High-Powered, Hot-Blooded(5)

By: Susan Mallery


“Exactly,” he said.

What? “You want to introduce me to your mother?”

“No. I want to introduce you to everyone else. I want you to be my date for all the social events I have going on this holiday season. You’ll show the world I’m not a complete bastard.”

“I don’t understand.” He was hiring her to be his date? “You could go out with anyone you want.”

“True, but the women I want to go out with don’t solve my problem. You do.”

“How?”

“You teach small children, look after your family. You’re a nice girl. I need nice. In return your brother doesn’t go to jail.” He folded his arms across his chest. “Annie, if you say yes, your brother gets the help he needs. If you say no, he goes to jail.”

As if she hadn’t figured that out on her own. “You don’t play fair, do you?”

“I play to win. So which will it be?”





Two


While Duncan waited for his answer, Annie grabbed a kitchen chair and pulled it over to the refrigerator. She reached the overhead cupboard and pulled out a box of high-fiber cereal. After opening it, she removed a plastic bag filled with orange and brown M&M’s.

“What are you doing?” he asked, wondering if the stress had pushed her over the edge.

“Getting my secret stash. I live with three other women. If you think chocolate would last more than fifteen seconds in this house, you’re deluding yourself.” She scooped out a handful, then put the plastic bag back in the box and slid the box onto the shelf.

“Why are they that color?”

She looked at him as if he were an idiot, then climbed down from the chair. “They’re from Halloween. I bought them November first, when they’re half off. It’s a great time to buy seasonal candy. They taste just as good. M&M’s are my weakness.” She popped two in her mouth and sighed. “Better.”

Okay, this was strange, he thought. “You had a glass of wine before,” he said. “Don’t you want that?”

“Instead of chocolate? No.”

She stood there in a shapeless blue sweater that matched her eyes and a patterned skirt that went to her knees. Her feet were bare and he could see she’d painted little daisies on her toes. Aside from that, Annie McCoy was strictly utilitarian. No makeup, no jewelry to speak of. Just a plain, inexpensive watch around her left wrist. Her hair was an appealing color. Shades of gold in a riot of curls that tumbled past her shoulders. She wasn’t a woman who spent a lot of time on her appearance.

Which was fine by him. The outside could easily be fixed. He was far more concerned about her character. From what he’d seen in the past ten minutes, she was compassionate, caring and led with her heart. In other words, a sucker. Happy news for him. Right now he needed a bleeding-heart do-gooder to get his board off his back long enough for him to wrestle control from them.

“You haven’t answered my question,” he reminded her.

Annie sighed. “I know. Mostly because I still don’t know what you want from me.”

He pointed to the rickety chairs pushed up against the table. “Why don’t we sit down.”

It was her house—she should be doing the inviting. Still Annie found herself dragging her chair over to the table and plopping down. Politeness dictated that she offer him some of her precious store of M&M’s, but she had a feeling she was going to need them later.

He took a seat across from her and rested his large arms on the table. “I run a company,” he began. “Patrick Industries.”

“Tell me it’s a family business,” she said, without thinking. “You inherited it, right? You’re not such a total egomaniac that you named it after yourself.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “I see the chocolate gives you courage.”

“A little.”

“I inherited the company while I was in college. I took it from nothing to a billion-dollar empire in fifteen years.”

Lucky him, she thought, thinking she had nothing to bond with. Scoring in the top two percent of the country on her SATs was hardly impressive when compared with billions.

“To get that far, that fast, I was ruthless,” he continued. “I bought companies, merged them into mine and streamlined them to make them very profitable.”

She counted out the last M&M’s. Eight round bits of heaven. “Is that a polite way of saying you fired people?”

He nodded. “The business world loves a success story, but only to a point. They consider me too ruthless. I’m getting some bad press. I need to counteract that.”

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