mid-sixties. I want to tear down everything and start new, create a year-round recreation sitecross-country skiing still, but also hiking and mountain-bike trails, horseback riding, even wilderness packing and camping, guided trips. And then there would be the accommodations. A spa, of course. Can't not have one these days. Maybe a conference or retreat area. Plus a great restaurant and hotel."
Something flickered in her eyes, but she looked at her salad so fast he couldn't read it.
"How much time do you have?" she asked.
"I have to present my offer to the Bakers in ten days. As you can see, I've got everything lined up except complete financial backing. I've been scrambling for a couple of months since Max Beauregard died. He was going to partner with me on it. I would buy the land and build the trails. He would build the hotel. Did you know Max?"
"I didn't know him personally, but he was pretty young when he died, wasn't he?"
"Thirty-seven. Made a killing in the tech business early on. He was one of my first clients when I started my business, then he spread the word to his friends and associates. Plus he gave me great financial advice through the years. Incredible advice that changed my life."
"So, what happened? Did he die before you signed contracts?"