Jared showered quickly, wanting to impress his future boss. He’d expected the advert to be from a security firm or even a mercenary-recruiting company, not an embarrassed woman who could barely string a sentence together. He could follow orders, no matter who issued them. The Marines had taught him that, along with a dozen ways to take out his enemies, but he preferred to be his own boss.
When he looked in the mirror, he didn’t like what he saw. He’d worked all week with barely a break trying to get ahead on his commission. His beard needed trimming and his mustache, usually so neat on his upper lip, had grown scraggly. Grabbing his electronic razor, he shaved them both off, but his long hair looked messy against his clean-shaven cheeks. He grabbed some scissors, pulled the ends into a ponytail, and cut it off. Still unsatisfied, he ran the razor over his dark hair, giving himself the military crew cut he’d worn until he went on special assignment.
He pulled on some jeans and his favorite blue T-shirt. There. He looked respectable enough to impress a recruiting sergeant, let alone a prospective employer. She’d arrive in time for a late lunch, but he wanted to meet on neutral ground. He remembered the café overlooking the lake in a nearby park. When she rang back, he’d arrange to meet her there.
Hanging about doing nothing almost drove him crazy. He ached to polish a piece of oak he’d been working on, but he needed to stay clean and tidy. Sawdust on his jeans wouldn’t win him any points in a job interview, he supposed. Damn it. How long do we need to talk before I can ask her about the advance?
Eventually, he walked the three miles to the nearest park and found a table on the café’s balcony overlooking the lake. When his phone rang again, he answered, “Jared Armstrong.”
A soft, feminine voice asked, “I’m a mile from the city limits. Where should I meet you?”
He gave her directions, pleased when she liked the idea of meeting in impersonal surroundings. When the waitress came for his order, he told her, “Two sparkling mineral waters, please. A friend’s joining me soon.”
Damn it. If she asks me about my friend, I’m screwed. I don’t even know her name.
Fortunately, once the waitress had brought the drinks, she left him in peace. Almost quarter of an hour later, a woman stopped beside his table. She’d pulled her hair into an unflattering ponytail, and she wore the baggiest sweater he’d ever seen. Her glasses were the gold-rimmed sort that went out of fashion before the change of the century.
Rising to his feet, he held out his hand. “Jared Armstrong. Pleased to meet you.”
He towered over her diminutive frame, six-feet-six to her five-feet-four. She studied him a moment, reached out, and shook his hand briefly. “Abigail’s enough for now.”
He sat back in his seat, forcing himself to appear relaxed. “Okay.”
He regretted not pulling her chair out and seating her, but she was a prospective employer, not his date. A good thing too, since she didn’t seem to have an ounce of vanity or dress sense. He sipped at his water and waited for her to speak.
Blushing, she sucked on her lower lip. “This is awkward. Can I ask you some questions?”
He nodded. “I don’t guarantee answering them, but ask away.”
God, he wished she’d get on with it, but she studied the unopened menu as though her life depended on it. Finally, she lifted her head. “Are you married?”
His eyes narrowed. “Your advert said no ties. I’m single, HIV free, and I don’t screw anyone for cash.”
She choked on her drink, coughing and splattering water over the table. Jared watched and waited, unwilling to make it easier for her when she was the one who placed the advert.
Across the table from him, Abigail curled her hands into fists and laid them on her lap. Her smile faded and her voice trembled. “Will you marry me?”
“Are you pregnant?” he shot back.
Her cheeks turned scarlet. “No. In fact, I came on my period two days ago. But I do need a husband. I know I’m not what you imagined in a wife, but I’m willing to pay a $75,000 advance as well as house, feed, and clothe you for two years. After that, I’ll pay you another $150,000 when we divorce.”
He stared at her intently, trying to decide if she needed therapy—or perhaps a few weeks in the local insane asylum. “You’re serious?”
She took a sip of mineral water. “I am.”
His eyes narrowed, and his forehead furrowed in anger. “I’ll feed and clothe myself. Can I still put time in with my business, or should I get a job local to where you live?”
When she finally smiled, it felt as though the sun had come out on a cloudy day.
Putting her glass on the table, she took looked anywhere but at him. “I’m glad you want to do so. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I chose you. You have values and goals. All I have is an insane great-aunt, or I did until recently.”
“Tell me about it,” he demanded.
Abigail’s eyes glazed over as she told him the bare bones of her story. “Great-Aunt Edith disapproved of everything. Have you ever met a woman so straitlaced she made your teeth ache? Well, that sums up my great-aunt. Her grandmother made the history books as a star of the silent movies, but she’s even more famous for the plethora of millionaires she bedded. One of her lovers gave her Westhorpe Hall, but she changed the name to match hers. Others showered her in jewels. Apparently she preferred stocks and shares.”
As she’d intended, he laughed. Her mind drifted, and she smiled slightly. This man with his knockout smile and lickable dimples could make a fortune advertising toothpaste.
He stayed silent, so Abigail plowed on with her explanation. “My great-great-grandmother amassed millions, but her daughter had social ambitions that their mother’s reputation kiboshed. She raised her children—Great-Aunt Edith and my gran—so prim and proper they disapproved of everything, even each other. I never knew my gran, but my mom once had a rebellious streak. I think she’s found it again now she’s remarried and moved to Texas.”
He called the waitress over and ordered a liter bottle of sparkling water, then glanced across at Abigail. “I can recommend the beef sandwiches.”
She blinked, as if his interruption threw her. “That’s fine.”
He placed the order, then turned back to the woman sitting across from him. This whole thing sounded crazy, and while part of him wanted to walk away, he needed the money to keep his family safe. “Keep going.”
Abigail waited a moment before she rushed on. “Mom got pregnant without getting married. Worse, she did it again when she had me. To hear Great-Aunt Edith go on about it, you’d have thought the world had ended. Mom and Dad married eventually, but they did it in their time, not hers.”
Jared laughed. “I bet that went over well with your great-aunt.”
Abigail stared over his shoulder, hating how circumstances forced her to bare her soul to a stranger. “I used to think my family hated me and my brother, Adam. Well, not Mom and Dad, of course, but thanks to my great-aunt’s will, we’ve learned Edith also had a daughter out of wedlock. God knows how Edith Montgomery ever got a man into her bed. Kissing her would have been like sucking lemons. Anyway, no one ever spoke about her daughter, but apparently she yearned for a rock-and-roll lifestyle, packed her bags, and headed to Washington. If you’d met Great-Aunt Edith, you’d understand, but no one heard from her daughter again. Not surprising since, according to a letter my great-aunt left with her lawyers, she’s dead. Apparently my great-aunt kept tabs on her, and we learned from the will that there’s granddaughter none of us ever knew about. She shares our inheritance, assuming we can find her, but Great-Aunt Edith’s ensured Adam gets the hall.”
Jared leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. “That’s all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with me?”
Abigail took a moment to study him, as if she was making up her mind what she was prepared to tell him. “Great-Aunt Edith inherited everything. She left me, my brother, and my missing aunt’s daughter three-quarters of a million dollars outright. If all three of us are married within a year, the money goes up—a lot, but we have to stay married for at least two years. Honestly, I’d resigned myself to being a spinster schoolmarm. Yes, I know it’s a stereotype, but men don’t see me as date material.”
He looked her over for almost five minutes, considering her demands. With those shocking glasses and frizzy hair, he’d normally pass her in the street without giving her a second look. Now she wanted to marry him. Still, as he’d put in his letter, he had nothing left to sell but himself. “I’d like $125,000 in advance, but it’s a loan. When my business takes off, I swear I’ll pay you back. I don’t want a divorce settlement either. Get a lawyer to draft the contract with those conditions, and I’ll do it.”