Chess Bradshaw and Cookie Thibideaux agree on one matter only. Marriage – especially to each other – is that last thing either one of them would want. Lone wolf Chess thinks his deceased business partner’s daughter is a featherheaded good-time girl. Bohemian Cookie thinks her dead father’s best friend is a cold-blooded shark. But when the fragrance company they own together falters, their union is the only way to save it.
Aggravation is all either of them expect from the business-only deal, but it isn’t long before they discover their long-held prejudices are wrong. In fact, if they’re not very careful, they might start to like each other. But heaven help them if they fall in love. Too much is at stake for a foolish gamble like that.
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The last place Cookie expected to run into Chester Bradshaw was the cemetery. If she’d dreamed for one minute that Chess would remember today was the anniversary of her father’s death, she wouldn’t have come to the hillside memorial park with the bunch of freesias, her father’s favorite. At the very least, she would have made sure to have a chaperone.
But instead Cookie stood beside her father’s grave with the delicate flowers in her hand, her high heels sinking into the soft grass‑‑and a lowering feeling in her stomach that could only mean one thing.
Drawing in a deep breath, she turned. A stray lock of dark hair whipped across her face in the breeze of a cool Bay Area summer day.
Chess stood several yards distant along the open hill. He’d been leaning against a crooked stone angel but straightened when their eyes met.
Dammit, Cookie thought. Dammit, dammit. Aloud she said, “Why, hello, Chess.”
“Hello, Rebecca.” Of the extended and thornily blended family, Chess was the only one who never used her familiar nickname, not once in the twenty years since they’d first met as teenagers. Now he pushed off the angel and started toward her.
Cookie suppressed her automatic reflex to straighten the clinging black dress she wore. It was perverse how the one man who showed zero interest in her well-endowed body was the only one who could make her feel self-conscious about it.
Two feet from Cookie, he came to a stop. Chess didn’t look self-conscious at all. Elegantly, expensively dressed, he looked the way he always did: like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He might be the lead fragrance designer at Scents Allure, the perfume company he owned with his mother, but neither that profession nor his tailored suit could hide the predator lurking in his rough-cut features.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he declared. “Tracking you down.”
“Oh?” Cookie smiled brightly. “Were you looking for me?”
A quirk on one side of his mouth answered her question. Damn straight he’d been looking for her, just as surely as she’d been avoiding him.
For two weeks, she’d succeeded, but she’d known she was on borrowed time. When this man wanted something, he went after it with cold-blooded determination. Two weeks ago, he’d apparently decided he wanted her father’s shares in Scents Allure. She had no idea why. All she knew was that, thanks to a ridiculous codicil in her father’s will, she now stood between Chess and what he wanted.
It was inevitable he’d catch up to her.
Very sweetly, she remarked, “I’d hoped to be alone.”
He gave her one of his superior looks. “I don’t think you should be alone.”
Please. What he actually thought was that she should stand here and‑‑and do his bidding. He probably thought this should play out the same way it had every time her father had sent him to check up on her. On each occasion, Chess had found a way to force her to do what he wanted: from quitting her job at that rough bar to moving out of the below-code tenement in the Tenderloin, not to mention quite a few other matters in between.
But this time was different. This time Chess wanted something for his own benefit, not for Cookie’s. That gave her the advantage, for once. Didn’t it?
On the other hand, Chess usually had ammunition.
Cookie tensed now as he folded his arms over his charcoal-colored suit.
Here it came‑‑
“Where’s Alex?” Chess asked.
Cookie frowned. He was referring to the eighteen-year-old half-brother they shared. Twenty years ago, Cookie’s father had married Chess’s mother. One result of that union had been Alex.
“He should be here,” Chess continued.
Still frowning, Cookie lowered her gaze to pluck at one of the tiny petals in her hands. This wasn’t ammunition. In fact, Chess couldn’t actually want Alex to be here. Catching Cookie alone was far more to his advantage.
“Alex went to Reno for the weekend.” She knelt next to the brass vase affixed to one side of the headstone. “With some friends.”
Above her, Chess grumbled, “He shouldn’t have done that.”
Cookie hated to agree. Since Alex shared her grief in losing a father, his company today might have been a comfort. His presence also might have put Chess off from his purpose.
Carefully, she stuck her little bouquet into the ugly brass vase. “I told Alex to go have fun.”
“You would.” Chess sounded disgusted. “Let him off the hook.”
“I don’t think of it that way.” With a last fluff to her flowers, she rose to her feet. “There’s no point coming to the cemetery unless it makes you feel better, not worse.”
“This makes you feel better?”
“Sure.” Disguising a swallow, she added. “But I’m all done now.” Hardly. She hadn’t reached any of the resolution over her father’s death she had hoped. Thanks to Chess, her time here had been cut short. Meanwhile, she regretted she had no car in which to escape. It would be hard to evade Chess while waiting at a bus stop.
But maybe if she made her exit definite enough, she could bluff her way out of this. “Goodbye, Chess.” She turned.
She stopped, having expected this, of course, including the adamant tone. He wasn’t about to let her walk away from him.
But she wasn’t through with her exit.
Briefly closing her eyes, she called on every ounce of the acting skill she’d worked so hard to develop since her first time on stage. When she opened her eyes again, she wore the mantle of an imperious queen. Slowly, she turned back to face him. Utterly superior, she inquired, “Yes?”
For a moment, the mighty Chess actually looked taken aback. He lifted his chin as if she’d struck him. “I‑‑ Uh, I just wanted to tell you…”
Feeling flush, she half-lowered her eyelids. What dared the lowly peon say?
He straightened and cleared his throat. “Thank you.”
Chess shook his head. “I’m sorry that a year ago I didn’t get the chance to say so.” Turning slightly, he gestured toward their surroundings with one arm. “This place? It’s beautiful, peaceful. Perfect, in fact.”
Cookie remained flummoxed. She’d thought he was going to pressure her into doing his will, but instead‑‑ All trace of the queen ebbed away. Perhaps a corner of her mind speculated he was manipulating her, but hunger for approval overwhelmed all skepticism. “You know that I picked it?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Of course. A year ago I was busy keeping the business running. My dear mother, Kate, was a mess, and Alex was only a kid. You got stuck with all the details.”
Indeed she had. Deep in shock, riddled with guilt and grief, Cookie had been the only relative available to slog through the thousand tasks necessary to put her father in the ground. She’d never imagined anyone else had noticed.
Someone had. Of all people, Chess.
He squinted into the overcast distance. “You did good.”
Cookie’s eyes widened. Surely she had not heard Chester Bradshaw say that. “You‑‑you really like it?”
In the sliver of Chess’s face she could see, a smile marked the square angle of his jaw. “More important, David would have.”
A peculiar sensation shuddered through Cookie. Chess thought her father would have liked the place. Being her father’s best friend as well as his stepson, Chess might actually be able to guess David’s opinion. Perhaps‑‑finally‑‑her dad would have thought Cookie had done something right.
But as Cookie stared at the shallow dimple in Chess’s cheek, the peculiar and pleasant sensation ebbed, leaving her cold and clammy.
Chess turned around. His satisfied expression changed as he took in Cookie’s face.
Good God. What did it matter what her father would have thought of his final resting spot! What mattered was how Cookie had treated him while he’d still been alive. Difficult as her father had been, Cookie had been worse, miserably worse. A horrible pressure took root behind her nose.
Chess frowned. “Rebecca?”
With a small thud, her black beaded purse fell to the ground.
“No.” Chess stepped toward her.
Or Cookie thought that’s what she saw through the sudden moisture in her eyes. Dimly, she remembered she’d been on her way out of the cemetery. Mostly, she felt ready to die. All of it, everything she’d been saving up for this visit, came splashing over her. “Oh, God,” she whispered and turned.
Chess tried to move out of her way. At least, she was pretty sure that was his intent. Instead, they collided.
Chess grunted softly, and Cookie released a distressed moan. In the awkwardness of the moment, no doubt, his arms went around her.
“Okay,” he muttered. “Okay.”
It was not okay. In fact, there couldn’t be a worse place for Cookie to have ended up. Chess was not her friend. But for one strange instant, it felt…right. Chess smelled‑‑ She pressed her nose against his chest. Oh, the damp wool of his suit smelled exactly the way her father would smell coming home on a San Francisco evening when she was a little girl. In those days, they’d been the best of friends. Cookie squeezed her eyes tight.
Stupid, stupid. So many stupid arguments since then, the last one the most stupid of all. She hadn’t been speaking to her father, an occasional habit of hers. In the midst of the silly estrangement, he had gone and dropped dead.
A lead fist seemed to push on her breastbone. She could hardly breathe.
“Rebecca,” Chess said.
Cookie didn’t know if it was the command or the hint of distress in his voice that brought her back from the brink. In either case, she drew in a deep breath and struggled to get hold of herself.
Chess was right. He was absolutely right. She had to regain her self-possession. And get away from him. Dear Lord. She’d wanted to escape the man, and instead she was in his arms!
Sniffling, she carefully pushed away from him.
With odd precision, he unwound his arms.
“My purse,” Cookie murmured.
She felt the item thrust into her hands. “Thanks,” she told the purse, unwilling to raise her eyes.
“You’re welcome.” Chess sounded strangely chagrined.
He was knocked off balance, Cookie realized, and wondered if this gave her an opening for escape, after all. She glanced to the west, toward the cemetery gate. “I’ll, uh, just‑‑”
“No, Rebecca.” He placed a restraining hand on her shoulder. “If you’re done here with‑‑whatever you came for‑‑then we have to talk.”
“No, Chess.” She shrugged her shoulder from his hand.
“You know why I’m here.”
“You’ve been running away from me for two weeks, but running is not going to make this go away.”
Cookie tilted her head. “It’s been working so far.”
Surprised amusement crossed his face but was quickly superseded by exasperation. “Eventually, I was going to catch up to you.”
He was probably right.
“You have to listen to me,” Chess said.
“No.” As a last resort, Cookie hoisted her purse strap over her shoulder and gave a pointed glance down toward David’s grave. “This isn’t the place.”
“You’re wrong.” Chess, too, glanced down at the grave. There was the same light of resentment in his gaze that she’d felt in her own. “In fact, I can’t think of a more appropriate place.” Then he lifted his eyes.
Sea-green eyes. Sometimes they could catch her, Chess’s eyes. Every once in a while, they seemed to show a world beneath the predator, one full of unplumbed depths and mysteries. When that happened, Cookie could feel…arrested.
His eyes did not look that way now. Now they belonged to the ruthless shark she knew so well, one who owned no unplumbed depths or mysteries. All he possessed was single-minded ambition. His next words proved as much.
“Rebecca,” he demanded. “Will you marry me?”
He was absolutely serious. That was the scary part.
Forty-five minutes after avoiding a direct answer to Chess’s question at the cemetery, Cookie perched on a stool at the counter separating her tiny living room from her tiny kitchen and eyed the man lodged in the center of her little floral print sofa.
With his arms spread and one knee crossed over the other, Chess resembled some ruling pasha. All that blurred the image was the way one of his large hands brushed up against a fern while the other hit an African violet. The conflict was unavoidable. Every flat surface of Cookie’s apartment was covered with green living things.
“You have to get married.” Chess’s gaze was shrewd as he looked up at her. “It’s the only way to get your hands on those shares.”
“But why now?” Cookie continued to avoid a direct response, just as she’d been doing ever since they’d left the cemetery in Chess’s black Porsche. “It’s been a year.”
Chess maintained pasha-like serenity. “Would you like me to explain?”
“Please.” Warming her hands around a thick mug of coffee, Cookie reminded herself this was why she’d let him drive her home across the bay, why she’d gone so far as to invite the man inside her home. So he could explain. Because maybe once Chess explained, he would be willing to accept Cookie’s answer.
She wanted him fully convinced of her refusal before he left this room. There should be an end to the dogged pursuit.
Chess rotated his foot half a turn. “Your father,” he began, “owned one third of Scents Allure.”
“Which I still don’t understand,” Cookie couldn’t help interjecting. “That place belongs to you and your mother, Kate. My dad didn’t even work there.”
Chess shot her a pitying look. “He made a sizable ‘investment’ in the place when he married Kate. It was only reasonable to issue him shares.”
Cookie pressed her lips together. He was making their parents’ marriage sound like a business deal and not for love. Even at the age of fifteen, she’d known this wasn’t so. “Fine. He owned shares.” She couldn’t deny it was the truth. “Why didn’t he simply will them to Kate‑‑or better yet, to you?”
Cookie felt a brief, possibly petty, spurt of triumph. A year ago when the will had been read, Chess hadn’t shown even this much reaction. Not a twinge. He’d appeared completely unaffected that his stepfather‑‑and best friend‑‑had passed him over as if he didn’t exist.
Now he looked down at the African violet. The fingers of his left hand tilted up to tap a woolly leaf. “He willed those shares to you, Rebecca.”
A year ago she hadn’t been nearly as stone-faced as Chess. She had shown her shock and dismay. “But only on condition,” Cookie said aloud.
Chess nodded. “You have to get married.”
Cookie rolled her eyes and tossed back a stray lock of hair. “God, Daddy had to know how ridiculous that was.” In truth, he probably hadn’t, but Cookie made the statement flip, as though she simply wasn’t the sort of woman who would want to settle down.
“Ridiculous or not, those are the terms of the will.”
Her lock of hair fell forward again. Cookie curled it around one finger. “Thank goodness I don’t want those shares.” Even if she hadn’t‑‑finally‑‑landed a part in a long-running play, Cookie wouldn’t have wanted the shares. She wasn’t a business sort like her father. Deep in her blood was the stage. “Not even a little bit,” Cookie added.
Chess was unimpressed. “Those shares can’t remain in limbo forever. You have to get married.”
“You don’t need them in order to run the business.” When Chess hadn’t proposed straight off, Cookie had figured out this much.
“You don’t under‑‑” Chess uncrossed his legs and took his arms off the back of the sofa. “It’s not the capital I’m after. Just the shares.”
There was a difference? Cookie wondered.
“You have to get married,” Chess repeated, definite. “And if not to me, then to one of your boyfriends. It doesn’t matter, just so long as the job gets done.”
It sounded as though Chess wouldn’t mind passing this duty off on someone else. With a strange pang of pique, Cookie queried, “Oh, and which one of them would you suggest?”
He closed his eyes. “Sheldon. Wasn’t that the last one’s name?”
Cookie raised an eyebrow. Odd. Chess had apparently been keeping track of her even after her father couldn’t possibly have asked him to.
“Sheldon went back to his wife.” It had been obvious that Sheldon still loved Norma. He’d only needed time and a shove in the right direction to figure that out. Cookie resisted a smug smile.
Chess looked at her. “Fine. But surely there’s someone new by now.”
Cookie nodded with warm affection. “Eric.”
“Eric.” Chess’s expression tightened. “Well then, why not Eric?”
“Eric’s gone to Africa.”
“He joined the Peace Corps.” Eric had been so excited by the prospect, the first adventure in his over-protected life, that he’d barely called Cookie over the past month. He, like Sheldon, had healed. Once a man had healed, Cookie let him go. A man who wasn’t wounded was a man she couldn’t handle. Only the men she dated knew that Cookie never took up with a fellow who might want more than a platonic relationship.
Chess was not one of those men. “Great,” he muttered. “The Peace Corps.” Then he broke down and gave Cookie the Look. It was the look she’d been receiving all her life. Even before her body had turned traitor on her, giving her the curves of a Hollywood vamp, Cookie had been getting this look. Chess, however, was a master at it. His look told her she really was one fluffball bimbo, wasn’t she?
Cookie was an expert at ignoring the look. She’d had all sorts of practice. “It’s been a year,” she argued again. “Why is this so suddenly urgent?”
Immediately, a wall clanged down behind Chess’s eyes. There was an answer, but the fluffball wasn’t about to receive it. Cookie watched as he searched for an alternative. “Kate and I are…having trouble agreeing.”
Cookie halted with her coffee halfway to her mouth. The perfume business was the one place Chess and his mother did agree. They both worked hard and with an identical passion for what they did. “What’s the disagreement?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Admittedly heavy-duty issues. Major company goals.”
Cookie had to think a minute, staring at him, before she got it. Her brow cleared. Chess had been honest with her. This wasn’t about the money. “It’s the votes,” she breathed. “You want to outvote Kate.”
Chess simply looked at her, his eyes clear. He neither confirmed nor denied.
“Ah.” Cookie got the picture now. It was a power struggle thing. And rather disheartening he was so certain he’d convince Cookie to side with himself rather than Kate in the disagreement over company goals.
She set down her cup. “Look. Think. “Whatever your disagreement with Kate is, surely it couldn’t be worth marriage. Tell me you’re any more interested in that state than I am.”
Chess smiled. “It’s never been a particular goal of mine, no. But our marriage would be purely business. And temporary. By January I could hand you a divorce.”
“No later than that.” Chess leaned his elbows on his knees, suddenly earnest. “If, with your shares, I haven’t squared things away at the plant by then‑‑” He stopped short. Then he leaned back. With deliberate leisure, he again spread his arms across the top of the sofa. “Obviously, I’d make the whole venture worth your while.”
Cookie blinked. “Pardon?”
“If everything works out the way I’ve planned it, I can buy out your shares in January at two hundred percent their current value.”
Cookie nearly fell off her stool. Twice their value! “Uh, that’s rather a large gain to expect, isn’t it?”
“If everything works out.” Despite his casual posture, a muscle tensed in Chess’s jaw.
It was a bribe, Cookie realized and felt bewildered. Chess never bribed. He always had ammunition. But here he was, offering a two hundred percent payback to marry him and vote her shares his way.
Carefully, she slid off her stool. There was something going on here. Danger, though she couldn’t pin down what kind. It was definitely time to set him straight. “No,” she said. “Thank you very much, but no.”
Chess did not appear surprised by this answer. He simply watched her closely. “Don’t make any decisions today, Rebecca.”
“Why not? I’ve had a year to think it over.”
Slowly, Chess stood, too. Though not a tall man, he towered over her. “Think about it, Rebecca. That’s all I ask.”
Privately, she gnashed her teeth. When had she not thought about marriage? About love and lifelong companionship, tenderness and the possibility of‑‑ Oh, marriage meant a thousand things she could never get or have. She made a living out of pretend, but she wouldn’t pretend about this. And particularly not with Chess. “The whole idea is‑‑cheating.”
His brows dipped. “It’s just a business deal.”
“Exactly. And I’m not getting married for business reasons.” Or for any other reasons, but she didn’t need to get into that.
Frustration and anger chased each other across his face, but he suppressed them with a benign neutrality. “This isn’t just you and me we’re talking about here. Think of Alex. It’s his inheritance, too, you know.”
Cookie ground her teeth some more. Why had her half-brother been passed over for shares in the company in their mutual father’s will? Why had David Thibideaux concentrated all of his control-from-the-grave on her? “I’m not getting married,” she told Chess. “You’ll have to work out your company business some other way.”
Instead of listening, Chess smiled and dropped a big hand on her shoulder.
Cookie tensed. So he did have ammunition. She was steeling herself to fend off the attack when he simply lifted his hand from her shoulder.
“We’ll discuss this more,” he promised. “Later.”
She was left swaying. He hadn’t hit her with a thing. Chess was halfway to the door before she realized that, though unharmed, she had not accomplished her goal. He’d refused her answer. If she didn’t watch out, this whole episode would repeat.
“No,” Cookie exclaimed at the same time that his hand hit the doorknob. “Wait!”
He stopped, halted mid-motion, as though she’d thrown an electrical switch. Slowly, he turned around.
What Cookie saw then made her stop in her tracks. In Chess’s opaque eyes, for the fleetest of moments, she saw hope.
“Yes?” He appeared to have difficulty containing his brief slip.
Cookie frowned. Chess vulnerable? Chess experiencing anything but the most supreme confidence? No. She had to have imagined the vision.
She let go of the stool she’d been clutching and stood straight. “My answer isn’t going to change later, Chess. It’s no now. It’ll be no then.”
Again something flickered in his eyes. But this time it was the exact opposite emotion from hope. Complete despair. Then a cool mask drew over his face. He became the same old Chess.
“Think about it,” he commanded, as imperious as ever. With a jerk on the doorknob, he let himself out.
Frowning, Cookie stared at the closed door. Despair? The eminently capable Chess possibly vulnerable and in despair?
Not that his status mattered, of course. It didn’t make the slightest dent in her decision. Cookie drew in a deep breath. She didn’t owe Chess, didn’t owe him a thing.
But she couldn’t help but remember the last time she’d been so determined, so unbending and sure. That had been the last time she’d seen her father alive.
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