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Packaged Husband (Trophy Husbands, #3) by Noelle Adams (1)

One

Sunday, 10:43 p.m.

Dear Mr. Masterson,

My brother-in-law, Trevor Bentley, told me that you need to repackage your image in order to attract higher-profile designers for partnerships with Masterson’s Department Stores. I am a packaging expert and would love to discuss how I can help you repackage yourself.

Trevor also mentioned you joked about needing a temporary trophy wife. If there is any truth to that, I’d be happy to discuss that as well.

I’m attaching a résumé with my qualifications as a personal packager. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Chelsea Greyson

***

Monday, 6:42 a.m.

Who the hell is this?

OM

***

Monday, 9:36 a.m.

My name is Chelsea Greyson. I’m the granddaughter of Pop Greyson (of Pop’s Home Cooking) who I believe you’ve met on several occasions. My sister is Melissa Greyson, who works at the executive level at Pop’s. She said she talked to you a few weeks ago at a Charleston business luncheon. She is married to Trevor Bentley, who I understand is a friend of yours. Trevor said he ran into you on Friday evening at a cookout at Carl Jenson’s house. It was Trevor who told me that you need help in repackaging your image to attract better designers to your department stores.

I realize this email comes out of the blue, but I believe I can help you if you’re serious about changing your image. I’m reattaching a résumé with my qualifications, and I’d love to discuss this with you further.

Sincerely,

Chelsea Greyson

***

Monday, 10:03 a.m.

I looked at your résumé. You don’t have any work history.

OM

***

Monday, 11:27 a.m.

I do realize I’m lacking a work history, but I don’t think that’s relevant in this situation. My expertise is in knowing what makes people look good and how to come across as stylish and relevant. I understand from Trevor that this is exactly what you need. I’m reattaching my résumé, highlighting the areas in which I can help you. I’m also adding a list of ten references you can contact if you need further information about me and the assistance I can offer you.

I can help you, Mr. Masterson. I’m familiar with Masterson’s stores, and from the research I’ve done on you, I agree you need to change your image if you want to attract better designers. I have a lot of ideas on how we can make that happen for you if you’re willing to hear me out.

I’m available to meet with you at your convenience.

Sincerely,

Chelsea Greyson

***

Monday, 11:46 a.m.

I have 30 minutes free at 3:30 on Wednesday afternoon. Come then if you want.

OM

***

Monday, 11:53 a.m.

Thank you for the opportunity. I’ll see you at 3:30 on Wednesday at your office. I look forward to discussing possibilities with you.

Sincerely,

Chelsea Greyson

***

AFTER TWENTY-FOUR YEARS, being the “pretty one” starts to get old.

Maybe pretty should be a compliment, but it isn’t always. Sometimes it’s an implied insult. Particularly when it’s the only label people ever apply to you.

If you’re one of three blond sisters, you’re going to get labeled as something—if only so people can tell you and your sisters apart. My oldest sister, Melissa, is the bossy one. The ultracompetent one. The one who makes things happen without even trying. And my middle sister, Sam, is the smart one.

That leaves me. Chelsea Greyson. The youngest of my family. The baby. The spoiled princess.

The pretty one.

No one knows anything else to call me.

Both my sisters are attractive, so it’s not like I’m uniquely beautiful. But neither of them puts much effort into their appearance. I dress stylishly and always do my hair, makeup, and nails. I can be counted on to invariably look good, and not many people try to see beyond that.

Pop definitely doesn’t.

Pop is my grandfather. He founded a successful regional restaurant chain called Pop’s Home Cooking and made a ton of money. He raised my sisters and me after our parents died when I was eight.

Other than each other, Pop is all the family we have. But I’ve always been nothing but the “pretty one” to Pop, and that’s all I’ll ever be.

At the moment, Pop and I are having our weekly lunch, and he’s giving me his look of amused disappointment, as if I’m a miniature poodle who’s forgotten how to do its tricks. I’m used to that look. I get it all the time, and not just from my grandfather.

Pop has white hair and a long handlebar mustache that bristles with his mood.

It’s not bristling now because he’s not surprised by me. He’s disappointed, but he’s used to that.

“I am trying, Pop,” I say, holding on to my smile with effort. “It’s not easy to find a job since I have absolutely no work experience. I’ve never had a job before.”

“So what? You’ve got a college degree. And you’re my granddaughter.”

It’s more than evident that the latter qualification is what Pop believes should net me gainful employment. I went to a decent college and got Bs without trying very hard. I’m smart enough for most things, but I’m not as smart as Sam.

I’m not smart enough to impress Pop.

But he’s been treated as a king in Charleston, West Virginia, for as long as I’ve been alive, and he believes his reputation should cast its warm glow onto me.

“I could definitely get some sort of job.” I’m trying not to lose my patience since getting angry with Pop only makes his obnoxious tendencies worse. “But it would be the lowest of entry-level positions. I’m okay with that, but you’re not. No one is going to hire me for the kind of job you’re thinking about without any work experience.”

“I would,” he grumbles. “Why don’t you just work for me?”

Working at Pop’s—with Melissa and/or Pop as a boss—sounds like a nightmare scenario to me.

I’m not foolish enough to say so, however.

“I don’t want to work at Pop’s. It’s nothing personal, but Melissa already works there. I want to do something different.”

“What about Trevor? Maybe he’d hire you.”

I take a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t want to work for my brother-in-law, Pop. Besides, he has a small staff, and everyone who works for him is top-notch. He’s not going to want to hire me.”

Melissa’s husband, Trevor, owns his own marketing firm. Yet another successful person in my social circle. I’m surrounded by them. Even Sam’s husband, Hunter, who was in prison for two years, is moving up fast in the finance department at Pop’s.

Everyone is good at a career except me.

“I’ll make some calls,” Pop says, his mustache starting to quiver for the first time.

“Please don’t make calls, Pop. I want a job that I get myself. Not one you bully someone into hiring me for.”

“I wouldn’t—”

“Please, Pop. I’m not going to accept a job that you engineer for me. Anyway, I’ve got an interview tomorrow for a job.”

“You do? With who? What’s the job?”

I hesitate since the last thing I want is for Pop to call up Owen Masterson this afternoon and mess up the best job possibility I’ve ever had. “I’d rather not say yet.”

“Why not?”

“Pop, I’m an adult. Surely I can go about my job search on my own.”

His mustache quivers at me.

“It’s something I’d be really good at it. It would just be a temporary contract, but it might lead to other opportunities. I’ll tell you about it when I can. Right now I’ve initiated this and gotten the interview entirely on my own. It’s important to me that I do this on my own.”

He frowns. “You’re as stubborn as your sisters, girl.”

“I know that. What else would you expect?”

I’m hoping this means the topic is over.

I’ve been trying to find a job for the past few months, and I suppose this weekly inquisition is Pop’s way of helping. He’s been supporting me financially my whole life, and I normally wouldn’t have a problem with this. But Pop’s money always comes with strings—he believes if he supports me, then he has a right to run my life—and I’ve seen my sisters cutting those strings over the past year or two.

I want to do the same thing.

But that means getting a job when I’ve never had one before.

Yes, I’m spoiled. I don’t deny it. You tell a girl just out of college that she doesn’t have to work and she can have a nice apartment and nice clothes and have fun on her grandfather’s bank account. And I’d like to see how many girls would say no to that arrangement.

It’s only later that the strings start to reveal themselves.

It’s time now for me to live my life, and I’m doing my best to get started. But until I get a job or another way to support myself, I’m pretty much stuck putting up with Pop’s lectures and interference.

“I didn’t expect you to be so on board with me getting a job,” I say to him now, picking out an olive and a crumble of feta cheese from my salad and putting them into my mouth. “I thought you’d rather I get married.”

“Eh.”

I raise my eyebrows at that. “Eh? Isn’t marriage the best thing for women? The only thing that will really fulfill us?”

I’m quoting Pop here. I don’t believe it myself. But Pop is as old-fashioned as they come, and he’s always believed his three granddaughters need solid men to take care of us and keep us in order.

“Yes. But I don’t think you’re ready yet. You’d pick some pretty fool and then be stuck with him all your life. You need to grow up some first. A job’ll be good for you.”

I don’t have much of a temper. I’m a good-natured person. I like to laugh, and I like to understand people.

But I’m suddenly so angry that I clench my hand around the stem of my water glass.

I might be a bit spoiled, but I’m also an adult woman.

I can get married if I want to get married.

I don’t need to grow up. I already have.

“So you don’t want me to get married after all?”

“Sure I do. But not yet. That would be the worst thing you can do. Get a job first. Work for a couple of years. Then you might find a nice, stable fella who’ll have you for a wife.”

My hand squeezes dangerously around the stem of my glass.

Melissa and Sam call me contrary. Maybe I am.

But I know this much is true.

Instead of leaving lunch focused on finding a job, I’m tempted to find a husband.

***

I’M SO ANGRY AND FRUSTRATED that afternoon that I call up my best friend, Eva, for an emergency shopping trip.

We go to three of our favorite stores, but I don’t buy anything even though I’m looking for the perfect outfit for my interview with Owen Masterson tomorrow. And I’m more upset than ever after two hours.

“We can check out Masterson’s after this if you want to keep looking,” Eva says. She’s a short, curvy redhead who works in a salon, and I’ve known her since kindergarten. “Maybe he’d get a kick out of you wearing something from his store.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. All Masterson’s carries are old-people clothes. I think you have to be over sixty to even be allowed in. If he’s looking for a makeover, the first thing to do is not shop at his store.”

“It’s not that bad. They’re starting to get some better stuff there now.”

I snort. “If you say so. I haven’t seen much evidence. No wonder the poor guy needs help.”

“Well, then what do you want to do about the interview outfit tomorrow? We’ve seen at least three dresses that are gorgeous and look perfect on you.”

“I know. But none of them are exactly what I’m looking for.”

“We both know the one you’re looking for. We saw it two hours ago. We can just go back and get it.”

“It’s too expensive.”

Those aren’t normally words that come out of my mouth. Pop is rich enough for me to buy anything I want, and the one good thing about him is that he never nitpicks particular purchases. He gives me a lecture if the credit card bill is too high at the end of the month, and I make adjustments accordingly.

Eva knows me well. She slants me a look. “Since when has a dress you wanted been too expensive?”

“It is now.”

She’s been browsing a rack of discounted designer tops for herself, but she turns to face me. “What’s going on, Chelsea? What happened at lunch with Pop?”

“Oh, it’s nothing really. I mean, just normal stuff. He’s disappointed that I can’t find a good job, and he’s disappointed in everything else about me too.”

“He’s always like that, and you can usually shrug it off. What’s worse today?”

“I don’t even know. He said I’m not grown-up enough to even have a husband. You know how he’s always been about pressuring us to get married. If he doesn’t even think I’m good enough to do that, where does that leave me? He just... he made me feel bad about myself.”

Eva puts down her shopping bag and gives me a hug. “Well, don’t let him. You’re an amazing person, and everyone who knows you knows it.”

“Thanks.” After a minute, I pull away and smile. “It kind of makes me want to find a husband just to spite him.”

“Oh please. You’re not going to follow your sisters’ examples, are you?”

“I don’t know. It worked out for them.”

Both my sisters ended up in unconventional marriage arrangements—triggered by Pop’s pressure and unreasonableness—and they both ended up falling in love with their husbands.

It is tempting.

Both of them are so happy.

I don’t really think I am.

I know for sure that no man has ever looked at me the way Trevor looks at Melissa and Hunter looks at Sam.

It’s intimidating. To have that kind of love to live up to. That deep, unflinching adoration.

I want it. Of course I do.

But what man is ever going to look at me as anything but the pretty one?

“All right,” Eva says with a twitch of a smile. “So propose to Owen Masterson like you were originally planning.”

I almost choke. “I was just joking about that.”

“Were you really?”

“Well, maybe not entirely. When Trevor said he has a friend who needs a temporary trophy wife, it just seemed... too perfect to be real. Wouldn’t I be a great trophy wife?”

I’m teasing. Mostly.

“You’re certainly gorgeous enough, and you’re great at feeding men’s egos, and you make better small talk than anyone I know. But you’d end up hating it. You’d just trade Pop for another demanding old man.”

“Yeah. That’s what I decided. That’s why I changed my mind about the idea and am just looking for a job instead. I don’t want a man to control me the way Pop does. I want to stand on my own two feet.”

“So you should. Although, in all honesty, if you made a business arrangement with Owen Masterson about being his temporary trophy wife, it would be more like a job than a relationship. It would be a fair trade rather than him controlling you. I still get a kick out of that idea.”

“You would. You also got a kick out of me fake-dating Wilson in high school just to make our exes jealous. But this isn’t school anymore. And who on earth would agree to a marriage for those reasons?”

“Trevor. Hunter.”

“Both those situations were different. For one thing, neither of them was a stranger to my sisters. Owen Masterson is a stranger to me.”

“Yeah, but haven’t you called up everyone who knows him over the past two weeks? Everyone says he’s a great guy. Reserved, hardworking, kind of shy and—”

“A fuddy-duddy. A few of them actually used the words.”

“What’s wrong with that? That’s exactly what you should be looking for if you want to be a man’s trophy wife. You don’t want to get stuck with a player or an asshole.”

“I’m not going to get stuck with Owen at all. I’m just looking for a job. Being this guy’s temporary trophy wife might get me out from under Pop’s thumb and solve all my problems, but it’s too crazy to even consider. Maybe I’m not as brave as Melissa and Sam, but I try to imagine myself proposing to him and I just can’t. All I’m going to propose is a three-month strategy to repackage himself and ramp up his cool factor so that he can attract better designers.”

“Oh, all right. Spoil all my fun. You’ll be good at repackaging him. And if you’re too scared to be a temporary trophy wife, then that’s just the way it is.”

“Damn it, Eva. Are you trying to goad me into doing it?”

Eva laughs out loud. “You don’t usually say no to a challenge.”

“Well, I’m going to say no to this. I might be desperate, but I’m not that desperate. When I marry, I want to be into him. I don’t want to marry a stuffy, old fuddy-duddy.”

“He’s not that old. Just over forty. And the one time I saw him, he wasn’t bad-looking. He’s got a certain kind of cuteness going for him. He’s just really buttoned up. I can see why hot designers aren’t very impressed with him and his company.”

“I can help him with that. It’s the one thing I’m good at.”

“You’re good at a lot of things, Chelsea. You’ve just never given yourself the opportunity to discover them.”

***

THE FOLLOWING DAY, on a Wednesday afternoon, I’m waiting in the reception area of Masterson’s executive offices.

I have a leather portfolio in my hand, and I’m wearing a sleek, sleeveless dress, a gorgeous red purse, and my favorite pair of designer heels.

I look great, and I’m nervous as hell.

I’ve never been to a job interview before. I’m going to have to talk to this stranger and try to convince him to take a chance on me.

Not that Owen Masterson feels like a stranger to me now. I know everything about him that is possible to know without meeting him. I’ve studied him over the past two weeks more completely than I ever studied for a final exam.

Here’s what I’ve learned about him.

He’s forty-one years old. Smart, hardworking, ambitious, and fully devoted to his family’s legacy. His grandfather founded Masterson’s Department Stores and passed on leadership to his son when he retired and moved to Florida twenty-five years ago. The company was very successful for the first forty years of its existence, but it’s been declining in profits for the past two decades. Owen has been trying for three years—ever since his father died and he took over the reins of the business—to turn things around.

He hasn’t been able to do it yet, and he thinks the problem is the way the stores and he personally come across to the trendier designers.

He’s serious and shy and not good at social functions with people he doesn’t know well.

And he’s sweet.

That’s what everyone I talk to says.

He’s sweet.

That’s good too. It means he won’t be a difficult man to work with. He’s not going to treat me badly, and he’ll probably take my advice.

And I might be able to sway him if I smile real pretty at him. Sweet, shy guys tend to be easy.

I can do this. I can persuade him to take a chance on me.

My first instinct might have been to offer myself as his temporary trophy wife since it’s the one way to fully cut Pop’s strings, but that wouldn’t be wise or mature or sensible.

And, for once, I’m going to be all those things.

I can be good at this job if he just gives me the opportunity.

I went over strategy for the interview with Melissa for two hours last night, and we came up with a good plan. She’s taken hundreds of interviews, so she knows what’s likely to impress someone like Owen. I have my words, demeanor, and attitude pitch-perfect.

Knowing this doesn’t make it easier to sit and wait for six minutes before a kind-looking, middle-aged receptionist tells me that Mr. Masterson is ready to see me.

I follow the receptionist back into an office that isn’t nearly as large and well furnished as I expected. The desk and bookcases appear decent quality, but they also look thirty years old. I guarantee Owen never refurnished this office after he took over from his father.

It’s still the same faded carpet on the floor. Still curtains that must have been hung in the nineties. And the painting on the wall facing the desk is the ugliest flower print in pinks and oranges I’ve ever seen.

How can he bear to look at it all day long?

If the office isn’t what I expected, Owen Masterson is even less so.

He’s cute.

Not drop-dead sexy and definitely in need of a makeover, but he’s cute.

More than cute.

I really like the looks of him.

He’s about three inches taller than me—I know because he stands up as I approach so he can shake my hand—and he’s got thick, dark hair and hazel eyes and a very nice set of shoulders. His cheekbones are high, and his chin is strong, and he’s got deep character lines on the sides of his mouth and the corners of his eyes.

He’s not movie-star gorgeous like Trevor or gruffly sexy like Hunter. But he’s got something going for him.

Something that’s going to make a repackaging easier than I expected.

Most people would have greeted me. Introduced themselves as we shake hands.

But Owen doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything. He squeezes my hand with his bigger, warmer one, and there’s not a hint of a smile on his face.

What kind of guy doesn’t even say hello when a stranger makes an appointment and then walks into his office?

I give him my best smile.

It’s a good one. Everyone says so. My best feature. My teeth are perfect after years of orthodontic work, and I’m wearing my favorite rose-red lipstick.

Owen doesn’t smile back. He sits down in his desk chair rather abruptly.

“I’m Chelsea Greyson,” I say since someone needs to say something and he still hasn’t spoken.

“Yes.”

My smile fades a little. He’s peering at me with those sober hazel eyes, and it’s unnerving.

Doesn’t this man ever smile?

“Trevor Bentley is my—”

“I know who you are.”

“Oh. Good.” His interruption has thrown me off stride a bit since I had my whole spiel planned out, but I recover quickly. “Did you get a chance to look at my qualifications?”

“Yes.” He’s still staring, and it’s getting on my nerves.

I’m not expecting this to be easy, but he could at least converse like a normal person. So far, all he’s done is interrupt me and make monosyllabic responses.

“Trevor said you needed repackaging.”

“Did he?”

“Well, he said that you said you need repackaging. I’m sure Trevor doesn’t care at all about your packaging. But he said you said—”

“I need repackaging.”

This is getting annoying. He won’t let me finish anything I want to say. How the hell am I supposed to convince him of the brilliance of my offer and woo him with my charm and appeal?

“I’m good at that. Repackaging.” I smile at him again, hiding my frustration.

He doesn’t respond. Just looks me over from my perfectly highlighted red-gold hair to my pretty champagne-colored heels. His eyes linger on my neckline and my legs, and I hope that’s promising.

There’s no way to tell if he likes how I look though. His expression reveals absolutely nothing.

“So I thought maybe we could help each other.” There. I finally got something important said.

His eyebrows are thick and dark. They definitely could use a little shaping, but I’m glad to see them draw together a bit right now. At least it’s some sort of expression.

The normal thing for him to do would be to ask how we could help each other.

Anyone would, when left dangling like that.

Owen doesn’t, of course. He leans back in his chair and looks me up and down again. “You’ve been calling everyone I know, telling them we’ve been set up on a blind date and you want to know more about me.”

I lick my lips. Not as strategy but to give myself time to think. It makes sense he’d know what I’ve been doing. Some of his friends and acquaintances would call him up after I talked to them.

“I didn’t tell them we have a blind date. They may have come away with that impression, but that wasn’t my intention.”

“They all accidentally stumbled on the same explanation for the call?”

I try another smile. This one conspiratorial, slightly teasing. “I didn’t tell them we have a blind date, but it was a convenient conclusion for them to come to. I couldn’t really tell them the truth about why I was calling to ask them personal questions about you.”

“Was that to protect my pride?” He looks more relaxed now, although his face is still perfectly sober. “You didn’t want to tell all my friends you were making sure I was able to be repackaged before you offered yourself for the job?”

I’m actually impressed he’s fit together a coherent explanation even if it isn’t the right one. “Everyone is able to be repackaged. You’re a good-looking man. You’ve got good hair, good eyes, and good shoulders. I’d change your haircut and get you new clothes. I could give you tips on socializing effectively and help you practice it. I’d have no trouble at all repackaging you. Protecting your pride was a convenient by-product, but it wasn’t my real purpose in checking all those references.”

“References?”

“Yes. I needed to make sure you would be a decent person to work with.”

His eyebrows draw together again. “You were worried about that?”

“Yes, I was worried. This kind of thing is more... intimate than a normal job would be. I didn’t want to get stuck giving a makeover to an asshole.”

His head leans back slightly, and his lips part, like he understands what I mean. “And you’ve decided I’m not an asshole?”

“Yes. Everyone agrees. You’re as far from an asshole as it’s possible to be.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Why wouldn’t it be a compliment?” I’ve completely forgotten my practiced spiel. This man has totally thrown me off my game.

“Isn’t it kind of boring to be incapable of being an asshole?”

I have to think about that question for a minute. It befuddles me. “I don’t know,” I say at last. “I’d rather someone be boring than an asshole.”

He seems to think about that too, and eventually he nods.

I take a deep breath and continue, “I can ramp up your cool factor. I can ramp it up as high as you want. I can make you look and talk like you’d be a good fit for any designer you want to work with. And, if that’s what you want, then I can provide it. But I can also offer you more.”

Something almost imperceptible tightens in his jaw and shoulders. “More?”

“I think you’ll have more success with changing your image if you’re dating someone young and stylish. I’d be happy to pretend to be your girlfriend when you’re having dinner with perspective designers for the next few months. That would make it easier to sell your new image.”

He doesn’t look surprised. That’s something.

“It’s entirely up to you. But I’ve put together a couple of draft contracts. One where I just provide the makeover and repackaging advice. The other is a three-month contract where I do all of the other stuff and also act as your girlfriend when you have designers in town.”

I take the contracts out of the portfolio I’ve been holding on my lap this whole time and hand them to him. Melissa helped me with both contracts last night, so I know they’re good. “Obviously, these are preliminary. We can finalize details in a way that works for both of us.”

He scans the first page of one of the contracts and then skims through the rest of the pages. “You think the dating one will work better than the other one.”

“Yes. I really do. I’m not going to lie. It’s a better contract for me too since it will give me work for three months rather than just a few weeks. But I think it will work better for you too.”

“Why do you need to work?”

The question surprises me, just as everything else about this man has. “Why wouldn’t I work?”

“I’ve talked to a lot of people about you. You’ve never worked before.”

For no good reason my cheeks warm slightly at the idea of his asking around about me. “I want to start working now. I’ve lived off Pop my whole life, and it’s not the arrangement I want. Three months working with you would give me an income and also some time to find a more permanent position after our contract is over.”

He nods as if what I say makes sense.

“I’m not good at very many things. If you’ve asked around about me, I can guess what you’ve been told. They told you I’m fun. I’m social. I’m spoiled. I love shopping. I know fashion. I’m good with what’s trendy. I can make small talk with anyone in the world. Men tend to like me. I’m not as smart or impressive as my sisters are, but the things I’m good at are exactly the things you need. I’m trying to find a job that suits me, and this is something I can do. I’m what you need, Mr. Masterson. You should take my offer seriously.”

There.

I’ve said everything.

I have no idea what other argument I can make.

So I sit there breathlessly and wait.

It takes him a long time to answer.

Then he finally says, “In your first email, you said you’d be willing to discuss being my temporary trophy wife.”

I’m so surprised I nearly fall out of my chair. “What?”

“I think you heard me.”

“I was joking! I wanted to catch your attention, so I said that.” I’d been half-serious in that first email before I chickened out, but he doesn’t need to know that.

“I know you were trying to catch my attention. But are you willing to discuss it?”

“You want to... to discuss it?” I thought I was in control of this situation, but I’m not even close. I cross my arms in front of my stomach and fight to keep my expression composed.

“Yes. I agree it will be more effective if you pretend to be my girlfriend. If that’s true, then it will be even more effective if you are actually my wife.”

“You want... you want...”

I’m shocked. Almost dizzy from it.

But a spark of excitement has ignited inside me, the same one I felt when Trevor first laughed about his friend needing a temporary trophy wife.

This is what I am.

This is what I do.

I could rock the hell out of being a trophy wife.

“I want to discuss it,” he says, as blandly and soberly as he’s talked about everything else. “You’ve done research on me. I’m a decent guy. And it’s going to take more than a few months to make the partnerships I need for Masterson’s.”

“How long will it take?”

“At least a year.”

“So you think we should... we should get married for a year?”

“I think we should talk about it. If you’re under contract with me for a year, then that will give you even more time to find a career for yourself.”

“So you’re thinking a business arrangement, right?”

“Right. I’ve always known what I need. A temporary trophy wife. If that’s a situation that could work for you too, why shouldn’t we consider it?”

His eyes are as sober as ever. Not even a hint of a smile. It’s unnerving that he’s not lightening this conversation with irony or humor.

But it’s also strangely gratifying.

He’s taking me seriously.

No one ever has before.

“I’ll need to... think about it.”

He nods. “Of course. Think about it. If you decide against it, we can still go with the three-month dating contract.”

I let out a breath and try not to beam at him.

He really thinks I can help him.

He genuinely believes I’m capable of doing a job he needs done.

He doesn’t think I’m just the pretty one and nothing else.

This recognition is making my heart do all kinds of crazy flip-flops.

“I’ll think about it and let you know by the end of the week,” I say, standing up because with the way I’m feeling I might end up saying something stupid and embarrassing.

“Just call if you want to talk things out or ask questions.” He hands me a business card on which he’s scrawled out his cell number.

I smile at him as I take the card and then smooth down my dress. It skims over my breasts and my hips, and I see his eyes following the line of it.

“You’re not what I expected,” he says, making my heart jump in excitement.

Not just my heart jumps.

Other parts of my body jump too.

I have no idea why.

This man isn’t my type at all. And it’s not even clear if what he says is a compliment.

But it feels like a compliment to me.

I’m trying to hide my jitters as I reach out to shake his hand. “Thank you. I’ll be in touch.”

I don’t stall as I give my farewell and walk out of his office. Partly because I suspect he hates small talk but also because I’m feeling so unsettled.

Why the hell would I have responded that way to him? He’s cute enough, but nothing special.

He doesn’t know how to flirt at all. I can’t imagine him having sex. Would he smile and talk naturally even then, or would he go through all the motions with that same quiet seriousness?

Actually, that would be kind of sexy. All that sober intent focused on me in bed.

It doesn’t matter.

He’s taking me seriously, and he obviously needs what I can offer. He wants to work with me.

He might even want to marry me.

My first instinct was the right one. Owen and I can help each other.

It clearly doesn’t matter to him that this situation is an unconventional one. It doesn’t matter to him that most people would say we were crazy.

So it won’t matter to me either.

This might actually work.

I’d be free of Pop and have a year to figure out how I can support myself.

What more could I ask for?

I told Owen I need to think about it, but the truth is I only need to convince myself it’s not a stupid idea.

I already know what my final answer will be.

I’m going to eventually say yes.

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