He couldn’t get a clear picture of this fictitious future wife. In his imagination, Cia reappeared in his arms instead.

“We have an agreement.” She jammed her hands down onto her hips. “No division of property. No messiness. And no physical relationship. What happened to that?”


He smirked. “That wasn’t even close to physical, darlin’. Now, if I was to do this—” he snaked an arm around her waist and hauled her up against him, fitting her into the niches of his body “—I’d be getting warmer.”

She wiggled a little in protest and managed to slide right into a spot that stabbed a hot poker through his groin. He sucked in a cleansing breath.

This was Cia, the most beautiful and least arousing female he’d ever met. Why did his skin feel as if it was about to combust? “That’s right. Snuggle right in, honey. Now that’s so close to physical, it’s scorching hot.”

“What are you doing, Wheeler?” She choked on the last syllable as he leaned in, a hairbreadth from tasting that high-speed mouth, and trailed a finger down her tight jaw.

“Practicing.”

If he moved one tiny neck muscle the right way, they’d be kissing. Soon, this firecracker in his arms would be Mrs. Lucas Wheeler, and he hadn’t kissed her once. Maybe he should. Might shut her up for a minute.

“Practicing for what?”

“To be a happy couple. My parents invited us over for dinner tonight. Engagement celebration.” Instantly she stopped wiggling, and the light hit her upturned face and her wide, frightened eyes. “Well, I’ll be hog-tied and spoon-fed to vultures for breakfast. Your eyes are blue. Not brown.”

“My grandparents came from northern Spain. It’s not that unusual.”

“A man should know the color of his wife’s eyes. Marriage 101.” Disconcerted, he released her. He had to get her scent out of his nose.

He shoved a hand through his hair, but it didn’t release a bit of the sudden pressure against his skull.

He’d wanted to kiss her. It had taken a whole lot of will-power not to. What had he gotten himself into?

He barely knew her, knew nothing about how to handle her, nothing about her past or even her present. He had to learn. Fast.

The Manzanares contract represented more than a vital shot in the arm for his livelihood. It was a chance to fix his problems on his own, without his big brother’s help, and prove to everyone that Lucas Wheeler wasn’t the screw-up womanizer people assumed.

“What else don’t I know?” he asked.

“That I have to work tonight. I can’t go to your parents’ for dinner. You have to check with me about this kind of stuff.”

Yeah. He should have. It hadn’t occurred to him. Most women of his acquaintance would have stood up the president in order to have dinner with his parents. He’d just never invited any of them. “Call in. Someone else can cover it. This is important to my mother.”

“The shelter is important to me. Someone else has been covering my responsibilities all week.” Her hands clenched and went rigid by her sides. “It’s not like I’m canceling a round of golf with a potential client, Wheeler.”

Golf. Yeah. His workday consisted of eye-crossing, closed-door sessions with Matthew, poring over his brother’s newest strategies to improve business. “What is it like, then? Tell me.”

“The women who come to the shelter are terrified their husbands or boyfriends will find them, even though we go to extreme lengths to keep the location secret. Their kids have been uprooted, jammed into a crowded, foreign new home and have lost a father, all at the same time. They’re desperate for someone they know and trust. Me.”

Bright, shiny moisture gathered in the pockets of her eyes as she spoke, and that caught him in the throat as much as her heartfelt speech. No one could fake that kind of passion for a job. Or anything else. “Dinner tomorrow night, then.”

Mama would have to understand. God Almighty, what a balancing act. The ripples were starting already, and it was going to be hell to undo the effects after the divorce.

He had to believe it would be worth it. He had to believe he could somehow ensure his family didn’t get attached to Cia without vilifying her in the process. He needed a nice, stable wife to combat the Lana Effect nearly as much as he needed Manzanares.

She nodded, and a tear broke loose to spill down her cheek. “Thanks.”

All of a sudden, he felt strangely honored to be part of something so meaningful to her. Sure, his own stake meant a lot, too, but it was nice that his investment in this fake marriage would benefit others.

“Come on.” He slung an arm around her slim shoulders. Such a small frame to hold so much inside. “Better. You didn’t even flinch that time.”

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