Wife For Hire
by Christine Bell
Owen Phipps is out for revenge. His mission? To expose the man who stole his sister’s money and dignity. All he needs is a “wife” who can play along. Too bad his last best hope is an actress who tries to mace him with perfume when he offers her the role of a lifetime.
Lindy Covington is a real sap. She loves too hard, feels too deep, and often finds herself saying yes when she should be saying “Let me think about it.” She can’t believe her good fortune when Owen offers her more than enough money to hold off foreclosure until she can find a job. Three weeks at a resort, money she desperately needs, and she gets to help bring a criminal to justice? Score.
It seems easy enough until the first time a couples bonding game turns intimate, and they realize how dangerous their mutual attraction could be. Can they keep their hands to themselves long enough to find the evidence Owen needs? Or are the close quarters more temptation than they can handle?
Praise for Wife for Hire:
“A fresh, fun, suspenseful take on a classic storyline…and did I mention sexy? This book is on my keeper shelf!” – USA TODAY bestselling author Cari Quinn
© 2012 Christine Bell
Lindy Knight stared at the mountain of feathers and cotton batting that used to be her couch and tried not to cry. “Melba?” she called, hoping the desperation she felt wasn’t evident in her voice.
“Yes, dear?” Melba rounded the corner from the kitchen, sauce-covered wooden spoon still in hand. She stopped in her tracks. “Holy Toledo, it’s snowing in here! Is there a hole in the roof?” She trained her milky blue gaze toward the ceiling.
Lindy sucked a breath through her nose and let it out slowly through her mouth, like that lady in the yoga video. “That’s not snow. That’s the couch.”
The old woman shuffled closer and bent low, peering into the mess, dripping globs of marinara onto the crème colored carpet. “Huh. Well, I’ll be. Looks like snow.” She straightened and shrugged. “Thought we had a hole in the roof. That’s good at least.”
That was good, since a new couch cost less than a new roof. But when one’s life savings amounted to—she spared a glance to the account statement she’d been reading when she’d walked into the house—two hundred sixty-three dollars and eleven cents, neither scenario was exactly ideal.
“Where are the puppies?”
“In the kitchen with me. We were making gnocchi.” A delighted grin spread across Melba’s heavily-lined face, and Lindy couldn’t help but return it. There was no question she meant well and wanted to earn her keep. It wasn’t her fault that the attempts invariably backfired.
“We’ve got to make sure we keep the door shut, okay, Melbs? No puppies in the living room unless I’m home,” Lindy said gently. “I’m going to go through the mail and clean this mess up. I’ll be in to help with dinner as soon as I’m done.”
“No problemo. We’re finished anyway. I’m on my way out to St. Mike’s, and don’t worry, Fanny’s driving. I’ll put the sauce on warm for you. See you later tonight,” Melba chirped, ambling back to the kitchen.
Since the last house fire, she wasn’t supposed to be cooking when no one was home, but Lindy needed to pick her battles. At least their neighbor had been kind enough to offer Melba a ride to the church for Friday night bingo. She didn’t have the strength to argue about her elderly charge getting behind the wheel. It had been a doozy of a week, and she wanted it over with. Maybe after dinner she’d curl up with a good book and call it a day.
She was flipping through the mail, mostly bills, when her cell blared the opening lines of “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa. Usually, the song cheered her. She was hard-pressed to recall a time that it hadn’t resulted in some serious booty shaking, but today she wanted to pitch the phone into the garbage disposal. She rummaged through her purse and yanked it out just as it went to voice mail.
One missed call.
Whoopty-doo. Probably Mal with another one of his cockamamie ideas. She jammed the phone back into her bag without a second look and tackled the onerous task of cleaning up the remains of her couch.
It took nearly an hour, three vacuum bags, and four trips to the trashcans out front, but by the time she was done, the room looked passably clean. And extremely empty, she noted with a twinge of despair. She cut off that train of thought before it became a real locomotive, and floundered for a silver lining. Now she had an excuse to redecorate, and she did love Indian-inspired designs. It would be the perfect time to find some bright fabric at the thrift store and sew four gorgeous seating pillows to go around the coffee table. She’d get some patterns and ideas online before bed.
A sharp rap on the door jarred her from her thoughts. She peeked through the peephole and gasped. The man on her porch was the most gorgeous she’d ever laid eyes on. Even distorted by the curved glass, his face was a work of art. Full, firm lips perched above a square jaw, capped off by angular cheekbones and a slash of a nose that kept him from looking too feminine. Close-cropped, raven black hair set off dark gray eyes that were currently locked with her one that was fixed on the peephole, and became filled with exasperation.
“Hello?” he called.
“Hello?” she parroted dumbly.
“Can…I come in, or?” The tone seemed like one reserved for either children or imbeciles and was at odds with the lilting, almost song-like Irish brogue. She bristled despite the delicious accent, pushing thoughts of his stunning good looks to the back burner.
“I’m not sure. Who are you?” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. She uncrossed them when she realized he couldn’t see her combative gesture. Instead, she narrowed her peeping eye suspiciously, in case he leaned in to look.
Tall, dark and handsome sighed heavily. “Owen Phipps. We had an appointment.”
She did a mental rundown of her schedule and winced. They did have an appointment. For a job, no less, and this clearly wasn’t the best foot to start off on. If it hadn’t been for the damned…well, everything today, she would’ve remembered for sure. Compared to all the other wanted ads she’d responded to, this one was the definite oddball and stood out like a gangrenous thumb. She’d found it on Craigslist when she happened upon the “gigs” section entirely by accident. There, at the top of the page, was Mr. Phipps’s strange little advertisement.
Wanted: Attractive woman, age 25-35, with some acting experience needed for three week position beginning January 25th. Recognizable television and/or movie personalities need not apply. Pay is a flat rate of $20,000 for three continuous weeks of 24/7 availability. Must be willing to travel. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an interview.
She’d actually snorted a laugh when she first saw it, but for some reason she kept coming back to it, re-reading and, more to the point, recalculating. It would take her—she did the math quickly on her fingers—a million shifts at the restaurant to make twenty grand. That amount of money could get her out of the hole and pay her mortgage for a year. With a little old lady and seven puppies counting on her, credit cards bursting at the seams, and everything of value already in hock, she was plum out of brilliant ideas. They had eight weeks before the bank came a-calling. If desperation actually had a smell, she’d reek right now.
So she’d emailed him. To her shock, he hadn’t responded asking her to send her social security number or a check to secure the position. Nor had he asked her to send a picture of her boobs. No, instead, he’d asked her for a list of qualifications and references, which she supplied. Still, when he contacted her asking if they could meet in his home for an interview, she hesitated. Although there weren’t any obvious indications of psychosis in his email correspondence, odds still had to be pretty good that he was either a whack job or a scammer.
Right as she had been about to delete his request unanswered, her brother Mal phoned from the vet’s office where he’d gone to pick up Melba. Melba had tried to call Lindy’s cell phone earlier because Sneezy had swallowed the top half of a plastic spork, but Lindy was in the middle of a shift. When no one answered, Melba had taken a cab to the emergency veterinary clinic out in Mount Vernon, since the regular vet was closed.
By the time Mal brought her home, Melba was armed with the same squirming puppy and a four hundred dollar note advising them to keep an eye out for spork shrapnel coming from Sneezy’s back end. Lindy later found the hunk of plastic on the floor where it had likely been the whole time. She was proud of herself, though. She didn’t have a mental breakdown. Instead, she emailed Mr. Phipps and explained that she understood his desire for privacy, but, as a young woman alone, she would feel more comfortable at her own house, perhaps with her brother in the adjacent room. His response was almost instantaneous. He agreed and commended her vigilance.
They set an appointment for the following week since he was out of town on business, and she’d gone on with her life. She was fairly certain whatever he was trying to pull had been derailed once she’d refused to go to his house, so she hadn’t really given it another thought. His little game had come to its conclusion, and he’d shop for an easier mark.
But here he was.
And here she was.
She steeled herself and laid a hand on the knob. No point in putting it off. If he kidnapped her, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about the mortgage anymore. She ran a hand through her disheveled hair and pasted what she hoped was a capable-looking smile on her face. After a quick breath check, she opened the door, letting in a frigid blast of air.
“Hello, Mr. Phipps. Do come in.”
“Please, my da was Mr. Phipps. Call me Owen.” He pronounced it “Ooh-un” and she suppressed a swoon.
“Owen, then. I apologize for making you wait in the cold. It’s been a hectic day, and I’m afraid I lost track of time.” In her nervousness, she’d adopted some sort of weird, transcontinental accent like the actresses in one of those 1950s caper films she watched on Sunday afternoons. Her cheeks burned at his puzzled look and she slung the door wider to let him in.
“Where are you from?” he asked, brows raised. He was even taller than he looked through the peephole and seemed to take up an awful lot of space as he pressed by her, into the foyer.
“Here. I mean, Westchester.”
He inclined his head but narrowed his eyes. “Your accent sounds like…somewhere else.”
She forced a laugh. “Sorry, I have an audition for an upcoming community theater production and I try to kind of live in the character.” The falsehood rolled off her tongue before she could stop it, and she cringed. She hated lying, but this guy had her totally off her game. Plus, on the miniscule chance this was a real job opportunity, the last thing she wanted was to be stuck talking like Myrna Loy for the next month.
“That so? What production?”
Caught off guard by the question, she wracked her brain for a response.
“The Vagina Monologues.”
He pinned her with a blank stare. She didn’t blame him. What was there to say? He was obviously in the company of a blathering idiot. She fought the inane urge to find a mirror and see if her face was literally on fire.
He cleared his throat before speaking again. “Shall we sit down then, maybe discuss the position and your qualifications?”
Now it was her turn to stare. What kind of man would still consider hiring a person like her when their limited interaction had been nothing but weird? The thought sent the butterflies in her stomach a-flapping, and she took a few hesitant steps toward the living room. This was it, the pivotal point in every horror movie, the one that always had her shouting, “Don’t let him in, you idiot!” at the screen. And still, she kept walking. Surely a guy that handsome could get a girl to live in his basement cage just by asking, right? No need to go hunting for one. Plus, twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money. She wasn’t backing down until she knew for sure there was no real job. Maybe they could put that on her tombstone. Wouldn’t back down…and paid the ultimate price
Resisting the urge to genuflect, she blew out a martyr’s sigh. “Please, have a seat,” she said, motioning to the couch that was no longer there. Squeezing her eyes closed, she swallowed a groan. Had she really thought the day couldn’t get worse? How droll. “I forgot. My couch got eaten. Maybe we should go in the kitchen.”
She scurried by him, surreptitiously grabbing her purse as she passed it. If worse came to worst, maybe she’d have a shot at her cell phone, or at the very least, be able to get a good swing in with the bag. If she did hit him, though, she’d aim for the solar plexus. His face was far too pretty to ruin.
Where had that come from? He hadn’t even kidnapped her yet and already she was succumbing to Stockholm syndrome. That didn’t bode well for her. If Mr. Owen Phipps was for real, and by some miracle she landed this mysterious job, how was she going to stop herself from falling madly, completely in lust?
She wasn’t. That’s how.
Owen watched his odd little hostess, almost in a daze. The ad he’d placed was admittedly a bit cryptic, so he’d been prepared for the freaks to come out. Still, the responses had been so off the charts nutty, he wondered if he’d slipped through a looking glass somewhere. Lindy Knight had been his last hope. After a few reasoned, articulate email exchanges, he’d been cautiously optimistic, but that optimism was fading fast. The Vagina Monologues, indeed.
Time to determine whether she was a compulsive liar, or if all this madness was the result of a bad case of nerves. The latter he could work with. The former was unacceptable. He couldn’t abide by phonies.
Lindy swung the kitchen door open and was instantly mobbed by a passel of squirming, ginger-colored puppies. They very nearly took her down, but she managed to grab onto the countertop and regain her balance.
“Jesus, how many dogs do you have?”
He knew his tone bordered on incredulous, but his infamous composure seemed to have deserted him.
“Seven. I’m not keeping them,” she said, bending low to scratch behind ears and pat heads. “I’m…holding them.”
“Holding them for what?”
“You know, until I find them homes.” She shrugged.
“Where are the parents?” he asked, scanning the tiny room for evidence of larger animals.
She hesitated, pursing her full lips. “That’s complicated.”
“Are you running some sort of puppy mill here or something?” he asked, oddly disappointed. The woman was probably a wacko anyway, what with the fake accent when he’d arrived and her strange behavior since. So why did it bother him that she was capable of something so unsavory? Maybe it was the cherub face, or the wide blue eyes framed by the pixie haircut that made her look almost fey.
Those eyes snapped outrage at him now. “No! Of course not. I saved them from a puppy mill. I answered an ad in the paper because I’ve always wanted a golden retriever. When I went there, I couldn’t leave the rest. So I took them all. To hold. I just haven’t had a chance to find them good homes yet. I’ve got the word out with friends, though, so pretty soon they’ll be gone.”
One of the pups, chubbier than the rest, plopped down on her foot. The annoyance drained from her face, and she grinned. The smile lit her up in a way that gave him the urge to move closer and absorb the warmth. “Come on now, Sleepy. Hop to it.” She gave her leg a shake and the pup plodded off with a yawn. “That’s the one I’m keeping,” she whispered, and pressed her forefinger to her lips.
“They’re named after Snow White’s dwarves?”
“Mostly. We’ve got Sleepy, Sneezy, Doc, Bashful, Grumpy, Happy, and Steve.” At his questioning gaze she shrugged, again dropping her voice low. “We didn’t want to call him Dopey. Might hurt his self-esteem.”
He nodded, unable to come up with an appropriate response to that.
She turned to usher the puppies into a large pen that took up the lion’s share of the kitchen. Once they were safely ensconced, she motioned to the table.
“I can take your coat, and you can have a seat. Would you like something to drink? I’ve got bottled water, coffee, and tea. There’s also some gnocchi on the stove if you’re hungry.”
Although her words were casual, she clutched her purse close. What did she have in there that she was so protective of? He kept his eyes on the bag and responded. “I’ll leave my coat here. And no, thank you on the food. I’m fine.” Right when he stripped off his coat, the spicy scent of garlic and tomatoes hit him, and his stomach rumbled.
She flashed that smile again. “You sure? Sounds like your stomach disagrees.”
Annoyed with himself for being sucked in by a pretty face, and his traitorous stomach for the ill-timed hallelujah chorus, he gave his head a firm shake. “I don’t have a lot of time, so can we…?” He laid his coat over the back of his chair and then set his briefcase on the table, eyeing it pointedly.
“Sure thing.” The wariness was back, and she kept a hand on her pocketbook as they sat across from one another.
As his fingers went to the enclosure on his briefcase, he noticed hers move to grip the sides of her bag. He popped the latch and, with her gaze locked on his hand, she undid the fastener of her purse. She was mimicking his motions. How odd. He paused for a moment then cracked open his briefcase to reach inside. Sure enough, she followed suit, easing her hand into her bag. Fascinated, he moved to pull out the sheaf of papers, but before he could, she let out a yelp and yanked out a pack of Wrigley’s gum.
They both stared at the gum between them. “Ms. Knight?”
“C-call me Lindy, please.” She jammed it toward him and the package nearly hit his nose. “Gum?” she squeaked.
He shook his head, bemused. “No thanks.” Good sense told him he should call it a day and write the last few minutes off as a loss, but considering the pool of candidates he had to work from so far, she wasn’t even close to the worst. The weirdest? Maybe. But she was attractive and did look the part. She’d claimed some acting experience. Maybe she could act a little less weird and they’d do fine.
Ah well. Another half hour wasn’t going to kill him.
He pulled the papers from his briefcase and set them on the table between them. Lindy’s wide eyes filled with relief and she slumped forward. Letting out a long breath, she released the stranglehold on her bag. What was she expecting, a hacksaw?
“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself? Your resume indicated that you had some acting experience with your last business venture. The…” He glanced down at the sheet in front of him. “Brothers Grim?”
Her cheeks glowed a pretty shade of pink, and she wriggled in her seat. “Well, uh, it wasn’t really acting, per se. When the real estate market took a dive and I couldn’t sell any houses, I had to look for unique ways of riding out the downturn. I enjoy working for myself, so I set my sights on creating a niche business, something small and different that I could run myself, with maybe a couple part-timers.”
He nodded encouragingly. Her thought process made a lot of sense. A good sign.
“I’d walk around making lists of things that would make my own life easier in hopes of stumbling onto the next Google or Post-it notes or something. That’s when I came up with The Brothers Grim. My whole life, I’ve always had a hard time hurting people’s feelings. I once dated a guy for three months because I couldn’t bring myself to break up with him. Nice enough guy and all, but…moist, you know? Like his palms were always cold and damp. Every time he touched me, it reminded me of my creepy Uncle Donny and I’d get all skeeved out. But how do you tell somebody that? So I got to thinking, what if you could hire a company to break bad news for you? Need to fire an employee? Leave your lover? Tell your spouse you were going to jail on fraud charges? The Brothers Grim will do it for you.”
He eyeballed her hard, trying to determine whether she was serious or not, but she gazed back, solemn-faced.
“If you hate giving people bad news, then why—”
“Oh, God no! I didn’t do that part. I handled marketing, booking, etcetera. My brothers, Malcolm and Nathan, were the actual news-bearers. Hence the name of the company.”
“So why did you stop?”
She shifted her gaze away and let out a sigh. “Well, that’s kind of a long story. See, on our last job Mal and Nate both came down with a terrible stomach flu. We had a contract with a guy and he said it was an urgent matter that couldn’t be postponed. So, I bit the bullet and agreed to do it myself, this once. I was supposed to tell Mr. Nicholas McElroy’s wife that he was leaving her.”
Her eyes swam with sudden tears and Owen found himself stuck, unable to look away.
“I dressed up in a suit, went to the MacElroy house and knocked. Melba MacElroy came to the door. She was…” Lindy paused, dug into her purse, and pulled out a tissue. She let out a long, honking blow before continuing. “She was s-so c-cute. This tiny old lady in a purple housecoat. I wanted to run away, but I had made a commitment and signed a contract, so when she invited me in, I went. I explained that I was there on behalf of Nicholas, and he wanted a divorce.” Her lips curled in a half-smile then. “I thought she was going to cry, but instead she flipped out. ‘That bastard!’ she said. ‘Probably wants to shack up with Roberta Finkelstein. Floozy. Figures he’d go for a young chippy like that. Look at me, married for sixty-two years and I’m a statistic.’”
Owen realized he was leaning forward in his chair, riveted by this ludicrous tale, and sat back. “What happened next?”
“Turned out Roberta was the MacElroy’s seventy-year-old neighbor, and Nicholas did plan on making time with her once he got rid of poor Melba. Long story short, Melba decided she wasn’t going to stay in that house a second longer, so she packed up her stuff. She didn’t have any place to go so she came home with me. I closed down the business the next day. Didn’t have the heart for it. It was a bad idea from the start. People should have to face the person they’re hurting.”
The last part gave him pause and made him slightly uncomfortable. Ms. Knight was making rock-solid sense. By moving forward, he’d hoped to make his sister’s conman ex-boyfriend Nico pay, but wasn’t he, in effect robbing Cara of the chance to face him down herself, if and when she was ready? The thought faded as quickly as it had come. At the rate she was going, his sister was never going to confront the bastard. Owen had counseled her to get a civil attorney and at least get Nico’s face splashed all over the news, win or lose, but she didn’t have the heart. Someone had to make him pay.
Lindy seemed to be of the same mind as he was. If a person did wrong, they should have to own up to it. She’d said it with such conviction, he wondered if maybe she could work out after all.
“So what ever happened to old Melba?”
Lindy gave him a sheepish look. “She should be home in a couple of hours.”
That stopped him cold. “Wait, she still lives with you?”
“Uh huh. It’s only been a few months.” She released the death grip on her purse to run a hand through her short, dark hair. “She doesn’t have anywhere else to go right now. Once the divorce is finalized, and the house is sold, she can get a place on her own.”
Owen pinched the bridge of his nose to ward off the headache that had been skulking around his cranium all morning. So far, he was batting a thousand. After two weeks of interviewing, he’d met nothing but nutters, sleazeballs, and people who were in the country illegally. It was like some twisted version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, except his rendition would be more like “Six hookers hooking, fiiiive homeless drunks! Four illegal immigrants, three ex-cons, two exotic dancers, and a bleeding-heart flake with seven puppies.”
“I do have some acting experience, though. Right now, I’m between businesses, so I got a job waitressing at Medieval Days. I spend my shift pretending the mutton’s delicious.”
He must be getting used to her quirks because this time her unconventional response didn’t even faze him. He felt a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. Glancing at her neat little figure in jeans and a wooly cardigan, he tried to picture her at Medieval Days serving food in trenchers, wearing long skirts with a corset. The image sent a surge of blood pumping south, and he bit back a curse. He couldn’t afford to be distracted right now. There was too much at stake to allow biology to sway him from making the right choice, but she also had a guilelessness about her that might turn out to be a great asset. Could Lindy Knight possibly be the right choice for the job?
He did a mental rundown of the other applicants and grimaced. Who was he kidding? With ten days left, she was his only choice.