A marriage of convenience between a woman determined to keep her foster children, and a man determined to keep his home. The legacy of a bitter childhood has robbed the "Ice Man of Options" of his softer feelings. A disastrous first marriage has made the foster mother distrust hers. They're both determined to keep the marriage a straightforward business deal, but passion flares with their wedding kiss. Will they let their pasts cheat them of happiness, or will they learn that even in scarred hearts, there's always room for love?
Treble Heart Books
"Marry me." Coridan MacAllister Delafield lifted his lover's hand and brushed his lips across her knuckles.
She jerked away as if his breath burned. "And divorce you in a week? I don't think so." Grabbing her half-full glass of Chateau Margaux 1995, she downed it in one swallow.
Cord sat back in the wrought iron confection that passed for a chair at La Maison. The setting was perfect for a proposal. An intimate bistro on Michigan Avenue. Candles, music. Expensive food, expensive wine. And Gloria had always struck him as mercenary enough to appreciate the financial benefits of his proposal. What more could she want? "Nothing needs to change. We can go on as we have, and at the end you'll get a nice sign-off bonus."
"You don't want a wife. You want a name on a marriage certificate." She set down the glass and blinked. Tears squeezed onto her cheeks. "I care about you, Cord, but you don't give anything."
God, he hated it when women cried. He reached forward and tapped the diamond pendant resting between her breasts. "You call that nothing?"
She knocked his hand away. "Not of yourself, I mean. We've been lovers for nearly a year, and I don't even know your favorite color."
"Blue. Now will you marry me?"
"No." Her chair scraped against the marble floor. She stood, flung her cashmere shawl around her shoulders and strode out of the restaurant.
Cord slammed the heel of his hand against the table hard enough to make the crystal ring. He'd been sure Gloria would agree to the marriage. She always said what a great couple they made, both tall, dark and fit. Even the sex was great. Who'd have guessed she'd go sentimental on him?
He stood and peeled four bills out of his money clip.
The waiter beamed. "Thank you, sir."
Cord grabbed his jacket and hurried outside. He found her at the taxi stand in front of the restaurant. She hugged her shawl, as if it were a cold January night instead of a warm May evening. A Yellow Cab pulled up as he stepped beside her. He reached for her arm. "I won't marry you," she said without looking at him.
His hand froze a breath away from her skin. "Gloria, I..."
She turned and brushed her fingers across his cheek. "But we had good times. Thanks."
Before he could stop her, she yanked open the cab door and jumped in. The cab pulled away in a cloud of exhaust.
Cord looked around for another taxi, but even as he hailed it, he knew it was no use chasing Gloria. She meant it, damn it. He'd have to find another wife.
And he only had a week.
"How dare you?"
The clear, high voice burst into Cord's office, followed by a tiny tornado in a navy blue suit.
"Miss, you can't go in there," Brenda, his secretary, called after her, but even though Brenda must have outweighed the intruder by 100 pounds, she was no match for the whirlwind.
"And after that article in the Tribune about your support of children's charities." The tornado planted her hands on the edge of Cord's desk and leaned toward him. "I've got a new headline for you. 'Renowned philanthropist Cord Delafield drives children from home.' How'd you like to see that in the next Sunday Supplement?"
Cord set down the prospectus he'd been reading and stared at her with the cold disdain that had earned him the nickname Ice Man of Options. He'd spent all weekend searching for Gloria's replacement, so far without success. Though it was only one o'clock Monday afternoon, it had already been a long week. "Who are you and what are you talking about?"
Instead of looking away, she glared at him, light blue eyes blazing from behind dark- framed glasses. "Who am I? I'm Deborah Olstrom, the woman who's been calling your office for the last week and a half. The woman you're evicting."
"Evicting?" He nodded to Brenda, who stood fuming in the doorway. Once the door whooshed shut behind her, he folded his arms across his chest and sat back. "Evicting, huh?"
She pulled an envelope from her purse and slammed it on the desk. "The real estate company that manages your properties didn't want to tell me who owns the house, but I finally tracked you down. There it is, right there, Delafield Developments."
Delafield Developments. Cord's jaw began to ache. He pointed to the leather love seat and chair he used when clients came to the office. The nearby window overlooked the Chicago Art Institute. "Sit down Ms. Olstrom."
With a glare, she stormed to the window and perched stiffly on the chair.
"I take it your house is in Forest Heights." He strode to the chair and stood over her. If she felt intimidated, she didn't show it.
"So you admit you own the house?"
"No." He sank to the love seat and leaned forward, arms on his thighs, hands clenched together. "My father does."
"Your father? But I thought--"
"You should've read the sign outside the office. This is Delafield Investments, not Developments. I deal in stock options, not real estate."
The spots of color on her cheeks spread over her whole face. "Oh."
"I can give you the address, but it won't do you any good."
She brushed back one of the many straw-colored strands that had worked loose from the knot at the back of her head. The angry rigidity had vanished, leaving her bent like a wilting rose. "Maybe you could talk to him." Now that she wasn't shouting, her voice tinkled like wind chimes.
Cord pushed back an unwelcome surge of sympathy. He had troubles of his own; he didn't need to take on hers. "It wouldn't help if I did. We haven't spoken in fifteen years. When I have to contact my father, I go through an attorney."
Her spine slowly straightened. "I'm sorry I bothered you. If you'll please give me the address, I'll be leaving." Clutching her purse to her chest, she stood.
She couldn't have been taller than five feet nothing, but the resolve in her eyes made him feel small. He waved her back into the chair. "What's so important about this house?"
"It's not the house, exactly. I could get another house." She took a deep breath and sat down. "I'm a foster parent with Green Havens Children's Charities and have four children in my care. They've settled into a kind of family, but I can't keep them together if I don't have a place for them to live."
"To where?" Her voice cracked. She wasn't just angry. She was desperate.
"There must be plenty of houses in Forest Heights big enough for four kids."
"Not that I can afford. I write children's books for a living. Maybe if I had more time, I could find something, but right now there's not a single rental in my price range available in any Green Havens approved community. If I can't persuade your father to let me stay until I find another house, Green Havens will take the kids and scatter them among other foster families." She squared her shoulders. "I can't let that happen."
She looked at him, jaw set, purse still clutched to her breast. Cord suppressed a smile. Deborah might be small--and young if her unlined face and trim figure were any indication--but she knew what she wanted. He liked that.
"I wish I could help." A tingle began beneath his breastbone, a feeling he'd come to recognize as the harbinger of opportunity.
Tapping his fingers against the back of the couch, he studied her. Deborah Olstrom was too pale and skinny for his taste, but in a better dress and without the glasses, she'd be passably pretty. Certainly attractive enough to avoid undue speculation. Cord checked her thin, white fingers. No rings. "Are you married?"
She blinked. "No. Why?"
"I have a proposition for you."
The suspicion in her voice made him chuckle. "A business proposition."
"Oh." Deborah still sounded suspicious, but at least she was listening.
"I own a house in Forest Heights. A big one. It was my grandmother's. She left it to me in her will, and my father's trying to take it away from me."
The purse dropped to her lap. "That's terrible."
A wry smile tugged at Cord's lips. She was so easy to read, playing her was almost criminal. He leaned forward and caught a whiff of her fragrance. Light and sweet, it reminded him of an alpine meadow.
"It's not as bad as what he's doing to you." He held her gaze and watched her pupils widen behind the lenses. "I can always buy another house, but..."
He sighed deeply, hoping he wasn't overdoing it. "It's the only real home I've known. I can't stand the thought of my father tearing it down to build another shopping mall." Cord heard the bitterness in his voice and realized with a start that he was telling the truth. Even more than he wanted to beat his father at his own game, he wanted to keep that house.
Deborah's cool fingers brushed the back of his hand and lingered a moment on his knuckles, scarred by adolescent fistfights. "What can I do to help?"
"We can help each other." Ignoring her puzzled expression, he stood and strode to the desk. Deborah swiveled in her seat to face him. "My grandmother was ill when she wrote her will. She left me the house on one condition."
He took his copy of the will out of the top drawer. "I have to be married."
"Is that legal?"
"How should I know? I'm not a lawyer. But my father's riding this hard, and the judge is one of his cronies. My attorney says there's a chance we'll lose." Cord clenched his fist until the heavy paper crackled. "I won't let him take my house."
Taking a deep breath, he uncurled his fingers and set the will on the desk. "Here's the deal. You need a house big enough for four kids. I need a wife. Marry me and move into my house. Once this probate business is over, I'll help you and the kids find a permanent place to live. We'll divorce quietly and each go our own way. What do you say?"
Her mouth worked for a second before she managed to say, "You're crazy."
"No, my grandmother was." Striding up to her chair, he crouched in front of her. "Come on, Deborah. It's the perfect solution to both our problems."
Her eyes grew to black disks surrounded by silver-blue rings. "I can't," she whispered and bolted for the door.
Cord raced to stop her. For a woman with short legs, she could really run. Deborah grabbed the knob, but he shoved his arm past her and slammed the door shut.
She turned so her back pressed against the door. "Let me go."
Her breath came in gasps, and her pulse beat in the hollow above her collarbone. Her top button had worked loose, and her blouse gaped open. She wasn't as skinny as he'd first thought. Tearing his gaze from the tantalizing view, he noticed the bright spots on her cheeks had returned.
She was either angry or scared. Probably both. He'd have to find another way to close the deal. With a nod, Cord lifted his arm.
Deborah spun around, yanked open the door and stormed out. She blew past Brenda's desk, knocking several papers to the floor. After she'd disappeared into the hallway, Brenda turned and raised a well-plucked eyebrow.
Waving aside the implied question, Cord leaned against the doorjamb and sifted through his options. He glanced back at the envelope on his desk, and his fingers started tapping. "Get me the number for Green Havens Children's Charities."
A grin spread slowly across his face. "She doesn't know it yet, but that's the woman I'm going to marry."