An Improper Deal

By: Nadia Lee

Chapter One



Annabelle

“I would like you to marry.”

The announcement makes me start, and I choke on my coffee.

Mr. Grayson pulls a pristine white handkerchief from the inner pocket of his suit jacket and hands it to me. It smells faintly of detergent. I take it and wipe the drink off my chin and shirt. Thankfully my T-shirt is black.

The man is in his mid-thirties, with medium brown hair and brown eyes. He has the kind of average face that any company wanting to advertise an everyman product would use. I’ve never seen him wear anything but a suit, even in Vegas, where we first met, and its oppressive desert heat. Now the outfit makes him stand out in this casual bistro, where everyone else is in T-shirts and shorts.

“I’m only twenty-two,” I tell him. “What’s the rush?”

“You’re twenty-two without an education or career prospects. Being in Los Angeles doesn’t change that.”

His tone is matter-of-fact, but I can’t help stiffening a little. Does he think I chose to be a college dropout or fail to develop real skills? All the opportunities I thought I had—my parents and everything else—have been stolen from me.

“Then why did you bring me to L.A.?” I ask. He didn’t just bring me here. He paid the moving expenses, helped my sister and me get an apartment.

“The man is exceptionally rich,” he says, like he hasn’t heard my question. He often ignores me when he doesn’t think what I’m saying is relevant. It’s very 1800s…and very irritating.

Two years ago I would’ve never tolerated this kind of treatment. But now, well, beggars can’t be choosers. Without help from Mr. Grayson, my sister and I won’t survive for long. Nobody wants to hire a college dropout with minimal skills, not in this economy. A willingness to learn and work hard don’t matter much when you can’t get a single reference. The people from my past won’t lift a finger to help me, just to spite my dad. It doesn’t matter that he’s dead or that Mom died with him. To them, my parents got what they deserved. And now Nonny and I are getting it.

The notion constricts my heart until I can barely breathe.

“Probably old and without all his teeth as well,” I add, trying to pretend I’m not hurting thinking about what could have been.

“He’s twenty-six. Soon to be twenty-seven.” Mr. Grayson corrects me in that same factual tone of voice.

“Then why can’t he find a wife on his own?”

“He prefers to marry quickly.”

“Do you work for him?”

More ignoring. I try a different tack. “What’s wrong with him that he needs to go to this extreme?”

“He wants to marry a stripper.”

Stunned, I wait a beat so he can laugh at my gullibility, point a finger and then say, “Gotcha!” But of course he doesn’t. He isn’t the joking type.

“A stripper,” I say flatly.

“Yes. So you will strip at a club he frequents.”

Thankfully my coffee is on the table rather than in my mouth when he makes that little announcement. My face heats until I feel like I’m going to combust on the spot. “I most certainly will not!” I smack the table with my flattened palm, making my coffee cup jump. A couple of the other patrons look at us.

“Yes, you will. You don’t have a job anymore.”

I clench my teeth. “I can always get another.”

“Can you? You’ve been looking for over a month.”

Bastard. The only reason why it’s taking so long is this crappy economy and my lack of skills. These days, you need a college diploma to flip burgers.

“So you will do whatever it takes,” he continues. “I’m counting on it.”

“But why?”

“For your own sake. And your sister’s. Don’t you want to be able to provide for her?”

“Is this some kind of sick revenge—”

Mr. Grayson merely cocks an eyebrow. “Annabelle. Do I look like a person who lost everything in your father’s Ponzi scheme?”

I inhale sharply. What my dad did hurt a lot of people, and Mr. Grayson’s blasé tone pisses me off. “Then why?”

“My motivations—and employment—are irrelevant. Simply do as you’re told and your sister will continue to be looked after.” He slides a picture my way. “This is the man.”

I don’t look at the photo. “What’s his name?”

“It’s better you don’t know. Less chance of a slip-up.”

“You want me to just walk up and propose to him?”

Mr. Grayson’s thin lips curl. “We prefer that he proposition you first.”

Proposition? The word makes me pause.

He continues, “Ideally, he will think it is all his own decision.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Hardly. And I hope for your—and your sister’s—sake that he does proposition you. I’ll email you the details.”

He gets up, smoothes down his suit, and leaves. I gulp the rest of my drink. Infuriated or not, I can’t afford to waste free coffee, especially when it’s this good. I gather up everything on the table—napkins and the offending photo—ready to toss them in the trash.

But I don’t. Curiosity tickles my mind.

Just what kind of messed up guy is rich, wants to marry a stripper and needs Mr. Grayson’s help to do it? And why in the world would Mr. Grayson want me to strip so that this weirdo can propose to me?

No, not propose to. Proposition.

I pick up the face shot. My mouth opens at the absolute gorgeousness of the man.

He isn’t classically handsome, but he is…arresting. That’s the word. Thick, neatly cropped dark hair is somewhere between medium brown and black. His nose is a blade, straight and sharp, and smooth, lightly tanned skin stretches over the high forehead, finely carved cheekbones and strong, square jaw. His eyebrows are almost black, slightly arched in an arrogant line. The dark chocolate of his eyes makes me think of something warm and sweet, but there’s a hint of insolence in them that says I better watch it.

Why does a man who looks like this need to marry a stripper? And why me? I mean, I was all right back home, but this is Los Angeles. The city is full of these tall gorgeous women, and I’m about as unforgettable as a candy wrapper on the street.

Shaking my head, I walk over to the trash. In go the wrinkled paper napkins and empty paper cup…

I can’t seem to throw away the picture. My hand floats over the trash receptacle, but my fingers won’t let go.

Okay, fine. I’ll just throw it away at home. I tuck Mister Rich and Arresting into my wallet and walk out.

I don’t want to do this. Not at all. But Mr. Grayson’s flat voice made it clear there will be consequences if I don’t. There is no way I can survive here without his money, and going back to a homeless shelter is out of the question. The last time Nonny and I were there…

I shudder, then shake off the ugly memory. It was close, but nothing happened. And I’ll do everything in my power to make sure nothing ever does happen.

Stripping. It’s just taking off your clothes, right? There are bouncers and stuff to keep the patrons in check. I know how it is. I worked in a casino briefly, which is how I met Mr. Grayson.

The fact is, there’s no one I can turn to for help. I’m all on my own. So I’ll go with the flow…

…for now.

* * *


Elliot

I stifle a yawn as another stripper gyrates to the music.

You’re slumming.

No shit, Einstein. I’m not in the VIP area, am I?

Even though I told all my siblings I would marry a stripper for a year, I just can’t seem to make myself proposition one. But the bride search isn’t too bad. After all, I’m not at some stuffy debutante event or—god forbid—out on a date. A shudder runs through me. So not my style. I don’t do romance, I don’t date, and I don’t have the kind of sterling reputation that gets high society mamas to push their daughters my way.

What I do have is a sizable bank account. That’s it.

A strip club is the perfect venue for what I need. All the merchandise is on display, so there won’t be any surprises. A lot of the girls are stacked, although I cross off all the ones with plastic tits. I put a premium on tactile sensation. What’s the point of having a wife you don’t want to fuck?

The problem is that I can’t imagine fucking any of them for more than one night. If I’m going to marry, I’m going to make sure I stay faithful for the duration. Not because I care about the girl’s feelings—I don’t, not really—but because I don’t want my father to be able to use my infidelity to fuck with me and my siblings again.

I consider calling it a night. I’m not gonna find any wife material here.

Then the girl shows up on stage.

I don’t know what makes me look at her face. Usually I check out the girls’ bodies first—I’m not at the club to admire cheekbones. But with her, I can’t help it.

She’s young. Maybe twenty? She probably can’t even drink legally. Hell, she’s too young even to know how to do her makeup right. That shade of lipstick clashes with her flaming red hair. And the smoky thing she did with her eyes overwhelms the rest of her face.

But there is a shadow in the emerald depths that says she’s seen and experienced things that nobody her age should have, and I can’t seem to turn away. I want to take apart the puzzle, solve the mystery and satisfy my curiosity.

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