Tysen Loy Vincent, III, pulled a pair of black-framed, non-prescription glasses from his pocket, slid them on and ducked into the nearest airport gift shop where he worked his way through the tight aisles until he reached the racks of magazines in the back. From behind the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, he kept a sharp eye on the camera wielding weasel across the wide aisle of Concourse B.
A trickle of sweat rolled down the length of his neck and he muffled a low, throaty curse into the magazine. Someone had to be tipping off the press. How else would Chaz Rosston find him in Nevada?
Ty adjusted the hot, ill-fitting hairpiece setting on top of his head. He was tired of disguises; tired of bobbing and weaving in and out of places to keep from having a camera and microphone shoved in his face. The urge to fling both the glasses and ridiculous wig into the busy corridor for an electric transportation cart to smash was heightened when two teenage girls clad in skimpy tops and low-slung jeans gave him the once-over. One girl nudged the other with her elbow. Their amused expressions said ‘nice rug’.
Sweet. The sarcasm was aimed more at him than the girls. Since he’d ditched the environmental conference in Atlanta to play in Reno, he had to suck up the discomfort of the rug and continue to engage in a game of hide and seek. If his grandfather caught wind that he wasn’t in Atlanta, there would be hell to pay. T. Loy Vincent, I, had issued a clear warning to Ty before he left for the conference – ‘straighten up and play by the rules or clean out your office’. Those words were still embedded in Ty’s brain.
Behind the goofy glasses, he narrowed his eyes. Life was too short to play by someone else’s rules. His father, T. Loy Vincent II, had played by the rules for fifty-five years. Where had it gotten him? Six feet under and pushing up daisies, that’s where. Ty wasn’t ready to follow the same life-sucking path and he sure as hell wasn’t fond of daisies. He also wasn’t ready for the razor-sharp pain that sliced across his chest every time he thought of his dad. He could almost time the excruciating agony. Three, two … Piercing pain came hard and fast, stealing his breath, causing him to double over with a moan.
In the middle of the ordeal, a hand landed on his back and a soft voice asked if he was okay. He jerked from the contact. “I’m…freaking…peachy,” he forced out between clenched teeth.
The surprisingly calm, feminine voice continued. “Should I call 9-1-1?”
“No! I’m…fine.” He couldn’t afford the drama. The news rat combing the area for something to splash across the front pages of the newspapers and tabloids would have a field day if EMS personnel descended on the shop and he discovered it was Ty in need of care.
“You’re not fine.” The resolve in the woman’s tone indicated she would stay despite his attempts to shoo her away.
Why did everyone think it was okay to bother him? “Leave. Me. Alone.” The words came out more scathing than they should have, but hey, he wasn’t exactly known for his tact.
“I can’t do that, sir.”
Warm fingers landed on his neck.
Ty jerked harder at the more intimate touch. “What are you doing?” The pain that usually subsided after a minute, hung on and his knees startled to buckle under his weight.
“Easy now.” The woman who couldn’t keep her hands to herself guided him to a sitting position against the magazine rack. “Your pulse is all over the place.”
Either the awkwardness of the situation or the unwanted attention distracted the pain. The discomfort in Ty’s chest lessened and he no longer struggled to breathe. He was finally able to focus on the person crouching beside him. “Your pulse would go crazy too if a complete stranger touched your neck.”
Soft blue eyes ringed with a darker blue, studied him with concern. “Force of habit. I’m a nurse.” Her forehead creased. “At least I used to be.”
Ty quirked a brow. “Did you get fired for inappropriate neck-touching?” As soon as the new round of sarcasm left his mouth, he bashed himself for taking his surly mood out on someone who had come to his aid.
The Good Samaritan’s long, dark lashes lowered and her concerned half-smile thinned.
“I shouldn’t have butted in.” She straightened to a stand.
The shop clerk approached with a frown. “What’s going on?”
Ty’s gaze connected with the blue-eyed nurse again. Before he could explain, she did.
“My husband is prone to kidney stones. We’re about to board a flight for home so I can take him to our family doctor.” She went into a long-winded spiel about how miserable it is to have kidney stones and how she wouldn’t wish them on anyone.
Ty’s jaw was in danger of unhinging at the blatant lie.
The young clerk stared at the woman with a deer-in-the-headlights look. He clearly had no idea what she was talking about. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you need to get him up off the floor.”
“I’m on it.” The woman extended her hand to Ty.
Ty couldn’t suppress a grin. Not only did the short-haired brunette help him with what she could only assume was a heart attack, she was now involved in a ruse of her own creation. He was set to whisper his gratitude when he caught movement at the entrance. “Dammit!” Chaz was standing outside the shop with his head snapping all around.
In another subtle, yet stunning move, his wife shoved in front of him to block the view of the guy whose long, bulbous nose poked into his business way too often. The freelance stalker was a giant pain-in-the-neck who catalogued his every move. In exchange for blurry pictures and half-truths, the media paid Chaz big money. Ty stooped to tie his shoes. It wouldn’t have drawn attention if he’d actually been wearing shoes that tied instead of square-toed loafers.
“Seriously,” the clerk said, “I’m about to call airport security.”
Ty peeked around the woman and let out a sigh of relief. Chaz had moved on. “Relax. We’re leaving.” He clutched the arm of his pretend wife.
As soon as they were in the hallway, his cell phone plinked with the arrival of yet another text message. He’d received a half-dozen in the last hour from his grandfather’s private secretary, Rosie. She’d advised him to get to the airport in short order and to head back to Atlanta. Rosie was a tiny, grey-haired woman who was feisty and fun-loving. Over the years, she and Ty formed a special bond. He helped her with whatever she needed, either at work or at her home. In return, she ran interference for him to keep his grandfather none the wiser to his escapades. Somehow the old coot still managed to find out what he’d been up to. The patriarch of the Vincent clan quoted anonymous sources when Ty would ask who narked him out. Anonymous my ass. Everyone had a name. Everyone had an agenda. Everyone wanted money for information. In Ty’s case, it was probably his grandfather paying some bloodhound to stay on his trail.
Ty glanced at Rosie’s latest message, shoved the phone back in his shirt pocket and fixed a bead of inquiry on the woman with a boyish-yet-feminine hairstyle and eyelashes so long they almost touched her eyebrows. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Maggie Gray,” she simply said.
“Well, Maggie Gray, thank you for everything. Your timing was impeccable.” Ty’s gaze ricocheted between Maggie and the surrounding area. He studied her from behind the fake glasses and finally removed them to get a clear look. She was modestly beautiful. Big blue eyes sparkled with intelligence and a sense of humor. The slow sweep of her lashes reinforced both. He got the feeling that this easy-on-the-eyes stranger could hold her own in most situations.
“No problem. Happy to help.”
Ty looked past Maggie to scan the area again. There was no sign of Chaz. “Where are you headed?”
“Dallas.” She held up her boarding pass.
“Me too.” It was impractical to go back to Atlanta since the conference was almost over. He would adjust his ticket and head back to Texas. Ty winced hard without letting the sound roll out. When he got home, there would be hell to pay and it would take a special kind of shovel to dig him out of the mess he’d made. Rosie couldn’t fix this. He eyed Maggie. “What time is your flight?”
Ty watched Maggie shift from foot to foot, repeatedly push her purse strap up on her shoulder even though it wasn’t falling off, and open and close her hands at her side. This sudden nervous behavior was in stark contrast to the woman who’d been in control a minute ago. When it came to nursing skills she was confident and in charge; perhaps when things became personal, not so much. Perfect!
* * *
‘Six foot-four, tousled blondish-brown hair, striking resemblance to Jon Bon Jovi, blue eyes that will win you over in a heartbeat and behaves like the world revolves around him’. Maggie had played those words over in her head again and again, questioning the sanity of the agreement she’d entered into with billionaire T. Loy Vincent, I. She’d walked through Reno-Tahoe International Airport three times, trying to be subtle with her inspection of people passing by, occasionally checking the photo Loy had provided. Actually, she didn’t need a picture to recognize Tysen Loy Vincent, III, since he was one of the most photographed persons in the world. The infamous, playboy heir to the Vincent oil fortune graced magazine covers and front pages of newspapers almost daily. He was larger than life; known to woo starlets, top models, even a pickle heiress. Checking the photo numerous times wasn’t to jog her memory as to what he looked like, but rather a concrete reminder that she’d lost her mind.
Frustrated that Tysen had slipped by, she’d popped into the gift shop for a bottle of water. To her shock, there he was, in disguise – a poor disguise, at that – in the middle of some kind of episode that had him clutching his chest. Heart attack had screamed in Maggie’s mind and for good reason, she’d been his grandfather’s cardiac rehab nurse for the last few months. Ty inherited his grandfather’s good looks, possibly his faulty ticker as well. She’d rushed to help, only to be bitten by his well-known fondness for sarcasm; something else that seemed inherited.
Did she get fired for inappropriate neck touching? Maggie had been tempted to hit the fool with a rolled up magazine. Instead, she was at an airport gate, sitting next to him with her feet crossed at the ankles, trying to stabilize her own heart. For reasons she didn’t understand, the darn thing was hell-bent on doing a river dance against her ribs.
Ty Vincent was gorgeous and worldly. How would she persuade someone like him to marry her? What had Loy been thinking? What had she been thinking? If she’d taken time to think things through, she wouldn’t be in Reno immersed in a sideways scheme.
She feigned surprise when he identified himself and then jabbed him with a smart remark about the hairpiece. He shrugged, ditched the rug in his carryon, ran his hands through his sexy mess of hair and plied her with that well-known, handsome smile.
Their conversation didn’t include the normal questions, like why she was in Reno or why he was there. He didn’t ask and she didn’t offer. And vice versa.
Something indefinable sparkled in his eyes. Maggie’s palms started to sweat. Her nerve endings prickled like she was about to be struck by lightning.
Ty shifted in his seat. “I have something to ask you that might sound a little off-the-wall. Your first instinct will be to say no, but hear me out, okay?”
Maggie wanted to come across as cautious and baffled that someone like him would ask someone like her anything. She purposely drew out her response. “Ohhh-kayyyy.”
Ty cleared his throat, twice. “I need a…wife. Just for a little while.” He didn’t bat an eye. “Marry me.”
If a person’s mouth could drop to their belly button, then Maggie’s was there. She widened her eyes, although she shouldn’t be the least bit shocked. This was Tysen Vincent. He was known for peculiar behavior. She’d come to Nevada to get him to propose, still, hearing the words come out of his mouth stunned her to the core. She tried to talk…and breathe…but her voice and lungs were rendered incapable of doing their jobs.
This was not real. None of it. Any second now, she expected a TV camera crew to pop out from their hiding places to inform her that Loy and Ty involved her in a prank. She hoped they’d do it soon so she could breathe again.
Ty’s serious expression took that hope and ground it to dust. It wasn’t a prank, but rather a hare-brained plot that mirrored the first one she was already immersed in neck-deep. No one would believe that she and Ty Vincent bumped into each other at the airport and before she caught her flight home, he asked her to be his wife. Even she didn’t believe it. Yet, she was sitting next to him and he was waiting for an answer.
Maggie gnawed hard on her bottom lip, almost drawing blood, while she tried to come to grips with the reality that three men wanted to parade her around as the newest addition to the Vincent family for their own self-seeking reasons. T. Loy Vincent, I, was the grand marshal of the first whacked out parade. Ty wore the crown for the second one. Her father was number three, marching right along with the other two. She understood why the Vincents had lost their minds, she couldn’t figure out why her father had lost his. She was his only child, for Pete’s sake. The only explanation tendered was that he needed help with a long-standing debt. She deserved a few more details, but the only thing she received was a serious plea for her to lend a hand. Even without all the information, it didn’t take an Einstein to deduce that whatever it was had to be big. Maggie cringed at the possibility that she might be a gambling settlement. Her father was known to chance a hefty amount of his income on the ponies. The bad habit was supposed to be under control. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he was in hock to Loy for thousands of dollars.
Her air and voice returned. “Say what?”
“You didn’t hesitate to tell the clerk you were my wife. Why not make it real to help me out? I need you, Maggie.” Ty looked determined to get a yes. It was the same strong-minded, devious look worn by his grandfather yesterday. She was of the strict opinion that not only did the Vincents share blood but also insanity.
Maggie sneered with as much disdain as she could muster. At the same time a profound truth hit her between the eyes. Who was she to sneer? She was no better than the three hooligans orchestrating this mess. When Loy offered this strange opportunity, she didn’t back away. She did at first because it was too much to comprehend, but she gradually came around thanks to her dad and a sudden termination by the hospital. For the first time in eight years she found herself unemployed. The hospital blamed it on the austerity program they were implementing where each department had to do more with less. Maggie understood the concept. What she didn’t understand was why her job had been on the chopping block. There were four nurses with less seniority; one nurse – Delia Smythfield – had only been in the unit for six months and was a troublemaker from the day she hired in. Delia was a rich kid who made it known she had more money than she knew what to do with and really didn’t need to work. To Maggie’s shock, the hospital kept the rabble-rouser and let her go instead. Even her boss and best friend, Nancy, was blindsided by the move. Nancy promised to snoop around to find out why Maggie had been singled out. So far the only thing she reported was that no one knew a thing.
Since Carriage Memorial didn’t have a union, Maggie had little recourse. Sure, there were legal avenues she could have pursued to make the hospital squirm but she’d been too hurt to check into them. She’d cried for a week and then pulled herself together to apply at other hospitals only to discover that they too were paring down staff.
“I know it’s a half-cocked proposition, but it pays well. I need a wife ASAP to show my grandfather and the Board of Directors that I’m trying to be the guy they want me to be.”
Maggie thought it odd that before the proposal she’d informed Ty she was headed to Dallas, he said he was headed there as well, and excused himself to the far corner of the gate with his phone glued to his ear. He’d paced back and forth in front of a set of large windows, occasionally striking a glance in her direction. When he finally sat down beside her, he made idle chit chat and now he proposed marriage. Who had he been talking to? Was this madness his alone, or had it been conjured up by the person on the other end of the phone? Even though it’s what she came for, he’d made it easy. Too easy. Disturbingly easy. Maggie silently sighed. His reasons for proposing didn’t matter; the only thing that did was that it happened. She cringed at the realization that she and Ty’s relationship would soon become a spectacular development that the celebrity gossip and entertainment news industry would latch onto and not let go. They would tout the quickie marriage as a mistake and wager it wouldn’t last six months. Ha! The joke was on them; that six-month plan was already in place.
Queasiness settled in the pit of Maggie’s stomach. She wanted to close her eyes and not open them until the lunacy proved to be nothing more than a bad dream. Since she was in a busy airport with Ty Vincent, Maggie knew it was more of a wide-awake nightmare that would eventually take a huge bite out of her butt. She gulped hard to loosen the thick knot of reality clogging her windpipe. “No woman in her right mind would agree to something so ridiculous.”
“My grandfather has backed me into a corner. So I find myself in need of a wife to convince him…and the rest of the world…that I’m trying to change.” Ty laughed with no humor whatsoever.
Maggie twisted her mouth while she pondered the request. Agreeing to Ty’s strategy, while already involved in one with his grandfather, would make her a double-agent of sorts. If she refused Ty’s proposal, it would effectively cancel the grandfather’s. Essentially, by agreeing to marry Ty, she wasn’t just selling her soul to the highest bidder she was selling it to the top two. The knowledge put the squeeze to her heart. How could she enter into something she held sacred with this guy, or any guy that she wasn’t in love with? Yes, it was a temporary arrangement, but marriage was something special. It was a gift; not a means to settle an old debt or a way to get an out-of-control grandson to behave.
“I’m serious. Marry me.” He squinted hard as though the thought of having a spouse was as unsettling to him as it was to her. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
Maggie sucked in a breath and held it in an attempt to calm her lungs. Her breaths had been silently jagged since she set eyes on the Bon Jovi look-alike, and now, she had to coax each breath.
In order to sell him that she was just a random person he happened to cross paths with, she had to make him seem like the lunatic. “Out of all the people in the world, why me?”
“Because…” Ty looked thoughtful. “Hell, I don’t know. Something about you says you’re exactly what I need…” He cleared his throat for the tenth time. “…to pull this off.” He nudged against her. “You lied for me.”
“Oh God! You are serious.” She lied to the gift shop clerk and now she was the perfect choice? Maggie wanted to throw up.
Ty squinted again. “Dead serious.”
Maggie uncrossed her feet, fidgeted in the chair and touched his forearm. Big mistake! Huge! Something similar to static electricity crackled its way through her veins the second she made contact. She withdrew her fingers and mimicked him by squinting. “Your grandfather is pushing you hard. I get it. I also get that we do things for people we love that we normally wouldn’t do for anyone else.” Boy do we! If it wasn’t for the desperation she’d heard in her father’s voice she wouldn’t be sitting next to Tysen Vincent. She wouldn’t be in Nevada and wouldn’t be on the verge of becoming a shady character. “One word of advice, play his game if you have to, but don’t lose yourself while you’re doing it.” Maggie flinched from her own philosophical ramblings. The suggestion was fitting, but she didn’t talk like that.
Ty opened his eyes wide for a few seconds before he narrowed them even tighter than before. The few frown lines splayed across his forehead multiplied until they were an accordion of creases. “Are you in or not?”
Maggie couldn’t stop a nervous laugh and chalked it up as a way to cope. “Am I in or not? Wow. Worst marriage proposal ever.”
“This isn’t about romance and picking out china, it’s a business deal with a few perks. You’ll get the Vincent name. More money than you can imagine. Clothes. Cars. A life most women would kill for.”
She needed a shot of tequila. Or a pin to stick in Ty’s overinflated ego. Since she didn’t have either at her disposal, she did the next best thing – an exaggerated eye roll. “Yeah. That’s enticing.” Despite her calm, cool and collected appearance, a fragile string of hysteria was close to breaking in two.
Ty’s frown changed to confusion. “That doesn’t appeal to you?”
“I’m sure all of that is great but the thought of pimping myself out to get it gives me a chill.” Maggie purposely shuddered.
“I’m just trying to lay it all out, Maggie.” Ty lowered his voice when two well-dressed men in business suits sat in the adjacent chairs. He leaned in close and Maggie could smell his cologne, something earthy with a hint of musk. She tried to ignore the spike of delight from his nearness and his scent. “I’m asking you to pose as my wife. That’s it. No sex. No kids. No making me tow-the-line. Nothing. Get it? All I need is a wholesome woman to meet my grandfather’s approval. I need you long enough to convince him that I’m trying to live up to his expectations.”
Maggie regretted not hitting him with a rolled up magazine when she had a chance. She should’ve hit her father and Loy with one too.
~~ ** ~~
BOOK #2 -- KEEPING KYLEE is available now
BOOK #3 -- TAMING TORI (September 2014)
BOOK #4 -- NOT WITHOUT NANCY (January 2015)