Former Marine MacArthur Patton has made a small fortune on top-secret government contracts and black-ops missions, but his new assignment involves something more dangerous—marriage.
Well, fake marriage anyway.
To keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, Mac has to secure a fiancée. A sweet, demure, compliant fiancée to serve as his arm candy for a few weeks while he completes the covert arms deal in Mexico. His sister claims to know just the woman, and sends her best friend to play the role.
"Sweet" and "demure" aren't in Kelli Landers's repertoire. A badass veterinarian who neuters big dogs and bigger men on a regular basis, she can't wait to bring Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Detached to his knees. Her longtime crush on the commitment-phobe makes her plan to seduce him even sweeter.
Love wasn't part of the plan, but the deeper Mac and Kelli fall into their ruse, the more danger they attract, until more than just their hearts are on the line…
Each book in the Front and Center series is a standalone, full-length story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1 Marine for Hire
Book #2 Fiancee for Hire
Book #3 Best Man for Hire
Book #4 Protector for Hire
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Fiancee for Hire
Front and Center
By Tawna Fenske, Heather Howland, Kari Olson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Tawna Fenske
All rights reserved.
Kelli Landers inked her signature on the prescription form, carefully dotting the i with a heart the way she'd done since learning to spell her name at age four. She blew a corkscrew blond curl off her forehead as she tucked the pen into the breast pocket of her pink scrubs.
"Here you go," she chirped, her voice always a few octaves higher than she wished. She handed the form to a man who had to reach down to grab it, given he was a foot taller than her.
The man blinked. "How the hell did you do that?"
"Wrestle Rocco to the ground when he was snarling and fighting like that? He weighs a hundred and fifty-five pounds."
"A hundred and sixty-five, actually, which is ten pounds heavier than I'd like to see in an Italian mastiff of his build." Kelli paused to jot a few words on a notepad beside the clinic's display of Neuticles. She could feel the mastiff's owner staring, and wondered if he was looking at her or at the impressively large prosthetic dog testicles in the photo. She tore off the paper and handed it to him. "Here's the name of brand of dog food I recommend for trimming a few extra pounds. That and a little exercise."
"Exercise," the man repeated, eyeing Kelli up and down. "You look like you work out."
"Huh." He scratched his beard and nodded toward the Neuticles display. "Ever put the Saint Bernard ones on a Chihuahua?"
"Want to grab a bite to eat sometime?"
"No, thank you." She offered her sweetest smile, but the mask was wearing thin.
The man leaned close, not getting the message. He gave her a lecherous wink and touched her arm. "A little spitfire like you — how about we just get it on?"
Kelli jerked back, cherubic smile faltering. "I may look like a Cabbage Patch doll, but you should know I have a pump-action shotgun, a black belt in karate, and a vibrator that doubles as a jackhammer," she replied, her voice still soft and bright. "If you're not out of my office in ten seconds, I will demonstrate all three on you, starting from the bottom of the list and working my way up."
The man blinked, opening and closing his mouth like a hooked fish. Without a word, he turned and walked out, his horselike dog dragging him through the doors of the vet clinic. Kelli took a halfhearted swipe at the dog slobber on her scrubs, then gave up as the front door chimed again.
She smiled with relief as her best friend strolled through sans dogs, cats, or kids.
"Hey, girl!" Kelli greeted, dodging Sheri Patton's intended hug. "Might want to take a rain check on that. I'm covered in slobber."
"That makes two of us," Sheri said, hugging her anyway. "There's so much slobber on my shirt I had to wring it out in the parking lot."
"Are the twins teething, or is Sam drooling on your tits again?"
"Yes," Sheri replied, affirmative on both counts. "The boys are actually with Sam and my brother while I run a few errands."
"Mmm, speaking of drooling." Kelli heaved a dramatic sigh. "Which brother?"
"Mac. He's back from his latest top-secret mission and en route to another."
"Mr. Tall, Dark, and Completely-Detached-from-Humankind." Kelli grinned. "My dream man."
Sheri rolled her eyes. "Your dream man has been pissing me off."
"Sounds par for the course. Come on, you can tell me whatever Mac's done to piss you off while I neuter Mr. Mittens."
"Please tell me that's a cat and not last night's date," Sheri said, following her into the back room.
"Don't be silly. I neutered last night's date right after dessert."
Kelli began scrubbing up as Sheri parked herself as far from the surgical table as possible.
"I was just about to operate when a guy came in needing a sticker pulled from his dog's paw, so I have to get this neuter done before the anesthesia wears off," Kelli said. "We can talk while I work."
Sheri cocked her head and studied the cat. "He looks like a frat boy after an all-nighter in a karaoke bar."
"He'll be singing soprano in about ninety seconds." Kelli tugged on a fresh pair of gloves and got to work plucking fur from the cat's groin. "So, your brother —" she prompted, maneuvering deftly around the cat's fuzzy little scrotum.
"Right," Sheri said, wincing. "Are you giving that cat a bikini wax?"
"We pluck, rather than shave cat scrotums for neutering. They're too prone to razor burn. So your brother —"
"Right, sorry," she said as Kelli began swabbing the cat's love spuds with disinfectant. "That's actually what I came here to talk about. You know how you've lusted after Mac since — well, um, puberty?"
"Of course. Your brother is hot."
"And you know how he's barely aware you exist?"
Kelli picked up her scalpel and quirked an eyebrow at Sheri. "Are you planning to make a point here?"
"Right. Yes, definitely." Sheri cleared her throat as Kelli poised her scalpel for the first incision. "Will you marry my brother?"
Kelli blinked, then slid her scalpel through the cat's scrotum. "This is always how I imagined my first marriage proposal."
"I'm serious," Sheri said as Kelli focused on the incision. "Well, sorta. See, Mac has this business deal. And he needs a fiancÃ(c)e to pull it off. A fake fiancÃ(c)e. That's where you come in."
Kelli slid the cat's testicles out, marveling for the millionth time that they were the exact size and color of a pair of great northern beans. Maybe she should make white chili for dinner.
"What does Mac's top-secret military bullshit have to do with marriage?"
"He can't tell me much," Sheri said, looking away as Kelli began tugging the testicle to break down the ligament. "That's the nature of top-secret military bullshit, as you put it."
"I'm sure that's what it says in the contract."
"Right. Anyway, here's what I know. Mac told a fib to land a deal. He said he has a fiancée, and now he needs to produce one quickly so he can close the deal. You'd need to spend a couple weeks in Todos Santos, Mexico. You'd attend a few functions, play the doting bride-to-be, collect a ridiculous amount of money for your trouble, and say good-bye at the end of it."
Kelli felt her heart kick up a notch. "Todos Santos?"
"You know it?"
She nodded, feeling a bubble of excitement low in her belly. "They've got an enormous feral cat colony. I've always wanted to do a spay-and-neuter clinic there."
"I even applied for the permits and made contact with some volunteers over there who could assist. I just never had the time or the money or — "
"Money's no object with Mac," Sheri said, waving a dismissive hand. "He's a private contractor with a jillion government contracts and endless military resources. None of us are exactly sure what he does, but it's very lucrative."
"He's paying me to marry him?"
"To pretend to marry him. You'd be well compensated for your time if you're willing to play the fiancée role for a few weeks. You just need to be compliant, soft-spoken, beautiful, sweet, demure, and drama-free."
Kelli raised an eyebrow. "You're aware you just gave a complete list of antonyms for my personality."
"Well, you are beautiful."
"Thanks. It all sounds so romantic," she deadpanned. "Will Mac throw in a ride on a white stallion before we trot into the sunset to make beautiful babies and live happily ever after?"
"You're allergic to horses, afraid of babies, and horrified by commitment."
"Do I at least get to bang your brother?"
Sheri shrugged. "That's up to you, I guess. And Mac. He made it clear this is strictly professional."
Kelli looked down at the unconscious cat and frowned. "Something tells me your brother and I have different notions of professional. What aren't you telling me?"
Sheri was quiet a moment, then shrugged. "I think Mac is vaguely aware you exist, but only as the pigtailed friend of his baby sister. He kinda hasn't been around much since we were kids."
"Absence makes the crotch grow fonder."
"For you, maybe. As you pointed out, he's a little detached from humanity. He's never really noticed you."
"Thanks for the reminder."
"Right. But what do men who don't know you generally assume?"
Kelli maneuvered her hemostat in a figure eight to tie off the spermatic cord. "That I'm tiny, sweet, docile, perky, quiet, and no trouble at all."
"Exactly. It's not 'til they get to know you a little that they realize you're a sharp-tongued, badass, sex maniac."
"That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all week." Kelli beamed. "So let me get this straight — you're siccing me on Mac?"
"My brother has no qualms about meddling in my life. Doesn't it seem fair I should meddle in his?"
Kelli smiled, recalling Mac's under-the-table hiring of a marine sniper to be Sheri's nanny. That had worked out well enough in the long run, with Sheri and the manny now engaged.
But a fake fiancée?
The thought of seducing MacArthur was enough to leave Kelli tingling. She'd been lusting after him forever, egged on by the challenge of his complete oblivion to her existence and the fact that Mac was the only person on earth who seemed more incapable than she did of handling any sort of long-term commitment.
Commitment leads to love, which leads to attachment, which leads to abandonment, which leads to —
"So Mac is expecting sweet, calm, and pliable fiancée?"
Sheri nodded. "And instead we send him you."
Kelli gave her most angelic smile and sliced off the cat's testicles. "I'm in."
* * *
Mac arranged the meeting for nine p.m. on a stretch of beach his sister assured him was secluded.
Even so, he'd spent an hour surveying the area spanning a thousand yards in each direction. Then he devoted an hour to planting surveillance equipment around the perimeter, followed by two hours performing a background check on Kelli Landers.
He'd met Kelli before, of course. He remembered her mostly as the little blonde who'd hung out with his sister when they were growing up. Military ops and work missions had kept him out of the country so much the last ten years that he hadn't been around her much in adulthood. He'd run into her a few times when he visited Sheri, but hadn't made much effort to get to know her.
"You are the biggest dumbass when it comes to human relationships," Sheri had told him when he admitted all that over dessert at her place the night before. She'd shaken her head with a sad sort of fondness and slugged him in the shoulder. "You keep everyone at arm's length so emotions don't get in the way of your obsessive need to protect everyone."
Mac had only shrugged and stood to go, stooping down to kiss the top of her head. "Make sure you lock the door behind me."
Not that there was anything inaccurate about his sister's observation. It was true; he wasn't too keen on forming connections with anyone. He'd been that way forever. For years.
Thirty-one years, two months, and sixty-five days.
Mac swallowed back the memory and double-checked the time. Since that day, he'd poured everything he had into making sure the bad guys never won again. At least not on his watch.
Mac heard footsteps in the sand and turned. He reached automatically to the pistol at his side, but his hand froze when he saw her. She floated slowly down the beach toward him, her blond curls fluttering on the night breeze. She wore a simple pink sundress with a ruffled hem and a scooped neck that showed delicate curves. Her limbs were bare and slender, and the moonlight revealed a soft spray of freckles across her nose. Mac smelled jasmine on the wind and resisted the urge to sigh.
Sweet, Mac decided. Everything about her seems sweet.
She smiled at him, and Mac felt an unfamiliar twist in his gut. He blamed it on the shrimp salad he'd had for dinner as he stepped forward greet her. She drifted toward him, stopping scant inches away. She was invading his personal space, but Mac didn't move back. Instead, he held out his hand.
"Ms. Landers? It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Meet?" She raised an eyebrow at him as she tucked her small hand in his and gave a ladylike shake. "We've met at least a hundred times, Mac. You put a Band-Aid on my knee when I was ten and you were this big, cool high schooler whose kid sister's friend tripped while chasing boys on the playground."
"Of course," he said, his brain offering up no recollection of the Band-Aid but doing an impressive job resisting the urge to let his eyes stray to her cleavage. "But we've never interacted under professional circumstances related to the negotiation of a covert business deal pertaining to international security."
"Right," she said, blinking up at him with eyes so startlingly blue they were almost turquoise. Mac lost his breath for a moment and struggled to collect his thoughts.
"I almost didn't see you dressed in all black," she said. "I don't think I've ever seen you wear color."
"I prefer black."
"And sunglasses? In the dark?"
"The lenses have a special coating that allows me to see at night." He cleared his throat, not entirely sure how they'd ended up discussing his fashion choices, but wanting to get back to more comfortable territory. Like arms trading and terrorism. "Let's talk about the business deal. You've signed the confidentiality waiver?"
She slipped a hand into a pocket on the sundress, and Mac stepped back, braced for her to draw a weapon. Instead, she produced a folded piece of paper and handed it to him.
"The waiver," she said, eyeing him oddly as he took the form from her. His fingertips grazed the back of her knuckles, and he felt a sharp sizzle of electricity. He drew his hand back and unfolded the paper. He studied it a moment, then nodded and looked up at her.
"Your background check was clear. Let's walk for a bit, shall we?"
Kelli shrugged, kicked off her flowery sandals, and crooked a dainty finger under the straps. She hooked her arm through his and beamed up at him. "Lead the way."
Startled by the unexpected physical contact, Mac fought the swell of lust surging through him. His brain processed her words, mulling whether submissiveness or curiosity prompted the statement. A submissive nature was ideal for this mission, but part of him hoped for curiosity. There was a quiet wisdom about her. Certainly everything he'd researched about her academic and professional achievements convinced him she was exceptionally intelligent.
You're overthinking again, Mac warned himself as he turned and began walking along the beach with Kelli's arm tucked in his. As she fell into step beside him, Mac began to speak.
"As Sheri undoubtedly told you, the mission will take place in Todos Santos, Mexico. I understand you've been?"
She nodded, her hair brushing his shoulder through his short-sleeved shirt. "A couple times for vacation," she said. "I've always wanted to return to head up a spay-neuter clinic."
"Yes, my sister mentioned that." He cleared his throat. "I also understand you speak Spanish fairly well?"
"I minored in it as an undergrad before veterinary school."
He nodded. "Your limited duties would allow you the freedom to pursue the veterinary effort."
"Right." Kelli kicked her bare foot through the sand, and Mac noticed her toenails were painted a pale shell pink. "About those duties," she said. "What can you tell me about the mission?"
She said the word with air quotes, a detail Mac found both endearing and irritating. "Have you heard the name Pedro Ubano Trujillo Zapata?" he asked carefully.
"No. Though I appreciate the fact that his initials spell PUTZ."
"You'll want to refrain from pointing that out if you meet him." Mac stopped speaking as he steered her around a gnarly piece of driftwood. "Pedro is one of the most notorious crime bosses in Mexico. Gangs, drugs, arms deals — he's got a hand in all of it. The latter is of a particular interest to the U.S. military."
"Arms deals?" she repeated, sounding leery.
"The United States government is dedicated to keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of terrorists," he said. "Zapata has a massive cache of stolen weapons he's preparing to sell to the highest bidder. The U.S. military has contracted with me to serve as one of those bidders. There's also another man vying for the weapons. Have you heard the name of Faouzi Ahmed Al-Zawahiri?"
"That sounds familiar. Was he the guy in that CNN special about the FBI's most wanted terrorists?"
Excerpted from Fiancee for Hire by Tawna Fenske, Heather Howland, Kari Olson. Copyright © 2014 Tawna Fenske. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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