Excerpt: Fiancé for Hire

 

Chapter One

 

Amanda Coppersmith loved being The Boss.

The thought came to her unexpectedly as she exited a meeting with her art director and strolled past her assistant editors’ cubicles, nodding at the deferential greetings tossed her way, pausing briefly to chat with the new copy editor and see how she was settling in.

Not that the corner office had been Amanda’s conscious goal eight years earlier when she’d walked out of Cornell University with a degree in journalism and the proverbial fire in her belly to do something special with it. Still, it had been a part of her even then: an entrepreneurial spark that had never let her settle for punching someone else’s time clock.

Which she’d done for five years, working for various magazines, involving herself in every aspect of the business—editorial, sales, art, layout, everything. Soaking up knowledge and experience. Preparing for the day when she’d finally break out and launch her own publication.

Grasshopper.

An unprepossessing name for an entity that had come to mean everything to Amanda in the three short years since the first issue saw print. To others, Grasshopper was a slick children’s nature monthly, a remarkably successful upstart in the juvenile magazine market. To Amanda it was tangible proof of her own talent, intelligence, resourcefulness, and perseverance.

She opened the door to her office—yes, a corner office, a spacious, sun-washed, elegantly appointed corner office to be precise, located on the tenth floor of a building on West Twentieth Street in Manhattan. To her surprise, three women sat waiting for her. One had had the temerity to park herself behind Amanda’s glass-topped desk.

“Get out of my chair, Sunny.”

“I like it here.” Sunny Bleecker Larsen spun the burgundy leather executive chair in a circle. “Mind if I steal this? It’s more comfy than that old recliner Kirk’s folks gave us.”

Amanda crossed to the sleek, blond-wood credenza set under the picture windows in the corner. She propped her hip on the credenza, causing the short skirt of her tailored seafoam-green suit to ride up even higher. She glanced at her slim gold watch. Nearly five-thirty. “What are you guys doing in the city? You didn’t come in to go shopping, did you? Isn’t this a school day?” She looked at Carlotta “Charli” Rossi Sterling, who taught instrumental music at their old high school on Long Island.

“School’s out for Columbus Day.” Charli leaned back in one of the two ultramodern leather guest chairs set in front of Amanda’s desk.

Raven Muldoon Radley occupied the other one. Four and a half months pregnant, Raven had recently begun wearing the maternity clothes Amanda had helped her pick out. Today it was a calf-length rayon dress in shades of dusty blue. The color complemented her chin-length, honey-colored hair, several shades darker than Amanda’s own light blond mane. Today Amanda had secured the straight, pale, shoulder-length strands in a French twist.

“I canceled my hypnotherapy clients for today,” Raven said, “and Sunny got Kirk’s parents to watch Ian for her. Girls’ day out. Museum of Modern Art. High tea at the Plaza.”

“And last but not least—” Sunny pointed a finger at Amanda “—ambushing you here at quitting time.”

“I can’t go to dinner with you,” Amanda said. “I’ve got to be home by seven-thirty to let in the electrician. I’m having directional lighting installed in the kitchen, remember?” She knew she’d mentioned it to Sunny. It must have slipped her friend’s mind.

A fifteen-minute taxi ride to Pennsylvania Station, plus nearly an hour on the Long Island Railroad and the ten-minute drive to her house, meant she had to leave the office by six, latest.

“Dinner isn’t what this is about,” Raven said.

Charli pushed her long, dark brown hair behind her ear. “We just want to talk.”

“About…?” The instant Amanda asked, she knew. “Oh no. We settled this.”

“That’s right,” Sunny said. “We settled it twelve years ago.”

“When we made our pact,” Raven said.

“Our solemn vow,” Charli added.

“We were kids then!” Amanda pushed off the credenza. “You can’t hold me to a decision I made when I was eighteen. Not about something this important.”

“The rest of us were held to it,” Sunny pointed out. “With excellent results, I might add. Three for three.”

“Now it’s your turn,” Charli said.

“I already told you guys, I don’t want a turn. I refuse to participate. This whole wacky scheme worked for you all, and I’m happy it did—hell, I’m thrilled for you—but it isn’t the same for me.”

“You entered into this pact of your own free will,” Raven said, “just like the rest of us.”

“And you turned thirty on Saturday, two days ago.” Charli gave a brisk nod. “Time to set things in motion.”

“You’re neglecting one crucial fact.” Amanda gesticulated broadly. “I don’t want to get married!”

Sunny dismissed this statement with a wave of her hand. “That’s irrelevant.”

“How can it be irrelevant? My God, it couldn’t be more relevant. We instituted the Wedding Ring back when we were boy-crazy adolescents who thought we knew what love and marriage were all about. Well, I found out what they were about—twice! Two doomed walks down the aisle were more than enough to teach me that the holy state of matrimony and I don’t mix.”

The Wedding Ring was what the four best friends called themselves, a name they’d coined shortly after graduating high school. Under the terms of the Wedding Ring pact, if any of them reached the age of thirty unmarried, the other three would find her a husband.

There were two rules: first, the lucky fellow must not be told he was involved in a matchmaking scheme, at least not before the wedding. And second, the Wedding Ring member had to go out with the chosen man for three months, no matter what—unless he broke it off before then. The idea was that your best friends in the world, who’d known you since kindergarten, knew what, and who, was best for you, even if you didn’t.

And the pact had worked three times so for, even if there had been a few glitches along the way. In March Raven had married Hunter Radley, who happened to be the brother of the man her Wedding Ring pals had chosen for her.

Three months later Charli and Grant Sterling had tied the knot—for the second time. Their first wedding, a private civil ceremony, had been part of a marriage of convenience that had turned decidedly inconvenient when the bride and groom actually fell in love with each other. In July, Charli and Grant had pulled out the stops with a big church wedding that celebrated their newfound devotion and commitment.

And just yesterday Sunny had married her high school sweetheart, Kirk Larsen, a widower with an adorable toddler named Ian. A physics professor at a local university, Kirk couldn’t take time off for a honeymoon now, in early October, with the semester just a few weeks along. He and Sunny would wait until school let out for intersession in February when they planned to soak up the sun in Puerto Vallarta.

“I told you yesterday,” Amanda said, “but I see it bears repeating. I will not cooperate in any way if you attempt to set me up with a man. You guys could avoid a lot of awkwardness and embarrassment for everyone if you’d just get that through your amazingly thick skulls.”

“But you agreed.” Charli’s expression was set. Of the four of them, she took the Wedding Ring pact most to heart. But then, back when they’d made it, Charli had considered herself plain and unmarriageable. She must have seen their girlhood promise to find one another husbands as her only chance at marital bliss. “We just want you to be happy, Amanda. I think you’re lonely and you just haven’t met the right man. And now you’ve stopped trying after that last lousy divorce. Even your brother thinks this antimarriage routine of yours is a smoke screen to save yourself more hurt.”

“My brother?” Amanda frowned. “When did you talk to Jared?”

Charli’s dark brown eyes grew wide. “Uh…”

Sunny exchanged an indecipherable look with Raven. “They chatted yesterday at my wedding,” Sunny said. “Isn’t that right, Charli?”

“Yes,” Charli hurriedly agreed. “Yes, at the wedding.”

What was that about? Amanda wondered. “You guys have some trick up your sleeve, don’t you?”

Raven blinked. “Trick?”

“Don’t give me that innocent act. What are you up to?”

“You know,” Sunny said, “you have a suspicious mind. All we want is to ensure your happiness—”

“Is Jared in on it?” Amanda demanded. “That’s a violation of the Wedding Ring rules if he is. No outsiders are supposed to know about the pact.” Only Hunter, Grant, and Kirk—the Wedding Ring husbands—now knew about it, as well as Charli’s grandmother, who was a much-loved confidante to all four friends. “Have you gotten my brother involved in whatever little scheme you’ve cooked up?”

Raven said, “You’re the one with the devious mind, Amanda. That naturally leads you to suspect others of the same thing.”

“You’re a hypnotherapist,” Amanda said, “not a psychotherapist, so spare me the armchair analysis.”

Sunny turned to Raven. “Hey, there’s an idea. Maybe you could hypnotize her into fulfilling her obligation to the Wedding Ring.”

“My obligation! Oh, I like that. It’s my future that’s at stake.”

Raven ignored her outburst. “We already have someone in mind. I just know you two will hit it off.”

“Now, wait a—”

“His name is James Selden,” Sunny said. “He’s a golfing buddy of Grant’s, a hunky real estate developer looking for Mrs. Right. We’ll bring him to your birthday party.”

“What birthday party?” This was going too fast for Amanda. “I told you not to bother with a party for me.”

“Oh. Okay,” Sunny said, deadpan, as if such an order would ever be obeyed.

“The party’s this Saturday,” Charli said. “Eight o’clock at my house. I hope you don’t have plans for then.”

“If she does, she’ll cancel them,” Sunny said.

“All right.” Amanda knew how to pick her battles. “I’ll be there. And thank you. It’s sweet of you to do that for me. But no matchmaking. If you drag this James guy there for me to meet, I swear to God I’ll walk right out.”

Raven sighed. “Won’t you just give him a chance?”

“No.”

Charli said, “Don’t be stubborn. How do you know you won’t like him?”

“That’s not the point. I’ve sworn off marriage. When I go out with men nowadays, it’s strictly for fun. No strings.”

Amanda was unmoved by her pals’ protestations of innocence. They had to know she had no intention of taking up with this James Selden, or any other marriage-minded man. Raven, Sunny, and Charli had concocted some sort of plot to get around her resistance. She could practically smell it. Somehow she had to beat them at their own game.

Raven was right about one thing. Amanda was devious—in the best sense of the word, of course. After all, she hadn’t gotten where she was by giving in and doing things other people’s way. Surely a clever, determined woman like her could come up with a way to make an end run around her matchmaking friends.

As her mind massaged the problem, the germ of an idea took root.

Amanda settled back on the credenza, arms folded. “Let me ask you something. Let’s say I met a man I liked and we decided to date exclusively. If such a thing were to happen, wouldn’t that satisfy my obligation to the Wedding Ring?”

“Not so fast.” Sunny held up a hand. “The rule is three months. You have to see him for three months.”

Amanda sighed. “Three months, then.”

“Wait a minute,” Raven said. “It’s not enough for her to just date a guy for three months.”

“Raven’s right,” Charli stated. “The whole point of the Wedding Ring is marriage, not just dating. Amanda would have to marry the man.”

“That’s not fair!” Amanda cried. “The rule is I have to date the man for three months, whether or not it leads to a wedding.”

“That would be true,” Sunny pointed out, “if you were introduced by the other members of the Wedding Ring. If the man is someone you come up with on your own—” she shrugged “—then the rules are stricter. Otherwise who knows what you’d try to get away with.”

“Well, we all know what she’d try to get away with,” Raven said. “That’s why it has to end in marriage.”

Amanda’s eyes narrowed as her quick mind rolled this around. “Okay, how about this. I date someone, we fall in love, we become engaged. Engagements sometimes fall through. As long as we’re together for the magical three months, wedding or no wedding, I’m off the hook.”

“I don’t like this negotiating,” Charli said. “This should be about love and romance. Listen to you. It sounds like you’re buying a used car.”

“What it sounds like to me,” Raven told Amanda, one eyebrow raised, “is that you’re devising a way to wriggle out of the pact. Any engagement has to be sincere. If we even suspect it’s a put-on—”

“You don’t really think I’d do something like that?” Amanda plastered on her most guileless expression. “I mean, come on. Even if I were to try such a lame move, let’s face it. The three of you have known me practically my whole life. I’d never get away with it. I’m just not that good an actress.”

Her friends seemed to ponder this. “Well,” Sunny said at last, “it’s okay by me, I guess. Three months and an honest-to-God engagement. But I think we’re all wasting our breath. Amanda keeps saying she doesn’t want anything permanent. So there won’t be any special guy, any engagement, if we leave it up to her. So we’re back to square one.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Amanda shrugged. “Maybe it’s like you say. Maybe I just haven’t met the right man.”

“When you do,” Charli said, “it’ll make all the difference. Then you’ll wonder how you ever could have fought the idea.”

Charli was so candidly, painfully sincere, Amanda felt a pang of guilt for what she was planning to do. She truly was thrilled that her best friends had found the men they were meant to share their lives with, but she wished they could understand why their version of happily ever after just couldn’t work for her.

Amanda Coppersmith hadn’t failed at much that she’d set her mind to, but bitter experience had driven home one irrefutable fact: She made a lousy wife. She might have been able to convince herself otherwise if it had only been one husband who’d walked out on her, but two?

Amanda had plenty of practice concealing her feelings behind a neutral facade. She was certain that even these close friends who’d known her for a quarter of a century were oblivious to the grim direction of her thoughts.

She’d lied: She was a good enough actress to fool them. She’d done it before when she’d suffered a debilitating depression during her second divorce last year. She’d do it again to ensure there wouldn’t be a third.

She checked her watch once more. “I hate to kick you guys out, but I really do have to run.”

Her friends gathered their things and accompanied Amanda down the elevator and outside the building, where she automatically began scanning the street for a taxi. The sidewalk was congested with pedestrians as the surrounding offices’ disgorged workers headed home. This area of the city was thick with modeling agencies, photo studios, and more than a few up-and-coming dot-coms.

Amanda asked, “How long do you suppose it’ll take us to get a cab? Well, at least it’s not raining.”

“You’re on your own.” Raven slung her purse strap over her shoulder. “We’re going to catch dinner at that new Vietnamese restaurant around the corner.”

Amanda mock-pouted. “Without me?” she teased, stepping off the curb and wagging her arm as she spied a yellow cab with its rooftop license number glowing, meaning it was available. What luck! Usually she walked over to Sixth Avenue to hail a taxi since traffic on Sixth headed north, in the direction of Pennsylvania Station. Catching a cab here on Twentieth, an eastbound crosstown street, meant a longer, more circuitous, more expensive ride, but she wasn’t about to complain about snagging a taxi within seconds at rush hour. If she exercised enough New York assertiveness, no one else would beat her to this one. She stepped farther into the street, raised two fingers to her mouth, and emitted a piercing whistle.

Yes! she thought as the cab pulled to a stop next to her. This was a good omen. Already things were going her way.

“Enjoy your dinner,” she called to her pals as she tossed her briefcase onto the backseat and slid in after it. “Penn Station,” she instructed the driver. He started the meter and merged with traffic. A recorded announcement reminded her to buckle up. This time the celebrity voice belonged to Walt Frazier, onetime basketball player for the New York Knicks.

Amanda chewed over the logistics of her fledgling plan as the taxi turned right on Fifth. The guy she chose mustn’t be anyone her friends knew. He had to be some anonymous fellow she could introduce as her new beau, get engaged to in short order, and dump once the requisite three months were up.

And he had to be believable, someone her pals could imagine her falling for.

The driver interrupted her thoughts. “Con Ed’s got the street torn up on Nineteenth. I’m going to have to go down to Seventeenth to head west.”

Well, that was different—a New York taxi driver who spoke unaccented English. He was warning her that he’d have to drive even farther out of the way before heading north and west.

“I don’t care,” she said, “as long as I make my train.”

“When’s your train?”

“Six-seventeen.”

“No problem. I’ll get you there with time to spare.”

Amanda looked at the driver for the first time. He was youngish, with short, dark hair and impenetrable sunglasses. He wore a black T-shirt, which stretched over lovely twitching biceps as he turned the wheel with skill and confidence, dodging bicyclists and hapless pedestrians, outracing red lights, maneuvering the car expertly through the surrounding traffic.

She settled against the worn vinyl upholstery, mulling over her options. She had to move fast, a preemptive strike. If she waited too long, her Wedding Ring pals would set whatever scheme they’d concocted into motion and she’d be left trying to play catch-up.

The cabbie glanced in the rearview mirror. Even though he was wearing dark shades, Amanda knew he was looking at her. A prickle of awareness raced over her skin.

“You all right?” he asked.

“What? Yes, of course.” After a moment she said, “Why?”

His broad shoulders lifted and lowered. “You were kind of muttering to yourself. And you had this look on your face like a spring was poking you right through the seat.”

Amanda smiled. She couldn’t help herself. Normally she avoided conversation with taxi drivers, but this fellow was so personable, without being pushy or, worse, leering. She felt herself begin to relax.

“I’ve got a conundrum,” she said, and immediately wondered if he knew what the word meant. “That is, I’m trying to solve a—”

“Work or love?” he asked, with another glance in the rearview mirror. “Or family? Whatever you’re puzzling over, chances are it’s one of those three.”

Well, well. Not only could this taxi driver converse in the Queen’s English, he possessed a respectable vocabulary. Clearly he dwelled at the top of the cabbie food chain.

Amanda checked out the hack license mounted behind the driver’s head. His name was Nikolaos Stephanos. Of Greek extraction, then. She squinted at the accompanying photo, too small and blurry to tell her much, except that Nikolaos Stephanos didn’t smile for license photos.

“I’m not trying to pry,” he said, when she didn’t respond.

“Sure you are. And since you ask, it’s about love. Well, not really. It’s about well-meaning friends who don’t know when to butt the hell out of other people’s lives.”

In the rearview mirror the saw Nikolaos Stephanos grin, saw the flash of straight white teeth, in startling contrast to his swarthy skin. And was that a dimple? Oh my. If all New York cabdrivers looked this good, and smelled this good—she inhaled deeply of the clean masculine scent that drifted into the backseat—no woman would ever take the subway.

“So, what?” he asked. “Your friends have their own ideas about who you should be with?”

“Something like that.” Amanda chewed her lip while her fertile imagination took an unexpected detour.

Nah… he’s a taxi driver, for heaven’s sake!

“Why do people always think they know you better than you know yourself?” he asked, as he turned right off Seventeenth onto Eighth Avenue. “Reminds me of something the Earl of Chesterfield once wrote. Let me see if I remember this right. ‘In matters of religion and matrimony I never give any advice; because I will not have anybody’s torments in this world or the next laid to my charge.’”

Good Lord, the man quotes dead earls! Amanda peered at the hack license again. Yep, Mr. Stephanos was indeed a genuine, honest-to-God New York City taxi driver.

And an accomplished one, judging by the swift progress they were making up Eighth. Too swift, even for a quick-thinking woman of action like Amanda. She needed time to ruminate on this some more, time she didn’t have.

Amanda scooted forward on the seat. “Um, this might seem like a strange question, but have you ever done any acting?”

He glanced at her again in the mirror, only now his dark eyebrows were pulled together in a frown. “A little, in high school. Why?”

It would have to do. “Listen, I don’t want you to think I’m coming on to you or anything, but if you’re interested in earning a nice chunk of change, I have a proposition I’d like you to consider.”

The thick silence lasted only a few seconds, but it seemed an eternity to Amanda. He asked, “What are we talking about here? Something…?” He took his right hand off the steering wheel and made a rocking gesture, which Amanda interpreted as a reference to nefarious activities.

“No!” she said. “Nothing illegal. Nothing… weird or… whatever it is you’re thinking.”

He waited.

She swallowed. “I want you to pretend to be my boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend.”

“Yeah, it’s these friends of mine.”

“The ones who can’t keep their noses out of your business.”

“Right. Exactly. See, the thing is, if I act like I have a serious relationship with a man, then they’ll leave me alone. They’ll stop trying to run my life.”

“What makes you think so?”

Amanda wasn’t going to tell him about the Wedding Ring. She might be engaging in subterfuge to defeat the pact she’d agreed to so long ago, but it was still, well, a sacred vow, a solemn promise made to her best friends in the world. And one of the rules was you don’t let outsiders in on it.

“Trust me,” she said. “They’ll back off.”

She spotted a street sign. Thirty-first. They were almost there.

“So what’s the deal?” he asked. “Are you a lesbian?”

“What? What makes you say that?”

“Well, this whole charade with the fake boyfriend. You’re a very attractive woman,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s not like you can’t get a man. So I figure maybe you’re just not ready to come out of the closet.”

“Well, you’re wrong.” Amanda drew herself up, though the “very attractive” remark took a bit of the sting out of his outrageous speculation. “It’s nothing like that.”

“How much money are we talking about?” he asked.

“Um…well, I’d need you for three months.”

“Why three months?”

“Never mind, that’s how long it has to be. Like a part-time job. Weekends mainly. Double dates, that sort of thing. So my friends can see us together. Getting serious. Getting, um, engaged.”

She expected another frown, but instead he laughed.

Her face heated. Damn it, she never blushed! “An engagement in name only, needless to say. How about a flat fee of, say, a thousand dollars?”

“Let’s see… three months, call it thirteen weeks. An average of two ‘dates’ a week, four hours per date.” With barely a pause, he added, “That comes to a hundred four hours, at an hourly rate of nine dollars and sixty-two cents. Correct?”

“Um… correct. That’s what I came up with, too.” Amanda resisted the urge to haul her calculator out of her briefcase and verify his math. “Is that acceptable?”

“Off the books, tax-free? No heavy lifting?” He shrugged. “I’ve had worse jobs.”

“Is that a yes?”

“That’s a yes, boss.”

“Oh. Good. Well. Your first, uh, performance will be this Saturday, eight o’clock. My friends are throwing me a birthday party.”

“Is that so?” He steered the car toward the entrance to Penn Station, looming ahead. To the tune of “Happy Birthday” he sang, “How old are you now?”

“How old do you think I am?”

A crack of laughter was his only answer. “I’m not naive enough to play that game with any woman. Come on, fess up.”

“Thirty. I turned thirty last Saturday.”

“Well, happy birthday. I’m five years past that myself. It wasn’t so earth-shattering, the big three-oh.”

It wouldn’t be so earth-shattering for her, either, if not for a certain long-ago pact that had come back to haunt her.

The more she thought about it, the more she realized this was the ideal man to play the part of her significant other. Not only was he completely unknown to her friends, but there was no danger of him making more of it than there was. He was just a taxi driver, after all, doing a job to pick up extra cash—as if she’d hired him to mow her lawn or paint her house.

As soon as they pulled over at the curb, a trench-coat-clad man materialized, waiting with ill-disguised impatience for Amanda to relinquish the cab. She looked at the meter, opened her wallet, and counted out the fare plus two hundred dollars. “Nikolaos, is it?”

“Only if you’re my mom. Everyone else calls me Nick.”

Leaning forward, she thrust the money at him. “The first installment on your fee, Nick.”

He stared at the four fifties for a long moment, his eyes still concealed behind the sunglasses. This close, she took note of the faded jeans and threadbare T-shirt, the disheveled hair, the dark beard stubble that roughened his jaw.

What am I doing? she thought. Was she crazy to try to pass off this guy as her one and only? Raven, Sunny, and Charli had only seen her on the arms of smooth-talking, upward-climbing, nattily attired gentlemen from her own elevated socioeconomic stratum. Nick Stephanos might be at the top of the cabbie food chain, but there was still a yawning evolutionary gap between him and the slicker-than-pond-scum types she normally kept company with.

Finally Nick took the bills and pocketed them. “You’re very trusting.”

“Here’s my card.” She handed it over.

“Amanda Coppersmith,” he read. “What do your meddling friends call you? Mandy?”

“Amanda.” A reluctant smile pulled at her mouth. “Only my mom calls me Mandy.”

Nick jotted his phone number on the back of her receipt, which Walt Frazier’s recorded voice reminded her to take. “How far is the party from your place?” he asked, ignoring the man in the trench coat, now rapping on the window and glaring at her.

“About fifteen minutes.”

“I’ll pick you up Saturday at a quarter to eight.”

“We’ll take my car.”

Nick handed her the receipt. “Call me old-fashioned, but as long as I’m the testosterone-based life-form, I’m driving.” As if reading her mind, he added, “Don’t worry, my personal vehicle doesn’t have a meter. Now, go catch your train, boss. You’re holding up my fare.”


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