Chapter 1

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"But, Daddy, I barely know him. How can u ask me to do something that with him?"
There Monte chewed anxiously on her thumbnail and stared dumbfounded at her father in light of what he'd just asked her to do. Then she remembered that one of her New Year's resolution was to stop biting her fingernails-- Hey , so what if it was only New Year's Eve? No time like the present, right?---and she forced her hand to her side. Unable to keep still, however, she immediately lifted it again, this time to run her fingers through her curly, chin-lengty, dark brown hair.
All around her was music and laughter and joyful noise, and it struck her as ironic that she would be standing in the middle of a wedding reception--and playing the role of maid of honor, too--pondering the request her father had just made her. Another ripple of distaste rolled through her, making her queasy, and her fist tighetened around the bonquet if red roses and baby's breath nestled against the sleeveless burgundy velvet sheath she wore.
"Therri, sweetheart," Raymond Monte pleaded in that cajoling tone that had always been her undoing,"what Xander Mark wants to do isn't so surprising. You're a beautiful girl,after all, and he's a young , red-blooded man, so naturally he'd want you to----"
"But, Daddy," Therri interrupted him, something she normally never did. Which just went to show how very desperate she was. "It's such a...such an intimate thing to do. I mean, how can Mr. Mark ask someone he hardly knows to.... How can you ask me to---"
"Oh, come on, Therri." Raymond interrupted her. "Be reasonable. It's not like I'm asking you to sleep with him."
She narrowed her eyes. "Daddy, you've just told me that a man I barely know wants to marry me, and you approve of the idea. Now, aside from the fact that this whole thing is totally archaic--a fact upon which I won't even comment at length right now--- hasn't it occurred to you that, if I do marry Mr. Mark, then at some point, sleeping with him is going to figure into the deal?"
Her father furrowed his brows thoughtfully. "Oh, yeah. Then I, uh, I guess I am asking you to sleep with him. But under the sanctity of marriage." He hastened to qualify his words, as if that made everything perfectly okeydoke.
Oh, well, gee, Therri thought, in that case...
"And you talk like the two of you are strangers, honey," he continued. "And that's just not true."
"Showing up at three parties where he also happened to be a guest does not make a relationship," she told him.
"Hey, your mother and I got engaged the second time we saw each other," Raymond reminded her.
"Oh, sure, the night before you boarded a plane for Vietnam," Therri reminded him. "There was an element of urgency there that isn't exactly consistent with this situation. Besides, you always said it was love at first sight with you and Mama."
"And you don't think you could love Xander?"
Therri hunched her shoulders uncomfortably and didn't answer straight out. Instead, she said, very quietly,"Daddy... he's your business rival."
Her father made a face, as if he really hadn't wanted to be reminded of that particular fact. To counter his sour expression, he said, just as softly," He's only doing his job."
She managed a chuckle at that, but there wasn't an ounce of good humor in the sound." His job is corporate raider," she pointed out unnecessarily." His whole reason for existence is to take advantage of failing companies and consume them in one big bite."
Her father nodded disconsolately. "And now he's going after Monte Communication because it's one of those failing businesses. I know."
"So how can you ask me to marry a man who would snatch right out from under you?"
He sighed resolutely. "Because, Therri, it's the only way to save the company."
She narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"
Raymond inhaled deeply and took her hand in his, meeting her gaze levelly. "Look, I'll be honest with you," he said. "Xander has told me in no uncertain terms that he'll make a deal with me that would insure I keep the company and receive all the funds necessary to bring it back inside into the black."
Oh, she wasn't going to like this Therri could tell already. In spite of that, she said, "Go on."
"Xander has flat-out told me that if you'll marry him, he'll release his grip on Monte Communications, and instead of taking it away from me--- from us--- he'll leave it in my hands and invest a substantial amount of money to turn things around. We're talking millions of dollars, Therri, money that I simply do not have. To put it in mercenary terms, sweetheart, for the price of your hand in marriage, you and I get to keep Monte Communications. It's that simple."
"What?" she demanded. "Daddy, this is like something out of the Middle Ages."
"Not necessarily," he told her. But, deep down, he seemed no more convinced of that than she. "Marriages of convenience still take place in this day and age. Precisely for reasons like this---economics. It's not so unusual."
"But..." She sighed heavily. "Daddy, how can I possibly marry him? I hardly know him, let alone love him. And marriage... that's for life."
He hesitated as if struggling to phrase his next words. His gaze never faltered from hers as he told her, "Xander Mark is a man who could have anything---anyone--he wants, Therri. But he's a busy man, one whose working schedule prohibts him from socializing much. He simply does not have many opportunities to meet women on other than a business level, and those he does meet don't have the qualifications he requires in a wife."
Before Therri had a chance to comment, her father hurried on. "And on those few occasions when he's met you, he's been very taken with you. He thinks you would be the perfect wife for him. Then again," he continued with a half-hearted smile, "why wouldn't he want the best, right?"
"But why does he think I'd be the perfect wife?" Therri asked, wondering why she was continuing this conversation when what her father had proposed was totally unthinkable.
"He and I have engaged in maybe three conversations total."
Her father smiled. "Xander tolde that your presence by his side would be the perfect complement to his life-style and his plans for the future. You're beautiful, educated, socially prominent..."
"Thrifty, kind, obedient, trustworthy," There muttered under her breath. In other words, she thought dryly, to Xander Mark, she would be an accessory right up there with a solid gold money clip. "I think Mr. Mark might do better with a golden retriever," she added softly.
"What?" her father asked.
"He does seem to be genuinely taken with you, Therri," Raymond continued, "even if the two of you aren't well acquainted. And even I, on the receiving end of his--" he hestitated, then evidently decided to call a spade a spade"--his ruthless, blindly ambitious business practice...will concede that he's what might be considered quite a catch. Any other girl in Minneapolis would probably be shopping for a wedding gown right now."
Therri smiled sadly. "Nice try, Daddy. But I still think this whole thing is crazy."
He nodded resolutely. "Look I can't force you to marry him," her father said. "But with the way things stand right now, honey, we're going to lose everything. Everything. Not just the company, but the house, the cars, your mother's jewelry..."
"Mama's jewelry?" she echoed. "But--"
But Mama's jewelry wasn't even worth that much, Therri thought. Except for it's sentimental value, which, to her at least, made it priceless.
I've made a mess if things, sweetheart," Raymond admitted. "While you were away at college, I took some chances, made some bad investments." He shrugged sadly. "I've compromised everything I tried to build up for you and future generations of Montes. It'll all be gone. He snapped his fingers. "Like that. All those years of hard work and sacrifice for nothing. And, frankly, I don't know what I'll do if I lose it."
Something cold and sharp twisted deep inside Therri to see her father like this. He'd always stood so proud and tall, had always had so many plans for the future. He'd started off with nothing, driven to escape the poverty he'd grown up in, he'd dedicated his entire life to building Monte Communications into a rousing, enormous success.
What had made his feat doubly impressive was that he'd done it as a single father after Therri's mother died when she was two. Raymond had devoted every moment that wasn't given to the company to making sure his daughter's life was as happy and full as it could possibly be. And when he couldn't spend time on her, he spent money, indulging her every whim, spoiling and pampering her, more, really, than was necessary.
But he did so loved her. Because he wanted to be certain she never experienced the pain and hunger he'd known as a boy. And because of the time they'd spent together and the highs and lows they'd shared, the two of them had forged a strong father-daughter bond than most families claimed.
Her father would do anything for her, Therri knew. And he had made so many sacrifices over the years to insure her happiness. So how come she was talking at doing something that might repay him for all the things he'd done for her?
Really, Xander Mark wasn't that bad, she had admit. Everybody else in Minneapolis thought he was just about the best thing to come along since Belgian chocolate. He had come out of nowhere five years ago to become the talk---and the toast---of the local business community. Phrases like " boy wonder" and "golden boy" were frequently tossed about to describe him, and he was always the centerpiece of every event be attended.
He seemed like a nice enough guy. And he was handsome. And charming. And articulate. Polite, too. All in all, Xander Mark was pretty mapuch perfect. In fact, when she got right down to it, she had to concede that Xander Mark was so utterly lacking in flaws, so absolutely perfectly that...
Well, there were times when he gave Therri the creeps. He was, in her opinion, at least---she might as well just say it---plastic and smarmy and ingratiating. Worse than all those things, though, he seemed to have no sense of humor at all. The only time she'd seen the man smile was when he heard about a rise in the stock market or the failure of a business he wanted for his own. Nothing else in life seemed to bring Xander Mark pleasure.
Except, evidently, the prospect of marrying Raymond Monte's only daughter.
"I hate to ask you to even considering this, Therri," her father said, jarring her from her musing. "But you're our only chance to hang on to the company, to hang on to the very lifestyle that we have. If you don't marry him, we'll lose everything."
When she said nothing, he added, "At least consider it, sweetheart. Thinking you don't know Xander well enough is something that's easily rectified. Just make it a long engagement. Take your time getting to know him. You could even fall in love with him---you never know. And he'd be a good provider. You'd never lack for anything."
No, she'd certainly never lack anything, Therri thought. Except maybe for love. Except maybe for that heady, dizzying sensation that turns a person upside down and inside out, never knowing for sure if it's day or night, and frankly never caring.
Oh, but, hey, other than that...
Not that Therri had ever experienced such a sensation. To be honest, she wasn't convinced such an emotion even existed. Although she was only twenty-three, she'd never come close to falling in love. In fact, the whole starry-eyed, hot-summer-night romance thing eluded her. Her friends who had succumbed to what they called love had generally wound up making fools of themselves at best or suffering the depths of despair at worst. So it could be that lacking love in a relationship might wind up being a good thing in the long run.
And it wasn't that she disliked Mr. Mark. On the contrary, in spite of his smarminess and ingratiating tactics, she had no chioce but to admire him for becoming the massive success he was at such an early age. At twenty-six, he was only three years older than she, yet he'd accomplished infinitely more than she had. In fact, he'd made his first million when he was twenty-three. Therri didn't even have a job. And in a few short years, Xander had gone on to build a corporate empire that wouldn't be easily toppled. Therri, if she was lucky, might be doing something by the time she was twenty-six that wasn't immersing frozen French fries into a deep-fat pit.
Of course, she knew she shouldn't sell herself short. She had, after all, just earned her MA I liberal arts. And along with her BA in humanities, that was going to make her perfectly suited to---to...
Well, now that Therri thought about it, there wasn't a whole lot she would be suited to. Except, perhaps---thanks to all those years of etiquette schooling---being a first-rate hostess and a fine conversationalist. Which, now that she thought more about it, might be exactly the kind of training she needed to be a corporate wife to someone like, oh, say...Xander Mark.
So what if he didn't wreck havoc with her heart? The least Therri could do was to try to get to know him better and consider the man's proposal.
Hey, as her father just said, he was quite a catch, a man who would take good care of Therri---financially, at least. She supposed,to her father, that was the most important thing. Always the businessman---that was her dad. As much as she knows he loved her, he would be just as concerned about making sure she was provided for economically as cared for emotionally.
Then again, maybe there was something to be said for that too....
Therri sighed fitfully as she ran her hand through her hair again. It had been a long day, and her maid of honour duties had left her feeling too tired to argue. So she glanced down caressing the delicate red blooms of her bouquet instead of meeting her father's gaze. And quietly, reluctantly, she said," Okay, Daddy. I'll consider everything you've said. I'll think about marrying Xander Mark."
And she would, too, she promised herself as her father kissed her on the cheek and made his way into the crowd of celebratory guests at her friend Chloe Clark's wedding. She'd think about it very seriously. But not here. Not where Chloe had just marked the beginning of a union with her new husband, Chuck Scott, and the baby boy they were expecting next month. Not where there was so much warmth and promise of good things to come....

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