After her husband was killed and she lost her unborn child, Sarah Madison believed she’d never find love and happiness again. Instead, she has channeled all her energy into her job as assistant to the sexy CEO of Guardian Security. When he proposes a marriage of convenience, the chance to become a mother is tempting, and so is her new prospective husband. His only flaw—the distance he keeps between himself and his sweet little daughter.
Reno Sullivan’s life is a mess. His first marriage was based on a lie, and the fiery death of his wife left him to raise a baby—a constant reminder of his wife’s deceit. He desperately needs someone to mother the child and take charge of his personal life, and his no-nonsense assistant is perfect for the job. Unfortunately, the alluring woman in the bedroom next to his chips away at his determination to maintain the hands-off clause in their agreement and the ice around his heart.
A near-tragedy and Reno’s fear of love could kill Sarah’s hopes of turning their fake marriage into happily ever after…
READ CHAPTER ONE
“I can’t believe you’re actually doing this.” Nick Vanetta stared at his partner, Reno Sullivan, a look of disbelief stamped on his face. They were in Reno’s executive offices at Guardian Security, the corporate giant they’d built together.
“Doing what?” Tony Sullivan, Reno’s younger brother, walked into the office and closed the door behind him. “What am I missing?”
“Your brother’s screwy idea, that’s what.” Nick frowned, turning back to Reno. “Being your partner gives me certain privileges, so let me tell you I think you’re out of what passes for your mind. She’ll never go for it.”
“Go for what?” Tony dropped into one of the soft client chairs. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on around here?”
“Your brother has decided to resolve his situation with Molly by asking Sarah to marry him.”
Tony gawked. “The incomparable Sarah? Marry you?”
Reno sat upright in his chair. “What, am I so repulsive? Will she run away from me?”
“If she’s smart she will.”
“I thought you said you were off marriage,” Nick reminded him. “Your first try at it didn’t win any prizes.”
Reno recoiled as if from a blow. The guilt he carried around with him would have buried lesser men. Maggie, the child, their marriage, her death—all the fallout from his one lousy vacation, when he’d totally taken leave of his senses.
Regret flashed at once across Nick’s face. “Sorry about that. I didn’t mean it quite the way it sounded. It was a stupid remark and I apologize.”
“I know how bad you think I handled everything,” he said stiffly. “And yes, you’re right. A lot of men would have handled things differently. But I created a situation, I was responsible for it, and I had to do what I thought was right.”
He still cursed himself for getting into the mess in the first place, but honor was honor no matter what distasteful form it came in.
“I didn’t realize you and Sarah were, um, you know…” Tony searched for the right word.
“Dating?” Reno shook his head. “We’re not.”
His brother scratched behind his ear. “Okay. I feel like I came in at the middle of a movie here. Did I skip over the beginning?”
“It’s not really a marriage.”
“Say that again?” His eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline.
“What he means,” Nick explained slowly, “is that he wants to hire a mother for Molly, so she’ll have at least one parent to care for her. Marrying someone, he says, is the best way to do this.”
“Marrying Sarah,” Reno protested. “Not just anyone.”
“Jesus, Reno, you come up with a lot of crazy schemes, but this one takes the cake. What makes you think Sarah will even do this? She’s liable to have you committed instead.”
“Let me spell this out,” he said through gritted teeth. “There’s a child with my name, living in my house. She has that name because of lies and deception. But the betrayal was not hers and I still have a responsibility to her. If Mrs. Murray was still here, no sweat, but the housekeepers from hell don’t quite solve the problem.” He spread his hands. “I’m trying here, okay? Give me a break.”
Reno Sullivan was a man who took charge of situations. His commanding presence automatically made people accept his air of control. The entire corporate community respected him for his razor sharp mind and keen business skills. How surprised these two men would be to know that underneath his air of self-confidence, he was panic-stricken, scared that Sarah would turn him down, and frightened she wouldn’t.
“I think we’ve crossed this bridge one too many times already,” Tony pointed out. “Anyway, I say she’ll never do it. And you’re liable to lose the best executive assistant anyone’s ever had.”
Reno shook his head in disgust. “Y’all tell me to get my life together. Move forward. Make sure the child is taken care of.” He forced back the familiar anguish that always engulfed him at the mention of the little girl. God, would the pain of this never go away? “Did you not say that?”
“This isn’t quite what we had in mind.”
“People usually get married for different reasons,” Nick argued. “Like falling in love?”
“I think I’ve figured out love isn’t on my agenda. Most people aren’t lucky enough to find someone like Lindsey.” Nick and his wife had one of the most solid marriages Reno had ever seen. “Anyway, this is totally different.”
“At least, with Sarah, I know her. I’m comfortable with her. If I have to bring another woman into that house, I want it to be someone I can handle being around.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I know that makes me sound like a jerk, but you both know the history.”
“You’re taking a big risk here,” Tony pointed out. “Sarah could walk away from both the proposition and her job.”
“But it’s the only solution that makes any kind of sense to me. Financial security in exchange for a commitment to the child. It seems pretty straightforward to me.”
Tony twisted his lips. “Do you know how cold that sounds? Like one of your business deals.”
“It is a business deal.” Reno glared at Tony. His partner and his brother weren’t helping the cause at all. “That’s what I do best, you know. And at this point in my life, it’s about all I’m capable of. Do you think I’d even consider this if I thought there was a better answer? Damn Maggie anyway.”
Maggie. Just her name conjured up such bitterness he could taste it. How had he ever gotten himself into such a mess? No one could possibly think worse of him than he did of himself.
At eighteen he’d had a different future planned for himself. Then his parents died and life became a constant battle, drastically altering his existence. One minute he was a college student with nothing on his mind except girls and classes, the next he was a man left with unexpected responsibilities. He’d had to grow up in a big hurry, fighting everyone for everything.
First the system, so he could hang onto Tony. Then fighting everyone else as he struggled to put both of them through college and keep a roof over their heads. And finally, with Nick, as two hot shot punks trying to break into the tight little world of high-end corporate security. No one had given an inch for him so he’d made his own rules. As a result, outside of Nick and Tony, he trusted no one but himself.
In the end that success cost him something. By the time he reached a point in life where he could think about a serious relationship, that part of him was buried so deep he didn’t know how to find it. He never lacked for social or sexual partners, but after three or four dates he was always ready to move on. At the most basic level, he couldn’t seem to connect.
He was scrupulous about not making promises to his women. He wasn’t looking for anything permanent, maybe never would be. He’d have to expose his vulnerability to do that and he’d worked too long to bury it, to protect himself. Always up front and honest about this, somehow he managed to stay friends with all of them. As if his honesty created a bond between them.
He built walls around himself because, that way, he was protected. Any chinks in his armor were hidden from view. And he became a social creature who knew how to behave in public, but no matter how many people surrounded him, he was always alone.
It was a lonely way to live, but safer. He’d learned the pitfalls of making himself vulnerable to anyone. His marriage was a catastrophe from day one. But when Molly was born, for the first time, he gave his heart to someone willingly and without reservation. At the first sight of that little girl his heart opened like a flower and scooped her in. Life was brighter, warmer, more joyful.
He raced home from the office every day to spend time with her. When he held her in his arms, inhaled her special baby scent, touched his lips to the skin as soft as peaches, he could convince himself Maggie was a small price to pay for this kind of happiness.
Until the night Maggie destroyed it all, hurling her vicious words at him, words of betrayal and deceit. With a few simple phrases, she’d managed to shatter him completely.
“She’s not even yours, you arrogant jerk. Joke’s on you. Ha ha ha.” Slugging back the rest of her drink, she’d finished off her little speech. “I wanted a rich husband, there you were ready to be plucked, and the baby was just the bait I needed. You were my ticket to the big time, sucker.”
“Do you even know who the father is?”
Her answer was more devastating than he could have imagined.
Maggie shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care.” Her mouth twisted in a sneer. “I don’t even remember who all I slept with. No telling whose genes are running around in your precious baby girl’s body.” She shrieked with hysterical laughter.
“Stop it. Stop it right now.” Anger welled up in him so violently he was shaking.
When she ran from the room, he didn’t try to stop her. Hours later, she was dead, drunk enough to crash her car into an overpass, the gas tank bursting into flames.
Nothing he did wiped those words from his mind. For a year, he’d struggled with her bitter legacy, the truth about Molly. But his heart was damaged with a wound that wouldn’t heal.
He shook off his depressing thought and looked up from his desk, realizing the two men in his office were watching him carefully.
“It isn’t the baby’s fault,” Tony said softly.
“I know.” Reno’s voice was ragged with suffering. “You have no idea how I despise myself. For getting into this situation and for handling it—or mishandling it—the way I have. Honest to God. It’s killing me, but I can’t do what you want. I just can’t.” If Maggie were standing in front of him now, he didn’t think he could be responsible for his actions.
“When do you plan to make your big pitch?” Nick asked.
Reno shook himself out of his reverie. “I’m taking her out to dinner tonight.”
“Tonight?” Nick goggled at his partner. “Could you have cut things a little closer?”
“I’d say your social skills leave a lot of room for improvement.” Tony shook his head.
“I’m not sure he has any social skills,” Nick commented. “At least not anymore.”
“I’ll just present it to her in a reasonable manner,” Reno went on, as if neither of them had spoken. “Sarah’s very level-headed.”
“Present it to her?” Tony raised his eyebrows. “Level-headed?”
“What a guy.” Nick narrowed his eyes. “Giving her a whole meal to put her in the mood.”
“At least you didn’t plan on just stopping at her desk and dropping it on her,” Tony pointed out.
Reno Sullivan was a proud man, and the entire situation had devastated him. Always driven by his demons, he often felt like he was on the outside of life looking in. Only Molly had opened that door, and Maggie had slammed it shut. Neither of these men knew how many nights he lay in bed wishing he could cry and wash the pain away with tears.
The fact that he was about to do what he planned went against every rule in his personal code of behavior. But he was so desperate he was forcing himself to go ahead with it.
“What made you decide on Sarah for this?” Nick asked. “Or even think she’d accept your offer?”
“She has all the qualities I’m looking for—warmth, compassion, and excellent organizational skills. We know each other fairly well after five years in this office. I don’t think she has any, um, emotional attachments. I’m hoping she will see the advantages in this arrangement.”
“Jesus, you sound like you’re interviewing her for the job she already has.”
“In a way, I am. Just at my house instead of my office.” He slammed the pen down on the desk. “She’s perfect. I’ve made up my mind. Leave it at that.”
“Okay, but why would you think a gorgeous woman like Sarah would be available on such short notice, anyway?” Nick asked.
“Gorgeous?” Reno frowned, puzzled. “Yeah, she’s okay, I guess. She always looks good in the office.” When he thought of Sarah, it was to admire her efficiency, her skills with people, with organizing. From day one, he’d never actually looked at her as a female. Why would he? She was just…Sarah.
“I can’t believe you. Don’t tell me you’ve never noticed how she looks. You are in another world.”
“Anyway, it’s a week night,” Reno said, his voice edgy with irritation. “I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have plans.”
Tony blew out a breath. “I know she’d be flattered to learn you have such a low opinion of her social life.” He shook his head. “I’m with Nick on this. I think it’s a bad idea.”
“Well, hell. Thanks for all the support.” Reno pushed himself away from his desk and went to stand at the window, his hands shoved into his pockets. “I’ll talk her into it,” he insisted, as much to himself as to the two men. “I have to. I’m out of options. This is all I have left.”
At that moment, the buzzer on his intercom sounded.
He depressed the button. “Yes, Sarah?”
“There’s a gentleman on the phone named Kip Balenger. He insists on talking to you, but he won’t tell me why. Shall I put him through or get rid of him?”
Every muscle in Reno’s body tightened. There was a name he’d hoped never to hear again. “It’s all right. Go ahead and put him through.”
“Mr. Sullivan?” Balenger’s voice was as gravelly as he remembered.
“I’m almost afraid to ask why you’re calling.” He looked at Tony and Nick, both frozen in the doorway, their faces wearing identical expressions of concern. They knew who this was as well as he did.
“Well, it’s not with good news, I’m sorry to say.”
“Something’s happened,” Reno guessed.
“Unfortunately. Luis Aguilar was being transferred to a new location with some other prisoners this morning. The prison van was in an accident—real or manufactured.”
“Do not tell me he’s on the loose.” Reno spat out the words.
“I wish I didn’t have to.” Balenger heaved an audible sigh. “The Feds are doing a full court press to find him, but I wanted to give you a heads up. You know he never forgave you for busting up his little game.”
“Little game?” Reno curled his lip in distaste. “Are you fucking kidding me? He and his cartel kidnapped the daughter of the head of a conglomerate and held her for ransom. I guess he wasn’t making enough with drugs.”
Reno counted to ten, telling himself it wasn’t Balenger’s fault. But a combination of fear and rage raced through him. “Any idea where he is now?”
“No, but every state is on high alert. I just wanted to be sure you had a heads up on it. You know you were the one he said he’d be after.”
“Let me know the minute you hear anything.” He slammed the phone down.
“Please tell me it’s not what I think it is,” Nick bit off.
“I wish. That fucking asshole is on the loose.” Reno gave them the story.
“I hope you aren’t planning to bring Sarah into this mess.” Nick scowled. “The situation’s wonky enough as it is.”
“As a matter of fact, it’s an even better idea. I don’t trust any of the damn housekeepers I’ve had.”
“Then you’d better give her fair warning,” Tony said. “She needs to know what she’ll be stepping into.”
“Yeah. No kidding. Nick, will you arrange for a new security system at the house? More cameras, more electronics. More outside sensors. The works.”
“I’ll get on it right away.” He gave Reno a hard look. “And think carefully about how you’re going to handle this whole thing. When are you planning to pop the dinner invitation? It’s almost five o’clock.”
“Right now, if you both will get out of my office and give me some privacy.”
Nick held up his hands. “I’m going. I’m going. I’ll go arrange for the system.”
Tony grimaced. “Nothing like making her feel last minute.”
“I’ve been working up my nerve for a week,” Reno admitted sheepishly. “She intimidates me.”
Reno frowned as Nick burst out laughing.
“That’s the most absurd statement I’ve heard. Sarah Madison is one of the warmest, most gracious individuals I have ever met. Well, you’d better get to it.” He opened the door and threw one final word of warning over his shoulder. “You have to tell her the whole story. Including the kidnapping.”
“I can’t tell her what you want,” he said. “She’d run in the other direction. And I wouldn’t blame her.”
Reno stood in the doorway, watching Sarah at her desk, busy with some last minute chores. From the first day he hired her, his office had run like a well-oiled machine. If there was ever a glitch, he never knew it. He had yet to see or hear of a disgruntled employee or client. Or have a piece of paper misplaced or miss an appointment. Sometimes he felt he just showed up at the office and Sarah took care of the rest.
He needed the same thing at his house, making order out of the chaos there, giving Molly the emotional security he wasn’t able to. The idea of marriage to Sarah had risen from the fog of his miserable existence sharp and clear. She could just apply the skills she used at the office and everything would fall into place. Molly would have a parent to love her, and he would provide the best financial environment possible.
He reviewed again in his mind the little he’d been able to find out about her. Valerie in Human Resources had given him whatever information she had, which was meager at best. Five years ago, shortly before coming to work at Guardian, her husband had been killed in a carjacking and she’d had a difficult miscarriage.
“She never discusses her personal life,” Valerie had told him, “but once a bunch of us were having coffee in the cafeteria, right after she started here. Everyone was talking about babies. She looked so sad and told us the loss of the child was devastating to her, especially since she didn’t think she could have any more. Then she clammed up about it, but I always see that sadness in her eyes. Too bad. She has a lot of love to give some lucky child.”
More than anything else, this was what had made him think his idea would work. And now it was even more imperative.
Sarah was well aware of the kind of work Guardian did. It wasn’t all corporate security. She knew about the hostage they’d rescued from Luis Aguilar as well as some other dicey situations. She’d even insisted on learning to shoot. He’d taken her to the range himself, pleased at how well she did. Then he’d signed her up for classes to get a Concealed Carry license. She’d also taken some self-defense courses, telling him she wanted to be able to defend herself if the need arose. Talk about a lucky thing.
She was closing down her computer and locking her desk when he finally walked up to her. She turned to him, smiling.
“Whatever it is, we’re closed for the day,” she joked. “I understand the boss refuses to pay overtime.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and blurted out, “Sarah, would you have dinner with me tonight?”
As soon as he’d said it, he mentally kicked himself for his abrupt approach. So much for his well-rehearsed little speech. What was the matter with him? He felt like a teenager asking a girl out for his first date.
“I beg your pardon?” Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped.
His mouth went dry, and he tried to swallow. What if she turned him down? “Let’s try this again. I was wondering if you were free for dinner tonight.” There. That was a little smoother.
“You want me to have dinner with you?” She was still gaping at him.
Surprised at her unexpected loss for words, afraid she’d turn him down out of hand, he tried to dredge up what Tony called his famous Sullivan charm. “I can promise you a good steak and fine wine.” He smiled and named one of San Antonio’s top restaurants, located on the famous Riverwalk, the city’s hot tourist spot.
“Well, I am a Texas girl born and bred,” she reminded him, the shock fading from her face, “so, yes, steak is my weakness.” Curiosity was still reflected in her eyes. “But I’d like to know what this is all about. Why the sudden invitation? Something special come up?”
He raked his fingers through his hair. Had something come up? Oh, yes, more than she knew.
She watched him carefully, questions in her eyes. “Reno?” she prompted, still waiting for an answer.
“Yes, you might say that. I do have a project I’d like to discuss with you.” Okay. Not far from the truth. “It’s dinner time. We both have to eat. I thought it might be nice for a change to do it together, and we can discuss what I have in mind. Are you free? Do you have plans?” He wanted to sound casual, but he was afraid anxiety was creeping into his voice.
“Well…” She chuckled. “I guess it beats a frozen dinner. Right?”
Reno felt his shoulders sag in relief. “Good, good. I’ll call the restaurant.”
“I’d like to go home and change, though, if that’s okay. It won’t take me long. Or are you in a hurry?”
“No, of course not. How about if I pick you up at seven? Will that give you enough time?”
“Seven it is.”