Excerpt: The Paper Marriage

The Paper Marriage by Barbara McMahon

Contemporary Romance

Chapter One

Lindsay Donovan sat at a table in the back of the cafe, her feet propped on the chair opposite her. Resting her cheek on one hand, she leafed through the notebook, trying to remember the pertinent points that she thought would be on tomorrow’s exam. The garish overhead fluorescent lights illuminated the pages, bright as sunshine. The cafe was quiet except for the noise Jack made cleaning the grill in the kitchen. She and the crusty old bachelor had worked the evening shift together for more than six months, establishing a closeness that was not common among coworkers. Soon he’d walk her to the bus. They’d talk over their day and part. She was fond of the old man and knew he looked on her as a daughter.

The door opened and a man stepped inside. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was almost midnight. Sighing softly, she rose awkwardly, hoping the customer didn’t want a full meal. Ten minutes from closing was not the time to demand full service. Usually the last couple of hours were quiet. She hoped all he wanted was a quick cup of coffee then leave.

The man was tall, dark and in a tearing temper unless she missed her guess as she warily watch him as she moved to the counter. Lindsay eased her bulk behind it just as he took one of the stools. At least with counter service, she didn’t have to carry a heavy tray. Eying his clothing, she wondered what he was doing at the café at all. It catered more to the working class than a man in a tux. Raising her gaze to his face, she frowned. There was a hint of familiarity in his features. Did she know him? He was not one of the regular customers. Yet there was definitely something familiar.

“Can I help you?” she asked. Despite her fatigue, her discomfort, she suddenly wished she had combed her hair and refreshed her lipstick. Interest piqued as she stared at him—every woman’s dream date. At least he would be if he smiled.
Instead, a dangerous air seemed to hover around him. He glanced at her for a second, anger shimmering in his eyes. Lindsay was instantly glad she wasn’t the cause of his anger.

The Friendly Corner Cafe was located on the fringes of Sydney’s docks. Its regular clientele didn’t wear tuxedos, nor expensive gold watches. Curious, Lindsay wondered who he was and why he’d arrived so late at an out-of-the-way cafe. What was he doing in this part of town dressed as he was?
Suddenly her mind remembered. Summers at the beach when she’d been a budding teenager. Before her parents’ death. Young and feeling full of herself, she’d flirted with the older boys. And Luke Winters had been the one who’d caught her eye. Only a few years older than she, he’d been her ideal romantic interest when she turned fourteen. Slowly she smiled in memory of those long ago summer days.

“Do I have time for a cup of coffee?” he asked, his eyes glancing at her, dismissing her as he scanned the deserted diner.

“We close at midnight,” she said, already reaching for a cup and saucer. It pricked, that casual dismissal. Obviously she’d changed in the intervening years. He could have at least paused a moment as if trying to remember her. Didn’t he recognize her at all?

“I meant before you deliver,” he said sardonically, his gaze centered on her waist.

Lindsay straightened and glared at him. Old crush or not, he had no right to be so rude. “The baby is not due for another couple of weeks. Plenty of time for you to have a cup of coffee and get out.”

He smiled sardonically, narrowing his dark eyes. “Not very customer-oriented, are you?”

“Not at eleven-fifty at night.” She slammed down the saucer, relieved to note that the coffee didn’t spill. She knew he’d make some snide comment if it had.

“Not bad,” he said after taking a sip of the hot brew.

“It was made fresh just a little while ago. Do you want anything else? A piece of pie to go with it, or a sandwich?” Her response was rote, but her curiosity rose. Fascinated, she watched as he sipped the hot beverage. He’d aged, of course. But done it so well. What was he doing now? He’d been a bit of a rebel as a teenager. His family had had money, and he’d flaunted his contempt for the old order of things, coming to the beach in defiance of his mother’s edicts, associating with the locals instead of the moneyed crowd. Did he still defy authority?

His snowy white shirt stood in stark contrast to his elegant tuxedo. Obviously made for him alone, it fit like a tailored dream. A dark overcoat was casually tossed over his broad shoulders. Apparently the damp coolness of the late spring night didn’t faze him. His dark hair and almost black eyes made him seem a creature of the night. When he fixed his gaze on her, she shivered. How many hours as a teenager had she fantasied about kissing him? How many ways had she thought to capture his interest, his attention?

“What kind of pie?” His voice was slow, lazy almost. The threads of anger barely kept beneath the surface.

She listed the four remaining choices. “Each pie was made fresh this morning. The cherry is especially good,” she finished. She smiled again, curiously pleased she’d recognized him and he didn’t have a clue who she was. Probably because he had not spent endless days and nights imagining all sorts of romantic scenes in which she featured prominently.

“I’ll have a piece of the cherry, then,” he said, tapping his fingers impatiently on the counter.

Once he’d been served, Lindsay didn’t return to her table in the back. Again her eyes sought the clock. Five minutes to closing, but he wouldn’t be finished by then. She sighed softly and rubbed her back. The longer she was pregnant, the more her body ached at the end of each day. She’d be glad to have the baby, even though an entire new set of problems would present themselves.

“You should sit down,” he said. “In fact, you probably should be home in bed. What are you doing working so late?”

“It’s my job.” Fussing with the condiments on the counter, she glanced at Luke from beneath her lashes. From the expensive clothes to the gold watch to the designer haircut, this man reeked money. She remembered his car when they’d been younger, too fancy for her family. What did he know of scarcity? Of making ends meet while trying to pay medical bills? Of the constant fear of what would happen to her and her baby if something unforeseen occurred?

He studied her as he ate, his eyes flicking impatiently from the cherry pie to her.

“Not married?” he asked, glancing at her left hand.

Surprised he would notice her bare finger, much less comment on it, Lindsay paused, then slowly shook her head, feeling mesmerized by his intense gaze. “No, I’m—”

“Lindsay, does the customer want anything from the grill? I’m about ready to shut it off,” Jack called from the kitchen.

“No, he’s just having pie. Go ahead,” she returned.

She could tell Luke that she was a widow, that her husband had died almost eight months ago, but it wasn’t any of his business. The wedding ring she cherished so much hung on a chain around her neck, had since her fingers had become too swollen to wear it comfortably.
In fact her entire body felt swollen and awkward. Her feet and ankles were three times their normal size. Retaining water, her physician had said, and recommended she stay off her feet as much as possible. Right, with her job?

She looked up and met his gaze. Heat blossomed through her as she held it, refusing to be the first to look away. Without being aware of it, a hint of challenge filled her gaze. She didn’t like the idea he didn’t remember her.

“Do I know you?” he asked, his eyes moving away from hers, searching each feature of her face.

“We haven’t met in a long time,” she said slowly. “Remember Manly Beach, about a dozen years ago?”

The frown on his face let her know he was still puzzled.

“Manly Beach?” he said ruminatively. “I haven’t been there in years.” He stared at her. His expression clearing. “You’re little Lindsay McDonald.”

Slowly she nodded, wondering if his memories would be similar to hers. She’d had a monstrous crush on him as a teen and had her heart broken when she reached fifteen.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked, his eyes flicking disparagingly over her uniform. His gaze pausing briefly on her extended waist.

Tilting her chin, she said coolly, “I work here, isn’t that obvious?”

“But not married?” he said silkily.

She shrugged, ready to tell him about her husband. About the accident that had robbed her and her unborn baby of so much. But before she could speak he spoke again.

“Want to be?”

“I beg your pardon?” Had her mind wandered? What was he talking about?

“Do you want to be married when your baby comes?” he asked impatiently. Anger seemed to seep out of him. Tension almost shimmered in waves. He flung off his topcoat and crumpled it on the stool beside him. Yanking loose his tie, he took another gulp of the hot black coffee, his eyes narrowing as he stared at her.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said slowly. Will was dead, had been gone for eight long and lonely months. He wasn’t ever coming back. She would never see her husband again.

“It’s important a child have a name,” Luke stated.

“He’ll have a fine name.” Her temper flared. Did he think she couldn’t provide for her child? Or that Will’s name was somehow not good enough? He knew nothing about her Of course—he thought she was still Lindsay McDonald. She needed to set him straight.
He turned and surveyed the table she’d been sitting at then looked at her. Was it possible his eyes were even darker?

“Are you in school?”

Nodding, Lindsay saw no reason to deny the obvious. “University.”

“Are your folks helping out?” he questioned.

“You know, Luke, my private life is really none of your business. It’s good to see you again after all this time, but I’m tired and want to go home. If you have finished your pie and coffee, I’ll take payment and close for the night.” Go home and think about Luke Winters, the boy she’d adored and the young man who had left never to return. And wish maybe in the deepest parts of her heart that she could have looked slim and glamorous when they met again.

“Must mean they’re not,” he said.

“Only because they’ve been dead for almost ten years,” she snapped, reaching for the empty pie plate. She scooted it through the pass-through to the kitchen. Jack could let it soak overnight.

The rest of the kitchen crew had already left. When she reached for his cup, Luke’s hand clamped down on her wrist.

“I’ll have another cup of coffee,” he said softly, daring her to deny him. “I’m sorry about your parents, Lindsay. I didn’t know.”

Lindsay swallowed, feeling a curious tingling pulse through her arm from the heat of his hand. Her entire body grew warmer. For a moment she forgot she was almost nine months pregnant retaining water and so tired she could scarcely stand. For a moment she was aware of her femininity, of the tangle of feelings she’d always felt around Luke Winters—even after all the intervening years.

Nodding, she tugged and found herself instantly released. The pot wavered as she poured the coffee, reflecting the trembling that took over when he touched her.

Avoiding his eyes, she wiped the surface near his place and then leaned against the counter, raising her left foot and rotating it, trying to ease the discomfort. She was no longer a teenager with a crush. She had responsibilities, obligations. And if she had not attracted the man when they’d been kids, she sure couldn’t do it now

“You look tired,” he said.

“If you’d finish, I could close and go home,” she replied, flashing him another look. Their lives were vastly different. Had always been so, even as children, but the summers at the beach had minimized the difference. He hung out with the older boys. She and her friends had followed them, first pestering them for attention, then flirting. She’d known, even then, that they were worlds apart.

Holding her gaze, he shrugged. “First let me propose a deal.”

“A deal?” Lindsay knew she was too tired to think straight but she couldn’t imagine any kind of deal she could make with Luke Winters. He probably bought and sold small countries in his spare time.
“How would you like to quit this job, continue your studies and not have to worry about money for the foreseeable future?”

“What do I have to do, sell my firstborn?” Instinctively, she covered the baby with her hands, as if guarding her precious child from the man before her.
“No. Just get married.”

“Get married?” Her eyes widened. Had she heard him correctly?

“And just who would I have to marry?” Instantly suspicions took hold. Was this some kind of black market deal? What did she really know about Luke? She hadn’t seen him or spoken to him in over a decade. He’d been wild and determined as a teenager. What kind of man had he become? Stepping back, she put more distance between them. Suddenly glad to have Jack so close, she wondered if she could get rid of Luke without any trouble.

“You would have to marry me.”

Stunned, Lindsay stared at him. “You are not serious,” she said slowly.

“Very serious.” For a moment the anger that simmered below the surface reemerged, but he clamped down on it. The flashing lights in his eyes warned Lindsay that he would be dangerous to cross. This was not the arrogant boy at the beach, but a man approaching thirty, who looked dark and dangerous. What had the past decade done to him?

“Have you been drinking?” she asked warily.

“A bit but I’m not drunk, if that’s what you think. Mad as hell, and out for revenge, but not drunk,” he muttered. Nailing her with his gaze, he stared deep into her eyes. “Think about the deal I’m proposing. I’d give you an allowance, adequate to afford anything you want. You could quit work and stay home with your baby. Anything you’d need, I’d provide.”

“And in exchange, what do I provide?” Somehow she couldn’t see him interested in her as a wife, or in any way, for that matter. She was at the end of her eighth month of pregnancy, bloated with retained water, her blond hair lank and tied back in a serviceable ponytail. She knew she had circles beneath her eyes, she saw them every morning when she dragged herself from bed to get to her first job. The uniform she wore to work was misshapen and stretched beyond its original intent. Luke could not want her in his bed, but what did he want? Why propose marriage to someone like her? With his looks, money and family background, he could find a dozen women who would leap at the opportunity to become his wife.

“You provide me with a wife,” he said grimly.

“I don’t get it.” She was too tired to think clearly.

“I want to get married—to pick my own wife. And I choose you.”

“You don’t know the first thing about me.”

“Lindsay, we spent several summers at the same place. You followed me like a puppy for two summers. I know who your parents were and I know you’re not married. That’s all I need to know. I want a wife, you could use a husband. It would be strictly platonic. And I’d see you were taken care of financially, which will give you time to spend with your baby.”

The silence stretched out between them. Lindsay tried to focus on the words, but they drifted around and around in her mind. She was so tired. Was she imagining his offer? She had to be. Why would he make such a ludicrous suggestion?