Wife By Wednesday by Catherine Bybee

 

Chapter One

“I need a wife, Carter, and I needed her yesterday.” Riding in the back of the town car, en route to a Starbucks, of all places, Blake Harrison glanced at his watch for the tenth time that hour.

Carter’s startled laugh rode on Blake’s last nerve. “Then pick one of the masses and walk the aisle.”

His best friend’s offhand advice might have held merit if Blake could trust the women in his life. Sadly, he couldn’t. “And risk losing everything? You know me better than that. I don’t need emotion clogging up something as important as a marriage agreement.” An agreement was exactly what he needed. A contract. A business deal that would benefit both parties for the course of one year. Then they could go their separate ways and never lay eyes on each other again.

“Some of the women you show up with would be happy to sign a prenuptial agreement.”

He’d already thought of that. But he’d worked hard for his emotionless-bastard reputation and didn’t need to mess it up by pretending he was in love in order to have a woman walk up the courtroom steps with him. “I need someone who’s on board with my plan, someone I’m not remotely attracted to.”

“You sure this dating service is the right way to go?”

“Matchmaking, not dating.”

“What’s the difference?”

“They don’t match your love interests. They match your life plan.”

“How romantic.” Carter’s sarcasm came across like a shout.

“I’m not the only one in my position, apparently.”

Carter laughed and then choked on his own breath. “Really,” he sputtered. “I don’t know any other men with your title and your wealth calling a stranger to set them up.”

“This guy comes highly recommended, a businessman helping men like me in similar situations.”

“What’s his name?”

“Sam Elliot.”

“Never heard of him.”

Traffic clogged the intersection two blocks from where his appointment with said businessman was taking place. The seconds clicked past the time of his scheduled appointment. Damn, he hated being late.

“I gotta go.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Business is what I do, Carter.”

His friend huffed in disapproval. “I know. It’s relationships you suck at.”

“Screw you.” But Blake knew his friend was right.

“You’re not my type.”

Blake’s driver swerved in traffic to make a light. Ruthless, just like his boss wanted him. “See you tonight for drinks.”

Blake hung up the phone, slipped it into the pocket of his dress coat, and sat back in his seat. So he was late. Men in his position could walk in half past the designated hour and still have people climbing over themselves to make it look like it was their fault. A lot was riding on the outcome of this meeting. Finding a wife before the week was out in order to keep the ancestral home that went with his title—not to mention the remainder of his father’s fortune—hinged on Sam Elliot.

He hoped to hell that his personal assistant’s contact knew what he was talking about. Otherwise, Blake might be forced to broach the subject of marriage to Jacqueline, or maybe Vanessa. Jacqueline loved her independence more than his money. The fact that she kept a lover other than him pushed her out of the running for wife. That left Vanessa. Beautiful, blonde, and already riding the wave of soon-to-be ex because of her hints about being exclusive. He didn’t like the thought of leading her on. He was a bastard, but never cruel. Some women would disagree, and the tabloids had branded him pompous and cunning. If the papers sniffed around what he was doing, they’d write it up and turn it into a joke. He’d like to avoid the added scandal. Reality, however, was a rightful bitch, and he knew his fake marriage would need to look real in order to keep his father’s lawyers satisfied.

Neil pulled the long black car up to the curb and quickly opened Blake’s door in front of the green-and-white-painted coffeehouse. With briefcase in hand, Blake ignored the turned heads when he strode inside the storefront. The rich smell of freshly ground beans filled his nose as he scanned the tables searching for the man he pictured as Sam Elliot. Blake assumed he’d find a man wearing a business suit and carrying a portfolio filled with files of wifely prospects inside.

The first glance didn’t deliver, so he removed his sunglasses and started over. A young couple with dueling laptops sipped their lattes across from each other at one small table. At another, a man in crew shorts and a T-shirt argued with someone on his cell phone. At the counter ordering was a couple pushing a stroller. Stepping farther inside, Blake noticed the small frame of the back of a woman with a mass of curly auburn hair. Her toe tapped anxiously, or maybe she was listening to music through a set of earbuds. With his eyes still skimming the small crowd, Blake found a lone man occupying a plush chair. He wore a casual pair of pants and looked to be in his late forties. Instead of a briefcase, the man held a book. Blake narrowed his eyes and caught the other man’s attention. Instead of a flicker of understanding, the man’s dark gaze fell back to his book.

Damn, maybe Mr. Elliot was caught in the same traffic.

Late never boded well for prospective clients, no matter what business they were in.

If Blake had another choice, he would’ve turned and left.

Walking past the lone redhead, Blake stepped around the stroller and ordered a plain coffee, then resigned himself to sit for a few minutes and wait. He placed his briefcase on an empty table and turned to get his coffee when the teenage kid behind the counter called his name.

The hard weight of someone’s stare rolled down his spine. His eyes scanned around the room to see who was watching. Instantly, a set of emerald-green eyes narrowed as they took him in. The petite woman sitting alone wasn’t listening to music or reading a magazine. She was staring directly at him.

Her striking gaze returned to a small notebook computer before bouncing back his way. A flicker of recognition fell over her. He’d seen the expression before whenever someone placed his name with his image. Here in California, the frequency of that awareness didn’t happen as often as it did at home, but Blake recognized it nonetheless.

The woman seemed harmless enough. That was until she opened her mouth and spoke directly to him. “You’re late.”

Two words. It took two words, in a voice so low it dripped like sin and put phone sex operators to shame, to render Blake speechless.

Red’s words registered. “Excuse me?”

“You are Mr. Harrison, right?”

The question was simple, but Blake couldn’t quite comprehend it. He answered on autopilot, completely derailed by the woman in front of him. “I am.”

She stood and only met the top of his shoulder. “Sam Elliot,” she introduced herself and stuck out her hand for him to shake.

It wasn’t often that Blake was kicked back a few notches. Yet, with only a couple of words, the woman in front of him had done so. He reached out and took her hand in his and a wave of heat surged over him. Her penetrating stare and knowing smile wavered when they shook hands. Her palm was cool, even if her demeanor was one of complete control.

“You’re not a man.” Blake wanted to groan. That had to be the most stupid thing he’d ever said to a woman in his life.

Ms. Elliot, however, was nonchalant. “Never have been.” She offered him a smile and exposed perfect teeth as she removed her hand from his. He missed it instantly.

“I was expecting a man.”

“I get that a lot. Most of the time, it works to my advantage.” She indicated the chair across from her. “Would you like to sit so we can get started?”

He hesitated, not sure if he should continue this “interview” or insist on the woman’s gender to change. He didn’t consider himself sexist, but musing over the woman taking her seat and crossing her slacks-covered legs drew his attention away from his goal and placed it squarely on her. Sam Elliot could be considered the poster child for contradiction, and Blake hadn’t learned anything about the woman yet.

He would give her ten minutes to prove she could meet his needs. If she didn’t, he’d move on and explore other options.

Blake unbuttoned the top button on his suit jacket before taking his place at the table. “Is Sam short for Samantha?”

“Yes.” Samantha didn’t meet his eyes as she removed a stack of papers from a small case she’d placed against the side of her chair. The brief smile she’d given him was gone, replaced with an unrevealing thin line between her lips.

“Do you use ‘Sam’ to fool your clients?”

Her hand stalled as she pushed the stack of papers in his direction. “Would you have come if you knew I was a woman?”

Probably not.Without voicing his words, he watched her.

Samantha tilted her head to the side and continued. “You make my case, Mr. Harrison. Let me see if I’m reading your intentions. In your mind, you’ve set a time limit for me to prove myself. What was it? Twenty minutes?”

“Ten,” he blurted out, not meaning to. What was it about this woman with the bedroom voice that stole his ability to hold his tongue?

She smiled again and his stomach knotted with a shot of unexpected and unwanted desire.

“Ten minutes,” she repeated. “To outline exactly how I plan on finding you the perfect wife for your short-term goals. A businessman like yourself expects quick efficiency and no emotional baggage to complicate matters.” She watched him, her green eyes never wavering. Her pert, freckled nose looked too innocent above those delicious pink lips while she delivered her words in that erotic 900-number voice. “Am I right so far?”

“Completely.”

“Women are emotional, which is why your assistant looked into my service to begin with. My guess is, there are many women who would sell their souls to marry you, Mr. Harrison, but you don’t trust them enough to give them the title.”

Most of the time, it was him outlining his needs. Having the tables reversed should have left him feeling exposed. Somehow, listening to Sam Elliot, who was definitely not a man, spell out his dilemma didn’t strip him bare. Instead, he felt blanketed in comfort. He’d come to the right place to fix his problem.

“How do I know I can trust a woman you come up with?”

“I prescreen every prospect in my directory just as thoroughly as the client. Detailed background checks expose financial obligations, personal habits, and any family skeletons hiding in closets.”

“You sound like a private investigator.”

“Not hardly. But I can understand why you’d think that. Matching people is what I do.”

Blake sat back and crossed his hands over his chest. He liked her, he decided, mentally adding another ten minutes to his predetermined time.

“Shall we continue?”

He reached for his coffee and nodded.

Sam grasped a pen and twisted the papers she’d pushed in front of him back her way. “I have a few questions for you before I allow this to move forward.”

Blake’s brow rose with her words. Interesting. “How long do I have to prove myself to you, Ms. Elliot?”

She glanced up through long lashes. “Five minutes.”

He sat forward, thoroughly intrigued with what she was going to determine about him in that amount of time.

“Have you ever been arrested?”

His record was clear, but that wasn’t the question.

He knew if he lied to Sam, she’d pack up her things and walk out the door. “I was seventeen, and the kid I punched was hitting on my sister. The record was buried.” As were all the records of children from his station in life.

“Have you ever hit a woman?”

His jaw tightened. “Never.”

“Ever wanted to?” She watched him now, eyes sharp.

“No.” Violence didn’t play into his personality.

“I need the name of your closest friend.”

“Carter Billings.”

She scribbled down the name.

“Worst enemy?”

He didn’t see that question coming. “I’m not sure how to answer that.”

“Let me rephrase it, then. Who in your life would like to see you come to harm?”

His first thoughts scanned his list of business associates who might have felt slighted over the years. None would be better off if he were gone at this point. There was only one person who might see things differently.

“Whose image are you thinking of, Mr. Harrison?”

Blake took a drink of his coffee and felt it hit the bottom of his stomach with a thump. “Only one.”

Samantha lifted her eyes to his, waiting.

“My cousin, Howard Walker.”

A tiny slack in her jaw, a slump in her shoulders, these were the only things that indicated the impact of his words. Much to Blake’s surprise, Samantha Elliot wrote down the information and didn’t question further.

She removed the top sheet of her papers and handed him the others. “I’m going to need you to fill these out. You can fax them to me at the number on the bottom of page eight.”

“Did I pass your test, Ms. Elliot?”

“Honesty needs to be maintained throughout this process. So far, everything is working for me.”

It was Blake’s turn to smile. “I could have lied about the assault charge.”

Samantha started to pack up her things as she spoke. “His name was Drew Falsworth. You were two months past your seventeenth birthday when you broke his nose at a polo match at the prep school you both attended. Drew had a reputation for dating girls long enough to get them into bed before dumping and moving on to the next. Your sister was smart to stay away. If you hadn’t hit the bastard to protect your sister, or lied to me and I’d found out about it, this interview would have been over before you even sat down.”

“How the hell—”

“I have a very extensive list of contacts. Most of which I’m sure you’ll know about before this day is out.”

Damn right.He’d be on the phone with his assistant before he reached the car.

“What’s this going to cost me, Ms. Elliot?”

“Consider me an agent. When your lawyer draws up the prenuptial agreement, bear in mind that twenty percent of what you offer your future wife will be paid to me up front.”

“And if I only offer her a small stipend?”

“The women I work with have a minimum spelled out in that stack of papers.”

“And if the woman doesn’t hold to her end of the deal? If she fights the contract after a year?”

Samantha stood, giving Blake no choice but to stand beside her.

“She won’t.”

“You sound so certain.”

“The predetermined amount of money, her share, goes into an account. If the woman fights for more, that money pays your attorneys to squelch her. Anything left over is yours to keep. The only time this would change is if a child entered into the picture and paternity tests proved it was yours. Family courts with kids aren’t something I agree to deal with. It will be up to you to keep it in your pants, Mr. Harrison—that is, of course, if you intend to end the marriage after the agreed-upon year. If not, then enjoy your happily ever after and name your child after me.”

She’d thought of everything. To say he was impressed was an understatement.

“I need those papers by three this afternoon. I’ll be in touch by five with a list of prospective women. We’ll set up meetings as soon as tomorrow if your schedule allows.”

Blake reached down, lifted her bag, and handed it to her.

She shoved a lock of unruly hair from her eyes and swung the handle over her shoulder. “Do you have any more questions for me, Mr. Harrison? Or should I be calling you ‘Your Grace’?”

The slow way she rolled his title off her tongue with her hypnotic voice was something he could get used to. He wouldn’t mind hearing it again, over the phone…“How about Blake?”

As soon as Sam knew she wasn’t being watched, she slid behind the wheel of her car and allowed the Cheshire cat grin she’d been feeling deep inside her to spread over her face. An undignified Snoopy dance had her wiggling her butt in the soft leather. “About friggin’ time,” she whispered to herself.

The dashing duke was her ticket to the big leagues. From the inception of Alliance, she’d pictured clients like Blake Harrison lining up for her services—rich men in need of finding a wife to check off their bucket list. She found wives for men who didn’t have time or the desire to go through the dating game. They weren’t looking for love, but companionship. Some men wanted a wife so their lovers would stop bugging them for a ring. To date, she had plenty of personal referrals that were helping her build her business and a steady income to sustain her.

With Harrison, and his estimated profit potential, she’d be able to pay her largest expense for a good two to three years. Or so she hoped.

A millionaire on his own, Harrison didn’t need his late father’s money. But if he permitted a bank account large enough to purchase a small country to disappear into the melting pot of charity or to the cousin Blake had mentioned, that would be a shame. With all the corruption and scandal associated with charities, there was no telling where that money would end up or whose pockets it would fatten.

Sam knew firsthand how do-good money often fell into greedy hands. Harrison’s situation would bring up distractions she’d not faced before. His title might be the biggest problem to overcome. She’d have to screen the prospective women to make sure they didn’t have fairy-tale dreams of becoming a duchess. Years of Disney videos were hard to combat, and combined with Harrison’s over-the-top good looks, the women would have to be blind not to want more from the man than his money or title.

The pictures she’d seen of him didn’t do him justice. She’d always looked up to men, had to with her five-foot-five frame, but Blake was six-one on a bad day, with shoulders rippling with muscles. She’d seen tabloid pictures of him on a beach in Tahiti that hinted at the physique hiding beneath his suit. When he’d walked into the coffee shop, all eyes turned to him, yet he didn’t even notice. He simply scanned the room looking for her. With any other client, she’d have taken to her feet the second he hit the door, but with Blake, she’d needed a minute to compose herself. His firm, rugged jaw and striking gray eyes had penetrated her normally calm disposition and made her heart leap.

His looks would be a distraction. It would be best for all involved if the woman he picked to be his wife lived in one country while he lived in another. Spending long amounts of time with him would tempt any woman with a pulse to sleep with him.

Sam removed her cell phone from her purse and called her assistant.

“Alliance, this is Eliza.”

“Hey, it’s me.”

“How did it go?” Eliza jumped right in with her query.

“Perfectly. Did you pull the files and make the calls?”

“I did. Joanne was the only woman not available at this time.”

Sam pictured the tall brunette. “Really? Why?”

“Has a boyfriend, apparently.”

That did tend to mess up marriage to another man. Without Joanne, there were three other perfect candidates. Unless Blake had a problem with beautiful women, she’d have the man a wife by Wednesday. It was only Monday.

“Her loss.”

“Are you coming in?”

“I have an errand to run, and then I’ll be there.”

“Bring lunch.”

Eliza and Sam had been friends for some time, long before their business relationship took off. “As your boss, shouldn’t you be picking up lunch for me?” she teased.

“Not when my slave-driving employer isn’t in the office long enough to man the phones.” The office—what a joke. Sam used the spare bedroom in the town house.

Laughing, Sam said, “I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“You might want to call Moonlight first.”

Sam sat a little taller. “Why? Is something wrong?” Worry wiggled around in her stomach, producing a familiar sense of panic.

“Nothing urgent. Jordan isn’t eating as much as they’d like. They thought you should stop by and talk to her.”

Samantha blew out a long-suffering breath and forced her shoulders to relax. “OK.” Her plans for the afternoon would now be complicated with a side trip to the extended care facility taking care of her younger sister. The last time Jordan had stopped eating, she ended up in the hospital suffering with an infection that spread throughout her bloodstream. Sam hoped her sister was depressed and not ill. Sad that those were the top choices for why Jordan wasn’t eating.

But what else was there? Depression had led to Jordan’s attempted suicide that resulted in a stroke instead of death. “I’ll be late, but if you can wait, I’ll bring lunch.”

“Let me know if you get tied up.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Sam hung up, started her car, and pointed it toward Moonlight Villas. The exclusive home cost over a hundred grand a year and was the reason Samantha needed the income a deal with Blake Harrison would bring. She was a month behind on her personal bills and always cutting the checks to Moonlight a week or two late. The last thing Sam wanted was to crumble under financial pressure and end up having to put Jordan in a state-run facility. She’d be ignored in those homes and likely end up with bedsores and untreatable infections within a month. No, Sam would live out of her car before she’d let that happen.

Picturing the duke, Sam knew things wouldn’t end up in such dire straits. He stood to lose close to three hundred million from his father’s estate if he didn’t marry by the end of the month. Blake would likely pay the woman walking down the aisle a nice chunk and therefore pay Alliance enough to float for some time. All Sam had to do was fluff up the women in line and make sure none of them hit any panic buttons.

Easy peasy. Or so she hoped.