“We found you a fiancée.” Sitting behind his imposing desk, Josh Dutton’s father didn’t even blink as he uttered his outrageous statement.
“Excuse me?” Genuinely puzzled, Josh stepped closer and studied his dad’s expression.
Was the new campaign putting too much stress on Senator Howard Dutton?
Deep lines crinkled the skin at the corner of his eyes, but the senator’s lips showed his usual arrogant smirk. Had Josh been summoned to his father’s office in the Wellesley mansion just to hear this nonsense?
To reassure himself that he’d misheard his father, Josh spun toward his mother. Relaxing on the brown leather sofa she casually leaned forward to rearrange the roses in a crystal vase adorning the glass and brass cocktail table. The aromatic fragrance didn’t do much to soothe Josh’s mood.
“Mom, is he okay?” Josh jutted his chin out toward his father.
“Of course I’m—”
“Your father and I found you the perfect fiancée,” Nancy Dutton announced patiently. Usually her sweet voice agreeably counterbalanced her husband’s autocratic decisions. Today, her soft words exacerbated Josh’s headache.
“So kind of you, Mom. Frankly I’m not looking for a wife. Even if I needed to consider a serious relationship I believe I have enough willing women around me not to require your generous help.” He hoped his sarcastic tone would end the annoying conversation and allow him to leave soon enough to meet his gorgeous date of tonight. With a snort, Josh shoved his hands in his pocket and fingered his car keys. Convinced he’d better not linger around his father’s treacherous office he sidled toward the door.
“Too many willing girlfriends. Too many scandals,” his father bellowed. “That’s exactly the reason why you need a steady woman at your side. I’m fed up of seeing the tabloid magazines feature your scandalous exploits on a weekly basis.” Senator Howard brandished a newspaper and opened it to the middle page. “Look, look at this picture,” his father tapped the paper with a furious finger. “Look at this person.”
A muscle jerked along Josh’s jaw. Determined to remain unruffled, he took the paper and smiled at the photo of the blonde woman dancing with him at the City Hall Gala. “Nice picture. That’s Tammy Burt, a paralegal working at the court. Very pretty.”
“Who cares?” his father spat. “And this one?” He handed him a magazine with another picture of Josh with a brunette in a bikini on a yacht.
“Another good shot with Annabelle on her father’s boat.” Josh summoned his reserve of calm. “What’s wrong with it? We went out for the day with a group of friends. Annabelle is a colleague, a lawyer and a successful one at that.”
“A lawyer? All I see is an almost naked woman at your side.”
“Give me some credit, Dad. I have good taste. She’s not only smart, she has a stunning figure.” Josh affected a nonchalant shrug. His charm served him well in business and a beautiful woman on his arm never hurt. What more could he ask for?
“I can see that. And she’s cuddling against you for the paparazzi’s delight. Did you read the caption? Read it. Out loud.”
“Senator Howard Dutton’s son, attorney-at-law, Joshua Dutton, enjoying an outing in style. Hmm…”
“And this one.” Dad shoved another paper in his hands. “Read it.”
“Lovely Brooke McColey and Joshua Dutton in an amorous pose. Senator Howard’s son entertaining himself with extra-curricular activities while his father preaches hard work and good behavior to straighten our economical crisis. Maybe we should follow Josh’s example to succeed in life,” Josh read and examined the picture. “What a jerk. Anyway, don’t worry about this one, Dad. It’s an old photo from last year. We broke up a few months ago.”
“That’s the problem.” Senator Howard banged his fist on his desk and heaved a heavy sigh.
“Howard, let me explain the situation to Josh.” Nancy Dutton raised an appeasing hand. “Josh dear, you keep dating different girls and leaving them. Unfortunately this reflects badly on your father who’s running a new campaign. You’re giving ammunitions to his rivals and they are having a field day using all these pictures to snatch his voters.” She left the sofa and came to stand near the desk, next to Josh.
Josh frowned. On one hand he understood his father’s frustration, on the other hand Senator Howard’s endless campaigns tended to restrict his children’s freedom to no end. “I promise I’ll be more discreet.” Josh added a reasonable nod to appease his father and get him off his back.
“You already told us as much a year ago,” his father fumed.
Annoyed by his dad’s accusations, Josh opened his palms. “I can’t always look over my shoulder for a hidden camera.”
Both parents rallied around him.
“That’s my point. If you’re in an official relationship you don’t have to worry.” Senator Howard seized Josh’s arm in an iron clutch, proving he was still the powerful man his rivals would like to defeat.
An exasperated huff escaped Josh. “But Dad do you realize you’re asking me to sacrifice my chosen way of life for your damn campaign? Aren’t you going too far?”
“It’s only for three months. You can break the engagement as soon as I’m elected.”
His mother pushed her husband aside and grabbed Josh’s hands. “You know I volunteer at Newton-Wellesley hospital twice a week. Two months ago, I met this woman, Maria Cassiero, a patient, undergoing therapy after a difficult back surgery. Now she’s doing her best to walk again. Well last week, I found her crying and refusing more treatment. Apparently, the insurance hardly covered two-thirds of her expensive procedures. Her husband died almost a year ago in a boat accident. A mechanic by trade, he owned two thriving auto shops in the Newton area.”
“So why can’t she pay for her treatment?” So far his mother’s story didn’t hold much interest. “If you want to help her, I can contribute.” He reached in his pocket for his phone to write an online check.
“Thank you, Josh. No need for that now. I already offered to cover her extra costs when she mentioned that after her husband’s death the shops’ income greatly shrunk. Her stepdaughter left law school to take care of her.”
“Ah.” So there was a young woman in the picture. Obviously a good-hearted, loving daughter, generous enough to sacrifice her studies for her stepmother. A paragon of virtue, hardly his type. He bit back a derisive comment but gave his mother an impatient glance.
“Poor Maria, she sobbed while telling me she didn’t want her daughter to lose her future because of her. When she showed me the young woman’s photo I had an epiphany.”
Mom smiled and Josh’s heart sank. He’d already guessed the conclusion his mother had reached.
“She’s so pretty. I could easily see her with you, Josh. But I don’t want to upset you by interfering in your life.”
“You could have fooled me.” He snickered. “So what have you and Dad been doing for the past hour?”
“Spare us your sarcasm,” Senator Howard barked. “All we want is your cooperation for three months. Only three little months with a beautiful fiancée.”
“She accepted?” Talk about an opportunist.
“We don’t know yet.” Mom sighed. “Stop bickering you two. I explained to Maria my idea of giving you a fiancée for a few months to erase the lousy image caused by your scandals—”
“Mom, I didn’t cause any scandals. I didn’t hurt any woman. I didn’t create any unwanted kid.”
“Thank God. As if we needed that.” Mom crossed herself and Dad’s cheeks turned a heavy shade of purple that worried Josh. He hated his father’s politics but he still deeply loved his parents. After counting to ten to recover his cool, he pledged to remain calm in front of any crazy eventuality they came up with.
“Okay Mom, keep going.”
“Well Maria was so grateful for my help that she promised to vote for Senator Howard and to bring Emma to meet you.”
“Emma?” Nice name. For the sake of his mother who’d never let him down, Josh smothered his annoyance. “You have a picture? I should at least see the face of the woman who’d be hanging on my arm for three months.”
“No picture, but you’ll meet her tomorrow.” A smile grew on his mother’s face. “I knew you love you father enough to —”
“Of course I love my father. And I love you.” He gently patted her shoulder.
“I invited them for dinner here and told Maria our chauffeur will pick them up around 5 pm.”
“Tomorrow?” Just like that. He rubbed his neck already feeling an unwanted noose strangling him.
“Will you do it, sweetheart?” Mom pleaded. “It’s for a good cause. Two good causes actually. Your father neutralizes the smear the tabloids have thrown on his campaign and Maria continues her therapy.”
“I see a third good cause.” Forgetting his usual diplomacy, Dad smirked. “Josh gets a taste of monogamy for a while.”
Josh’s mouth twitched at his father’s lousy joke but he swallowed his acerbic reply.
“Well what’s your answer, Josh?” Mom squeezed his hand although her tone had turned a tad impatient.
His gaze flipped from his mother to his father. In spite of her easygoing manner and charitable heart, Mom could be as manipulative as Dad. And often more efficient. No wonder Senator Howard had maintained his senatorial seat for ten years. He had her infallible support. How come Josh had never found a woman who loved him unconditionally as Nancy loved her dictatorial husband?
“Josh?” Mom repeated.
“Oh darling, I knew you’d accept.” Mom threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. “You’re free to go now, but be here tomorrow before 5 pm. I’m counting on you.”
These were the same words he heard so often as a little boy.
I count on you meant he should ace his classes, score goals in soccer, win his tennis match, make sure his younger brother and sister behave. Yes, the same I’m counting on you. At ten or at thirty, the middle child of Senator Howard’s five kids hated to disappoint his parents.
Tonight the cost of his good behavior soared.
“Goodnight, Mom, Dad. See you tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Son.” His father gave him a hand and Josh shook it, and then Dad pulled him in for a hug. “I really appreciate your effort.”
His back straight, Josh feigned an indifferent expression and walked out of the office to the front door. These three coming months would test his will power, but he’d consider them a contribution to his father’s wellness, rather than his campaign. Maybe with a little blooming luck his engagement to Emma would prove to be a charming interlude.
In the comfortable but messy living room of their two-story house, Emma Cassiero helped her stepmother prepare for their special evening. Crouched next to her stepmother’s recliner, Rino, the golden-brown German shepherd, relaxed and watched her through half-open eyelids.
With precise downward strokes Emma swept and blended the makeup on Maria’s cheeks, chin, nose, and forehead. “Much better. This foundation gives you some color.”
Maria chuckled. “You can’t transform a sick woman who looks like a ghostly witch into Cinderella.”
“You’re beautiful, Mom. I just want you less pale if you’re so determined to visit these people. To be invited to dinner by a senator’s wife is not a daily event here,” Emma joked to lighten her own grim mood. “Right, Rino?”
At the sound of his name, the dog slowly moved his muzzle toward her, rubbed her leg and groaned his approval.
Maria slipped a pearl necklace around her head and clipped on her earrings. Exhausted by the effort, she slumped against the back of the recliner and closed her eyes.
“You look too tired. You sure you want to go?”
Mom seemed so preoccupied today. Several times she’d started to talk about her new friend Nancy, and then stopped in mid-sentence and mumbled under her breath. Emma had caught her crying a couple of times which was normal considering…
“The least I can do is accept their invitation. Nancy Dutton is a very nice lady. A generous soul the kind you don’t find anymore.”
“I’m grateful that she convinced you to sign up for the second phase of your treatment. That’s why I agreed to go to their house with you to thank her personally.”
Emma sighed at her reflection in the mirror above the living room credenza. The blue color of her outfit suited her well. She’d bought the silk dress when Dad took her out with Maria to celebrate her good grades at the end of her second year of law school. Little did they know that two weeks later his cherished boat would explode and kill him.
Mom had insisted she wear the fancy dress today. What a waste, just to entertain an unknown politician and his wife.
“I want you to meet Nancy and her husband. They’re good people we can count on if we need help.”
“I still wonder…” Emma sprayed a whiff of perfume on her neck and then on her stepmother’s. “Since when does a hospital volunteer, especially a senator’s wife, invite a patient to her house?”
“Nancy has become a good friend, always encouraging me. They want to meet you. Maybe he can give you a job or…” Mom blinked several times and bit her lip.
“Do you think so? A part-time job would be great. I’d still have enough time to take care of you.” Emma exhaled with relief. “You’re starting to improve. You’ll walk again soon, Mom, with the right therapy.” Emma repressed the pang of anxiety gnawing at her stomach and blanked any sign of worry from her face. Bringing the walker closer to the recliner, she held Maria’s elbow with one hand and slipped an arm behind her back to help her stand.
“I’m doing my best, sweetheart. I don’t want you stuck to my side forever. I often pray you meet a nice man and find happiness.”
“Nice man?” With a snort, Emma crushed her mom’s daydreaming. Where would she meet a nice man who’d accept her and her mountain of problems? So far she’d met more jerks than nice men, Scott Garett and the likes.
“Yes, a presentable man, educated and with good-manners. You’re pretty enough to attract any guy you set your heart on. Nancy mentioned she has four sons and—”
“For heaven’s sake, Mom, stop dreaming. Politicians or their sons are not paragons of virtue. Far from it. They know how to take advantage of people.”
“But Nancy is not like that. She wants to…to…” Maria sighed. After she shifted to straighten her back, she rested a pensive gaze on Emma. “We won’t have problem with payments.”
“Of course we won’t. I told you I’ll sell the small shop soon. It’ll cover the first phase of your treatment, and then if necessary I’ll sell the second shop. It’ll be more than enough.” She offered her dear mom a reassuring smile.
Maria caught Emma’s hand. “Don’t sell anything. It’s your inheritance. It should help you go back to law school.”
“I’ll resume my studies once you get better. I can get a scholarship or a loan that I’ll repay later.” With a gentle hand she caressed her mom’s hair.
Rino scrambled up to a sitting position and turned his head to the left, his ears twitching.
The door bell chimed and he barked. Their ride had arrived.
Emma collected their purses, the box of chocolate wrapped in silver paper for their hosts, and a silk shawl for her mother to add over her suit.
A hiss escaped Maria’s lips as she slowly shuffled to the door. “You’re not listening, Emma, I don’t want you —and I don’t need you— to sacrifice the shops. Mrs. Dutton said she’d pay the medical expenses that are not covered by insurance.”
“No way.” Emma’s hand stalled on the doorknob and she stared at her mother, her eyebrows gathered in shock. “You can’t let a stranger pay for your treatment. We don’t need her.”
“She’s a dear friend now.”
“A senator’s wife? What does she want in return? Our votes for her husband?” Bitterness underlined her questions.
Maria shook her head and grabbed Emma’s arm. “Wouldn’t you vote for a politician whose wife is so generous? I would do anything to thank them.” She raised imploring eyes to her daughter.
“Why, Mom? We’re not paupers. Dad left us two auto shops. Why would you accept charity from strangers when I can help?”
A couple of votes didn’t justify paying for the expensive treatment. What else did they want from Maria and Emma? After her father’s death, Emma had met her share of unscrupulous people. Many had tried to take advantage of the sick woman and her young daughter.
“Enough, Emma. I want you to meet them before casting unfavorable judgment.” Her labored breathing frightened Emma. She refrained from more comments and opened the door.
“I’m Carl, the Dutton’s chauffeur.” In black suit and cap, the man gripped the walker to lower it down the two steps. “Are you ready, Ma’am?”
“As ready as can be.” Maria twisted herself to tackle the first step.
Rino growled at the stranger and bared his impressive canines. A bit on the defensive, the man jumped down two steps and stared suspiciously at her protector. “Huh, your dog wouldn’t bite, I hope.”
Sure he would. “Hmm.” He’d already done it to defend her. “Just a moment please. I’ll be right back.”
Emma raked her fingers through Rino’s fur the way he loved it and urged him inside. “Come, buddy, we’re going to the backyard.”
“Take your time, Miss. Meanwhile, I’ll help the lady to the car.”
Emma led Rino to the fenced backyard and the doghouse where he could nap in the shade. “Be a good boy.” She set out a bowl of water and another with chow. “Have fun and guard the house.” After an extra dose of caresses, she entered the kitchen and closed the door, then went to the front hall entrance.
The driver had settled Maria in the backseat of a black Mercedes waiting at the curb. After an indifferent glance at the luxurious car, Emma locked the house and slid next to her mother. Lost in her thoughts, she repeatedly cursed her stepmother’s tendency to match-make and barely paid attention to the scenic drive or the time spent until the driver slowed down to pass through a gate. The car rolled on a gravel driveway between two rows of magnificent maple trees and stopped in front of an imposing mansion.
Good Lord, was that where they were having dinner?
Emma climbed out of the car while the chauffeur opened the other side door to help her mother. Their hosts must have been watching for their arrival. An elegant woman in a maroon dress, her strawberry blond hair impeccably coiffed, glided down the five marble steps and bent to hug Mom. “I’m so glad you were able to come, my dear Maria,” she greeted with a friendly voice.
“Thank you for inviting us and sending your driver.” Maria turned to Emma and proceeded with the introductions. “My stepdaughter, Emma Cassiero. Mrs. Nancy Dutton.”
“Emma, what a pleasure to meet you. You’re even prettier than your picture.” Nancy hugged her with as much affection as if she had been a long-lost niece.
Why had Mom shown her picture around? Was Emma making too much out of a friendly gesture?
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Dutton. I’m very grateful for the support you’ve given my mother. This is for you.” Emma gave her the box of chocolate.
“Thank you. Very kind of you. And here is my son, Josh Dutton.” Nancy waved to the striking man who’d followed his mother outside. Gorgeous enough to be called Man of the Year on any magazine—and make Emma’s heart beat erratically. Maybe she’d been confined at home for too long caring for Mom and had forgotten some men could be attractive enough to stir her blood.
Josh’s unfathomable gaze swept over her from head to toe and backtracked, roaming over her legs, skimming her waist and chest, and resting on her face for more appraisals.
Oh but he was so annoying… even conceited.
A flush warmed Emma’s cheeks but she raised her chin, returned the once-over, and stared him down. “Mr. Dutton,” she said with an icy tone.
Amusement glittered in his ocean-deep blue eyes shaded by a fringe of long dark lashes. “So glad you came, Emma.” He had the audacity to wink at her.
Yes, a perfect jerk.
In spite of his brazen arrogance, his smile confused her and her gaze riveted on his chiseled jaws and nose in the hope of finding his features lacking. Wistful hope. Physically he was close to perfection.
A queasy feeling filled her stomach and she slowly inhaled to regain control of her senses.
Nancy guided Maria up a side ramp and through the front door opening on a marble entry hall adorned with an antique credenza, gilded mirror and a velvet love seat. “Please come inside. We have a lot to talk about.”
Was Mrs. Dutton planning to explain her generous offer?
Emma didn’t have time to delve into the question. A warm hand settled on her back. Josh’s lemon scent surrounded her. He led her to a huge family room furnished with two brown leather sofas, matching armchairs, dark wood cocktail tables, and various knickknacks she couldn’t take in with her mental faculties focused on the large palm stiffening her shoulders and melting her insides.
Without waiting for an invitation she eased out of his hold and scooted to her mother’s side. Nancy had already helped Maria into a comfortable wingback chair and arranged a pillow behind her back, and then sat on a chair close to her guest.
Ignoring Josh who observed her curiously, and determined not to share a sofa’s closeness with her unsettling host, Emma sidled to the matching wingback chair across from her mother’s and dropped there.
A robust man in his late fifties entered the room, a jovial grin on his face. “Ladies, what a pleasure to meet you. Nancy talks so much about you.”
“Here you are, Howard,” Nancy introduced her husband.
“Maria, I feel I already know you.” Senator Howard was as friendly as they come.
His charisma filled the air and he outstretched both arms to enfold Maria’s frail hand between his. With silvery hair at the temples and thin lines underlying his eyelids, he presented a mature and pleasant personality quite in line with his position. Emma flipped a glance from the senator to his son and noticed the subtle smile hovering on Josh’s lips.
He’d settled on the empty sofa and seemed amused by his father’s affable greeting.
Had she missed something?