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The story of a fake engagement that leads to real passion.
He’s wanted her for six months. And the opportunity has finally arrived to make Celia Taylor his—at least temporarily. Billionaire businessman Evan Reese knows she’s desperate to get him to sign with Maddox Communications. But first he needs her to pose as his fiancée at a family wedding on Catalina Island. There he’ll wine, dine and seduce the stunning ad executive… Yet what happens when the fake engagement becomes more than just an act?
This Reader Favorite was originally published as The Billionaire’s Contract Engagement.
The vultures were circling.
Celia Taylor stood back, wine glass in hand, and surveyed the crowded ballroom. The fundraiser was supposed to be more pleasure than business, but business was uppermost on the minds of her competition.
Across the room Evan Reese stood in a large group of people. He looked relaxed, seemingly in his element, an easy smile making his extraordinarily handsome face even more gorgeous.
It should be a crime for a man to be that good looking. Tall, rugged, he looked every inch the kind of man who’d be at home in the athletic wear his company designed and sold. There was an aura of confidence and power around him, and above all, Celia loved a man who was sure of himself.
Given the long, searching glances they’d exchanged over the last few weeks, she’d be a fool not to entertain the idea of seeing where things could lead.
If he wasn’t a prospective client.
A client she wanted to land very much.
She wanted the account—her boss and the agency was counting on her—but she drew the line at sleeping with a man to get what she wanted.
She turned away from the sight of Evan Reese before she became too enthralled in just watching him. They’d performed a delicate dance around each other ever since he’d fired his last advertising agency. He knew she wanted him—in the professional sense of course. Hell, he probably knew she wanted him naked and in bed too, but she wasn’t going to dwell on that. Maybe later tonight when she could afford to indulge in a little fantasy.
The problem was, anytime a big company like Reese Enterprises fired an agency, it became open season. The other agencies circled like sharks. It was a dog eat dog world, and in reality, she should be over there shoving herself down his throat like the rest of her competition, but she couldn’t help but believe Evan Reese was secretly amused by the attention. He took a different hand. She was sure of it.
“Celia, glad you made it. Have you spoken to Reese yet?”
Celia turned to see her boss, Brock Maddox, standing a foot away. He wasn’t drinking. He didn’t even look particularly thrilled to be here.
Her eyebrow rose. “A tux. Why, Brock, you look positively decadent. However are you keeping the ladies at bay?”
He grunted in response, his lips curling in distaste. “Cut the crap, Celia. I brought Elle along.”
Celia looked beyond his shoulder to see his pretty assistant standing a few feet away. When Elle looked her way, Celia smiled and waved.
“You look beautiful,” Celia mouthed.
Elle smiled and ducked her head self-consciously but not before Celia saw the faint blush that colored her cheeks.
Brock gestured impatiently toward Evan. “Why are you standing over here while Evan Reese is over there?” Brock scanned the room and his expression hardened. “I should have known the old bastard would be here.”
Celia followed his gaze to see Athos Koteas holding court within hearing distance of Evan. Though she wouldn’t admit it to Brock, it made her extremely nervous to see their business rival hammering so relentlessly on Evan Reese. Koteas owned Golden Gate Promotions, and not only had Koteas lured away a few of Maddox’s top clients in recent months, he’d also launched a PR campaign against Maddox. It was dirty pool, but it in no way surprised Celia. Koteas was ruthless, and he’d do anything to win.
“Well, yes,” Celia murmured. “His ad execs are busy working Evan over.”
“Any reason you aren’t?”
She laid her hand on his forearm. She knew how important this account was to Brock—to everyone at Maddox Communications. “I need you to trust me, Brock. I’ve studied Evan Reese extensively. He knows I’m interested. He’ll come to me eventually. I’m sure of it.”
“Are you fifty million dollars sure, Celia? Maddox is small, and this kind of deal means our employees keep their jobs whereas if we continue to lose clients and accounts, I can’t make any guarantees.”
“I know I’m asking a lot,” she said in a low voice. “But I can’t walk over there and pull out the seductive wiles.” She gestured toward the women standing around Evan. They weren’t making any bones as to how far they’d go to sign him. “It’s what he expects, and you of all people know I can’t do it. I can land this account on the ideas, Brock. I’ve spent every waking minute putting this pitch together. There’s no way he won’t go for it.”
Brock studied her for a long moment, his eyes gleaming with what looked like respect. She loved working for him. He was hard. He was demanding. And he was the only person she’d presented her side of what had happened in New York in her last advertising job.
“I never expected you to land the account on anything less than your brilliance, Celia,” Brock said softly. “I hope I never gave you any other impression.”
“I know. I appreciate your confidence more than you know. I won’t let you down. I won’t let Maddox Communications down.”
Brock ran a hand through his hair and glanced once more across the room. He looked tired. It was true he worked hard. The agency was everything to him. But in the last few months new lines had appeared around his eyes. More than anything Celia wanted to be able to hand this account to him. He had believed in her when everyone else was willing to think the worst.
She glanced up to see Evan threading his way through the throng of people. “Don’t look now, but he’s headed our way. Maybe you should take Elle and go dance or something.”
As quickly as he’d approached, Brock turned and melted back into the crowd.
Celia sipped at her wine and practiced nonchalance as she literally felt Evan close in. It was impossible to miss him. Her body always seem to heat up about five degrees whenever he was anywhere near.
And his smell. Even amidst the hustle and bustle of the crowded room, the mix of so many feminine perfumes, she could pick out is unique scent. Rough. Masculine and mouth wateringly sexy. It made no sense to her, but she was attuned to his every nuance, and that had nothing to do with all the studying up she’d done on him and his company.
“Celia,” he murmured.
She turned with a welcoming smile. “Hello, Evan. Enjoying the evening?”
“I think you know I’m not.”
She raised one eyebrow and stared at him over the rim of her glass. “Do I?”
Evan snagged a flute from a passing waiter and turned his attention fully on her. It was all she could do not to gasp under his heated scrutiny. It was as if he undressed her right then and there in front of a roomful of people. Her blood simmered and pooled low in her belly. He had beautiful eyes, and they were currently devouring her, delving beneath the modest evening gown she’d chosen. He made it seem like she wore the most scanty, revealing dress imaginable. She felt nude and vulnerable under his searing gaze.
“Tell me something, Celia. Why aren’t you over with the rest of the piranhas convincing me that your ad agency will take Reese Enterprises straight to the top?”
Her lips curved upward into a smile. “Because you already are at the top?”
“You’re such a tease.”
At that her smile faded. He was right. She was flirting, and it was the last thing she wanted to do.
She glanced across the room to where the other ad execs stood staring holes through her and Evan.
“I’m not desperate, Evan. I know I’m good. I know my ideas for your ad campaign are spectacular. Does that make me arrogant? Maybe. But I don’t need to sell you on a load of malarkey. All I need is the time to show you what Maddox Communications can do for you.”
“What you can do for me, Celia.”
Her eyes widened in surprise at the blatant innuendo. And then he went on to correct the errant assumption she’d just made.
“If the ideas are yours and are as brilliant as you say, I’d hardly be taking on Maddox and what the agency could do for me. I’d be hiring you.”
She frowned and hated that she suddenly felt at a disadvantage. Her fingers curled a little tighter around the glass, and she prayed they wouldn’t shake and betray her unease.
He studied her curiously, having obviously picked up on her discomfort.
“It wasn’t a proposition, Celia. Believe me, you’d know the difference.”
In a daring move, he reached a finger out and traced a line down the bare skin of her arm. She was unable to call back the shiver, or the sprinkling of chill bumps that danced over her flesh.
“I only meant that if you wow me with a pitch and I sign on with Maddox, you won’t pawn me off to some junior executive. I’d expect you to oversee the campaign at every level.”
“And do you anticipate signing with Maddox Communications?” she asked huskily.
There was a gleam of amusement in his green eyes. He took a measured sip of his wine and then regarded her lazily. “If your pitch is good enough. Golden Gate has some good ideas. I’m considering them.”
Her lips tightened. “Only because you haven’t seen mine yet.”
He smiled again. “I like confidence. I don’t like false modesty. I look forward to seeing what you have in mind, Celia Taylor. I have a feeling you put every bit of that passion I see burning in your eyes into your work. Brock Maddox is a lucky man to have such a fierce employee. I wonder if he knows it.”
“Are we moving into the appointment phase?” she asked lightly. “I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed watching you surrounded by the piranhas as you call them.”
He put his glass down on a nearby table. “Dance with me and we’ll discuss appointment times.”
Her eyes narrowed.
He lifted one finely constructed eyebrow into what looked like a challenge.
“I’ve also danced with female ad executives from Golden Gate, Primrose, San Fran Media”
She held up her hand. “Okay, okay, I get it. You’re making your selection on who’s the best dance partner.”
He threw back his head and laughed. Several people around them turned to stare, and she had to resist the strong urge to flee the room. She hated the attention that Evan seemed to have no issue with whatsoever. How nice it must be not to have to worry what people thought about you. To have your reputation intact and not have suffered the stupidity and vindictiveness of others. But then men rarely suffered in cases like hers. It was always the woman. The vilified other woman.
Knowing no graceful way to bow out of the dance, she set her own glass down and allowed Evan to lead her onto the ballroom floor.
To her relief, he held her loosely. To anyone looking on, they could find no fault or impropriety. She and Evan didn’t look like lovers, but she knew the thought was present in both their minds. She could see the desire in his eyes and knew he could probably see it in hers.
She wasn’t practiced at hiding her emotions. Maybe being the only girl in an all male household growing up was the reason. Her family was a loud, demonstrative lot, and she’d always been regarded as the precious daughter and sister.
It would make her life easier to be able to hide her thoughts from this man. Then she wouldn’t concern herself over whether he was giving her a shot because he thought she deserved it or whether he was thinking only of the powerful sexual pull between them and how best to capitalize on it.
Wow, Celia. Lump him in with all the other assholes you’ve know, why don’t you? Nothing like being tried and convicted based on your gender.
“Relax. You’re thinking way too much,” Evan murmured close to her ear.
She forced herself to do as he’d instructed and gave herself over to the beautiful music and the sheer enjoyment of dancing with a man who took her breath away.
“So how is next week? I have Friday free.”
She jerked back to reality, and for a moment couldn’t for the life of her figure out what he was talking about. Some professional she was.
“I was thinking we could meet informally and you could go over what you have in mind. If I’m interested we could do the whole shebang at your agency. Maybe that’ll save us both a lot of time and hassle if I’m not loving your ideas.”
“Sure. I can do Friday. Friday is good.”
The music ended, and he held her just a bit longer than necessary, but she was so affected by the intensity of his gaze that she couldn’t formulate a single objection.
“I’ll have my assistant call you with time and location then.”
He picked up her hand and brought it to his lips. The warm brush of his mouth over the back of her hand sent a bolt of pleasure straight down her spine.
She watched wordlessly as he strolled away. He was immediately swallowed up by a crowd of people again, but he turned and found her gaze. For a moment they simply stared at one another and then the corners of his mouth lifted into a half smile.
Oh yes, he knew. He knew exactly what her reaction to him was. He’d have to be a complete moron not to. And he was anything but. The man was smart. He was driven. And he had a reputation for being ruthless. He was the perfect client.
She turned to walk toward the exit. She’d done what she’d come for. There was no reason to stick around and be social. If there was any gossip over her dance with Evan, she certainly didn’t want to hear it.
On the way, she passed Brock and Elle who were standing somewhat awkwardly to the side. Brock didn’t say anything. He just lifted an inquiring brow. Of course he would have seen her dancing with Evan. Brock probably hadn’t looked at anyone but Evan all night. A shame really since Elle really did look fabulous in her black sheath.
“Friday,” she said in a low voice. “I meet with him Friday. No formal pitch. He wants to hear my ideas first. If he likes, he’ll arrange a time for us to hit him with both barrels.”
Brock nodded, and she saw the gleam of satisfaction light his eyes.
“Good work, Celia.”
Celia smiled and resumed her path to the door. She had a lot to do before next Friday. Including talking her brother into giving up his no endorsements policy.
Evan Reese loosened his tie as soon as he walked into his hotel suite. He left a trail of clothing from the door, where he threw his jacket over one of the chairs, to the bedroom where he peeled his socks off and left them on the floor.
The desk with his laptop and briefcase beckoned, but for once, the idea of work didn’t appeal. He was too preoccupied with thoughts of Celia Taylor.
Beautiful, seductive, impossibly aloof Celia Taylor.
His body had been on heightened sense of alert ever since she walked into the ballroom, and though he’d known the moment she left, he was still tense and painfully aware of her scent, how she felt in his arms, how her skin felt under his fingers the one time he’d been bold enough to touch her.
He wanted to do a hell of a lot more than just touch. He wanted to taste her. He wanted her underneath him making all those feminine breathy sounds of a woman being pleasured.
He wanted to slide his hand between those gorgeous legs and spread her thighs. He would spend all night making love to her. A woman such as Celia wasn’t to be rushed. No, he’d get to know every inch of her body. Find out where she liked to be touched and kissed.
He’d take her slow and then fast and hard. And then slow again. One night wouldn’t do. He needed several nights. Even then he was sure it wouldn’t be enough.
His fixation with her couldn’t be readily explained. It wasn’t as though he lived as a monk. He had sex. He never lacked for partners. Sex was good. But he knew that sex with Celia would never be just good. It would be lush and delicious. The kind of experience a man would sell his soul for.
She was indeed a beautiful woman. Tall, but not too tall. She would fit perfectly against him, her head tucked just underneath his chin. She often wore her long red hair up in a loose style that told him she didn’t pay a lot of attention to whether every strand was in place.
He wanted to take that damn clip out, toss it in the garbage and watch as her silken mass spilled down her back. Or better yet, let it spill over him while they made love.
He cursed under his breath when his body reacted to that image. Cold showers didn’t do a thing for his hunger. He ought to know. He’d taken enough of them over the last few weeks.
Perhaps her most mesmerizing feature was her eyes. An unusual shade of green. At times they looked more blue but in certain lighting they were vivid green.
What color would they be behind a glaze of passion and desire?
The more cynical side of him wondered why a woman that beautiful hadn’t tried to seduce him into hiring her agency. It wasn’t like it hadn’t been attempted before. In fact, he’d received two such propositions tonight at the fundraiser.
He wasn’t saying he’d mind. Right now he’d use just about reason to get into Celia Taylor’s bed. But there was a reserve about her that intrigued him. She was a cool customer, and he admired that. She wanted the account. She’d made no bones about that. But she hadn’t actively pursued him.
No, she’d waited for him to come to her, and maybe that made her a damn smart since he’d done just that.
The ring of his Blackberry disturbed his fantasy and brought him sharply back to the present. He looked down in disgust at the unmistakable ridge in his trousers then reached into his pocket for his phone.
His mother. He frowned. He wasn’t really in the mood for anything to do with his family, but he loved his mother dearly, and he couldn’t very well ignore her. Well, he could, but then he’d feel like a complete heel.
With a resigned sigh, he punched the answer button and put the phone to his ear.
“Evan! I’m so glad I caught you. You’re so busy these days.”
He could hear the disapproval and worry in her voice.
“The business doesn’t run itself,” he reminded her.
She made a low sound of exasperation. “You sound so much like your father.”
He winced. That wasn’t exactly at the top of the list of things he wanted to hear.
“I wanted to call to make sure you hadn’t forgotten about this weekend. It’s important to Mitchell that you be there.”
There was a note of anxiety in her voice that always seem to creep in when his brother was mentioned.
“You can’t think I’d actually go to their wedding,” Evan said mildly. And the only important thing to Mitchell was that Evan be there to see his triumph.
His mother made a disapproving sound. “I know it won’t be easy for you, Evan. But don’t you think you should forgive him? It’s obvious he and Bettina belong together. It would be so nice to have the whole family back together again.”
“Easy? It won’t be easy or difficult, Mom. I don’t care, and frankly they’re welcome to each other. I simply don’t have the time or the desire to attend.”
“Would you do it for me?” she begged. “Please. I want just one time to see my sons in the same room.”
Evan sank onto the edge of the bed and pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. If his dad had called, he would have had no problem refusing. If Mitchell had called… Evan nearly laughed at that idea. Mitchell wouldn’t be calling him for anything ever after Evan had told him to go to hell and take his faithless fiancée with him.
But this was his mother whom he harbored real affection for. His mother who was always caught in the middle of the tension that existed between him and his father and between him and Mitchell.
“All right, Mom. I’ll come. But I’ll be bringing someone with me. I hope you don’t mind.”
He could literally see her beam right through the phone.
“Why Evan, you didn’t tell me you were seeing someone new! Of course you’re welcome to bring her. I’ll very much look forward to meeting her.”
“Can you forward all the details to my assistant so she can make arrangements?”
His mom sighed. “How did I know you wouldn’t have kept the original email?”
Because he’d immediately sent it to the trash folder? Of course he wouldn’t tell her that.
“Send it to Vickie and I’ll see you on Friday. I love you,” he said after a short pause.
“I love you too, son. I’m so very glad you’re coming.”
He ended the call and stared down at his Blackberry. Friday. Hell. Friday was when he was meeting Celia. Finally meeting Celia.
He’d planned meticulously, not wanting to seem overanxious. He’d flirted, exchanged long, seeking glances and had spent a lot of damn time in the shower. He was surprised he hadn’t come down with hypothermia.
And now he was going to have to cancel because his mother thought that he should go see the woman he was supposed to have married instead marry his younger brother.
He needed to find a date. Preferably one who would convince his mother he wasn’t secretly pining over Bettina. He wasn’t. He’d gotten over her the moment she’d dumped him for his brother when Mitchell was appointed the CEO position in their family jewelry business.
She preferred the glitz and glamour facade of the jewelry world over the sweaty, athletic image of his company. It was just as well she wasn’t bright enough to have done any research. If she had, she would have known that Evan’s company’s earnings far exceeded those of his father’s jewelry business. And it had only taken him a few years to accomplish it.
His mother wouldn’t believe it but Evan was grateful to his brother for being a selfish pinhead. Mitchell wanted Bettina because Evan had her. Thanks to that deep need for one upsmanship, Evan had narrowly escaped a huge mistake.
But it didn’t mean he wanted to spend quality time with his controlling father and his spoiled, self-indulgent sibling. He’d agreed, however, and now he needed a date.
With a shake of his head, he began scrolling through his address book in his Blackberry. He had narrowed his options to three—women he had seen socially but had no interest in developing a relationship with—when the solution came to him.
It was brilliant, really. He was an idiot for not having thought of it immediately. It certainly solved all his problems.
Finally he had a way of luring Celia to him. It would be business, of course, but if the setting happened to be intimate and she was for all practical purposes stranded with him on Catalina Island for three days…
A satisfied smile raised the corners of his mouth. Maybe the wedding wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.