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HALLIE BENNETT had been selling shoes for exactly one
month. One long, mind-numbing month working solo at the exclusive little shoe shop in London's fashionable Chelsea, and she really didn't think she'd last another. Back in the storeroom she'd sorted every pair of shoes by designer, then model and finally by size. Out here on the shop floor she'd arranged the stock by colour and within the colours, by function. Dusting and vacuuming? Done. Serving customers? Not yet but, hey, it was only midday.
Hallie picked up the nearest shoe, a pretty leopardprint open-toed sandal with an onyx heel, and tried to figure out why anyone would actually pay three hundred and seventy-five pounds for a pair of them. She dangled it from her fingertips, turned it this way and that before finally balancing it on her palm.
"So what do you think, shoe? Are we going to cram a sweet size six like you onto a size eight foot today?"
A quick jiggle made the shoe nod. "I think so too but what can I do? They never listen. These women wouldn't be caught dead in a size eight shoe. Now if they were men it'd be different. As far as men are concerned, the bigger the better." The door to the shop opened, the bell tinkled, and Hallie hurriedly set the shoe back on its pedestal and turned around.
"Darling, what a thoroughly daunting shop! I swear, until I saw you talking to that shoe I didn't dare come in."
The woman who had spoken was a study in contradictions. Her clothes were pure glamour, and her figure was a triumph over nature considering that she had to be in her late fifties. But her wrinkles were unironed, her hair was grey, and her "darling' had been warm, possibly even genuine.
"Come on in," said Hallie with a smile. "Look around. Trust me, they never talk back."
"Oh, you're an Australian!" said the woman, clearly delighted with the notion. "I love Australian accents. Such marvellous vowel sounds."
Hallie's smile widened, and she spared a glance for the woman's companion as he followed her into the shop, a glance that automatically upgraded to a stare because, frankly, she couldn't help it.
As far as women's fashion accessories went, he was spectacular. A black-haired, cobalt-eyed, dangerouslooking toy who no doubt warned you outright not to bother playing with him if you didn't like his rules. He was like a Hermès handbag; women saw and women wanted, even though they knew the price was going to be astronomical. And then he spoke.
"She needs a pair of shoes," he said in a deep baritone that was utterly sexy. "Something more appropriate for a woman her age."
"You're new at this, aren't you?" muttered Hallie before turning to stare down at the woman's shoes, a stylish pair of Ferragamo man-eaters with a four-inch heel. They were a perfect fit for the woman's perfectly manicured size-six feet. They were fire-engine red. "There is nothing wrong with those shoes," said Hallie reverently. "Those shoes are gorgeous!"
"Thank you, dear," said the woman. "Why a woman turns fifty and all of a sudden certain people to whom she gave birth start thinking she should be wearing orthopaedic shoes is completely beyond me." The woman seemed to age ten years as wrinkles creased and unshed tears leached even more colour from eyes that would have once been a bright sparkling blue. "Your father would have loved these shoes!"
Ah. It was all starting to make sense. He of the indigo glare was the woman's son and right now he was in big trouble. "Right," said Hallie brightly. "Well, I'll just be over by the counter if you need me."
He moved fast, blocking her escape. "Don't even think of leaving me alone with this woman. Give her some shoes to try on. Anything!" He picked up the open-toed leopard-print sandal. "These!"
"An excellent choice,"she said, deftly plucking it from his hand. "And a steal at only three hundred and seventyfive pounds. Maybe your mother would like two pairs?"
His eyes narrowed. Hallie smiled back. "If only I had something to look forward to," said the woman with a sigh that was pure theatre as she sat on the black leather sofa and slipped off her shoes. "Grandchildren, for instance. I need grandchildren."
"Everyone needs something," said her son, looking not at his mother but at her. "What do you need?"
"Another job," said Hallie, kneeling to fit the sandals. "This one's driving me nuts." She sat back on her heels and surveyed the sandals. "They fit you beautifully."
"They do, don't they?"
"How do you feel about travel?" he asked her while his mother preened.
"Travel is my middle name."
"And your first name?"
"Hallie. Hallie Bennett."
"Nicholas Cooper," he said and gestured towards the woman. "My mother, Clea."
"Pleased to meet you," said Clea, her handshake warm and surprisingly firm. "Nicky, she's darling! She's perfect! You need a wife; you said so this morning. I think we've just found her."
"Wife?" said Hallie. Wife? That'd teach her to shake hands with strangers. Nicholas Cooper's smile was lazy. His mother's was hopeful. Probably they were both mad.
"He's loaded," said Clea encouragingly. "Well, yes." She could see that from the way he dressed. He was also far too amused for his own good. "But is he creative?"
"You should see his tax return."
"I don't know, Clea. I think I prefer my men a little less
" What? She slid Nicholas Cooper another quick glance. Sexy? Wild? Gorgeous? "Dark," she came up with finally. "I prefer blonds."
"Well, he's not a blond," conceded Clea, "but look at his feet."
He wore hand-stitched Italian leather lace-ups. Size twelve. Wide.
"Of course, as his mother I can't let you marry him unless you're compatible, so maybe you should just kiss him and find out."
"What? Now? Ah, Clea, I really don't think"
"Don't argue with your future mother-in-law, dear. It's bad form."
"No, really, I can't. It's not that, er, Nicky doesn't have a lot going for him"
"Thanks," he said dryly. "You can call me Nick."
"Because clearly he does. It's just that, well
" She cast about for a reason to resist. Any reason. Yes, that would do. It wasn't quite the truth, but little white lies were allowed in sticky situations, right? "I wouldn't be very good wife material right now. I have a broken heart."
"Oh, Hallie, I'm so sorry," said Clea in a hushed voice. "What happened?"
"It was terrible," she murmured. "I try not to think of it."
Clea waited expectantly.
Obviously she was going to have to think of something. Hallie leaned forward and tried to look suitably woebegone. "He was secretly in love with his football coach the whole time we were together!"
"The cad!" said Clea. "Was he blond?" said Nick. "I'm betting he was blond."He was standing beside her, close, very close, and she was kneeling there, her gaze directly level with
"Are you sure you're not interested?" asked Clea.
Hallie nodded vigorously and dropped her gaze, looking for carpet and finding feet. Big feet. "It's this job," she muttered, more to herself than anyone else. Probably he was bluffing. Probably he had regular size-eight feet tucked into those enormous shoes. Her hand shot out of its own accord, spanning the soft leather of his shoe, testing the fit for width and finding it tight. Right. She pressed her thumb down and felt for toes, found them at the very top of the shoe. "Phew!" She felt breathless. "It's a tight fit."
"Always," he said, amusement dancing in his eyes. "But I'm used to it."
Hallie smiled weakly and scrambled to her feet as warmth spread rapidly through her cheeks. It was his eyes. His voice. Possibly his feet. Any one of them was a guaranteed temptation, but all three together? No wonder she was blushing.
"What my mother meant to say was that I need someone to pretend to be my wife for a week. Next week to be precise. In Hong Kong. You'd be reimbursed of course. Say, five thousand the week, all expenses covered?"
"Five thousand pounds? For a week's work?" There had to be a catch. "And what exactly would I have to do to earn that five thousand pounds?"
"Share a room with me, but not a bed, which is fortunate considering your broken heart."
Was he laughing at her? "What else would I have to do?"
"Socialize with my clients; act like my wife."
"Could you be a little more specific?"
"Nope. Just do whatever it is wives do. I've never had one; I wouldn't know."
"I've never been one. I wouldn't know either."
"Perfect," said Clea, bright-eyed. "I'm believing it already. Of course if the kiss isn't convincing it's just not going to work."
"No kissing," said Hallie. "I'm heartbroken, remember?"
"There has to be kissing," he countered. "It's part of the job description. Who knows? You might even like it." There was a subtle challenge to his words, lots of amusement.
"Kissing would cost extra," she informed him loftily. What did she have to lose? It wasn't exactly the sanest of conversations to begin with.
"How much extra?"
Hallie paused. She needed ten thousand pounds to finish her Sotheby's diploma in East Asian Art; she had five of it saved. "I'm thinking another five thousand should do it."
"Five thousand pounds for a few kisses?" He sounded incredulous, still looked amused.
"I'm a very good kisser."
"I think I'm going to need a demonstration."
Now she'd done it. She was going to have to kiss him. Fortunately common sense kicked in and demanded she make it brief. And not too enthusiastic. One step put her within touching distance; a tilt of her head put her within kissing range. She stood on tiptoe and set her hands to his chest, found his shirt soft and warm from the wearing, with a hard wall of muscle beneath. But she digressed. With a quick breath, Hallie leaned forward and set her mouth to his.
His lips were warm and pleasant; his taste was one she could get used to. She didn't linger.
"Well, that was downright perfunctory," he said as she pulled away.
"Best I can do given the circumstances." Hallie's smile was smug; she couldn't help it. "Sorry. No spark."
"I'm not sure I can justify paying five thousand pounds for kisses without spark." His lips twitched. "I'm thinking spark is a must."
"Spark is not part of the negotiation," she said sweetly. "Spark is a freebie. It's either there or it's not."
"Ah." There was a gleam in his eyes she didn't entirely trust. "Turn around, Mother." And without waiting to see if his mother complied, Nicholas Cooper threaded his hands through her hair and his mouth descended on hers.
Hallie didn't have time to protest. To prepare herself for his invasion as he teased her lips apart for a kiss that was anything but perfunctory. Plenty of chemistry here now, she thought hazily as his lips moved on hers, warm, lazy, and very, very knowledgeable. Plenty of heat as her mouth opened beneath his and she tasted passion and it was richer, riper than she'd ever known. She melted against him, sliding her hands across his shoulders to twine around his neck as he slanted his head and took her deeper, tasting her with his tongue, curling it around her own in a delicate duel.
If this was kissing, she thought with an incoherent little gasp, then she'd never really been kissed before.
If this was kissing, imagine what his lovemaking would be like.
His smile was crookedly endearing when he finally lifted his mouth from hers, his hands gentle as he smoothed her hair back in place. "Now that was much better," he said in that delicious bedroom voice, and she damn near melted in a puddle at his size-twelve feet. "We'll take the shoes."
Right. The shoes. She boxed the sandals with unsteady hands, swiped his credit card through the machine, fumbled for a pen and waited for him to sign the docket before she risked looking at him again. His hands were large like his feet, and his hair was mussed from where her hands had been.
What would it be like to pretend to be this man's wife for a week? Foolish, certainly, not to mention hazardous to her perfectly healthy sex drive. What if he was as good as his kiss implied? What if they did end up doing
it? Who would ever measure up to him again?
No. Too risky. Besides, she'd have to be crazy to go to Hong Kong for a week with a perfect stranger. What if he was a white-slave trader? What if he left her there?
What if he was perfect?
He was halfway across the room before she opened her mouth. Almost to the door before she spoke. "So you'll get back to me on the wife thing?"