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Bought And Paid For: The Billionaire's Girlfriend

 

Bought And Paid For

 

The Billionaire’s Girlfriend

 

 

 

By Lara Hunter

 

Copyright 2015 by Lara Hunter

 

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.

 

All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.

 

The sequel to this story is available now!

 

Bought And Paid For: Truth And Lies

 

 

 

 

 

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Table of Contents:

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“How much farther?” I asked the driver, clutching my purse tightly in my lap. The city lights rushed by the car window. I sat tensely, too nervous to enjoy the plush, luxurious interior of the car.

 

“About thirty minutes, miss,” the driver said, glancing back at me in the rearview mirror.

 

I wished that I had audition pages to study, something to occupy my mind and soothe my nerves. It would have been easier to prepare for this if I’d been told a little more, but I’d been told almost nothing, only where and when to be ready.

 

It had been three days ago, the closing night of Miles to Go, the small, independent play I’d been performing in. The theater was small, and even then most showings didn’t sell out, but my part had more than a few lines, for once, and I was proud of the work I’d done. So I’d been feeling pretty good after the last curtain had fallen and final bows had been taken. In the morning, I’d have to start worrying about finding more work, soon, if I was going to make rent next month, but just for the night, I was letting myself forget my money problems and celebrate with the rest of the cast. I’d been drinking cheap champagne and chatting with some of the other players in the wings when a man approached.

 

He immediately stood out from the other people in the theater that night. Rather than the bohemian clothes that the independent theater crowd typically preferred, he wore a dark suit that had probably cost more than what I’d earned acting in the last six months. He was completely bald and immaculately groomed – tie straight, jacket buttoned, shoes shining – and carried himself with perfect posture. He was tall and broad-shouldered; his neck was thickly muscled.

 

“Alice Brennan?” he asked, approaching me.

 

“Yes, that’s me,” I said. I stood up straighter and put down my drink. Somehow I didn’t think this man was coming backstage for an autograph. The other actors around me eyed us cautiously.

 

“My name is Michael Northern,” he said. “Is there somewhere we can speak privately about a business matter?”

 

“Um, sure,” I said, glancing around. One of the male leads in the play caught my eye and mouthed ‘everything okay?’ I nodded.

 

I led Michael to the dressing room that the female actors in the play shared. Two women were just finishing gathering up costume pieces. They slipped out of the room as we went in, wishing me goodnight as they left.

 

“I’ll get to the point,” Michael said, once we were alone. “My employer is looking for an actress for a particularly… unusual assignment. I’ve watched you for the past few nights and think you might be perfect for this job.”

 

“Really?” I said, feeling both wary and hopeful. “What kind of job?”

 

He shook his head.

 

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to give any details now, miss,” he said. “If you are interested in learning more and being considered for the role, I’ll set up a meeting for you with my employer.”

 

I eyed him speculatively.

 

“I don’t do porn,” I said. “Not ever. If it’s anything like that—”

 

He gave a short bark of laughter.

 

“No, it’s nothing like that, I can assure you,” he said. “If you do agree to meet, you would be compensated for your time, regardless of whether you accept the position.”

 

It was an odd request, but I couldn’t afford to pass up the opportunity for work.

 

“Alright, okay,” I said. “Why not? I’ll meet with your boss.”

 

He took a business card (Michael Northern, Private Security, it read) out of his jacket pocket and flipped it over to the blank side. He took a pen out of a different pocket and wrote down a date and time.

 

“We’ll send a car for you at your home in three days,” he said.

 

I gave him the address of my apartment, ignoring my growing disquiet.

 

“What audition material will I be reading?” I asked. “What kind of part is it? Is there anything you can tell me so I can be properly prepared?” I imagined the disaster that would ensue if I were asked to tap dance and sing without warning.

 

“You don’t need to prepare anything in advance,” he said. “My employer will explain everything at the meeting. You’ll understand then.”

 

And that is why, three days later, I stood on the curb outside my apartment building waiting until a black Bentley pulled up to the curb. The driver was someone I hadn’t met before, a slight man in a dark driver’s uniform and cap. He got out of the car, verified my identity, and opened the rear passenger door for me. I got in, and soon we were cruising away from the city center, heading through increasingly high-end residential neighborhoods, the kinds of places full of old money, high hedges, and ornate gates guarding impossibly long driveways.

 

After about forty-five minutes of driving, the car turned onto one such driveway, stopping at the scrolled iron gate. The driver opened his window and typed a security code into the control pad. The gates swung inward smoothly, letting us in. My heart raced.

 

The car moved slowly up the long, winding driveway. Tall trees surrounded us, obscuring the view of the house itself. When we finally came close enough for me to see the structure, I drew in a short breath. The house was enormous, red brick covered in climbing ivy. It was a building that would make more sense as a school or hospital than as a home. I tried to imagine the kind of wealth that would make living in such a place seem normal, and I found that I couldn’t. I lived in a tiny studio apartment; the closets in this mansion were probably larger than my entire living space.

 

What am I doing here? I thought, feeling as though I were having a very strange dream.

 

The driver parked the car at the front entrance of the house. Wide stone steps led up to huge double doors, flanked by manicured topiary bushes. The driver came around and opened my door, offering his hand to help me out of the car. Such a small thing, a man helping a woman out of a car, but it seemed incredibly alien to me.

 

One of the front doors opened as we approached. Michael Northern stepped out. He smiled at me and inclined his head.

 

“Good evening, Miss Brennan,” he said. “I’m glad you could make it.”

 

“Of course,” I said, hoping he couldn’t hear how nervous I was. For the hundredth time, I worried about what I was wearing, an emerald green sheath dress, the only thing I owned that was even possibly appropriate for a job interview. I loved the dress, but in the presence of such wealth, it felt cheap and obvious. I took a deep breath, telling myself not to worry about something I couldn’t change.

 

“Please, come inside,” Northern said, stepping back and holding the door for me.

 

I passed through the front doors into a large foyer. The floors were pale marble, the walls rich, dark wood. Most of my apartment could fit into this entryway.

 

Northern escorted me down a long hallway. We passed by a dining room with a long, shining wooden table and a sitting room with a huge unlit fireplace. Finally we came to a closed door. He knocked on it twice.

 

“Come in,” said a male voice.

 

Northern opened the door, revealing a large study. At the far wall, there were large bay windows, the heavy drapes over them open to the darkness outside. In front of the windows was a massive wooden desk. Behind the desk, a man stood, studying a folder of papers. He looked up at us as we entered.

 

The man was younger than I’d expected, perhaps early thirties, tall and lean, with dark hair that fell across his brow. He’d taken off his suit jacket; it hung over the back of his desk chair. Through his crisp white shirt, I could see an outline of muscular arms and shoulders, a broad chest narrowing to a trim waist. He was strikingly handsome, his face all smooth planes, strong jaw, high cheekbones. He studied me with piercing green eyes, looking me up and down once in cold appraisal. He took in my red hair, which curled wildly despite the pins I’d tried to control it with, my hazel eyes and pale skin, and my slim, petite frame, just an inch or two over five feet tall. I felt myself flush and forced myself not to fidget. He met Northern’s eyes briefly and gave a quick nod.

 

“Thank you for coming out tonight, Miss Brennan,” he said. His voice communicated confidence, if not warmth.

 

“Please, call me Alice,” I said. I’d been called ‘Miss Brennan’ more in the last week than in my entire life prior, and I found I didn’t much care for it.

 

“Alice,” he agreed. “Please, have a seat.” He gestured toward one of two leather chairs facing the desk. Once I was sitting, he took a document from the folder he was holding. “Before we continue,” he said. “I will need you to sign a non-disclosure agreement. This states that, regardless of whether you decide to work for me or not, you will not reveal any part of our conversation with any other person.”

 

I took the document from him, skimming the words on the page. I looked at him with confusion.

 

“This is a pretty unusual request,” I said. My mind began imagining the reasons for such a request. Maybe a new movie, still in early stages, that they wanted to keep from the press for now. I felt a surge of excitement at the thought.

 

“It’s an unusual job,” he said, his voice tinged with annoyance. He picked up a pen from the desk and held it out to me. “The agreement is necessary. Will you sign, or are we done with this?”

 

I raised an eyebrow as I took the pen from him. He’s not used to explaining his orders, I thought as I signed the papers. Who is this man?

 

I handed the document back to him, and he put it back into the folder with a nod. He sat down then, clasping his hands in front of him on the desk. He glanced over at Northern.

 

“That’s all for now, Mick,” he said. “I’ll buzz you when we’re through.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Northern said, leaving the office and closing the door behind him.

 

“Miss Br—Alice,” he began, looking at me. “My name is Harvey Pace. I’ve brought you here tonight because Mick has watched your work, investigated your background, and thinks you might be a good fit for a need that has come up in my organization.” He opened the folder again and shuffled past a few pages. He cleared his throat, then started to speak again. “You’re Alice Catherine Brennan, twenty-four years old. Born in Bay City, Michigan to working class parents; mom was a nurse, dad worked in an auto parts factory. Graduated high school with honors, accepted into several college theater arts programs, but did not attend. So you’ve been working on and off for the past six years, small theater projects, product demonstrations, nickel and dime jobs. But you’re not a bad actress, just got a slow start, haven’t had a break. You work hard and have some real talent. I understand you were particularly good in your last play, Miles to Go. Your character was British, correct?”

 

“Um, yes,” I stammered. How did they know so much about me? And why?

 

“Mick worked in the UK for six years on a contract after he got out of the Army,” he said. “He was impressed by the quality of your stage accent. He said you sounded like one of the uptown locals.”

 

“Thank you, but—”

 

“We’ll need that,” he said, almost to himself, nodding.

 

“Mister Pace—”

 

“Harvey,” he said. “You should get used to calling me Harvey.”

 

“Harvey,” I repeated. “Can you please tell me why I’m here? I’m certainly looking for work, but this situation is more than a little odd. I would really like to know more now.”

 

Harvey nodded, closing the folder and setting it down on the desk.

 

“Of course, Alice,” he said. “And we appreciate your patience. The business I’m in is investment management. I purchase businesses, financial products, anything that I believe shows potential for increased value with the right management strategy. I’m currently in the process of researching the possible purchase of a steel manufacturing company. It’s an old business, a family business, and it’s not being operated to its full potential. I believe that, with five years of competent oversight, the value of the business could double, or perhaps triple. The current owners have strong ties to the operation, but they aren’t up to date on the best strategies for growing it. It’s been struggling in the past few years, and my sources say that the owners might be willing to sell soon.

 

“But getting this deal in place is going to be touchy. Any little thing could swing it, and I won’t be the only investor competing for the sale. I need to go into this with the best possible chance at establishing a good rapport with the owners. And that’s where you come in. The owners are very traditional, very family-focused. They have historically done business with others who hold the same values. They aren’t likely to see me that way. I haven’t been in a regular relationship for some years, and there’s a good deal of press portraying me in a certain light. The word ‘playboy’ is used far more often than I’d like.”

 

I nodded, still not understanding.

 

“But the fact of the matter is that I’m not interested in getting married right now, or even in finding a girlfriend. I have very limited free time, and I make no apologies for my work being my sole focus. And so, it seems that the most efficient solution to this… image problem of mine is to hire a girlfriend for a while.”

 

I felt a surge of anger. I began to stammer.

 

“Hire a… Mister Pace—”

 

“Harvey.”

 

“Harvey, I don’t know what your man told you about me, but I’m an actress, not a prostitute. And I’m… beyond insulted that you would even think—”

 

“Now, wait,” Harvey said, holding up his hands. “I am asking no such thing. I’m not hiring you for sex, only to accompany me to public functions, play a character. I need to be seen with a steady girlfriend. People need to think that I’m in a serious relationship with a suitable woman, on track toward marriage, a settled, respectable life. You would simply play that role with me in front of others. I would ask nothing of you behind closed doors.”

 

I let out a breath, relaxing a little. Harvey selected another paper from the folder and handed it across the desk to me.

 

“This details your compensation package for the assignment,” he said. “You’ll be paid for our interview today, as previously agreed upon. If you do accept this role, you will receive a salary, as well as funds for related expenses. So long as you abide by your contract and see the assignment through to its completion, you will receive a severance bonus as well.”

 

My eyes scanned the paper. I felt my knees go weak when I read the amounts. This couldn’t be right.

 

“This seems, um, awfully high,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.

 

“I’m willing to pay for what I need, Miss Br—Alice,” Harvey said, leaning forward on his elbows. “This assignment will be challenging, and your complete commitment, as well as your complete discretion, are essential. You won’t be able to accept other work during this time. You’ll be required to maintain this cover full-time, and make changes to your lifestyle and routine, and even your appearance, for the duration of the assignment. This is a twenty-four hour a day job, Alice. The compensation takes that into account.”

 

“How long is this assignment?” I asked.

 

“I can’t give you an exact timeline,” he said. “A few months, perhaps a bit longer. You’ll stay on until the steel company deal is finalized, or off the table. I’ll need you to be flexible and stay on until the finish. That’s what the severance is intended to ensure.”

 

For someone with my background, the pay he proposed was staggering. The severance pay alone would be more than I’d earned in the last three years, combined. The weekly pay would allow me to save for a car that didn’t break down twice a month, maybe some more acting workshops, some decent clothes for auditions. It seemed too good to be true. Still, something told me not to act too quickly.

 

“What else do I need to know?” I asked. “What will doing this mean?”

 

“You’ll have to move out of your apartment. We’ll set you up with a place that is more in keeping with your cover story. You won’t be able to be in contact with your family or friends; you’ll have to tell them a story, that you’re traveling for a while, something like that. You’ll need to undergo a complete makeover, both to look more suitable for your new identity, and to make you less recognizable. None of this will be negotiable. If you sign on with me, you will be required to follow my instructions exactly, in all things.”

 

His voice was cold, demanding. I had no doubt that he would expect to call all the shots in this arrangement. That didn’t sit terribly well with me.

 

“My role, my cover story,” I said. “What would it be?”

 

“You’ll be a British heiress,” he said. “A businesswoman who has recently come over to the U.S. to explore market potential for your services here.”

 

And that is why he was so interested in my stage accent.

 

“Well?” he asked, in a clipped, impatient voice. “What’s your answer?”

 

My head was spinning. I needed the money, and the job sounded interesting, to say the least, but it was too much to agree to so quickly.

 

“Can I have some time to think about it?” I asked.

 

He sighed, frowning.

 

“Three days,” he said, after a moment. “At the very most. After that, if you don’t sign, we’ll need to find a replacement. We need to get started preparing soon.”

 

I nodded, standing.

 

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll have an answer for you in three days.”

 

Harvey leaned forward and pressed a button on the phone on his desk.

 

“Mick, Miss Brennan is ready to leave,” he said. He looked back at me, started to speak, hesitated, and went on. “Alice, Mick has worked for me for a very long time. He has excellent instincts about people, and I believe he was right when he chose you for this position. I hope to hear from you with an acceptance soon.” He leaned across the desk, holding out his business card. “I’ve written my personal cell number there. Call me when you have an answer. Remember, three days, and not a minute more.”

 

I nodded, feeling strangely unbalanced.

 

“Miss Brennan?”

 

I heard Mick’s voice, calling me from the entrance of the room. I turned and followed him out.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

It was almost ten at night when Harvey Pace’s driver dropped me off in front of my apartment building. I watched the car drive away, still trying to convince myself that tonight had really happened.

 

I unlocked the door to the lobby, then went up the flight of stairs to my floor. I let myself in and turned on the light. It flickered once, then held steady. The building was old, and the wiring was hit or miss. I went directly to my computer and opened up my search engine. I’d never heard of Harvey Pace before tonight, but I’d bet that Google had.

 

I immediately got hundreds of results. I saw photos of him, that same handsome, careful face, looking back at me from dozens of shots. Harvey in a posed corporate headshot, Harvey shaking hands with another man in a suit, Harvey standing with other men and women (once again in suits) behind a huge podium. I scrolled down, and saw other kinds of photos: Harvey, frowning at the camera, his arm around a curvy blonde in a slinky red dress. Harvey, drinking champagne with a tall brunette at an exclusive bar. Harvey, dancing with a woman in a night club, lying with a woman on a beach, laughing with a woman in a tennis skirt. I never saw the same woman twice.

 

He wasn’t kidding about the playboy image.

 

I went back to the web results and scrolled past the gossip magazine sites (“Business’s hottest bachelor won’t be caught!” and “The many ladies in the life of Harvey Pace”), trying to get an idea of the rest of his story.

 

An hour later, I’d learned that Harvey’s company, Jenson Pace, was a huge investment firm with offices in seven countries. The company had been owned by Harvey’s late father, but it had been small at that time, just a single office in Phoenix. When his father had died, the company had passed to Harvey, who had taken an immediate active role in expanding operations on all levels. Under Harvey’s leadership, Jenson Pace had become a multi-billion dollar organization in just a half dozen years. Harvey had worked relentlessly, expanding the company’s interests into the acquisition of a diverse assortment of companies, and then to the financial market. One of Jenson Pace’s first big moves in the banking world had been to acquire a bundle of troubled mortgages. The company had foreclosed on many of the properties, and then sold the properties at a healthy profit.

 

I read the name of the finance company he’d purchased in order to make the deal on the mortgages, and I felt sick. Western Trust. I’d remember that name and that logo, forever. It had been on all the letters that had stacked up on our kitchen counter in my sophomore year of high school, after my dad’s factory had closed, after my college fund had been spent trying to keep us afloat, when it finally became clear that we wouldn’t be able to stay in our house. Western Trust had been named in the court order the day that the sheriff knocked on our door and told us we had to leave. My parents had owned that house since they’d been married, and now it belonged to some strangers at the bank.

 

Not just some strangers anymore; I’d just met one of the people who had ruined my family’s life for years, and he wanted me to be his fake girlfriend.

 

I closed the computer, overwhelmed. I changed out of my dress and into pajamas, then brushed my hair and teeth. As I lied down to sleep, I saw Harvey Pace’s face in my mind, a gorgeous man who had grown wealthy, in part, by ruining my family and my future. Of all the actresses in the world, I was the one he’d picked to interview for this assignment. I was the one he’d chosen for a role that could embarrass and damage him. That had to mean something; it had to be some sort of sign.

 

It was a long time before I fell into a restless sleep.

 

~ ~ ~

 

When morning came, I didn’t have any better of an idea of what to do about Harvey Pace, his incredible offer, and the score still to be settled between my family and him. And so I did what I usually do when I can’t decide on a direction. I called my sister, Rose.

 

Rose was three years older than me. She’d been in her first year of college the year we’d lost the house. She’d managed to stay in school, but just barely, working two part-time jobs and living on rice and canned spaghetti. I had moved to the city to be closer to her after I graduated. She lived just a few miles from me in a modest duplex and worked as a paralegal in an attorney’s office.

 

She picked up on the first ring.

 

“Hey, Allie,” she said brightly. “What’s up?”

 

“Hey, Rose. Uh, something crazy happened. I need to talk to you, the sooner the better.”

 

“Is everything okay?” she asked, concerned.

 

“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine. I just need your help… figuring something out. Can you come over?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” she said. “I’m getting into the shower, and I’ll head over after that. Want me to grab bagels on the way over?”

 

“Sure, that’d be great,” I said.

 

We hung up a minute later. I took a quick shower and dressed how I usually do on my days off, jeans and a light sweater. I started the coffee. While it brewed, I opened my computer back up, bringing up the articles about Harvey Pace and his company’s involvement in the foreclosures.

 

Rose arrived a few minutes later. I buzzed her in. She gave me a quick hug as she came in, then went over to my small kitchen table, setting out the bagels and juice she’d brought with her. Her hair, dirty blonde but just as wildly curly as mine, was damp, pulled back from her face with a headband. Aside from the curls, Rose and I didn’t look much alike. She was a good five or six inches taller than me, and her build was solid and athletic rather than fine and delicate. Her face was rounder than mine. She was certainly pretty, but her features always seemed a bit serious and determined, as if she were constantly on some grim mission.

 

“So, come on! Spill it! What’s going on?” she asked, pouring juice into a cup and handing it to me.

 

“I got a lead on a job,” I said, taking a sip. “A good one, good money.”

 

“Yeah? Tell me about it.”

 

I hesitated, then decided to cut right to the point.

 

“A rich guy wants me to pose as his girlfriend.”

 

Rose’s face went from grim to angry.

 

“He can want whatever he wants, Alice. You’re not a hooker!”

 

“No, no,” I said. “It’s not like that. No funny business, just playing the part in public, at functions, stuff like that. He needs to clean up his reputation a bit, look like he’s getting serious with a suitable lady.”

 

Rose looked at me skeptically.

 

“So, he’s gay or something?” she asked.

 

I laughed.

 

“No, uh-uh,” I said. “Or if he is, he does a very good job of hiding it. It’s the opposite problem. He gets seen around with a lot of different women, and he’s getting ready to work on a deal with a company that has a history of only doing business with more family-minded folks.”

 

“Huh,” Rose said. “Isn’t that a hell of a thing. Are you actually thinking of doing it? You are, aren’t you?”

 

“Honestly, yeah, I was,” I said. “But there’s more to it. This guy, Harvey Pace, his company owned Western Trust Bank back when we lost the house.”

 

“What?” she asked, setting down her cup. “Was he involved in all of that?”

 

“Yeah, I think he was,” I said. “Western Trust had a history of working with home owners and avoiding foreclosure whenever possible before Jenson Pace bought them out. After they were bought, their policies flipped to pushing through to foreclosure as quickly as possible, especially when the property had gained value and the bank could profit from taking it back and selling it.”

 

“Like ours did,” she said. She clenched her hands together on the table in front of her. “Do you know how much the place sold for after they pushed us out? If they’d just given mom and dad time to sell… But that was never their plan.” She brushed a tear off her cheek impatiently.

 

“Yeah,” I said, remembering. Once we’d been forced to leave the house, a lovely old home we’d lived in our entire lives, we’d moved to a much smaller apartment in a questionable part of town. Dad had found work again not long after that, this time as a supervisor in the shipping department of a warehouse. I’d heard them talking about it, again and again: “If the bank had just given us a little more time…”

 

“We have to make him pay for it,” Rose said, slamming the palm of her hand against the tabletop.

 

“That’s why I called you,” I said. “I feel like… This is such a chance, to get even with him, hurt him like he hurt us. But, at the same time…” I shook my head. “I just don’t know if I have it in me to intentionally do this to someone. I mean, I’m not like him.”

 

“Screw that!” she said. “Don’t you remember what he did to us? To mom and dad? They’d put a lifetime into that place, and he just took it away so he could make a few more bucks that he didn’t even need!”

 

I nodded, sick rage building inside me. Rose’s anger was palpable, and contagious.

 

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I need to do something.”

 

“So, tell me about this job,” she said. “How’s it gonna work?”

 

I explained the contract: the confidentiality (which I knew I had already violated by calling Rose), the relocation, the enormous salary and even greater severance bonus.

 

“Well, one thing’s for sure, you do need some of that money,” she said, glancing around. “This place kind of sucks, Alice.”

 

I laughed. “Yeah, well, I’m suffering for my art. And I don’t mind noisy pipes.”

 

“Or drafty windows?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Or hot water that works when it wants to? Or a landlord that takes six months to fix your refrigerator?”

 

“Alright, okay!” I said. “It sucks. And I do need some money. But I still can’t let him get away with what he did.”

 

“So, that’s fine. You take the job, work it for a while, a few months. Bank all that salary. And when it’s coming to the end, before this new deal of his is in the bag, you go public with your deal. Tell the world that bigshot Harvey Pace is so pathetic he had to go buy a girlfriend.” Her lips curled into a venomous smile.

 

“I’ll have to disappear for a while for the job,” I said. “What do I tell mom and dad?”

 

“You got a job that takes you out of town,” she said. “I know! You’re working on a cruise ship doing dinner theater.”

 

Rose had gone on a Caribbean cruise a few months ago with some friends. She laughed now, no doubt remembering some awful production she’d seen on board.

 

“It’s perfect,” she said. “The people who work on those ships are gone for months at a time. Just shoot mom an email now and then, make up some good stories about shipboard drama and silly tourists, and she’ll believe you, no problem.”

 

“Yeah, that would work,” I said. I sank into a chair beside her, feeling a bit stunned. “Am I really going to do this?”

 

She took my hand and gave it a hard squeeze.

 

“You are,” she said. “You’ll be great. And that bastard’s finally gonna pay for everything he did to us.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

I called Harvey Pace the next morning as I sat in my kitchen, drinking strong coffee and willing my hands to stop shaking.

 

“Harvey Pace,” he said, when he picked up.

 

Hearing his voice made my stomach twist in anger and disgust. I pushed the feeling down, keeping my voice light and professional as I told him that I would take the job.

 

“Excellent,” he said, sounding pleased but not surprised. “You’ll need to come in and sign papers right away. We need to get started quickly; our timeline has moved up. You’ll need to be ready quite soon.”

 

“Alright,” I said. “Do I need to come out to your house again?”

 

“No,” he said. “I need to get you started today, and I’m busy in the office. Come up here. Can you be here by eleven?”

 

I glanced at the clock on my microwave.

 

“Yes, I can do that,” I said.

 

“Take a cab,” he said. “From here on out, you can’t drive your own car or use your own name with me. I’ll reimburse you for the fare when you get here.”

 

“Oh, okay,” I said. “My name – if I can’t use my own, what should I use?”

 

“You can use your own first name – you’ll respond to people more naturally that way – but your full name will be Alice Elizabeth Clarke. Clarke, with an ‘e’ on the end. And remember, you’re British now, so make sure you sound like it. Mick and Ted – that’s my driver – they know who you really are, but you must stay in character with the rest of my staff.”

 

“Oh, alright,” I said.

 

“You’ll need to cover your hair completely. A scarf or hat, something like that. And wear sunglasses.”

 

“What, why?” I asked.

 

He made an impatient noise.

 

“Because that’s what I require of you today,” he said in a clipped tone. “Is that a problem?”

 

Keep it together, I told myself. You’re an actress. You can act like you don’t hate this guy.

 

“No, of course not,” I said. “What’s the address?”

 

“410 Fifteenth Street,” he said. “Fourth floor. Just let them know that I’m expecting you. Say it that way: ‘Harvey is expecting me.’ Do not say that you have an appointment; that makes you sound like a client.”

 

I bit back an angry retort to his high-handed instructions as I scrambled for a pen and wrote down the address on the back of a take-out menu.

 

The job hadn’t even started, and I was already tired of this man telling me what to do.

 

“I’ll remember,” I said, through gritted teeth. “See you at eleven.”

 

I hung up and sat back in my chair, trying to wrap my mind around what was happening. I had fifty three dollars in my bank account, a car that started about half the time, and a drafty closet of an apartment, but in two hours, I would be Alice Elizabeth Clarke, the British girlfriend of billionaire businessman Harvey Pace.

 

In the space of just a few days, my life had become incredibly strange.

CHAPTER THREE

 

I stood on the sidewalk outside the building that housed Jenson Pace’s offices. It was a towering, modern structure, all mirrored glass and polished chrome. I’d pinned my hair up and covered it completely in a flowered silk scarf. The effect was that of a 1950’s Hollywood starlet, or at least I hoped it was. I wore my only pair of sunglasses, big round ones I’d gotten for a beach trip last year. I hadn’t been sure what clothes to pick, and had eventually decided to keep it simple with a black pencil skirt and red shell top. By the time I was ready, I’d only had time to hurriedly polish my only decent pair of high heels before rushing downstairs for the cab.

 

Now my heart raced as I looked up at the building, imagining Harvey up there somewhere in one of the offices. Last chance to chicken out, I thought, just as the taxi pulled away behind me. I took a deep breath, stood up a little taller, and strode into the lobby. I took the elevator to the fourth floor, mentally putting on my character as the car ascended.

 

Alice Elizabeth Clarke. British. Wild about Harvey. I can do this.

 

When the elevators opened onto the Jenson Pace reception area, my face was relaxed and smiling. I walked with a spring in my step to the reception desk, a long, polished wooden barrier between me and a very thin, coolly beautiful blonde with a tight ponytail.

 

“Welcome to Jenson Pace. How may I help you?”

 

Here goes, I thought.

 

“Yes, I’m here to see Harvey Pace,” I said with my British accent. “My name is Alice Clarke.”

 

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked, raising a perfectly-shaped eyebrow.

 

I laughed. “No, I should say not. But he is expecting me.”

 

She looked at me with barely-disguised skepticism.

 

So, whoever all those ladies in the photographs were, Harvey didn’t have a habit of letting them visit him at work, I mused.

 

“Just a moment,” she said, turning away from me. She picked up the receiver of her desk phone and pressed a button. “Mister Pace, there is someone here to see you… Alice Clarke; she says you’re expecting her…” She listened for a moment, then said, “Yes, sir, thank you.”

 

By the time she turned back to me, she’d managed to mostly hide the surprise on her face.

 

“He’ll see you now; come with me, please.”

 

I followed her through the waiting area and down a thickly carpeted hallway. She knocked once before opening a heavy wooden door with the words “Harvey Pace, CEO” printed on it in gold lettering. She held the door open for me and I walked ahead of her into the office.

 

“May I get you something to drink, Miss Clarke?” she asked. I started to decline, but Harvey, who was sitting behind his desk flipping through a heavy binder, caught my eye and gave a small nod.

 

“Yes, please,” I said. “Sparkling water would be lovely.”

 

She nodded and left us alone, closing the door behind her.

 

I opened my mouth to speak, but Harvey held up a finger, indicating I should wait. I closed my mouth and sat in awkward silence while he continued to look through the binder. A moment later, the receptionist returned with a glass of sparkling water, garnished with a lime.

 

“Thanks so much,” I said. She nodded and left again.

 

Once the door closed behind her, Harvey put down the binder and turned to me.

 

“We must always be very careful that my staff doesn’t overhear our arrangement. I pay them well, and I don’t think they would talk, but I didn’t get where I am by trusting people easily,” he said.

 

“Of course,” I said, no accent.

 

“Don’t drop the accent,” he said sharply. “Not even when we’re alone. Even being careful, we might be overheard at some point, and it would be disastrously suspicious for your accent to be gone.”

 

“All right then,” I said, once again a Brit.

 

He opened a drawer and pulled out a folder.

 

“Here is the contract for your position, Alice,” he said. “Go ahead and read it; you’ll find it’s as we discussed. You agree to maintain this role, full-time, until I terminate the agreement. You will move your residence and consent to changing your appearance according to my instructions. You will not see any of your current associations in person until the contract is terminated and your previous appearance is restored. You agree to complete and lifelong confidentiality. If you choose to leave the arrangement early, or if you violate the agreement in any area, you forfeit all severance pay.”

 

I read over the pages quickly.

 

“My associations? You mean my friends and family?”

 

“Yes, or your coworkers, or neighbors,” he said. “Anyone you know for any reason outside of the role I am hiring you for. I do not want them to see you once changes to your appearance have been made.”

 

“What, like, plastic surgery?” I said, only half-kidding.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. He didn’t sound as though he appreciated the joke. “There will be no permanent alterations made to your body. That’s in section four and the third page.”

 

I flipped over to that page. Yes, there it was. He could cut and color my hair; he could tell me what to wear, how to speak, where to be, what to say; but he couldn’t do anything permanent to me.

 

I drew in a deep breath and sat up straighter.

 

“This all looks fine,” I said.

 

He handed me a pen and showed me where to sign. I managed to keep my hand steady as I wrote my real name for what I imagined would be the last time in a while. He took the papers from me, put them into a desk drawer, and locked the drawer with a key, which he then tucked into his pocket. He stood, buttoning his suit jacket and picking up his briefcase and keys.

 

“Shall we go, then?” he asked me, as he came around the desk.

 

“Go?” I asked.

 

“To see your new apartment, Miss Clarke.”

 

 

~ ~ ~

 

Harvey kept his hand on the small of my back as he walked with me out of the office. The suddenly intimate touch made our arrangement feel real in a way it hadn’t before. Ready or not, this was happening.

 

“I’m stepping out for lunch,” Harvey said to the receptionist on the way out. “I’ll be back in an hour or two; please hold any non-urgent calls until then.”

 

“Yes, Mister Pace,” she said, trying not to look shocked to see us together, and failing soundly.

 

Harvey’s driver brought the car around just as we got out the front of the building. Harvey, smiling at me tenderly, held out a hand to help me into the car as the driver held the door for me. Once I was inside, he went around the car and got in on the other side.

 

Once the car pulled away from the curb, he was back in business mode.

 

“I’ve messaged my sister, Susan, to meet us at the apartment,” he said. “She’s one of the handful of people in the world who know who you really are. She’s also a personal stylist; she’ll get you the clothes you’ll need and see to your makeover.”

 

“Alright,” I said, remembering just in time to use my accent. “What does your sister think of all this, if I may ask?”

 

He raised an eyebrow.

 

“She’s less than thrilled, but then Susan’s always been the romantic in the family. It’s a good thing, for everyone’s sake, that I’ve always been able to see beyond the sentimental concerns and handle the bigger picture.”

 

I nodded and said nothing.

 

“Your family, friends?” he asked. “What did you tell them about why you’re going to be gone?”

 

“A cruise ship,” I said. “I told them I was doing a dinner theater show on a cruise ship for the next few months. I can always tell them I got picked up for another tour if this job goes longer than expected.”

 

I’d gone online and updated my social media status, pretending to be buzzing with excitement over my new floating gig that would keep me, like, way too busy to post for a while. I’d also fired off an email to my parents letting them know I’d be out of town working, but that all was well. Rose would back up my story with them.

 

Harvey nodded his approval. “Very good,” he said, then paused. “I should ask… We didn’t turn up anything about this when we were looking into you, but is there a boyfriend in the picture? Someone who might be eager for you to return?”

 

I felt a flash of irritation at the thought of Harvey and his staff delving into my personal life without my knowledge. I pushed it back and pasted on a smile.

 

“No boyfriend,” I said. “I was seeing someone for a while, but we called it quits about six months ago, and I’ve been busy with the show and a few other jobs since then.”

 

“Good to know,” Harvey said.

 

“What about you?” I asked. “Should I be on the lookout for any ladies scorned showing up at parties ready to claw my eyes out?”

 

Harvey gave a short, humorless laugh.

 

“Doubtful,” he said, half under his breath. He turned away from me then, and kept his attention on the passing scenery outside his window for the rest of the drive. I took the hint and left him alone.

 

This is going to be my life, for months, I thought. Awkward, silent car rides; stiff, rehearsed dates.

 

The thought made me feel very tired.

 

It wasn’t long before we arrived at the apartment building, a tall, perhaps ten story, historic building in an upscale neighborhood not far from downtown. I realized as I thought about the locations of Harvey’s home and his office that the apartment was about halfway between the two places. He’d picked a very convenient place to keep me.

 

The driver opened the door for Harvey, then came around and opened mine. Harvey helped me out of the car; that solicitous smile was back. I smiled back at him, trying to get the feel of this character.

 

She’s only been seeing him for a while, I thought, but she already knows that it’s different with him. She feels hopeful about him, and that hoping makes her a bit scared. She finds him so beautiful; she can’t believe how beautiful he is. She can’t stop looking at him.

 

Yes, that felt right for Alice Clarke.

 

Harvey held my hand as we walked through the lobby. He nodded to the doorman, who nodded back to him. I wondered how much they knew. It seemed unlikely that Harvey would have let them in on our arrangement. He was too careful for that.

 

The lobby was all rich, red carpet and upholstery, marble floors, and polished brass planters full of enormous ferns. The elevator was covered in brass panels that shone like mirrors. We got inside, and Harvey pressed the button for the sixth floor. When the doors opened, he led me down a long, carpeted hallway to a door marked 6C. He fished a key, dangling from a silver fob, out of his pocket and held it out to me.

 

My fingers brushed his as I took the key. I fitted it into the lock and opened the door, catching my breath as I did.

 

Even with a limited view from the doorway, I could see that the apartment was huge. Polished wooded floors extended out an impossible distance into a living room furnished with tastefully modern couches and chairs in a subtle palate of creams and browns. There were huge windows spaced evenly across the far wall of the living room, flooding the space with late morning light.

 

I walked to one of the windows, taking in the spectacular view of the city. Harvey followed, stopping a few feet behind me.

 

“I trust you’ll be comfortable here,” he said; it was almost, but not quite, a question.

 

“Yes,” I said. “It’s lovely.”

 

I turned around, taking in the rest of the place. I could see a dining area through a doorway to my left, and a glimpse of a modern, stainless steel kitchen beyond that. To my right was a hallway with several closed doors.

 

“Your bedroom,” he said, pointing. “And your office, and a guest bedroom as well. You won’t need that, but it would be expected for someone of your status.”

 

I nodded.

 

“When can I get my things?” I asked.

 

“Make a list of anything you need,” Harvey said. “I’ll send Mick over to your place to get them.”

 

I frowned.

 

“I would really prefer to do it myself,” I said, not loving the idea of some strange man looking through my apartment.

 

“That won’t be possible,” Harvey said. “You’re going almost immediately to get your makeover. Your neighbors mustn’t see you once your appearance has been changed. And, anyway, you shouldn’t bring many of your belongings here. You’ll have all the clothes and toiletries you need provided. Having items here that could personally identify you is a liability.”

 

“I can understand that, and I will keep things to a minimum, but I must insist on getting them myself,” I said. “If you’d given me some warning that we would be coming directly here, I would have taken care of it already.” Heat rose in my face. I felt my grasp of my patient, professional Alice character slipping away.

 

Harvey looked as though he was having similar trouble keeping his patience.

 

“Now, be reasonable, Alice—”

 

“She’s being entirely reasonable.” A female voice broke in.

 

A woman strode into the room. She looked to be a few years older than me and a couple of inches taller, with a slim, angular figure that perfectly displayed her designer clothes. Her hair, cut into a short bob, was black, shiny, and perfectly straight. She pulled off her sunglasses as she came in, tucking them into her bag, and smiled at me.

 

“Hello, you must be Alice,” she said, putting out her hand. I stepped forward and shook it awkwardly. Her skin was soft; the scent of a subtle and expensive perfume drifted over to me. “I’m Susan, Harvey’s little sister. Don’t worry a bit about your things. No one follows my car; Harvey’s the one who has to deal with his professional stalkers. We’ll go by your place on the way to the salon.”

 

Harvey started to protest.

 

“Harvey, relax!” she said. “She hasn’t been seen with you publicly yet. I’ll stay in the car. Can you really blame her for not wanting your bodyguard searching through her underwear drawer?” She met his angry gaze unflinchingly, a serene smile on her perfect red lips.

 

The muscles in Harvey’s jaw worked silently for a moment, then he relaxed, just a bit.

 

“Fine,” he said. “But make sure you get everything. You won’t be going back until your assignment has ended.”

 

“I understand,” I said, struggling to keep my voice pleasant. “Thank you.”

 

“So,” Susan said. “We need to get you some clothes and shoes and… well, everything, I suppose.” Her eyes moved over me appraisingly. “You’re what, a size four?”

 

“Uh, yes, four,” I said, feeling my face flush.

 

“She’s lovely, Harvey,” Susan said, a note of irony in her voice. “Mick has excellent taste.”

 

“Behave, Sue,” Harvey said, glancing at his watch. “I’m going to need to get back to the office soon. Can you take it from here?”

 

“Of course,” Susan said. “Shoo. Get gone. When you get back, she’ll be just as polished and predictable as you could wish.”

 

Harvey opened his mouth to retort, but seemed to change his mind. I looked down at my hands and ordered myself not to fidget.

 

“I’ll call you later, Alice,” Harvey said. “I’ll take you to dinner tonight, to Sasha’s. It’ll be a good trial run, and we can discuss some more details of all this.”

 

“Alright, then,” I said. “See you later.”

 

He gave me a final nod and strode out quickly.

 

Susan clapped her hands together, looking at me with undisguised excitement.

 

“Well then. Are you ready to get started?”

 

I swallowed hard.

 

“Yes,” I said. “I’m ready.”

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

Six and a half hours later, I was exhausted. I’d always enjoyed shopping, but after hours of being dragged from store to store by Susan Pace, I think I could go a lifetime without stepping into another shop. She’d started by taking my measurements while we were still in the apartment.

 

“Everything will be tailored, of course,” she said. “An off-the-rack fit is just crass.”

 

I tried not to think about how my off-the-rack (off the clearance rack, actually) blouse and skirt must look to her.

 

“I can do most of the shopping without you, but we’ll need to go a few places, just so I can get an idea of what works for you,” she’d said.

 

“A few places,” must have been a dozen. She had me try on dress after dress, discussing each item with store employees as if I weren’t in the room.

 

“It works quite well with her hips and long legs – yes, wouldn’t you just kill for them? But I don’t know if it does anything for her neck. Perhaps something with an asymmetrical collar?”

 

I’d been her obedient doll, waiting half-naked in dressing rooms as shop girls brought Susan heaps of clothes for me to try on. When any of them asked conversational questions about me, Susan deflected them with easy grace, giving away no information. For my part, I kept mostly silent. It was easy to do; Susan was clearly in her element, ordering both me and the staff around with a level of comfort that spoke of a lifetime of privilege.

 

I’d given up on hoping that we’d ever be done when Susan finally declared that she’d seen enough and could manage the rest of the shopping without me present. She took me to an out-of-the-way bistro for a quick lunch, and then whisked me off to the salon.

 

“Astra!” Susan exclaimed, embracing and air-kissing a plump woman with short, spikey pink hair as we entered the salon. “Wonderful to see you.”

 

“It’s always good to see you, Miss Pace. I was surprised to see you on my books again so soon, though. Was there a problem with your last cut?” Astra looked worried. Susan laughed and laid a hand on her arm.

 

“Not at all, dear,” Susan said. “I’m afraid the appointment is for a client of mine. Astra, this is Alice Clarke, a friend of Harvey’s. She’s moved here from Britain a few months ago and needs a look that suits her new home.”

 

“Great to meet you, Miss Clarke,” Astra said, shaking my hand. Her eyes were on my hair. I could almost hear the gears turning in her mind. “May I?” she asked, pointing to my hair.

 

“Yes, of course,” I said.

 

She picked up handfuls of my fiery red curls.

 

“Lucky girl,” Astra said. “There are women who would pay thousands of dollars for this hair, and I could still never make theirs quite like this.”

 

“Thank you,” I said.

 

“How big of a change are you thinking?” she asked me.

 

“Well, I don’t know—” I started to answer.

 

“Dramatic,” Susan said for me. “Her hair is lovely, but a bit too precious for her position here. She’s an heiress who’s taking a more involved hand in her family’s company. We need people to take her seriously, see her as an actual grown-up, you know.”

 

I held my smile in place, trying not to be insulted.

 

Astra nodded. “I can understand that. This is a bit sexy for the boardroom.”

 

“So, something shorter, I was thinking. And a color change. And tone down the curls,” Susan said.

 

“I can definitely do that,” Astra said. “How about we take it up to shoulder length, layer it a bit, and do some soft waves rather than the natural curls?” This time she directed the question to Susan rather than me. Astra was a quick learner.

 

“Yes, sounds great,” Susan said. “And the color change – it needs to be obvious. Make her so that her own family wouldn’t recognize her.” She laughed. I laughed with her.

 

“Hmm,” Astra said. “Normally I would recommend a honey brown, maybe auburn, but if we want it more drastic, we can go closer to blonde, with some auburn lowlights. How does that sound?”

 

It sounded like something I’d never, ever pick for myself, but, once again, she wasn’t really asking me.

 

“Yes, do it,” Susan said. “Remember, we’re trying to take her from Baywatch to Forbes.”

 

“Not a problem,” Astra said. “Come with me, Alice, and we’ll get you shampooed.”

 

Before we were done at the salon, I’d been washed, cut, colored, relaxed, manicured, painted, powdered and waxed to within an inch of my life. Looking at myself in the mirror, though, I had to admit that Susan knew what she was doing.

 

“Remarkable,” I said, touching the pale, chin-length waves of my hair. My eyebrows were softly defined now, and I’d received a professional makeup application, complete with a lesson for how I could reproduce the look on my own later.

 

“You’re welcome,” Susan said. She gave Astra a credit card. I couldn’t imagine the sum she’d spent on me today. It sometimes took me weeks to scrape together the money just for a decent haircut.

 

When we left the salon, we were loaded down with bags of makeup, brushes, hair products, and styling tools. The valet brought Susan’s car up, and we loaded the bags inside.

 

“The clothes are being sent straight to your apartment. If you need a refresher on any of the hair styling or makeup application techniques, let me know,” Susan said. “I’ll come by and go through it with you again. Do not leave the apartment if you’re not sure you’ve got it right. Got it? So much of the lying we do isn’t with words. Looking the part is going to be half the job for you, dear Alice.”

 

“Thank you for all your help,” I said, meaning it despite myself. “I wouldn’t have known where to start. This… isn’t a world that I’m used to.”

 

“Well, you’re doing just fine,” Susan said. “It’s no secret I think Harvey is nuts for trying this, but not because it won’t work. People mostly don’t pay attention to other people, especially women. Look how they expect you to, be pleasant and not too interesting, and no one will notice a thing. Honestly, it’s going to be quite boring for you. You’re going to wish you were really working on – did you say it was a cruise ship?”

 

I laughed, “Yes, tacky dinner theater.”

 

“That actually sounds like terrific fun,” she said. “An overacted, melodramatic murder mystery for fat tourists eating prime rib and drinking cocktails. Off shift you get drunk with the wait staff and lay in the sun. You’re going to be wishing for that after a few weeks of sales conference mixers and charity golf tournaments.”

 

“Maybe so,” I admitted. “But I’ll have to make the best of it. A girl’s gotta work.”

 

“So I’ve been told,” Susan said.

~ ~ ~

 

We pulled up in front of my apartment building. The doorman came out and took my bags. I tried to react as if that were entirely normal for me, as if I wasn’t a girl who was far more used to carrying her own groceries up three flights through a dirty stairwell by herself every week.

 

“Have a lovely evening,” Susan said, clasping my hands. “Your dress for tonight has been laid out. There are some other things in your closets and drawers, but the majority will arrive in the next few days.”

 

I thanked her again and followed the doorman up to my new apartment. Once he’d set my bags down and left, I found my way to my bedroom. It was decorated as nicely as the rest of the place, but the colors in here were a bit softer than the muted neutrals in the living area. There was a huge, four-poster king-sized bed covered with soft, coral-colored linens. Rather than wood, the floors here were covered with thick, ivory carpet. In addition to the bed, there was a settee, a dressing table, two dressers, and a full-length mirror in the room, all made from the same dark, mahogany wood.

 

As Susan had promised, there was a garment bag laying across the bed. Beside it was a smaller shopping bag and a shoe box. I unzipped the bag and found one of the dresses I had tried on today, a wine-colored cocktail dress with soft, draping fabric and a low back. I opened the shoe box and found a pair of gorgeous pumps, a shade darker than the dress. In the bag, I found a gold clutch, as well as hose and jewelry – simple gold stud earrings and a pendant necklace with a red stone. I wondered briefly if the jewelry were real, unable to imagine the expense, and also unable to imagine Susan Pace ever buying costume jewelry, even if it was only for her brother’s costume girlfriend.

 

My phone rang. I found it in my purse and answered it, without my accent.

 

“Hello, Alice.” It was Harvey.

 

“Hello,” I said, switching the Brit back on. Unexpectedly, he laughed.

 

“You’re a quick learner,” he said.

 

Unexpectedly, I found myself smiling.

 

“I do my best,” I said.

 

“I’m just finishing up at the office,” he said. “I’ll come by to get you for dinner after that. Be ready in an hour.”

 

“Yes, I can do that,” I said, ignoring the fact that he hadn’t phrased it as a question.

 

“I’ll see you in a bit, then,” he said, and hung up.

 

If nothing else, Harvey Pace was punctual. I was just slipping on my heels when, an hour later, he knocked on my apartment door. I wondered if he had a key, then decided that I didn’t want to know.

 

I opened the door to let him in. His face showed his shock plainly as he took in my new appearance. I touched my hair nervously and felt my face flush.

 

“Susan told them what to do to me,” I stammered, almost cursing as I realized I forgot to use my accent. Harvey didn’t seem to notice.

 

“Alice,” he said, staring at me. “You are more beautiful than I’d realized.”

 

After a moment, he cleared his throat, and shook his head, as if to clear it.

 

“We have reservations at eight,” he said. “Shall we be going?”

 

“Yes, of course,” I said, remembering my accent this time. He smiled and raised an eyebrow, letting me know that he had noticed my slip earlier. I gave him a chagrined look and grabbed my new purse.

 

At the restaurant, the maître d greeted Harvey warmly.

 

“Mister Pace,” he said. “Welcome. We have your table ready.” He led us to a table out of the way of the main dining area, near a window. The waiter came around a moment later, and Harvey ordered a bottle of wine.

 

“I should ask you what kind of wine you like,” Harvey said when the waiter was gone. “Or if you even drink.”

 

“I’m surprised you don’t have that intel already,” I said, unable to resist. At least I remembered to be British this time.

 

“Fair enough,” Harvey said, nodding to me. “I suppose I had that coming.”

 

“I’d say so,” I said.

 

The waiter brought the wine then. I watched with fascination as he and Harvey performed that ritual I’d only ever seen in television and movies: waiter opens the wine, guest sniffs the cork, waiter pours a bit, guest tastes the wine and nods to the waiter, who then pours the wine into glasses.

 

“I do drink wine,” I said, when the waiter had left us alone to sip wine and ponder the menus. “I usually choose white, but this is very nice, thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” he said.

 

I scanned the menu. The dishes were named in French, and even with the descriptions, I couldn’t determine much beyond whether they were chicken, fish, or beef. I ignored the impossible prices next to the names of the dishes. Not my problem; he’d picked this place.

 

“Do you have any recommendations?” I asked.

 

“You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” he asked; I shook my head. “In that case, the duck is quite good. Or the swordfish, if you prefer seafood.”

 

“I think I’ll try the duck,” I said. I didn’t say aloud that I’d never eaten duck before that I could recall. I was already feeling like enough of a country mouse. Even with my expensive clothes and hairstyle, I felt as though everyone in the restaurant could see through my disguise to what I really was: a poor working girl pretending she wasn’t comically out of place.

 

“Try to relax,” Harvey said, as if he knew what I were thinking. “You’re doing fine, following my lead when you’re not sure. That’s excellent. That will work in most situations for us.”

 

“Hmm,” I said, keeping my eyes on my menu.

 

“Now, what does that sound mean?” Harvey asked, narrowing his eyes a little.

 

“Nothing,” I said. “Only that I’m not particularly used to letting someone else take the lead.”

 

“Well, I trust you’ll find a way to play that role as well,” he said dryly.

 

“I’m sure I will,” I said.

 

Once we’d ordered our food, Harvey got down to what was apparently the business for tonight.

 

“We should discuss our backstory in more detail,” he said. “So we’re consistent when we talk about it to others.”

 

“Seems like a good idea,” I agreed.

 

“Our relationship is new, but not too new. Say, two months? But we’ve kept it quiet, because of the press,” he said.

 

“And where did we meet?” I asked, and took a bite of my duck. It was amazing; I resisted the urge to close my eyes as I enjoyed the rich, buttery texture of the meat.

 

“Through a mutual friend, I’m thinking,” Harvey said. “At a dinner party.”

 

It made sense. It wouldn’t be suitable for the impeccable Harvey Pace to get serious with a girl he picked up at a bar, or the laundromat. I tried to imagine Harvey doing his own laundry and found I couldn’t.

 

“And what do we do together, for fun?” I asked, blushing as I realized how unintentionally suggestive my wording was. “I don’t mean— You know, do we play bridge, or…?”

 

Harvey tried to hide a smile. His hair fell across his forehead as he ducked his head.

 

Whatever else he is, I thought. He certainly is handsome.

 

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat. “What do you enjoy doing? It won’t work well for me to say that we enjoy, say, tennis, if you don’t know how to play.”

 

“I’ve played a few times,” I said. “But I’m terrible. Softball?”

 

He shook his head.

 

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “I played lacrosse in school, and now I play tennis and racquetball socially. Golf once in a while when I have time, but that’s more for networking than enjoyment.”

 

“I’ve never picked up a club,” I said. “This is tricky, isn’t it?”

 

“It just takes planning, like anything else that must be done well. This is why we’re going into this prepared,” he said, cutting his steak with precise movements.

 

“And you’re always prepared,” I said.

 

“I have to be,” he said. “You should understand that, Alice. A performance doesn’t go well without rehearsal, after all.”

 

“That’s true,” I said. “But not everything is a performance.”

 

“You’d be surprised,” he said.

 

I didn’t know what to say to that. Fortunately, he moved along.

 

“We don’t need to have hobbies in common,” he said. “Most couples I know don’t. People are most likely to ask about you, so we need that story nailed down.”

 

“You sister told her hairdresser that I was an heiress,” I said.

 

“Yes, that’s what we were thinking for you. It will cover your lack of knowledge of business practices. People don’t expect you to know much when you inherit your company.”

 

I remembered that Harvey had inherited his; he must have dealt with a lot of doubters in the beginning. I wondered if that was what had driven him to push so hard to succeed, and be so ruthless in the process. Not that it really mattered why for families like mine, the ones he’d trampled on his way to the top.

 

“What kind of company?” I asked. “I’ll have to know that much, I’m sure.”

 

“Let’s keep it simple, call it an investment firm. That can mean almost anything. You’re over here ostensibly to explore the U.S. market for opportunities, but your parents are actually just keeping you busy and out from underfoot of the real work.”

 

“How very flattering for me,” I said.

 

“It’s to protect you, Alice, as well as me,” he said. “It’s a common enough thing to happen, when there’s a family business and a family member hasn’t made themselves adequately useful yet. Telling it this way will be an easier cover to maintain. If we make you a high-powered CFO or something, you’re going to get a lot more scrutiny, have to answer a lot more questions.”

 

“Okay, then,” I said reluctantly. “I’m daddy’s girl playing business lady in America. We met at a dinner party given by a business acquaintance of my family, and have been an item ever since. If people ask about what we enjoy doing, I’ll just talk about how busy your work keeps you, and how we just enjoy spending whatever time we can together.”

 

“Sounds perfect,” he said.

 

“Is this the kind of woman you usually date?” I asked.

 

“I don’t usually date,” Harvey said.

 

“But the pictures…”

 

“One night, here and there, always different women, and only if it’s an event where I would be out of place going stag. The girl and I always know it’s not serious; most of them are just friends of mine. But reporters like to make it more interesting than that.”

 

“And something more serious – you don’t want that,” I said.

 

“No, not anymore,” he said. “I used to think that I did, but it was a mistake.”

 

“Why is that?” I could tell that I was pushing things, but couldn’t help my curiosity.

 

“Because it’s not fair,” he said. “Not to the girl, and not to my work.” He turned his attention back to his food. The subject was apparently closed.

 

When we’d finished the meal, Harvey walked out to the street with me, where Ted was waiting with the car. As we came out the front doors of the restaurant, Harvey’s eyes locked to something over my shoulder and he stiffened, then relaxed just as quickly. In a smooth, natural motion, he pulled me into his arms, pressing my body to his. My eyes widened, but before I could make a sound of protest, he leaned in and whispered in my ear.

 

“There are some associates of mine walking this way,” he said. His warm breath in my ear made me shiver. “Are you ready, Alice?”

 

I understood what he was asking. I put on a besotted smile as I nodded against his shoulder.

 

He pulled back and cupped the back of my head in his hand. He looked into my eyes adoringly for a long moment before he leaned in. As he kissed me, I tried to focus on my character, on being that other Alice, the one I’d been hired to be, the one whose entire world had been lit up by Harvey. But his mouth moved on mine, and his hands held me with gentle strength, and all thoughts of my craft flew away from me.

 

I hadn’t been kissed in a long time, six months at least. When his lips were against mine, when I felt that gentle pressure and amazing heat, I didn’t feel as though I were onstage. A warm tingling rushed through my limbs, and a knot of yearning gathered behind my breastbone. I pulled myself closer to him, my fingers pressing through the fabric of his jacket into the muscles of his back. I felt a shudder run through his body in response.

 

When he finally released me, I didn’t have to pretend that I was breathless and flushed. Harvey looked into my face, his expression dark, intent, almost wondering. He stepped back, taking his arms from around me. It took some effort for me to not sway on my feet. He gestured, and I realized dimly that Ted was holding the car door for me. I steadied myself and let Harvey help me into the car. The few seconds my hand was in his were like an aftershock of the intimacy of a few moments before. I took deep, regular breaths as I settled into the car, trying to center myself again.

 

Harvey didn’t say much on the drive back to my apartment, which was fine with me. My own thoughts were more than enough to occupy me. They said one thing to me, over and over: Be careful.

 

I laid my hand on my chest where my heartbeat still hadn’t quite returned to normal.

 

Oh, yes, Alice. Please be careful.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

It was an enormous relief to be alone again inside my new apartment. I dropped my purse and kicked off my shoes, feeling entirely overwhelmed. I wished desperately that I were home in my own space, where I could find a ratty t-shirt and fuzzy socks and curl up in my own lumpy but familiar bed.

 

I opened a few dresser drawers and found that they were still mostly empty; Susan had said that it would be tomorrow before most of my clothes arrived. She hadn’t left me completely bereft, though. I found some nightgowns in a bottom drawer. They were long and silky, something I’d never buy for myself. I was so tired, though, that I didn’t care. I undressed and put one on, brushed my teeth, and got into bed. The sheets were incredibly smooth and soft. I sighed as I relaxed into the mattress, pulling the covers up to my chin.

 

What am I doing? I thought. This is insane.

 

I felt lost. I’d done method acting before, dressing and speaking in character around the clock for weeks, trying to get inside the life of the person I was to become onstage. This was something different, though. I’d never been trapped inside a role; it had never been out of my control. I didn’t know how long I could continue this.

 

I found my phone and sent a text message to Rose: “Don’t know if I can do this.”

 

She responded almost at once: “Hang tight, Allie. I’ll call you in the morning. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

 

I sighed and put my phone away. I turned out the lights and tried to pretend that this place was home, that it wasn’t strange to me. I told myself that I would feel better after a good night’s sleep.

 

It was a long time before sleep came.

 

~ ~ ~

 

I was awakened in the morning by a sharp knocking on the door to the apartment. I dragged myself out of bed, still in just a nightgown, looking around for a robe. I gave up after a minute and just went to the door. I opened it a crack, peering around it into the hallway. A man in a brown uniform stood outside.

 

“Delivery, ma’am,” he said.

 

“Oh, okay,” I said sleepily. I gave up on modesty and opened the door. The delivery man, probably well used to customers opening the door in all states of undress, did not react to my appearance.

 

“Sign here, please,” he said, holding out an electronic signature pad. I signed it, remembering at the last second to sign ‘Clarke’ instead of ‘Brennan.’

 

He disappeared back into the hallway after I signed, and came back in a moment later with a large box.

 

“You can just leave it on the table,” I said, indicating the coffee table in the living room.

 

“Uh, there are quite a few, ma’am,” he said.

 

“Oh, well, then just leave them anywhere,” I said. “I’m going to go get dressed.”

 

“Of course, ma’am. Thank you.”

 

I retreated back to the bedroom and headed for the shower. Despite my weariness from a poor night’s sleep and the anxiety that I hadn’t managed to shake, I couldn’t help but enjoy the shower. My own apartment had pitiable water pressure; showering there was a way to get clean (eventually), but the shower in this place was a truly luxurious experience. The hot, pulsing stream helped work out much of the tension that I’d woken with. The body washes, shampoos, and other products stocked in the bathroom smelled and felt heavenly on my skin. When, almost an hour later, I stepped out and dried off, I felt a good deal better than I had when I’d woken.

 

I toweled off my hair, then went to the vanity mirror and did my best to recreate the style that Astra had taught me the day before. I brushed and blow-dried and smoothed as best I could. Afterward, I opened up the many cosmetic containers that Susan had sent home with me and did my best to paint my face the way it had looked the day before. When I was finally done powdering and spraying and crimping and curling, I looked at myself in the mirror. The finished result wasn’t quite a match to what the professionals had done for me yesterday, but I still thought it would do. I still looked nothing like myself.

 

I walked, naked, to the bedroom door and called out into the living room.

 

“Hello?”

 

No one answered. The delivery man must have left the packages and gone. I went out into the living room and stopped short. There weren’t two or three boxes left for me; there were at least two dozen. I went to the first one: a tall, flat box almost as tall as me. I used my keys to break the tape on it and pull it open.

 

The box was full of clothes, business suits, to be exact. I ran a hand over the smooth, pale blue fabric of the jacket and skirt. I opened a few more boxes, and found more of the same: dresses, suits, skirts, slacks, sweaters, sun dresses, shoes, camisoles, lingerie, hose, slippers, even hats. I sat down on the couch, overwhelmed.

 

This is who you are now, my mind told me. The thought was exciting and terrifying.

 

I finally chose a pale ivory skirt, a coral-colored shell top, and an ivory cardigan to wear over it. I put on nude hose as well and slipped on a pair of pumps that matched the skirt and sweater. I finished it off with a string of pearls and matching pearl stud earrings. I looked in the mirror for a long moment, and I could almost feel this character within me. I could almost feel myself becoming her, in that exciting way that sometimes happened onstage or in rehearsal, when the writing is good and the acting is going well, when you leave yourself behind you and transform into someone new.

 

But you’re not just doing a job, a voice inside reminded me. You’re deceiving someone. You’re planning to ruin a man who trusts you.

 

“He ruined us,” I said aloud. “I’m getting justice for us.”

 

What he did wasn’t personal, the voice said. He didn’t know you. But you’ve met him; you’ve kissed him, and now you’re just going to lie and lie—

 

I rushed to the bedroom and picked up my phone. I dialed Rose’s number.

 

“Hello?” she said, sounding sleepy. It was Sunday, I remembered. Rose probably wanted to sleep late. Well, too bad.

 

“Rose,” I said, my eyes filling with tears. “I don’t think I can do this. It’s just… It’s not who I am! I know what happened to us was awful, but how does any of this change that?” The words rushed out in a barely-coherent tumble as I tried to keep from sobbing.

 

“Whoa, whoa, slow down,” she said. “Did you do something? Did you mess this up?”

 

“No, I didn’t. I’m just feeling—”

 

“You’re feeling bad because you’re a good person,” Rose said. “Of course you are.”

 

“I feel terrible. I don’t want to do this.” I did start to cry then.

 

“Come on, Allie,” Rose said. “You gotta get over this. You have a chance here. Of all the people he and people like him have hurt, you have a chance to make it right, make him feel how it feels to have the rug pulled out from under him. You owe that to mom and dad, to me, and to yourself.”

 

“I know,” I said, sniffling. “It just feels so awful.”

 

“You have to put that out of your mind,” she said. “It’s just for a little while. A few weeks, maybe a little longer. You can’t let him just get away with everything because you’re so soft-hearted.”

 

“I’ll try,” I said. “I’m trying…”

 

“Do you remember that first Thanksgiving?” Rose said, her voice hardening. “Mom cooking dinner in the little kitchen of that shitty apartment? She tried to be so happy and positive about all of it, but I caught her crying, Alice. When she thought no one was around. That… man stole our history. Our family should have always been in that house. Mom and dad should have Thanksgiving for their grandbabies there, but that’s never going to happen.”

 

I did remember that Thanksgiving: the cramped, awkward cooking; mom’s careful cheerfulness; the tense awareness of loss that hung in the air despite our attempts at celebration.

 

“This man,” Rose continued. “Harvey Pace… He might seem nice, normal. But you’ve got to remember that he’s not. He does whatever he wants to people to get what he wants. He doesn’t deserve your trust, and he doesn’t deserve your pity. You have to stay strong, Alice. We’re counting on you. Don’t let us down.”

 

“I won’t,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect it to feel this way; I just lost it a little bit. But I’m better now.”

 

“You can do this,” she said.

 

“I can do this,” I agreed.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Talking to Rose helped. It reminded me of the world outside this expensive apartment and the person I was before Harvey Pace swept in and made me over. I spent the morning organizing the clothes that had been sent over, trying to plan future outfits and accessories for Alice Clarke. I talked aloud to myself as I worked, practicing both my accent and my word choices. Miss Clarke had been raised differently than Alice the actress; she would be expected to speak differently.

 

As I got toward the end of the boxes, I found a small one that I hadn’t yet opened. I sliced it open, and found a cell phone inside, along with a note.

 

“Carry only this phone. I’ve added my cell and office numbers, as well as Mick’s and Susan’s cell numbers. No personal calls on this phone. –Harvey”

 

Even as I recognized the good sense in his instructions, I felt a surge of irritation at his casual dominance.

 

You’re his employee, my mind reminded me. Of course he expects you to accept and follow instructions from him.

 

I turned the phone on, pressing buttons and trying out its functions. It was a much newer, more complicated model than the basic one I normally carried, and I figured I should know how to use it so I didn’t look like an idiot the first time I tried to make a phone call in front of someone. When I felt sufficiently able to operate the phone, I dropped it into my purse.

 

I was getting hungry then, and went into the kitchen to see what I could find. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the kitchen was well-stocked with a variety of fresh foods: fruits, vegetables, good quality meats, pasta, cheeses, sauces, spices… I could prepare meals for a month with what I found. It was certainly an improvement over the Ramen noodles and canned soup I’d had to resort to more than a few times when work was scarce and money was nonexistent.

 

I also found an envelope on the counter. Inside was a letter, a credit card, and several hundred dollars in cash. As I opened the letter, I recognized Harvey’s handwriting. It read:

 

“Feel free to make use of this for any reasonable living expenses or suitable entertainment. I will be busy for the next day or two, but I’ll get in touch after that. Please contact Mick or Susan if you have any needs in the meantime. – Harvey.”

 

I felt a surge of relief as I realized that I would have some time to myself, time to think and resettle before I had to interact with Harvey again. I wasn’t sure what his definition of “suitable entertainment” was, and I decided that I didn’t care. There were at least two movies out that I’d been wanting to see, and I’d gotten way behind on my reading while working on Miles to Go.

 

But first, some breakfast, even if it was almost late enough to call it lunch. I searched through the cupboards, finding the things I’d need to cook a really nice omelet before I headed out for some suitable entertainment.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The next two days passed too quickly. I spent the time doing nothing but what I pleased, which was both strange and pleasant, a dramatic change of pace from my real life, which was always full of either work or the search for work. I watched movies and browsed bookstores, and tried very hard not to think about my work. My British accent, which I was careful to keep up even during these excursions alone, was the only real obligation I had to worry about, and by the second day, it had begun to feel so natural that I’d almost forgotten it wasn’t real.

 

I’d gotten more comfortable in the apartment, too. I’d added a few personal touches to the place: some plants to make use of the ample sunlight in the place, a bulletin board in the kitchen with a few postcards pinned up (newly purchased, nothing with my real name on it), and a small painting that I’d bought from a street artist on a whim with $50 of Harvey’s money. The little changes had done a lot to make me feel more like a human being, and less like a bird in a cage.

 

The bed was feeling less strange than it had on the first night, and I’d come to appreciate a mattress that didn’t creak and poke. I’d tried out the Jacuzzi tub in the master bath, and found I loved it even more than the shower. I’d peeked into the guest room (bed, dressers, writing desk) and explored the office. I’d been pleased to find a computer on a large, glass-topped desk in there. I’d powered it on and written an email to my parents, inventing some entertaining stories about dinner theater stage mishaps and tourists with food poisoning. I assured them that I was staying safe and wearing sunscreen, and that I was thinking of them and missing them. The last part, at least, was true.

 

I hadn’t spoken to Rose again since that first morning. She’d helped me to stay focused on my plan for Harvey, but, at least for now, I’d decided not to dwell too much on where this job was leading. For now, I just needed to play my role, stay sane, and keep Harvey’s trust. It was easier to do that if I didn’t think too much about the rest of it.

 

Early on the third morning in the apartment, my cell phone – the new one – buzzed on my nightstand. I sat up in bed and read the message on it, from Harvey: I’m coming by around eleven.

 

I sighed as I got out of bed, trying to prepare mentally for interacting with Harvey again. I showered and dressed. He hadn’t mentioned any specific plans, and I wasn’t sure how I would need to dress. I checked the weather and found that the day would be warm and sunny. I chose a flowy yellow sundress and sandals. I could always change if necessary.

 

I was sitting by the window in the living room drinking coffee when Harvey knocked on the door. I let him in, offering him a cup.

 

“That would be great,” he said. He looked tired. He didn’t comment on my appearance, but he looked me up and down quickly, and seemed pleased.

 

“How do you take it?” I asked, calling over my shoulder as he sat down in an armchair near the couch.

 

“Just cream,” he said.

 

I brought him his coffee and sat back down on the couch.

 

“Thank you,” he said, taking a sip. “How are you finding the apartment? Any problems?”

 

“Not at all,” I said. “You and your people took care of everything. I’ve been quite comfortable.”

 

He gestured to the painting I’d added to the living room wall.

 

“A nice touch,” he said. “I don’t recognize the artist.”

 

“Hmm, I wouldn’t think you would,” I said. “He’s a street artist. He was selling pieces down on Richardson.”

 

A shadow crossed over Harvey’s face.

 

“You went down to that neighborhood alone?” he asked.

 

“I live in a neighborhood like ‘that neighborhood,’ Harvey,” I said. “It’s fine. I walk in the city alone all the time. I know how to take care of myself.”

 

“I’m sure you think you do,” he said. “But you don’t look the way you used to.”

 

“Meaning?”

 

“Meaning you look like you’re worth robbing now,” he said. “You’re going to have to be more careful.”

 

I took a deep breath, feeling that familiar annoyance that crept in whenever Harvey ordered me around about something new.

 

“Fine,” I said.

 

“If you need to go somewhere like that, call Mick,” he said. “He’ll accompany you. Make sure you don’t run into trouble.”

 

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll remember.”

 

He nodded.

 

“The reason I came by today is to discuss our next outing,” he said. “One of Jenson Pace’s subsidiary companies is about to unveil a new product line. There’s going to be a gala to celebrate. We’ll be attending; this will be our first public appearance.”

 

“When is it?” I asked, sitting up straighter and setting my cup aside.

 

“Friday night,” he said. “The event will be formal. Susan sent your clothes over?”

 

“Yes, a couple of days ago,” I said.

 

He stood.

 

“Let me see,” he said.

 

Confused, I led him into the bedroom, and opened the door to the large walk-in closet. He walked in and flipped on the light. He found where I’d hung the formal gowns, and started flipping through them. He paused on a slinky champagne-colored one.

 

“I think that one is my favorite,” I said.

 

“It’s alright,” he said. “But we’ll go with something a little less showy this first time out. You’ll have enough eyes on you as it is.”

 

He flipped past a few more gowns before pulling one out. It was a simple, black, strapless dress, with a full skirt that swept the floor.

 

“This one,” he said. His tone invited no discussion or disagreement.

 

“Do you want to choose my shoes as well?” I asked dryly.

 

He gave me an annoyed look.

 

“I think you can manage that,” he said. “Just remember that you’re a CEO’s girlfriend. This isn’t junior prom.”

 

“I know that,” I said irritably.

 

“I can’t take any chances,” he said. “This night is going to be important.”

 

He left the closet. I followed him back to the living room.

 

“Susan will be in touch with appointments for your hair and makeup.”

 

“That’s not necessary,” I said. “I can do my own hair and makeup.”

 

“Not for this,” he said. “The women attending this event will all have been styled professionally. If you want to blend in, you need to do the same.”

 

“Alright, then,” I said.

 

“As far as your behavior,” he said. “Less is more. The less you say, the less chance you’re going to get tripped up and raise suspicion. Think coy, shy, graceful but quiet. Let me answer most questions for both of us. Stay near me, and follow my lead.”

 

“Is that the kind of girlfriend you really want?” I asked before I could stop myself.

 

Anger flashed in his eyes.

 

“I don’t want a girlfriend at all,” he said. “But if the ridiculous sensibilities of other people require me to have one, then yes, I would prefer she not be tacky and loud and embarrass me in front of my colleagues. Is it such a large thing to ask, for you to stay quiet for one evening?”

 

“No, of course not, Mister Pace,” I replied, my tone icy.

 

“Very well,” he said, walking to the apartment door and opening it. “I’ll be here with my car at seven on Friday. I expect you will be ready when I arrive.”

 

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak again.

 

He left the apartment and shut the door hard behind him.

 

My hands curled into fists at my sides. In that moment, I had no trouble remembering who he was, or why he deserved to be humbled. I felt no ambivalence, only calm certainty that, at the end of all of this, Harvey would pay for who he was and what he’d done.

 

Rose would have been proud of me.

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

I stood in the middle of my living room, watching the clock tick toward seven. I wanted to sit, but I was worried I would wrinkle my dress if I tried. The stiff, heavy layers of silk and chiffon rustled around me as I paced carefully in my high-heeled strappy sandals. Susan had helped me select them. She’d also ridden along with me to see Astra, giving the stylist constant, meticulous directions as Astra ironed and curled and pinned my hair into an elaborate style that, when finished, looked deceptively simple and elegant. My makeup was more dramatic than the everyday look they’d taught me previously. My eyes were highlighted in smoky shades of black and grey, striking but not excessive. My lips had been painted deep red. The lipstick tube was tucked into my evening bag, a simple black pouch that closed with a silver clasp and probably cost more than what I paid each month in rent on my real apartment.

 

“Just smile when they smile, laugh when they laugh, and you’ll be fine,” Susan had said, dabbing an unfamiliar perfume behind my ears. “Sip some champagne, but stop before you get tipsy. If you get in trouble, just let Harvey know. He’s quite agile, socially speaking.”

 

“Good to know,” I said. “Will you be there?”

 

“No, of course not,” she said. “The only thing I do for Jenson Pace is cash the checks. Well, and dress you, my dear.” She laughed. I tried to laugh as well, but the sound came out more like a strangled cough.

 

“Don’t be nervous,” she said, patting my bare arm. “Or if you are, just pretend it’s shyness. Harvey’s blushing English rose – they’ll love you.”

 

She was trying to make me feel better, but her suggestion just reminded me of Harvey’s instructions, and how his perfect woman was better seen than heard. I couldn’t quite hold back the seething anger that hadn’t let go of me since Harvey’s visit earlier in the week. Fortunately, Susan mistook my demeanor for nerves.

 

“Goodness,” she said. “I’d give you a Xanax, but you’re such a little thing, with my luck, it would put you to sleep right in the middle of the soup course.”

 

“No, I’m fine,” I said, forcing a smile. “It’s going to be one of the easiest performances I’ve ever given. The fewer lines the better, right?”

 

“That’s the spirit,” she said, just as Harvey knocked on the door. Susan went and opened it for him.

 

I’d known that the event was black tie, but I still wasn’t prepared for the sight of Harvey in a tuxedo. The cool greeting I had prepared died on my lips, and for a long moment, I just stared at him. I suppose all men look good in a tux, but Harvey was so gorgeous he almost didn’t seem real.

 

Harvey was staring, too. I felt a blush rise up my chest and to my face as his eyes traveled over me.

 

“Well, at least you won’t have to pretend all of it,” Susan said, clearly amused. “You two are blushing like kids going to prom.”

 

Her comments seemed to shake Harvey from his reverie.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, Susan,” he said, clearing his throat. He turned back to me. “Are you ready?”

 

“Yes, just a moment,” I said, slipping my wrap around my shoulders and grabbing my purse.

 

“Have fun, kids,” Susan said. Harvey gave her a murderous glance as he held the door open for me.

 

There was a limousine waiting at the curb. I tried to hide my surprise, but Harvey noticed.

 

“A bit much, I know,” he said, helping me into the car as Ted held the door open. “But it’s expected for an event like this. There will be press there.”

 

“Oh, okay,” I said, trying not to look phased by this.

 

Harvey slid into the seat beside me, and Ted closed the door.

 

“Would you like some champagne?” Harvey asked, pointing to the bottle that sat waiting on ice. “It might help you relax a bit.”

 

“Yes, please,” I said. The vehicle pulled away from the curb, merging into the nighttime city traffic.

 

He poured a glass and handed it to me. As I sipped it, I couldn’t help but make a little sound of pleasure.

 

“This is wonderful,” I said.

 

“I’m glad you like it,” he said, sipping a glass of his own. As I watched his face, I realized that he was as nervous as I was.

 

“This is a big night,” I said, “for your company.”

 

“Yes,” he said. “It represents a huge investment of time and money. We have every reason to believe that this product release is going to be successful, but one can never be sure.” He smiled at me, a bit tightly. “You shouldn’t worry about that, though. If there are problems with the release, we aren’t likely to know about it tonight. Everyone will be too busy eating hors d’oeuvres and patting each other on the back. So, try to enjoy yourself if you can.”

 

He was quiet for a moment.

 

“Oh, I suppose I should ask this now – do you dance, Alice?”

 

“Um, yes,” I said, surprised. “I do.”

 

“I don’t mean the kind of dancing you’d do in a nightclub,” he said. “Can you waltz? Foxtrot?”

 

“And cha-cha, and east coast swing, and tango, and polka,” I said, irritated. “I know what you mean. I’ve been ballroom dancing since I was ten.”

 

“Huh,” he said. “That’s… rather unusual, isn’t it?”

 

“You mean, for someone like me?” I said.

 

He didn’t answer.

 

“My parents taught me,” I said. “They loved to dance with each other. They were amazing. I would watch them, at family weddings, or just in our kitchen, and I wanted to be able to do that. So they taught me. I don’t get the opportunity to practice as much as I’d like, though.”

 

“Well, you may have the chance tonight,” he said. He looked at me, as though he were reevaluating his impression of who I was. “Your parents are still living?” he said. Of course, he already knew the answer because he’d investigated me before Mick had approached me.

 

“Yes,” I said. “They live upstate. I came down to the city after high school.”

 

“Do you see them very much?”

 

“When I can,” I said. “I miss more holidays than I’d like. There tends to be more acting work available around the holidays. I can’t afford to pass up jobs.”

 

“Understandable,” he said. “You have a sister, too, right?”

 

“I do,” I said. “An older sister.”

 

“And is she in the arts as well?”

 

“Definitely not,” I said, laughing a little. “She works in a legal office, and that suits her. She’s practical, like my father. I’m more like my mother. She was a dancer before she married my dad.”

 

I didn’t know why I was telling him so much, but I didn’t see how it could hurt. He already knew who my family was. And he seemed genuinely interested. Maybe I was just distracting him from his anxiety about the evening ahead of us.

 

“What about you?” I asked. “What were your parents like?”

 

“I didn’t know them very well,” he said. “My mother passed away when I was eight, a brain tumor. My father tried to be there for Susan and me, but he was very busy with the business. And then, of course, he passed as well.”

 

“How old were you?”

 

“Twenty-five,” he said. “I’d graduated from business school, and was in an MBA program at Brown. I left school immediately and took over the company then. It’s what my father would have wanted, I know.”

 

“Is it what you wanted?” I asked.

 

He seemed surprised by the question.

 

“The business was more important than what I wanted,” he said. “My father built it from nothing. He’d always planned, once it was large enough, established enough, to step back and let managers handle it so he could spend time with my mother, and with his children. He never had that chance. And when he died, the business was at a crucial point. It needed aggressive, active management, or it might have failed. If I’d let that happen, it would have dishonored everything he’d sacrificed for us.”

 

“And what about you? What have you sacrificed for it?” I asked.

 

He opened his mouth as though he would answer, and then stopped himself.

 

“Here we are,” he said, as the car pulled up to the curb.

~ ~ ~

 

The event was being held in a huge, historic hotel downtown. There was an actual red carpet laid down, marking a path from the doors of the limousine to the entrance of the hotel. The carpet was roped off on each side, and there were, in fact, multiple reporters waiting with large cameras and microphones. My heart flip-flopped in my chest.

 

“Don’t worry,” Harvey said. “Just stay with me.” His green eyes fixed on mine. I nodded.

 

“I’m with you,” I said.

 

Ted opened the door for us, and Harvey stepped out. Cameras flashed, and he gave them a good-natured smile. He turned then and extended a hand to me. I took his hand and stepped from the car.

 

More flashbulbs, and eager voices now, calling out to us –

 

“Mister Pace! Who’s your friend?”

 

“Miss! Miss! What’s your name, Miss?”

 

“Who’s your date tonight, Harvey?”

 

Harvey just smiled and led me toward the doors, not answering the reporters. I smiled as well, even though, inside, I was terrified.

 

When we got inside, a woman took Harvey’s coat and my wrap. I kept my hand in Harvey’s arm as he led me to the ballroom where the event was being held.

 

Inside, there was a sea of strange faces, well-groomed men in perfectly-tailored tuxedos, women in ball gowns, waiters circulating with trays of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of champagne. There was a large stage set up at the far end of the room. Off to one side of the stage, an orchestra was set up and playing. The floor in front of them was cleared for dancing, but it was too early yet for that. The side of the room where Harvey and I now stood was full of tables, elegantly set with fine China, shining silver, and twinkling crystal. There were elaborate floral centerpieces set on each table, and large floral arrangements placed artfully on pillars around the perimeter of the room.

 

I ordered myself not to look awestruck; that simply wouldn’t do for this character. Instead, I put on an entirely unsurprised expression, a look of nothing more than casual enjoyment. I held Harvey’s arm with both hands, a small, but unmistakable signal of possession. Harvey smiled down at me warmly, covering my hand with his own.

 

At once, I saw faces in the room notice us. What I could read in their reactions ranged from curiosity to amusement to barely-concealed hostility. I ignored them and let Harvey lead me to a group of men and women a few tables over.

 

“Harvey!” A heavyset man with graying hair jumped up and shook Harvey’s hand. “Good to see you! Gonna be a great night!”

 

“Damn right, Phil!” Harvey agreed, clapping the man on the shoulder. Harvey turned to me. “Alice, I’d like you to meet my associates. This is Phillip Mercer, Alan Kent, and David Emanuel, and their wives Janice, Louise, and Barbara. Everyone, this is Alice Clarke, my date this evening.”

 

They all stood and shook hands with me.

 

“Lovely to meet you,” one of the women, Louise, said. “Have you known Harvey long?”

 

“A few months,” I said, glancing back at Harvey with a shy smile.

 

“Oh my, your accent,” she said. “Where are you from?”

 

“The UK,” I said. “Kent.”

 

Harvey pulled a chair out for me, and I sat down. He took the seat beside me.

 

“What brings you across the pond?” David, a tall, thin man with almost no hair asked, laughing at what I’m sure he thought was a terribly clever phrase.

 

“Business,” I said, with an obliging laugh.

 

“Oh? I’d love to hear more about it,” Phil said, leaning in toward me.

 

“Now, now, gentlemen,” Harvey said. “Let’s not overwhelm Miss Clarke with questions so soon.”

 

“Oh, I don’t mind,” I said, smiling innocently at Harvey. “It’s wonderful to finally meet some of your friends, Harvey.” I touched his arm playfully and ignored the warning I saw in his eyes. I turned back to Phil.

 

“Mister Mercer,” I began, but Phil broke in.

 

“Please, call me Phil.”

 

“Only if you call me Alice,” I said.

 

“Of course,” he agreed.

 

“Well, Phil, I’ve been learning my family’s business for the past few years, and my father felt that I was ready to come over to America for some market research. You know, see what opportunities there might be for us, should we decide to branch out internationally.”

 

“Ah, I see,” Phil said.

 

“And what kind of business is your family in?” Phil’s wife, Janice, asked.

 

“A little bit of everything,” I said, waving my hand as though the answer didn’t really matter. “I suppose you’d call us an investment firm.”

 

“I see,” Janice said, studying me.

 

Harvey’s hand squeezed mine under the table. I understood his message perfectly: he was telling me that enough was enough, time for this violet to shrink a bit more.

 

To hell with that, I thought.

 

“Are you enjoying the U.S., Alice?” David’s wife, Barbara, asked me. She was an older woman with steel gray hair and shrewd, bright blue eyes.

 

“Very much,” I said. “I’ve been here once before, but I was only a little girl then. It’s been just lovely.” My eyes darted to Harvey and back, and I smiled. He smiled, too.

 

“Hmm,” Barbara said, looking from Harvey to me, and back. “And how did you say you and Harvey met?”

 

“A dinner party,” Harvey said, before I could answer. “At the home of a mutual acquaintance.”

 

“Harvey was so kind,” I said, jumping in and picking up the story. “I’d only just gotten in a few days ago, and he offered to show me around the city. We went to the museums, and he showed me some lovely shops, and we took a carriage ride through the park.”

 

“Are we talking about the same Harvey Pace?” Phil said with a laugh. “A carriage ride! Sounds like you might be in serious trouble, my friend!”

 

Harvey laughed along, but shot me a quick warning glance. I beamed at him.

 

“I think it’s so nice,” Louise, Alan’s wife, said with a sigh. She was a thin, blonde woman in her forties who had probably been pretty a decade ago. Now she only looked bored, and a little wistful.

 

“Yes,” Harvey said. “But tell me, Louise, didn’t you and Alan just get back from Madrid?” He leaned in and smiled at the older woman, charming her shamelessly.

 

“Why yes, we did!” she said. “Oh, it was so beautiful there. Much nicer than last time we went, when it only rained…” She went on, excitedly relaying every detail of her and Alan’s anniversary trip to Spain, even pulling out her cell phone to show Harvey the many photos she’d snapped.

 

Not long after, the dinner courses started to be served. At Susan’s suggestion, I’d spent time during the week studying formal table manners. Although I’d been initially embarrassed by her implication that I didn’t know how to sit at a table without behaving like a barnyard animal, it had actually turned out to be quite useful. At what other time in my life had I had to choose between five different kinds of spoons?

 

The conversation at the table stayed with mundane topics throughout the meal: Janice’s redecorating projects and charity work, the tropical storm that had disrupted David and Barbara’s vacation on the coast earlier in the year, the ongoing tennis rivalry between Harvey and Alan. I was more or less well-behaved, asking clarifying questions here and there, but mostly smiling, nodding, and listening. Harvey seemed to relax a little.

 

After the meal was cleared away, Harvey excused himself from the table.

 

“The presentation will be beginning soon,” he said, looking at me with a trace of worry. “Will you be alright without me for a while?”

 

“Of course, darling,” I said, blinking at him innocently. “Go and work. I’ll get to know your friends a bit more.”

 

“Wonderful,” he said, smiling tightly. He bent down and gave me a quick kiss, then walked away, glancing back at me over his shoulder. I waved at him playfully.

 

“He certainly is attentive with you,” Janice said, looking pointedly at her own husband. She was the youngest of the three wives, at least twenty years her husband’s junior. Phil patted her hand.

 

“Our boy’s been bitten, that’s for sure,” Phil said. “I haven’t seen him like this with someone since Kate—”

 

“Phillip,” Barbara said, cutting in smoothly. “The last time I spoke with you, you and Janice were thinking of buying a sailboat. Whatever did you finally decide?”

 

Phil launched into an explanation of the pros and cons of various crafts, effectively turning the conversation from its previous track. I had to respect Barbara’s graceful handling of the moment, but I very much wished she’d let Phil say just a little more about that other woman, that Kate.

 

A little while later, Janice and Louise excused themselves to the ladies’ room, and I rose to join them.

 

In the powder room, I freshened up my lipstick and added a little powder to my chin and forehead. When I was satisfied with my reflection, I started to leave, but stopped when I overheard unfamiliar female voices around the corner of the restroom’s entrance.

 

“It’s ridiculous,” one woman said. “Who is she? Harvey looks like an idiot, fawning all over her, some woman he barely knows.”

 

“Someone told me she was British,” the other woman said. “An heiress.”

 

“Hmmph,” the first woman said dismissively. “Is that her angle? It won’t matter. Harvey’s not a relationship guy. Everyone knows that.”

 

“Maybe,” the second woman said reluctantly. “But I still think they’re so gorgeous together. Maybe he’s just been waiting for the right one.”

 

“Harvey meets the right one a couple of times a week,” the first woman said. “Just wait and see. He’ll get his fill of his little English friend and be making the rounds again before you know it.”

 

I decided that I’d heard enough. I walked around the corner with my head held high.

 

“Excuse me,” I said, moving past the gossiping women. They had the grace at least to turn red when they saw me. I didn’t look back at them as I left the powder room and returned to our table.

 

“They’re about to start,” Louise said, touching my arm as I sat back down.

 

The lights in the room lowered, and the stage was illuminated with spotlights. There was a podium on one side of the stage, and a long table covered in several white sheets on the other side. A slim, brunette woman, perhaps in her late thirties, approached the podium. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a tight bun; she wore a sharp black skirt suit. Even from across the room, she radiated confidence and enthusiasm. She stepped forward to the microphone.

 

“On behalf of Lifesong Electronics and Jenson Pace International, I would like to welcome everyone here tonight,” she began. “This evening represents the collective efforts of many good people. I would like to introduce you to one of them, the CEO of Jenson Pace International, Mister Harvey Pace!” She stepped back from the podium, clapping her hands. Harvey walked from the side of the stage to the podium and was greeted by loud applause from the room. I clapped as well, watching Harvey with rapt attention. Harvey looked out at the audience for a long moment before he started to speak.

 

“It’s a good day for American business,” Harvey began. A few people in the audience shouted agreement. “It’s a good day for global communications, and for small businesses that want to compete like big ones.” More applause, and a few whistles. “It’s a good day for innovation, and for faith in the talent and dedication of what I truly believe is the finest technology design organization in the world!”

 

His voice rose as he spoke. By the time he finished, the room was on its feet, clapping and cheering.

 

“I’m going to hand this off in a moment to Mister Chris Hill, who, of course, is the genius without whom today would not be happening. Chris is going to tell us all about the products we’re launching today, products that are going to change the lives of people all over the world.” Harvey turned, looking offstage. “Chris, on behalf of everyone at Jenson Pace, let me just say that we’ve never been more proud to have Lifesong as part of the Jenson Pace family of companies. You should be proud as hell, man.” Harvey turned back to the audience. “And every one of you should be proud. Give yourself a round of applause!” He waited for a moment while the audience applauded itself. I looked around, smiling and nodding at the men around the table as I clapped. Phil winked at me.

 

“Now, for the man you’ve been waiting to hear from, Mister Chris Hill!” A short, slight man wearing black jeans and a windbreaker walked onstage. He first shook hands with Harvey, then the two men had a quick hug, thumping each other on the back heartily.

 

I recognized Chris Hill from television and news; seeing him in person was surreal. He’d started a software company out of his college dorm room when he wasn’t old enough to drink. Now, not quite thirty, he was considered one of the most talented programmers in the country. I didn’t realize that his company, Lifesong, was owned by Jenson Pace.

 

Everyone sat down again as Chris Hill started speaking. While he certainly had everyone’s attention, he didn’t have nearly the same charisma as Harvey did onstage. I found my mind wandering as Chris Hill pulled the sheets, one at a time, unveiling the new line of Lifesong products. The audience acted suitably impressed as the inventor explained the features of each product. A Powerpoint presentation was projected onto a huge screen behind him, detailing the specifications of the new devices.

 

The presentation lasted about forty-five minutes. When it was done, the brunette who had introduced Harvey came back onstage and encouraged everyone to enjoy dessert and cocktails while publicity photographs were taken and the orchestra prepared to return.

 

I was sipping mineral water and eating a slice of impossibly fluffy lemon pie when Harvey returned to the table. He laid a hand on my shoulder, and I put my hand over his.

 

“You’ve neglected your lady terribly tonight,” Louise said. “She’s been a real trooper, chatting with all of us, telling us some great stories.”

 

“Has she?” Harvey said. He smiled, but there was something dangerous behind his expression.

 

“I’m sure you’ll make it up to me,” I said, raising an eyebrow wickedly. “You always do.”

 

Harvey’s expression didn’t change, but I didn’t miss the flush that crept up his neck.

 

“The musicians have started, Alice,” Harvey said. “Shall we?”

 

“Of course,” I said, taking his hand and letting him lead me onto the dance floor.

 

Even though I knew he could dance, I was surprised by how adept he was. He led with smooth confidence, guiding and spinning me so competently that I hardly had to think about the steps. I found myself genuinely enjoying myself as we shared a waltz, then a foxtrot. It had been years since I’d danced with a skilled partner and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.

 

“May I cut in?”

 

It was Phil, tapping Harvey on the shoulder. I felt Harvey’s hands tighten on my waist for a brief second before he released me and stepped back.

 

“Of course,” Harvey said.

 

Phil was not nearly as skilled as Harvey was, but he danced passably. His hot hand pressed against the bare skin on my back; he smelled of alcohol and pipe tobacco.

 

“Have you worked with Harvey for long?” I asked conversationally.

 

“Since he stepped in after his father’s death,” he replied. “Taught the kid everything he knows.”

 

“Oh,” I said. “Isn’t that nice.”

 

“Yeah, Harvey’s done alright, for such a young pup. I still think he’d have been better off leaving the company in more experienced hands, but he wasn’t going to hear of that. They know everything at that age, you know.” He smiled at me, and I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw in that smile. “Well, at your age, too, I suppose.” He spun me, and then pulled my body a little closer.

 

The song could not have ended soon enough. The final notes were still playing when Harvey was suddenly back. He put a hand on Phil’s shoulder.

 

“Come to take her back, have you?” Phil asked. “Fine, then, she’s all yours. Thank you for the dance, dear.” He pulled me in for a hug, and pressed a moist kiss onto my cheek. I laughed nervously and untangled myself from him as politely as I could.

 

A moment later, I was swaying with Harvey as the orchestra played a slow, jazzy number. He tucked a lock of hair behind my ear, then leaned in for a soft kiss. I pushed up onto my tiptoes to kiss him, then laid my head on his chest. The sound of his heart mingled with the rhythm of the music.

 

This is almost how it would feel, I thought to myself, if he actually did love me. It’s really quite nice.

 

I sighed and relaxed against him.

 

We took a break from dancing after that. Harvey mingled with other guests in the room, shaking hands and introducing me to more people than I could ever hope to remember. I laughed and chatted along with him, laughing at their jokes and telling hastily-invented stories of mine and Harvey’s courtship. Despite my failure to be the shy, coy English rose Harvey had imagined me to be, I felt that the evening was going well. Everyone seemed to genuinely like this Alice Clarke. It might not have been the approach Harvey would have preferred, but he would just have to deal with it.

 

After hours of dancing and chatting and sipping champagne, Harvey finally told me it was time to go.

 

“I’ll get our coats,” he said, caressing my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of women watching us. There was no doubt in my mind that they thought Harvey would be taking me home and to bed with him tonight.

 

“Thank you, darling; I am tired,” I said to Harvey, smiling at him gratefully.

 

He brought me my wrap, and I followed him out to the street. A moment later, our limousine appeared. Ted got out and opened the door for us. Harvey helped me into the car and slid in beside me.

 

The moment the car door closed, Harvey’s face changed, affection replaced with fury.

 

“Have you lost your mind?” he asked, as the car pulled away from the curb and merged into the flow of traffic.

 

“What?” I asked. “It was fine; they liked me.”

 

“I specifically, specifically told you to stay quiet, play it shy,” he said. “You ignored me entirely.”

 

“It didn’t feel right,” I said. “I thought it would be best to go with what felt natural; that’s what I do when I’m onstage.”

 

“This isn’t some filthy community theater, Alice!” he said, his voice rising. “This is my life! If you can’t follow instructions, this isn’t going to work.”

 

“I know what this is!” I shot back, feeling my own anger build. “And it’s my life, too! I know what I’m doing, Harvey! You hired a professional, and now you want me to behave like… like a potted plant or something!”

 

“Yes, I hired a professional, or I thought I had,” Harvey said. “But it seems I was wrong.”

 

He turned away from me. We rode the rest of the trip back to my apartment in icy silence.

 

Ted stopped the limousine in front of the building and opened the car door. Harvey stepped out so I could get out of the vehicle. I stood on the sidewalk facing him; his expression was hard.

 

“I’m going to have to think more about our arrangement, Alice,” he said. “This may have been a terrible mistake on my part.”

 

He got back into the car. Before Ted closed the door, Harvey addressed me one more time.

 

“I’ll be in touch in a day or so and let you know if we can continue with this.”

 

The door closed, and a moment later, the car pulled away and disappeared into the night.

 

I shivered in the chilly night air, hugging my wrap around me.

 

What had I done?

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

 

I sat at the dining table in my new apartment, drinking coffee and trying unsuccessfully to read a novel I’d picked up in town last week. For the hundredth time, I checked my phone, but there was no call from Harvey. It had been two days, and I hadn’t heard a word from him.

 

I’d broken down yesterday and called Mick, but he’d only said that I should “stand by.” Stand by. Easy for him to say. Restless didn’t begin to describe how I was feeling. Was the job over? Why didn’t he just fire me and get it over with?

 

I heard another phone buzz; the sound came from the bedroom. I went and found my other phone, the real Alice’s phone. It was Rose, again. She’d been calling since yesterday, but I hadn’t answered the phone. I dreaded telling her how my first public night out with Harvey had ended.

 

Can’t put it off forever, I thought, and pressed the “answer” button.

 

“Alice, hey!” she said, when I picked up.

 

“Hi, Rose.”

 

“Hi yourself,” she said. “Is everything okay? I saw pictures of you and Pace online. You look so beautiful, Allie!”

 

“Thanks,” I said.

 

Something in my voice must have given me away, because Rose was instantly suspicious.

 

“What?” she said. “What happened?”

 

“I don’t know,” I said. “He wasn’t happy with how I played the role. He wanted me to be reserved, and… I went in a different direction.”

 

“Allie! Why?” she said, her voice rising. “Why didn’t you just do it how he told you?”

 

“It’s hard to explain!” I said. I was getting angry now, too. “You don’t know what this is like! You’re not the one here living this.”

 

“Well, did you fix it?” she asked.

 

“I don’t know,” I said. “He hasn’t spoken to me for days. He says… he has to think about whether he’s going to keep me on.”

 

“Alice, no!” Rose said. “I can’t believe this! You might have ruined everything.”

 

“You think I don’t know that?” I said, starting to cry. “God, this is just such a mess, Rose.” I sniffed hard. “Maybe it’s for the best, though, me getting out now.”

 

“Don’t even think that way,” she said firmly. “If there’s any way to fix this, you’ve got to. You’ve just got to see this through.”

 

“I just don’t know if I can,” I said. “He was so angry.”

 

“Just try,” Rose said. “And, if he keeps you, you need to play it his way until we’re ready to expose him. Bite your tongue for once, and just do as he asks. You’ll make him pay later.”

 

“You’re right,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I know you’re right.”

 

“Let me know what happens,” she said.

 

“Okay, I will.”

 

“Love you, Allie.”

 

“Love you, Rose.”

 

I ended the call, feeling both better and worse than I had before I talked to her. On one hand, I was relieved that I’d finally told Rose what had happened. On the other hand, my worry over Harvey’s decision about whether or not to fire me had only grown larger.

 

I looked down at my other phone, the one Harvey had given me, and I debated trying to call him. When he’d dropped me at my doorstep two nights ago, my instinct had told me that he needed space to cool down and think things over, but now I felt myself doubting it. Maybe I could talk to him, convince him that I’d take more direction from him in the future.

 

I’d just decided that I would call him when I heard a knock at the door. I looked through the peephole and saw Harvey standing outside the door. He held a huge bouquet of flowers.

 

Confused, I opened the door.

 

He smiled when he saw me, but it wasn’t the polished, practiced grin I’d seen him use in public or with his staff. He seemed almost sheepish as he handed me the flowers.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “Come in.”

 

Unsure of what else I should do, I went into the kitchen and looked for a vase. There wasn’t one, but there was a glass pitcher that would do the job. I trimmed the stems of the flowers, put them into the pitcher and filled the pitcher halfway with water. I put the arrangement on the dining room table, then came back out into the living room. Harvey was standing near the door; he looked uncomfortable.

 

“Do you want to sit down?” I asked, when I couldn’t stand the silence any longer.

 

“Yes, thank you,” he said. He sat down on the couch. I took a chair across from him.

 

“Alice…” he began, then paused. He let out a big breath. “I owe you an apology.”

 

I blinked at him, utterly surprised. On the list of things I couldn’t imagine Harvey Pace doing, apologizing was near the top.

 

“The other night,” he said. “I was angry because things hadn’t gone as I’d expected. I don’t handle surprises well, Alice. And I’m used to people following my instructions, particularly when it comes to important matters. There is nothing more important to me right now than how our arrangement plays out in the business world and in the press.”

 

“I understand,” I said. “I thought I was making the best choice for the part you asked me to play, but I was wrong to ignore your instructions.”

 

“No, you weren’t wrong,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m afraid your instincts were right on. My associates loved you. No one was suspicious. And have you seen any of the news from that night?”

 

“Not really,” I said. “I was afraid to look.”

 

“Well, I couldn’t have written it up better if I’d done it myself. The headlines were all along the lines of, ‘Has Harvey Found the One?’ and ‘Billionaire Has Found Love at Last.’ They’re seeing us as a serious couple, and, better still, they like it. They like you, Alice.”

 

“Oh,” I said. “Wow.”

 

“So, once again, I apologize,” he said. He reached over and took my hand. The feeling of his warm skin against mine gave me a little jolt. “You were right, and I’m glad you didn’t listen to me, at least not about this one thing.”

 

I smiled at him as relief flooded me.

 

“So I’m not fired?” I asked.

 

“You’re very not fired, Alice,” he said. “Can you accept my apology?”

 

“Of course,” I said, squeezing his hand. “Thank you.”

 

He let go of my hand and stood up.

 

“And now, I’d really like to take you to dinner to make this up to you,” he said. “No press, just us.”

 

“You don’t have to do that,” I said.

 

“I insist,” he said.

 

“Okay, then,” I said. “Do I need to change?” I was wearing slacks and a simple silk blouse, and I’d need to put on something else if we were going somewhere formal again.

 

“No, you’re perfect,” he said. “Just grab a jacket and we’ll go.”

 

Harvey took me to a seafood place with a view of the water. We took a table outside. The sun wasn’t quite setting; a cool, late summer breeze had picked up, but I was comfortable in my jacket. Unexpectedly, I found myself relaxing.

 

“These are my favorite nights,” I said, closing my eyes and breathing in deeply. “When it’s still summer, but there’s that hint of change that reminds you to stop and enjoy it before it’s gone for the year.”

 

“I’ll have to get you out on the boat before the season’s over,” he said, picking up a menu.

 

I watched his face, trying to guess what he was thinking. I usually thought of myself as someone who understands people pretty well, but Harvey Pace still puzzled me in so many ways. A week ago, I’d hated him. Two nights ago, I’d rested my head against his chest and slow danced with him. Yesterday, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see him again. And now he seemed happy, at ease, and glad to be around me.

 

We ordered food (crab legs and good beer) and enjoyed our meal as the sky turned purple over the water in the bay. As we ate, our conversation turned toward the events of two nights ago.

 

“You said before that people think we’re serious together?” I said.

 

Harvey nodded. “They do.”

 

“Already? That seems fast for them to make that assumption.”

 

“Well, they’ve known me, on some level or another, for years,” he said. “Public romance isn’t usual for me. Plus I’ve dropped some hints in recent weeks, alluded to a special new relationship. It seems to have worked.”

 

“What do your friends think about this? You suddenly having a strange new woman in your life?”

 

He shrugged.

 

“I’m too busy for much in the way of friendship,” he said.

 

“But you must have some friends.”

 

“Of course I have friends, Alice,” he said defensively. “But they’re old friends, people I haven’t seen much since I left school. And my life now is very different than it was back then. I’m friendly with some of my colleagues and their families, and there are a few others in these circles I see socially when I have the time and inclination, but…” he sighed, and his brow furrowed. “My position, and my money… It all complicates things like friendship, or…” he trailed off.

 

“Or romance?” I offered.

 

“Yes, definitely,” he said. He sipped his drink and looked out over the water. “I’ve always figured that I’ll eventually form new friendships, maybe even date someone seriously, but as time passes, it hasn’t gotten any easier.” He looked back at me, and seemed almost surprised that I was there. “Hmm,” he said with a short laugh. “Why do I always say more than I intended to with you?”

 

“You have to say it to someone,” I said.

 

“If you say so.”

 

He paid the check, and we left together. When we got back to the street, Ted was waiting with the car. Instead of getting in, Harvey turned to me.

 

“Would you like to walk with me for a bit, Alice?” he asked.

 

His request took me off guard, but I nodded.

 

“Sure, that would be nice,” I said.

 

We walked along the boardwalk, not speaking at first. He didn’t try to hold my hand; oddly, I wasn’t sure if I was disappointed or relieved.

 

“What is it that you want the most, Alice?” he asked suddenly.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“From life. From the choices you make every day. What do you hope to achieve with them?”

 

I looked at him suspiciously.

 

“Why do you want to know?”

 

“Because it’s important information to have,” he said. “About anyone. Once you know what they really want, then you understand them, and you know what to expect from them.”

 

“Hmm. I suppose that’s true,” I said, hoping to avoid answering him. He wasn’t so easily deterred, though.

 

“So tell me,” he said. “What is it that drives Alice Brennan?”

 

I thought for a long moment. At first I wasn’t sure of how much of the truth to share with him, and then I wasn’t even sure what the truth was anymore. Did I want revenge? Money? Fame? Just a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee in the morning?

 

“I want to be a part of beauty in the world,” I said at last. “I want to make something, or help someone make something, that brings people to a place beyond our day to day survival, beyond all of the struggle and necessity of life. That… specialness. I want to help make that.” I felt my face flush. “I probably sound like an idiot to you.”

 

“You don’t,” he said seriously. “And I think I understand what you mean. Is that why you chose acting?”

 

“That was part of it,” I said. “There are these moments, when everything is working and you really understand the character and the world you’re in, and it’s extraordinary. I love that.”

 

“What’s the other part?”

 

“No, you’ll think it’s stupid,” I said looking at him sideways.

 

“Try me,” he said.

 

“It’s… I love how scary it is,” I said. “It’s such a dangerous feeling, having the nerve to just be that other person, forget about how silly you might look and just go for it. It’s terrifying, and it’s my absolute favorite thing.”

 

“Now that is something that I understand completely,” he said.

 

I nodded; I believed him. Everything I knew about his history with his company told me that Harvey Pace was a man who was very comfortable with big risks. For him, they had paid off.

 

“Is that why you decided to take this job?” he asked.

 

I stiffened and looked away.

 

“I’ve just been wondering,” he said. “Was it just for the money? Or is this actually interesting for you? I know that this isn’t exactly King Lear.”

 

“It’s still useful experience, though,” I said carefully. “I suppose I wasn’t sure what to expect when I took the job, and in a lot of ways I still don’t, but it did seem like a risk worth taking.”

 

He stopped walking and turned to me. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the face.

 

“I know that this isn’t an easy thing for you to do, Alice,” he said. “But, I want you to know, I mean, if it matters to you at all…”

 

“What is it, Harvey?” I asked.

 

“I’m grateful to you,” he said. “I haven’t said that to you yet, and I should have. Thank you, Alice.”

 

I wondered if he would kiss me then, but he didn’t. He just looked at me with that same odd, intent expression. A moment later, his hands dropped away from me, and he led me back to where we’d left Ted with the car.

 

“It’s getting late,” he said. “I’d better get you home.”

 

When we were in the car together, I remembered something I’d meant to ask him.

 

“When should I be ready for our next appearance?” I asked.

 

“Thank you for reminding me,” he said. “Jenson Pace has a scholarship foundation, and the annual dinner for the scholarship winners is Saturday. It will be formal again, some press, not so intense as the product launch was, though.”

 

“Not so intense, as in, I get to do my own hair?”

 

“Nice try, but no,” he said. “Susan will get in touch tomorrow for all that.”

 

I sighed. “All right, then. Anything else I need to know?”

 

“Just that the Laytons, the owners of the steel corporation, will be there.”

 

“So, you probably want me to tone things down,” I said, forcing a smile. “I… can try.”

 

“No, I want you to use your instincts.” He patted my hand where it rested on the car seat between us. “I trust you, Alice.”

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

Now that I knew what to expect, the pre-event preparation was a little easier to bear. Susan sent over a new gown, a simple red dress that fell just to the knee. Astra smoothed my hair completely straight, and the salon’s makeup artist highlighted my features in a way that somehow was both glamorous and subtle. When I was finished being styled, painted, and manicured, Susan dropped me back at my apartment, where I dressed and waited for Harvey to arrive to take me to the dinner.

 

I was surprised, then, when the person knocking at my door at half past six was not Harvey but Mick.

 

“Oh, hello,” I said, almost forgetting to use my accent.

 

“Mister Pace sends his apologies,” Mick said. “He had some last minute business to handle. He’ll be meeting you at the dinner.”

 

“Oh, all right then,” I said, retrieving my purse and wrap.

 

Mick brought his car up to my building, and I rode in the back seat. At first we didn’t speak, but then curiosity got the better of me. I hadn’t been alone with Mick since I’d been hired, and I decided to take the opportunity to try to learn a little more about Harvey.

 

“Harvey said that you’ve worked for him for a long time,” I began.

 

“Yes, miss,” he replied. “Almost ten years now. I came on after his father passed.”

 

“He really trusts you,” I said.

 

Mick shrugged and didn’t respond. I tried a different tactic.

 

“Did you work for his father as well?”

 

“Not exactly,” Mick said. “The company I was contracted with overseas, we did some security for Jenson Pace. Things sometimes got rough, and there was an incident with the Paces, you know, the children and everyone. I was the one who was around, and I was able to help. Nothing special, but Mr. Pace – Harvey’s father, that is – he asked me to come on to do security for the family full-time. It was a tempting offer.”

 

“But you didn’t take it?”

 

“No, not then,” he said. “I was a young man still, and the idea of guarding a rich American family didn’t overly thrill me. But Mr. Pace kept in touch, and I worked with the family on a few short-term assignments, when they were overseas on trips and needed some added security.”

 

“You watched Harvey and Susan grow up,” I said.

 

“I did,” he said. “When Mr. Pace passed on, Harvey contacted me, and I traveled over for the funeral. When it was over, he made me a job offer. I never went back after that.”

 

“Hmm,” I said. “Why did you say yes this time?”

 

“Hard to say,” he said. “Maybe I was just getting too old to be spending every day worrying about roadside bombs and assassins. But, honestly, I really liked Mr. Pace – Harvey’s dad, I mean. He was a good man, a kind man. He loved his family. And even though Susan and Harvey were grown, I know that Mr. Pace would want someone to look out for them. If it was me, and they were my kids, I would want that.”

 

“I’m sure he would be grateful,” I said. I watched his profile, as impassive as ever, and wondered at how much else I didn’t know about these people that my life was currently built around.

 

Mick shrugged. “I have a good deal here. Nobody owes me anything.”

 

We rode in silence for a few minutes before something else occurred to me.

 

“You knew Harvey when he was just a boy,” I said. “What was he like?”

 

Mick smiled, a rare sight.

 

“He was a terror,” he said. “Always running off, trying to slip his detail. Kid was fearless, even after—” He glanced at me sidelong and stopped short. “Nothing scared him, I mean.”

 

I wondered at what he was about to say, but decided to let it pass. I was surprised Mick had told me as much as he had.

 

“I believe it,” I said.

 

“Here we are, Miss Alice,” Mick said, pulling the car to the curb.

 

Mick let me out at the door and left to park the car. I drew a deep breath as I walked in, mentally shifting into my role as Harvey’s happy, confident, British girlfriend. I smiled and chatted with the coat check girl as I gave her my wrap. I peeked quickly into the main dining hall, but didn’t see Harvey anywhere.

 

The dinner was being held at a large country club. The crowd was a good deal smaller than the one that had been in attendance at the product launch last week, but there was no less attention paid to the details in the décor of the room. The guests were dressed a shade less formally than they had at the last event. Instead of tuxedos, the men wore expensive suits and ties. Rather than floor-length ball gowns, the women wore cocktail dresses. I gave a little sigh of relief; once again, Susan’s style choices had been spot-on. I would fit in perfectly, at least as far as my clothing went.

 

Rather than go into the dining hall by myself, I decided to kill some time by visiting the powder room. My makeup hadn’t had time to fade, but I dabbed some more lipstick and powder on anyway. When I couldn’t delay any longer, I came out of the powder room and headed for the dining hall. As I turned a corner, I almost walked into someone familiar.

 

“The lovely lady Alice!” Phil Mercer boomed when he saw me. “Wonderful to see you again, my dear.”

 

I smiled with as much friendliness as I could muster. I tried to offer my hand to shake, but he moved swiftly and embraced me, kissing me damply on my cheek. I laughed nervously as I stiffened and tried to back away from him.

 

“Harvey certainly is a lucky man,” Phil said in a low voice in my ear. “I’ve seen him with a lot of women, but none that have tempted this married man the way you have.”

 

“That’s very nice of you to say,” I said, feeling panic trying to rise up in me. I put my hands against Phil’s chest and tried to push him away gently, but he held onto my upper arms with surprising strength.

 

“It’s only the truth,” Phil said, smiling at me crookedly. “You seem like a good girl, Alice, but if you ever decide you’re not… Well, I wouldn’t say no.”

 

“Mr. Mercer!” I protested, pushing harder against him.

 

“Alice, there you are!”

 

Harvey’s voice came from nowhere. Phil released me as though I were a hot poker.

 

“Darling,” I said, stepping forward so that Harvey could kiss me hello. He did, but his eyes stayed hard on Phil’s. Afterward, rather than releasing me, he held me close against his side as he stared at Phil.

 

“Harvey!” Phil said, clearly flustered. “We’d wondered what had become of you!”

 

“Missed me, did you?” Harvey’s voice sounded pleasant enough, but there was something dangerous in his tone.

 

“Of course! Night can’t start without you, man.”

 

“Right,” Harvey said. “If you’ll excuse us, I’m going to get Miss Clarke a drink. And I think your wife was looking for you.”

 

“Of course,” Phil said again. He looked terrified. “I’ll just be getting back then.”

 

He rushed away as though a dangerous animal might pursue him. When I turned and saw the look on Harvey’s face, I decided that Phil might be exactly right about that.

 

“That filthy bastard,” Harvey said in a low growl. He turned to me. “Did he hurt you?”

 

“No, Harvey,” I said. “He was just… overly friendly.”

 

“Hmmph,” Harvey said, sounding unconvinced.

 

“Really, I’m fine,” I insisted. “But I actually would like a drink, if you don’t mind.”

 

He sighed heavily.

 

“All right,” he said. “We should probably be getting in there.” He held my hand as he led me back to the dining hall.

 

A few minutes later, I was sipping chardonnay at Harvey’s side as he chatted with business associates, scholarship board members, and family members of the recipients. Despite the permission Harvey had given me to be more outgoing, I found myself mostly just listening and watching as he talked with the other guests. Not for the first time, I found myself impressed with how smoothly he interacted with people of all ages and backgrounds. From the seventeen-year-old scholarship winner to the seventy-eight-year-old chairman of the scholarship board, Harvey always seemed to know just what to say to everyone he met.

 

Not long before the ceremony was scheduled to begin, Harvey introduced me to yet another couple. Nothing in his voice or manner indicated there was anything special about this stocky, middle-aged man and his petite, gray-haired wife, so I had to hide my shock when I learned that this was Roger and Marie Layton, the owners of the business Harvey wanted so badly to buy, the people I had been hired to influence.

 

I put on my warmest smile as I shook their hands.

 

“Mr. and Mrs. Layton, so nice to meet you,” I said.

 

“And you as well, Miss Clarke,” Marie Layton said, looking from Harvey to me and back again.

 

“I thought you were a permanent bachelor, Mr. Pace,” Roger said, laughing. Harvey laughed, too.

 

“Maybe, maybe not,” Harvey said, smiling at me. I blushed and looked down.

 

“You two are a lovely couple,” Marie said. “The way you look at each other, it reminds me of when Roger and I were young.”

 

“How long have you been together?” I asked.

 

“Almost forty years now,” Roger said, kissing his wife’s hand. “So many young people today don’t understand the value of commitment, of family. It’s good to see you figuring that out, Harvey. Better late than never, right?”

 

“Right you are,” Harvey said.

 

“Oh, it looks like they’re starting,” Marie said, pointing to the stage, where a board member was coming forward to stand at the podium. We quickly found our table and sat down.

 

Harvey squeezed my hand and leaned in close to me.

 

“Was that all right?” I whispered.

 

“Better than all right,” he said. “You were perfect.”

 

I flushed with pleasure at his praise and leaned against his shoulder as we watched the ceremony together. Underneath the table, Harvey didn’t let go of my hand.

 

When the ceremony was complete, we were served dinner. Harvey chose the filet mignon, and I had lobster ravioli. The meal was delicious. We drank good red wine and chatted with the other people seated at our table, all high donors to the Jenson Pace scholarship foundation. When dinner was finished, a band started playing. I saw Roger and Marie Layton make their way onto the dance floor.

 

“Shall we?” Harvey asked, standing and extending a hand to me.

 

As before, when Harvey held me in his arms, I couldn’t help but enjoy the feel of his body against mine. My mind reminded me that he was only pretending, but I still found myself relaxing against him, savoring the feel of his breath in my hair, his warm hand against the bare skin on my upper back.

 

Phil Mercer wisely didn’t try to cut in on us this time.

 

We had several dances together, then circulated through the room, sipping champagne and having what felt like the same conversation, over and over again: How did you meet? How long have you been together? You make a lovely couple… My responses were becoming well-practiced.

 

The night ended uneventfully. Phil Mercer made himself scarce during the event, and he and his wife left as early as politeness would allow. Harvey and I stayed longer, but also retired before it got too late. On the drive back home, I remembered my earlier conversation with Mick and decided to ask Harvey about it.

 

“Nothing special, huh? He would say that. He plays it down, but the fact is that Mick Northern saved my life twenty years ago, mine and Susan’s,” he said.

 

“Really?” I said, fascinated. “How?”

 

“It was after my mother had passed. Susan and I were traveling with my father in Jordan. Things weren’t as unstable then as they are now, but there were still some concerns, so my father got connected with a security group that was running a contract in the area and got one of their men to cover Susan and me during the trip. Our third night there…” Harvey trailed off, and his gaze went far away. “We think they were going to ask for ransom. The Jordanian police never turned up much information about why they targeted us; we think they just saw wealthy Americans and thought they could get a ransom out of us.”

 

“What happened, Harvey?”

 

“They kidnapped Susan and me. Or, they would have, but Mick stopped it. He was young then, maybe twenty-five, but he was like a machine, Alice. I was just a kid, and it happened so fast, but I remember that one minute those men – three of them – were grabbing us, dragging us toward a van, and the next there were these loud shots, and then Mick was there, and the men who’d attacked us were dead. Susan was screaming, but I was just… stunned, I guess. I just stared at Mick. He seemed like a giant to me right then. He was bleeding; one of them had stabbed him in the shoulder. He wouldn’t let the ambulance take him to the hospital, though, not until his relief and my father arrived.”

 

“Wow,” I breathed. “That’s just… unreal.”

 

“My father wanted to hire him full-time then and there, but Mick wasn’t interested. Too much fight left in him, I guess. It was my luck that he changed his mind and came on full-time when I took over the company.”

 

“I understand now, why you trust him so much,” I said.

 

“He and Susan, they’re the closest thing I have left to family,” he said. “He spilled his own blood to keep me alive, and I know he’d do it again if it were necessary.”

 

“That must be a strange thing to know about someone.”

 

“It’s… humbling,” he said.

 

I nodded, trying to imagine the life Harvey had lived, the uncertainty and danger, the people he had lost. As I watched his face, I felt a strange new tenderness toward him.

 

It was alarming.

 

I was relieved when the car arrived at my building.

 

“Here we are,” he said. Instead of letting me out at the entrance, he got out of the car and went in with me. He took the elevator up with me and walked me to my door. I tried to behave casually, but my heart was pounding. Was he expecting to come inside with me?

 

I needn’t have worried. He didn’t try to come in, just held both my hands in his for a moment.

 

“Goodnight, Alice. I’m more than pleased with how tonight went. Thank you again, so much.”

 

He reached up and touched my cheek; the brief contact was electric. I turned away awkwardly, searching in my purse for my house key.

 

“Goodnight, Harvey,” I said, and ducked inside, closing the door behind me.

 

I went into the living room and sat down on the couch with a heavy sigh, feeling suddenly exhausted. As I kicked off my heels, my eyes fell on the flowers Harvey had brought me earlier in the week, still fresh and blooming on the dining room table.

 

Who are you, Harvey Pace?

 

I thought I’d known the answer, but I was becoming less and less sure.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

 

Over the next few weeks, Harvey and I settled into something like a routine. Where at the beginning I had been dazzled and unsure, I found myself become more comfortable and confident. Each time I accompanied Harvey out to a charity golf tournament or an art show or a retirement dinner, I felt a little more like posh Alice Clarke and a little less like poor Alice Brennan.

 

Rose called me every few days. I talked to her as much as I could, but, as time went on, I found myself avoiding her phone calls. I told myself I was just trying to stay in character, to avoid being distracted by reminders of my outside life. And, to a point, that was true. But the main reason I didn’t look forward to talking with Rose was because I just didn’t want to be reminded that, at the end of all of this, I was going to betray Harvey Pace.

 

Since the scholarship dinner, he’d started walking me up to my apartment door after each event. He always thanked me warmly, and he never tried anything physical with me beyond holding my hand. Despite that, though, I still felt a strong pull toward him. Even small touches, even ones that I knew were just for the benefit of those watching us, made me tingle and feel warm. He could tuck a strand of hair behind my ear or help me out of a car and it felt more intimate than many of the steamier encounters I’d had in the past with real boyfriends.

 

He kept sending me flowers, too. I told myself that it was just for the benefit of keeping up appearances with his office staff (who no doubt were actually the ones ordering the arrangements), but I still felt that flush of pleasure every time a new bouquet arrived. Before Harvey, I could have counted the number of times a man had sent me flowers on one hand. I’d told people that I wasn’t a flowers type of girl, that those gestures were clichés that I didn’t need. But, I had to admit, there just isn’t anything like having two dozens of roses show up at your door with a hand-written note thanking you for a lovely evening.

 

One afternoon about a month after I’d started working for Harvey, I got a text from him letting me know that he was going to stop by. He never asked if he could come by, but he always let me know ahead of time. At the beginning, it bothered me that Harvey rarely asked, and so often ordered. I’d grown accustomed to it, though, and found myself simply accepting the instructions that I had fumed over at the beginning. It was just part of who he was, and I couldn’t deny to myself anymore that some small part of me had grown to like him.

 

I tried not to think about that too much.

 

When Harvey arrived at the apartment, I was in the living room working on some sketches I’d made of his latest floral gift. I was only a mediocre artist, but the last orchid he’d sent was too lovely to resist. I’d run out the day the plant had arrived and picked up a sketch book and pencils, and I’d spent the last few days remembering how much I used to enjoy these simple leisure activities.

 

I let Harvey in the door and invited him to come into the living room. He saw the sketch book on the coffee table and picked it up.

 

“May I?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Um, sure,” I said, feeling my face turn red. “It’s not anything. I was just fooling around.”

 

“No, Alice,” he said, flipping through the pages. “These are actually pretty good.”

 

“Thanks,” I said, still feeling quite uncomfortable.

 

“I didn’t realize you could draw,” he said, putting the book down.

 

“I can’t, not really,” I said. “I took a class at the community college years ago, back when I was still trying to put myself through school. Now I just do it for fun sometimes. It’s been years since I felt like drawing, though. I’m really out of practice.”

 

“You should keep it up,” he said.

 

“Thanks,” I said again. “So, what brings you by?”

 

“I wanted to bring you up to date on where we’re at with the Laytons,” he said. “And where we need to go from here.”

 

I nodded, and he went on.

 

“Layton Steel has confirmed that they’re interested in selling. There are, of course, several companies interested in buying, but my people tell me that Jenson Pace is the front-runner.”

 

“Well, that’s good news,” I said.

 

“The Laytons aren’t ready to sign yet, though. They want to get to know my company, and me, a bit more before going forward. They’re emotionally invested in the company… I think they’re trying to get a sense of who will be running it, how the corporate culture might change, things like that.” He frowned. “Honestly, I think they want to imagine that Layton Steel will still be a family company when this is over, just with a different family.”

 

“Yours and mine,” I said.

 

“Yes,” he replied.

 

“So, what do we need to do?”

 

“We need to spend some more time with them. I’ve invited Roger and Marie to come out on my yacht this weekend, and I’d like you and Susan to be there.”

 

I smiled. He had said he was going to take me out on his boat before the summer ended, and it looked like he was going to make good on it. He must have guessed what I was thinking, because he smiled too.

 

“The weather is supposed to be perfect,” he said. “One of the last warm days before fall arrives.”

 

“It sounds wonderful,” I said. “But you didn’t come all the way over here just to invite me on a boat ride.”

 

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I wanted to talk with you in advance about how we should present to the Laytons. We’ve been romantic in public for a little while now, but I want to advance that a bit, drop some hints that this thing of ours is moving toward marriage.”

 

“I see,” I said, thinking. “That shouldn’t be too difficult. I… can ask them about how they were married, and then make some jokes about what our wedding might be like. Something like that?”

 

“Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind,” he said. “See? This is why I wanted to talk with you first. I knew you’d know what to do.”

 

I felt embarrassed by his praise.

 

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Really.”

 

“Nonetheless, you’ve been invaluable Alice. With any luck, we’ll be able to announce the purchase at Jenson Pace’s silver anniversary gala next month.”

 

“Anniversary?” I asked. This was the first I’d heard of it.

 

“Yes, we’re celebrating twenty-five years since my father and his late partner founded the company. It’s going to be a huge event, lots of press, current and past employees and associates, notable members of the business community, even some government representatives and celebrities.”

 

I groaned. “I guess that will mean another shopping trip with Susan.”

 

Harvey laughed. “Definitely. I might even tag along. Everything will need to be perfect.”

 

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” I said. “We always do.” I glanced over at the kitchen. “Would you like some coffee? I can start a pot. Or something else?”

 

“No,” he said, getting up. “I actually need to be getting back. I’ll pick you up by eight on Sunday morning. I’m going to have Susan work with you on clothes.”

 

“Harvey, honestly, I can dress myself for a boat ride.”

 

“This isn’t a boat ride. We’re entertaining important clients on my yacht. And, meaning no offense, I don’t expect that’s something you’ve done before. There are certain expectations for presentation for such things.”

 

I sighed.

 

“Just humor me, Alice, for god’s sake. You’d think I was asking you to do something horrible.”

 

“Have you ever been shopping with Susan?” I asked.

 

He laughed.

 

“You’ll survive; I promise.”

 

He left after that. At almost the same moment the door closed, my phone rang in the other room.

 

How does she always know? I wondered.

 

“Hello, Rose,” I said

 

“Allie, what the hell?” she said. I realized then that I’d answered with my English accent.

 

“Sorry,” I said, dropping the accent. “Harvey just left.”

 

“Careful,” she said. “Don’t want to forget who you really are.”

 

“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “I know who I am.”

 

“Hmm,” she said, sounding unconvinced. “How are things going with you and Mr. Wonderful?”

 

This was her latest nickname for Harvey. Hearing it grated on my nerves.

 

“He’s really not that bad, Rose, once you get used to him.”

 

“Well, you’ll have to forgive me,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “I never had the pleasure.”

 

For one strange instant, I imagined introducing Rose to Harvey. I almost laughed.

 

“Everything’s fine,” I said. “Have you been looking at the gossip papers?”

 

“Yup,” she said. “Every socialite in America is in mourning since some British chippy came across the pond and stole their favorite bachelor away.”

 

“It’s a good thing. It means it’s working.”

 

“Has he been paying you?” she asked.

 

“Yes, every week. My bank probably thinks I started dealing drugs.” I had more in my account than I’d ever had before. It was more than enough to get started on the life improvements I’d been dreaming of.

 

“Good,” she said. “Any idea how much longer he’s going to want you on the job?”

 

“Well, we’re getting closer, with this deal he’s working on. He said he’s hoping to announce the sale at his company’s anniversary celebration next month, so I would imagine I’ll at least be around until then.”

 

“What kind of celebration?” Rose asked.

 

“It’s a big deal,” I said. “Jenson Pace’s twenty-fifth anniversary. There are going to be a ton of important people there, reporters, that sort of thing. I’m already dreading what Susan is going to put me through to get ready for it.”

 

“That’s perfect!” Rose exclaimed.

 

“What’s—” I began, then stopped short when I realized what she was thinking.

 

“That’s the time to show everyone the sad little man behind the curtain!” she said. “You’ll just have to get onstage at some point, get a microphone, and BAM! Everyone knows that the great Harvey Pace is a liar and a loser who has to hire someone to pretend to love him.”

 

Her words made me feel sick.

 

“Yeah, maybe,” I said uncertainly.

 

“It’s the right time, Allie. You know it is. You’ll have a good nest egg saved, and I’m sure you’ll be more than ready to get away from him by then.”

 

Is that what I wanted? Something traitorous inside me wasn’t sure.

 

Rose went on.

 

“It’ll let us do maximum damage. The story will be everywhere. And every time someone remembers Jenson Pace’s twenty-fifth anniversary, they’ll remember you.”

 

“Yeah, they will,” I said.

 

“Then we’re agreed? You’ll make your move at the anniversary celebration?”

 

What could I say? I tried to think of one reason to say no that Rose would understand, and found that I couldn’t. She was right. If we wanted to hurt Harvey Pace, this was the way, and the gala was the time.

 

“Yes, alright,” I said at last. “At the anniversary event. I’ll tell everyone then.”

 

“I’m so proud of you, Allie,” Rose said.

 

“Thanks,” I said, feeling more ashamed of myself than I ever had before.

 

After I got off the phone, I picked up my sketch book and tried to work on my drawing, but found that my inspiration was gone. I’d told Harvey before that what I wanted most was to create beauty in the world, but there was nothing beautiful about what Rose and I were planning.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

 

A few days later, I stood on the sun-soaked deck of Harvey’s yacht. He stood behind me with his arms wrapped around my shoulders. A warm wind blew against our faces and I breathed in lungfuls of fresh, sea-scented air. I leaned back against Harvey’s strong chest, my head tucked under his chin.

 

As Harvey had promised, the weather was perfect. Susan had chosen white, lightweight slacks and a navy blue sleeveless top for me to wear, along with simple canvas deck shoes and a soft, tan sweater that I could put on if the temperature cooled. My hair was fastened away from my face, and a new pair of designer sunglasses shielded my eyes from the bright sun that both shone down from above and reflected up from the water’s surface in blinding flashes. As usual, when all was said and done, I was glad of Susan’s help. The outfit she’d chosen was simple, but it fit in perfectly with what Marie Layton and Susan herself had chosen for the outing. If I’d tried to choose clothes on my own, I probably would have picked a sundress and sandals, and would have (accurately) looked as though I’d never been on board a yacht in my life. Even if I didn’t relish the experience of not being in control of my own appearance, I couldn’t deny that Susan Pace was excellent at what she did.

 

I may have managed to look the part, but I was struggling to maintain my happy girlfriend façade. Having a definite date planned for my betrayal of Harvey had made it real in a new way, and I found it was no longer easy to ignore how this game would end. I tried to hide my uneasiness, but Harvey noticed.

 

“What’s wrong?” he whispered, nuzzling his face against my hair.

 

“Nothing,” I said, my smile firmly in place. “All good.”

 

“You seem off, Alice,” he said. “People are going to notice.”

 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll get it together.”

 

“Please do,” he said.

 

He gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, and then left to check on the Laytons, who were sitting in the shade of the cabin sipping cool drinks.

 

“Is all well, Harvey?” Roger asked. I cursed inwardly when I realized that my act wasn’t even fooling the Laytons today.

 

“Perfectly,” Harvey said. “Alice gets a touch of motion sickness now and then, but I believe she’s starting to feel better. Is that right, dear?”

 

“Yes, quite,” I said, walking over to join them. “Just takes me a bit to get used to the motion of the vessel, but I’m fine now.”

 

“That’s good to hear,” Marie said. “I feel just terrible for people who can’t abide being at sea. All this loveliness, and they can’t enjoy it.”

 

“That really would be a shame,” Harvey said. “I love the water, and I’d hate not being able to share that with the woman in my life.” He lifted my hand to his lips and pressed a kiss against it.

 

Susan came out of the cabin then with a fresh drink. It was her third, or perhaps her fourth. I hadn’t interacted with her in a strictly social setting before; I wondered if she always drank this much. In any case, I didn’t think I was the only one who noticed. Harvey frowned at her briefly. She shrugged and looked him in the eye while taking a very pointed sip from her glass. Then, rather than joining the rest of us, she walked to the other side of the deck and stretched out on a chaise in the sun.

 

“Do you get out on the water much, Harvey?” Marie asked, pulling his attention back to the conversation at hand.

 

“Not nearly as much as I’d like,” he said. “You know how it is.”

 

“We certainly do,” Roger said. “But hopefully, soon, we’ll have more time for things like this. Maybe finally take the leap and get a vessel of our own, travel the world.”

 

Marie laughed.

 

“Don’t be silly, Roger,” she said. “It’s nice out here for a few hours, but days and days in that little cabin? Certainly not. And I could never be away too long from the children.”

 

“How many children do you have?” I asked.

 

“Five,” she said. “They’re all grown now, of course, and giving us grandchildren, which is wonderful.”

 

“I’m sure,” I said, and cast a quick glance at Harvey. As I hoped, Marie and Roger didn’t miss it.

 

“What about you, Harvey?” Roger said. “You’re not getting any younger. Going to get working on a family soon?”

 

It was exactly the direction we’d hoped to steer the conversation, but I still found myself blushing.

 

Harvey laughed and scratched at the back of his head in a nervous gesture.

 

“One step at a time, man,” he said, winking at me. “But yes, I do want a family.”

 

“You’ll love it,” Marie said to both of us. “I can’t imagine our lives without the children. Being footloose and single is great, but all the excitement and freedom in the world can’t compare to the experience of raising a family.”

 

“Can I ask how you two met?” I asked. “You’re such a lovely couple; you seem as though you’ve been together forever.”

 

Marie smiled and squeezed Roger’s hand.

 

“Not forever, but nearly,” she said. “I was sixteen when we met, and Roger was twenty. Of course, that sort of thing was more common back then. My parents made us wait until I was nineteen before they’d let us marry. They wanted to see Roger a bit more settled, and give me some time to change my mind. Not that there was ever any chance of that. I was smitten with Roger from the moment we met.” She sipped her drink and fanned herself with her wide-brimmed straw hat. “What about your parents, Alice? What do they think of this foreign affair?” She giggled at her own joke.

 

“Well, they’re glad that I’m happy, but parents are parents of course, and mine are rather old-fashioned. We’ll have to make at least one trip to England to beg their blessing before any kind of marriage talk will be heard by them,” I said.

 

Roger nodded in approval.

 

“As you should. A real man looks a girl’s father in the eye and asks for her hand, even if he’s shaking in his shoes the entire time.”

 

“Not long ago, I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing,” Harvey said. “It’s funny how quickly some things can change.” He looked at me as though he meant every word, and even though I knew better, his words warmed me.

 

“Good man,” Marie said, patting Harvey on the cheek. He received her approving touch as though he were an obedient child. I managed to hold back my laugh, but just barely.

 

“I’ll, uh, see if lunch is about ready,” he said, getting to his feet.

 

He disappeared into the cabin, leaving the rest of us to our cocktails and conversation.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Despite an awkward start, the day overall seemed a great success. We’d enjoyed a pleasant lunch on deck, and cruised around for a couple more hours. The scenery was gorgeous, and Susan even joined in with the group near the end of the trip for some light conversation. When we’d returned to dock, Roger and Marie had seemed in excellent spirits. Roger had shook Harvey’s hand heartily, and Marie had embraced me and kissed me on both cheeks, promising we’d get together again soon. For all appearances, Harvey and I, in one afternoon, had become great friends of theirs.

 

I was confused, then, when Harvey dropped me off at the curb late in the afternoon with a half-hearted “Goodnight.” Before I could ask him what was wrong, the car had driven off.

 

I went up to my apartment and took a shower to wash the sunblock and dried salt spray from my skin. I put on comfortable lounge clothes and stretched out on the couch with a book. I’d barely read five pages, though, when my weariness from a long day in the sun took its toll and I fell asleep with the book on my chest.

 

The room had fallen dark several hours later when the sound of my phone’s text alert went off– my real phone, not the one I carried for Harvey.

 

It was Rose.

 

Can you meet me tomorrow?

 

I sent back: I don’t know, why?

 

She replied: We need to talk details of our plan. Gotta make sure everything’s perfect for Harvey’s big night.

 

She typed a bunch of smiley faces after that.

 

I closed my eyes and lay back on the couch for a minute. Finally, I sat up and typed an answer.

 

Okay, let’s meet. When/where?

 

She responded with the name of a café on the other side of town and suggested we meet around noon. I confirmed that I’d be there.

 

~ ~ ~

 

As much as I looked forward to seeing Rose, I dreaded the topic of our meeting. I slept terribly all night, and when my alarm finally went off the next morning, I dragged myself out of bed, miserably tired. I went to the kitchen first and started the coffee, then trudged back to the bathroom for a long shower.

 

Getting showered and dressed made me feel a little better, at least physically. I applied makeup and styled my hair as Alice Clarke. The process that had intimidated me so much in the beginning was almost automatic now. My reflection in the mirror wasn’t strange anymore, either. This new woman, so alien a month ago, was feeling more and more like my true self.

 

What’s going to happen when I go back to who I was? I wondered. Will the old Alice feel like a stranger to me?

 

I drank coffee and ate a bagel while I watched the sun climb higher in the sky outside my apartment windows. I was taking the dishes back to the kitchen to wash when there was a knock on my door.

 

My first thought was that it was Harvey, but it wasn’t. It was a delivery man. More flowers.

 

My eyes filled with tears as I arranged the flowers – white lilies – in a vase on the table. I opened the note, then set it aside.

 

“Thank you for a beautiful day. Yours, Harvey.”

 

I sat down at the table for a moment, but found that I couldn’t stand to look at Harvey’s flowers, not today. I went into my rarely-used office instead and started up my computer. I opened my email, and found a message from my mom, sent a few days ago.

 

 

Hi, sweetie!

 

Your dad and I are thinking of you. How’s the job going? Getting enough sleep? Staying safe? Drop me a line or give me a call if you can. We miss you a lot. I know it’s early yet, but maybe you’ll make it up for the holidays this year?

 

Just wanted to let you know that we love you and we are SO PROUD of you. You’ve worked so hard, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the woman you’ve become.

 

Love,

[
Mom]

 

 

I opened a window to reply, but couldn’t think of a thing to type. I stared at the blinking curser, my mom’s words playing over and over in my mind – “we are SO PROUD of you.” Would they be proud of what Rose and I were doing? As grieved and angry as they’d been about the foreclosure, I couldn’t imagine either of them condoning something so cruel, so ugly as what Rose and I were planning.

 

After a few minutes, I powered the computer down without sending a reply.

 

I tried to read while I waited until it was time to leave to meet Rose, but I couldn’t focus on the words on the page. When the clock finally said it was eleven, I put the book down and called for a taxi. As I was slipping on my jacket and picking up my purse, my phone rang. It was Harvey.

 

“Hello?” I said, hoping my voice sounded natural to him. My heart was pounding. Did he know where I was going? What I was doing?

 

There was a long pause before Harvey spoke.

 

“Alice,” he said, and then was quiet. His voice sounded wrong somehow.

 

“Yes, I’m here,” I said.

 

“I knew you’d be there,” he said. “You’re the only one who’s always there for me.”

 

I realized he was slurring his words, just a little.

 

“Are you okay, Harvey?”

 

“Nothing’s okay, Alice,” he said. “We all pretend it’s okay. You pretend, and I pretend, and I pay you to pretend… Susan won’t pretend. She knows it’s not okay.”

 

I’d never heard him talk this way before. I’d never seen him even slightly drunk, if that’s what he was now. Something inside me said that something was terribly wrong with him.

 

“Harvey, where are you right now? Are you at the office?”

 

“No, I’m no good there, not today,” he said.

 

“So you’re at home?”

 

“Yes,” he said.

 

I glanced at the clock. Rose would be waiting for me in less than an hour. I quickly made a decision.

 

“Stay there,” I said. “I’m coming over.”

 

“Sweet Alice,” he said. “Of course you are.” Then he hung up.

 

I sent Rose a text message.

 

“I have an emergency and can’t meet today. I’ll call you later.”

 

I hit send, then immediately turned off the phone and stuck it in a bedroom drawer. I wasn’t up for reading her response, not now.

 

I got down to the street just as the taxi arrived.

 

“Where to, miss?” the driver asked. I gave him Harvey’s address and got into the car.

 

I rode in silence toward Harvey’s home. It would be only the second time I’d been there. The last time had been the night I’d met him, when he’d interviewed me for this job, and just like last time, I had no idea what I would find today when I got there.

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

 

The taxi dropped me at the gate at the end of Harvey’s driveway. There was a bad moment when I realized that I didn’t know the code to open the gate. Feeling like an idiot, I pressed the “call” button on the keypad. Instead of a person coming on, the gate swung slowly open. Harvey had either assumed it was me or was watching me somehow. I looked around, but didn’t see any obvious surveillance cameras. I hurried up the drive toward the house.

 

I knocked on the door, and Mick answered it. He looked tired, and a little sad.

 

“Good to see you, Alice,” he said. “Come on in.”

 

I followed him, not to the study where I’d met with Harvey before, but down a side hall to a different sitting room. Harvey was sitting on an antique sofa in the room, bent over a book opened on the table in front of him. A glass of amber-colored liquor rested on the table beside the book.

 

“Hello, Harvey,” I said, remembering to use my accent despite my confusion.

 

“No, don’t do that,” he said, not looking up at me. “My staff is gone today, except for Mick. I chased them all out. Just talk with me like a damn human being. It’s been so long since I heard your voice, I can hardly remember what it sounds like.”

 

I stood silent, surprised, for a long moment before I answered him.

 

“Sometimes I forget how it sounds, too,” I said. No accent.

 

Harvey looked up at me, and there were tears shining in his eyes.

 

“You have a lovely voice,” he said. “Just as you are. I shouldn’t have changed that about you.”

 

I crossed the room to where he was sitting and sat down beside him. I looked back at the doorway, but Mick had gone. I laid a hand on Harvey’s back.

 

“Harvey, tell me, what’s wrong?”

 

I looked down at the book he was looking at so intently, and saw that it was a photo album. It was opened to a page with a portrait of a family – a girl, perhaps twelve, dark hair and the long, awkward limbs of adolescence; a boy, younger than the girl, unruly dark hair and a mischievous grin; a woman, early thirties, fine-boned, softly curling sandy brown hair framing a sweet but weary face; and a man, nearing middle age, dark hairline just beginning to recede, a forced smile.

 

“That’s your family,” I said.

 

“It was,” he said. “This was one of the last portraits we took together. Mom was already sick… You can see here she’s getting thin. She was a great cook, you know, and was always a plump woman before the diagnosis.” He ran one finger around the border of the photograph, circling the edges.

 

“She was beautiful,” I said honestly.

 

“They knew, when we took this,” he said. “They knew she wasn’t going to get better. You can see it, in my father’s face. How much older he looked here than he did just a year before.”

 

“It must have been terrible, losing your mother so young.”

 

“I wish I remembered her more than I do,” he said. “Did you know, when you remember something, what you’re actually remembering is the last time you remembered it?”

 

“No, I didn’t know that.”

 

“Our memories are copies of copies of copies. They’re corrupted, false. I look at these photographs, and that helps, but I wish I had more than just the image of their faces.”

 

A tear spilled over onto his cheek, and he brushed it away. He reached for his drink and drained it in a few gulps. He looked over at me, seeming to really see me there for the first time.

 

“Forgive me, Alice,” he said. “I’m not myself today.”

 

“It’s fine, Harvey, really. But why today? What’s happened?”

 

He smiled ruefully.

 

“Nothing, just a difficult day for me, and for Susan. It’s the anniversary of my father’s death. Eight years have gone by now.”

 

Susan’s behavior on the boat the day before made sense now. With the anniversary of her father’s death so close, it was no wonder she hadn’t been in the mood to help Harvey entertain clients. In retrospect, it was rather surprising that he’d managed to do it so naturally.

 

“Will you have a drink with me, Alice?” he said. “You don’t have to. You’re off the clock today, so to speak.”

 

I only hesitated for a moment before I answered.

 

“I would like that,” I said. “Scotch and water?”

 

He got up and walked over to a polished oak bar in the corner of the room. He made the drink, and another one for himself. He brought the drinks over to the couch and sat down beside me again.

 

“Thank you,” I said. I took a sip, and the warmth of the liquid spread pleasantly down my throat.

 

“They’re never easy, these anniversaries,” he said. “But this one is worse somehow. Before, I missed them, but I could believe that they would be pleased, proud of me even, if they were here. But now…”

 

He shook his head.

 

“Why don’t you think that anymore?” I asked.

 

He looked at me and released a heavy sigh.

 

“I’ve made some hard choices, Alice. For the company, for myself and for Susan. Some of them have been wrong. Some of them have hurt people.”

 

My spine began to tingle. I sat up straighter, but Harvey didn’t seem to notice.

 

“For a long time,” he continued, “I was blind to it. Whatever had to happen for Jenson Pace, I made it happen. I didn’t care who lost, as long as I won. And… God, Alice. I don’t even want to tell you. I did some cruel things. I hurt people who couldn’t defend themselves, took what they had, however little they had…” He took another drink from the glass.

 

“I’m sure… you only did what you had to,” I said, trying to muster sincerity.

 

“I wanted to win,” he said, his voice low. “I thought… I thought that would prove that I loved my father, by doing this job, doing it well. But all I’ve proven is that I can’t love anyone.”

 

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said.

 

“I’ve tried,” he said. “I take care of Susan, as my parents would have wanted. I care about Mick. I value him. But more than that… There was a woman, Alice, and I thought I loved her. I was ready, to change everything, truly begin a life with her…”

 

I pulled the name from my memory, where I’d tucked it weeks ago.

 

“You mean Kate?” I guessed. He looked at me in surprise.

 

“How did you know about her?”

 

“One of your associates mentioned her once,” I said. “They didn’t say much, but I had a feeling.”

 

“Well, yes,” he said. “Her name was Kate. We were together for over a year. I thought I would marry her.”

 

“What happened?” I asked.

 

“She saw through me,” he said. “As she learned more about my work, some of the projects and practices that Jenson Pace was involved in under my leadership… She confronted me about it, and I told her that it wasn’t important, that she shouldn’t worry about it, and that I was only doing it to provide for my family. She couldn’t take it, though. She didn’t love me anymore after that. She walked out of my life. And… I can’t blame her, not really. For such a long time, during those years, nothing was important to me except Jenson Pace’s success – my success.”

 

“And now?” I asked.

 

He laughed bitterly.

 

“I’m not exactly reformed, am I? Rather than form a real relationship, or god forbid just be honest with my clients, I hired you to play this game with me. I don’t even know what that makes me.” He looked down at the album again. “But I know that they wouldn’t be proud of the man I am today. I do know that.”

 

“I think you’re wrong,” I said.

 

He shook his head and swallowed hard.

 

“Parents don’t love their children because they’re perfect, Harvey. I’m a failing actress with terrible credit, and my sister is a short-tempered paralegal who drinks too much. And our parents are nuts about us. Whether they’d agree with your choices or not, Harvey, I know your parents would still love you.” I reached down to where his hand still rested beside the photograph. I took his hand in mine. “Just look at them. They loved you both so much.”

 

He squeezed my hand and turned to look into my eyes. He reached up and, very lightly, touched my hair.

 

“Alice… I hate that I met you this way,” he said. “I hate that all you know about me is how weak I am, how much of a liar I can be. I hate that we can never…”

 

He trailed off and looked away.

 

“Can never what, Harvey?” I asked, my heart racing.

 

He took my hand in both of his and looked into my eyes.

 

“I hate that we can never know, Alice,” he said. “I… I’m so out of line saying any of this to you…” He shook his head. “I just think I might go crazy wondering, if we could have had something…”

 

“Something real,” I finished for him.

 

“Yeah.”

 

I sat still for a long moment, looking down at his big hands wrapped around mine. Something inside of me, something that I had tried to ignore, something I had tried to silence, was singing, utterly enraptured by the possibility Harvey’s words suggested. Another part of me was sounding alarm bells, warning me to stop, back up, get out of there. I barely knew him, and there were still so many things about him that gave me pause. And yet, I wanted to ignore those alarms. I wanted to lean closer to him, to close my eyes, move closer still until I could feel his breath on my lips…

 

“No,” I said, when his mouth was only a fraction of an inch from mine. “Not now, Harvey. Not like this.”

 

He released my hands abruptly and got to his feet, turning his back to me.

 

“Of course,” he said. His words were suddenly more formal, the slur in them less pronounced. “Forgive me, Alice. This was… unfair of me.”

 

“No, Harvey, you don’t need to apologize—”

 

“I do,” he insisted. He glanced back at me, his expression pained. “Alice…”

 

“What is it, Harvey?” I said. A lump had started to form in my throat. “What do you need from me?”

 

He looked away from me.

 

“I need you to go,” he said. “Please… just go.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Mick was waiting in the foyer. He drove me home, not speaking during the ride. When we arrived at my apartment, he got out and opened the door for me.

 

“It was good of you to come, Alice,” he said.

 

“I don’t know, Mick,” I said. “I don’t think I helped.”

 

He shrugged.

 

“He can’t tell himself no one gives a shit anymore,” he said. “That’s something. It’s a big something, when you’re feeling like that. I’ve been there. I know.”

 

I smiled at him through the tears that blurred my vision.

 

“Thanks, Mick.”

 

An impulse struck me, and I stepped forward and caught him in a hard hug. He stood stiffly for a moment, then gingerly hugged me back. He cleared his throat loudly as I stepped away from him.

 

“You have a good night, Miss Alice,” he said, smiling at me with real warmth.

 

“And you, Mick.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

I didn’t turn my phone back on that night. In the morning, I waited until after I’d had my coffee before starting it back up. There were four messages from Rose.

 

“Come on, we need to handle this.”

 

“Seriously, Allie, you’re not his slave. Don’t bail on me. Tell him you can’t tonight.”

 

“Just call me tomorrow, okay?”

 

“Are you okay???”

 

I sighed heavily and made the call. She answered as soon as the phone started ringing.

 

“Allie! Are you okay? Is everything alright?”

 

“I’m fine, Rose,” I said. “Something unexpected came up. I had to meet Harvey on short notice.”

 

“He has a hell of a nerve,” she said. “Does he do that a lot? Snap his fingers and make you come running?”

 

I ignored her question.

 

“I can meet you today, if you can make it. I don’t think I’ll hear from him for a while.”

 

“Oh, well, alright. Same place? Lunch?”

 

“Sure, Rose. I’ll see you then.”

 

I ended the call and put the phone away.

 

I stretched out on the couch and pulled a throw blanket around me. I wasn’t looking forward to meeting with Rose, but the sick churning in my stomach was finally gone. I finally knew – I wasn’t going to betray Harvey. I couldn’t. It was the wrong thing to do. He had been wrong… but I didn’t have to be.

 

And, even though it terrified me, I had to acknowledge, at least to myself, that there was more to it than that. I cared about him. Yesterday, when I’d been with him, and I’d just been me, I hadn’t been acting. I was Alice Brennan, not Alice Clarke, and I still wanted him. I wanted to touch him; I wanted him to hold me, to kiss me, to look at me that way he had looked at Alice Clarke so many times. I wanted it to be real, and I wanted it to be mine.

 

And, of course, that was crazy. Harvey and I were nothing alike. They may have made me up to look like the kind of girl he’d date, they might have given me this apartment and these clothes, but underneath all of this, I was still just Allie, the starving actress who’d dropped out of community college and couldn’t afford to keep a pet cat. Once Harvey sobered up, he would see that, and we would be strictly professional again. I wasn’t stupid; I understood all of this. But I still couldn’t hurt him on purpose.

 

I wouldn’t.

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

 

A few hours later, I stepped out of a cab and walked into the café where I’d arranged to meet Rose. The place was far enough from my apartment that I wasn’t worried about being recognized, but it was just nice enough that it wouldn’t look too wildly suspicious if someone who knew me as Alice Clarke did see me here. I considered using my British accent during this meeting – it would be a sensible precaution – but decided against it. Rose was going to be angry enough with me as it was.

 

I spotted Rose, already seated, and crossed the café to her table.

 

“Allie!” Rose said, getting out of her seat. She moved to embrace me, but stopped dead. “Oh. My. God. What on earth did they do to you?”

 

I flushed bright red, and tucked my hair behind my ear nervously.

 

“I know, it’s different. It’s actually grown on me, though.”

 

“Different is a good start,” she said. She shook her head, then came forward and hugged me. “You hardly even look like my little sister. What happened to your hair?”

 

“It’s… complicated. Making it look like this,” I said, laughing. “You should see how long it used to take me to get it right. It’s not so bad now. But you’ve already seen how I look, in the pictures in the news.”

 

“A picture is one thing, but in person…” She shook her head.

 

Rose was wearing a brown tweed skirt with a plain white blouse; her hair was pulled back into a loose bun. She must have come from work. She glanced away from me and smoothed her hair down with her hands.

 

“I feel like such a slob next to you, Allie. Goodness, those clothes!”

 

“Please, don’t do that,” I said. I was wearing a red skirt suit with white pumps. “I didn’t pick these clothes, or pay for them. It’s just a costume. Forget it. It’s just me here.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” she said, her voice uncertain. She sat back down at the table, and I took the chair across from her.

 

After we’d ordered, Rose got right down to business.

 

“Okay, so I checked it out, and Pace’s dinner is on the thirteenth, Friday the thirteenth if you can believe it. I tracked down someone who works with the catering company that Jenson Pace uses. They already have the schedule for the evening. There’s going to be an introduction, then food, then a big presentation, awards, blah blah blah. You know, a bunch of rich assholes patting each other on the back for being so wonderful.”

 

“Mmm hmm,” I said, sipping my coffee, trying to summon the courage to break the news to her.

 

“I’m thinking the best time to do it is after dinner,” she continued. “But before the presentation starts. You can slip away from Harvey, say you’re going to the restroom or something. The microphone should be all set up by then. All you’ll need to do is get up there, and tell them all – in your real voice – what your real name is and the real reason you’re with Harvey Pace. Security will probably intervene pretty quickly, but you won’t need much time. A minute, tops. Make sure you get your name in. The press will just have to Google you, and they’ll find write-ups and photos from your other acting jobs. From there, it’ll take care of itself. Harvey won’t be able to show his face anywhere for a long time.”

 

She sat back in her chair, smiling, flushed with excitement, waiting for me to respond.

 

I swallowed hard and looked her in the eye.

 

“No, Rose.”

 

“No?” She blinked at me in confusion. “To what? Do you think there’s a better time to get up there? Or maybe we should just leak the contract directly to the press? I mean, maybe—”

 

“No, Rose,” I said, holding up a hand. “To all of it. I’m not going to do this. Not to myself, and not to him. It’s not right. I’m not okay with it. I’ve decided, and I’m not changing my mind.”

 

Her expression darkened.

 

“Alice, what has gotten into you? I thought we’d already settled all of this. He—he screwed us, and he’s going to get what he deserves.”

 

“No,” I said. “There’s more to it than you know. What he did… It was wrong. But the circumstances… They were messed up. He’d just lost his father, and he didn’t know how to deal with it, and he made a bunch of bad choices. I don’t want to make a bad choice here, Rose. I’m not going to do this. I’m going to finish this job, and then I’m going to move on.”

 

Her mouth twisted into a smirk.

 

“It’s the money, isn’t it?” she said. “The clothes? The apartment and the car? All your fancy parties? You’re not one of them, Alice, and being his— his bitch isn’t going to make you one of them!”

 

“Rose!” I gasped.

 

“You’re not better than me, Alice!” Her voice grew louder; people were beginning to turn and look at us. “None of this is real. You got to go play dress up, go dancing with your dark prince, and you’ve forgotten who you really are. Harvey Pace hasn’t even known you for two months, and you’re all ready to choose him over the family that has loved you your whole life.”

 

“My family?” I said in an angry whisper, shaking my head. “Do you really think mom and dad would want us to do this? Could you really see them being so nasty about it?”

 

She looked away and said nothing.

 

“I’m done with this,” I said. Tears threatened, but I held them back. “I’m walking out of here, and I’m going to go do my job, and I’m going to still be able to look myself in the mirror when it’s finished. I’m sorry I hurt you, and I’m sorry you’re angry, but you’re wrong about this, Rose. You’re wrong about him.”

 

She shook her head, her mouth working at words that didn’t come out. Finally, she grabbed her jacket and purse and rushed out of the restaurant, leaving me alone at the table.

 

~ ~ ~

 

It was a week before I heard from Harvey again. He sent me a message saying that there was a chamber of commerce luncheon happening in a few days. He gave me the day and time, and said nothing else.

 

I wasn’t surprised that he was taking some distance. The way I’d seen him the week before, drunk and grieving, was completely uncharacteristic for him. I’d come to understand that control was more than just a habit for Harvey; it was what he held onto to feel safe in a world that had shown itself to be unpredictable in the worst way.

 

What did surprise me was how much I missed him. I’d been tempted to text him, but I decided to wait, let him decide when he was ready to reach out again. Since that day in his home with him, and since I’d decided not to expose his plan to the world, the little flame of affection I’d felt for Harvey had grown. Perhaps this was because my guilt was no longer compelling me to hold it back, or perhaps it was because I knew now that, just maybe, he could feel the same way about me.

 

It was all so far from certain. I knew that he might very well pretend that nothing had happened when he next saw me. I knew that he would very likely sober up, look in the mirror, and remember who he was, and who I was. Rose had been right about one thing – under all this borrowed jewelry and these borrowed clothes, I was still someone who simply did not fit into the world of Harvey Pace. Despite all my questionable decisions of the past weeks, I was neither a fool nor a child who still believed in fairy tales. When this story ended, I knew that I would go back to my little corner of the world, and he would stay in his.

 

Maybe this experience would wake him up. Maybe he would reach out, start earnestly looking for a woman to love. She probably wouldn’t be all too different from the fictional Alice Clarke. She’d have real money and status, and refinement that she didn’t have to be coached on. I felt a bitter stab of jealousy at the thought.

 

When the day of the chamber of commerce luncheon arrived, I took extra time getting ready. I knew that there wouldn’t be many more of these days left for Harvey and me, and, even if it was just pretend, I intended to enjoy them. I smoothed my hair into pretty waves and applied my makeup. Because it was a business event, I chose a butter yellow skirt suit over an ivory silk blouse. I put on pantyhose and ivory heels, and finished the look with pearl earrings and a pearl pendant on a gold chain. I put just a touch of perfume at my ears and wrists.

 

When Harvey knocked on the door, I felt a rush of nerves that reminded me of the first “dates” we’d had together. I shook the feeling off, determined to relax. He may never be my lover, but at least he was no longer my enemy. For a little while, maybe we could even manage to be friends.

 

I opened the door and let him in. The expression on his face was so unusual that it took me a moment to understand that Harvey was actually nervous. Then, just like that, it was gone, smoothed into a relaxed smile.

 

“You look lovely today, Alice,” he said.

 

“Thank you,” I said, with my accent. He inclined his head in acknowledgement, a touch of sadness in his expression.

 

It made me sad, too, but it was okay. I was still glad to see him. We rode the elevator downstairs. When we got to the street, the car wasn’t waiting.

 

“I came by a bit early today,” he said. “I thought we could walk and talk a bit, before we go to the event.”

 

“Alright,” I said. “I would like that.”

 

For a few minutes, we walked down the street in silence. He didn’t try to hold my hand. At the end of my block, there was a little park. I often came down here to read or draw; there were always people here with their dogs, or parents with their children. It was a peaceful place, a haven of green grass and shady trees in the middle of the city’s forest of concrete and steel. Harvey led me into the park, down a side path, to a bench in a more secluded corner. I sat down, and he sat beside me.

 

For a long moment, he didn’t speak. I watched his face; it seemed that he was concentrating on something, or deciding on something.

 

“This is most unusual for me,” he said at last. “Having a problem I do not know how to solve.”

 

“What problem, Harvey?” I asked.

 

“You, Alice,” he said.

 

The sound of his voice saying my name made me tremble. I clasped my hands together in my lap and tried to look calm.

 

He went on.

 

“I… I know I’ve been a fool, in so many ways. And now, I think that life may be having some fun with me, to pay me back, you know. I thought I would live the rest of my life alone, and I thought I could be content with that. And then, Mick brought you to me, and now…”

 

He shook his head.

 

“See?” he said. “This is why it’s such a problem. This is why you never date an employee, Alice. It isn’t fair. The position I’m in, the position you’re in, it makes it so that you can’t honestly answer me. And I cannot even ask the question if I can’t be sure you’ll tell me what’s really in your heart.” He looked at me, his eyes pleading for me to understand. “Do you see, Alice?”

 

“Yes,” I said. “I think so.”

 

“So, what do we do about this?” he asked. “I… just cannot accept that this is impossible. I’m a fool, but not so much of a fool as to pretend that you aren’t a very unusual woman, Alice. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another person like you.”

 

I could hardly believe what I was hearing, the things Harvey was saying to me, in the sober light of day. Perhaps just as unbelievable was the fact that he was asking me what to do about this. I used to think that Harvey always knew what to do.

 

I took a deep breath, looked back down the path we’d come in from. A girl a few years younger than me was stretched out on the grass, reading a book. A little further past her, an elderly couple walked together, arm in arm.

 

“I love this place,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite things about living here. I think that, even after this job is over, I still might come here sometimes.”

 

“Alice…” he began, not understanding.

 

“My birthday is a little over a month from now,” I said. “I think that this thing we’re doing will be finished by then, don’t you?”

 

He hesitated, then nodded.

 

“Yes,” he said. “The Laytons’ lawyers have already contacted Jenson Pace. Details are still being negotiated, but I expect the papers will be signed, maybe not by the anniversary event, but not long after. Our… your employment with me will be finished then.”

 

I wondered briefly how we’d play it publicly. To keep faith with the Laytons and others he’d deceived, it would probably have to be me who ended it. Poor, love-struck Harvey, abandoned by the woman he’d loved. No one could blame him for that; if anything, they’d love him more. Every woman in the state would be lining up to comfort him.

 

“You’re right, Harvey,” I said at last. “We’re not in a situation where we can know what we both really want, or what we should do. The time I’ve spent on this job, it’s been unlike anything else I’ve ever done before. Sometimes I feel like my life before this was a dream. I get lost in this world of yours. And it’s a strange thing for you to be doing, too. It gets into your head, I know. Feelings can get confused.”

 

“Alice, I’m not confused,” he said quietly.

 

“You don’t think so right now,” I said. “But… When I’m gone, your life is going to change. What you want… might not be what you think you want now.”

 

He shook his head, but said nothing.

 

“I just think we both need some time, to think, to decide if this is really something we want to try. If, when this is all over, it’s something that we both still want, then we should come back here, say, on my birthday, at noon. And if we’re both here, then, we can see what happens. And if we’re not… Well, then at least we both know.”

 

He reached for my hand then and squeezed it tightly. I met his eyes and saw determination there, and hope.

 

“I’ll be here, Alice,” he said.

 

My heart leapt, but I kept my smile careful.

 

“We’ll see,” I said.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

 

“Just a few more minutes under the dryer, Miss Clarke.” A pretty blonde girl, one of the assistants at Astra’s salon, smiled brightly as she handed me a steaming latté. I took it from her gratefully, yawning.

 

Susan had gotten me out of the house at dawn, a full day of beauty treatments scheduled in preparation for Jenson Pace’s twenty-fifth anniversary gala. It seemed like a waste to go to all this trouble for what was likely to be my last public event with Harvey, but she insisted. So, at this ungodly early hour, Astra had already painted the roots of my hair, wrapped it in foils, and put me under the dryer. Cutting and styling would come next, then nails, waxing, makeup…

 

There had better be more coffee, I thought.

 

Truthfully, I didn’t mind the routine so much today. In spite of myself, I’d come to honestly like Astra, and even Susan. Since this would likely be our last day together, I was going to try to enjoy it if I could.

 

Hours of styling and a light lunch later, as I sat in Astra’s makeup chair trying not to blink against the mascara brush she was wielding, Susan came by to check on us. For a change, she would be attending the event with Harvey and me tonight, and her hair and makeup was already done.

 

“You look wonderful, Susan,” I said. She smiled and waved off the compliment.

 

“No one will be looking at me tonight, dear Alice, not if I’ve done my job. Yes, Astra, don’t hold back. Go dramatic,” she said. “It’s not a night for subtlety. This is Harvey’s triumph, and everyone is going to know it, even if we can’t announce the sale just yet.”

 

Harvey had been disappointed that the sale of Layton Steel couldn’t be finalized before the gala, but word had already gotten out that Jenson Pace would be the buyer. Papers for the sale would be signed within the week. And then, of course, my part in all this would be done.

 

“What’s that look for, Alice?” Susan said, seeing me frown. “It’s a happy day! Happy happy!”

 

I gave her an exaggerated, toothy smile. She laughed.

 

“I’m gonna miss you,” she said.

 

“Hmm?” Astra said. “Where are you going?”

 

Susan realized her slip and covered quickly.

 

“I have to travel out of state for a few weeks, that’s all,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “High maintenance client needs some quality time; you know how it is.”

 

When Astra’s back was turned, I gave Susan a look of mock disapproval. She shook her head and rolled her eyes at me.

 

“You still have nails yet to go,” she said, looking at her watch. “I’m gonna take off. I’ll send the car for you in about an hour and a half. I have a couple of things to pick up for later.”

 

“Alright,” I said. “See you in a bit.”

 

Two hours later, the car Susan had sent dropped me off in front of my building. I took the elevator up to my apartment and let myself in, careful not to chip my freshly-manicured nails.

 

My dress for the event was hanging in my closet. It was a one-shouldered, sapphire blue gown covered with glittering crystals. It left much of my back bare, and clung closely to the curves of my body from my shoulder to my hips, flaring out just above my knees. Walking in it was a bit of a feat, but I had to admit that it was stunning. Susan had wanted to make my final appearance memorable, and I believed that she would succeed.

 

I glanced at my kitchen clock. I had a few minutes before Susan was going to come by with my jewelry for the evening. I noticed my pre-Harvey cell phone sitting on the kitchen counter. The message alert light was blinking on it. I picked it up and opened the message. It was from Rose.

 

“You can still make this right. Call me.”

 

I frowned. She hadn’t tried to contact me since our last meeting in the café. I knew there was a chance that she’d never forgive me for rejecting her plan, but I had hoped some time would let her reconsider. Rather than changing her mind, though, she was still trying to change mine. I turned off the phone and stuck it in a kitchen drawer.

 

Susan arrived a little later, holding up a garment bag over her head.

 

“I’ll change into my dress after we get you all ready,” she said, laying the bag over the back of an armchair.

 

I went into the bedroom and got dressed in my underthings, what little I would be able to wear under the revealing gown. Susan held the gown while I stepped into it, then zipped up the side.

 

“Nervous?” she asked, as she held out an impossibly high-heeled shoe for me.

 

“Actually, I’m not,” I said, stepping into the shoe. I took a few practice steps in the shoes, and found that I was able to balance without too much trouble. I’d gotten a lot of practice in shoes like these over the last two months.

 

“You and Harvey, you’ve gotten pretty… comfortable with each other, haven’t you?” she asked, watching me with shrewd eyes.

 

I shrugged and turned away, hiding my expression.

 

“We spend a lot of time together,” I said. “You know, just part of the job.”

 

Her mouth quirked into a skeptical smile.

 

“Uh huh,” she said, shaking her head. She looked down at her watch. “Shoot! Is it six already? I need to get changed. Let’s get your jewelry on.”

 

She took a tiny paper shopping bag out of her purse; the name of a local jeweler was imprinted on the side of the bag.

 

“Now, these are just loaners,” she said. “I’ll return them to the jeweler after the event.”

 

“Wow,” I breathed, watching in the mirror as she fastened a glittering diamond choker around my neck.

 

“Yup,” she said. “Wow is right. Be careful with these. They cost enough that even Harvey will notice the expense if they get lost.”

 

“I will,” I said. She handed me a pair of matching earrings, and I fastened them on my ears.

 

“Now, let me have a look at you,” Susan said. I turned to face her, and she beamed with satisfaction. “Damn, but I am good at my job,” she said. She took her garment bag back to the guest room to change, leaving me alone in the living room.

 

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and let Harvey in.

 

No matter how many times I saw him in a tuxedo, I was still stunned by how gorgeous he looked.

 

“Hello, handsome,” I said.

 

He held up at finger, stopping me – wait. He just looked at me for a long moment, his eyes traveling up and down me as I turned deepening shades of red. He slowly shook his head.

 

“You can’t be real,” he said at last. “This kind of beauty just isn’t possible.”

 

I felt my face flush.

 

“You’re welcome,” Susan said from behind me. She came into the living room, fastening her earrings as she walked. She wore a sleeveless gown with a black wrap top and full silver chiffon skirt.

 

“You look lovely as well, Susan,” Harvey said, embracing her and kissing her cheek.

 

“Thank you,” she said. “You don’t clean up too badly yourself, little brother.” She picked her purse up off the couch. “Well, shall we be going?”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The three of us rode together in a limousine to the event. We sipped champagne and laughed together on the ride over. Harvey was a little tense about the evening ahead, but overall, the mood among us was one of relief, and of celebration. We’d actually made it through this ridiculous experiment, and, somehow, it had actually worked.

 

The gala was taking place at a luxury hotel downtown. The limousine pulled to the curb, and Ted came around to open the door for us. Susan stepped out first. Beyond her, I could see what seemed like hundreds of cameras flashing in irregular succession. I felt a little rush of adrenaline as I realized that Harvey hadn’t been kidding about how much press would be at the event. I took a few deep breaths, remembering that I’d done this before, and that there was nothing to be afraid of.

 

Harvey stepped out of the car next and extended a hand to me. I stepped out, a big smile on my face, cameras firing all around us. We walked in together, my hand in his.

 

Once inside, I saw that there were many reporters inside too, circulating with conspicuous press badges and more huge cameras. I tried to pretend they weren’t there, only looking at them when they stopped us to ask for photographs. Harvey fielded some questions from them as well, about Jenson Pace’s history (yes, everyone was proud of how far the company had come), the Layton Steel deal (yes, we are exploring a mutually beneficial arrangement with the company, but can’t comment further), and his relationship with me (no answer, just a charming laugh and shake of the head). As always, I was in awe of how smoothly he handled them.

 

After a few minutes of questions, he held up his hands. “Alright, folks, that’s all for tonight. I’m going to go enjoy the evening with my lady here. Any further questions can be directed to my public relations manager.” On cue, a sharply-dressed brunette stepped forward. I recognized her as Lana Carter, one of the people who had spoken onstage at the first event I’d attended with Harvey. The reporters shifted their attention to her, and Harvey and I slipped away.

 

“How did you learn to do that?” I asked him in a low voice as we walked. “How are you so good with them?”

 

“You just have to convince them that you don’t care what they write,” he said. “It helps if you can convince yourself first.”

 

“But you do care,” I said.

 

“Only when I absolutely have to,” he said with a shrug.

 

We found our table, and Harvey introduced me to some of his associates that I hadn’t met before. The Laytons were seated with us as well. I noticed that Phil Mercer and his wife weren’t sitting with us. I glanced around and saw them at a table on the far end of the ballroom. Harvey noticed me looking.

 

“We don’t need to deal with him tonight,” he said in a low voice. His smile turned a bit wicked. “And I heard a rumor that he may be reassigned soon, to an office far away from here.”

 

“Hmm, funny how that happened,” I said.

 

Phil Mercer saw me looking and frowned. I looked away quickly.

 

After a few minutes of small talk at the table, the lights lowered, and voices hushed. A spotlight focused on the stage, and I was surprised to see Susan Pace walk onstage. She approached a clear glass podium and spoke into the microphone.

 

“Twenty-five years ago, my father, Geoffrey Pace, founded this company with his late partner, Joseph Jenson. Those two men started in a tiny storefront office. They shared a bathroom with the tax preparers next door, and had a single phone line between the two of them. Today, Jenson Pace is a worldwide name, a leader in innovation, employing thousands, and shaping the future of our nation and our world.”

 

The room applauded. Susan smiled and paused until the applause quieted.

 

“Thank you all for coming tonight to celebrate what my father built, what my brother, Harvey Pace, continues to build. We are so proud and pleased to be where we are today, and we could not have done this without the faith and support of our partners, both within Jenson Pace, and in our community.”

 

More applause. Susan smiled graciously as Lana Carter came onstage and took over her spot at the podium.

 

“Thank you very much, Susan. That, of course, was Susan Pace, daughter of our late founder, Geoffrey Pace. Again, welcome, and thank you for being here tonight. Dinner will be served shortly, and our programming for the evening will follow.”

 

The lights came up after that, and the waiters approached with trays of food. Susan returned to our table a few minutes later, looking surprisingly flustered.

 

“Are you okay?” I whispered.

 

“I’m not a fan of public speaking,” she said. “Harvey’s good at that nonsense. I prefer a smaller room. Oh well, at least it’s over.” She drained a glass of champagne quickly and signaled to a passing waiter for more.

 

“I thought you did well,” I said.

 

“Thank you, Alice,” she said with a smile.

 

Dinner was delicious, and the conversation was pleasant and inconsequential. There seemed to be some mutual agreement that Harvey and the Laytons wouldn’t discuss their deal at the table tonight. Instead, we all talked about whether we might make it out on the yacht one more time this season, and where we’d be traveling for the holidays. It was a little uncomfortable chatting about these things when I knew that I would be gone in a week, but I must have covered my unease well. No one seemed to notice anything was off.

 

After dessert had been cleared away, Marie Layton glanced around.

 

“Do you think we have time to go freshen up before the program begins?” she asked.

 

“Oh, I think so,” Susan said. “They aren’t supposed to start for another ten minutes.” She picked up her purse and started to stand.

 

Suddenly, there was a sound of microphone feedback over the sound system. Everyone at the table winced. The feedback stopped a moment later, replaced by a familiar voice.

 

“Your attention please, everyone!” the voice said urgently.

 

“Oh no,” I said, as the blood drained from my face.

 

Rose.

 

Harvey saw the look on my face and put a hand on my arm.

 

“What’s wrong, Alice?” he asked.

 

“I have to stop her,” I said, starting to stand. But it was too late.

 

All the eyes in the room were locked on Rose, who stood at the podium onstage. She was dressed like one of the wait staff. Her hair was pulled back tightly from her face.

 

Of course she wasn’t going to let this go, I thought. How had I ever thought she would?

 

“The woman you see with Harvey Pace tonight,” Rose said, her voice shaking just a bit. “Her name is NOT Alice Clarke. It’s Alice Brennan. And she’s not his girlfriend, she’s an actress. She’s here because he hired her to be here, to pretend to be someone else, and to pretend to be his girlfriend. He’s lying! He’s lying to all of you—”

 

Her tirade cut off suddenly as two security guards in black windbreakers pulled her away from the microphone.

 

I looked at Harvey. His face was white. Beside him, Susan stared at me in shock, her hand over her mouth. Across the table, the Laytons were looking at Harvey and me incredulously.

 

Harvey was frozen in place for a moment, but only for a moment. He took me by the arm, and guided me quickly toward the exit. I hurried to keep up with him. We passed by Phil Mercer’s table as we went; his satisfied expression turned my stomach.

 

Harvey and I were fast, but the reporters were faster.

 

“Is it true? Is Alice Clarke your real name?”

 

“Are you working for Harvey Pace?”

 

“Is your relationship real, Alice? Alice?”

 

Harvey brushed by them without answering, but one of them grabbed my arm.

 

“Alice! Did Harvey hire you? Alice! Alice! Are you a prostitute?”

 

It happened so fast I didn’t have time to react. One moment, Harvey was pulling me through a crowd of people with cameras and tape recorders. The next moment, he was driving his fist into the face of the reporter who’d asked that last question. The reporter was knocked flat, and the others took advantage of the interruption and surrounded us. Harvey’s eyes met mine for a long moment. Camera flashes fired around us like machine guns.

 

Then we were moving again. Mick was there, pushing the reporters aside roughly, making a path for us to the door, and then the street, where the limousine was waiting. We ducked inside. Mick rode up front with Ted, leaving me alone in the car with Harvey.

 

For a minute, the only sound in the car was the heavy sound of our breathing. Finally, he spoke. His voice was surprisingly calm, but there was something dangerous beneath it.

 

“Who was that, Alice?” he asked.

 

I didn’t answer.

 

“Alice. Who?”

 

“It was my sister, Rose,” I said.

 

He looked at me incredulously.

 

“You… You did this?” he asked. “Why? Why, Alice?” He grabbed my shoulder and forced me to look at him.

 

I shook my head as tears started to fall down my cheeks.

 

“I didn’t want to,” I said. “I told her. I told her not to.”

 

“But why?”

 

“Western Trust,” I said. “When I was still a kid, they foreclosed on our house. That was because of Jenson Pace. It was because of you. My parents lost everything, Harvey. We all did.”

 

Harvey let go of me and turned away.

 

“Jesus,” he said, shaking his head. “How did we not know this? We should have known this.” He stared out the window as the city flew by. “Was this your plan all along, Alice?”

 

I shook my head. “I… At the beginning, yes, I planned this. But I changed my mind. I told her we couldn’t. But… Rose was so angry, Harvey. You don’t understand how it was for us, losing our home. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor like that.”

 

“You think that makes this okay, Alice?” he said, his voice rising as he turned back to me, his expression full of rage. “Because my family had more money than yours?”

 

“I just want you to understand—”

 

“What I understand is that I trusted you,” he said. “I even thought I…” he trailed off. “It doesn’t matter. I was an idiot. God, I was such an idiot.”

 

“Harvey, please,” I pleaded.

 

“Just stop, Alice,” he said, his voice breaking. “I don’t want to hear anymore. I… I can’t hear anymore.”

 

I sank back in my seat. We rode the rest of the way home in silence. When we arrived at my building, there were three men in suits waiting on the sidewalk.

 

“Are they more reporters?” I asked, alarmed.

 

“No,” Harvey said. “Security.” He opened the door and stepped out. I got out after him.

 

Mick had already gotten out and was talking to the other men in a low voice.

 

“Wait here,” Harvey said sternly. He went to talk to Mick and the other men. A moment later, he came back.

 

“Stay here tonight,” he said. “I’m going to leave two men here, one will be stationed at your door and one in the lobby. They’ll keep the press away. Tomorrow, they’ll help you move home. I’d tell you not to talk to the press, but a hell of a lot of good that’s done me.”

 

“Harvey—”

 

He cut me off.

 

“We’re done here, Alice,” he said, his voice cold. “You got what you wanted. You won. Now just get the hell out of my life.”

 

He climbed into the limousine without looking back. As I watched the car drive away, the strength drained from my limbs.

 

“I’m never going to see him again,” I said to no one.

 

Mick touched my arm.

 

“Come on, Alice,” he said. “Time to get inside, before the bloodsuckers show up.” He pointed up the street, and I saw that two news vans were already pulling up to the curb. I let Mick lead me inside. I felt numb all over.

 

It was over. He was gone. And he’d been wrong – I hadn’t won. I’d lost. We all had.

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

 

For the first week after the gala, I could hardly leave my apartment because of the press. They waited on my doorstep, followed me, shouting questions, when I tried to leave to run errands. I ignored them as much as I could. I knew they’d move on eventually, but I had no idea how long it would take for that to happen.

 

At least I was back home, my real home, noisy pipes, drafty windows and all. Despite its relative lack of comfort compared to the place Harvey had given me, I was glad to be back. I needed this space back that was just mine, where I could just be me. I needed this space to try to figure out what being “me” meant. I wasn’t Alice Clarke, Harvey’s high class lover, but I didn’t feel like Alice Brennan, the starving but optimistic actress, either.

 

For one thing, I wasn’t starving anymore. Although I had forfeited the severance bonus by violating our contract, Harvey made no move to recoup the substantial amount of money he’d paid me during the assignment. He’d also had the clothes, and even some of the jewelry, that he’d purchased for me shipped to my home. I was confused and texted Mick to see if it had been a mistake. Mick had just sent back, “He just told us to get rid of them. Said he had no use for a bunch of women’s clothing.”

 

I’d left most of them in the boxes, piled in a corner of my bedroom. I couldn’t look at them, let alone put them on. I didn’t want to dress up as perfect English Alice, not ever again. The thought filled me with a sickening shame, brought me back to that moment when Harvey had looked at me and known that I was never worth trusting, let alone loving.

 

I tried not to think about it, because there was nothing I could do to change it. Whatever might have happened between Harvey and me would never happen now. Best not to even think about it.

 

The first thing I’d bought with the money in my account was a bottle of home hair dye. The box said “Fiery Amber,” and the finished result was garish and brassy, but at least I didn’t look like Harvey’s honey-blonde Alice anymore. My real color would grow back in eventually, and in the meantime, I was able to look in the mirror without shaking.

 

Harvey hadn’t pressed charges against Rose for what she’d done at the event. She’d been escorted off the property, and, once it had been determined that she wasn’t violent, was released. She’d tried to contact me several times since then, but I’d ignored her calls. As much as I could understand why she had done it, I just couldn’t forgive her, not yet. Before, she’d accused me of choosing Harvey over my family, but, in the end, she’d chosen revenge over me. She’d broken my trust, hurt my reputation and my career, and had made my life a living hell, at least for the time being.

 

I was still horrified at what had happened to Harvey. Photos of him and me were everywhere for the first couple of weeks after the gala. The headlines were nauseating: “The Billionaire’s Concubine,” “The Best Girlfriend Money Can Buy,” “Harvey’s Girl: Bought and Paid For.” They interviewed guests and staff from the event, and even some of my childhood friends they’d managed to track down. They pulled out and reprinted old pictures from our early events together, but the ones I saw the most often were the ones that had been snapped at that moment in the ballroom at the anniversary gala, after he’d punched the reporter. He and I are standing face to face; mine is streaked with tears, and his is full of disbelief and misery. That was the image that I saw every time I closed my eyes.

 

Harvey hadn’t been seen publicly since the event, and he hadn’t made any statement to the press. Once Rose had given them my name, they’d easily found my personal and professional information. My headshots and photos from the plays I’d done had been printed in tabloids and on blogs. They’d tracked down my phone number and called me constantly. I’d finally had the number changed, and I ignored their letters and email. Several tabloids and one television show had offered me money, a lot of money, to tell my story to them, but I never responded to their offer. I was never going to talk to them. They would have to make their own guesses. I’d hurt Harvey, and myself, enough.

 

So, for the first couple of weeks, I was trapped in my apartment without much more to do than think. Looking for work was out of the question. I’d tentatively reached out to a couple of directors I’d worked with before, and they’d politely told me that they wanted people to attend their plays to see the performance, not to gawk at Harvey Pace’s hired lover. I tried to tell myself that, given a little time, the story would die down and be all but forgotten. I needed to believe that this whole mess hadn’t destroyed my career along with everything else. Only time would tell about all that, though.

 

One morning about two weeks after I’d moved back home, I got a text message. When I saw who had sent it, I couldn’t believe it. It was Susan Pace; she wanted me to meet her. She told me when and where, and instructed me to change cabs twice to get there. She didn’t say what she wanted.

 

I was confused, but I needed to hear what she had to say. I dressed in simple clothes and put on a hat and sunglasses, hoping it would be enough to keep people from recognizing me. Following her instructions, I changed cabs twice, and it took me over an hour to reach the bar she’d picked.

 

My disguise was good; Susan didn’t notice me until I’d actually sat down across from her in her booth. I saw that she’d already gotten a drink for me, my usual Scotch and water.

 

She blinked at me in surprise.

 

“Alice?” she whispered.

 

“Yeah, it’s me,” I said.

 

“Your… your hair!” She sounded horrified. I pushed the curls that had slipped free from my cap back inside.

 

“Yeah, I needed to change it,” I said.

 

“What – what did you do?” she stammered. I shrugged.

 

“I bought hair dye at the drug store. I colored it in my bathroom. It’s a little more, uh, purple than I’d expected.”

 

She leaned back in her seat, looking as though she may need medical attention.

 

“You did it… yourself… in your bathroom…” she muttered to herself, shaking her head.

 

“Susan, did you really ask me to come here so you could talk to me about my hair?”

 

She sighed and sat up straighter.

 

“No, of course not,” she said.

 

“Then what do you want?”

 

“I needed to look you in the eye, Alice,” she said. “I… These past two weeks, I just keep asking myself how I could have misjudged someone so badly. I warned Harvey, at the beginning, that this thing he wanted to do could end just like this. But then I met you, and I generally have pretty good instincts about people. I just didn’t see you doing something like this. I thought it was going to be okay.”

 

“Susan, I don’t know what Harvey told you,” I said.

 

“Harvey won’t tell me anything,” she said. “He hardly leaves the house. He’s just… shut down.”

 

“Oh, god,” I groaned.

 

“So, I just have to know,” she said. “How much worse are you going to make this for us, Alice? Can we expect to see you talking to Barbara Walters soon on prime time TV? Maybe a bestselling tell-all book?”

 

“No, Susan!” I said. “I’m not talking to anyone!”

 

“You talked to someone.”

 

I looked down, ashamed.

 

“Yes, I did,” I said. “That was at the beginning, before I knew you, before I really knew Harvey. I found out who he was, realized what he’d done to my family… And I just reacted. I was angry, and that’s when I talked to Rose. But I changed my mind, Susan! I told her it was all off. I was going to finish the job, and that was going to be it. I swear.”

 

She looked at me for a long moment.

 

“God, I want to believe you, Alice,” she said. “Does Harvey know this?”

 

“I told him. I don’t know if he believes me or not.”

 

She was quiet, stirring her drink with her straw.

 

“I guess, if you were going to tell your story, we would have heard something about it by now,” she said at last.

 

“That will never happen,” I said. “I… I hate what happened to him. God, if you know how sick it makes me, remembering that night…” I picked up my napkin and wiped at my eyes.

 

“It wasn’t a lot of fun for us, either,” she said. She took a big breath, and looked me in the eye. “Okay, Alice. Maybe this is a stupid mistake, but for the sake of my own sanity, I’m going to believe you.”

 

“Thank you,” I said. I hesitated a moment, then reached across the table and squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, once.

 

“So,” she said, her tone the business-like clip that I’d come to expect from her. “What are you going to do now?”

 

I shook my head.

 

“I have no idea. I can’t work, at least not around here. I have some money, but that won’t last forever. I’m probably going to have to relocate, maybe take a different stage name, start all over.” The thought was depressing. I hadn’t exactly been a household name before working with Harvey, but the connections I had, I had worked hard for. Now all that would be gone.

 

She nodded.

 

“Well, at least he isn’t suing you for breach of contract,” she said.

 

“Oh god,” I said. “He could do that, couldn’t he?”

 

“Certainly. No one was more surprised than me when he didn’t,” she said. “I think… I think he wasn’t the only one of us who had a hard time believing the worst about you.”

 

Her words both soothed and hurt me.

 

“Susan…” I shook my head. “I know it’s nuts, but I miss him. Not the lifestyle, all of that, just him. I hardly even know why.”

 

“Alice, if you are telling me the truth about all this, then I truly am sorry that this happened to you. I’m sorry that working for my family has caused such problems for you. The fact is, when all is said and done, you’re the one who will be hurt by this the most, particularly if you really aren’t going to sell the story. Harvey and I, we’ll be fine. As obnoxious as they are now, reporters have a notoriously short attention span. They’ll have something else to write about soon, and we’ll still have our money, our empire. We’ll release a more advanced CAT scan machine or processing chip, and this story will be gone, just a footnote that polite company never mentions in our presence. When you have money and power, you’ll always have friends, or at least a good imitation of them.” She chuckled to herself. “It’s funny. They’re condemning you now, but the fact is, they do just as much pretending as you did, if not more. And… I’m not entirely convinced that the two of you were always just pretending.” She tilted her head and looked at me speculatively.

 

“None of that matters now,” I said. “I wish…” I shook my head. “But it doesn’t matter.”

 

She sighed, took a few bills from her wallet, and dropped them on the table for the drinks.

 

“Well, that’s a damn shame,” she said. “In my life, I see so little that isn’t pretend, that isn’t just put on. Finding something real… That’s a rare thing. Seems like a damn waste to me.”

 

“Susan…” I began.

 

“You take care of yourself, Alice,” she said. “I’m glad that I came to see you. I’m glad that I wasn’t so wrong about you.”

 

“Thanks,” I said. “For everything, Susan.”

 

She smiled and quirked one eyebrow at me, suddenly looking more like herself than she had since I’d come in.

 

“If you really want to thank me, for god’s sake do something about your hair. Honestly, Alice. Incognito or not, that is just not okay.”

 

She walked out of the bar shaking her head, her stilettos clicking against the linoleum floor.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Susan was right about one thing: the press do have a short attention span. In the days following my meeting with her, I ran into fewer and fewer of them outside my apartment. By the third week after the gala, I found I was able to live almost normally. I did still get some comments in public, and the requests for an interview continued to come in, but I was at least able to leave home without being followed.

 

As I’d expected, though, my work prospects hadn’t improved. I was only a novelty, a name to be remembered for pop trivia. I couldn’t get any leads for legitimate work. Finally, I gave up and started looking into relocating. I picked up some travel books about some cities out west, and even a couple for cities in Canada and Australia, somewhere where almost no one had heard of Alice Clarke.

 

It would be hard being so far away from my parents. Visiting them would be harder than ever, since they would no longer be a few hours’ drive away. They would understand, though. There had been no hiding this scandal from them, and once they got past their initial shock and disappointment, they’d been nothing but concerned and supportive, for both Rose and me. I guess it’s easier, when you’re the parent, to forgive things like that.

 

I still didn’t feel ready to forgive Rose. So, when I heard a knock on my door one sunny fall morning and saw her face through the peephole, I felt a twist of indecision. Part of me very much wanted to ignore her, to pretend that I wasn’t home (even though she always seemed to know when I was home). I still hadn’t found a way to justify her actions in my mind. Putting her out of my life for good, something I’d never considered before all of this had happened, was something that I had realized I might need to do.

 

But, as much as all of that might make sense, Rose was my only sister, and she was my best friend.

 

Sometimes good sense just can’t stand up to the simple force of missing someone.

 

I unchained and opened the door. Rose was holding a small birthday cake. There was a huge, hopeful smile on her face.

 

“Hi, Allie,” she said, her voice uncertain.

 

I sighed. “Come in,” I said.

 

She brought the cake in and put it on the table. There was one candle on the cake. She took a lighter out of her pocket and lit it.

 

“Happy birthday, baby Alice…” she sang. I tried to keep my face serious, but I wanted to laugh. My parents had introduced me to her as “baby Alice” when I’d been born, and it had stuck long past my baby days.

 

When she got to the end of the song, she bent over and blew out the candle.

 

“Hey, isn’t that supposed to be my job?” I asked.

 

“Yeah, technically,” she said. “But I needed to take your wish this year. Sorry. My birthday isn’t until March.”

 

“What do you need my wish for?”

 

“Well, I sort of lost my mind a few weeks ago. My therapist could explain why to you better than I can, but, basically, I got stuck on some bad memories and got obsessed. And I did something terrible, and I hurt a lot of people, including my favorite sister.”

 

“I’m your only sister,” I pointed out.

 

“And even though she always corrects me and never lets me finish the apology that I paid $120 an hour to practice with my therapist in a really uncomfortable role playing session, I really do care about her and I need to wish that she’ll forgive me, even though I totally get why she might not.”

 

I only lasted a few more seconds. Then I was hugging her, and laughing, and somehow still feeling angry at the same time. And it wasn’t perfect, but it was us, and it was good enough.

 

“God, this is stupid of me,” I said, holding onto her and blinking back tears. “Yes, I forgive you, Rose. But next birthday, you owe me your wish.”

 

“Deal.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Rose had to leave for work not long after she brought the cake. She apologized repeatedly and promised to make up for it with dinner and drinks over the weekend. I agreed, and by the time she’d gone, things were okay again. Not exactly as they had been before, and they may never be like that again, but, for now, we were okay.

 

I sat down and cut a piece of the cake, feeling somehow lighter than I had in weeks.

 

The cake was a little too dry and a little too sweet (Rose had many talents, but baking wasn’t among them; this had definitely been store-bought), but cake on your birthday is about more than dessert. The taste of the frosting and the smell of the burnt candle wax meant that someone had remembered my birthday and had cared enough to let me know it. When I’d woken up this morning, I had thought I would be spending my birthday alone. Even if it was just ten minutes with my crazy sister and a piece of day-old grocery store cake, it meant something.

 

I chewed and swallowed the cake, fighting against a growing sadness.

 

As much as I wanted to, I hadn’t been able to forget talking about this birthday with Harvey all those weeks ago. I remembered the smell of the grass, the sounds of children in the park that day, when I’d made that silly, romantic plan with him. It seemed like a lifetime ago, that little pocket of time where some small, hopeful part of me thought that something between us, something real, might actually be possible.

 

I glanced at the clock. It was just before eleven.

 

Don’t even think about it, a voice inside me warned.

 

That voice certainly made sense. So far, my day had been pretty good, a better day than I’d had in weeks. I could go to a movie or a museum, maybe even see if I could find a friend to meet up with who wouldn’t be weird about my dubious fame. Yes, any of those things would be better ways to spend my twenty-fifth birthday than crying in a park over a man that was never really mine.

 

But, even as I had those thoughts, I was putting on my shoes. I knew that it was going to hurt, but I just had to know. I’d never gotten to tell Harvey goodbye, and I probably never would, but maybe seeing that empty bench would at least give me a real ending to our story. Maybe seeing with my own eyes that he wasn’t there would finally quiet the part of me that still half expected to see a message on my phone or hear a knock on my door and have it be him. Maybe then I could stop wondering, stop wishing, and move on.

 

I didn’t trust my car to make it across town, and there wasn’t time for the bus, so I called a taxi. I watched for the cab nervously, first from my apartment window, and then from the street in front of my building. When it hadn’t shown up fifteen minutes later, I called the company again and found that there had been a mistake and my car hadn’t been dispatched. They promised me the cab was now on its way. It was another ten minutes before the car finally arrived. By the time I climbed into the cab at half past eleven, I was trying hard not to panic.

 

What if I was late, and he wasn’t there, and I’d still never know if he’d shown up?

 

I tried to tell myself that it was stupid to think that way. I tried to remind myself that this man hated me. I’d betrayed and humiliated him; there was no way he’d show up, and going out there was just a pointless, masochistic compulsion on my part. But something in me, something dangerous and hopeful, refused to accept that. Something in me dared to believe that it was possible for him to forgive me. After all, I’d forgiven him for hurting my family all those years ago, and I’d forgiven Rose for the terrible thing she had done. Forgiveness wasn’t easy, but sometimes, with love, it could really happen.

 

I checked the time on my phone. It was ten minutes to twelve, and we still weren’t close to the park. I wanted to cry.

 

When the cab finally pulled up at the edge of the park, my phone read 12:08. I paid the driver quickly, hardly paying attention to the bills I thrust at him. I didn’t stick around to hear his thanks for my generous tip, but made a beeline for the path I’d last walked down with Harvey.

 

I rushed along its twists and turns, almost running, until that bench came into view.

 

There was no one there.

 

Even though I’d known it was a long shot that I’d find him there today, I was heartbreakingly disappointed. I looked around, asking myself if I was sure this was the right bench.

 

It was no use. Of course this was the bench. This was where we’d sat together, when he’d held my hand and stroked my hair and said my name. I’d never be able to forget any detail of that day.

 

I stood for a moment, trying to pull myself together, trying to find the bright side. Finally, I gave up. I decided that I deserved to sit alone on that bench and have a good cry, the cry I’d never allowed myself to have for the man I’d barely dared to hope for.

 

As I walked toward the bench, tears already rolling down my cheeks, I saw something sitting on the bench. It was a small, black box – the kind that holds jewelry. Puzzled, I approached the bench and picked up the box. I opened the box, my heart pounding, and found inside…

 

A key?

 

I took the key out, confused, and turned it over in my hand. It looked like an ordinary house key.

 

“Alice.”

 

His voice came from behind me; for a moment I thought I’d imagined it. My head whipped around, and he was real, standing behind me wearing slacks and a wrinkled button-down shirt. His hair was tousled, and he looked terrible, and he looked more beautiful than anything I’d seen before in my life.

 

“You came,” he said, walking toward me. He took my hands, still holding the box, in both of his.

 

“Yes,” I said. “So did you.”

 

“Yes,” he said. He glanced back behind him. “When I got here, you weren’t here… I thought, I mean, I hoped that maybe I remembered the wrong bench, so I was looking for a different one. That’s where I was. God, Alice. You’re really here.” He cupped my cheek in his hand.

 

I looked down at the key I was holding.

 

“Harvey, what is this?”

 

“It’s your house, Alice,” he said. “207 Chariot Hill, Bay City, Michigan.”

 

“What? Harvey, do you mean…?”

 

“It wasn’t hard to find, once I knew that it’d been a Western Trust property. I found it and managed to convince the owners to sell. They didn’t want to at first, but I didn’t know how else to make this right with you, so I made them a ridiculous offer.”

 

I was stunned.

 

“Harvey, you bought my parents’ house back?”

 

“Yes,” he said. “It’s yours now, or theirs, whatever you want to do with it.”

 

“I… I don’t understand. I thought you hated me, Harvey. I mean, after what happened. You said—”

 

“I was angry, Alice,” he said. “I don’t do well with losing control, and what happened at the anniversary event… That certainly was a mess.”

 

“It wasn’t me, Harvey,” I said. “You’ve got to believe me.”

 

“I know,” he said. “You told me, that night, and the next day, my men confirmed it. They’d questioned Rose before they released her, and her story led them to believe she’d acted on her own. But, I have to be honest, Alice, I was still pretty upset. I felt like a fool, being exposed that way.”

 

He frowned.

 

“I wanted to hate you. Even more, I wanted to forget you. But, every day that passed, I just thought of you more. Alice, I’ve never met anyone like you before. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I know there’s nothing we can do to change our beginning, but I don’t want to throw our story away over that. I want to find out what happens next. I want to be with you, Alice.”

 

I looked at him in disbelief. I touched his cheek lightly with my fingertips.

 

“For real?” I asked him. He laughed.

 

“Yes, for real.”

 

He kissed me then, and it was both exactly and nothing like what I’d remembered. The feel of him, the smell of him, was powerfully familiar, but the raw need in his kiss was entirely new. This wasn’t for onlookers or cameras. It was only for us. I clung to him. When we finally broke away from each other, I was trembling.

 

“How will we do this?” I asked. “What will everyone think? The press…?”

 

“Honestly, Alice, I don’t give a damn anymore what they think. But I really would like to have some time, just with you, without reporters hounding us. Will you go away with me? Somewhere far away? I have a house in Spain. I think you’d like it there.”

 

“I can hardly believe this is happening,” I said, shaking my head. “You really want to be with me, Harvey? Just me, boring old Alice Brennan?”

 

“I really, really do,” he said. “I know I have a lot to apologize for. These past few weeks must have been awful for you. But I want to make it right with you, and even with Rose, if that’s possible.”

 

“It may be,” I said. “She owes me one.”

 

“And what about you, Alice?” he said. “Will you forgive me? And will you have me?”

 

“Harvey, I forgave you a long time, ago,” I said. “There is so much good in you. And, when I’m with you, I just… The whole world seems good. That’s how you make me feel. Like, the world was so much more beautiful than I’d ever known before. Before I knew you, I thought my purpose was to make beauty happen in the world, but when I’m with you, it’s just… everywhere. Yes, Harvey, I do want to be with you. I really, really do.”

 

He looked at me with such intensity, as if I was something both mysterious and precious.

 

“Alice… my Alice…”

 

He kissed me again, softly, and I finally believed it. A sob broke free from my throat. He wrapped his arms around me, and I pressed my face against his chest, my tears wetting his shirt.

 

“What is it?” he said, his face in my hair. “What’s wrong?”

 

It took me a few minutes to compose myself enough to answer him. When I was able to calm myself, I wiped my eyes, and looked up at him, a joyful smile on my face.

 

“I’m just happy,” I said. “Like I never thought I’d be.”

 

He smiled and stroked my cheek.

 

“Me too,” he said. “Who would have thought?” He glanced around us. There weren’t many people in the park today, but a few were obviously watching us. “Do you want to get out of here?”

 

“Yes,” I said. “Spain, you said?”

 

“Definitely,” he said. “But maybe lunch first?”

 

“Good idea.”

 

He held my hand as we walked back down the path. He made a phone call, and a moment later, his car pulled up. Ted gave me a smile and a wink as I climbed in after Harvey.

 

“There is one thing that I need to know,” Harvey said seriously as the car began to move.

 

“What, Harvey?”

 

“What on earth has happened to your hair?”

 

 

THE END

 

 

Lara Hunter

 

Lara Hunter

 

The sequel to this story is available now!

 

Bought And Paid For: Truth And Lies

 

Waking up next to her abundantly handsome billionaire boyfriend, a man beyond her wildest desires, everything seems to have worked out perfectly for Alice, and after scoring a role in a big Hollywood movie, things surely couldn’t get any sweeter…

 

Storm clouds gather on the horizon however, as forces conspire to break up their fledgling relationship; Harvey is, after all, a man with many enemies. Can he and Alice weather the storm? Especially when Rose appears bearing bad news, and photographs…

 

 

 

Do you want to be notified of my future releases? Do you want to receive absolutely free advance copies of my books? If so, take a look at joining my mailing list, available below!

 

 

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Bought And Paid For: The Billionaire's Girlfriend

A charismatic, young, and gorgeously handsome playboy billionaire, Harvey Pace can have anything in the world. Today, he wants a girlfriend. After courting a big business deal for many moons, Harvey finally has it in the bag, if he can just impress the traditionalist, morally-upstanding investors. Needing to shed his playboy image fast, he concocts a plan... Alice is a struggling actress, without any credit to her name. She soon receives an unusual job offer; portray the elegant, sophisticated girlfriend of a famous businessman. What Harvey hadn't considered is that Alice knows exactly who he is, and hates his guts; after she and her family's home was cruelly taken by his company, she wants revenge... To her surprise, however Harvey isn't the greedy, contemptible man she expected; with burgeoning feelings of desire and affection towards her new boss and pretend boyfriend, can Alice go through with her plan for revenge?

  • Author: Forbidden Fruit Press
  • Published: 2016-04-21 00:06:45
  • Words: 43288
Bought And Paid For: The Billionaire's Girlfriend Bought And Paid For: The Billionaire's Girlfriend