Wife by Wednesday (Chapter Two)

Blake fingered the photographs and files of the three women Samantha sent his way. Each one was perfect. They were educated, cultured, and beautiful. So why the hell were they registered with a dating service to find a temporary husband? There had to be a link between them and Miss Matchmaker herself, but Blake wasn't seeing it.

Candidate one, Candice… no last name. According to the portfolio, she was a second year law student with typical educational loans. She loved the arts and spent her off time running marathons. Blake glanced at her picture again. Her resemblance to Jacqueline was scary. Samantha thought of everything, she'd even put the ladies' measurements and weight at the bottom of the page. In captions, Sam wrote a note about how dating services often use old, photo-shopped high school pictures but Alliance updated their photos every six months.

Candidate two, Rita… again, no last name. A physician's assistant taking classes for pre-med. She loved boating and spending time in exotic locations. She'd done her share of traveling, but Sam's papers didn't say how she afforded her hobby.

Candidate three, Karen… Blake didn't bother looking for a last name, he knew it wouldn't be there. Karen should have been a model. Stunning blue eyes and snow blonde hair knocked a man's breath out of his lungs. Karen wasn't in school and didn't have any student loans. She managed some type of nursing home and mentored kids at a boys' and girls' club.

The women were perfect, so why did Blake have a sinking feeling that they were all wrong?

Blake pushed forward in his chair and picked up his phone. When his assistant picked up, Blake said, "Well, Mitch?"

"I still have a couple of calls unanswered, but I've found some interesting things about Miss Elliot."

"Great, bring them over."

Blake walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows of his office and looked down at the city below. Running his shipping business from four points on the globe gave him the upper hand over his competitors. He'd built the business from a meager beginning, despite his father's disapproval. Blake's desire to prove to his father that he didn't need the man's money, or his title, fueled his drive. However, the Harrison name had opened many doors over the years and pissing away the bulk of his inheritance wasn't something he was willing to do, especially since the old man was long dead.

Mitch knocked on the door to his office before he let himself in.

Turning on his heel, Blake nodded to the coffee table in the corner of his office where he could view the files Mitch had in his hand. "Let's do this over here."

Mitch sat and wasted little time spreading papers out for Blake to see.

"Samantha Elliot, twenty seven years old, born in Connecticut to Harris and Martha Elliot."

Blake took his seat. "Why do those names sound familiar?"

"They should, Harris was center stage in the media several years back when he was charged with tax evasion and embezzlement. He and his family lived in a twenty million dollar mansion, with vacation homes in France and Hawaii… the whole big piece of the American Pie."

Blake remembered it now. Big New York businessman who had funneled his funds through glorified ponzi schemes. He'd given out insurance policies for homes, land, business, and property to unsuspecting victims, with no intention of paying them off. If memory served him right, Blake recalled the Feds having a hard time nailing him for corruption and instead managed to imprison him for not paying his taxes. His accounts and property were frozen and his family fell apart.

"Martha, the wife, couldn't handle the drop in status, took a bottle of pills with a pint of gin, and never woke up." Mitch relayed the details of Samantha Elliot's family life as if it were a soap opera.

"According to the media, Samantha's sister, Jordan, tried to follow her mother's example, but ended up with a lack of brain function. I'm still waiting on the details as to where the girl is now. Samantha survived the ordeal, but ended up picking up the family pieces. She dropped out of college, where she was studying business, and socked the small amount of money the government didn't take into her sister's care." Mitch took a breath and handed Blake a list of names.

"What's this?"

"These are people Miss Elliot has connections to. Growing up among the rich and connected resulted in some lasting friendships. The adults severed all ties to the Elliot family when they went down, but Samantha's friends didn't. There's a senator's daughter on that list and two rapidly progressing lawyers. I'm still not sure how she found out about your prior, but I have a call in back home."

Blake shifted through the papers and found a photo of the Elliot family during happy times. The small family stood aboard a yacht. Martha was pencil thin, and her daughters stood beside her in one-piece bathing suits. Samantha's hair was tied back in a ponytail but it still had managed to blow into her face when the picture was taken. Jordan, much younger than Sam, had her mother's dark hair and tiny frame. Harris, a good fifty pounds overweight, rested a hand on his wife's shoulder and smiled for the camera.

Pictures were deceiving. His mind drifted to a similar family portrait of his. Blake's father stood behind his mother with a hand on her shoulder. His mother's white knuckles tensed on the armrest of the chair in which she sat. Blake remembered the day the picture was taken. He and his father had argued about Blake taking a summer internship to better his college applications. Edmund refused to discuss Blake working for anyone, especially for free. Edmund believed an education was necessary for bragging to one's friends. Work, however, was a four-letter word. One no Harrison would touch so long as he had a say in their lives.

"I thought my family was dysfunctional," Blake whispered.

"I think Miss Elliot wins the prize."

Funny, Blake didn't think the prize was worth winning. "Where does Samantha live?"

"She rents a townhome in Tarzana."

"Roommates?"

"Hard to say."

Then, without knowing why he asked, he said, "Boyfriend?"

Mitch's eyes rounded to him. "I didn't look, but I will." Just then, the phone in Mitch's pocket rang. He removed it and glanced at the number. "This is about the sister," he explained before he answered the call.

Mitch spoke into the line while Blake studied the names on the paper in his hand. Samantha had a lot of friends. He wondered if any of them helped her out financially.

Mitch made a whistling noise into the phone, grabbing Blake's attention.

"Okay, thanks," Mitch said before he disconnected the call.

"What is it?"

"Miss Elliot truly needs your business."

"Really, why?"

"Her sister is a patient of Moonlight Villas. Nice name for a fancy home for adults in her condition. The place racks up a six figure bill every year."

Blake felt his eyes pinch together. "And no one is helping Miss Elliot with it?"

Mitch shook his head. "None that I've found. Her friends might give her advice, but there isn't a steady stream of money coming from anywhere but her business."

A business that Blake had already researched and knew all about.

"Interesting."

"So, what's she like?"

It was the first personal question Mitch had asked.

Blake pictured her alabaster skin and the determined set of her jaw. And that voice. Damn, just thinking about it made him want to talk to her again.

"She's all business," Blake told his assistant. "You'd like her."

****

Being in control was her gig. So when Blake Harrison insisted on a dinner meeting to go over the potential wife candidates, Samantha started working out scenarios as to what Harrison was going to talk about.

Perhaps he'd recognized one of the women, or placed a last name to a face. She purposely left off the surnames of the women so her male clients had to rate the merits of the women on their attributes, not their families. Sam knew all too well how people judged her by her parents' actions. After her parents fall, she'd considered changing her name and even her hair color. She settled for moving to the west coast and avoiding the media. The tabloid attention was short lived. Once the newest scandal burst onto the scene, hers was forgotten. Living close to Hollywood constantly put the light on someone else. Her face hadn't been in the paper since her mother's funeral.

Maybe if Samantha had been a beauty and a media whore, the papers would have followed her. Dodging reporters proved easy when Sam started dressing like a wallflower.

So what did Harrison want to discuss? Maybe he'd already talked with his lawyer and needed details her papers hadn't covered. She'd thought of every conceivable loophole when she started her business. Her taxes were always paid, thank you, dad, and her contacts always kept close to the chest. Nothing she'd ever done by way of background checks or private investigators was illegal. The primary gender she turned to for information was women. Sam wasn't naive enough to believe that women weren't capable of illegal acts, but she had a hard time with trust and men. There weren't many in her life that hadn't let her down. In truth, she couldn't think of any.

The sun was still shining as she pulled her car into the parking lot of the most expensive beachfront restaurant in Malibu. Unable to avoid the valet to park her car, Sam left her compact American-made sedan running as she stepped out of it. She thanked the attendant and watched him take the wheel only to park it a few feet away. Her GMC looked completely out of place parked among all the Lexus, Mercedes, and Cadillacs.

Samantha stepped into the cool interior of the restaurant and let the mouth-watering smell of garlic and herbs wash over her senses. The last time she'd dined in a five star restaurant was with one of her happily married female clients last year. Sam had given up fine dining and opulent living long ago. Some things she missed, and eating something other than pop-in-the-microwave dinners and take out was up there on her wish list.

Before Samantha had a chance to step up to the hostess, a man approached her. "Miss Elliot?"

Strange, he didn't seem to be wearing the required uniform of the staff. Maybe he was a manager.

"Yes?"

"Mr. Harrison is waiting for you."

Must be the manager. Samantha followed the well-dressed man deeper into the restaurant until he led her to a secluded booth with a full view of the Pacific. Blake Harrison saw her and stood as she approached.

Like before, his chiseled features and the way he filled out his designer suit brought a wave of awareness over her skin. He dominated the space by simply being there.

His eyes scanned her frame and a small smile lifted to the corner of his lips. She'd changed into a simple dress, not too casual, but certainly nothing fit for the Oscars. The expression on Blake's face said he approved. Not that she dressed to meet his approval, but she didn't want to appear out of place sitting beside him. She met his eyes and felt a hot current zip up her spine.

"You're late," he said, his voice teasing.

She opened her mouth doing her best guppy impersonation, and then closed it. "Touche."

He smiled. "I took the liberty of ordering a bottle of wine. I hope you don't mind." Blake waited until she slid into the booth before reaching for the wine sitting in an ice bucket beside him.

She watched him pour the pale liquid into a stemmed glass and did her best not to stare. "Are we celebrating?"

"Perhaps," he said as he shifted the bottle over to his glass.

She wanted to rush and ask him whom on her list he approved of. Of course, he hadn't met the women yet, and she sincerely doubted he'd chosen one.

Blake lifted his glass, and waited until she joined him in a toast. "To a successful business relationship."

A shiver of uncertainty flittered over her hand as she reached for her wine. The way Blake said relationship didn't sit well. After clicking her glass with his, and sipping the wine, Samantha placed her hands in her lap to hide the slight tremor that would give away her feelings.

"I hope your drive wasn't awful."

Okay, so they weren't going to start with business as she'd have liked. Instead of pushing him, she allowed the casual conversation to continue. "PCH is always difficult to traverse at dinner time."

"Thank you for agreeing to meet me here."

"I'm surprised you picked this location. I'd think that a business dinner would be in a place less formal." Less romantic, she wanted to add.

Blake relaxed into the booth. His sinfully handsome features made it nearly impossible to concentrate on the reason she was sitting across from him. It was entirely too easy to wade into his amazing grey eyes and fall into the warmth of his smile.

"It's against my nature to invite a beautiful woman to a bar for cocktails."

Oh, boy, time to swing this train around. Samantha knew she wasn't beautiful, attractive maybe, but the kind of beauty this man was drawn to was way out of Samantha's league. "You're charming, Mr. Harrison, but you're wasting it on me. I take it you've had an opportunity to look at the portfolios my assistant faxed over."

His eyes narrowed but he didn't say a word. Samantha swallowed and clutched her hands together in her lap. Instead of running from his eyes, she met them head on and kept her lips sealed.

It took a waiter stepping to the table to break the tension. The twenty-something server detailed the chef specials while Samantha picked up her menu. This was her client, and etiquette dictated that she be the one to pick up the bill, even if the restaurant was out of her budget. She settled on the swordfish and a small dinner salad and did her best to ignore the prices on the menu. She'd put it on her credit card, and hope Mr. Harrison's check would clear before it came due.

When left alone, he asked, "Tell me, Samantha… why would I be wasting my charm on you?"

He pronounced her name like a lover's caress, smooth and silky. She heard a hint of an English accent. An accent she thought would be thick on his tongue because of his title.

"We're here to discuss your pending marriage to one of the three women from my service," she reminded him. "I'm not sure how charming me can work to any advantage for you."

"Does everything have to have an angle?"

"In business, yes." In her world anyway.

"What about in your personal life?" He sat forward, his jacket opened as he did and she noticed for the first time that he wasn't wearing a tie. His dress shirt's first two buttons were undone and his bronze skin underneath caught her eye.

"We aren't here to discuss my personal life."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that. Your summary of my life this morning prompted me to do some digging of my own."

Samantha braced herself for his judgment. She never tried to hide her past, but always stood a chance and losing a client because of the sins of her father. "One doesn't have to dig deep to unveil my past, Mr. Harrison."

"I thought we decided you'd call me Blake."

First names and talk of relationships… this was not going well. Samantha poured a little more wine down her throat, suddenly wishing it was something stronger. "My father is a horrible man, my mother was a coward. Neither of them reflects who I am or how I tend to my business, Blake."

"I didn't suggest otherwise."

She hated the defensive tone in her voice, and the transient look of pity on Blake's face.

"You purposely left the last names of the women out, why is that?"

Oh, good, back to business. "I'm not the only one whose parents have darkened people's perceptions. I realize that family can pose a problem to any relationship, even if it's a business relationship, but starting out with information about the women themselves helps keep the door of possibilities open."

"Are the women all trust fund babies or daughters of convicted felons?"

"Hardly. All three have severed their family ties… financially anyway. Which is why they're searching for security and not love."

Blake fingered the stem of his glass. She watched his movements and wondered briefly, what it would feel like to have his hands on her skin, running up and down her arms, her thighs. Heat rushed up her neck and she shifted her gaze away. "I can give you their names now if you insist. If it's going to weigh on your decision, then it's best you know."

"That's not necessary. I've already picked the woman I'm going to offer a contract to."

Samantha's head shot in his direction right as the waiter brought their salads. She held her tongue while the waiter crushed fresh black pepper over their first course and topped off their glasses with the wine. The anticipation was eating her up. Whom did he pick, and why? How could he actually decide to offer marriage to a person without even meeting her? That was extreme, even for the titled millionaire sitting across from her. Then again, maybe it wasn't. What did she really know about Blake Harrison? He liked his women busty, leggy, and lean. She'd not found one picture of the man without a model type hanging from his arm, hence the reason Samantha picked the three most beautiful women in her little black book, which was actually a little black notebook. Still, how did a man pick from three pictures?

"Don't you want to meet them first?" Suddenly, the thought of him picking a wife from a photograph felt shallow, even to her. Were men so easily swayed by a beautiful face? The short answer was "yes." She knew it was possible that Blake Harrison was as superficial as the next guy, but disappointment hovered over her as he proved it with his actions.

"The women in the pictures?"

Sam shook her head, confused. "Of course those women."

"No." He picked up his fork and took a bite.

No? Oh, shit. He'd decided to marry someone else. The dollar signs she'd seen from the first mention of his name started to float out to sea. "You've found someone else who has agreed to marry you?"

"She hasn't agreed, not yet anyway." He took another bite, casual and in control.

If he wasn't going to use her service, then why the hell was she here? "So Alliance is a back up plan?" Maybe he wasn't kissing her off quite yet. Men like him didn't do things without reason.

"Not entirely."

Samantha dropped her fork and fixed him with a stare. "I'm sorry, Mr. Harrison, but I'm confused. Just this morning you were looking for a contractual woman to meet your needs and that has changed in a few hours? Or are you not satisfied with the ladies I presented?"

Blake gave up the pretense of eating and placed his hands on the table beside his plate. "The women you picked were perfect. Too perfect. My time frame to choose a wife is narrow. Getting to know each of those lovely ladies and making a decision is a luxury I don't have." He reached below the table and grasped onto a briefcase she hadn't seen. He removed a file folder and pushed it on the table in front of her.

"What's this?"

"The agreement my lawyer and I wrote up this afternoon."

She itched to open the folder, but laid her hand on it instead. "What agreement?"

Blake's grey eyes held onto hers. "I'm offering you a marriage contract."

Her heart fell in an audible thump. "I'm not on the menu, Mr. Harrison." She pushed the papers back toward him. He caught her hand under his and held it firm. The contact shot that sizzle she'd felt when she'd first seen him straight to her toes and back up again. The constant thud of her heart started to rise and gooseflesh spread over her bare arms. Sam's entire body tingled and the only part of them touching was their hands.

"Everyone has a price, Samantha."

"Not me." She tried to pull away, but he squeezed her fingers to keep her from running.

"I'm setting up a trust fund to take care of Jordan for life. Even if something were to happen to you, Jordan would be taken care of."

Sam's mouth opened with that guppy look again. A bomb going off couldn't have shocked her more. Blake had done his homework, knew of her sister and her needs. "My sister is only twenty-two years old. She could live to be a hundred." Not likely, according to the doctors, but there wasn't proof she'd die young.

"And her care costs you a hundred and six thousand a year. Those expenses will only go up." His hand loosened on hers, but she didn't pull away.

"You're willing to pay me over eight million dollars to be your wife for a year?"

"Plus twenty percent. That is your fee, right?"

Samantha nodded slowly then shook her head. "Why me?"

"Why not you?" His thumb started to move over her hand but she was still too stunned to move.

"I'm not your type."

"My type?"

"Tall, blonde, and gorgeous."

He chuckled and the laugh grounded her. This was a business deal, after all, nothing more, nothing less. Blake had turned her hand over and was rubbing the inside of her wrist with soothing circles. Okay, maybe a marriage contract was a bit more than a business deal. She removed her hand from under his.

"What would marriage to you look like?"

"Your life wouldn't have to change," he said as he lifted his wine to his lips. "A quick trip to the justice of the peace, maybe Vegas. We'd have to make a few appearances over the first few months to satisfy the lawyers my father hired before his death and my cousin who stands to gain should this not work out. I spend half of my time in Europe, half here in Malibu so we wouldn't cramp each others' daily life."

"Why not find a wife in Europe?"

"To minimize the relentless media eyes in Europe. The States don't have tabloids dedicated to Kings and Queens, Dukes and Duchesses. The newness of my nuptials will wear off quickly."

The stipulations in Blake's father's will stated that Blake had to be married and settled by his thirty-sixth birthday in order to inherit the man's wealth and keep his title. After much debate, the lawyers determined that after a year of marriage, they could relinquish his inheritance and lift any further legal restrictions. This was what Samantha's contacts in London had told her.

"What kind of appearances?"

"A small reception and a few appearances in public venues. I'd need you to come with me to London to sign papers with the lawyers in regard to my title, our titles."

She swallowed; she had forgotten about the whole Duchess thing. "I've no idea what being a Duchess is about."

Blake lifted his fork and started eating again. "I've never had one, so I'm not completely sure either."

Samantha couldn't help but offer a laugh. "This is crazy."

"I'm surprised you think so. The arrangement makes perfect sense to me."

The waiter returned with their meals and quickly left.

Samantha remembered the advice she'd given Blake earlier in the day. It will be up to you to keep it in your pants, Mr. Harrison. Perhaps he picked her because of how easy it would be to stay out of her bed. That made perfect sense. Maybe he'd seen the pictures of the women she'd picked out and found them perfectly doable.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

She really needed to work on her poker face. "Nothing… I – this is a lot to think about. I wasn't expecting this proposal."

"But you're considering it."

"I'd be a fool not to."

"You don't strike me as foolish." He took a bite of his prime rib with a gleam in his eye.

No, she wasn't a fool. "I'll look over your contract tomorrow."

"Excellent."