He’s never met a woman he wants to spend his life with…
The man: Billionaire playboy Mark Pryce.
The problem: A “real” date for his family’s Fourth of July party…or he’ll have to attend with the heiress his mother’s picked out for him to marry.
The woman: His best friend’s executive assistant, Hilary Rosenberg—the only one who can save him from this fate worse than death.
…she is convinced good men are a thing of the past.
Disillusioned by a series of painful relationships, Hilary has no interest in dating Mark—even as a pretense—for the next four weeks. He’s too sexy, too smart, altogether too attractive—and a sure bet to break her heart. But she owes him a favor, and she always pays her debts.
When their charade threatens to turn into a happily ever after, can a reformed playboy convince his wary Cinderella that fairy tale endings really can come true?
Exactly four weeks before his family’s Fourth of July party, Mark Pryce walked into Omega Wealth Management. He’d tried to come up with a solution on his own, but the problem wouldn’t go away. Only one person could bail him out of the mess he was in.
It was late, but he knew for a fact that Hilary Rosenberg rarely left at five.
A woman moved in his peripheral vision, and there she was. He turned to admire her. Unlike the other receptionists at the firm, Hilary was curvy, with generous breasts and hips that flared out in luscious slopes. She was dressed in a pastel mint-green blouse and cappuccino-colored pencil skirt that reached a single conservative inch below her knees. A simple updo revealed the kissable line of her neck. The only non-conservative item on her was a pair of sexy open-toe stilettos that improved the shape of her already gorgeous legs. He itched to reach out and touch her to see if she was as soft and sweet as he imagined, but he kept his hands to himself.
“Hi, Mark. You here to see Gavin?” Hilary walked past him to her desk. His body tightened at her delicious apple and cinnamon scent.
“Actually, I’m here to see you.”
“I wish you’d called first. I’m leaving right now to meet some friends at Z.” She dumped a thick stack of papers into her briefcase and picked up her purse and a gold-plated stainless steel travel mug etched with “A Woman Worth Her Weight in Gold.” Her boss Gavin had given it to her a few years ago on her birthday, saying it described her perfectly.
Her brisk tone pricked his pride. Most women fawned over him. “It won’t take long. We can talk in the elevator.” He offered her his arm and almost chuckled when she predictably pretended not to see it. Well, no problem. If she didn’t want to take his arm, he could do the next best thing—putting his hand at her elbow to guide her in a courtly gesture.
* * *
Generally, Hilary’s interactions with Mark were limited to simple two- or three-minute conversations, mostly consisting of polite greetings. He was a playboy, and she didn’t like playboys.
But she could see why other women succumbed to his charms. He was classically tall, dark and handsome with the clean profile his family was famous for. His blue eyes never failed to make her heart skip a beat, and his face often broke into a killer smile that was as lethal as a strychnine martini. Most importantly he wasn’t some brain-dead idiot who’d inherited all his money. His father had given him a sizable trust fund, but he’d more than quadrupled its value with some wise investment decisions and a series of highly successful restaurants.
God must’ve been in a really good mood when Mark had been conceived. Grossly unfair, but such was life.
As they stood waiting for the elevator, she felt his gaze on her shoes and legs and did her best to ignore the warm sensation slowly spreading upward from her ankles. “So… What do you want to talk about?” she said, keeping her eyes on the elevator doors.
“I need a date for my family’s Fourth of July party.”
An interesting choice of topic. Mark was well aware it wasn’t her job to provide him with dates. She sipped her coffee, taking her time…until he cleared his throat discreetly and rocked on the balls of his feet. She lowered the mug and took a deep breath. “Don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“No. We broke up two months ago.”
“What a shame.” Not. Everyone knew Mark never dated anybody for more than three months.
“I know. That’s why I’m asking you.”
She choked on her coffee, and he pounded her lightly on the back. Wheezing, she drew away from him. “Are you serious?” she asked, looking into his eyes.
His gaze didn’t waver. “Yes.”
Why wasn’t he laughing at her gullibility? Her skin prickled. A serious yes was not the right answer to her question. She turned away, looking straight ahead. “Surely you can find someone before the fourth.” The mirror-like elevator doors reflected everything, and he made eye contact with her reflection. “You have a month,” she said into her mug.
“I could, but ‘someone’ won’t do. I need somebody Mom can’t intimidate or manipulate to get to me.”
“What’s your mother trying to do?” Everyone also knew that Ceinlys Pryce wanted her children to marry into impeccable families.
“She’s either giving my dates false hopes about marrying me or trying to get them to stay away.” Even as his tone remained even, he rolled his shoulders. “I can’t deal with that. Not all relationships were meant to go somewhere, and every time she tries to get them to leave me, they start clinging like scotch tape.”
The elevator arrived—finally!—and they stepped inside. Even with just the two of them, the interior seemed tiny today. She took a small step sideways to give herself more room. It didn’t help. She could see their reflections again, this time on the inside of the doors—how his tall, strong body towered over her and made her feel somehow protected. Every time she drew a breath, the clean scent of soap and warm masculinity teased her. Her stomach fluttered like it was keeping hundreds of butterflies prisoner.
Her fingers tightened around her mug. “I’m afraid I can’t help you.” She kept her tone brisk. The key was to discourage him before he could work his charms. “I have a boyfriend.”
“That doctor guy?”
“His name is Walt Goldstein, and he’s a pediatric surgeon,” she said, more sharply than she planned. Stable and staid, Walt was the perfect man for her. It’d taken years to find someone as wonderful as him, and no billionaire playboy was going to criticize him in her presence. “He saves babies’ lives.”
“He drives a Lexus with a license plate that reads BABYDOC.” Mark’s lips curled in the reflection. “Who gets a vanity plate with a Caribbean dictator’s nickname?”
She tried not to scowl. “It’s not like he’s Haitian. Not everyone thinks of Duvalier when they see BABYDOC.” She certainly hadn’t…until now.
“Fine. Let’s give him some credit and assume he really doesn’t know any better. He still misses dinner an awful lot.”
“And you track stuff like that.”
“I avoid giving tables to people who don’t show.”
Apparently, she and Walt had canceled one too many reservations at Mark’s restaurants. “I’m sorry,” she said stiffly.
“It’s not your fault. And I don’t think he’ll care if you go to some party with me on the fourth. There’ll probably be a baby he has to operate on that day anyway.”
She frowned. “Don’t be mean.”
“Oh come on, Hilary. There’s something odd about a guy who keeps cancelling.”
“Gavin,” she said, referring to her super-busy boss—and Mark’s best friend—”used to cancel his dates with his wife, but that didn’t mean he doesn’t love her.”
Mark smiled. “And what has your doctor given you to make up for canceled dates? A private jet, perhaps? A yacht?”
“He’s just doing his job.”
“And I’ve helped you do yours. So you owe me.”
Now that got her gaze swinging his way. “You have? I do?”
“Remember that special client luncheon you scheduled at Morrigan’s? They screwed up the reservation, so I let you guys into the VIP area at La Mer at the last minute?”
He moved so that they were only inches away from each other, his body radiating an inviting heat. She always knew his eyes were blue, but not that they were the shade of the sunny Pacific. They beckoned her to say yes to whatever he was proposing because he was going to make it amazing for her. Her breath caught, and she couldn’t speak through a hot lump in her throat. She should step away, but her legs felt like they were rooted in place.
“I bailed you out of a jam.” He gave her that disarming grin. “It’s time you do the same for me.”
“Even if I wanted to, nobody would believe I’m your date.” Her words tumbled out in a shaky whisper. She stole a glance at the floor number. Still only five. “I’m totally not your type.”
“Is it?” She managed to tear her gaze from his and stared at the elevator doors—and their reflections. His eyes hooded, he studied her exposed neck like it was a piece of art…or his favorite dessert. Licking her lips, she took another gulp of coffee.
Hilary wanted to say no. She was afraid this wouldn’t end well, but at the same time she did owe him one. He wouldn’t have asked her if he weren’t desperate, and she hated having unpaid debts. “If I do this, we’re even. No more calling in favors.”
“Of course not.”
She took a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
He grinned, and her heart thundered boom-boom-boom at being the sole focus of his smile. She could only imagine what it would be like if he decided to point all his formidable charm her way.
Thankfully, the elevator stopped with a gentle lurch, and they walked out together. As they crossed the first-floor lobby, the back of her neck prickled, and she shivered and looked around. There was nothing except polished marble, glass and chrome…plus uniformed security guards…a few sharply dressed people leaving work…and Mark.
For the past several days, Hilary had felt like she was being watched, which was ridiculous. Who would stalk her? She was too boring to stalk, and she’d cleared all the deviants out of her life more than ten years ago.
A twenty-something woman stood up from a backless leather seat and started walking toward them. She had pretty golden hair that curled around her soft, fair face. A pair of widely set blue eyes sat over a small nose and Cupid’s-bow mouth that you normally only found on dolls. The pastel pink of her sundress further emphasized her youth and delicate beauty. Her gaze zeroed in on Hilary, and she snarled, “You bitch! You think you can steal my fiancé?”
“I’m sorry?” Hilary said.
“You should be! I was wondering about all those ’emergencies’ Walt’s been having recently, but guess what? When I called the hospital, they said he wasn’t there!”
Hilary’s mind blanked for a moment as she tried to process the situation, but her usually sharp brain refused to cooperate. She felt light-headed, like she was watching the scene happen in some faraway place to someone else who looked like her.
“Walt’s your…fiancé?” This couldn’t be real. It had to be some kind of sick joke.
The weight of several gazes pressed upon her, and she breathed deeply to clear her head. This was no time to panic.
“I found his texts and emails,” the other woman was saying, looking Hilary up and down. “I can’t believe it. What does he see in you?”
Hilary flinched. “Look I had no idea… I didn’t know he was two-timing.”
“Oh come on! He’s a surgeon. Why wouldn’t some overpriced coffeemaker like you want him?”
That snapped Hilary out of the mental fog. “Don’t talk to me like that. I’m a victim here too.” Walt had talked about proposing. Of course he’d never mentioned he already had a fiancée!
“Lying bitch! Why would he want somebody as fat as you? It’s obvious what happened.” She launched herself, and Hilary jumped back. She hadn’t been in a fist-fight since her wild teenage years, and she certainly wasn’t getting into one now in the lobby of her workplace.
The other woman shrieked when a pair of strong hands gripped her arms from behind. “Miss, calm down,” Mark said.
“Let. Me. Go!” the other woman screeched, trying to twist around to face Mark. “This has nothing to do with you!”
“Yes, it does,” he said. “The woman you’re about to attack couldn’t possibly have stolen your fiancé.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she’s my girlfriend.”
The blonde stopped wriggling. “What?”
“I said, she’s my girlfriend.” Mark carefully let the woman go. “And let’s face it; why would she want your fiancé when she has me?”
Hilary watched the blonde study him and the trappings of his wealth. Every item Mark was wearing cost more than what most people made in a week. Then there were his irresistible good looks. Walt was a nice enough looking guy, but nothing compared to Mark. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but I saw emails,” the blonde said, her voice considerably smaller and with less heat now. “They were meeting behind my back.”
“You’re making a scene. Walk away now unless you want me to have you thrown out.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Sure I can. This building is private property. And you’re trespassing.” He gave her a blinding smile, then gestured to the security guards, who had been watching the show with their mouths open. They moved forward.
“If you or your thugs lay another finger on me, I’ll sue!”
Hilary cringed. She didn’t want Mark to get into trouble because of her. It was already bad enough he’d lied for her, and the situation was beyond hellish as it was. She stepped forward to stop the blonde, but he pulled her to his side for a tight hug. Hilary didn’t even get a chance to react before he turned to the other woman. “Whatever you like. Leave your name with security so my lawyer can get in touch.”
“I work for a law firm, you know!”
“Marvelous. Then you’ve heard of Rosenbaum, McCracken, Wagner and Associates. I’ll have one of the partners call.”
She paled at the mention of one of the top law firms in the state and finally turned and left, one of the security men following closely behind. Hilary winced at the name dropping, but if it ended the show…
Mark turned to Hilary, and his gaze softened. He tucked a wayward tendril behind her ear. “You all right?”
Unable to speak, she nodded and pulled away from him. Thankfully, he released her. She smoothed her hair with trembling fingers as she tried to process what had just happened. Had she just been confronted by her boyfriend’s fiancée? Oh god. It was so obvious why Walt had promised to propose to Hilary.
She was an idiot with the worst judgment when it came to men, and they could tell by just looking at her. She was so naïve, she’d believe anything they said.
Just like her mom had gotten into trouble. Was it genetic?
There had to be something about her that broadcast how stupidly gullible she was. She’d chosen Walt with such careful consideration and thought. He was supposed to have been the one, her perfect man.
How could she have been so wrong?
“Hey, you look really pale. You need to sit down?” Mark said, laying a hand on her shoulder.
Aware of the audience, she forced a neutral tone and took a step back. Her mistake with Walt had blown up at work, but she wouldn’t let it affect her career. “Thank you for your help. It probably would’ve gotten a lot uglier without you.”
He smiled. “No problem. Sorry how it turned out.”
“No, it’s not your fault.” It was all hers.
“So…about my family party—”
“What?” She clutched her stuff in front of her like a shield. “No!”
Then she ran out as fast as she could.
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