I'm truly happy to feature Desiree Holt's book, The Bargain, on my blog today. I'm fortunate enough to have read this fantastic book and I highly recommend it to all. It's available today at Resplendence Publishing.
Lara McKee's life came to a crashing halt the night her husband was killed in a carjacking and she lost their unborn child. Now she channels all her energy into her job as assistant to Cole Cassidy, sexy CEO of Alamo Construction. Cole's own life is a mess. A shotgun marriage based on a lie and the fiery death of his wife on the highway have left him with a child to raise that's a constant reminder of his first wife's lies and deceit. Both of them have written marriage out of their future.
But Cole desperately needs someone to mother the child and take charge of his personal life. When he proposes a marriage of convenience to Lara, who still yearns for motherhood, she shocks herself by accepting. And so these two people, carrying a van load of emotional baggage, begin to build a life together under almost impossible circumstances. Conflict builds over the child, whom Lara falls in love with at once and Cole ignores.
Beneath the daily conflict, love unexpectedly begins to grow. But at the moment they dare to explore their feelings, anger over the child erupts and the night turns into a disaster that nearly destroys the marriage. Slowly, bit by bit, they begin to re build their relationship, carefully nurturing these new feelings. But it takes another near-tragedy before they can finally get past the hurdles to complete happiness and truly become a family.
“That is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard.” Jake Varner stared at Cole Cassidy sitting behind the massive, scarred desk, and eyed him with a critical look.
In the last year, Jake had watched his partner’s normal vitality slowly leach out of him. The fire in his eyes had been replaced by a constant look of torment and anguish, and the famous Cassidy manner had become abrupt rather than smooth. The two of them had built Alamo Construction into one of the top builders in south central Texas. Theirs was a long-standing friendship. But now Jake wondered if his friend and partner had completely taken leave of his senses.
“What’s asinine?” Sean, Cole’s younger brother, walked into the office. “What am I missing?”
“My partner’s screwy idea, that’s what.” Jake frowned, turning back to Cole. “I think you’re out of what passes for your mind. That sounds like the insane raving of a desperate man.”
“I am desperate.” Cole’s mouth tightened in a grim line. “Do you think I’d be thinking of this otherwise?”
Sean dropped into one of the chairs opposite the desk. “Will someone please tell me what the hell’s going on around here?”
“Your brother has decided the only way to fix the mess he’s made of his life is by asking Tara to marry him.”
Sean gawked. “Tara? Your secretary? Marry you? Are you nuts?”
Cole 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,” Jake reminded him. “Your first try at it didn’t win any prizes.”
Cole recoiled as if from a blow. The painful imprint of his late wife, Maggie, still lingered like a festering sore.
Regret flashed at once on Jake’s face. “Sorry about that. It was a stupid remark, and I apologize. But Christ, Cole…”
“I know you think I handled things badly with Maggie.” Cole’s face was stiff as a mask. “You would have acted differently, but I’m not you. I created a mess, I was responsible for it and I had to do what I thought was right.”
Creating a mess was a mild description of what had actually happened. On a long overdue vacation, he’d ignored the fact that his body didn’t metabolize alcohol, gotten himself royally drunk and screwed his brains out for a week. With a woman he’d let pick him up in the bar. He’d paid the price ten times over for the lost week of lust with a predatory female he’d let his dick coax him into taking to bed.
Disgusted with himself and his absence of control, he’d returned home and tried to wipe the whole thing from his mind. He considered himself lucky to climb out of the hell he’d allowed himself to fall into.
Until she’d come up pregnant.
Greedy and determined, Maggie Renfro had forced the marriage issue, and Cole was too honorable to walk away from her. Or the baby.
* * * *
The marriage had been a catastrophe from day one. That was the only description for it. That he managed to keep things together until the baby was born was a miracle in itself. But his first sight of Molly had made his heart open like a flower. Life was brighter, warmer and more joyful. Every day, he raced home from the office 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.
He stood there now, cradling her in his arms and ignoring his half-drunk, raging wife—until a few vicious phrases penetrated his brain and shattered him completely.
“She’s not even yours, you arrogant bastard,” she taunted, angry that he’d lost his temper over her drinking binges. “Joke’s on you. I had a little problem, and there you were, rich, ripe and ready to be plucked. I knew the baby would get you.”
“Do you even know who the father is?”
Her answer devastated him.
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Her mouth twisted in a sneer. “I don’t even remember who all I slept with besides you. No telling whose genes are running around in your precious baby girl’s body.”
“Stop it. Stop it right now.” He shook with anger, afraid he would do her bodily harm.
She ran from the room, and he didn’t try to stop her. He fed the baby, changed her and put her to bed, staring down at her for a long time.
Hours later, he was roused from sleep by the policemen at his front door. Maggie was dead. She’d been drunk enough to crash her car into an overpass, and the gas tank had burst into flames. He’d hoped against hope the DNA test he’d insisted on at the time would prove Maggie’s words a lie, but the results left his heart with a wound that wouldn’t heal. So now here he was, with a child he both loved and hated. No one was more disgusted with his behavior than he was, but as the months went by, he couldn’t seem to get past the pain and betrayal.
* * * *
“I didn’t realize you and Tara were, um, you know….” Sean searched for the right word.
“What, dating?” Cole shook his head. “We’re not. But I’ve known her for two years.”
And she’s the first woman who’s made me hard, made me even think about sex, since Maggie drunkenly crashed her car and killed herself. How come I never notice before that just standing next to her makes my cock stand up and take notice?
“As your goddamned secretary,” Jake pointed out. ”That’s hardly a basis for marriage.”
Sean scratched behind his ear. “Okay. I feel as if I came in at the middle of a movie. Did I skip over the beginning?”
“Yeah,” Jake put it. “We both did. This moron can’t seem to get control of things at home, so he thought he’d make a bargain with Tara. Somehow he just expects her to say sure, she’d love to marry him, play mother to his child and fall into bed with him.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”
“Skip the falling into bed part,” Cole said. “Been there, done that. I don’t plan for sex to be any part of this marriage.”
But he tamped down that thought at once.
“Excuse me?” Sean’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline.
“I’m proposing a business arrangement.” Cole sat forward and leaned his elbows on his desk. “A bargain, if you will. She’ll run my household, serve as my hostess and be a mother to that child. In return, she will have financial security for life.”
“No sex,” Jake repeated.
Cole slammed his hand on the desk. “I’m not looking for sex, for God’s sake. After the fiasco with Maggie, I don’t think I’ll ever take a woman to bed again. My body isn’t even interested.”
“Jesus, Cole.” Sean shook his head. “What makes you think Tara will even do this? What if she’s already…you know…interested in someone? She’s liable to have you committed instead. Besides, this company can’t run without her.”
“In the two years, she’s worked here, she’s never dated anyone. I…checked.”
Jake burst out laughing, “My God, you had her investigated.”
Cole’s lips thinned. “I had to be sure there weren’t problems to deal with.”
“So this is going to fix things for Molly?” Jake stared at him as if he’d grown two heads. “That’s what you think?"
“The child doesn’t have my DNA,” Cole said through gritted teeth, “but she has my name. I can’t expect her to pay for something that’s not her fault. I certainly wouldn’t just walk away from her, no matter how hard it is being around her.”
He forced back the familiar pain that stabbed at him whenever he thought of the little girl. God, would his punishment never end? No one knew the silent tears he cried because his arms ached to hold her. The problem was, every time he looked at her, he saw Maggie’s mocking face.
“People usually get married for other reasons,” Jake argued. “Like falling in love?”
“Love isn’t on my agenda. Ever. At least with Tara, I know her. I’m comfortable with her. She’s efficient and competent and will just…handle things. If I have to bring another woman into that house, I want it to be someone I can stand being around.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry if that makes me sound like a jerk.”“You’re taking a big risk here,” Sean pointed out. “Tara could walk away from both the proposition and her job.”
“As I said, it seems like a pretty straightforward bargain to me.” He flipped open a file he’d been fiddling with. “Her father has some severe health problems. Before long, his health insurance will run out. This arrangement will relieve that strain from her. A bargain. Financial security in exchange for a commitment to the child.”
Jake raised an eyebrow. “Do you even know if she likes kids?”
Cole shrugged. “As far as I can tell. I’ve seen her with a lot of the employees’ children, and she seems to relate to them well. Although…”
Cole shook his head. “Nothing. Forget it.” He forced himself to wipe away the memory of the sadness he sometimes saw on Tara’s face when she held a child in her arms. The thought that she longed for a child of her own had been part of the impetus for focusing on her. So why hadn’t she married?
God, was she a lesbian? He hadn’t even considered that.
He shook off his depressing thoughts and looked up from his desk, realizing the two men in his office watched him carefully.
“It’s been a month,” he said very slowly. “In that time, I’ve had four different housekeepers. None of them could manage the job. The most recent one just walked out last night, said she decided she didn’t like kids after all.”
“What about an agency?” Jake asked. “Plenty of other people seem to have good luck with them.”
Cole shook his head. “I think I must be snake bit. The good ones don’t seem to come my way. And that child cries all the time.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “Jesus. I have to do something.”
Everyone was silent for a moment, his brother and his partner still watching him carefully.
“When do you plan to make your big pitch?” Jake asked at last.
Cole sighed. “Tonight. I’m going to ask her out to dinner.”
“Tonight?” Jake’s jaw dropped. “Without any preparation or anything?”
He shrugged. “I’ll just present it to her in a reasonable manner. Tara’s very level-headed.”
“Present it to her?” Sean raised his eyebrows. “Level-headed? At least, you didn’t expect to just stop at her desk and drop it on her as if it were a letter you’d want typed up. Anyway, what do you really know about her, except what you see at work? And the fact that a gorgeous woman like her doesn’t date? What else did your little investigative foray turn up?
“Gorgeous?” Cole frowned.
“My god, are you blind as well as dumb? Tara is positively stunning.”
“If you say so. Anyway, I discovered she was married before. Yeah, big surprise,” he said as both men raised their eyebrows. “Her husband was killed in a carjacking about a year before she came to work here. Her parents live here, but that’s it for family. She’s not in a relationship, and she apparently has no close friends. What else do I need to know? Anyway, my mind’s made up, so leave it at that.”
“What makes you think she’ll accept your invitation?” Sean wanted to know. “If she doesn’t date, why would dinner with you appeal to her?”
Cole frowned. “What else would she be doing?”
Jake grimaced. “Nothing like making her feel last minute.”
Sean blew out a breath. “I know she’ll be flattered to learn you have such a low opinion of her social life.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like men.” This from Jake.
“I thought of that, but then why did she get married?”
“Maybe she still grieves for her husband,” Sean put in. “Maybe she’s even still in love with him.”
Cole pushed himself away from his desk and went to stand at the window, his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, watching the early evening traffic in downtown San Antonio.
“I’ll talk her into it,” he insisted, as much to himself as to the two men. “I have to. It’s not as if I have any family I can depend on. And no way in hell would I turn this child over to anyone associated with Maggie. So. I’m out of options. This is all I have left.”
“You’d better get to it, then.” Jake pointed to his watch. “It’s almost five o’clock.”
“I’ll do it right now, if you’ll both get the hell out of my office.”
Sean threw one final word of warning over his shoulder. “You have to tell her the whole story.”
“I can’t,” he said. “She’d run in the other direction. And I wouldn’t blame her.”
When the two men had left, Cole stood in the doorway, watching Tara finish some last minute chores. From the first day he hired her, he’d been impressed with her competence, her efficiency, her warmth as a person. She worked magic in his office. He needed the same thing at his house. And maybe Molly could satisfy the longing he saw in her eyes in rare unguarded moments.
When he walked up to Tara’s desk, she turned to him, smiling.
“Whatever it is, we’re closed for the day,” she joked. “I understand the boss refuses to pay overtime.”
In two years, she and Cole had developed an easy give and take relationship, a good thing since her entire life was devoted to her job.
He was definitely the total alpha male. His presence was so powerful that usually when he walked into a room he owned it at once. Any room. Yet she never felt dominated by this man, as large as he was, or intimidated by him. She’d made it her business to learn the things that pleased him at work, and in turn, he gave her enormous responsibility. They were always comfortable with each other, so when she realized tonight he seemed slightly ill at ease and edgy, she wondered the reason for his behavior. This awkwardness was strange.
“Cole?” She raised an eyebrow.
He shoved his hands in his pockets, exhaled and clumsily blurted out, “Tara, I was wondering if you’re free to have dinner with me tonight.”
“I beg your pardon?” Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. Dinner with Cole?
His smile looked forced. What was going on here?
“You know,” he said, slightly joking, “where two people sit down at a table and share a meal. You’ve done that before, right?”
“You want me to have dinner with you?” She was still gaping.
“I can promise you a good steak and fine wine. Is that an incentive?” He named one of San Antonio’s top restaurants, located on the famous Riverwalk, the city’s hot tourist spot.
The shock of the invitation faded, and Tara felt curiosity tickle at her. In the month since the death of his wife, Cole had driven himself even harder than before, working longer hours, his conversations curiously devoid of any mention of either his late wife or his motherless infant daughter. His social calendar contained only business obligations. And they met for an hour every morning to go over business details. So why the sudden interest in dinner with her?
“I’ll admit steak is my weakness. But why the sudden invitation. Something special come up?”
He raked his fingers through his hair. “You might say that. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you, and I thought it might be nice place to get out of the office.”
Why did he sound so anxious?
“Well,” she chuckled, “I guess it beats the usual frozen dinner. Right?”
An unexpected look of relief washed over his face. “Good, good. I’ll call the restaurant.”
She looked down at the jeans and tailored blouse she usually wore to work. Fancy clothes didn’t make it in a construction office. No one dressed up unless there was a special event. “I’ll need to go home and change, unless we’re going someplace casual. It won’t take me long. Or are you in a hurry?”
“No, of course not. And I need to change, too. How about if I pick you up at seven? Will that give you enough time?”
“Seven it is.”
He offered up silent thanks as he followed her out of the office.