Friday evening, December 18th
“Merry Christmas, darlin’.”
Rock Henderson lounged against the doorway of Kimberly Jo Stratton’s condominium, wearing a killer grin, a bright red Santa hat, and a sleek tuxedo. One hand gripped a bottle of champagne; the other displayed two crystal flutes dangling upside-down between his long, slim fingers.
“I’ve brought you a little gift.” He raised the bottle. “Vintage holiday cheer.”
The grandfather clock in the opposite corner of her dining room chimed nine times as Kim tightened the sash around her pink chenille bathrobe. Rock’s assistant had called at the last minute and said he would meet with her at four o’clock that afternoon to discuss the war brewing between the residents of their condominium complex, but he never showed. She’d skipped the hospital’s Christmas party to keep that appointment, only to get stood up. By seven o’clock, she’d given up on him and changed into her pajamas and robe. How dare he drop by at this late hour, unapologetic, unconcerned about the situation, and ready to party?
At her feet, a fawn Chihuahua with a white face yapped non-stop, jumping at her ankle like a wind-up toy. “Hush, Sasha,” she snapped at the small dog, worried that all the commotion would draw attention and expose her plan to other tenants on her floor.
“You’re five hours late, Henderson.” Intent on keeping their meeting confidential, she grabbed him by the lapels and hauled him into her living room. “Did you get lost?” Her gaze swept pointedly over his formal attire as she quickly shut the door. “Or were you sidetracked by someone more glamorous than your lowly, working-class neighbor in 601E?”
Sasha looked up at Rock, let out a high-pitched yelp, and dashed out of sight, her fluffy tail curled between her legs.
He moved close, murmuring in Kim’s ear. “I had an emergency, but I’m here now.”
Rock Henderson, a self-made millionaire and CEO of his own software design company, possessed the charm of a Hollywood heartthrob and the reputation of a ladies’ man who switched girlfriends as often as he changed the oil in his sports car.
“Come on, darlin’,” he coaxed in that deep, throaty purr she’d heard him use on other women in the building, “just hear me out before you chew me out.”
An emergency that required a tux? Yeah, right. A laughable excuse if she’d ever heard one. No way could she count on his cooperation if she couldn’t even trust him to keep his word. He held out the bottle to show her the label, but she ignored his ill-timed bribe for standing her up, and instead, glared into his coffee-colored, deep-set eyes. “You’re drunk, Rock. Get on your private elevator and go home. And stop calling me darlin’!”
“I’m stone sober,” Rock muttered as he strode past her, giving her a wry, sideways glance. “And for the record, I did not pass up our meeting for a hot date. I’ve just spent a long and difficult day dealing with an issue that literally landed on my doorstep.”
He scanned her newly refurbished living room, illuminated only by the TV screen and twinkle lights on her Christmas tree. “Nice place you’ve got here,” he said, abruptly changing the subject. He collapsed his broad, six-foot frame onto a cream loveseat, stretched out his legs, and toed off his patent leather dress shoes. “Ah-h-h... feels good.”
Kim followed him, ignoring the obvious compliment to flatter her into a good mood. They both knew her one-bedroom unit looked like a walk-in closet compared to the ballroom-sized penthouse he occupied on the twentieth floor. She folded her arms and stared down at him. “Look, Rock, if all you want is someone to drink with—”
“Hey, hey, wait a minute.” His dark brows arched as he set the champagne and flutes on the metal and glass coffee table. “You’re the one who pressed my assistant repeatedly for this meeting. I’m simply providing refreshments.” He pulled off his Santa hat and tossed it across the armrest of the loveseat. A thick lock of tousled black hair fell across his forehead. “What exactly do you want?”
Realizing she might actually have a chance to persuade him to accept her point of view, Kim sat on the opposite loveseat, picked up the TV remote, and muted the sound of Pillow Talk. “I’d like to discuss what happened at the association meeting last week.”
“Lucky me,” he countered in a bored voice as he began peeling away the foil on the top of the bottle. “I’ve made it a rule to avoid those things. Most of the discussion is nothing but a complaint session. I have a corporation to run, clients to satisfy. It’s immaterial to me whose overnight guests are taking up too many parking spots or whether we plant red flowers or gold ones along the front of the building.”
The meeting last Wednesday nearly turned into an instant replay of a reality TV episode, almost degrading to the point of chair-throwing and a down-and-dirty brawl. Kim pushed the image of the emotionally charged crowd to the back of her mind as she edged closer to the coffee table separating her and Rock. “But you do understand the real issue in the latest controversy, don’t you?”
He crumbled the foil into a ball and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “With all the arguing going on everywhere I turn, I’d have to be an alien from Mars to be ignorant of this one.”
“Then tell me, which side are you on?” Her heart skipped a beat. She hoped he understood how much the outcome was riding on his opinion. How drastically things could change if he elected to support the opposing view. “Are you for or against changing the bylaws to prohibit pets in this building?”
“Don’t care either way.” He unwound the wire cage protecting the cork then pointed the bottle toward the ceiling. “Pardon the pun, dar—my dear, but I don’t have a dog in this fight.” His brows drew together in concentration as he gripped the cork between his thumb and fingers and gently pulled. It made a long, low hiss as pressure escaped. After a few moments, he eased the cork out, but no bubbly liquid gushed forth. Only a slight mist curled above the opening.
“Rock, the preliminary vote ended in a tie and no one will budge.” She leaned forward, placing her palms on the table. “Your vote could swing the decision either way.”
At a time when she expected him to be serious, he chose to grin. “What you’re really saying is, you want me to cast my vote in favor of the status quo so you can keep your mutt, right?”
A low growl unfurled under the Christmas tree followed by a succession of rapid snorts.
Rock glanced around in surprise. “What was that?”
“My dog and she isn’t a mutt,” Kim replied as Sasha glared at them from between two presents wrapped in red foil. “Here, Sasha.” She patted the empty cushion next to her and smacked her lips. “Come on, sweetie. Rock’s not going to hurt you.”
The pint-sized canine crept from the shadows with pointed, white-tipped ears laid back, her bulbous brown eyes focused on Rock as she cautiously approached the loveseat. A ridge of fawn hair spiked in protest along her spine. Multi-colored lights twinkling on the tree reflected a rainbow of hues against her white chest and finger-length legs. She jumped on the loveseat and settled on Kim’s lap with a snort, never taking her attention off the stranger sitting across from them.
“So that’s what all the fuss is about, huh? No offense, but it looks like a furry rat.” Grinning, Rock handed Kim a flute of champagne. His fingers grazed hers as the crystal changed hands. A sharp tingle sparked like a live wire up her arm and down her spine. Rock had that effect on women. All women, to be precise; but then, who could resist a tall, dark, handsome man who owned a penthouse on the Minneapolis riverfront and drove a red Jaguar?
She could and she’d made up her mind a long time ago she always would. Growing up, she’d watched her mother fall in and out of love with men like him—successful, high rollers who loved the chase but didn’t know the meaning of commitment. The late Veronica Stratton would have schemed night and day to net a fish like Rock Henderson. Based upon her mother’s experience, Kim knew firsthand that you didn’t catch a shark. The shark caught you and always left you deeply wounded in the water. She’d rather swim alone than take that chance.
Sasha glanced back and forth, voicing her own opinion with an occasional “R-r-r-ruff.”
“This time it’s more than a mere fuss, believe me.” Kim slowly twirled the glass between her fingers. “If the majority vote swings in favor of banning animals, a lot of residents will sell out and move, including me. Most of the pet owners have been here since this complex was built. We’re more than just friendly neighbors. We’ve become as close as family and I don’t want my family to split up. Some of our elderly residents depend upon their neighbors for help so they can continue to live independently. Who would they turn to if we left?”
Rock frowned as he filled his glass. “With all those units for sale at the same time, the value of everyone’s property is bound to decrease.”
“Including yours.” Kim sipped her champagne and waited for that little tidbit to sink in.
Rock looked her straight in the eye. “Perhaps there’s a way we can accommodate each other.”
She froze, suspending the flute midway to her lips as her suspicion grew. His insinuation that they might be able to find a workable solution should have alleviated her fear. Instead, it angered her. It always came down to sex, didn’t it? Men didn’t have anything else on their minds. “If you’re suggesting I sleep with you as a tradeoff—”
“No, no.” He waved away the notion. “Just live with me for about a week. I need your help.”
What did he have in mind—a live-in maid with a little hanky-panky on the side? Did he really think she’d fall for that lie? Her disgust boiled over.
“Why? Are you between girlfriends? Looking for a little distraction until something better comes along? If you are, you’ve looked in the wrong direction! I’m not a member of your fan club.”
He gave a little tug on the lapel of her robe. “I’ll make it more than worth your while.”
"Get out of my house, Rock Henderson!” She scooped up Sasha and jumped to her feet. The dog wriggled from her grasp and landed on the loveseat cushion, barking as it dived to the floor and raced out of sight. “This conversation is over.”
She tossed the last swallow of champagne into his face and stormed out of the room.
* * *
Rock snatched the silk handkerchief from his front pocket and mopped his chin before the sticky liquid dripped onto his jacket.
Huh...that went well.
A moment later, Kim’s bedroom door slammed, reminding him that he needed her in his bed. Tonight.
“Ah, c’mon, Kim,” he coaxed gently as he crossed the room and rapped his knuckle on the door. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I’m sorry if I made you upset.”
“Apology accepted,” she said, sounding tired, but deliberate. “Now, go home.”
“I’m not leaving until you come out and give me a chance to explain.” He tried the knob and found it locked. “Besides, there’s at least two more glasses of champagne left and I hate drinking alone.”
The tree lights suddenly flickered and went dark. He glanced over his shoulder just in time to catch that mutt with the cord between its teeth, pulling the plug out of the wall.
“Hey, you, stop that!” He walked over to the tree and knelt to rescue the dog, but snatched his hand back before the ungrateful little critter could sink a mouthful of pointy teeth into his thumb. “You keep chewing on that cord, half-pint, and I guarantee you’re going to turn into a grilled sausage, fully charred.”
Behind him, the bedroom door flew open and Kim rushed to his side, gasping in horror. “Let go of the cord, baby!” She pried the apparatus from Sasha’s mouth and snatched the dog into her arms. Without a word, she turned to head back into her boudoir, but Rock stepped in her path, nearly causing her to collide with his chest. The top of her head barely reached his chin and she couldn’t have weighed more than one hundred ten pounds soaking wet. Wrapped in all that pink fluff, she looked more like a ball of cotton candy than a tough-as-nails nurse practitioner.
She looked up, her gaze boring into his. “You’re blocking my way.”
“Just a minute.” He gripped his hands on his hips, unwilling to let her pass until he’d made his point. “I just saved your pooch from getting barbecued and that’s all you have to say?”
“You’re right,” she answered with a begrudging smile. “Thank you.” As she attempted to skirt around him, he cupped her elbow, steering her toward the living room.
“You’re welcome. Now, can we please start over?” Anxious to make amends, Rock ditched the flirtatious manner and lowered his voice to a gentler tone. “You said you needed my help.” He gestured toward the twin loveseats. “Let’s sit down. I have a proposal to make and I promise I won’t bite, though I can’t say the same for your mutt...er, baby.”
As if it understood, the mangy little cur rolled back its top lip, silently showing him a set of sharp fangs.
Rock cleared his throat and shoved his hands into his pockets. After the day he’d endured, he could use a nice, stiff shot about now, but preferably not tetanus. He nodded toward the living room. “Shall we?”
Kim hesitated as if weighing her options. “All right,” she replied with a sigh, “but don’t try coming on to me again or I’ll sic my dog on you.”
He agreed and followed her back to the loveseats, taking his previous spot. “Now,” he continued in a business tone, “I want you to listen with an open mind until I’m finished.” He took a deep breath and braced himself. Might as well cut to the chase and get it out there. “I really need you to move in with me for about a week...and pretend to be my wife.”
Her jaw dropped. “Excuse me?”
The sudden chill in the air almost made him shudder as she sat up straight, mirroring the image of an ice sculpture he’d once viewed at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Her wide blue eyes regarded him with skepticism and distrust. He studied her for a moment, wondering what to say next. Her blonde pixie cut, upturned nose, and smattering of freckles fit the image of the proverbial girl next door. She’d probably make a great wife for the right guy one of these days. However, did she possess the skill to convince Zelda that she would be the perfect wife for him?
“Let’s have another drink.” Rock grabbed the bottle and began to pour, filling her flute. “I’ll start from the beginning.”
“Please do.” Her lips barely moved, the words slipping out in monosyllables.
“A couple of months ago I became engaged. That was my first mistake.” He set the bottle down and clasped his hands together. “Then I told my mother.”
“What’s wrong with telling your mom? That’s usually the first person you call to announce good news.” Kim picked up her bubbling flute. “I gather you’re not engaged any longer.”
“No.” He rubbed his palm over his emerging five-o-clock shadow. “She didn’t work out.”
Kim didn’t comment, but her raised eyebrows suggested she didn’t empathize with someone who talked about breaking up with his future wife like a business deal gone bad.
“Okay, there’s more to it than that. She double-crossed me.”
“She cheated on you?”
“It’s on par with infidelity as far as I’m concerned.” He shook his head, still angry about it. “She obtained confidential information through intimate conversations with me and turned it over to my competitor. Of course, when I discovered the leak and confronted her, she professed extreme remorse. According to her,” he paused, replaying the scene in his mind, “by that time, she had allegedly realized she’d fallen in love with me.”
“What does all this have to do with me getting your vote?”
“I didn’t tell my family what happened once the engagement ended.” He gave a cynical laugh. “My mother would’ve been so disappointed she would have never let me hear the end of it.” Squaring his shoulders, he downed his drink in three gulps and set the flute on the table. “Now that the wedding date has passed and no one received an invitation, everyone thinks I eloped.”
Kim burst into incredulous laughter. “Why don’t you just tell them the truth, Mr. Chief Executive Hypocrite? You didn’t like being deceived, so why are you deceiving them?”
Because you don’t disappoint Zelda, he thought glumly. Especially the way things stood now. “My mother’s heart is in bad shape. I’m afraid of what it would do to her if I told her what really happened. She’s so happy now that she thinks I’m married.”
“How is putting on a charade going to keep her happy? She’ll find out eventually and then you’ll have to account for lying to her, too.”
“She’s not going to last much longer, so I don’t see the point in causing her any more pain than she’s already bearing.” Rock grabbed Kim’s glass and consumed her champagne, wishing he could just tell his mother the truth. Unfortunately, the tug-of-war relationship with his imperious mother didn’t work that way. “If she’s going to die soon then all I want is for her to go happy.”
“You don’t actually believe you’re going to pull this off, do you? I mean, I’m not the vain, self-centered type that you date. I don’t know how to act haughty and spoiled. She’s going to see right through me.” Kim set her dog aside and stood up. “Forget it.”
Desperation fueled his frustration. Rock stood to his full height, towering over her. “Look, you don’t have to be my type; you just have to be by my side for a week. I’ve got everything covered.”
“If I agree to it, I’m not moving in with you.”
Heat began to build under his collar. “Oh, yes, you are, darlin’. The last time I checked, that’s the way married couples operated.”
“But we’re not married. We’re not even working out at the gym together.” She rose on her tiptoes and poked him in the chest with her index finger. “So, if you think I’m going to sleep in the same bed with you—”
He leaned forward and grabbed her hand. A surge of attraction coursed through him as he covered her petite fingers with his broad palm. It threw him off guard for a moment, but the prospect of spending the night with her suddenly intrigued him. “What’s the matter, darlin’, are you afraid you might like sharing a bed with me?”
Her eyes narrowed as she jerked her hand away. “Get over yourself, Rock Henderson. What I’m afraid of is that this is all just an amusing game to you and once we’re alone, you’ll pull out every trick in your little black book to try to seduce me—no matter what we agree on.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’re not my type—remember? I’ll be a perfect gentleman. Besides, before you know it, the week will be over. Look, I can’t disappoint my mother. If you want my vote, those are my terms. No wifey,” he pointed at her mutt, “no doggie.”
She clamped her jaw shut. After a few tense moments of staring him down, she said through clenched teeth, “When is Mother scheduled to arrive?”
His stomach churned. “She showed up this afternoon with her nurse.” He grabbed the champagne bottle by the neck, brought it to his lips, and drained the last few drops. The champagne went down like water, but it did little to relieve his apprehension.
“I had no idea she’d planned this visit. She decided to surprise me and lay over a few days in Minneapolis before flying to Vail to spend Christmas with my brother, Patrick. She wanted to meet my wife! I didn’t know what to do until I remembered my assistant telling me you had left messages with her saying that you desperately needed my help. So, I decided to pay you a visit and see if we could strike a deal. I couldn’t get away earlier to talk to you about it because I had to take Mother out to dinner. I told her you couldn’t make it because you were out for the day shopping with your girlfriends.”
His iPhone suddenly buzzed. He glanced at the screen and turned it off. “It’s her. I’d better go. She’s probably wondering why it’s taking so long to get a newspaper. How soon can you change and come upstairs?”
She gave him a stubborn look. “I didn’t say I’d do it, yet. I’ve been looking forward to taking a vacation at Christmastime for years. Do you have any idea how long it took me to gain enough seniority at the hospital to get this week off? I have gifts to buy, parties to attend, and lunch dates with friends. Playing house with you isn’t my idea of a vacation!”
“Yeah, but you did say that the fate of your residency here and all your long-time neighbors is hanging on my vote. You hold all the cards...”
“But, Rock, I don’t have the expensive designer clothes that your fiancée would wear. I live in scrubs and a lab coat.”
He shrugged. “The day I showed my fiancée the door, she departed in such a rage that she left some clothes in my closet—mostly things I bought.” He looked her over. “She’s taller, but you’re about her size. Just wear hers. They’ll look better on you than they did on her, anyway.”
He set the empty bottle back on the coffee table and headed for the door. Pausing with his hand on the doorknob, he turned back. “I’ll tell Mother you’re on your way home and due to arrive any minute. Oh, and by the way, your name is Diona Daye. Got that?”
“What?” She stomped across the room. “You mean I have to change my name, too? What are we going to do when someone sees me in the lobby and calls me Kim?”
“I don’t know. We’ll just make sure no one sees us together. At any rate, let’s concentrate on one issue at a time, like getting through the next hour or two.” He reached into his trouser pocket. “Here’s your security card for the elevator. It’s also my private entrance into the garage. You can move your car tomorrow.”
Something caught his eye. He glanced down as she slowly took the card. “Hey,” he remarked with a wide grin, “are those bunny slippers on your feet? I haven’t seen anyone wearing those since I was ten years old.”
“Yeah.” She stuck out her chin. “Gee, is that a tux you’re wearing? I haven’t seen anyone show up for a meeting with me in one of those ever.”
She sure was cute, but he knew better than to verbalize it.
He opened the door a crack and peered out at the empty hallway before looking back at her. “My company Christmas bash is going on tonight at the Hilton. It’s too bad I had to miss my own party, but Mother didn’t feel up to going. It cost a small fortune.” He gave her a wink, determined to let it go, and concentrate on the issue at hand. “See you in a few minutes, Diona.”
The throw pillow intended for his head hit the backside of the door as he slipped out and hustled toward the stairwell. Kim’s spunky temper felt like a refreshing breeze compared to Diona’s constant pouting. He exhaled; relieved that he’d caught on to Diona’s traitorous scheme before she’d caused too much damage to his company. Even so, she’d still managed to ruin his belief in marriage. Her duplicity had proved beyond a doubt that he couldn’t trust anyone with either his deepest secrets or with his heart. He had no idea if he’d ever meet someone who would change his mind, but for now, he planned to live his life one day at a time, leaving the past behind.
He slipped into the stairwell and bounded down the stairs to make it to the lobby and get on his private elevator, all the while wondering if Kim would hit it off with Zelda or if his mother would see right through her pretense. Time would tell, but one thing seemed certain. No matter how well Kim played her part, it would take a miracle to get through this week—with both women.
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