“Not on the coldest snowiest day in hell.”

       Susan O Grady rose to her feet, no longer willing to sit and listen to the load of crap being flung in her direction.  Leaning over the polished mahogany desk, she glared at George Mandel, the gray-haired attorney who sat behind it.  A blend of fury and utter disbelief ran through every cell in her body.  “I can't believe you expect me to take you seriously.”

      “Ms. O'Grady, if you would just calm down—”

      “You're calling my father a thief.  Hell no, I won't calm down!”

      “Ms. O'Grady—”

     “Where do you get off making that charge then telling me I can buy his freedom?  What is that?  What kind of lawyer are you?”

     “That isn’t exactly what I said.”

     “Marry some guy I don't know and stay married for a year and you’ll kindly not press charges against my dad.  Is that or is it not what you said?”

      “Basically, yes.  But—“

      “You're out of your mind.”  She glared at the other man sitting in the corner of the large room.  “Both of you.”

      She was in an office larger than her entire house.  As mind boggling as it sounded, a tinge of fear ran through her that these men in their five-thousand dollar suits were serious.  

      On a small table next to the wall, a thick folder supposedly held proof her father had stolen from his company.  Beside it, a document, yet to be signed charged him with embezzlement.  Next to that a ten-page document wherein she would agree to marry god knows who and remain married for one year.  By doing so, they would not prosecute.

      She'd fallen into the rabbit hole and desperately needed to get out.

      “As we’ve explained, there's a large inheritance at stake for my client.  It can go toward research in finding a cure for diseases such as leukemia.  It's a worthwhile endeavor.  

     “And that's supposed to make this okay?”   

      There is over six million confirmed missing from your father’s company and the audit isn't complete.”  The second man, who sat in the far corner partially hidden in the shadows, spoke for the first time.  His deep voice commanded her attention.  “It’s purely coincidental that we need something you can provide.  And for your cooperation, we’re willing to overlook the theft.  Believe me when I say this is a very generous offer.”

       The man appeared to be in his mid-thirties, although the hard planes of his face hinted at far more life experience than that age would suggest.  His features conveyed toughness, like a man used to making hard-line decisions with uncompromising strength.  His thick, tobacco-brown hair was cropped close to his head.  A bearded shadow covered deep jaws and barely perceived dimple in his chin.  His suit emphasized broad shoulders.  But it was his unusual silver-gray eyes that seized her gaze and held it.  Eyes intensely perceptive, revealing the keen intelligence of the man behind them.

       “You meet the requirements.  You’re educated, quaintly attractive, certainly not lacking in tenacity.  Honestly, we would prefer someone a bit older, more mature than twenty-four.  But luckily for you, age is not decisive factor.”

      “Lucky me.”  

       Susan bit her tongue to keep from asking what he meant by quaintly attractive.  If it was because she preferred comfortable well-worn jeans and tie-dyed T’s to the up-tight starched white shirt and tie routine, he could kiss her butt.    

      “We can and will find someone else if you decline.  I would estimate there's no shortage of women who would agree to marry for a year considering the amount we’re willing to compensate for their inconvenience.  But frankly, we need to ensure we have complete control of the situation.  There are no second chances with regard to the inheritance.  Another woman could leave before the end of the year, file for an annulment or divorce, and regardless of any legalities we initially put in place, the chances for meeting the terms of the inheritance would be forever lost.”

      “And you think I won’t do that?”

      “I think you'll stay because you want to protect your father.  If you walk out before the year is up, those charges will be filed.”

      At five years old she’d slipped a candy bar into her coat pocket and walked out of a store without paying.  She could still see the tears in her dad’s eyes when he’d found out; the shame she’d felt because he’d been so disappointed in her. The memory was still as fresh as the day it happened.

      “My dad didn't steal anything.  He's not a thief and what you're proposing is blackmail.”

       His mouth tightened.  “You're entitled to believe what you want, but the hard evidence is there, on the table.  Examine it.  Take as much time as you need.  If you require someone to explain it to you, we can provide that as well.”

      Her eyes narrowed at his condescending tone.  Murderous thoughts ran through her mind.  “Have you examined them?”

      “No.  It's not my job.”

      “And just what is your job? Other than being a self-righteous jackass.”

      “Ms. O'Grady, I don't believe it's necessary to—”  Mandel was silenced with one small motion of the other man's hand.

       A glint of dark humor seemed to soften the hard intensity of his eyes.

      “There's always the chance your father will be found innocent.  If you're willing to run the risk, of course, you're free to do so.  We’ll need your final decision within seventy-two hours.”

       Mr. Mandel held a business card out to her.  “This has my direct line.”

         She snatched the card.  “I wouldn't hold my breath.”

       “I would caution you to give serious consideration to this offer.”  The younger man's low, practiced voice carried an underlying warning.  All traces of earlier humor were gone as his eyes darkened to the color of a thunderstorm.

        With the card in her fist, Susan walked toward him, stopping barely three feet away.  He watched her with muted interest.

       “Do not threaten me.  Do not threaten my father.  And don't expect me to walk blind into some insane situation that could potentially put my life in danger and all based on, as yet, unproven documentation.  This man who needs a wife could be a deranged psychopath, drug addict or a pervert at the very least.  The fact you won't tell me his name makes me wonder what else you’re hiding.  I'll take my chances in a court of law.”

       Susan was more than finished playing this game.  She whirled around, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door, grateful it was solid enough to slam.  Really, really hard.

       George Mandel looked at his employer and shook his head.  “My friend, this time you may be biting off more than you can chew.”  

Wade smiled.  He loved a challenge and Ms O’Grady was that and more.

He looked forward to it.

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