“I came here to ask you to marry me.”
A bomb landing on his desk couldn’t have rocked Owen’s world more than that one sentence.
“I don’t mean get married for real,” she added in a rush. “Just one night.”
“One night,” he repeated, nodding as if his body wasn’t reeling in shock. “You want to marry me for one night?”
“Marry isn’t the right word.” Color rose to her cheeks, and he wondered if there was anything more appealing than watching Jenny Castelli blush. Her normally creamy skin flushed pink and somehow it was the perfect complement to her fiery red hair.
He hadn’t seen her since Ty and Kendall’s wedding last summer. While he relied on time to lessen the intensity of his normal reaction to her, his body hadn’t registered the message.
Her hair was pulled away from her face, and she wore a faded denim dress and work boots. The combination of the soft fabric and the hard leather, with just the tiniest bit of leg peeking out at the hem, about did him in. He’d always been too inclined to let his heart lead him and still believed the combination of tech savvy and emotional intelligence had led to his company’s success.
Owen had a gift for reading what consumers craved as far as daily use of technology and connectivity needs. His microprocessors and mesh networks had revolutionized the way personal devices communicated and how people used the Internet. But that reliance on emotions had proved disastrous in his private life, and he’d made a concerted effort to become the type of man who didn’t let his feelings rule his life.
Jenny was the epitome of temptation standing in front of him. Her lush mouth pressed into a thin line as her caramel-colored eyes filled with uncertainty. He was used to watching her head-butt her way through life, bulldozing through anyone who got her in way. It couldn’t be easy for her to come to him, and he wanted to believe the fact she had meant something.
Once upon a time, he’d wanted to slay all of Jenny’s dragons. But she’d destroyed what had been between them, and this was his chance to exact a bit of retribution for the pain and embarrassment she’d caused him.
Yet even if he couldn’t understand what the hell she was talking about, he wanted to answer yes to all of it, which made him the biggest fool on the planet.
It would be a hell of a lot easier if he could just design a fake heart for himself—something that would keep him alive like a machine without the need for messy emotions. His own version of Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor glowing from his chest.
“What is the right word?” he asked slowly, forcing his heart to calm its frantic beating.
“A fiancé.” Her lips curled as she uttered the word, as if it tasted rancid on her tongue. “I’d like you to pretend to be my fiancé.” He must not have hidden his reaction because she added, “Like I said, it’s only for one night. I’ll pay you.”
If his head weren’t spinning, he would have laughed. “You’ll pay me? Are we talking cash or favors of the sexual variety?”
She sucked in a breath and he saw her eyes flash. She clenched her fists to her sides as she took a step toward the desk. “Who are you right now?”
“I’d think you’d know that given you just proposed to me.”
“I didn’t . . .” She paused, drew in a breath. “You aren’t the Owen I know.” Moving closer, she studied him. “You cut your hair.”
“Shall I tell my stylist you approve?”
“Where are your glasses?”
He lifted a finger to the bridge of his nose, as always surprised to find it empty. “I don’t wear them anymore.”
She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, he stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. He didn’t want to talk to Jenny about his transformation and what—or who—had been the catalyst for it. “I still can’t figure out why you’re here. We’re not getting married, fake or otherwise. If you need an escort, pay for one. I’ve got a day job that keeps me plenty busy.”
“I need you, Owen.”
The only time he’d heard her voice like that, strains of vulnerability coloring her inflection, was when she’d murmured a hushed apology after he’d discovered her in the arms of one of his business associates at a fund-raiser where he’d been thrilled to introduce her as his girlfriend. It was a moment he would never put himself in a position to repeat.
Her eyes widened a fraction, but Jenny was a fighter, and she only took another step closer. “It’s my high school reunion. I . . . you . . . the women organizing it . . .” She bit off a harsh laugh. “God, they were the worst of the mean girls back when I was in school. They had no use for me and . . . once I infiltrated their ranks by garnering the attention of one of the boys who belonged to them . . . then they hated me.”
“Don’t go to the reunion,” he told her, even though he should just keep his mouth shut. No was the only word Jenny Castelli deserved to hear from him.
“No shit, Sher—” she muttered, then bit down on her lip. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude. I wasn’t planning on going, and then I ran into them today and they were talking about Trent—”
“The one who’s never seen his own son.”
She nodded and he tried to ignore the way her skin paled. She sighed and he felt the whisper of breath against his jaw. “You know my mouth, Owen.”
He stifled a groan. Christ, how he knew her mouth.
“They started talking about Cooper, insinuating that he was bound for trouble because he didn’t have a father.” Her eyes drifted closed for an instant as she murmured, “That he was a mistake.”
“So I shot back that he has a man in his life who loves him.”
“Cooper has lots of people who love him, Jen. He’s a great kid and you’re a great mother.”
She stared at him a long moment, then said, “But that’s my fear, you know? What if I’m not enough? It feels like I’ll never be enough.”
His heart stumbled at her admission. He knew. And he understood because, as different as their circumstances were, he and Jenny shared that deep, hidden wound.
“You are enough.”
She snorted. “You sound like my mother. I’m not to the people I grew up with, and before you turn into my mother and start lecturing me on my self-worth, I know I shouldn’t let their opinions matter.” She met his gaze and what he saw in the depths of her light brown eyes slayed him. “But it’s not about me. I can live with my shortcomings and all the mistakes I’ve made. We both know the list is long and creative.”
He inclined his head.
“They went after Cooper. I couldn’t let it go.”
“You told them we were engaged?”
“Not exactly. I never mentioned your name, but they assumed it was you.” She gave him a rueful half smile. “I might have mentioned my enormous engagement ring.”
“I have deep pockets.”
“You do,” she admitted, looking vaguely embarrassed. “Before I knew what was happening, they posted about a celebrity guest coming to the reunion on Facebook.”
“Ah, yes. Money makes me a bit of a celebrity.”
“You’re no Mark Zuckerberg,” she shot back, then winked.
She was teasing him. His body hummed in approval as the glow returned to her eyes. Jenny was bold and brash, but more than anything, she belonged in the light. The scent of the sun warming the earth always reminded him of her and made him long for things that were never going to be.
Which was why he should stay far away. She was like quicksand from the old seventies TV shows—one false step and he’d sink into the abyss.
“I know I’ve given you plenty of reasons to hate me,” she said after a moment.
“One in particular,” he agreed.
Her lips compressed, but she nodded. “I’m desperate, Owen. It’s one night, and I’ll find a way to make it up to you.” She crossed her arms over her chest as if preparing herself for the rejection.
He had every right to give it to her. It was a perfect opportunity to prove that Jenny Castelli was well and truly out of his system. He didn’t owe her a thing. But as he opened his mouth to repeat his earlier no, his gaze snagged on a framed photo tucked into the corner of the bookshelf that lined the wall behind her.
It was a snapshot of Owen and Cooper, taken during the brief months of his relationship with Jenny. He’d helped Cooper with his science project, which had taken second place in the school district’s competition. Owen felt they’d been robbed of the win, but Cooper had been thrilled with his red ribbon and had sent Owen a heartfelt thank-you note along with the photo.
He wasn’t sure why he’d kept it, but seeing the boy’s innocent face made a slow ache echo through Owen’s chest. His parents were still together, but Owen understood what it was like not to have a father’s support. It was a pain that lingered long after he’d thought he pushed it to the dark, shadowy places inside him.
Even though Jenny had hurt him once, he couldn’t deny that her love for her son was fierce and pure. He hated to think of the jackass rich boy who’d walked away from her years ago having the last laugh.
“I’m curious to hear how you’ll make it up to me,” he said, and had the satisfaction of watching her jaw drop. Clearly she’d braced herself for another no. Which he certainly should have given her.
“What do you want?” she asked without hesitation. “I’ll do anything.”
“After what you did, do you trust me enough to make that offer without qualification? This could be my chance for payback.”
“You can change your hair and your clothes,” she answered, her dark eyes glinting, “but you’re a good man, Owen. I know you.”
“I’m not sure you do anymore.” He shifted, the awareness sparking along his skin forcing him to move before it burned him with its heat. “I haven’t decided what I’ll ask in way of recompense, but it’s part of the deal. You will agree.”
She stuck out her hand. “Anything.”
He stared down at her hand like it was a demon tendril come to ensnare him and pull him through the gateway of hell. After a moment she dropped it and muttered, “Thank you, Owen.”
He gave a slight nod. “When is the reunion?”
“This coming weekend. They’ve rented out a ballroom at the Hotel Boulderado.”
“Text me the particulars,” he said, tapping a finger on the top of his desk. “I have another meeting this afternoon and we’ve wasted enough time together.”
He saw her flinch before she straightened her shoulders. He had the sudden uncomfortable sensation that he’d just kicked a puppy.
“Are you going to be a dick the whole time?” she asked even as she took a step toward the door.
Not a puppy. More like a baby tiger, cute to look at it but still with a mouthful of sharp teeth.
“I don’t think you’re in a position to complain if I am,” he answered smoothly.
“You’re right,” she said after a moment. “I appreciate you doing this.” With a last nod, she turned and walked out of his office.
One night, he reminded himself, ignoring the rapidly expanding knot of dread in his stomach. It was only one night.