“I need a wife.”
Deni blinked at the terrifying man with the icy-cold demeanor sitting behind the massive desk, positive that she’d misheard. “I’m sorry?”
The scary man barely moved, his grey eyes didn’t even blink. “I need a wife, Ms. Stenson.”
Deni continued to stare, waiting for more information. But when it appeared that the man wasn’t going to continue, she shifted in her seat slightly. This man…Sebastian Hughes…her employer, was actually an impressively handsome man. Sharp cheekbones, grey eyes, and dark hair. He was tall, with broad shoulders but beyond that, she had no idea what was underneath the dark, tailored suit and snowy-white shirt. He was one of the few men she knew who could knot a tie so precisely that the white of his dress shirt didn’t show above the knot. And he was also the only man of her acquaintance that could look so stonily scary, and so…well, all together frightening! For a man who was so astoundingly handsome that he could trade in his abacus to model for a living, Sebastian Hughes was…terrifying!
Why was he telling her that he needed a wife? Surely, he didn’t mean that he wanted to marry her! That was…Deni swallowed a giggle. No, laughing wouldn’t be good.
Everything inside of her told her to tell the man to go to hell. Or maybe she should simply laugh at the outrageous comment, stand up and walk out. Everything about him, including this horribly uncomfortable office and the ridiculously tortuous leather chairs, screamed that the man was dangerous. She should get out of here while she still could.
But instead of walking back to her tiny cubicle, she looked at the man, suddenly seeing something besides the cold, icy mask. She saw…Deni might have called it nervousness. Or maybe a flash of vulnerability. She wasn’t sure, but that flash of…something…made her pause. So instead of telling him to go to hell or something equally career destroying, she tilted her head slightly, and then asked, “Why?”
The man barely moved. His eyes might have narrowed slightly, or that could have been her imagination, a ridiculous inclination to give this man some sort of human reaction. “I have my reasons. Suffice it to say, I need a wife, in name only, and you need about five hundred thousand dollars.” He opened a file folder and looked down. “Or rather, your father does.”
Deni reared back, horrified that he knew about her family’s financial situation. “I know that…”
He waved her stammered explanation away. “I don’t care why, Ms. Stenson,” he snapped, his voice dripped with irritation as he leaned forward, looking down at the file and whatever embarrassing information it contained. “All I care about is that you help me. If you marry me, I’ll help you.”
Deni frowned at the man, thinking about the rumors she’d heard when she’d first started working here at Hughes International. Unfeeling. Bastard. Brilliant. Unshakable. Sebastian Hughes, owner and CEO of Hughes International, had the face of an angel, but was actually the devil. Because she worked in the finance department, too far below the radar for a man of Mr. Sebastian Hughes’ notice, she hadn’t concerned herself with the rumors.
Perhaps she should have paid more attention!
He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, those grey eyes seeming to turn to granite. “Your father approached a loan shark yesterday.”
That was news, and not the good kind. Gripping the arms of the ugly leather chair, she wasn’t aware of her back stiffening or her mouth falling open with horror. “Why in the world would he do that?!”
“Because he received a foreclosure notice yesterday.”
Deni’s hand lifted to her forehead. “A loan shark? A foreclosure?!” She shook her head, trying to understand. “This…this isn’t like him! He’s a responsible person! He’s…”
The cold, horrible man shifted a paper on his desk slightly. “He lost his job six months ago. He hasn’t been paying his monthly mortgage.”
Deni’s hand left her forehead, floating in the air beside her for a long moment as she slowly absorbed this latest blow. “He lost his job?” she whispered.
The beautiful bastard behind the desk tilted his head slightly. “Six months ago,” he repeated.
This wasn’t happening, she told herself. Looking down at the floor, she tried to make sense of it. Her father had been fine last week when she’d had dinner with him. There’d been no indication of problems, financial or otherwise. He’d even laughed, a sound she hadn’t heard in such a long time.
The bastard glanced meaningfully at his watch. “Ms. Stenson, I have other meetings. I need an answer.”
Deni held up a hand. “Okay, let me get this straight.” She paused and took a deep breath. “My father is drowning in medical bills, apparently took out a loan…”
“A second and third mortgage,” the devil supplied.
She paused as dread filled her heart, tightening the muscles of her stomach. “Right. A second and third mortgage.” She shook her head slightly with that news. “He owes about five hundred thousand dollars. In desperation, he’s seeking out a loan shark because your bank sent him a foreclosure notice.” Her voice turned angry. “So, in addition to losing his wife of thirty years, he’s about to lose his home.” She glared at him across the polished expanse of the heavy steel and glass desk. Oddly, the thought occurred to her that the man and the desk had about the same level of compassion.
The man tilted his head to the right, then straightened again, and nodded. “I believe you have summarized the situation clearly.”
Bastard! “And now, you’re asking me to marry you. To be your wife and in return, you’ll pay off my father’s debts.”
One word. No explanation, no comments, no compassion in those icy grey eyes.
“In name only.”
Somehow, those last three words only made this whole situation more surreal. Shaking her head, she looked across the desk at the man, stunned by what he was asking of her. “This kind of thing only happens in movies.”
“All evidence to the contrary,” he returned.
Under other circumstances, his quick, pithy reply would have impressed Deni. But he was threatening her father, who had just buried his wife, Deni’s mother. So no, it wasn’t funny or pithy, just insulting.
She continued to glare at him. When he glanced at his watch again, she thought about throwing the ugly, steel paperweight at his head.
“I understand that you are impatient. But perhaps you should have scheduled a longer window for a meeting in which you tell me you are about to ruin my father’s life.”
“Don’t be melodramatic, Ms. Stenson,” he snapped and leaned forward, closing the file folder with an irritated snap. “I’m offering you a simple solution to the problem. Do we have a deal?”
She frowned. This man owned and ran one of the largest privately owned banks in the world. He had money and power, the likes of which she couldn’t even fathom. So, why was he offering her such an absurd deal? Something didn’t add up.
“Why?” she asked. The flicker in his eyes told her that she’d just gained a bit of power back. Feigning a relaxing pose, she leaned back in the horrible chair, cleared her features of emotion and stared into his cold, grey eyes.
She didn’t smile or frown, but mimicked his cold, still appearance. Two could play at this game, she thought. “Explain why you need a wife.”
She watched as his lips compressed and felt an odd spark of triumph at the small sign of his anger. Deni had seen Sebastian Hughes in the hallways, obviously. Working in the accounting office of his bank, there was no way to avoid him.
The silly dreams she’d woven about the man that she’d conjured up over the past eighteen months seemed outrageous now, despite those vicious rumors that warned that the owner of Hughes International was heartless. She’d pictured him as a sweet, caring man who was just misunderstood. Sebastian Hughes was definitely misunderstood. Oh yes! People simply didn’t fully grasp what an outright bastard he truly was.
The door to his office burst open and a gust of cloying perfume enveloped Deni. Turning, she watched as a strikingly beautiful woman stalked into the office, pulling off long, leather gloves. Everything about her screamed money and power. Deni didn’t know the exact price of the woman’s gorgeous suit and matching silk blouse, but suspected it probably cost more than her monthly rent. Besides her outfit, the woman had ostentatious diamonds in her ears, around her neck, and sparkling on several fingers.
The woman looked vaguely familiar, but Deni couldn’t place her immediately.
“Who are you?” the woman demanded, glaring at Deni. But before Deni could even draw breath to answer, the woman waved dismissively. “Never mind, I don’t care.” Turning her back on Deni, the offensive woman faced the man behind the desk.
“Your child support payment is late, Sebastian.”
“Perhaps we should have this conversation in private, Meredith,” he suggested with a tone that caused Deni to swallow nervously. The vicious woman was unaffected.
“I don’t give a damn who hears that you’re late. I want my money, Sebastian.”
The man’s eyes moved to Deni, then to Meredith. “The check isn’t due until tomorrow.”
“Yes, well, I need it now.” Those leather gloves flipped through the air. She was very Golden Age Movie-Star-like, Deni thought.
“Because I have expenses.”
“Expenses for Chloe?”
“Whatever.” She turned on her four inch, spiked heel. “Just transfer the money into my account or you don’t get Chloe this weekend.”
A moment later, the door slammed shut, leaving only a stunned Deni, a seething Sebastian Hughes, and a cloud of perfume that made Deni want to gag.
There was a stunned, tense silence after the door slammed.
Deni wasn’t nearly as terrified as she’d been before that interruption. She saw Sebastian’s jaw clench and understood immediately. “You need a wife to go back to court and get your daughter out of the clutches of that mercenary bitch. You’re willing to pay off my father’s debts in order to buy a wife and I fit the bill.”
From the fury in his eyes, Deni suspected that she’d hit the nail on the head.
Standing up, Deni stepped closer to the desk. “You have a deal,” she extended her hand.
The man looked at Deni, then at her outstretched hand. “When?”
Deni looked down at her hand, not allowing him to ignore her like this. Start as one meant to go on, she told herself.
When he finally took her hand in his, the intense heat shocked Deni. He had a firm grip, strong fingers and, this close, those grey eyes seemed to simmer with silver fury.
“When?” he demanded. There was definitely emotion in his voice now. Furious, vengeful emotion.
Pulling her hand back, it took all of her self-discipline to stop herself from rubbing the skin on her hand. It felt singed right to the bone.
“Get me a contract and a check. Once my father’s debts are paid off and his house secure, then we’ll marry. And I will be at your disposal to help you gain custody of your daughter.”
With that, she turned and walked out of the office, but with a bit more decorum and more manners than the last woman who had walked out.
Sebastian stared at the empty doorway, contemplating his morning. This last meeting certainly hadn’t gone the way he’d planned. Deni Stenson wasn’t quite the tame, petite miss that he’d thought she was. Conversely, he hadn’t thought she’d be that mercenary either.
She looked to be the perfect candidate for a wife. She was sweet and demure and wore well-tailored clothes. For a woman who was so concerned with her father’s financial status, Deni Stenson seemed to spend a great deal of money on clothing.
Opening the file folder, he skimmed through the information. She made a good salary, but she’d drained her savings account last year, most likely to help her father pay off the medical bills from her mother’s cancer.
Most people didn’t believe he had a heart. That wasn’t true. He did, but he’d learned the hard way to hide it. Meredith, his ex-wife, had taught that lesson to him repeatedly.
Speaking of mercenary women, he made several notes in the margins of the file, then dialed his lawyer’s office.
“I need you to draw up a contract. Air-tight,” he cautioned. “Deni Stenson will become my wife in three days’ time. I want a prenuptial agreement with these terms.” Twenty minutes later, Sebastian ended the call, satisfied that his lawyer would come up with an agreement that sufficed. Several more calls ensured that Deni’s father wouldn’t be evicted just yet, and he sent someone to ensure that the man didn’t go to a loan shark either. What the man would do if Deni turned down his offer was anyone’s business. But Sebastian didn’t want any reason for the lovely, if prim and surprisingly assertive, Ms. Stenson to back out of their deal.
By five o’clock, he sent a message, commanding Ms. Stenson to appear in his office at five-thirty. He thought about adding “sharp” but refrained. He needed to know if the woman was prompt. She was pretty enough, he knew. And had a mouth-watering figure. But ignoring her physical assets would be a better option. He wasn’t going to fall for the woman. His marriage to Meredith had taught him a valuable lesson. He wasn’t going to step into marriage blind again. Never!