Wife by Wednesday (Chapter Four)
Blake kept a possessive arm around her waist as he ushered her from the airport. With any luck, someone in Hollywood would fall off the wagon and remove the spotlight by the end of the weekend; otherwise, she'd be dealing with the paparazzi alone. Blake called out little things as they passed, words like, the love of my life and she knocked my socks off. He sounded so sincere. If she wasn't in on his ploy, even she would have believed him. At one point, Blake dipped his lips to her ear and whispered, "It will be worse in Europe so take hold of your inner snob and smile."
She laughed and leaned against him to make her way around a car door. The photo snapped at that moment made it on all major television channels and three tabloids magazines.
Blake's friend Carter turned out to be a surprise. His blond hair and surfer good looks were opposite of her husband. He was smart, pragmatic, and had a killer sense of humor. He'd given Sam his cell phone number and encouraged her to use it if she needed anything while Blake was out of town.
As mapped out, Blake gave Samantha access to his home that sat above Malibu with beautiful ocean views. The estate was huge. Ten thousand square feet on ten acres. His staff included a cook, a maid, and a crew to care for the grounds. Neil, Blake's driver, watched over the staff and lived in a guest cottage. The size of the man would intimidate a football team. Blake made it clear that he doubled as a bodyguard.
Once Samantha found herself back in her rented townhome, and she'd wished her husband a safe flight, she fell into thought. Blake's assessment and execution of taking a wife had been an extremely smart move. Even a strong woman like herself turned her head at the wealth of her husband. She twisted the ring on her finger and admired it. "I don't even want to know what you cost," she murmured to her hand. She'd have to return it in fifty-four weeks, but she'd enjoy it until then.
The door to her townhome slammed after she heard Eliza yell, "No comment."
"Holy shit, how long are we going to have to put up with that?" More friend than employee, Eliza swung her purse off her arm and tossed it on the coffee table.
"They'll go away in a day or two."
"You sound so sure."
"Been there, done that. Our divorce will bring out even more media."
Eliza tossed a paper on the table. It opened to the now familiar photograph of Sam and Blake laughing. "You two are very convincing."
Samantha smiled. Despite her desire for the media to disappear, she liked the pictures they'd taken. After all, they were her wedding photos. "We don't look half bad together."
"Half bad? You guys look happy as larks."
"Do larks look happy?" Sam teased.
"I've no idea. I'm sorry I didn't meet him when he dropped you off." Eliza flopped onto the couch and tossed her long legs up on the coffee table.
"He didn't, actually, his driver did."
"Driver?" Eliza had the most amazing chocolate brown eyes that shot up with her question.
"He's rich. Why on earth would he drive himself?" Samantha laughed and rolled her eyes, doing her best snob impersonation.
"Well, La-T-Da. Excuse me." But her friend was laughing.
The business phone rang and Eliza jumped from the couch to answer it. "Alliance."
Samantha lent half an ear while Eliza listened to the person on the line.
Even with him towering over her vertically challenged frame, the picture of her and Blake wasn't that bad.
"We don't have any comments at this time," Eliza was saying. "No, we're not an escort service… Again, no comment." With a frustrated sigh, she hung up.
"I should have seen that coming." The media would tear up her business if given a chance.
"We should probably have a standard statement to give them."
"Good idea. I'll draft something and run it past Blake."
The phone rang again with another reporter asking questions. Within a half an hour, Sam and Eliza gave up and unplugged the business line. With any luck, the hype would blow over soon. The publicity could bring in new clients, so long as Samantha could maintain their anonymity. With every entertainment press sitting on her doorstep, that couldn't happen so she'd have to put off new customers for a while.
"This is crazy," Eliza said as she flicked the shades from the living room closed. A few paparazzi had camped out on the street and managed to swing their lenses around every time either one of them popped open the blinds.
"I'll make us some dinner. You don't mind staying tonight, do you?" Eliza had lived in the spare room up until she moved in with her current boyfriend six months prior.
"Is that your way of asking me to stay?"
"Hell yeah, I don't want to be alone with them outside. They'll just follow you home anyway," Sam told her.
"Fine, but I get to pick the movie. Tell me you have wine."
"Don't I always?" Samantha turned off the lights on her porch and fastened the deadbolt on the front door. The two of them dressed down into sweats and comfortable t-shirts and settled in front of the television with slices of cheap pizza and a nice bottle of Merlot.
"I have a feeling we won't be doing this much more," Eliza said between bites.
"Why's that?" Sam was writing a few notes in her notebook, trying to work a press release.
"You're a married woman."
"So?" They both knew it was in name only. Right now Blake was probably asleep in the bedroom on his private plane and not giving her a second thought.
"You're married to a duke, Sam. Do you have any idea how huge that is?"
"It's just a title. Like Sir or Doctor. Only Blake didn't have to work to obtain it."
"He inherited the title automatically when his father died, right?" Eliza had shifted her feet under her butt and placed a bowl of popcorn between them on the couch.
"But he needed to get married to inherit the estate?"
"In most cases the title and the estate go together to the first male born to the duke and duchess. But Blake's father was a class-A jerk. He stipulated in his will that his estate was to be divided up… dissolved to all intents and purposes if Blake didn't settled down by his thirty-sixth birthday. One cousin would get a portion of the estate, a small allowance to Blake's mother and sister, and the rest to charity."
"That's cold. The dad didn't make it so his own wife could stay in the home she'd made hers for years?"
"I guess not."
Eliza sat forward. "What an ass."
"Blake told me that a title without the estate is like a king without a country. The royalty thing boggles my mind."
Samantha's cell phone buzzed beside her. Blake's name popped up on the screen. A wave of excitement rode up her back. "Hey," she answered.
"I wanted to reach you before you went to bed." He sounded tired and the background noise made it difficult to hear him.
"And I thought you'd be at twenty thousand feet. Where are you?"
"I was delayed in New York. I'll be leaving here within the hour." Their day had started out early and it seemed his wasn't going to end any time soon. Samantha actually felt sorry for him.
"Listen, the media is nuts here. I thought we should give a press release sooner than later, maybe get them off my back," Samantha suggested.
"Are you okay? They aren't harassing you are they?" Worry etched his voice.
"No, I'm – "
"I wish you'd stay at my house."
"We've gone over this. I'm fine here. People will buy a slow turnover in my life." She heard a PA talking about flights. "How does this sound… Mr. and Mrs. Harrison would like you to respect their privacy while they adjust to their rapidly changing lives. Their courtship and subsequent wedding was as unexpected to these two as it will be to the world. A pending reception is being planned where details of their love match will be revealed."
"Love match?" It was the only thing Blake questioned.
"That does sound hokey. I'll think of something else."
Blake laughed. "The only other thing you need to change is our names."
His voice was cutting out.
"Yeah, it needs to read, Lord and Lady Harrison, the Duke and Duchess of Albany. Listen, I've got to go. I'll call in the morning. Call Carter or Neil if you need anything." Then the line went dead.
A shiver of dread fell on her like a curtain falling on a stage. "Oh. My. God."
"What?" Eliza stopped shoveling popcorn in her mouth and stared at Samantha with wide eyes.
"I'm in over my head." Duchess! She truly was a duchess. The weight of the title choked out all other thoughts.
"You haven't used the credit cards." These were the first words out of Blake's mouth three days later.
Samantha was jogging on the beach with a Bluetooth snug in her ear. The media had lightened up at the front door, but the calls kept coming. She decided to give Eliza some much-deserved time off and escaped her townhouse as often as possible.
"Hello to you, too." She slowed her pace so she could manage a conversation.
"You sound out of breath, what are you doing?"
"Oh." He sounded surprised. "What's that noise?"
"The wind. I'm at the beach." She dodged a few rocks and continued her run.
"Is that safe? Is someone with you?"
She laughed. "Yes, it's safe, Detective Dan, and no, no one is with me." Although she teased him, she enjoyed his concern. Sam couldn't remember a time when someone cared if she walked alone. "I'm sure you didn't call for details about my exercise routine. What's up?"
"I wanted to make sure you'd filled out the forms for your passport."
"Spent six hours at the social security office on Tuesday. Name change, passport, the whole deal. I asked them to rush, but they said it would take a minimum of ten business days."
The cool morning air and fog wet the edges of her hair and plastered it to her face as she ran. She loved this time of day. The beach had a splattering of joggers and a dozen surfers at the point. She made it to the beach at least once a week to run. At other times, she took a neighborhood route. Admittedly, the blocks she jogged on were becoming more and more questionable and Samantha opted to drive to a safer trail or park. She couldn't help but wonder how the beach by Blake's home would compare.
"Ten days isn't going to work. I'll put a call in and get it faster."
"The rush I paid for took it from a month to ten days. They said I couldn't get it any faster." Her breath came in heated pants but she kept moving.
"I'll take care of it." His take-charge attitude struck her as funny.
"Does anyone ever deny the great and powerful Blake Harrison?" she teased.
"Only you. Why aren't you out shopping? I told you to indulge." He wasn't happy about something; she could hear it in his voice.
"Let me guess, you saw a tabloid picture of me in an old shirt and jeans."
"That's it, isn't it?" She laughed now and had to stop running to catch her breath. "Oh, Blake, let it go."
"Go shopping, Samantha. Our reception is going to bring out dignitaries and several influential families. We'll be attending the theater, polo matches… you name it."
"My cut offs aren't going to work?" Tears stung her eyes.
"Even I saw Pretty Woman. Go shopping!"
The thought of him enduring a chick-flick brought on more laugher. "I hope the woman was worth it."
"The one who dragged you to the cinema."
He laughed now; the sound filled her head with pictures of his handsome face and grey eyes. "It was my sister."
"That explains it."
"She won a bet. I had to take her or lose her respect." His voice eased as the conversation continued. Seemed it always did after a few minutes on the phone. Sam found herself looking forward to his calls. "Did you stop running?" he asked.
Samantha glanced down the deserted beach and placed a hand on her hip. "Yeah," she said, her breath hissed.
"What is it?"
"You want an honest answer?"
"Always." She turned to the breeze and forced her breath to slow.
"Between the heavy breathing and that voice of yours, I'm having a hard time sitting still."
Her heart gave a hard kick in her chest. She sucked in her lower lip. "Well then, I won't describe what I'm wearing or how I look and ruin your fantasy."
He chuckled. "I'm sure the paparazzi are there somewhere and a picture will be on my desk in the morning."
Sam glanced around but didn't see anyone with a camera. "Maybe."
"Before I go, I tried calling your house but the phone line was out of order."
"The line developed static. The repair guys are coming in the morning to fix it. I've added caller ID so I can screen the media." Sam pivoted and started a slow jog back to her car.
"Solid plan. I'll call tomorrow."
She smiled and just for fun added. "Oh, and Blake?"
She dipped her voice even lower and breathed into the phone. "I'm all hot and sweaty, too."
"Errrr." His groan vibrated her earpiece.
After he hung up, Samantha questioned the wisdom of flirting. As the smile threatened to leave permanent dimples on her cheeks, she shoved her concerns away and simply enjoyed the thought of a man showing interest in her as a woman.
Even if that man was her husband.
The media must have given up she thought as she walked up the steps to her townhome. There weren't camera-holding forty-something-year-olds ducking behind bushes or zooming in from the corner. She stepped into her house, tossed her keys on the entryway table, and started for the stairs.
When the doorbell rang, she twisted around and opened it on impulse. Mid swing, she realized she was probably inviting an undesired picture, one that would have Blake shaking his head tomorrow.
But the person beyond the door wasn't a reporter, or a photographer in pursuit of a quick buck.
It was worse.
The woman staring back at her was everything Samantha was not. She had blonde hair so pure it couldn't possible come from a bottle, with high cheekbones and brilliant blue eyes. Long legs peeked under a tailored silk skirt that never saw a rack in a department store.
Well, Blake had good taste in women, she'd give him that.
"You know who I am." Vanessa van Buren, was not the jilted lover Samantha would have pegged for showing up unannounced. A peek from afar, maybe, but to knock on her door took some guts. The boisterous Jacqueline had been Sam's bet.
She was wrong.
"And you know who I am."
Vanessa's gaze swept up and down Sam's frame and a smirk skimmed her lips. Vanessa was dressed in Gucci, Samantha in Target. There was a time when Samantha was younger, before the fall of her father, that a friend had given her a piece of friendly advice. She'd said, 'Don't go into battle without a full arsenal.' Samantha and a high school rival were both trying to capture the attention of a boy at the time. From that day forward, Samantha never left home without a full face of makeup and a designer label on her back.
She glanced down at her cotton shorts and t-shirt that said, 'joggers keep the pace,' and cringed.
"Are you going to invite me in?"
That's sooo not going to happen. "I don't see the purpose."
Vanessa stepped forward and pushed her way in anyway. Samantha considered stopping her, but would have had to restrain her physically. That picture in the morning tabloid probably wouldn't bode well for Blake or Samantha.
Samantha shut the door and kept Vanessa from walking further in the room. "That's far enough."
"This won't take long." Vanessa's voice held tightly controlled anger, her eyes kept a constant surveillance of the room. "What could Blake possibly see in you?"
Sam crossed her arms over her chest. "Are your claws always out? Or do you put them away at night?"
"Clever. Do you know I slept with him just two weeks ago?"
Several retorts came to her lips, but Sam squelched them. "Blake and I never wanted to hurt anyone." Sam did her level best to avoid the image of the two of them doing the naked tango.
"Blake hurts everyone… eventually. You'll discover that soon enough."
"I really think you should leave." Samantha was ready to stop playing nice. This wasn't a woman who was in love with a man; this was a snake coiling for a strike.
"Does he know about your father? About the sordid family you have hiding in your past?"
Samantha's jaw tightened and her nails dug into her arms. "Blake knows everything."
The cold calculated stare in Vanessa's eyes held a hint of knowledge. "Everything? Are you sure about that?"
She had nothing to hide… well, almost nothing to hide. Samantha's sins were buried so deep, not even her connections could find them. "You sound like a desperate woman, Vanessa. I have to tell you, it doesn't look good."
The smirk on the other woman's face fell. "There is nothing about me screaming desperation. You, on the other hand, are a poster child for the word."
"Ding, ding, this round's officially over." Samantha opened the door wide, not caring who snapped the shot. "Move it, or I'll be forced to shove my Nikes up your Pradas."
Her rapid heartbeat was aching to do some serious kicking.
"Careful, you don't know who you're dealing with."
Samantha shoved her frame as close to Vanessa as she could without touching her. "Lady, you've no idea what I'm capable of. To think, when Blake told me about you, I actually felt sorry for you. What a waste. I'm not sure what he was thinking."
Venom spiked from the other woman's eyes. Turning on her heel, Vanessa slid on dark glasses and marched to a red sports car parked on the street.
Slamming the door would have proven how far the catty woman had dug herself under Samantha's skin. Instead, she closed it and slumped against the frame. Her hands started to tremble as the force of the encounter raced through her bloodstream.
The sound of gravel being kicked up from a car met her ears. "That was pleasant." Sam pushed away from the door and reached for her purse. Not wanting to talk, she opened up her text messaging and pressed Blake's cell number.
Do I win a prize for being right? She text her husband.
While waiting for his reply, she locked the door and made her way up the stairs to the shower.
Her phone buzzed on the top step.
Right about what?
Just met your blonde viper. Not sure what you saw in her past the obvious. And because she really didn't trust herself to speak, she added. Getting in the shower, talk later.
Sam tossed her phone on her bed and strode to the bathroom. Her nerves started to settle, slowly. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror. The morning mist played havoc with her hair, her face held a hint of chapped-red on her cheeks. "What a mess."
In the other room, her phone rang.
She ignored it.
Samantha tugged her shirt from her body and tossed it in the hamper. Her high-school friend's words rang in her ears. "Full arsenal."
"You know something, Blake. I think I'll take you up on your open credit card." With women like Vanessa showing up, she might as well suit for battle. Having been born with a proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, she knew how to play. She'd just chosen not to.