“So this is it? You’re telling me there’s no way out? That after all this time you’ve come up with…” Tristan McFarland thrashed a frustrated hand erratically through the air around him “…with nothing?”
Ian Anderson let the file of papers drop onto the top of his desk with an ominous slap. “Save the theatrics, Tristan. I’ve been telling you this for weeks.” He glanced at the small desk calendar and leaned back in his chair. “Eleven, to be exact.”
“I realize that,” Tristan gritted out, his words directed toward the carpet beneath his pacing feet. “But you’re my attorney. You’re supposed to get me out of this. It’s what you get paid grand sums of money to do.”
Ian raised his own hand in a defeated, but patronizing gesture. “Yes, I’m your attorney. And I’m a damned good one. But I’m telling you that there isn’t another estate lawyer in Texas who will say differently—your aunt’s will is rock solid. It ought to be. It was drafted by the best.”
“Ah, yes, Masters,” Tristan spat the name. “The whole thing was probably his idea.” Tristan thrust his fingers through his hair. “Forcing me to get married!”
“There are worse things.”
Tristan shot him a scalding look, one that usually sent his subordinates crawling away in shreds. “Oh, sure,” he agreed. “Being disemboweled, drawn and quartered.”
Ian shrugged. “As I’ve told you before, you can contest, but it’s a lose/lose situation. On the off chance that you do win, you’ll have a dozen or so fifth cousins twice removed crawling out of the woodwork for their piece of the McFarland pie. You’ll be lucky to come out with enough to pay your legal fees.”
Tristan slumped dejectedly into a leather chair and released a weighted sigh as he brooded. “Risking the money’s one thing, but the press…” He rubbed a hand across his face. “It’s like some bad movie on Lifetime.”
“Look on the bright side. No one’s been able to find Devin yet. The way he jet-sets, you’ll be bouncing grandchildren on your very wealthy knee before he discovers he could have had the family fortune.”
“It’s beyond insane.” Tristan jumped to his feet and resumed pacing. She was even making Devin find a wife. And pitting them against each other in a contest to see who would inherit it all.
Not that Tristan was overly worried about Devin’s willingness to tie himself to one woman. His brother was more of a commitment-phobe than he was.
“Your aunt made you work for it all these years, Tristan. What made you think she would hand the money to you now?”
Tristan stopped. Ian was right. Patricia had made him work his way through college. She’d forced him to earn his way to the top of the company. She had never simply given Tristan anything, but now that he had a fortune—well, almost had it—he wasn’t willing to let it go easily.
“The worst of it is…” Tristan turned to face Ian. “I’ve never resented her underhanded tactics until now. She’s always been manipulative and controlling, but she was also fair. I never thought she would resort to posthumous blackmail. God rest her soul.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call this blackmail.”
“Why not?” Tristan shrugged. “Extortion is extortion.”
“Then don’t do it,” Ian said calmly.
“Don’t do it? Do you know what you’re saying?”
Ian nodded. “Let the inheritance go to charity. You’ve made a few nice investments of your own along the way to help get you comfortably through your golden years. Let someone else worry about McFarland for a while.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Tristan, it’s Tuesday. You have until Friday to comply with the terms of your aunt’s will. You know your options. Get married or lose it all.”
“The money, the company, the house…they all rightfully belong to me and I want them.”
“It’s settled then. You get married; you get the money; you get the dog.”
Tristan sighed again. “Don’t remind me. She did this to control me. Forcing me to get married wasn’t enough. Oh, no. I also have to take care of the damned dog.”
“How is Bruno?” Ian asked, his expression stoic.
Tristan rolled his eyes. “Small, black, and spoiled. He’s at the groomers’ right now having his toenails painted.”
Ian chuckled. “I never thought I’d see the day when you would have custody of a poodle.”
“Tiny toy poodle, if you don’t mind,” Tristan corrected with a derisive quirk of his lips.
Ian punched a button on his speaker-phone.
A feminine voice stammered across the intercom. “Ah, yes? Mr. Anderson?”
“Could you bring us a fresh pot of coffee, please?” Ian asked his secretary but looked at Tristan. Without waiting for her reply, he released the intercom and then formed a pyramid with his hands and exhaled heavily above them. “Let’s discuss this rationally.”
“There’s nothing rational about it.”
“In all honesty, Tristan, I don’t consider the amount you stand to inherit unworthy of a few vows, clinging new bride and dependent poodle or not. I could go out on the street and find people who would be willing to do much more than get married to inherit 176.5 million dollars.”
“Point three,” Tristan corrected. “176.3 million.”
“Point three, point five? What’s a couple of measly hundred thousand between friends? You know I’m right. You’ve got to get married.”
He heaved a deep, resigned sigh. “Let’s say for argument’s sake, I have to get married. Now tell me, oh Great One, just who am I supposed to marry?”
“There’s always Anna.”
Tristan snorted. “Anna? No amount of money could banish me to that hell on earth.” He shuddered. “Besides,” he ran his fingers down the sides of his face, futilely massaging the tension at his temples. “She’s gone to Africa with the Peace Corps and won’t be back for at least another two months.”
“She didn’t actually join, but I still can’t reach her.”
“You mean she didn’t take her cell phone?” Ian laughed. “What business does a bored, temperamental socialite have in some small African country?”
“With the election coming up soon, her father thought it would be a good idea for her to make a mark in the world. With any luck there’ll be a coup and they’ll keep her.”
“I’ll bet you a thousand she took a manicurist with her.”
Ignoring Ian’s all-too-accurate description of Anna, Tristan leaned forward and picked up his aunt’s will. “I don’t want to get married.”
“You’ve said that. Perhaps we should hold hands and chant it in unison. Maybe it’ll break the spell.” Tristan glared once again.
“There’s got to be someone else you can marry. I’ve seen your little black book. There are at least a hundred names in there.”
Tristan reached into his suit coat and pitched his address book across the desk. “Find me one who’ll sign the pre-nup, and I’ll marry her tomorrow.”
Ian picked up the leather bound book, turning it over in his hands as if examining a valuable artifact. “You really should update this old relic. Most everyone living in the twenty-first century has.” Tristan refused to answer.
“Make it a business proposition. Be up front about the situation from the beginning. Pay her and in the end, you both walk away richer and neither one hurt from the association. Instead of buying freedom, you are buying the bonds of holy matrimony—for a year.”
“Perfect,” Tristan sneered. “And since Neiman Marcus seems to be fresh out of brides, I could walk down the street and randomly ask women if they’ll marry me. No, even better. I’ll take out an ad in the personals. Wife Wanted. No experience necessary. Contact Tristan McFarland.’”
“That’s not a good way to keep the marriage out of the papers. Besides you don’t have that long. You have to be married by Friday.”
“Then I guess there’s only one solution to my problem,” Tristan announced sarcastically. “I must ask the very next woman I see to marry me.”
A soft knock sounded and the door opened behind him. He whirled around as the temp secretary he’d blown past earlier inched into the room.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Here’s the coffee you asked for.” Her voice was smooth and clear but her hands shook as she set the tray down on the credenza, china clattering noisily.
Ian walked around his desk, then leaned one hip against it. He folded his arms across his chest as a slow Cheshire-smile spread its way across his face. “Thank you, uh…”
“Claire,” she supplied. “Claire Campbell.”
“Well, thank you, Ms. Campbell. Please stay a moment.”
She seemed hesitant as she slowly nodded, glancing at each of them in turn. She acted almost afraid, almost wary of potential dangers.
“Nonsense,” he muttered to himself, then turned his attention back to the matter at hand. Even if he did buy a wife, where the hell would he find one at this short notice? Weren’t purchased brides usually imported from some third world country? He didn’t have time for all that. He had to be married in three days. Besides, that was more Devin’s speed, not his.
“Let me introduce you to my friend. Tristan, this is Claire Campbell, my temporary secretary. Ms. Campbell, Tristan McFarland.”
At the sound of his name, he jerked to attention, annoyed that Ian was bothering with inconsequential and unnecessary niceties while Tristan’s entire existence was crumbling down around him.
Tristan stood and turned to face the temp, not at all surprised at the flush of pink that stole into her cheeks. She shyly extended her hand in greeting.
“It’s a pleasure, Ms. Campbell.”
“Yes,” she murmured a little breathlessly.
Tristan released her fingers and started to return to his seat when Ian cleared his throat. Behind the secretary’s back, he raised his brows and looked pointedly at Tristan. What the hell was Ian up to now?
“I do believe Tristan has something he wants to
ask you, Ms. Campbell.”
“What?” Confused, Tristan looked to Ian, then remembered the coffee. “No sugar for me, thanks.”
“Tristan.” The attorney frowned, then inclined his head in the temp’s direction as if to say, “Here she is: the next woman you’ve seen.”
Was this the answer to his problems?
It was the only way he’d get his birthright. A necessary evil.
Lost in the surreal moment, Tristan turned back to the temp. The word “mousy” didn’t fit her at all. He replaced it with medium. She was of medium height and medium weight with medium blond hair of medium length. She lifted a hand to smooth back her thick, medium bangs, and he noticed that even her fingernails were medium.
Tristan looked up and met her eyes.
He sucked in an involuntary breath and held it. If she were medium, then there were no true words to describe her eyes. Darkly-browed with thick, sooty lashes, the orbs were blue. No, green. Well, somewhere in between, and he didn’t have his wits about him enough to accurately discern their color as he gazed into their depths.
“Tristan. Hello? Tristan?”
At the sound of Ian’s voice, he tore his gaze from hers.
Once again, Ian inclined his head in the secretary’s direction.
Tristan looked at the temp, careful not to meet her gaze. “Uhum, Chloe—”
“Claire,” she corrected.
“I know this is sudden…Claire. We just met and all, but… do you like dogs?”
“Yes,” she answered. Her expression changed from captivated to puzzled.
“Tristan.” Ian intoned, the word clearly a warning.
Tristan swallowed, trying to ease the sudden dryness in his throat. He had to do this. He had tried every way possible to get out of this arrangement, but deep down he knew, someone from his own social circle would be hard for him to control, but a medium secretary would be different. He could marry her, send her off to a Parisian spa for the summer, then divorce her after the obligatory year. He would pay her and she would surely be grateful for the money. It was a perfect idea.
Okay, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was the best idea he’d had since his aunt died.
He took a deep breath and looked into the medium secretary’s not so medium eyes. “Will you marry me?”
Claire sucked in a surprised breath. She must have misunderstood him. She wasn’t sure exactly what he’d said, but it had sounded like a proposal. “Ex-excuse me?” she stammered, hoping Mr. Anderson wouldn’t get mad for her not paying closer attention.
“He wants you to marry him,” her boss said calmly.
“For a year,” Mr. McFarland interjected. “Maximum.”
Claire turned to Mr. Anderson and then back to Mr. McFarland. Surely she had heard them wrong. Men like Tristan McFarland didn’t ask women like her to marry them.
“Mr. Anderson.” She faltered. “Is this some kind of joke?” She looked at each of them again. They both shook their heads.
“And please, call me Ian.” She nodded. Ian.
Then she started to tremble as the situation took hold. This really couldn’t be happening. Impulsive proposals were exclusive to beauty queen types, not plain girls. It just didn’t happen. Tristan McFarland was a…a…a McFarland, an American prince. Right up there with the Kennedys.
“And you,” she pointed to Ian “want me” she pointed to herself “to marry Mr. McFarland?” She pointed at the other man in the room.
“Call him Tristan.”
Nobody moved for what seemed like hours, or maybe it was only minutes, only seconds.
Then Ian interrupted the thick, eerie silence. “It’s not a joke, Claire—may I call you Claire?” He continued without waiting for her answer. “My client has a business proposition to make.” He took her by the arm, settling her into Mr. McFarland…Tristan’s vacated seat.
“A business proposition?” she asked as she sank into the chair, thankful to be off her wobbly legs. The rich brown leather was still warm from the heat of his body, and the spicy air tantalized her with the scent of aftershave. Tristan McFarland’s aftershave.
Mr. Anderson…Ian pressed a tumbler of brandy into her numbed hands. “Tristan needs a wife and quickly. Speaking as his counsel, I can assure you this arrangement will be strictly business and strictly legal. If you consent to be his wife, the terms of the agreement will be signed, witnessed, and notarized. You would be required to remain married to my client for one year and keep the terms of this union to yourself for the said time and beyond. You will be well paid for your services. Say, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”
Claire wasn’t sure whose gasp was louder, hers or Tristan’s.
“A quarter of a million for twelve months?” he barked, echoing her thoughts. “I have senior vice presidents who make less than that.”
Ian grabbed him by the arm and smiled a little too politely at Claire. “Will you excuse us a moment?” Without waiting for her answer, he dragged Tristan to the far side of his office where Claire couldn’t hear their muted conversation.
She stared down into the brandy tumbler resting precariously in her trembling hands, then took a sip. The smooth warmth slid down her throat then burned her stomach, the sensations proving this situation was real. Dreams weren’t this vivid, this tangible.
She looked back to the men. Ian spoke, Tristan frowned. Claire took another sip of the brandy, resisting the urge to toss it back like they did in the movies. It would only make her cough and muddle her thinking even more.
Ian spoke again with a stern nod. Tristan’s frown deepened as he shook his head. After many more nods and frowns, both men returned to where Claire sat, still shaking, still dumbfounded by the entire situation.
“Is five hundred thousand more reasonable, Claire?” Ian asked.
Her mouth gaped open as she stared incredulously at the men towering over her. “Are you serious?” she managed to squeak. This situation was quickly slipping out of her control. Oh, who was she trying to kid? She lost control the minute she walked in the door.
“That’s more money than you’re likely to see in your lifetime,” Tristan said coolly. “And it’s my final—” He didn’t get to finish his sentence.
Ian pulled him back into their little conference corner again where they spoke in muted, but nevertheless, heated undertones. After a few minutes, Ian approached while Tristan remained in the corner. “My client advises me that his final offer is one million dollars. For that sum he expects complete and utter discretion.”
Claire’s gaze swept from Ian to Tristan, who moodily stared out the expanse of windows at the whole of Dallas spread out resplendently before him.
“What do you say, Claire?” Ian pressed.
“Can…can I have some time to think this over?”
“No!” Both men spoke in unison. Ian shot his client a wilting look, then turned his midnight-blue eyes back to her. “Time is something we have very little of.”
“And you want me to marry Tristan McFarland?” Claire asked, needing to hear it again. Just to make sure she wasn’t delusional.
Ian nodded. “Under the terms I mentioned previously.”
She glanced over at her prospective fiancé. “What’s wrong with him?” She hadn’t meant to say the words aloud. Never in a million years would she want to intentionally insult him. After all, he seemed pretty chummy with her boss and she needed this job with Anderson, Terence, and McKay—for however long she could manage to keep it.
“What?” Tristan exploded, turning darkly blazing hazel eyes on her.
“I-I’m sorry,” Claire stammered. “I didn’t mean to be rude…it’s just—”
Ian blinked once, but otherwise his expression remained the same. He held up one hand to silence them both. “I got this.” Then he turned his attention back to Claire. “Nothing is wrong with Tristan. I can assure you, he’s perfectly normal. Disease free.” Tristan coughed.
Ian frowned. “He just needs a wife—and very quickly.”
Claire stared at him dumbfounded, still trying to make heads or tails of the situation. When she didn’t respond, Ian continued. “It’s a very good opportunity. Countless women would jump at the chance without blinking.”
Claire wanted to ask him why they didn’t go find one of those jumping women instead of bothering with her, but she bit her tongue. One insult a day was enough.
She studied Ian’s expression. Maybe this whole thing was a joke after all. Maybe after Tristan left, her boss would explain that his client was crazy and this sort of thing went on all the time. But Ian looked serious.
“So, Claire?” Ian pressed again. “What would convince you to agree to this proposal?”
Claire glanced over to where Tristan stood, once again staring out the windows. From where she sat, all she could see was his back. It was a nice back. Normal enough. Perhaps even perfectly normal. Strong, broad-shouldered. He was tall and his hair from this view was a dark wavy mass. The view from the front wasn’t so bad either. Better than perfectly normal, it was almost perfect. She’d seen enough pictures of him in magazines to know that he was drop dead gorgeous. Not that a mere photograph could do justice to the real thing. In the magazines he’d always looked suave and debonair, but in person he was irresistible.
“Do we have to have sex?” Claire blurted.
“Have to have sex?” Tristan’s eyes turned cold as he stared a hole straight through her. “Have to have sex? Most of the women I know would ask if we get to have sex.”
Ian frowned at him and once again turned his attention back to her. “What my client means to say, Claire, is that an intimate relationship is not the nature of this agreement. We’ll write it into the contract,” he assured her.
“Sure,” Tristan said as a muscle in his jaw twitched. “We’ll phrase it in such a way that neither of us is obligated to perform our spousal duties unless mutually agreed to by both parties.”
Whether it was her intention or not, it seemed that she had offended him once again. And he didn’t look like the kind who took well to insults fished out by his underlings. And there was no doubt he considered her to be beneath him.
She should tell him no right now before this went any further. The money didn’t matter. It was crazy to marry for money anyway. She should get up, get her things, and go home. To the home she would have for a least one more night. And then what?
Either you can move out or I will. Maddie’s voice resounded inside her head.
She would continue her life the way it was. That’s what she would do. She would find a new place to live—somewhere. She would keep on scrimping and scraping. She could keep on being plain-Jane Claire Campbell, eating TV dinners off TV trays and watching re-runs of Wheel of Fortune.
Or, the tiny voice of the dreamer she kept hidden deep inside of her interrupted, she could marry the handsome, exciting man in front of her and embark on what would surely be the greatest adventure of her life. Why, if she married Tristan McFarland, she would almost be royalty herself. She could spend her days drinking pink daiquiris by crystal blue swimming pools and her vacations traveling all over the world.
She probably wouldn’t have to spend much time with him anyway. Wasn’t that how it was with society wives? Maybe they’d go to a few charity dinners together or something of the like, but that would be it. He’d do his thing … she’d do hers.
“When do you suppose we could have your answer?” Ian asked, but both men waited. Both men hovered over her again.
Tell them no! her inner voice warned again.
You can always move in with Robert! Maddie’s voice countered.
Claire looked from Tristan to Ian and back to Tristan again.
“All right,” she said, surprised to hear her own voice. “I’ll marry you.”