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The elevator doors opened like welcoming arms as David Wolfe crossed the marble floor of the office building in downtown Philadelphia. Not having to wait for an elevator during the Monday morning rush was always a good sign. It was going to be one of those great days when everything went his way.
When the doors opened again to deposit him on the twenty-first floor and the offices of Keppler, Van Horne Insurance Co., he was already moving.
Life had never been better. After six years of hard work in the prestigious family-owned-and-run firm, he'd had a few subtle hints dropped his way about a vice presidency coming vacant when Damien Macabee retired. David was so ready to be the youngest VP in the company's history.
As he strode to his office, he greeted his assistant, "Morning, Jane."
"Morning, David." Jane was a middle-aged career secretary and probably the closest to a stroke of sheer luck he'd ever had in his career. They respected each other's work ethics, operated as an efficient team and he knew that one day when he was president of Keppler, Van Horne she'd still be his right hand. A partnership like that didn't come along very often.
"I made a couple of changes to your schedule today. The Belvedere group asked if you can make it at four instead of three, so I shuffled some things around."
He scratched his nose. It was itchy with sunburn after a weekend sailing where he'd played doctor with a nurse from Boston who'd kept him too busy to think about sunscreen.
"Oh, and you had three calls from some woman named Gretchen."
"Gretchen leave a last name?"
She smiled thinly. "I don't think she's interested in an insurance policy."
"Oh, that Gretchen." She was a flight attendant he'd had some fun with, but who clearly wanted more from the relationship than he was willing to give. "I told her not to call me at the office." He never gave out his office number to women he hooked up with, but it wasn't hard to track him down. A simple Google search did the trick. "If she calls again, tell her—"
"If she calls again I'll put her through. Maybe you should tell her yourself."
"Right. You're right."
"I take it you didn't get sunburned with Gretchen."
"No. I sailed with a woman named Claire." He chuckled in memory. "She's a lot of fun, in fact—"
Jane was looking over his shoulder, and suddenly interrupted, saying, "No wonder you're going to marry her. You two are perfect for each other."
If Jane was talking about his fiancée, it could only mean one thing, which was confirmed when an older man's voice hailed him. "Ah, David. Do you have a minute?"
He turned to greet the president and CEO of the company, Piers Van Horne. "Sure, Piers. Come on in."
"You're sunburned," the older man remarked. "Where were you and your fiancée off to this weekend?"
David felt Jane's eyes burning into his back like twin laser beams of disapproval. Sure, it wasn't a good idea to tell lies—even little white ones—to the boss, but David was confident his reasoning was sound.
"A little sailing off Cape Cod. The weather was gorgeous."
He led his boss and the CEO of the company into his office, where they settled around the small conference table. David kept his space uncluttered. The only personal touches were his framed MBA degree, his current insurance industry designations and on his desk a photo of him hugging a dark-haired woman. You could only see the back of her head, but David was laughing into the camera and they were clearly having a good time.
Piers gestured to the photograph. "How's that lovely girl of yours?"
David had been talking about his fiancée for months, ever since he'd heard rumors of Macabee's imminent retirement. He knew that Keppler, Van Horne had an unwritten rule. No one got promoted to VP who wasn't married. The VPs were expected to entertain clients both at home and abroad, and for that reason, Piers and his brother who ran the company preferred that the VPs, both male and female, be part of a couple. David figured he'd fudged the lines on a few rule books and he was determined to do the same with this. So, he'd started talking about his fiancée. Casually. He'd come to work on a Monday and talk about the weekend he and his fiancée had spent in New York. Or the quick trip they'd taken to the Caribbean.
"She's wonderful," he answered. "Gives my life meaning. And Helen and the kids?"
They chatted about college decisions and braces and then Piers said, "We'd like to celebrate your engagement. We're a family business and, let's face it, we're all involved in each other's lives, especially at the executive level. We've got a board dinner coming up. I want you to come along and bring your fiancée with you."
For him to be invited to a dinner with the members of the board was a huge honor. It meant he was being looked over by the board members before he was offered the VP spot.
Yes! It was really happening. He was going to be the youngest VP in Keppler, Van Horne's history.
And that's when David got it.
It wouldn't be him under scrutiny. Piers and the board wanted to make sure he was marrying the right kind of woman to be a Keppler, Van Horne VP's spouse.
David considered himself a glass-half-full kind of guy, but right now he felt like that glass had fallen off the table and smashed to pieces on the floor, spilling all his hard work and dreams of promotion with it.
"An engagement dinner?" His voice sounded a little higher-pitched than usual as he frantically tried to think of a way out. "I'm not sure, she's got a pretty hectic schedule, I'll—"
Piers rose and clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Since you two are the guests of honor, we'll work around your schedule. We've got plans for you, son. Big plans."
"Thank you, Piers."
After his boss left, he should have plunged into the day's work. Instead, he tried not to panic and started to think.
He was staring out his office window, watching the pedestrians scurrying like so many ants way down on Arch Street. The hub of the city center was as busy as always as workers scuttled along hot sidewalks before diving into air-conditioned high rises.
Jane entered. "Here are the—" She stopped when she noticed he had his forehead pressed against his office window. It was possible he may have groaned. "What's the matter with you?"
He turned. "Piers and the board want to have an engagement dinner for my fiancée and I. We get to set the date so I can't pretend she's not available."
Jane dropped a stack of papers on his desk with a thump. "If you're looking for sympathy, you came to the wrong person. Didn't I warn you?" She shook her head. "What are you going to do? Break up with the love of your life before the dinner?"
He ignored the sarcasm and shook his head.
She crossed her arms and drilled him with her pissed-off gaze. "How long have you got?"
"Couple of weeks, tops."
"No problem. I'm sure you can find some nice, respectable woman to agree to marry you in a couple of weeks. Should be easy as pie. There's Gretchen, for instance, or… what was her name? Claire?"
"Look, the women I choose to spend time with are not the kind of women Piers and the board would approve of. We both know that." He picked the first file off the desk, then put it back down. "I'm not the marrying kind."
She snorted, but she didn't know his past and he had no intention of sharing the most humiliating interlude in his life. If she wanted to peg him as a player who was having too much fun to get serious, which was essentially true anyway, then that was fine with him.
He made the decision then and there. "You're half-right.
I'm going to find a woman to pose as my fiancée for a couple of months. All I need is a nice, decent woman. She'll meet the board and then after I get the promotion, we'll break up, faster than you can say irreconcilable differences. If I'm up-front about it, nobody will get hurt. How difficult can it be?"
"Let me count the ways. David, this is a terrible idea."
"It's only for a couple of months. All I have to do is find a nice woman."
"Do you know any nice women?"
He scratched his itchy nose again. "Yes. Lots. But none are corporate-spouse material." He glanced at the woman who had almost as much riding on his promotion as he did. "I don't suppose you know anyone?"
"All the women I know are too mature for you. And that includes my twenty-year-old nieces."
He'd been charming women for more years than he could count. He hiked a hip onto his desk, certain he could pull this off. "Care to make a small wager on my chances?"
"What is a guy like you, who loves risk so much, doing working in insurance?"
"Insurance is all about odds, Jane, you know that. The client pays a small premium in case catastrophe hits, the insurance company essentially bets that it won't and keeps the money. Risk, safety, reward—it's all tied up. And this risk? I think I can safely take."
Jane opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. "You are so going to hell."
Chelsea Hammond was in the mother of bad moods when she met her friend Sarah Wolfe for a drink after work at a trendy restaurant in Old City. Usually, she loved being here near the river and in the center of the city's history, but not today. It was all just too cute and seemed full of annoying people. Summertime tourists, mostly, she suspected, here to see the Liberty Bell and eat cheesesteak.
William Penn himself seemed to disapprove of her bringing her bad mood into his space. He hulked over her and his great statued hand seemed to be wagging reprovingly down at her.
She should have canceled her drink with Sarah and gone home to sulk. But Sarah was her oldest friend. They'd grown up in houses that faced each other and were the same age. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that their mothers practically shoved them at each other, they'd ended up friends.
As she approached the restaurant she saw that Sarah was already there. Her old friend was wearing one of her tough female lawyer power suits, holding a briefcase in one hand and yelling at someone on a cell phone she held in her other hand. Chelsea sincerely pitied whoever was on the other end of that call.
Their different personalities were represented by their respective clothing choices. Chelsea was snugged into well-worn jeans she'd bought in Paris and her blue-and-green top was an impulse purchase from a weekend trip to fashion-forward Barcelona, as were the leather boots on her feet. Her silver jewelry was all flea-market finds. If her passion was cooking, fashion was a rival love.
As she approached, Sarah caught sight of her and her stern expression vanished in an impish grin. "Okay, yeah. We don't want to go back to court, either. Uh-huh. Good. Talk to him and get back to me." Then she sighed. "Yes, we're still on for dinner."
And she flipped her phone shut without so much as a goodbye. "Cretin," she said, then dropped the phone in her bag and leaned over, opening her arms for a hug. "How you doing?"
"Cretin is the word of the day," Chelsea affirmed, hugging her old friend.
They walked into the bar section and settled at a table. Sarah ordered a martini and Chelsea asked for a Pernod.
"You are so French now, it's weird," Sarah said when the drinks arrived and Chelsea poured a little water into the Pernod, clouding it.
"I guess you're right. I got used to Pernod when I was living in Paris. Now I'm hooked."
She pointed at her friend's glass, olives fat and smug in the bottom. "And I know that your poor date tonight won't get far."
"You never drink before you have sex with a guy the first time. It was always your rule and I'm betting you haven't changed."
Sarah's teeth flashed in the grin that Chelsea privately thought she should show more often. It revealed her soft, fun-loving side. "We know each other way too well. I missed you. I'm so glad you're back." They toasted each other.
"I missed you."
"So, who's the cretin in your life?"
"My boss. Fabulous at yelling and insulting staff. Which you might forgive him for if he was a genius restaurateur, but he treats food as badly as he treats his employees." She wasn't sure which aspect of her boss's behavior irked her more. "He acts all Gordon Ramsay but he cooks like a caveman who just discovered fire."
"Not a cretin. A troglodyte."
"Exactly. I hate my job. I hate my boss." She dropped her head in her hand and sighed. "Working as a sous chef in a restaurant was the only job I could find when I came home. It's been three weeks of hell."
"Want to sue your boss for harassment?"
She snorted. "No. It's not only me he harasses, it's everyone. I don't even want the job. I want to start my own catering company, but with no capital and no kitchen it's hopeless." And with her debts from training in Paris, as well as the lowly sum she was now earning, it was going to be quite some time before she could open her own shop.
"Don't say that. Of course it's not hopeless."
Chelsea was in no mood for a pep talk. "Shut up. I don't want a rah-rah speech. I want to whine. So, to recap, my job's crap, my boss is crap and oh, yeah, my sublet is about to expire. I'm twenty-eight and all I have is a talent I can't afford to use, cooking equipment I have no kitchen for and a Paris wardrobe. I am such a loser."
"You are not. Look at you. You're gorgeous. I'd kill for your body, men fall all over themselves for you." She squinted at Chelsea's chest. "You were such a late bloomer. It's like you got to college and suddenly sprouted boobs."
"So, work sucks. You've only been home a few weeks. Give yourself a break."
"I guess." She sipped the licorice-flavored liqueur reflectively. She'd had such great plans to open her own catering firm. She knew she had the drive, the talent and the recipes. What she didn't have was capital. Damn, reality sucked.
"I don't even need much money. A decent kitchen would do me to start. I'd complain about the hot plate and bar fridge in my sublet, except that soon I'll be homeless."
"But you went to Paris! To Le Cordon Bleu. It's the dream of a lifetime."