"Don't care about the cost, then, hmm?" she muttered under her breath, tucking the card in her book. "Have you contacted them yet?"
She sighed, shaking her head before lifting her gaze to his. "Mr. Donahue, you already neglected to mention this party was in a week. I have to tell you, it takes more than a phone call to order catering."
"Are you saying you can't do it?"
Oh, that challenge was in his eyes again. "I'm saying next time you want to host a party for fifty, think about how long it takes to prepare for it before you send out invitations."
"That's why you're here," he said with complete innocence. "So I don't have to."
She couldn't help but smile. He really was hopeless.
Ignoring the little jump in his chest just then, Alex said, "Whatever you need is fine, Miss Holt. I'll expect you to be here early."
"Greet the guests, see to the preparations, the servants."
"Certainly. I'll take care of everything, Mr. Donahue."
"Mr." sounded so respectful coming from her, so aging, he thought as his gaze swept her briefly. "I'll assume you'll dress appropriately?"
Madison's features tightened. Did he expect her to show up in thigh-high taffeta and fishnet stockings?
"I'll dress the part, Mr. Donahue, if you'll be civil to the hired help." She stood, collecting her book, and with the key in hand, briskly walked to the door.
Alex hurried after her, catching her arm. She jerked around, stunned to find him there, and abruptly he released her.
His gaze searched hers, her irritation confusing him. "I didn't mean anything by it, Miss Holt."
Madison sighed, wondering why that bothered her so much, then knew his flip comment made her see what she'd known all along – the line between them was wide, her upbringing a long way from his privileged rearing. And he just clarified it. "I know you didn't."
His brow rose, a single black wing against tanned skin.
She cocked her head, meeting his hard, blue gaze. "What kind of man spends two thousand dollars on a temporary wife, on top of the bill for this party?"
His eyes softened, making him look even more handsome, the rat.
"The kind who always forgets something, hates giving parties and would rather have someone else do it, because I'm lousy at it and frankly, too busy."
"Well then, Mr. Donahue, you really do need a wife."
She opened the door and, saying goodbye, stepped out and pulled it closed behind her.
No, thanks, Alex thought. That was the last thing he needed. He'd just keep hiring Wife Incorporated for the temporary kind.
* * *
The next evening Alex pushed open his front door and heard music. Beach music. And voices, lots of them. Crossing the foyer he headed toward the noise and found Madison in the kitchen, her forearms braced on the counter. In jeans and a dark T-shirt, with her hair braided back, she looked more like a schoolgirl mulling over her homework than an adult planning a party. Another woman stood to her right, the pair listening to tunes on a tape player. And he wondered what the Beach Boys had to do with the party.
As if she sensed his presence, she straightened and turned.
God, what a smile, he thought as she crossed to him.
"Good evening, Mr. Donahue." He looked exhausted, Madison thought. "We'll be out by nine, I swear."
The woman behind her looked suddenly nervous as he glanced impatiently at his watch, then her.
"Perhaps you should go into your study and unwind?"
His lips quirked. That's exactly what he planned to do. He'd considered calling Elizabeth and asking her to dinner, though she'd ream him over the short notice, and although he wanted to lengthen the ties between them, sitting in a restaurant alone was as unappetizing as having to make conversation tonight. He was ready to forego the growling in his stomach and get right to bed.
"Who are these people?" He gestured to the people filing into his kitchen from the back door.
"The staff. They need to know their stations. What I want … et cetera."
"Et cetera," he added.
Her lips curved gently, and she had that patient "I'm waiting" look he'd just begun to recognize. Clearly she didn't want him around, and that was fine with him. He turned toward the foyer and his study. Stepping inside, he found it softly lit, a brandy tipped on the warmer and a meal laid out for him on his desk. The ice still popped in the water glass. Steam rose from the chicken and fettuccini.
His shoulders sank and he dropped the briefcase and fell into the chair.
I'll be damned, he thought. He took up the brandy, swirling it to cool, then sipped, loosening his tie and propping his feet up on the desk. He plucked at the salad, popping a carrot slice into his mouth. This, he thought, was nice. Really nice.