Connor Blackwell paused in front of the mirror in the foyer to check the arrangement of his bowtie, ensuring it wasn’t out of alignment. While he wouldn’t have cared, he knew his father would fuss over small details like that. Satisfied it was perfect, he turned and walked briskly across the parquet flooring, wincing at the uneven sound of his heel landing just out of balance of his usual stride. His hip was still sore, but he was doing his best to minimize revealing that discomfort, because his father was certain to lash out at him about that too.
The last thing he wanted was another lecture from his dad, and he would have skipped the evening entirely if he could have. Of course, one didn’t skip out on their father’s fifty-fifth birthday party, especially after Brenda had called to tell him how much William was looking forward to his presence. Talk about laying on the guilt trip, but he could endure an evening of chastisements if it made the old man happy.
Trying to saunter as usual, while hiding any discomfort from his hip, he entered his father’s study, unsurprised to find the older man there before the shindig got underway. It was a slight surprise to see Brenda, but he shrugged it off. As the daughter of his father’s oldest friend, she was over more often than not, and he had practically grown up with her. “Happy birthday, Dad.”
He slid a small box across the desk before taking a seat in what he hoped was a casual fashion. He winced slightly when his bruised hip collided with the wooden chair arm, and it was a relief to rest for a minute. His doctor had advised him to stay off his feet and avoid putting pressure on the hip for at least two weeks, but he hadn’t been able to do that and still come to the party.
“Happy birthday, indeed,” said William, his bushy brows drawing into a fierce line of disapproval. “I guess my gift this year is that you’re still alive.”
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Connor simply laughed. “It was a near thing, wasn’t it?” He sounded blasé, almost dismissive, of his brush with death, but he couldn’t deny he was still having nightmares on a semi-regular basis even more than a week after the crash. At least he’d been testing a prototype car rather than competing in an actual race, so only he had been injured, though the crash had sidelined him for at least a good portion of the upcoming racing season. That should please his father.
“Too damned close,” said William, ignoring the package as he slammed his fist on the desk. He was in a fine fury this time. “Have any idea what it’s like to turn on the news and see footage of your son’s car having crashed into the wall and reduced to a charred crisp?”
He dropped the casual act and leaned forward slightly. “I’m sorry if it upset you, Dad, but I was out before the car exploded. I only received a few minor injuries.” Other than his bruised hip, which was still impeding his mobility and would prevent him from racing for a few weeks yet, he was mostly healed otherwise. There was a bit of tenderness in his right rib upon occasion, but for the most part, he could pretend like he hadn’t been in the accident—except for the nightmares, of course.
“You have no heirs and no one to take over for you. It’s clear you have little interest in the family business, and I’ve come to accept it. I hope someday Lizzie will be up for taking over, but until she’s old enough, I’m holding the reins. When I thought you had died, and I realized there was no one there to step in, I knew things had to change, Connor.”
He felt the first stirring of concern as he stared across the desk at his father, who still hadn’t sat down. Brenda hovered at his side like a pale shadow, her hand lifted as though prepared to reach out for William, though common sense must have warned not to. “What kind of changes?” He geared himself for an argument, wishing he could avoid it, but having yet to figure out how.
Ever since he had been a young man and had deliberately broken away from his father’s corporate footsteps to follow his own path, first as a musician, albeit an unsuccessful one, before entering the racing arena, his father had harangued him and almost every meeting ended with an explosive argument.
His father was a dictatorial bastard, but the worst part was, it was partially because he loved Connor and worried for him. To be fair, Connor knew he could also be an intractable ass himself, and he and his father were likely to butt heads because they were so alike in many ways.
“It’s high time you settled down and got married. You need an heir, and there should be someone I can leave this company to in case Lizzie has no interest either. Most of all, you need someone to ensure your legacy.”
Connor snorted. “What legacy? I from a long line of businessmen who sacrificed their lives for the company, and the sole credit to the name is winning a few races on the Formula One circuit. Nobody cares about my legacy, Dad.”
“I certainly do,” barked William. “If you don’t get married right away, I’m giving away the company. I’ll sign it over to the first charity that will take on the monstrous responsibility.”
Connor shook his head, though he was mildly concerned. His father had a temper, but wasn’t prone to making threats of which he wouldn’t follow through. “You wouldn’t do that. You’ve given the best years of your life to the company.”
He still remembered how bitter William had been upon finally accepting that Connor had no intention of following him down that same dreary path. The company was practically William’s life, especially since Connor’s mother had died a few years ago, and he wouldn’t give it away. Would he?
“I will. Something has to change, and if you’re willing to throw away everything, so am I. If you don’t marry Brenda—”
Without thinking about it, Connor was out of his chair so quickly he banged his hip against the armrest again. It was all he could do not to curse as the pain coursed down his leg, but he was too focused on the shock of his father’s words. “Brenda?” He turned his gaze to the young woman, certain his eyes were accusing. “What does she have to do with anything?”
“She’s a good girl from a good family, and she’ll be an asset to the family and the Blackwell name. More than that, she’s interested in taking some of the burden off me, and even if she can’t settle you, any children you have will ensure the company’s future.”
He started to argue, but drew up short when he saw the warning in Brenda’s gaze. He looked back at his father again, and this time saw what he had missed before. His dad’s skin was flushed, and he was clearly breathing heavily. Sweat dotted his brow, and there was a faint rasp each time he took a deep breath.
He returned his gaze to Brenda, who shared a concerned look with him, and he realized abruptly why she had agreed to such a preposterous idea. She was trying to protect William from his own temper. Connor knew his father’s health had been failing, but he hadn’t realized it had gotten so dire, and as he watched his father’s rage grow when the silence lengthened, he wondered if the other man was on the edge of a catastrophic heart attack. He certainly appeared to be.
Feeling the need to diffuse the situation and calm his father soon as possible, he said, “Relax, old man, and lay off the matchmaking. As it happens, I’ve been seeing someone.”
Brenda frowned, and then her expression smoothed. He was certain he saw a hint of relief.
“Who?” asked William brusquely. “She’d better not be one of those racing floozies.”
Over the years, he had “seen” quite a few of those, but he couldn’t always remember their names the next day. Now, he realized he needed a name quickly. “I don’t think you’ve met her.”
His father’s cheeks reddened further. “Because she doesn’t exist. You?
?re just delaying. I won’t have it, do you hear me, Connor?”
“Easy there, Dad. I’m sure everybody in the house heard you, including the catering staff setting up on the other side of the building.” His own irritation was stirring to life, but he made a concentrated effort to reign it in because it wouldn’t help the situation. He needed to calm his father, not provoke him into a heart attack. “It’s my assistant.” The words sprang from his lips before he could call them back.
William frowned, his bushy brows settling heavily over his eyes. “Assistant? You’ve never mentioned an assistant before.”
“Seriously, I’ve never mentioned Angelina? I can’t believe that. I don’t know how I would function without her, Dad.” That much was true, though he omitted the tiny detail that Angelina coordinated his calendar and travel arrangements for him, but she communicated mostly via text message, email, and the occasional phone call. He hadn’t seen her in person for almost two years, since he had interviewed her for the position. Skype on his phone hardly counted, since the image was small and didn’t do her justice.
“Well, excellent. I assume you’re going to introduce her to me this evening?”
Connor opened his mouth, trying to offer an excuse for Angelina’s absence, but his father pressed on before he could think of anything.
“Don’t think just because you claim to be dating someone that I’ll let you off the hook, son. I want you married and settled down with a family started by the end of the year, or everything goes.”
He wasn’t terribly concerned about the company, having no emotional investment in it, and though he would miss the security of his share of the corporate trust, he could manage just fine without it. Admittedly, that would put a crimp in his plans to branch out from racing to design, but he could still make it work.
Mostly, he was concerned for what it would do to his father if the old man went through with his rash threat to shed himself of the company. Without any sort of direction on which to focus, would William learn how to slow down and regain more robust health, or would he wither and fade away? Unfortunately, Connor thought it would be the latter.
He was feeling somewhat trapped as he nodded his understanding, unable to find words for a moment. What could he say? It was ridiculous to feel pressured into marriage at the age of thirty by his father, but he was alarmed to find he couldn’t seem to summon a logical counterargument, or another path that would please—or divert—his father.
Perhaps he could dissuade his father by announcing his sudden retirement from racing and take over the family business, but as much as he loved his dad and wanted to help him preserve his health, he couldn’t imagine such a boring existence. It was simply too mundane and nothing that had ever interested him. He liked the adrenaline rush of racing, and the idea of being chained to a desk was even worse than the idea of being chained to a wife.
“Well, where is she?”
“She’s…finishing up a few details for me, and she’ll join me here before the party starts.” He couldn’t believe the words as he uttered them, not quite certain how he was going to extricate himself from the situation now that he had promised to produce a girlfriend—a woman his father expected to be his fiancée and then wife in a fairly short timeframe.
He would have to come up with a better strategy quickly, but for tonight, he just needed to convince Angelina to join him for his dad’s birthday party and play along. Yeah, that shouldn’t be any problem. He almost snorted at the thought, but kept his expression easy-going.
“Excellent. I had intended to for you to give this to Brenda, but it belongs on your girl’s finger instead.” William took something from his pocket and stretched to place it across the desk in front of Connor. “I know your mom would want you to have that.”
He picked up a small ring box, his heart hammering with dread as he lifted the clamshell lid. Yep, nestled inside a bed of white velvet was his mother’s engagement ring given to her by his father thirty-five years ago. It was freshly cleaned, or else Dad had ensured it was polished before he put it in storage after Mom’s death, because the white-gold sparkled, and the flash of diamonds were understated elegance defined. They circled the oval sapphire that had been his mother’s favorite jewel, creating a stunning masterpiece.
Nausea surged in his stomach. The sudden reality that he was about a thousand times closer to being engaged than he had been less than five minutes ago pressed down on him, and he felt physically ill for a moment as he mumbled, “Thank you,” and put the ring in his pocket. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some things to sort out myself before Angelina arrives.”
Trying to appear unconcerned, but not bothering to mask his limp this time in his agitated state, he slipped from his father’s study on the main floor and walked down the hallway to the library. Once inside, he closed the door behind himself and locked it before moving to the far corner and pulling out his phone.
He was alarmed to see his hand shaking slightly, as though he really was preparing to propose, and he swallowed down the nausea and the wave of anxiety sweeping over him. He dialed Angelina’s number, thankful her number was programmed into his speed-dial menu, because he couldn’t have recalled all of her digits at the moment if he’d had to.
She answered on the second ring. “Hello, Mr. Blackwell.”
“Call me Connor.” It was an asinine thing to say, completely irrelevant to the topic at hand, but he was still feeling the effects of his father’s ultimatum and his fear as he realized his dad wasn’t completely infallible as he’d sort of assumed. It had been awful losing his mother a few years ago, and there was no way he was ready to go through that again by losing his father if he could do anything to help the old man maintain his health and stability. “I need you, Angelina.”
She hesitated for a moment, sounding confused when she replied, “For what, Mr.…Connor?” His name sounded awkward on her lips.
“I need you to throw on your fanciest dress and get to my dad’s house A-S-A-P. I’ll send you the address for your GPS unit or the taxi driver.”
She hesitated a moment longer. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I don’t have a sitter—”
He groaned. “You have kids? God, do you have a husband too?” He was briefly amused by how appalled he sounded at the idea. It would certainly be an un-tenuous wrinkle that would resist any ironing out if she was already married. He hadn’t even considered the idea, which was stupid, because he knew she was an attractive black woman in her early twenties. In fact, he recalled at their in-person interview he had been relieved she wouldn’t be a daily temptation that would distract him from his bachelor lifestyle, extravagant partying, and hard racing.
She sounded offended. “No, I don’t have a husband or children—not that it’s any of your business, Mr. Blackwell. I need a sitter for my little brother. He’s autistic and can’t be left alone.”
He barely smothered a curse. “I don’t beg anyone for anything ever, Angelina, but I’m begging you now. I really need your help here. I’d consider it a huge favor, and one worth a large bonus.”
She hesitated for another moment, agonizing seconds ticking by in which he was certain she would refuse. Finally, with a sigh, she said, “I’ll ask my next-door neighbor if Kevin can stay with her for a couple of hours. She’ll probably say yes, but I don’t really have any fancy dresses.”
“Go for basic black. You’ll fit in just fine.”
Clearly denied any further excuses, and obviously feeling sorry for his pathetic ass, she sighed once more, the heaviest so far. “Very well, Mr. Blackwell—”
“Connor,” he corrected, needing her to use his first name to add some authenticity to the fiction he was trying to project. He would spring the rest of the surprise on her when she got there, because she’d be less likely to refuse him once he already had her physically trapped and mired in the situation.
“Connor,” she said repeated with a hint of exasperation. “I’ll be there soon as I can.”
“Thank you.” After hanging up, he started to pace, though it aggravated his hip. As he paced, he searched for a solution, but nothing was forthcoming, at least nothing practical. Had his father finally maneuvered him into doing what the old man wanted? That was a daunting prospect, and he would have chafed against it more aggressively if he hadn’t been concerned about William’s health.
She must be out of her damned mind, having yielded to the plea in Connor’s voice. She didn’t know what trouble he was in, or what he needed from her, but she was resolved that she wouldn’t capitulate easily or do something that wasn’t good for her.
Goodness knows, she should have quit the job months ago, when she started dreaming about his voice at night, which soon turned into the kind of sexy dreams she would never have told her mother about, if the other woman was still around.
“No, she would’ve understood,” she conceded to her expression in the mirror as she adjusted her breasts in the push-up bra. It was her grandmother who wouldn’t understand sexy dreams, and since she was the one who had really raised her, she was more concerned about Yvonne’s opinion than her long-gone mother’s.
She closed the compact after double-checking to make sure she wasn’t showing too much cleavage and looking at her teeth for errant lipstick marks. She was ready. From the outside, she looked poised and polished, which was a miracle considering she had thrown herself together in twenty minutes and wore a simple black dress that hadn’t been a hundred dollars when it was first in stores—and she certainly hadn’t paid retail for it.
It had been a markdown, and she remembered now why she rarely wore it, though it was too late to change her mind. The dress tended to show too much cleavage, so she’d have to keep that in mind all evening. What a bother
The whole thing was a bother, but the idea of a lucrative bonus was tempting, along with the thought of seeing her elusive boss again. Skype didn’t do him justice, and the mental image she’d retained from two years ago had started to appear alongside his voice in her dreams. His flashing blue eyes and honey-brown hair, slicked back as it had been the last time she’d seen his picture on television before that catastrophic crash of his prototype, never failed to make her heartrate skyrocket.