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Four Weeks Later.
"Whose idea was it to install a kitchen in the office?" Tess York inquired, the words slightly muffled by a massive bite of eggs Benedict.
Olivia Winston flipped a yellow dish towel over her shoulder and walked her petite, though incredibly curvaceous, frame over to the table with the grace of a movie star. "Ah, that would be me."
"Well, you're a genius, kid."
Beneath a rim of shaggy brown bangs, Olivia's gold eyes sparkled. "This I know."
Tess laughed at her partner's mock display of arrogance, her long mass of red curls hopping about her back like marionettes. "All I want to know is where my mimosa is."
"No drinking before ten o'clock." Mary Kelley sat across from Tess, her wavy blond hair falling about her face as she absentmindedly drew slash marks through the hollandaise with her fork. "Unless disaster strikes."
"I'd say a two-week dry spell qualifies," Tess said slyly, making Olivia laugh.
"It's August." Mary looked from one of her partners to the other. "We're always a little slow at the end of the summer."
"Slow, sure," Olivia retorted, holding a piece of perfectly cooked bacon up like a white flag. "But we're bordering on drought."
Barring these two weeks in August, No Ring Required was normally buzzing with activity. The premier wife-for-hire company in the Midwest had zero competition and one hell of a brilliant staff. With Mary's creativity and business sense, Olivia's culinary skill and Tess's wise budgeting and decorating style, NRR was a highly successful company. The problem, Mary had to admit, was that all three of them were such intense workaholics who cared nothing for a private life that they had no idea what to do with themselves on their downtime. And each time the end of summer came aknocking, the women panicked in their own ways.
"Well," Mary continued, putting down her fork and dropping her napkin over an untouched plate of food.
"Clearly this is no time to be picky about clients."
"Yeah, Olivia," Tess murmured with a grin.
Olivia raised her brows questioningly. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"I think she's referring to your problem with trust-fund clients," Mary offered, laughing when Tess cleared her throat loudly.
Olivia scowled, then reached down and grabbed Mary's plate. "I don't like them, and nothing's going to change that. Trust-funders are boorish, brainless, self-obsessed jerks, who think they not only own the world, but everyone else along with it."
Tess flashed Mary a grin. "Tell us how you really feel."
"Yes," Mary agreed. "I'm not entirely clear on your opinion regarding the rich."
As her partners chuckled, Olivia sighed. "It's not the rich, it's- Oh, forget it." Clearly looking for a way to end the current conversation, Olivia glared at Mary's untouched plate. "Mary, you're not on a diet, are you?"
"What?" Mary said, sobering.
Olivia tossed her an assessing glance before she turned and sashayed back to her beloved Viking range.
"You know that I feel as though diets are a total affront to all those in the culinary world."
"I do know that."
"Besides, there's not a grapefruit or bowl of cabbage soup in my fridge, I'm afraid."
As a shot of nerves zipped through her, Mary shook her head. "No diet, Olivia. I guess I'm just not very hungry."
Tess paused long enough to swallow. "As much as I hate to side with Olivia, that's been going on for a while now."
"Yep," Olivia agreed. "And, well," Tess began awkwardly, "we're here if...well, you know."
Mary nodded and forced a smile. "I know." Among the three of them, talking about business was an easy, playful and spirited adventure, but when the conversation turned to anything emotional or personal, the women of NRR seemed to transform into the Stooges-a bumbling, uneasy mess. From the inception of No Ring Required there had been a sort of unspoken rule between the partners to keep personal matters to themselves. Odd, and perhaps against every female cliché, for three women to abstain from discussion about history and feelings, but there it was.
"So, what's on the agenda today, ladies?" Tess asked, pushing away from the table and a very clean plate.
"I have a meeting with a potential client," Mary informed them, her gaze drifting over to the clock on the wall. Okay, five minutes were up. The test was done. The zip of nerves from a moment ago turned into a pulse-pounding elephant-sitting-on-her-chest type of situation.
"Maybe not such a dry spell after all," Olivia remarked gaily, her good mood returning. "I also have a client coming in at two whose fiancée ditched him a week before the wedding and he wants help with what he referred to as a "screw her" dinner party."
Tess laughed. "Should be fun."
Mary hardly heard them as the muscles in her legs tensed painfully, as though she was on the verge of a charley horse. The pregnancy test was hidden behind fifty or so rolls of the insanely soft Charmin Ultra that Olivia insisted on buying. Would there be one line or two? One line or two?
"Big name or big business for you?" Tess asked, staring at Mary expectantly.
"Sounds great." Olivia set her own full plate down beside Tess, then promptly rearranged her silverware, napkin and water glass to their proper places, now ready to partake in her own breakfast.
Her heart slamming against her ribs, Mary stood and grabbed her purse. "I just have to hit the little girl's room and then I'll be on my way."
"Good luck," Olivia called.
Tess nodded. "Yeah, good luck, kid."
If they only knew the double meaning in her good wishes, Mary thought, each step toward the bathroom feeling as though she was walking in quicksand. She had no idea what she wanted to see when she tossed aside all that toilet paper and pulled out the test. If it was positive, she'd have to make plans to get away from Minneapolis eventually, away from Ethan-that man would never let her walk away with his child. If it was negative, her father's life was over. She felt a sickly sour feeling in her stomach. She had lives to protect, and she wasn't altogether sure how capable she was.
She locked the door behind her, sat on the floor and opened the cabinets under the sink. The mountain of white rolls pushed aside easily as she reached inside and felt for the thin stick. Her pulse pounded in her ears. God, what did she want here?
Her fingers closed around the test and she yanked it back. With one heavy exhale she stared at the results.
It was three twenty-seven and Ethan Curtis was growing more impatient by the second.
He wasn't used to being kept waiting. People arrived early for meetings with him, fifteen to thirty minutes on average. They would sit in his massive lobby until he was ready to see them. For six years it had been this way. He knew his employees thought he was an arrogant ass. He liked it that way.
He punched the intercom button. "Marylyn, when Miss Kelley arrives, have her join me on the roof."
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line. Marylyn had never heard such a request, but she recovered quickly. "Yes, sir. Of course."
Ethan glanced at the clock. Three thirty-one. Where the hell was she? He stalked over to the elevator and stabbed the button. Mary Kelley was a strong-willed, business-first, no-nonsense type of person-not unlike himself. But if she worked for him, she'd be fired by now.
He was not generally a nervous man. He didn't pace, worry or stress before a deal was done. If a client didn't perform or comply the way he wanted them to, he finessed the situation, made it work to his advantage. However, as he rode his private elevator the short distance to the roof, his gut continued to contract painfully, just like it had the day his father had informed him that his mother had taken up with a new man and wasn't coming back.
Ethan walked out of the elevator and onto the rooftop, for which he had hired a world-renowned landscape architect and two botanists to transform into his escape three years ago. The courtyard opened to a Moroccan-tiled fountain and several ancient sculptures, while to the left was a sun terrace, complete with bar and circular planters filled with flax, pyracantha and perennials to keep the urban scene colorful year-round. Red bougainvillea covered several of the arched trellises, and cherry trees flanked the central walkway. It was a strange mixture of ease and exotic, and it suited Ethan perfectly.
He sensed her, smelled her, before he saw her. Fresh, soapy-yes, he remembered. The lower half of him contracted as his mind played the ever-present film of those nights in July over again. Ethan saw himself lying on top of her, buried deep inside of her, his mouth on hers as he breathed in her scent and she moaned and writhed like a wildcat.
He glanced over his shoulder to see her walking toward him. She was average height, average build, but Mary Kelley possessed two things that would make any man stop dead in his tracks and stare. Long, toned, sexy-as-hell legs that he could practically feel wrapped around his waist at this moment, and pale blue eyes that turned up at the corners, like a cat's. "You're late."
She didn't respond. "What's all this, Mr. Curtis?" she said, looking around the garden seemingly unimpressed. "Your bat cave?"
As well as the legs and the eyes, she also had a sharp tongue. "A sanctuary."
Her brows drew together as she sat in the chair opposite him, the skirt of her pale blue Chanel suit sliding upward to just a few inches above her knees. The late-afternoon sun hit her full force, her blond hair appearing almost white. "And what do you need sanctuary from? All the people you've screwed over this week?"
Yes, a very sharp tongue, though he remembered that it could also be soft and wet. "You think I thrive on making life difficult for others?"
"I think it may be your life's blood."
There was no disputing the fact that she disliked him. No, he could see that clearly. What he couldn't make out from her attitude was if she was carrying his child or not, and that was the one thing he desperately wanted to know.
He walked over to the bar. "Drink?"
She nodded. "Thank you."
"Anything in particular? Martini, soda?" That would give him his answer.
"Something cold would be nice. It's pretty warm."
"You're going to make me work for this, aren't you?"
"Would you really appreciate it any other way?" she said brusquely.
"Lemonade would be great if you have it. I'm driving."
"Do you think you deserve an easy answer, Mr. Curtis?" she interrupted coldly. "Think back to how we got here."
He had done nothing but, for the past four weeks, though not in the same way as she, clearly. "We made an agreement."
She laughed bitterly. "Is that what you'd call it? You blackmailed me and I gave in. Maybe gave up is a better way to put it."
Ethan abandoned the drinks and went to stand before her. Her cat eyes were blazing hatred, and her claws were out, but he didn't give a damn if she was angry. He wanted one thing and one thing only, and he would go to any lengths necessary to get it.
"Are you pregnant?" he asked bluntly.
It took her a moment to answer. Several emotions crossed her face, and her breathing seemed shallow and slightly labored before she finally nodded. "Yes."
Ethan turned away, his heart pounding like a jack-hammer. He'd wanted this but had never believed it possible. He had no idea how to react.
"You'll drop all charges against my father," Mary said, her tone nonemotional.
He stood there, his back to her. "Of course."
"And you won't interfere in my life until the baby is born."
He opened his mouth to agree, then paused. He turned to face her again. "I don't know if can do that."
"That was our agreement," Mary countered, coming to her feet, her gaze fierce. "Do you not even have one ounce of honor in your blood, Mr. Curtis? Where the hell did you grow up, under a rock?"
She didn't know where he came from, couldn't know, but her words struck him hard and he frowned. "I will keep my word."