Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Diamond for the Single Mom

Harper and Clark had gone to fund-raisers at various art galleries, and she knew most women wore cocktail dresses.
Shopping with Seth, she hadn’t bought a cocktail dress, but she had bought a simple black sheath that she could dress up with pearls. The outfit was simple and elegant. She looked like the lady her mom wanted her to be.
Little black dress.
Dating Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor.
Forgetting Clark.
Except she wasn’t forgetting Clark. She and Seth weren’t really dating. After her mom’s promise to stay out of things, this ruse was supposed to be simple, easy, because they weren’t really going out in public. Then his mom had showed up and now they were hip-deep in a lie.
She stepped out of her bedroom and Mrs. P. gasped. “Oh, you look so lovely. Old-style classy.”
Harper laughed. “Did you just call me old?”
Wearing a tux, Seth came from behind Mrs. P.
He looked amazing. His long, limber body wore a tux with the elegant grace of a man accustomed to the fine things in life. But his face bore the oddest expression. His eyes had widened. His eyebrows had raised.
“She said you looked good. And you do.”
“You don’t need to be so surprised.”
“I’m not. I’m just accustomed to seeing you in jeans.”
Ragged jeans and worn T-shirts. Her chin lifted. She might not be allowed to be attracted to him, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have any pride. “You saw me in cocktail dresses plenty of times when Clark and I went to these functions.”
“Yeah, but you were married then—and to my best friend. I never really looked at you.”
Mrs. P. chortled. “You’re digging yourself farther down, Seth. Quit while you’re ahead.”
“Baby’s already in bed for the night,” Harper told Mrs. P., handing her a short list of instructions.
Mrs. P. glanced at the paper. “If she’ll probably sleep the whole time you’re gone, why do I need these?”
“In case she wakes up.”
Seth walked to the island and grabbed his keys. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
When his condo door closed behind them, she caught his arm to stop him. “I’m sorry.”
“This whole charade is turning into a big mess.” She felt like a burden. A chore. A weird something attached to his life that he would soon grow to hate. And the thought that he’d end up hating her tightened her chest and made her wish she’d never asked him for help.
“It’s not a big mess. It’s a gallery opening. We’ll show up, have a few drinks and be back in time for Mrs. P. to catch her eleven-thirty movie.”
He said it so easily that Harper’s chest loosened. “You’re okay with this?”
“I started it, remember? It’s a couple of weeks out of my life. We’re fine.”
They rode the elevator to the basement garage in silence, then stepped out into rows of luxury cars. She spotted her Explorer quickly, if only because it was the one car valued at less than a hundred thousand dollars.
Which meant the Ferrari beside it was Seth’s. “Wow.”
He opened the door for her. “You like?”
“I love it.” When Seth walked around to the driver’s side and slid in beside her, she said, “Clark wanted one of these but thought the SUV was more practical.”
“It probably was.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t a convertible.”
He laughed and started the car. “I’m guessing that means you want the top down.”
“Oh, yeah.” She couldn’t deny it. She’d had a convertible when she was sixteen and had loved it. When she’d left home, left her parents’ wealth and hypocrisy behind, it was the only thing she’d missed.
He pushed a button and the roof lowered, then he shifted gears and sent them roaring out of the parking garage.
The feeling of the wind in her hair made her laugh out loud. She’d been so concerned about involving Seth, getting a job and finding a condo that she hadn’t had a second of peace. And this—the wind, the night air, forgetting her responsibilities for a few hours—was just what she needed.
“I forgot how this messes up hair,” he said, shouting over the noise of the air circulating around them.
“I don’t care,” she said, and meant it. “Mine’s so short, I can pull my fingers through it and get it in shape again.”
“Good!” He hit the gas and sent the car speeding up the street.
The air felt fantastic. Freeing. Thanks to Mrs. P. and the need to shop for groceries, she’d had a few times away from the baby, but they hadn’t felt like this. Like she was allowed to be herself. Not just a mom, not a cook, not someone scrambling for a job and maybe a place to live, but herself. Her old self.
She turned and yelled, “This is fabulous.”
“I know. I sometimes drive to Jersey just for the hell of it.”
She sucked in more air, let it wash over her like a spring rain renewing the world. But in the blink of an eye, they pulled up to the valet in front of the gallery. He opened Harper’s door and helped her out of the low sports car as Seth got out on his side. Seth tossed him the keys, then took Harper’s arm.
She turned and smiled at him. “Yes.”
Everything male in Seth awoke. She made the simple black dress and pearls stunning with her pale skin and big blue eyes. But her pleasure during their ride over with the top down had filled him with joy. He hated that this charade seemed to trouble her, and for one darn night he wished she could forget it all and have a good time. In fact, maybe that should be his mission. Not to romance her or steer clear of her for fear of feelings, but to show her a good time. Just because she was a friend.
The doorman didn’t check the list for Seth’s name. Everyone knew Seth was a McCallan. He opened the door, and Seth ushered Harper inside. As the door closed, the sounds of the city were immediately replaced by the noise of conversations rising to the high ceiling of the gallery and echoing back.
Harper said, “Wow. They’ve remodeled this place since the last time I was here. It’s gorgeous.”
She was gorgeous with her windblown spiky hair and her sheath outlining her trim figure. And for the first time in what felt like forever, he wanted to show off his date.
Who wasn’t really a date.
But why not?
Most of the world thought they were dating anyway.
And he’d already decided he wanted her to have a good time. Maybe they could both enjoy this.
His brother, Jake, and wife, Avery, approached them. Avery’s red hair and big green eyes paired with Jake’s dark hair and blue eyes made them the perfect all-American couple.
Jake said, “Harper! It is nice to see you out and about again.”
Harper sucked in a breath. “Thank you.”
She was obviously nervous, and Seth prayed Jake wouldn’t say something about Clark. The guy had been gone a year. Harper was showing signs of really getting beyond his death. If Jake said something now—
“This is my wife, Avery.” Jake faced her. “Avery, this is Harper Hargraves. She’s an old friend of Seth’s.”
Avery smiled and shook Harper’s hand. She exchanged a quick look with Jake before she answered, “I remember.”
But that was all she said. She didn’t mention that she was with Jake when he got word Clark had been killed in an accident. She didn’t say she’d been part of the search for Seth when he’d gone missing that night, or that they’d found him drunk and had to drive him home.
Seth hid a sigh of relief. Avery could have said any one of a million things. But his well-bred brother and his beautiful wife left out the sad details and welcomed Harper.
Jake said, “What do you think of the renovations?”
Harper glanced around. “The place is lovely.”
“We wanted more space for displays, especially bigger pieces of art,” Avery explained. “So, when the gallery came to us for help, we had it designed to fit almost anything.”
“It’s beautiful.”
“Avery is the benevolent one,” Jake said with a laugh. “I’d have given them the money and said have at it. She actually worked with the designers and architects.”
Seth laughed at that. His brother was right about Avery being benevolent, but Avery also had changed Jake, made him kinder and gentler. Though it would be a cold frosty day in hell before Seth told his older brother that.
“Hey, everybody.” Seth and Jake’s sister joined the group.
“Sabrina,” Seth said. “You’re probably too young to remember Harper, Clark Hargrave’s wife.”
Sabrina extended her hand to shake Harper’s. “Of course, I remember. I’m only three years younger than you are, Seth.”
Harper said, “How are you, Sabrina?”
She looked expensively elegant in her sparkly blue dress, which matched her blue eyes and brought out the best in her blond hair. “Overworked. Underappreciated.”
Harper laughed, and Seth swallowed another sigh of relief. He shouldn’t care if his brother and sister liked Harper, but he did. He blamed that on his fear that one of them would say something about Clark’s death and ruin Harper’s evening, but so far no one had. Which was odd. He’d have at least expected his brother to razz him about bringing a date.
He turned to his sister. “That’s what you get for working for a charity.”
Sabrina’s chin lifted. “We’re not a charity. Clients pay what they can for our services.”
Seth addressed Harper. “Sabrina runs an organization that helps startup companies.”
“That’s interesting!”
“It’s fabulous,” Sabrina said. “People come to me with their ideas and I help them bring them to life.”
Harper sighed with envy. “You wouldn’t happen to need an assistant, would you?”
Seth quickly intervened. “Even if she does, she can’t afford you. You need a job that pays you a fairly substantial amount of money.”
Sabrina looked crushed. “Too bad.”
Avery said, “I can keep my ear to the ground.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Harper shifted her purse from one hand to the other and Seth realized that her nails were painted. The little detail, another confirmation that she’d looked forward to this event, reinforced his vow that he would help her have a good time.
Which probably meant he should get her away from his family.
“Why don’t we get a drink?” Seth said.
“Better yet,” Jake said, “why don’t you and I go and get drinks for the ladies?”
There was no way out of that without explaining he wanted to get Harper away from his family. He headed toward the bar.
Jake followed him. “I thought you were just helping her find a job? Now you and Harper are dating?”
He shrugged. “So?”
“So? Seth? She isn’t just Clark’s wife. You brought her somewhere she’d have to meet family. Are you serious about her?”
“It’s not like that. We’re together a lot because of updating her résumé, that kind of thing. Dating just evolved from that.”
“Oh…that explains why you look so chummy.”
He walked up to the bar, absently ordered a Scotch. “Chummy?” He laughed, suddenly seeing the humor in stringing this out and teasing his brother. “What the hell does chummy look like?”
Jake shrugged. “You know. Exchanging glances because you share information. That kind of thing.”
“You sound like an old woman.”
“No. I sound like a confused brother. During everything we went through with Dad, we’ve told each other everything. Now you show up with Clark Hargraves’s widow and you don’t think I’ll be curious?”
For a split second, the ruse didn’t seem so funny. He and Jake had been bound by a mutual need to get out of a bad situation. He could understand his brother would be curious as to why he’d kept something so big from him.
“Jake, I like Harper.” He did. No lie there. “But she’s Clark’s widow. She needs help. I’m helping her.”
“And dating.”
“And dating. But neither one of us expects anything to come of it.”
Jake laughed. “You are such a babe in the woods. That’s exactly how love hits. When you least expect it.”
“I’m fine.”
“You think so but what seems like an innocent connection combines with sexual attraction, before you know it you’re hooked.”
The truth of that sank into his bones like a warning that had been right in front of him, but he’d kept missing. He’d always been attracted to Harper, and now they were sharing a condo. He was helping her. She was even cooking for him.
And tonight, he’d wanted to show her a good time…
“I think I’m smart enough to keep my wits about me.”
“Too bad.”
Just when he thought he had a handle on the conversation, his brother threw him another curveball. “Too bad?”
“Yes. She’s nice.” Jake’s gaze drifted to Harper and Avery and Sabrina. “And Avery likes her. No better litmus test than that.” Jake suddenly grinned. “Except Mom.” Jake laughed. “Oh, it’s going to be fun watching you explain this to Mom.”
“She’s already been to the house. She heard the rumor that we were dating, and she came by.”
“Well, damn. I was kind of looking forward to the show.”
“There is no show.”
Or at least he hoped there wouldn’t be. They hadn’t yet run into his mom. But now that Jake had mentioned it, he could be prepared for that, too.
Seth took a glass of champagne from a passing waiter then retrieved the Scotch he’d ordered at the bar. Jake did the same. When they returned to Avery, Harper and Sabrina, the three women were laughing.
Seth’s breath stalled in his chest. He hadn’t seen her laugh so deeply, so happily, since before Clark’s death. But more than that, there was no one as beautiful as Harper when she laughed.
And suddenly he saw what Jake had seen. All those old feelings he had about Harper kept bubbling up when he least expected. And when they did, he froze or gazed at her, probably with adoring eyes.
Rather than panic, he decided that might be good. They were supposed to be dating. He could use these feelings, these instincts and impulses, while they were here, among the people they were trying to fool, and be warned of them when he and Harper were alone.
He rejoined the group as they subtly moved a little farther into the cluster of potential donors to the charity hosting the event. Before he took his final step in the move, Harper laid her hand on his upper arm and held him back.
“Your family put millions of dollars into the renovations for this gallery?”
“My mother enjoys being a patron of the arts.” He grimaced. “We’re actually silent partners.”
The way her eyes brightened told him that pleased her. “Oh.”
“We don’t let a lot of the work we do, the things we own, get out to the general public.” He paused, then caught her gaze. She trusted him with all her secrets. He could certainly trust her with one of his. “Sabrina paints. You’ll find a lot of her work here under the name Sally McMillen.”
“You guys didn’t open this gallery for her, did you?”
He laughed. “No. The gallery discovered her but her first showing was a disaster. People bought her art seeking favors from my father or just wanting to have something done by a McCallan. She was embarrassed and upset. Wondered if people liked her work at all.”
“I can understand that.”
“Now her work is shown as Sally McMillen. She knows that the people who buy it like it for what it is. And she has a good job that acts as a cover for people.”
Harper’s gaze strayed to Sabrina. “She’s so lucky to be talented.”
“You’re talented.”
She turned back to him. “Not hardly.”
“You cook. You care for a baby. Plus, I remember you having a booming business when we were at university. You made enough money for rent and tuition. While Clark, Ziggy and I had to live together, you could afford your own place.”
She smiled sheepishly. “I was pretty good.”
“You were amazing.”
Their gazes caught and held. Everything Jake had said about Harper came tumbling back. He suddenly wondered what it would be like if they could have something. If he could do this. Fall in love. Create a life—
That was a lot to wish for from a guy who’d spent his thirty-one years knowing he’d never get married, never even get serious about a woman.
He directed Harper to catch up to Jake, Avery and Sabrina by putting his hand on her waist. One of Jake’s eyebrows rose and Seth shook his head. Some days he swore his brother liked acting like a kid. Teasing him about a girl.
But not just any girl—the girl he would have let himself love if he hadn’t been so scarred from his parents’ marriage.
The conversation with his siblings and sister-in-law continued with everyone giving Harper tips on what skills she would need to be a good assistant. Harper matched them to things she had done as a dog-walker, gift-buyer and party-planner when she owned her own company.
Sabrina grew thoughtful. “You know, if you had a few months to get this business up and running, I might suggest that rather than find a job, you just pick up where you left off with your own business.”
“I have a three-month-old. I can’t leave at odd hours of the day or night to walk dogs.”
“No,” Sabrina said, still thoughtful. “But you could hire college kids to do that work.”
“Oh! That sounds interesting.”
Seth quickly intervened. “But you can’t be newly self-employed and get a loan for a house or condo or even get yourself approved to rent something. You have to have a job.”
All eyes turned to Seth. Everybody frowned.
“We’re not just dating.” He started seeing what Jake had been warning him about. He was dating a woman. Living with her. Being seen in public with her. Fooling his family for her. Because he liked her. He’d always liked her. “She came to me for help and advice and if that means I have to be the voice of reason, then so be it.”
“Hello, darling.”
Everyone turned at the sound of Amelia Sloan’s voice. As Harper faced her mom, Amelia took her by the shoulders and pulled her in for a hug. “I told you we’d be running into each other.”
She motioned to her right. “Seth, this is my husband, Harper’s dad, Peter.”
Peter shook Seth’s hand. A tall brute of a man, he wore his tux with as much grace and elegance as Amelia wore her slim pink dress.
Seth said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
Pete’s eyes glowed. “It’s great to meet you, too.” He didn’t say anything about Seth and Harper being an item. Amelia must have threatened him with death if he ruined this for Harper. But he didn’t have to. His happiness over their dating was there in his eyes.
Everything sunk in a little more for Seth. This might be a charade to fool Harper’s mom, but by the next morning most of the city of New York would believe he and Harper were an item. His family, his friends and the people he did business with would know he was dating his best friend’s widow.
Because he was. That was the bottom line. What started out as fake was feeling very real. And maybe that wasn’t bad. He’d always liked her. He’d always wanted to woo her. Tonight, he’d wanted to show her a good time, not for the charade but because he liked her.
He liked her.
Maybe this was his chance
Older, wiser, maybe he could have something with her?
“Peter, Amelia, this is Jake and Avery, my brother and sister-in-law,” he said, and Pete shook their hands. “And my sister, Sabrina.”
“Nice to meet you,” Pete said politely as he shook Sabrina’s hand.
“Aren’t the renovations divine?” Amelia said, taking in the tall windows that reached almost to the ceiling, which was two stories high.
“We’re pleased with them,” Avery said, her eyes brimming with happiness as she, too, admired the handiwork.
Amelia faced Avery. “You played a part in this?”
“I did a bit of work with the architects and designers who did the renovations.”
Amelia inclined her head. “How generous of you.”
“Not really,” Sabrina said. “We enjoy the arts. We have several galleries in our neighborhood but this one holds a special place in our hearts. So, we’re fairly healthy contributors.”
“It does host some of the best events,” Amelia agreed. But her eyes drifted to Harper and then Seth. They narrowed a fraction of an inch, then they lowered to gaze at their hands.
Even as Seth noticed that, he also saw that Jake had his free hand on the small of Avery’s back. Possessive. But also, affectionate.
Seth smoothly raised his hand to the bottom of Harper’s back. Harper shifted closer to him, as if she too had seen her mother’s curious gaze.
“Who has the baby?”
“Seth’s neighbor, Mrs. Petrillo.”
Amelia’s eyebrows rose. “Seths neighbor?”
He let Amelia figure that one out for herself. If he and Harper really were dating, they’d be spending the night together. And if they were spending the night together, who better to keep Crystal than the woman next door?
Seth knew the minute Amelia pieced it all together. Her slim lips tipped up into a pleased smile.
Harper’s mother liked him. If he and Harper were dating for real, Harper wouldn’t ever again have to worry about her mom’s feelings for Clark.
The man behind Jake tapped him on the shoulder and when Jake turned he said, “Jimmy! My gosh! How long has it been?”
Avery turned, too.
Sabrina mumbled something about needing to find her boyfriend, one of the artists whose work was being exhibited.
As Harper and Seth spoke with her parents, Jake and Avery drifted into the crowd. Then Amelia and Pete excused themselves to mingle. Seth followed Harper as she walked among the exhibits, thoroughly engrossed in the art and thoroughly enjoying herself.
The way she should. The way he wanted her to.
At eleven, Harper reminded Seth that they’d promised Mrs. P. they’d be back by eleven-thirty, so she could get into her pajamas to watch a movie that was playing that night.
They walked toward the door, Harper’s mom’s eyes following them, and nearly plowed into his mother.
“Seth, Harper.” She smiled warmly as she took in their clasped hands. “I hope you enjoyed the evening.”
“Most fun I’ve had in a long time, Mrs. McCallan.”
“There’s another event coming up in a few weeks, a ball. I think you’ll enjoy that, too.”
Harper reluctantly said, “We’ll see,” but Seth thought that was a fine idea. The more they got out, into dating situations, the more they’d be able to decide if they shouldn’t make this real.
“We’ll definitely be at the ball.”
His mom smiled. “Good!”
They stepped out into the night air and Seth motioned to the valet.
“Are you sure going to a ball is a good idea?”
“We’re dating. There’s a ball.” He almost laughed at his own cleverness. “You do the math. If we don’t go, people will wonder.”
The valet roared up in his Ferrari. The top was down but he didn’t make a move to put it up.
When they were settled, he pressed the gas pedal to send the powerful car careening down the street. The moon was full, the air still warm as summer held on. Her laughter wove through him, pleasing him, relaxing him.
And he couldn’t remember why he’d been fighting this.
Harper couldn’t contain the joy that bubbled up and spilled out, as the glorious car roared up the nearly empty streets. She loved the Ferrari, the smooth speed that took them effortlessly from stoplight to stoplight. But most of all she marveled at the ease of luxury. How simple life was when one had a good family and friends.
She wished the drive could go on forever, but she had a baby to care for, so when Seth pulled his beautiful car into the basement parking garage, she didn’t sigh with disappointment.
She also didn’t correct Seth when he put his hand on the small of her back, guiding her into the elevator. It wasn’t easy to pretend they were together one minute and jump apart the next. She could understand his slipup. But she also had to admit it had felt pretty good to have his undivided attention that night. True, most of his actions were directed toward making sure her mother believed they were dating. But sometimes it felt as if they really were dating.
After a glass of champagne, she had to keep reminding herself they weren’t.
He hit the button for the elevator to take them to his condo. She combed her fingers through her windblown hair.
He caught her hand. “Don’t.”
“I like it sort of crazy like that.”
She did, too.
Their gazes met.
He smiled.
Her insides trembled.
He stood near enough that she could touch him, and her fingers itched to. All she’d have to do is raise her hand to his face and run her fingers along the rough shadow of dark hair that had begun on his cheeks. She knew he was off limits, Clark’s friend whose money allowed him to date any woman he wanted. But she hadn’t had this intense longing to touch someone in over a year. Fresh and surprising, it rippled along her nerve endings and tumbled to her fingertips.
“What’s going on in that head of yours?”
She shook her head at the silliness of her thoughts. “Nothing.”
“Didn’t look like nothing.”
That’s when she realized he still held her hand. They weren’t even two feet apart. And she wanted to touch him.
The elevator seemed to slow to a crawl.
He inched closer. “It looked a lot like something. And it made you smile.” His lips curved upward. “Really smile. I know you enjoyed the ride in the Ferrari. I think you enjoyed the night. You wouldn’t by any chance be considering giving me a good-night kiss to thank me?”
Her heart stumbled as her gaze fell to his full mouth. Funny how she’d never noticed how sensuous his mouth was. She should have. The memory of those lips on hers the day they’d run into her mom should have told her his mouth wasn’t just plentiful; it was clever.
But so was she. Even if he was attracted to her, she’d already worked all this out in her head. Starting something with him wasn’t right. No matter how lonely she’d been. She still missed Clark. That wasn’t any way to start a relationship. Plus, he wasn’t the kind of guy she’d date. Even as she told herself she needed to get them out of this, her heart pinched. Something about walking away from him just didn’t seem right.
Still, when the elevator reached their floor, she slid her hand from his and stepped out into the hall, striding toward his condo door.
“You know as soon as Mrs. P. leaves you and I will be alone.”
Oh, she knew that. And her pattering heart almost exploded with the possibilities. None of which she was ready for. None of which seemed any more right than walking away had seemed.
He walked up behind her and slid his arm across her body to put his key into the lock. His scent drifted to her and she could almost feel the heat of his body on her back.
Hard as it was, she wouldn’t let herself shudder. Refused to let her mind go blank and her senses kick in. This man would kiss her tonight and call a girlfriend in the morning—
All the same…she couldn’t remember ever feeling like this with a man. Part of her really wanted to see it through. Tease him. Kiss him again…
Mrs. P. opened the door. “Get in here, you goofs. My next movie is about to start.” She edged past them into the hall as they walked inside the condo. “Baby was good. An angel. But she hasn’t even stirred so my guess it you’ll be getting a two- or three-a.m. wake-up call.”
And that was reality. Harper wasn’t the woman who dated playboys, indulged in their games, amused herself.
She was a mom.
A widow and a mom.
She also wasn’t a coward.
Fortifying herself with a deep breath, she faced Seth. “I did have a good time.” When she heard Mrs. Petrillo’s condo door close, she added, “I did want a good-night kiss.” And everything it might have led to. “Not because I’m crazy for you or even to thank you, but because I’m curious. I don’t think you’d take advantage of that because I’d be a willing participant. But that doesn’t make it right. You were Clark’s best friend.”

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