Authors: Mary Campisi
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
The Sweetest Deal
By Mary Campisi
An impossible demand…
Max Jernigan is ready to close the most important business deal of his life—all he has to do is agree to one request from Grayson Crowell: impregnate the mogul’s daughter.
No way can Max do this. He’s a decent guy. But he would love a child. He just doesn’t want a wife.
An impossible man…
C.C. Crowell gave up on dreams of a family after Mr. Worse-Than-Wrong broke her heart. Hiding behind spreadsheets, black glasses and oversized suits, she’s more than a little suspicious when arrogant, handsome Max is suddenly chasing her. But she can’t deny their chemistry. Until she learns about the deal and plans to pay Max back in kind….
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Executive Editor, Carina Press
To Jim, my very own hero on a Harley.
“You want me to seduce your daughter?”
Max Jerrnigan stared at the silver-haired business mogul seated across the desk as if he’d just asked Max to vault from the twenty-story building and land on his head.
“That’s a rather crass way of putting it, don’t you think, Max?”
“No, I don’t. I think saying, ‘I want you to give my daughter a baby,’ is crass.” Surely the man couldn’t be serious. No father would make such a request. Max was here to negotiate a business deal involving large chunks of land, not bodily fluids, especially his own.
“Don’t look so shocked. I doubt this is the first time someone’s asked you to give them a baby.”
Max rubbed the back of his neck, wanting to squash this conversation before Grayson Crowell started asking for the names of old girlfriends. Talk of babies made him sick to his stomach.
“Look, Grayson, I’m not going to continue this conversation.”
“Hmph. You’re put off because I speak my mind? That’s part of business, Max. Saying what’s really on your mind, the stuff most people shy away from because it makes them uncomfortable. But that’s what makes me stand out from every other developer on the coast. How do you think I’ve amassed all of this?” He pointed to the construction maps and architect models. “You think I waited until the opposition thought of a better plan, or the customer decided they might want to sell me their land? No, my boy; I
“And you’re trying to create the need in me to impregnate your daughter. Sorry, that just isn’t a burning need in me right now. I don’t even know your daughter.” What was her name anyway? Charlotte? Cynthia?
“That’s irrelevant. If you agree, you’ll know her soon enough.”
He was serious. “You’re talking about knowing her in the biblical sense, right?” Max pushed back his chair and stood. How had he gotten into this conversation in the first place? “No thanks.”
Grayson Crowell remained silent. The man had a reputation as a shrewd businessman who’d taken risks when others wouldn’t, which resulted in enormous tracts of undeveloped, prime real estate dotting the country. One of which Max wanted. Badly.
But to barter land for a baby? Didn’t the daughter have a say in any of this? Or was she just a pawn in her father’s bizarre plan to become a grandparent?
“I’ve been thinking about your most recent proposal,” Grayson said, cutting into Max’s growing outrage. “It’s a brilliant idea.”
What, no more talk of impregnation and babies? This was too easy. Max braced for another “baby” onslaught. “It has enormous potential,” he said, trying to read the mega developer’s expression. “Rhyder and I are very excited.”
“As you should be.” Grayson rubbed his jaw and nodded. “All you need is the land and a few strategically placed investors, and you could go nationwide.”
Yes, that’s exactly what they needed and where Grayson’s company came in. “Then you see the merits of the project?”
“Indeed. Building nature and community-friendly office parks would have a twofold benefit: provide a serene environment for the employees and keep the wildlife advocates happy.” A wide smile spread across his tanned face. “Employees can follow the nature trail during lunch while ducks waddle after them toward a peaceful pond. Everybody wins. Excellent strategy.”
Good, still no talk of babies. “It was my dad’s dream. When he died, I vowed to make it a reality.” Close, he was so close. Max could picture the dedication speech now.
“I applaud your desire to achieve your dream.”
Something in the way he said it made Max nervous. He shifted from one foot to the other, determined to get the talk back to the project. “Dad loved nature and he loved building. He said it made sense to combine both.”
“Absolutely. Realizing this became your dream and you fought through every obstacle to see it materialize.”
Max let out a quiet sigh of relief. “Right.”
“I see that. You weren’t afraid. My daughter, on the other hand, is petrified. She let one bad experience squash her dreams of becoming a mother.” He saw something on Max’s face and laughed. “What? You thought this was about me?” His blue eyes shone with determination. “I’m tired of pretending not to see the pain on my daughter’s face when she spots a pregnant woman or a baby. Do you know how helpless that makes me feel? I’ve been able to give her everything but the one thing she really wants.” He paused and studied Max. “Until now.”
Max released his grip on the chair, took a step back, then another. “Grayson, I’m sorry about your daughter, but I’m not your man. I don’t even know Charlotte.”
“Catherine,” he corrected.
“Catherine. I don’t know her, but I’m sure she’ll work this out in her own time.”
“She hasn’t been on a date in almost two years.”
Max opened his mouth to reply, but frankly, he was speechless. Two years?
The older man leaned forward. “Catherine is a rather complicated young woman. She’s brilliant, talented, driven.”
So what was her problem? One bad relationship and she called it quits? There had to be another reason she hadn’t been on a date in two years. Of course. She was a dog. Or mentally unstable. Had Grayson considered
Max worked his fingers beneath the knot of his tie and tried to ease the sudden tightness in his throat.
“I just want you to get to know her.”
“You want me to do a lot more than that.”
Grayson shrugged. “Think of it as a business venture between the two of us. You fulfill your dream and Catherine fulfills hers.”
“Does your daughter have any idea what you’re doing?”
“Of course not. She’s buried herself so deep in spreadsheets and fear, she’ll never work her way out if I don’t help her.”
There had to be another way. “What’s wrong with a sperm bank?”
The mega developer shook his head. “She’d never agree to it. She needs someone to help her let go of her fear and give her confidence that she can be a good mother. That’s where your persuasive charisma and boyish charm come into play. I’ve watched you for a year now, studied the way you work a room, get all the ladies to smile pretty and hand you business cards, which I’m assuming, more often than not, include hotel room numbers.” He leaned back in his chair and nodded. “Yes, Max, I have absolute faith in you. You’re my man.”
“You don’t care about what another failed relationship will do to your daughter?” If the woman were unstable, who knew what she’d do?
“Who said anything about a relationship? You’re going to seduce her, not develop a lasting bond with her.”
Was he serious? Judging from the ice in his voice, Max would guess yes. “You don’t think a child is a lasting bond?”
Grayson waved a dismissive hand in the air. “It won’t be for you. Once she’s pregnant, your job is done. Let’s face it, you aren’t exactly long-term-relationship material.” He tapped a finger to his chin. “Unless my sources are wrong.”
Damn the man, if he was referring to Max’s failed marriage or subsequent numerous flings, there were reasons for those. How had a man as thorough as Grayson Crowell missed Anthony’s death? And yet, clearly, he had. There was no way the man knew about the two-month-old boy who died four years ago. If he did, he’d realize Max was the last man on earth who would father a child and then just walk away.
“Would you like a cookie?”
Max had been so busy trying to find a palatable,
solution to Grayson Crowell’s proposal, that he didn’t realize someone had spoken until a cookie appeared in his direct line of vision.
“They’re Triple Chocolate Macadamia Nut.”
He glanced at the woman who held the cookie and an instant zing shot through his body. Most times he got stuck on the plane with the senior citizen heading to Ft. Lauderdale or the geek with more electronics than Best Buy. But this passenger was gorgeous. Perfect. Even if he ignored the long dark curls and fair skin—his favorites—and eyes the color of a scotch neat, he couldn’t ignore that smile. “I’d love one.”
His fingers brushed against hers as he accepted the cookie and he panned her left hand—no ring. This was indeed a lucky day. Max bit into the cookie and savored the rich chocolate. He’d worry about his predicament with Grayson later. Right now, he planned to enjoy the beauty next to him. He’d definitely get her name. Maybe he’d even ask her to dinner. And after? He slipped a quick glance at her long legs. Maybe that, too.
“Are you traveling on business? Or pleasure?”
Something in the way she said
hoisted him twenty degrees hotter than when he boarded the plane. “Pleasure,” he said and then quickly corrected, “I mean business.”
She closed her eyes and purred. Purred? He’d never met a woman who could take him from zero to launch with one tiny sound. He could spend the rest of the flight caught up in her dreamy smile and soft purrs. So much better than agonizing over Grayson’s sick proposal. “What’s your name?”
The sex kitten opened her eyes. “C.C.”
“Ah.” He liked that. Mysterious and too damn sexy. “I’m Max.”
She held out her hand and he grasped it, glad for any reason to touch her. A zing shot through him again, this time stronger. Damn, but he wished they were on a six-hour flight instead of mid way through a two-hour jaunt.
“You look like a Max. Square jaw. Piercing eyes. And you’ve got a strong nose.” Her voice dipped two octaves—straight to his crotch. “I’d say that’s the only thing that isn’t perfect about you. It looks like you broke it from the way it crooks to the left.” Pause. “
you break it?”
“My kid sister nailed me with a baseball.”
Her eyes widened. “Really? You’re lucky.”
“That she broke my nose?”
“No, that you have a kid sister.” She let out a long sigh. “I’m an only child. And now my father’s getting remarried to a woman almost half his age.”
“Tell me about it. He’s a great dad and a fantastic businessman, but in this area, he messed up big time.” She reached in her bag, pulled out two more cookies, and offered him one.
He took it. Right now, he’d eat a lizard and a frog to sit next to this woman with the long legs, the delicious purr, and the intoxicating smile. There was a real sizzle between them, one he’d never felt before. He’d have to ask Rhyder if attraction had to do with a person’s atoms lining up a certain way or a magnetic force matching up. If anyone would have a theory on it, his partner would.
“What are you looking at?” He swiped his chin. Had he smeared it with chocolate?
She tilted her head just so, her whiskey eyes devouring him.
“You like the cookie?”
“I do,” he said, though he’d been on such an adrenalin high he hadn’t been aware he was eating it.
“Me, too.” She leaned in close and confessed, “They relax me.”
She nodded. “My father traveled all over the country. Every time he went out of town my mother was certain his plane would crash. We made cookies just like these and waited for him to come home. I guess it was a kind of therapy. The minute he walked in the door, we’d get a hug and he’d get cookies.” She paused. “The cookies relax me. The valium I took earlier helps, too.”
Damn, he wanted to believe it was chemistry, not drugs that created the connection between them.
“But I only took half a valium.” She leaned toward him and her curls brushed his sweater. “Trust me, it’s the cookies.”
He’d buy her a tub of cookies just to keep that look on her face. Like she’d just had great sex. He wanted to know more about her but if he kept staring at her lips he wouldn’t be able to think of anything but kissing her. His gaze slid to her thigh. Bad idea. Shot to her breasts. Worse. Skidded to her neck. Absolutely not. Landed on her wrist. A wrist was safe. Unless it was small and delicate. Max rubbed his eyes and stared at his knee. “Where are you headed?”
“Same. What a great coincidence.” Now they were getting somewhere. He’d ask her to dinner tonight. Find out more. Much more. And then he’d kiss her. He glanced at his watch calculating the hours until he could touch the temptress beside him. “What do you do when you aren’t talking to strange men on planes and offering them cookies?”
Her laugh slid up his leg and pounced between his legs. “I’m in real estate.”
He bet she made a great salesperson. He pictured her face on the front of a real estate sign. Men would go for it. Absolutely.
“Another cookie?” she asked and pulled out two more.
Max shoved the rest of the second cookie in his mouth and took the one she offered. Eating cookies turned her on and loosened her up. He could handle it. Boy, could he handle it. He tore into the cookie, devouring it in four bites.
He hadn’t even finished swallowing when his stomach flip flopped—three times. Maybe triple chocolate didn’t mix well with the Starbuck’s espresso he had earlier. Or maybe he should have stopped at two cookies. They were pretty big ones, huge actually, if he compared them to a Chips Ahoy! cookie. He bet one triple chocolate equaled four Chips Ahoy! cookies. His stomach flipped again and chocolate chunks inched up his throat. He was an idiot. He’d chosen to impress the girl and now he was on the verge of puking it all up.
“Max?” Her soft voice hugged him and made him break into a sweat. “Are you okay?”
Hell no. He shook his head and darted from the seat, rushing to the back of the plane and the stainless steel toilet. Death would have been a more welcome alternative right now but he doubted anyone ever bit the big one from making a pig of himself. Would he never learn moderation? He stayed in the cramped bathroom sipping air and cursing his foolishness until the flight attendant knocked on the door and told him they were preparing to land. Max wobbled out of the bathroom, dreading the encounter with C.C. Talk about looking like a fool. Real classy.
He made it to his seat and hazarded a glance at C.C. She’d turned toward the window in what could only be an effort to ignore him or help him save face. Max sucked in a deep breath and spoke to her back. “Do I flunk for being stupid enough to eat that many cookies or do I get a star for not throwing up?”
She swung around, eyes bright, an incredulous look on her face. “You didn’t throw up?”
He shook his head. “Were you trying to make me?”
She blushed and stammered, “Of course not.”
“Good, because I don’t like games.” He closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping the monster cookies in his stomach.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, touching his sleeve. “But now we know.”
He popped an eye open. “Know? Know what?”
She shrugged. “Some people say you can tell a lot about a person by how well they handle adversity.”
“In the form of chocolate cookies?”
Her lips twitched. “Exactly. And you passed.”
He liked the way she looked at him, as though he’d just done something much greater than not puked up a half pound of chocolate. “Let’s meet for dinner,” he said, anxious to set a date before the plane landed. “The Orange Chameleon. How about 7:30?”
She tucked a hunk of dark hair behind her ear and studied him. “I’ll be there.”
She really thought he might be the one. He’d put her at ease with his deep voice and slow smile, was well mannered, exquisite to look at, smelled like Ralph Lauren cologne, and best of all, he had an affinity for triple chocolate cookies. But then he’d blown it as they were leaving the gate. Actually, she’d asked him a question and he’d blown it with his answer. Why did he have to be in real estate development, too? After her disastrous relationship two years ago, she’d sworn off personal involvement with all men who were in the same field as she was—and that included Max.
C.C. tried not to think about him as she unwrapped the towel from her head and threw it on the hotel bathroom floor. There was no use wondering what might have happened between them. She began the methodical process of working the tangles from her long hair. The logical approach would be to lop it off, but she couldn’t do it. She shook her head and stared in the bathroom mirror. Chunks of damp, dark curls fell around her shoulders. She flipped on the blow dryer and sifted her fingers through her hair. At work, she wore a chignon or a bun because she wanted to represent competence and intelligence, not “sex in motion” as her friend, Roxie, described C.C.’s unbound hair. That same desire to exude competence led C.C. to purchase tailored suits and one-inch pumps in black, navy and gray. They helped her blend in the boardroom in a way a knit dress and three-inch heels never would. She didn’t care if she looked boring. Boring was safe. Boring had been her motto since her disastrous relationship with David ended two years ago.
Her father insisted all men weren’t like David and she should open up to love again. And, since she worked long hours, what better place to meet someone than in the workplace? When she hit the big three-one last year with no stellar announcements and even fewer prospects, he’d taken his own advice and found his own love match; a real estate developer four years older than C.C. who earned a commission and a commitment from him all in the span of four months.
It wasn’t that C.C. minded the idea of her father remarrying. He’d been a widower for four years and before that, he’d suffered the pain of loving her mother as Martha Crowell succumbed, slowly, to ovarian cancer.
But he was
. It didn’t take C.C.’s advanced degrees in Accounting and Finance to do that math.
She twisted her hair into a chignon, dusted a little powder on her nose, glossed her lips and coated her lashes with five quick strokes of black mascara. When she met her future mother-in-law tonight she’d be courteous, maybe even cordial. God, she did so not want to do this. C.C. walked out of the bathroom and spotted the duffel bag on the edge of the bed. A few quick bites of cookie would do wonders right now to calm her nerves. Unfortunately, the only remnants in the bag were crumbs—just like her hopes for the mysterious Max.
She picked up her cell and punched in Roxie’s number. Her best friend thought C.C. was crazy for using cookie eating in the mate selection process, but Roxie still wanted all the details, and there hadn’t been anything to report in a very long time.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“C.C.! How are you, girl? Did you meet your future stepmonster?”
Roxie had more energy than a case of Red Bull. “Not yet. That’s tonight. I’m leaving for my dad’s office in a few minutes, but I had to call.” Pause. Deep breath. “I met a guy.”
“I met him on the plane. He made it through all three cookies. I thought he might be the one.”
“Oh God, C.C.”
“I know. Triple Chocolate Macadamia Nut cookies are not mate selectors.”
“Was he cute? Intelligent? Able to conjugate a verb? Did he make your heart flip-flop, pitter-patter, and thump-thump?”
“Yes.” All of the above.
“And? Please tell me you didn’t let him get away because of that stupid cookie credo you follow.”
It wasn’t stupid, was it? “I did. I can’t help it.”
“Just because you had one bad, okay, disastrous encounter, with a complete jerk, doesn’t mean you have to create impossible criteria for the rest of the male species.”
“That complete jerk had a pregnant wife in the suburbs.” C.C. had believed David was the one. Every indicator, from the gene pool to the financial portfolio, indicated they were meant for each other. They belonged to the same political party, were graduates of Wharton, shopped at the same supermarket, and owned BMWs. They talked about marriage and the two children they would have: David Grayson and Anna Catherine. And then the truth came out.
“Oh, honey, they aren’t all that way. David was one gigantic liar.”
“And I couldn’t tell. That’s what scares me. I’ve tried logical, so now I’m trying this.”
“What? A messed up version of Cinderella where the real Prince Charming will devour three gigantic cookies without barfing?”
“No.” Well, maybe.
“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?” Roxie huffed into the phone.
C.C. pictured her in jeans and one of the animal print shirts she loved so much, making faces and twisting her fuchsia-tinted hair. “There’s a solid reason behind this. I told you every time my dad came home from a trip, one of the first things he did was chomp down the cookies Mom and I made. Always three. He said it stood for the three of us.”
“Honey, I’m not making light of that touching story, but you were just a kid. Trust me, you don’t pick a mate from a cookie bag.”
“I know. It’s just a prerequisite.”
Another huge sigh. Roxie loved to sigh when she disagreed. “A prerequisite no man will ever fulfill. Did you ever think maybe you’re setting them all up to fail?”
Long after the conversation ended, C.C. thought about what Roxie said. Could it be true? Was she creating impossible obstacles? Why would she do that? All a potential mate had to do was eat three cookies and the magic kingdom of C.C. Crowell would open to them—well, maybe not open, but they’d get a peek inside. Not that there had been all that many tested, but in the two years since the disaster with David, Max on the plane had been the only one to get that close.
She’d wanted him to be the one. From the second those blue eyes met hers, she’d been under his spell. Had the attraction been that strong, or merely the result of valium and caffeine? She’d never know, but she would always wonder.