The sixth book in the Millionaire of the Month series, 2007
To the fabulously talented authors in this series. Thank you so much for inviting me along for the ride. It was wonderful fun and I would do it again in a heartbeat!
Eleven years ago…
Meredith Palmer spent the afternoon of her seventeenth birthday curled up on her narrow bed, sobbing uncontrollably. Everything about her life was a disaster. It was never going to be better-and what if she was one of the unlucky people who peaked in her teenage years? What if this was the best it was going to be?
Seriously, she should just throw herself out her dorm room window and be done with it. Of course, she was only on the fourth floor, so she was not going to actually kill herself. The most likely event was maiming.
She sat up and wiped her face. “Given the distance to the ground and the speed at impact,” she murmured to herself, then sniffed. “Depending on my position…” She reached for a piece of paper. “If I fell feet first-unlikely, but it could happen-then the majority of the stress would be on my…”
She started doing the calculations. Bone density versus a hard concrete landing or a softer grass landing. Assuming a coefficient of-
Meri threw down the pencil and paper and collapsed back on her bed. “I’m a total freak. I’ll never be anything but a freak. I should be planning my death, not doing math. No wonder I don’t have any friends.”
The sobs returned. She cried and cried, knowing that there was no cure for her freakishness. That she was destined to be one of those scary solitary people.
“I’ll have to get cats,” she cried. “I’m allergic to cats.”
The door to her room opened. She kept her face firmly in her pillow.
“I don’t think so.”
That voice. She knew that voice. The owner was the star of every romantic and semisexual fantasy she’d ever had. Tall, with dark hair and eyes the color of the midnight sky-assuming one was away from the city, where the ambient light emitted enough of a-
Meri groaned. “Someone just kill me now.”
“No one’s going to kill you,” Jack said as he sat next to her on her bed and put a strong, large hand on her back. “Come on, kid. It’s your birthday. What’s the problem?”
How much time did he have? She could make him a list. Given an extra forty-five seconds, she could index it, translate it into a couple of languages, then turn it into computer code.
“I hate my life. It’s horrible. I’m a freak. Worse, I’m a fat, ugly freak and I’ll always be this way.”
She heard Jack draw in a breath.
There were a lot of reasons she was totally in love with him. Sure, he was incredibly good-looking, but that almost didn’t matter. The best part of Jack was he took time with her. He talked to her as if she was a real person. Next to Hunter, her brother, she loved Jack more than anyone.
“You’re not a freak,” he said, his voice low.
She noticed he didn’t say she wasn’t fat. There was no getting around the extra forty pounds on her five-foot-two-inch, small-boned frame. Unfortunately he also didn’t tell her she wasn’t ugly. Jack was kind, but he wasn’t a liar.
Between her braces and her nose-which rivaled the size of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons-and her blotchy complexion, she had a permanent offer from the circus to sign on up for the sideshow.
“I’m not normal,” she said, still speaking into her pillow because crying made her puffy and she didn’t need for Jack to see her looking even more hideous. “I was planning my death and instead I got caught up in math equations. Normal people don’t do that.”
“You’re right, Meri. You’re not normal. You’re way better than that. You’re a genius. The rest of us are idiots.”
He wasn’t an idiot. He was perfect.
“I’ve been in college since I was twelve,” she mumbled. “That’s five years. If I was really smart, I’d be done now.”
“You’re getting a Ph.D., not to mention your, what, third masters?”
“Something like that.” Unable to be in the same room with him and not look at him, she flipped onto her back.
God, he was so amazing, she thought as her chest tightened and her stomach turned over a couple of times. Technically the organ in question couldn’t turn over. What she felt was just-
She covered her face with her hands. “I have to find a way to turn off my brain.”
“Why? So you can be like the rest of us?”
She dropped her hands to her side. “Yes. I want to be a regular girl.”
“Sorry. You’re stuck being special.”
She loved him so much it hurt. She wanted him to think she was more than his best friend’s kid sister. She wanted him to see her as a woman.
Right, and while she was having a fantasy moment…
maybe he could see her as a beautiful woman he ached for. As if!
“I don’t have any friends,” she said as she did her best to ignore the need to tell him she would love him forever. “I’m too young, especially in the Ph.D. program. They all think I’m some upstart kid. They’re waiting for me to crash and burn.”
“Which isn’t going to happen.”
“I know, but between my academic isolation and my lack of a female role model since the death of my mother, the odds of my maturing to a normal functioning member of society grow more slim each day. Like I said-I’m a freak.” Tears rolled down her temples to get lost in her hair. “I’ll never have a boyfriend.”
“Give it a couple of years.”
“It’s not going to happen. And even if some guy does take pity on me and ask me out, he’ll have to be drunk or stoned or something to want to kiss me, let alone have sex with me. I’m going to d-die a virgin.”
The sobs began again.
Jack pulled her into a sitting position and wrapped his arms around her. “Hell of a birthday,” he said.
“Tell me about it.”
She snuggled close, liking how strong and muscular he felt. He smelled good, too. If only he were desperately in love with her, the moment would be perfect.
But that was not meant to be. Instead of declaring undying devotion and ripping off both their clothes or even kissing her, he shifted back so they weren’t even touching.
“Meri, you’re in a tough place right now. You don’t fit in here and you sure don’t fit in with kids your own age.”
She wanted to protest she was almost his age-there were only four years between them-and she fit with him just fine. But Jack was the kind of guy who had dozens of women lining up to be with him. Pretty, skinny girls she really, really hated.
“But you’re going to get through this and then life is going to be a whole lot better.”
“I don’t think so. Freakishness doesn’t just go away.”
He reached out and touched her cheek. “I have high hopes for you.”
“What if you’re wrong? What if I do die a virgin?”
He chuckled. “You won’t. I promise.”
“It’s what I’m good at.”
He leaned toward her, and before she knew what he was going to do, he kissed her. On the mouth!
She barely registered the soft, warm pressure of his lips on hers and then the kiss was over.
“No!” She spoke without thinking and grabbed the front of his sweatshirt. “Jack, no. Please. I want you to be my first time.”
She’d never seen a man move so fast. One second he was on her bed, the next he was standing by the door to her dorm room.
Shame and humiliation swept through her. She would have given a hundred IQ points to call those words back. Heat burned her cheeks until she knew she would be marked by the embarrassment forever.
She’d never meant him to know. He’d probably guessed she had a massive crush on him, but she’d never wanted him to be sure.
He shook his head. “Meri, I’m sorry. You’re…you’re Hunter’s little sister. I could never…I don’t see you like that.”
Of course not. Why would he want a beast when there were so many beauties throwing themselves at him?
“I understand. Everything. Just go.”
He started to leave, then turned back. “I want us to be friends. You’re my friend, Meri.” And with those horrifying words, he left.
Meri sat on the edge of her bed and wondered when she would stop hurting so much. When would she fit in? When would she stop loving Jack? When would she be able to walk in a room and not wish for the floor to open up and swallow her whole?
Automatically she reached under her bed and pulled out the plastic storage container filled with her snacks. After grabbing a frosted cupcake, she unwrapped it.
This was it-she’d officially hit bottom. Nothing would ever be worse than this exact moment. It was like dark matter in the universe. The absolute absence of anything. It was the death of hope.
She took a bite of the cupcake. Shame made her chew fast and swallow. When the sugar and fat hit her system, she wouldn’t hurt so bad. She wouldn’t feel so lonely or totally rejected by Jack Howington III. Damn him.
Why couldn’t he love her back? She was a good person. But she wasn’t busty and blond and tiny, like the girls he dated and slept with.
“I have a brain,” she murmured. “That scares guys.”
She said the words bravely, but she knew it was more than her incredible IQ that chased off boys. It was how she looked. How she’d allowed food to be everything, especially after her mom died four years ago. It was turning down her father’s badly worded offer to take her to a plastic surgeon to talk about her nose. She screamed that if he really loved her, he would never, ever talk about it again, when in truth she was scared. Scared of changing and scared of being the same.
She stood and stared at the closed dorm room door. “I hate you, Jack,” she said as tears slipped down her cheeks. “I hate you and I’ll make you suffer. I’m going to grow up and be so beautiful you have to sleep with me. Then I’m going to walk away and break your heart. Just watch me.”
Jack Howington III had driven two days straight to get to Lake Tahoe. He could have flown his jet, then picked up a rental car for the month he was going to be forced to stay at Hunter’s house, but he’d needed the downtime to clear his head.
His assistant had been frantic, unable to reach him in the more rural parts of the country, but he’d enjoyed the silence. There hadn’t been enough silence in his life for a long, long time. Even when he was alone, there were still the damn ghosts to contend with.
He drove down a long driveway toward a barely visible log house. The place stood surrounded by trees with a view of the lake behind. There were windows and stone steps, along with a heavy double wood door.
Jack parked, then climbed out of his Mercedes. Hunter’s house had been built just recently, nearly ten years after the death of his friend, but Jack had a feeling that Hunter had left detailed instructions on what it should look like. The place reminded him of Hunter, which was both good and bad.
It was just a month, he told himself as he walked around to the trunk and grabbed his suitcase and computer bag. If he stayed in here for a month, per the terms of Hunter’s will, the house would be converted to a place for cancer patients and survivors to come for free. Twenty million would be given to the town or charity or something like that. Jack hadn’t paid attention to the details. All he knew was that Hunter had asked him for one last favor. Jack had failed his friend enough times to know that this time he had to follow through.
He took a single step toward the house, then stopped as the front door opened. The lawyer’s letter had promised quiet, an office he could work in and a housekeeper to take care of day-to-day necessities.
Easy duty, Jack had thought at the time. Now, as a petite, pretty woman stepped onto the porch, he wasn’t so sure.
Next to Hunter, who was long dead, she was about the last person he wanted to see.
“Hello, Jack,” she said.
Her blue eyes widened in surprise. “You recognize me?”
“Sure. Why not?”
She drew in a breath. “It’s been a long time. We’ve both changed.”
“I’d know you anywhere.”
Which wasn’t exactly the truth. He’d kept tabs on Meri over the years. It was the least he could do after he’d promised Hunter he would look after his sister. Jack hadn’t been able to deal with her in person, but distance made things safer. Easier. The regular reports from his staff meant he wasn’t the least bit surprised by her appearance. Although she looked more…feminine than usual. He’d known she’d been working in California on a temporary assignment with JPL-Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but not the details. He hadn’t known she was here.
She muttered something under her breath, then said, “Good to know.”
Her eyes were still as blue as he remembered. The same color as Hunter’s eyes. The same shape. Other than that and an easy laugh, the siblings had had little in common.
He hadn’t seen her in years. Not since Hunter’s funeral. And before that-
He pushed the memory of her heartfelt declaration and his piss-poor handling of it out of his mind. Let’s just say they’d both traveled a lot of years and miles, he told himself.
She’d grown up, he thought as she walked down the stairs and stood in front of him. The baby fat was gone. She looked like what she was-a beautiful, sexy woman who was confident of her place in the world.
Under other circumstances, he could have appreciated the changes, but not with her. Not with the promises he’d made.
“Obviously you received the letter from the lawyer or you wouldn’t be here,” she said. “You’re required to stay for a month. At the end of that time, there will be a brief but meaningful ceremony deeding the house to the town, handing over the keys and the money. You and the other Samurai are free to mingle and catch up, then you’re free to go.” She glanced at the single suitcase and computer bag. “You travel light.”
“Makes it easier to move around.”
“But it doesn’t give you many choices for that unexpected costume party.”
“Is there going to be one?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then I’m good.”
She tilted her head slightly, a gesture he remembered. Funny how he could still see the girl in the woman. He’d always liked the girl. He didn’t plan to get to know the woman.
He looked her over, then frowned. Was it just him or were her shorts way too short? Not that he didn’t appreciate the display of leg, but this was Meredith-Hunter’s baby sister. And should her shirt really be that…revealing?
“I’m staying here, too.”
Her voice was low and sexy, and had she been anyone else, he would have welcomed the distraction.
“Why?” he asked bluntly.
“I’m the housekeeper. The one you were promised. I’m here to make your life…easier.”
There was almost a challenge in the statement. “I don’t need a housekeeper.”
“You’re not being given a choice. I come with the property.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he said flatly. He happened to know she worked for a D.C. think tank and was currently on loan to JPL and some private company, helping them develop a better solid rocket fuel.