“Look at your life. Look at your choices,” Anna muttered to herself as she gripped the balcony tightly and braced her toes on the slight ridge of stones on the side of the building.
Nothing about tonight had gone as planned. Exhibit A: she dangled from the fourth-floor balcony of a palacio in a ball gown and stilettos instead of her climbing harness and rigging. The balcony had been a great way out when she’d planned to wear rappelling gear. As a hiding place to avoid whoever had entered the office she’d been searching, not so much.
Her heart thrummed a rapid tattoo inside her chest, and adrenaline lit through her system as she listened to the water in the fountain below and the strains of Seville city traffic on a nearby street. Perspiration dampened her skin. Her fingers trembled.
She needed a plan, one that didn’t include becoming human paint splatter on the concrete.
Footsteps sounded on the patio. The clock running in her mind told her she should have had four more minutes until the guard rotation. If the patron saint of thieves were with her, whoever it was would turn around and go back inside soon. She already fought her body’s urge to release her tenuous grip on the ledge.
The steps got closer and closer until they stopped right above where she hid. She held her breath and stiffened her body as much as possible to make herself as invisible as she could get.
“You need a hand?” An amused voice, accented with the slightest bit of Russian flare, asked from above.
Equal parts fear and relief surged through her as she looked up to see a pair of men’s dress shoes on the balcony beside her tired fingertips.
“You going to hang out there forever, Sway? I bet your tank is running low.”
At the sound of her nickname, the only name people who worked with her thought she had, the tight knot in her chest eased and the breath she held released in a forced whoosh. No one who worked for the Count whose office she’d been searching knew her as Sway, so her mystery guest was most likely a friendly. Yes, she still dangled without a safety rope, but whoever stood above her probably wouldn’t shoot her or step on her fingers. She’d been in worse situations.
None that come to mind at the moment, though.
A gust of wind blew against the ledge where she hung. The strength of it caused her feet to slip from their perch and her body to twist away from the building. She bit back a shout as her left hand lost grip on the stone ledge, scraping her already raw skin. Her body swung as her weight transferred to her right arm. The added burden wrenched her shoulder, and the muscles in her arm howled in protest. To silence a scream, she clenched her teeth and shut her eyes as tight as she could. She must be bleeding as the wetness made her grip even more tenuous. Her fingers slipped until only the tips remained clenched on the stone ledge.
“Help me up. Help me up!” She whisper-shouted an octave above her normal register. Her arm trembled. Her fingers ached. It didn’t matter who the hell he was as long as he kept her from plummeting to her death.
A hand reached through the bars of the railing and took a firm hold on her right wrist, just below where her fingers held on for dear life. She used the momentum and the pendulum swing of her body to reach her free hand up and grasp his. Their palms hit. She grabbed him with as tight a grip as her abused fingers could manage, but another vicious wind blew against her. She lost her hold on him.
They both cursed this time. Anna took a few deep breaths in an attempt to regulate her breathing to the ebb and flow of her body’s movements back and forth. She needed every advantage.
“We’ve got one more shot, cupcake. It is now, or you’re a Pollock painting.”
“Just get me the hell off this ledge. And don’t call me cupcake.” On the next swing of her body, she reached her arm up as high as it would stretch. Her fingers scraped roughly against the stone again, but her wrist smacked solidly against her savior’s palm. This time, his grip held.
Her mystery man pulled her up until she could grab the top of the railing. In the back of her mind, she was impressed he could haul her up, but her focus centered on slowing her frantic breaths and calming her shivering body. He continued to hold onto her as she pulled her feet up and planted them on the stones where her fingers had been only seconds ago.
For a hysterical moment, strappy sandals seemed like a genius decision. Otherwise, she’d be barefoot at the moment and some unsuspecting Spaniard might be in the hospital with a stiletto pump through their cranium.
As she raised up to her full height, her rescuer wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her. She looked at his face for the first time.
Adrenaline still fogged her mind, and it took a second to recognize the owner of wavy hair – the dark color indistinguishable in the inky night surrounding them – light eyes, and the most sinful set of lips on any man she’d ever seen.
When he smirked, her brain clicked back on as if a tiny person lived in her head and flipped on a switch. Her scowl came unbidden and instantaneous.
“What in the hell are you doing here, Roman?” She asked as he pulled her over the railing to set her down safely on the balcony. Her dress scraped across the worn stone, and she winced. When he didn’t immediately release her, she wriggled to escape his kung fu grip.
“Let me go.” She scowled harder up at him and tried again, albeit futilely, to escape the brush of his body against hers.
Stop thinking about his body. You’ve got to get out of here. There’s no time to think about this man of action giving you some action.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Sway.” He purred down at her. His rough baritone rasped against all the nerves attached to her lady business, making her wonder how those words might feel when spoken while his head moved between her thighs. “Last time I saw you, you almost unmanned me. It might not be safe for me to unleash you.”
The reminder of their most recent run-in, one where he’d acted like an underhanded sneak and taken what she had gone to so much effort to steal first, jolted her head out of her knickers and focused once again on the instinct to knee him in the balls. It was a much more desirable inclination than the one to grab him by the hair and pull him to her chest for a rousing round of motorboat. Panting after Roman Blinov had never been good for her. It would be especially dangerous to think those thoughts while the panic and adrenaline of her episode still rode her. She might make a very bad decision.
A very naughty decision. Wait, no. No naughtiness with Roman. You’re mad, remember?
“You stole my statue.” She spoke through gritted teeth as she sharply raised a knee to finish what she’d started in Athens last year.
He deftly avoided her attack on his testicles and pulled her even closer. Whether it was a move to restrict her movements or press their party parts closer together, she wasn’t sure. Knowing Roman, probably both.
When his hand slid to her backside, she found out she was right. “Get your hand off my ass, or I swear I’ll make sure you end the night with super glue in places God and the manufacturer never intended it to go.”
“Still so adorable, Sway.” The hand on her ass flexed in an obvious grab, and she growled low and with enough menace to do a TV werewolf proud. “Your threats might have more punch if you were not the size of a doll. I forgot how cute you are when you get mad. Your—” His words cut off abruptly as the click of the balcony door opening echoed in the quiet night.
Before she could blink, Roman had his lips crushed against hers. She assumed the move was to keep the guard from shooting them on sight, and she would have given him props for his quick thinking; however, the instant burst of electricity sparked between them and drew her into the kiss rather than away from it.
Screw the guard. He could catch them as long as they kept kissing. Under Roman’s insistent mouth, she opened to allow him unfettered access. His tongue slid like silk against hers, and she moaned. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had kissed her like that.
Aw hell, I’ve never been kissed like this. He totally deserves his super stud reputation.
His tongue teased the roof of her mouth in a caress with a direct impact on other, more sensitive parts of her body. She slid her hands up the soft fabric of his tuxedo to bury them in his hair, overwhelmed by the impulse to find out if it felt as soft as it looked.
“¿Qué haces aquí?” A harsh voice demanded behind them.
The spell broken, they split apart like shrapnel. Their mouths disconnected with a wet pop. Both turned to the open balcony door to see a glowering security guard who waved his hand at them before pointing a finger back inside toward the office.
With the balcony doors and the office door on the other side of the room open, the sounds of the party happening down the hall streamed into the room. Her contact who’d gotten her into the palacio had told her the Count who owned the extravagant apartment had purchased it last year because it fit his penchant for lavish bashes. Open floor plan, soaring ceilings, and easily secured by the army of bodyguards he hired.
“¿Qué hace usted? ¿Como has llegado hasta aquí?” The guard asked as he continued to wave and point like some kind of demented schoolmarm.
Like I’m going to tell you what I’m doing out here or how I got here. Moronic rent-a-cop. Anna had to channel what little self-control she had at the moment to not roll her eyes.
“Lo siento.” Roman slated in, smoothly covering his rough Russian cadence with a crisp English inflection, as he stepped behind her. “We were looking for a bit of privacy, but we will get back to the party. My apologies for the mistake. Come along, darling.”
Guess I’m not the only one playing dress up.
She gave him props and a few brownie points for good measure. His highbrow British accent sounded flawless. The smooth articulation a sharp contrast with his natural, gruff Moscow flavor.
Outwardly, she didn’t react lest she make the guard even more suspicious than he already appeared, but inside she wondered who he pretended to be tonight.
Her head itched under the blonde wig she’d worn to cover up her natural riotous mass of brown curls. Her darkened skin, courtesy of a spray tan, and lightened hair contrasted with the cerulean blue of the one shoulder chiffon gown she wore to distract from her facial features and make her utterly forgettable. While she wanted to fit in, she didn’t want to stand out.
“Of course, I’m so embarrassed.” She said to the guard as she ducked her head as if to cover a blush. In reality, she used the move to cover the lack of a blush. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been embarrassed enough for her cheeks to flush. Impulses like that had been ruthlessly trained out of her in her teen years. Now, she chose exactly which expressions crossed her features and used them with strategic prowess to get what she needed.
Instead of worrying about the guard, she fixated on Roman’s duplicity. Usually, he didn’t like lying about who he was. His Boy Scout conscience didn’t like lies and intrigue. He preferred to walk the straight and narrow with his shining moral compass to lead the way. Plus, in their world, the one where artifacts and treasures traded hands and weren’t always obtained legally, he was a face and name people often recognized. Hell, the guy looked like a GQ cover boy. Not exactly a person people easily forgot.
Darting past the security guard before he said anything else, she and Roman walked inside, through the study, and down the hall to where the party raged. Her attention refocused on why she’d attended the party in the first place and she cut off all thoughts of Roman’s motivations. The longer she stayed in the apartment, the more chances there was someone would discover the Count’s safe didn’t have as many items in it as it had earlier in the evening.
Thinking about the blueprint of the layout she’d studied at the start of the job, she considered her options for a quick exit. If she could ditch her escort and make it to the last bedroom in the hallway, she could go out the window and use the edge of the stone trellis to drop onto the third-floor terrace. Her fingers were raw and beat up from her escapade on the balcony, but she thought they’d probably hold long enough to get her there if she wrapped them in something first.
The gear bag she’d left hiding in a planter in the office was a goner, but, by selling the item she had hiding in her bra, she could buy new gear. Most of the money was already spoken for, but she should have enough left over to purchase a few necessities. And hide out for a while longer.
Sway cut off that thought before it could take purchase and overwhelm her. She needed to focus on the situation at hand and not at the threat that lurked across the English Channel.
“I know you’re thinking of all the ways out of here, cupcake, but you will just have to get used to me,” Roman said, his Russian accent back. It jerked her attention back to her interfering companion. “I think you wouldn’t want any of the guards getting suspicious enough to search you.”
At his not veiled at all threat, she stiffened. “Not any more than you do, big guy. I know you were happy to see me out there, but there’s more than an erection in your pants.”
She’d felt the press of something, maybe a small figurine, against her hip when he’d stepped behind her on the balcony. It seemed like the Boy Scout had some ulterior motives of his own tonight. As they stood now, staring at partygoers drinking cocktails and dancing to the music being piped in through the surround sound system, she thought she could make out a shadow of something in his pants pocket.
“Very perceptive. Trust me, though. You want to hear what I have to say. So, we need to get out of here before we are caught or killed. Our gracious host has a history of being a little quick with his trigger finger. Maybe afterward we can exchange stories. You give me the one where you jump off a balcony, and I will give you one about the necklace you smuggled out of China last week.”
Appalled by Roman’s pronouncement, Anna spun to face him. How did he know she’d stolen the necklace? Did he know why or for who? The last thing she wanted was to get sucked into one of his Interpol-funded Robin Hood crusades, especially not for the first piece of jewelry she wished she’d never set eyes on.
Be cool. No need to freak out. Yet. Probably. Distract. Deflect. Be Sway, not Anna. Sway can handle it.
“What’s your genius plan for getting out of here, smart guy?” She asked, feigning sarcasm, and pointed at the pair of guards checking every person entering and leaving the party. “That big German over there, the one who looks like an extra from Die Hard, is Gunter. He searches everything going through the door. Everything. Even diplomatic pouches.”
She’d learned the hard way yesterday. A pouch had seemed like a genius way to get her prize out of the building undetected until she did a trial run using a guy posing as a diplomatic aid. Gunter had confiscated the pouch, unzipped it, and rummaged through the contents without even blinking an eye.
As a waiter passed by, they both took glasses of champagne from his tray. The movement tugged the scratches on her hand. She winced. So distracted by the guard, exit strategies, and Roman’s potent smooches the pain in her body hadn’t registered. Now though, the ache in her shoulder and elbow from her one-armed hang sliced like long lines of acid drips. Her hands burned from the raw, open wounds cut by the rough stones she’d held to. Even her toes were sore from their tenuous perch on the ledge.
Trying to push away the pain, clear her mind of everything but solutions to her problems, Sway turned her thoughts back to the situation at hand. It didn’t work. Her fingertips pulsed with every heart beat that chased the fiery throb in her arm, but she pushed through it. Pain had been a constant companion since childhood, and she could cope. She had to.
After her little tryst with Roman on the balcony, the guard who’d caught them now stood stationed by the door to the study. Which meant her rigging was locked away, and most windows and balcony exits were out. Elevator shaft too. Her gaze swept the room, discarding each exit in turn as her eyes passed it. The front door was the only viable option. The only problem was the ever-vigilant Gunter and his favorite new toy…a body scanner.
A miniature version of the scanner they used at airports stood sentry by the door, placed there after several items had disappeared during parties. Earlier that night they’d found a tennis bracelet in the pocket of a gentleman who had arrived, and was leaving, sans date. She assumed he’d either found it or swiped it, but he wasn’t going home with it. She had no doubt about that. If she knew Gunter as well as she thought she did, the man would be lucky to go home with the power to walk on his own. Gunter and his ham-fisted henchmen taught hard lessons.
The glass she held slipped through her fingers. She barely managed to hold onto the delicate crystal as the blood on her hand and condensation on the glass threatened to send it dropping to the floor. She gripped the glass in her hand tighter. The bloody scrapes from the stones on the ledge would soon draw the attention of the guards. As she looked around the ballroom for something she could use to cover them, a bejeweled Duchess and her escort passed in front of her, elbow-length black gloves draped over the strap of her glittering evening bag.
Perfect. As the couple moved passed, she stumbled into the Duchess. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t get champagne on your dress did I?” Sway asked, brushing the back of her hand on the woman’s arm while she used the other hand to pull the gloves from her side.
A few pleasantries were exchanged, and the couple moved on, sans gloves. Once they were out of sight, she pulled them over her arms. A little big, but she doubted anyone would notice. Their odd fit looked loads better than her crime scene hands. She used the dark fabric to wipe away the traces of blood from her drink glass.
“What time is it?” Roman asked congenially as he sipped his champagne, completely ignoring her lift.
“You’re kidding me, right?” She asked the nutcase next to her. Roman looked as if there was nothing amiss, nothing to be concerned over. Instead of responding, he stared at her with those unnerving powder blue eyes of his before he shook out his arm to reveal his watch from under the cuff of his shirt. He glanced at it briefly before returning his hand to his side and turning his gaze to the party.
The part of her brain that kept perfect time and tracked the twelve minutes to the next security rotation screamed at her to get the hell out of there. The pain echoed its agreement. The number of guards would triple to deal with all the guests who hadn’t been invited for dinner but would arrive soon for dancing. That meant three times as many muscle-bound meatheads lined up for the privilege of strip searching her when the body scanner she’d have to walk through lit up like a radioactive superhero.
Just as she was about to say “forget this” and make a run for it, a security guard with skin the color of rich, dark leather and a body big enough to rival any WWE Superstar sidled up to them. While Roman stood over most men, clocking in at six feet and change judging by the way their bodies had fit together on the patio, this newcomer topped him by at least four or five inches. His smooth, bald scalp reflected the light in the room where they stood. She looked up, and up, and up a little more to study his face, surprised to see amber-colored irises looking down at her. She’d expected velvety darkness to match his skin.
“Excuse me, Mr. Parker,” the guard said as his gaze slide back and forth between her and Roman. It took her a moment to realize Mr. Parker had to be Roman. “Our host would like me to escort you to the kitchen. I believe you needed to speak with the cook about a dietary need.”
The guard’s American accent surprised her, but his voice matched the rest of him. A dark, deep rumble of a voice. The bass of it thrummed against her even though over a foot of space separated them.
“Right, thank you.” Roman’s British accent was back. So was his hand on her lower back, a little too low. Another inch and his fingers would be back on her ass.
And that’s a bad thing?
She silenced her inner horndog and told herself it was a bad thing. A very bad thing. It was no secret Roman’s little sister had started climbing the ladder at Interpol thanks to Roman’s help as a retrieval expert. His repossession company, BlinCorp, took contracts from Interpol when none of their agents could get the job done. Career thieves like her and Interpol didn’t go well together. It tended to end with the thieves thrown into secret prisons that made Gitmo look like a Sandals resort.
For now, since she had no other ideas, she’d allow Roman to lead her around. However, as soon as she figured a way out, she was taking it.
Roman lead her with the cursed hand at her back as they followed the security guard down the hall and through an unmarked door that opened into a large kitchen. Several people in white aprons sat around the end of a bar drinking glasses of wine. Sway guessed they celebrated another dinner party well thrown and enjoyed the downtime before they’d have to get midnight snacks on the table for revelers.
“Disculparse por un momento, por favor.” The security guard had apparently been hired for his brawn because his Spanish was terrible. He didn’t even try to mimic the accent. He’d pronounced it ‘por fay-vurr.’
Terrible Spanish notwithstanding, the guy knew how to clear a room. All six people scurried out without a word and closed the door behind them. Sway nodded her head, impressed. Though, she wouldn’t have wanted to go up against a guy who looked like he should be playing offensive line in the NFL either.
“I’d like to remind you art theft can carry a prison sentence of up to ten years in Spain, Roman,” the guard said nonchalantly as he locked the kitchen door before striding to the counter the kitchen staff had vacated.
The guard knew Roman’s real name? Then why had he fooled with the stupid accent outside? Questions rolled through her brain like the opening sequence of a Star Wars movie. When the two men in front of her began removing their bow ties and jackets she had to call a halt to the madness.
“Woah, I don’t know what you two are into, but I’m not in the mood to watch you two get it on right now.”
“Sway, we are not—”
“I mean,” she interrupted Roman, not listening to him as she got her rant going, “At another time and place, I’d be happy to watch two smokin’ hot fellas get busy. I could probably get into that, but right now I need to get the hell out of this apartment. Also, do you two know each other? He called you Roman, but before he called you Mr. Parker. What’s with the accent? And why–”
“Sway!” Roman yelled her name, the short burst of sound stopped her mid-tirade. “We are not getting naked, but Huck and I can’t climb down an elevator shaft in dinner jackets.”
He pulled off his white shirt to reveal a black t-shirt, and his friend opened up one of the cabinets above the refrigerator and pulled out a duffle bag. When he set it on the countertop and opened it, she stepped up beside him to peer inside.
“So, you want to go down the elevator shaft? That’s not cliché or anything.” She put her hands on her hips but was proud she resisted the urge to stamp her foot like a temperamental toddler. “Oh, and in case you were wondering, the elevator is a horrible way out.”
“You were right, Roman. She is kind of a pain in the ass.” Huck grinned down at her.
As she spun to set him straight, with her words and possibly her foot in his ass, her heel caught on the uneven tiles of the kitchen causing her to lose her balance. Not the first time she’d had to take a fall, she brought her arms up to her chest and turned so her uninjured shoulder would take the impact.
Mid-fall, a pair of all-too-familiar arms, reached down and plucked her from the air. “Careful there, cupcake.”
“Call me cupcake one more time, Roman.” She gave him a stink-eye glare across the few inches separating their faces. “I dare you.”
Rather than reply to her threat, Roman set her on her feet and stepped back with that insipid smirk once again on his face.
“Look, geniuses,” she said as she spread her feet, crossed her arms across her chest, and embraced her full bitch attitude. Maybe if she made herself too difficult to hang with, they’d let her go her own way once they got out of this mess. “As much as the thought of rappelling down an elevator shaft and crossing my fingers not to break my neck appeals, we can’t go that way.”
“Why not?” Roman stepped closer and used his considerable height to tower over her while his tone made it clear he found her annoying.
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a recalcitrant child, ass face. And don’t loom over me. I’m not intimidated by your height, or you for that matter, so you can suck it. The elevator has a laser grid and heat sensors. Why do you think I was going off the balcony?” She left off the “so there” she wanted to tack onto the end, deciding it could be inferred.
“Thanks to your little stunt on the balcony, keks, we can’t use it. So, what is your plan?”
“I know that means cupcake in Russian, you obnoxious twat waffle. And it wasn’t my stunt! You’re the one who interrupted my grab and—”
“Yo!” Roman’s sidekick interrupted her. She turned to give him a taste of what his buddy was getting, but he didn’t give her a chance as he pointed to the wall behind her. “I think we’ve all overlooked something.”
Sway and Roman both turned to stare at the spot on the wall where he pointed, but all she saw was a kitchen.
“What are you talking about, Huck?” Roman asked as he stared around the room, looking as dumbfounded as she felt.
“I know you’re probably working up to an idea, but could you skip the show and get to the tell before someone comes in here? I’m too pretty for prison.” Sway waved her hands in a hurry up gesture, which she immediately regretted when it aggravated her aching fingers and arm. That’s when she noticed it out of the corner of her eye.
The door to the laundry chute sat cut into the wall directly across the kitchen from where they stood. A chute had been cut too small for an adult to fit inside, so it likely didn’t have any sensors. Why hadn’t she noticed before?
“Send the contraband down and walk out like a normal, law-abiding guest,” Huck explained. “Then rescue it from the unmonitored basement.”
Sway opened her mouth to protest but stopped to consider the idea. She knew from her research when planning this little heist there was only one camera on the delivery door at the outside entrance to the building. There was nothing on the interior. A deadbolt was the only thing guarding the laundry room. Thirty seconds with her a lock pick set and she’d be on her way with her bounty.
Parting with her prize in the getaway plan didn’t appeal, but with Mafia Ken doll and his Michael Clark Duncan wannabe in tow, her other options were nonexistent.
“Good plan, my little problem solver.” Sway held her fist up for a bump and waited expectantly for Huck to touch his fist to hers. Instead, he looked at her like she was a few screws short of a tool shed.
“I’m not bumping that.”
“Wow. Okay, rude.” Sway lowered her hand. “Oh well, I suppose I’ll live. I still think you’re wicked sexy, if it makes you feel better.” Sway gave him an exaggerated wink and made a purring sound in the back of her throat.
“We don’t have time for this.” The frustration rang clear in Roman’s low voice as he grabbed a bundle of linens laying on the countertop and used them to carefully wrap the small, metal statue he pulled from his pants pocket before he turned to her.
“Give it to me.” Roman held his hand out to her, but she hesitated to give up her treasure.
She’d worked hard for it, damn it. Fake IDs for luxury insurance companies didn’t come cheap. She’d been posing as Sofia Parker, antiquities appraiser from MCS Insurance, for the last three days to get access to the Count’s penthouse.
“There is no time for you to be a diva, Sway. Give me whatever you took from the office.”
Sway wrinkled her nose, but out of options she reached between her breasts and pulled out a metal tube, twelve inches long and not much wider than a pencil. She’d taken the stock certificate from the safe and rolled it tightly in the tube to protect it. When she handed it to Roman, she didn’t release her grip when he grabbed it to take it from her.
“If you lose this, you owe me thirty thousand dollars, Roman.” The stock certificate issued in 1917 now hidden in the cylinder would net her buyer three hundred thousand. Her ten percent finder’s fee was as good as already spent, so losing it wasn’t an option.
“You will get it back. I promise.” Roman assured her, his gaze insistent.
Sway hesitated for another second before relinquishing her grip. Roman wrapped the certificate in the linens as he had with his statue. He walked across the kitchen and dropped the bundle through the small opening in the wall. Nausea swelled like an ocean tide in her belly, and she resisted the urge to test the chute to see if it really was too narrow for her to follow the one thing that would assure a better future for the people she loved.
“No, that’s unacceptable. You told me ten months ago we could fight this thing, Danny.” Marc Hasher gripped his cell phone in a tight fist and spoke with lethal calm across the line to his lawyer. He walked to the wall of windows in his top-floor office and stared down at Kansas City’s Union Station. Several of the distinct blue and white locomotives with the HR diamond logo of Hasher Railways sat waiting on the tracks for their cargo to be attached.
He’d grown up in a rail yard. He’d known the names of the engines before he’d known his colors. Some of his best studying and thinking had happened watching trains go by. The rhythmic whomp whomp of gears, the clang of steel on steel as the wheels ran down the tracks, the loud whistle and horns of approaching engines. Usually, staring at his trains calmed him. Not today.
Not today as his future threaten to slip from his grasp. Today, the dark wood and navy furnishings in his office didn’t soothe him. The views of historic downtown didn’t interest him. Today, no amount of dealing, litigating, or throwing around his influence as CEO of one of the top railroad companies in the world would fix his problems.
“I did tell you we could fight it, Marc, and we did. I also told you I couldn’t make any guarantees.” Danny sighed into the phone. “When the judge ruled this morning to uphold the stipulations of your father’s will, that was it. There’s only six weeks left. You don’t have enough time to try any other methods.”
Marc’s fist came down with a hard thud on the glass. “Damn it. So, there’s just one thing left to do. That’s what you’re telling me.”
“‘Fraid so. I’ll get the prenup paperwork rolling. Do you know who’s name I’ll be putting on it?”
Before Marc could answer, there was a quiet knock on the door of his office. It opened, and his assistant popped his head in. When their eyes lock, Marc waved him inside.
He watched as Heath, his assistant for the last four years, strode across the open floor of the spacious office with a stack of folders in one hand and his always present iPad in the other. As Marc stared, an idea ruminated. The more he stared, the more he thought. The more he thought, the more he figured this insane plan brewing in his head might actually work.
He refused to allow everything he and his grandfather had worked so hard for fall through his fingers because his jackass father had to get one final crack at him from the grave. The worthless jerk never could best his son in life, so now he wanted to do it in death.
Tough luck, old man. You’re still going to lose.
“I’ll get back to you,” Marc said before ending the call and putting his phone in his pocket.
“Sorry to interrupt your call,” Heath said as he put the files down and sat at one of the chairs facing Marc’s desk before he flipped open the cover on the iPad to study the screen. “I’ve got the Q4 projections you said you needed by the end of the day. Also, the marketing team sent over the new concepts for the conference in Germany. You need to approve them.”
Marc took a moment to study his assistant. He’d never spent much time assessing Heath’s appearance, but the tailored slacks and plaid button front shirt with a tan Henley sweater fit him well. Nothing flashy. Neither one of them spent much time wearing suits these days, but Heath always looked polished and professional. While Heath was a bit younger than most of the men Marc dated, he wasn’t out of the realm of rationality.
Maybe all hope wasn’t lost.
“How long have you worked for me, Heath?” Marc asked as he strode across the room to sit behind his desk, the desk that had once been his grandfathers.
Heath looked up from his iPad with a frown of confusion on his face. “I’ve been your assistant for a little over four years. Two years working in strategic planning before that. Three years on the logistics team before that. So, almost ten years at Hasher Railways if you don’t count my internship with your grandfather in college.”
“I know you understand how much this company means to me. How much I’ll do to secure its future. I have a responsibility to every single person who works here.”
“Of course,” Heath said, his forehead still creased and question in his eyes. “What’s all this about, Marc? Has something happened with the contest of your dad’s will? Was Dan able to overturn it?”
Marc paused before he answered. He needed to broach this topic strategically. Otherwise, he’d be looking down the barrel of a sexual harassment suit along with his other issues. He’d have to make Heath see that it was the best solution for both of them, a business transaction. Nothing more.
“Dan did call, and I’m out of options. If I don’t get married in the next six weeks, I’m going to lose controlling interest in the company. The majority shares held by my family will be sold off, probably to the board, and god knows what will happen.”
For the most part, he’d found the HR board members were reasonable, decent men doing their best to keep the company going in the right direction. But he knew it would only take one or two critical members against him to turn the rest.
“Okay, I’d booked a loft-style event space downtown when we first found out that marriage might be the last resort. I booked it for the thirteenth, so you’ll still have three days before the due date just in case there are any last minute issues. I’m assuming you’ll want this to look legit, so I’ll call caterers and overnight the invitations.”
“That’s great, but there’s something else I need to discuss with you. It’s about the groom.” Marc tapped his fingers on the top of his desk as he considered how to phrase the next part of their conversation.
“I assumed you were the groom, seeing as you’re the one that has to get married if you want to keep the company,” Heath said without looking up from his tablet.
“I meant the other groom. The will says I have to get married. It doesn’t say I have to get married to a woman. Good old dad should have updated his will after the marriage equality laws got passed.”
And wouldn’t his father roll over in his grave about that loophole? Marc might have to get hitched, but he didn’t have to stop being himself. He could imagine the headlines if his father had thought his plan out a little better.
Openly Gay CEO Marries Woman of his Dreams?
CEO Railroaded into Marriage of Convenience
Marc Hasher Comes Out of the Closet…as Straight
The press would flip, the gay community would crap a Frisbee, and his pro LGBTQ office environment would take a nosedive.
Heath cleared his throat and continued to stare at his screen, but Marc thought he saw a bit of a blush on the younger man’s cheeks. “Okay, so who’s the other
groom then? I’ll make sure I get his contact details so I can coordinate tux fittings and the like.”
“See, that’s the thing. I’m hoping I can convince you to go just a bit above and beyond, take on one more role, as it were. We’ve both been open about our sexual orientation from the start.” Marc waited and wasn’t disappointed as Heath looked up, understanding dawning on his face. “What do you say, Heath? Will you marry me?”
The sound of tires skidding to a stop burned rubber across Heath’s mind as he fought to decipher the words that had just come out of his boss’ mouth.
Will you marry me?
Such a simple phrase, and Marc had delivered it with as much pomp as asking for another stack of sticky notes. What was he expecting Heath to say?
Sure boss, here’s a stack of multi-colored ones and my ring size is a nine. See ya at the end of the aisle.
“Okay, uh, can you say that again? I don’t think I heard you right.” Maybe he’d just imagined his gorgeous, millionaire boss proposing. It wasn’t like he hadn’t had daydreams about that exact scenario. About his six foot whatever, tousled haired boss with the chocolate eyes and longest eyelashes known to man taking and knee and declaring his undying love during a proposal. But those had been relegated to his mental vault of fantasies.
“I asked you to marry me, Heath. I need a husband, and I need one quick.”
“I don’t…but you…we can’t…” Heath took a deep breath and reordered his thoughts to make coherent sentences. “You can’t want to marry me. What about one of your exes. You were in the papers with that ballet dancer, Maxim something, like three weeks ago. I’m sure one of those guys would shank his sister to marry you.”
“While I appreciate the vivid imagery, I can’t do that.” Marc, still calm as a breeze-free day, spoke without breaking eye contact. “This marriage will be a business arrangement only. I need someone who will be able to remember that. Someone who won’t get attached and dream of a happily ever after. Two years and divorce from now, this marriage will be nothing but a memory.”
That made a twisted sort of sense. He knew that if he’d dated Marc and got a chance to marry him that he’d dig his claws in bone-deep and hold on until death. Marc hated hassles. His motto of “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” wasn’t exactly original, but it reflected his life choices. He wanted a date for an event; he found one. He wanted to expand into Austria; he found a company to do it and bought them. He needed a fake husband; he’ll use his assistant.
“Okay, I get you don’t want some sort of romantic attachment, but why me?” Heath gestured at himself. Granted, he knew he didn’t look like a homeless wildebeest, but he wouldn’t be gracing the cover of a magazine anytime soon either.
Compared to Marc’s expertly tailored and designer vibe, Heath knew he looked like a Costco sale rack. If Marc were limited edition designer fashion, Heath was five years ago fall styles for $49.95. The thought of marrying a man like Marc, someone so far out of his league, made his stomach clench into knots and rolls.
“You’ve been a stellar assistant, Heath, and we both know I’ve been grooming you for a top spot in the company. I’ve only waited this long because you didn’t show a preference or high level of interest in any one department.”
That’s not true, Heath thought with some resentment. He had shown a lot of interest in one department at Hasher Railways, but Marc liked to pretend he didn’t notice.
The Hasher Aid Foundation, the charitable giving arm at HR was the place Heath had been working towards for the last fifteen years. The moment he’d known what the HAF did for the community, for him, he’d wanted to be involved. The longer he’d worked at the company, the more he’d strived to land at the HAF.
Everyone had known Charlie Davenport, the former director at the HAF, had planned to retire last year and leave his position wide open. At least until Marc announced he would instead oversee the department himself. Heath’s plans had gotten squashed, and his pride had been more than a little bruised.
He’d worked his ass off for that promotion, but Marc had seen the job with the charity as “too important to leave to anyone else.”
He might as well have said “you’re a great assistant, Heath, but not good enough to trust with running something I care about. How about you run a department that I only get a memo from once a month.”
“Look, Heath, I hate to rush you here, but I need an answer pretty much immediately.” Marc’s deep voice brought him out of his thoughts. “There are a lot of plans to make. What will it take for you to sign on board for two years with me? You know we already work well together. This marriage will be an extension of that business relationship.”
“You don’t want me to feel rushed, but you need an answer right this minute. Somehow, those two things don’t seem to go together.” Heath held back the sarcastic snort that threatened. Barely. He had gotten away with a lot in the years he’d been Marc’s assistant, but he figured blatant, mocking sarcasm might be the step that went over the line.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” Marc said with a glance out the window before turning back to face him. “Trust me, I don’t like how this is playing out, but you and I both know that if I’m forced to sell my stake in the company that the Chairman of the Board and all his greedy cronies are going to buy them up and tank all the programs we both fought so hard for. Revenue will be the only thing they care about.”
“I know you’re right, but this isn’t some small favor you’re asking, Marc.” Heath’s stomach roiled and his palms slickened with sweat. “I’ve read the will. To everyone else, we have to look like a real married couple. We’ll have to have a real wedding, be seen in public together, live together.”
The last one had him gulping the most. How was he supposed to share living quarters with the man he’d idolized and lusted over for most of the last decade? He stared across the desk. Marc’s eyes blazed back with a deep intensity he’d never seen before.
“So, I’ll ask you again, Heath. What will it take for you to marry me?”