Genre = Contemporary Romance, Sweet Romance, Romantic Comedy
LENGTH: 50,0039 words, 201 pages
The new man in her life calls her Amazing Grace. Grace Under Fire is more like it.
Grace Ward-Adams only ever loved one man. When Vance left her for a younger woman, their divorce felt like death to her. She barely survived. Now the only man she’d ever loved was dead and she’s so mad at him she could scream. Not that Grace had been pining for Vance the entire decade that had passed, because she hadn’t been. She’d married twice after him… and divorced twice too.
Vance’s death had stunned her. That was all her reaction was. The video he left stunned her too. How could Vance ask her to help the other discarded women in his life get over him? Two members of his harem were young enough to be her daughters. It was utterly selfish of him to ask such a thing and to make their inheritance her problem. She didn’t need his millions.
Grace felt like digging Vance up and shaking him until he died again. Her plan to get revenge was currently circling the drain as well. Dating the so-called “grief expert” his estate hired was supposed to be a joke where she got the last laugh. It turns out, though, that falling in love for real again wasn’t funny at all.
Read Chapter 1
After exiting her beloved BMW, Grace straightened her black pencil skirt and checked her white blouse and dark silk jacket. No matter how badly she wanted to skip this, she couldn’t avoid finding out why Lane said her presence was critical to him carrying out Vance’s last wishes.
Her recently deceased first husband, Vance Ward, hadn’t let death stop him from imposing on their former ten-year marriage. Ever hopeful in the past, Grace had always responded to all of Vance’s summons. She told herself she was waiting for the perfect moment to give him the finger in person one last time.
There was absolutely no hope of that happening this time, though, which was why she’d been stalling all morning about answering Lane’s summons.
With Vance gone for good, her self-respect was all she had left. Vance had married other women besides her and divorced those same women over the years. Yet despite her own subsequent marriages and divorces, her first husband always acted like he knew Grace had never gotten over him.
And his clever, razor-sharp attorney knew it too.
She felt sure Vance also knew with absolute certainty that she’d eventually come running to help Lane, no matter how ridiculous his last request turned out to be. Heaven only knew what was on the private video message Vance allegedly left solely for her, but wasn’t that why she’d forced herself to come here?
Her crying jag last night was thankfully behind her and wouldn’t be repeated today—or any other day in her future. She’d spent the entire morning making sure that the ravages to her heart didn’t show in her updated hairstyle or her flawless makeup. The wrinkles on her forty-seven-year-old face outpaced her cosmetic work to keep it from happening, but she refused to look like some has-been wife who was grieving over the man she couldn’t keep.
Like a knight suiting up for battle, she’d even visited her bank vault and donned her most expensive jewelry for this dreadful occasion. She had on the diamonds Vance had given her on their tenth anniversary just mere moments before confessing he’d fallen in love with someone else and wanted a divorce.
Wearing the diamonds today served as a last act of irreverent defiance, which their shared attorney, the Honorable Lane Everett, would recognize straight away. And Grace was counting on it. She’d always felt there was a time and a place for petty revenge. This one moment might be her last chance to show someone associated with Vance that she no longer cared about him.
Grace hated thinking about the past, especially the part of her life that she’d given to the man she loved more than any woman should love a man. Stunned by his shocking divorce request delivered on their anniversary, she’d sarcastically asked Vance why he couldn’t have waited one more day to confess. Vance favored her with his most apologetic smile—a smile she’d once thought so, so charming—while shrugging one wide silk-suited shoulder.
The marriage she’d thought was rock-solid had ended so anti-climatically. Vance had paid for their faux celebratory dinner and they had ridden home together like he hadn’t just shattered her world. Vance had slept in the guest room that night and moved out of the house the very next day. He hadn’t even waited until he’d had coffee.
Despite his recent death, Grace felt no remorse at all for wishing Vance dead many times over the way he’d callously ended their marriage. Yet now that he was actually dead, the reality didn’t satisfy her at all. She’d cried herself to sleep last night over how Vance had escaped her in yet another way.
And worst of all, Grace knew she wasn’t alone in her grief. Vance had left behind a harem’s worth of women to also grieve him—a harem that unfortunately included her. Or perhaps even started with her. That was a depressing thought, and one not worth entertaining, but it was her unfortunate reality.
As far as she was concerned, last night’s grief had revealed a new low in her sad love story with Vance Ward, because she’d been secretly harboring hope that he might return to her one day when he was done being a womanizer. Now she had to totally let go of that foolish hope and give up all the silly romantic dreams she’d clung to about him over the years.
What was she doing here? She should have just answered the phone when Lane called her the second time. But she was still reeling from the one where he’d left a message saying Vance was dead.
Lip lines be damned, Grace couldn’t keep the deepening frown off her mouth as she pushed open the door of Lane’s office. She stopped with the door in her hand and nearly turned around to leave when she saw that his waiting area was filled with an assortment of Vance’s ex-wives and an odder assortment of younger women she didn’t recognize.
What proved them to be fellow victims was that every one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at her with red-rimmed eyes and frowns highlighted by their bold painted lips. A few even burst out in wailing tears at the sight of her.
Two of the younger ones—young enough to be Vance’s daughters—laughed uncomfortably over the weeping drama of the older ones. Grace dismissed them with a smirk and a glare. She’d done her crying over Vance in private. All of them should have done the same.
Grace felt no sympathy for their grief or their embarrassment or their dashed hopes of reconciliation. She had her own demons to lie to rest.
Before she could make her escape from the craziness so typical of Vance’s life, Lane threw open his office door and rushed out of it to stop her from bolting. Her intention to leave must have shown on her face because Lane looked equally determined to prevent her from doing so.
“Grace, thank goodness you’re here. I was afraid you weren’t coming. You’re over an hour late.”
“Sue me, Counselor,” Grace said with a snort, glancing around. “Whatever kind of melodramatic crap this, I want no part of it, Lane.”
Lane rubbed his nose. “Their presence was a deliberate omission on my part because I knew if I said the others would be here, that you wouldn’t show. I was afraid someone on my staff had squealed and told you. Sharon threatened to do so.”
Grace’s mouth twisted at the irony. “No one informed me of anything. I simply had better things to do with my day than jump through one of Vance’s flaming hoops. You know I got all I wanted from Vance in our divorce. Unlike the rest of his wives, I had no prenuptial agreement.”
Grinning as evilly as she could, Grace swept the room with her hand. “Give what pittance he left me to the rest of Vance’s victims. I was done with him years ago.”
“Sorry, but I can’t do that,” Lane said firmly. “And you didn’t get all you wanted in your divorce. In his will, Vance left you the beach house at Cape Cod and the convertible he made from the Carmen Ghia. But there are conditions for taking ownership of both. He left you a video explaining everything.”
Grace blew out a breath. The beach house had been a genuine gift Vance bought for her, but he’d traded her out of it during their property settlement. The car possessed only sentimental value for her, but the memories she and Vance made in it were among the best of her life. She’d loved no man as much after him, nor made any better memories with anyone.
How could she when she was so totally monogamous by nature? It was the sad, jaded truth. And one she’d go to her grave denying, even to her two best friends.
Lane put a hand on her arm. “Well? What’s it going to be Grace? The video is only ten minutes long.” He pulled her gently from the doorway and let the heavy oak close behind her.
Grace drew in a deep breath as she thought.
A fluffy blonde wearing tons of makeup and bright red lipstick jumped up from a chair and rushed over to embrace Grace. Red-painted lips graced her cheek. Disgusted, Grace pushed the woman to arm’s length, rapidly realizing who she was. The urge to wipe the woman’s lipstick off her face was strong, and she barely avoided doing so.
Damn Vance, anyway. He tossed women aside but never away. She counted nine in waiting chairs… and she made the tenth walking love zombie.
“Please, Grace. None of us knows anything. Lane said you had to hear first. Do this for our friendship,” the fluffy blonde begged.
Grace barked out a hard laugh as she glared. “Olivia, you’re delusional. My husband left me because he was sleeping with you. You and I are not friends.”
Olivia raised both hands as she took a step back. “Well, we could be friends if you’d get over yourself.” She pointed at the others. “He did the same thing to all of us that he did to you, Grace. Have some compassion.”
Grace turned to glare at Lane. “Nothing Vance left me is worth dealing with this. The divorce guaranteed that I never had to know or care about any of his other women after Olivia. Is this some cruel joke, Lane? Why in holy hell would Vance do this to me?”
“Because he loved you most,” Lane said flatly. His gaze swept around the room. “Sorry, ladies, but she was the only one he truly loved. I’m sure he told you all.”
Then his gaze came back to Grace. “Vance loved you first, most, and always, but we both know he wasn’t a good husband. Vance would admit that too, which means you need to listen to the video he made. Not even I know what’s on it. I literally can’t carry out his other wishes until we sort this first request out.”
Despite knowing the action would erase her makeup and give her face a shine that would highlight her worry, Grace rubbed her throbbing forehead as she groaned. “This is a load of crap, Lane.”
“The man’s dead, Grace. Vance left me a long list of what he wanted to be done and it starts with you. Don’t make me let down the best client I ever had next to you.”
When her hands lowered, a room full of pleading eyes landed on her. For reasons that eluded her, Vance loved damsels in distress. She long ago realized that his true preferences made their relationship a total anomaly because she was a survivor who needed no one. And Vance was the reason she was that way.
This is why she was so hard on Sydney all those years that Tom slept down the hall and refused to share her bed. No woman should ever feel so unwanted. Thank goodness Dylan was the polar opposite. He was high maintenance but no one who met the two of them would ever doubt they were a devoted couple.
But then, she and Vance once had been a devoted couple like Sydney and Dylan as well. Until Olivia had come along and Vance had decided to be devoted to her instead. She glared at Olivia for good measure. The woman rolled her eyes and looked away.
Grace looked back at Lane and swore at her dead ex-husband with a word she only used for the most horrendous of circumstances. Her attorney swallowed hard, blushed a little, and then nodded.
Grace shook her head. “Hearing what Vance has to say will change nothing.”
Lane blew out a breath and nodded once more. “Let’s just listen to the video together and hear him out. If you need time to think about things afterward, I’ll reconvene this reading of the will until you know your mind. I tried to get you here alone, but you returned none of my phone calls.”
It was true. She had been avoiding Lane. In hindsight, some of this was her own fault for not at least calling him back.
Grace nodded in resignation and let Lane pull her toward his office.
She didn’t give two flips about the other women in the waiting area or what they were thinking about the situation. If they knew Vance at all, they knew how unconventional he was.
All she cared about was protecting her own heart from letting Vance Ward break it all over again. Dead men shouldn’t have such power and she didn’t intend to give any more to him.
Read Chapter 2
Grace braced herself, but her stomach still dropped when Lane pointed a remote at the screen. A gaunt and sick-looking Vance walked from the camera he’d set up to sit in a chair facing it.
“Hiya, Gracie. If you’re watching this video, I’m guessing it’s been quite a while since you and I talked in person. I knew we’d fight if you saw me like this, so I decided making this video would have to suffice. You know making money always came easy to me, but then so did making women fall in love with me. After the cancer diagnosis, I stopped marrying and settled for some fleeting moments here and there. When the docs told me I had less than a year to live… well, that’s when the regrets hit me hard. You were right up there at the top of my list.”
“Stop the video,” Grace ordered, walking away as Lane did as she asked.
She rose from her chair and walked to stare out of Lane’s twelfth-story window. Breathing was suddenly hard to do, but she didn’t want Lane to know how badly she was affected.
“Vance never told me he had cancer. He texted me every other week and sometimes more. He made sure we kept in touch even though I told him he wasn’t supposed to care so much about his first wife’s opinions. My second husband left me over my continued relationship with Vance. He stole my phone and blocked him until I threatened to hurt him if he invaded my privacy again. You know his jealousy of Vance is the reason we divorced. And Vance knew he caused my breakups. He owed me the truth about dying.”
Lane cleared his throat. “I can’t speak to whether or not Vance knew he caused you problems with the other men you married. However, I can tell you for certain that he told no one in his life that he was ill until he realized he needed to make final arrangements. That’s when I found out.”
“Then he was a fool. He didn’t have to die alone. If he didn’t want me to hold his hand, then why bother leaving me a message at all?”
Lane shrugged. “I also can’t answer that, but here’s what I think. Since Vance was an abandoned orphan and sterile from a childhood illness, you and the other women were the only family he ever knew. You know the DNA search Vance and I did never turned up any close relatives. The orphanage where he grew up doesn’t exist anymore, but he’d convinced them to open his records. A stranger literally left him on their doorstep with no identification except for a note with his first name and date of birth. As unbelievable as it sounds, Vance died knowing nothing about his parents.”
Grace sighed and nodded. She’d heard this exact story from Vance because she’d been the one encouraging him to look into his past. He’d gotten the results during the first year they were married. His triumph over his beginnings was only one of the many reasons she’d fallen so hard for him.
“Are you okay now, Grace? Can I start the video again?”
Grace stared at the frozen image of her ex-husband on the screen from across the room. Watching Vance’s recording was like watching a movie starring someone famous who was dead. She felt removed from the reality of what she was seeing. The sick man on the screen wasn’t her vibrant ex-husband. He was a talking ghost. Grace refused to be afraid.
“Fine. Play it,” she ordered.
“I always loved you, Grace. You were the perfect woman and everything a man could ever want in a wife. You were my biggest supporter, which is why I could never let you go completely. Now that I’m dying, my single biggest regret is that I didn’t do right by you. I also didn’t do right by any woman I married or cared about. Falling in love was my addiction, Gracie. You were the longest relationship I ever had and I promise you I was faithful until Olivia came along. I was a better man when I was with you, but that doesn’t make up for the hurt I caused when we divorced.”
“No, Vance. It doesn’t make up for anything,” Grace said aloud, walking back from the window to sit and glare at the man on the screen.
“I’ve been in and out of the hospital many times lately. Every time I think about dying, I realize I don’t know how to right all my wrongs. Gracie, I thought maybe you might think of some way to help Lane do damage control so my sins don’t get worse after I’m gone.”
“Damage control?” Grace repeated with a snort. “It’s far too late for that, Vance.”
The man on the screen smiled as if he’d heard her, which was just silly.
“You were always good at figuring out how to do the hard stuff. If you do as I ask, a generous sum of money will go to each of the women Lane contacted for me, but all the rest of what I possess at my death goes to you. That includes control of all the businesses you helped me build and all my property. You also get back the beach house on Cape Cod that I bought for you… and our special car. They were souvenirs of our time together, which is why I fought to keep them during our divorce. Gracie, I cherished my memories of us like someone might cherish an old love letter. I took good care of them because they meant the world to me. Despite the other women in my life that you’re going to be meeting, I hope you can believe me because it’s true.”
Grace blinked burning eyes and turned to Lane. Seeing her distress, he paused the video again. “I don’t understand this, Lane. What does the man want from me?”
Lane shrugged. “All I know is that Vance bequeathed you several hundred thousand dollars to carry out his initial request. We’re going to have to finish the video to hear what he wants you to do.”
Grace pointed to the screen. “You knew him better than I did. Is it true? Was he always in love with me?”
Lane smiled. “If you’re asking if I believe Vance loved you most, the answer is yes. He did regret that he hurt you because he told me that often. I knew the others meant less to him than you because he walked away without looking back. Women were definitely his weakness. As his friend, I tried to counsel him on the matter, but he took none of my advice to heart.”
Blowing out a breath, Grace flicked a hand. “Play the rest of the video. I’ll never sleep again if I don’t hear him out.”
Pointing the remote, Lane pushed play once more. On the screen, Vance lifted both hands and smiled sadly.
“I don’t want my only human legacy to be nothing more than a long line of women with broken hearts because of me. Other than you, none of my exes ever remarried. None of my favorite girlfriends did either. That they’re going to live the rest of their lives alone is not something I want on my conscience in the afterlife. I need you to help them get over me so I can rest in peace. Will you do that for me, Gracie? I know this seems like a selfish request, but I know you can do it. I left Lane a sealed envelope with a list of acceptable resolutions I came up with. Thanks for doing this, Grace. I love you more for it.”
When Lane stopped the video, Grace chuckled and blinked in shock. “That crazy SOB. What’s the freaking punch line to the joke?”
“There isn’t a punch line, Grace. Vance wasn’t joking,” Lane said. He walked to his desk, ruffled through a folder, and finally pulled a sealed envelope from it. “Vance gave this to me in the hospital just before he passed. It’s written on their stationery. He had a nurse seal it with tape. He told me to put it with everything else and open it after you watched the video.”
Grace shook her head. “Come on, Lane. This has to be a joke. What happens if I refuse?”
Lane shrugged. “According to his will, none of the women in his life get anything. If you sign a form declining to honor his request, all his belongings will be sold. The money will be divided among the board members of his businesses. Instead of becoming Cincinnati’s richest woman, you will turn thirty-seven strangers into millionaires. You’ll also lose your beach house and the car because they’ll be sold along with everything else when his property is liquidated.”
Grace threw up both hands. “This is ridiculous. Did you put him up to this?”
Lane laughed as he split the tape on the hospital envelope. “No. My imagination is not this good. I couldn’t have thought this up if I’d tried.” He perused the hand-written list and whistled. “Okay. Well, this could be mission impossible for you.”
Grace lifted a hand. “The list can’t be any crazier than his video.”
Lane smirked. “Vance’s idea of resolution is that the women all need to marry, get engaged, or publicly profess they’re in a committed relationship.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “Anyone can lie about a relationship. People on social media do it all the time. Changing your relationship status can be done in a couple of clicks.”
Lane laughed. “Vance wrote on the bottom of the note that each success needed to be certified by a love expert.”
Grace rubbed her forehead again. “Is he talking about a romance novelist? I actually know one of those.”
“Seriously?” Lane asked with a laugh.
Grace laughed dryly. “Yes, but what the hell was Vance thinking?”
“Vance wanted to die in peace. This is why he went to all this trouble.” Lane fished out another legal document and handed it to her. “Everything he had me draw up makes sense now. This power of attorney puts you in charge of his three businesses and gives you full control of Vance’s personal property for a period not to exceed five years from the date of his death. At the end of that time, proceeds are to be distributed or sold according to the will.”
“This is insane, Lane. Cancer must have spread to his brain. Vance couldn’t have been in his right mind when he thought this up.”
“I have doctor statements to the contrary. The cancer went in the other direction and took his bones. He ended up unable to walk,” Lane announced.
Grace groaned and paced away. The thought of a helpless Vance made her want to scream. “What do I care what happens to the stuff Vance Ward is leaving behind him? It’s not my stuff. We divorced. I can’t even say we remained friends. He was my pain-in-the-butt ex who disrupted my life now and again. Nothing we had after the divorce constituted a significant relationship.”
Lane grinned. “Despite all the women after you, Vance kept the house in Cape Cod and the car. I think that proves he meant what he said in the video. I have transfers prepared to put them into your name once conditions are met. You’re free to use them in the meantime.”
Did she care about the Cape Cod house anymore? Or about the car?
Vance would never ride with her in the car again. He would never sleep with her in the beach house that faced the water. Even if she wanted them for sentimental reasons, she’d have to be out of her mind to think she could play matchmaker for all the women her ex-husband had romanced after her.
A sane woman with her own wealth would run away as fast as her Manolo heels would let her. Except that running away wasn’t her style and Vance knew it.
She didn’t need his money. So why was she even pondering this madness?
For love? Or what remained of her feelings for him?
Grace rubbed her forehead and rose to pace Lane’s office again. As unbelievable as it was, she actually had one crazy idea about how to do what Vance asked of her. It was totally lame, but the money Vance possessed always talked. Sometimes it was loud and obnoxious. Sometimes it was quiet and sneaky. What she was thinking about doing was both.
Grace rubbed her forehead again and groaned. “Damn the man for always doing this to me,” she said. Turning, she saw Lane staring at her. “I’m going home and think this through. Show the others the video and see what they say about his last request.”
“Each woman who refuses to take part is to be excluded from the will. I’ll get their signatures one way or the other. If they don’t want to sign, I’ll take them to court and have them struck from it. His wishes are not negotiable. For all of you, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, but you’re the key. If you refuse to do as he asked, they get nothing—period. If they refuse, you can help the ones that remain and get what Vance wanted to give you.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “This is such a load of crap, but fine. If they cooperate, I’ll come up with some kind of plan to carry out his last wishes, but I expect you to help me mitigate the craziness. I detest the very sight of them. I doubt I’m going to be able to hide that fact.”
“Vance left me and my staff well compensated for handling his will. Plus, I owe it to our friendship to do this for him, even if I agree with you that it’s bizarre. Once things get going, I’m going to hire an expert to help you deal with the other women. I’ll show them the video after you leave and then call you when I arrange a time we can all meet again.”
Shaking her head, Grace gathered her purse and walk to his door. She stopped to look back at him. “How much money did Vance set aside for this?”
“Three hundred thousand dollars.”
Grace snorted at the amount. Would it be enough to cover fees and a healthy bribe? Only time would tell.
Read Chapter 3
Mariah’s eyebrows rose as she walked into Della’s office, which doubled as a small conference room. The six-seater table in it was crowded with mismatched seats full of people.
“No need to be alarmed by us being in the crowd, Dr. Bates. Sydney and I are doing fine,” Dylan said with a smile, while Sydney nodded from the seat beside him. “Grace is the one who needs your help. Sydney and I made a bet on the outcome so we decided to watch the drama play out in person.”
“Dylan, that’s not something you admit to,” Sydney exclaimed, whacking him on the arm. She smiled at Mariah. “Sorry. We’re still working on sarcasm. Our presence here is not as covert as Dylan made it sound. Grace, Claire, and I were joking with each other, and he took us seriously.”
“I’m completely aware of what sarcasm means, and you were not being sarcastic. You were using your serious voice,” Dylan argued.
Ignoring the friendly bickering of two of their oddest clients, Della pulled out a seat she’d saved for Mariah. “Grace Ward-Adams has an unusual request for us. Since it was too complex for me to repeat, I wanted you to hear it for yourself.”
“Does John or Bill need to be included too?” Mariah asked as she sat.
Della laughed and shook her head. “Not yet, but hold that thought until you hear what Grace needs.” She looked at their strangest new client to date. “Okay, Grace. Please tell Mariah your request.”
“I want to purchase nine one-year renewable memberships,” Grace said with a smile.
“Ten,” Sydney and Claire said as they corrected her.
Dylan laughed at someone else beating him to pointing that out. “I also agree that you need to include yourself, Grace. You are the oldest of the group you refer to as your ex-husband’s harem.”
Grace blew out a breath and sighed because she couldn’t argue that fact. “Fine. I need to buy ten memberships and add enough credit to each account to pay for the first two dates chosen. I really don’t understand why any business would refuse a simple request to purchase their legitimate services in bulk.”
A knock on Della’s office door had all heads turning. “Come in,” Della called. Iris opened it and ushered a man inside. “It seems one of our other clients, Mr. MacKenna, is also involved in this discussion. Vance Ward’s law firm has retained his services to aid Grace’s efforts. The attorney wanted him to hear what you said.”
“Jay?” Mariah asked, grinning at one of her favorite people. “What are you doing here?”
Ignoring the friendly greeting, Grace glared at the man. “I already know why you’re here. Lane sent you. But who are you?”
“I’m Jay MacKenna,” the man said as Iris rolled Della’s chair near the table for him. “I’m the expert that Lane hired. It’s merely a coincidence that I’m also a client of The Perfect Date but it puts me in a unique position to assist you in carrying out your late husband’s wishes, Grace. As for credentials, I have a master’s degree in Thanatology and a counseling certification.”
Claire’s face wrinkled in confusion. She looked at Sydney. “Degree in what? What did he say?”
“Thanatology deals with death, loss, and grieving,” Sydney whispered.
“Oh,” Claire said, smiling at the man.
Grace didn’t care about his degree or his directive to crash her meeting. She also didn’t care about his well-cut suit, polished shoes, and manly square jaw. “Vance hasn’t been my husband for over fifteen years, Mr. MacKenna. I’ve had two other husbands since him. In case you didn’t get the memo, I told Lane to tell you I was going to handle this part on my own. You can leave now.”
Jay smiled and shrugged. “As a grief counselor, I would think I’m the perfect complement to your assembled team of friends here. Also, Lane specifically requested that I assist you with all your efforts.” His amused gaze raked everyone. “I already know Mariah and Della, but who else is here?”
“We’re Grace’s friends. I’m Dr. Dylan Maxwell,” Dylan said, reaching out a hand. “This lovely woman beside me is Dr. Sydney Hawking, my fiancée.”
“I’m Dylan’s girlfriend,” Sydney corrected, uncomfortably offering her hand. “We’re not engaged yet.”
“The woman is a genius, but sometimes she needs help to work things out. She bought me puppies. We’re obviously meant for each other,” Dylan offered.
Jay’s mouth quirked. “It certainly sounds like you’re a perfect match.”
He turned to the quietest person in the room and held his hand out. Claire cleared her throat as she took his hand. “Sorry that I didn’t understand what you did for a living. I’m Claire Hempstead, also a friend of Grace’s.”
“Nice to meet you, Claire,” Jay said, gently letting her hand go. He settled himself into Della’s desk chair and smiled at Mariah. “Now you get to watch me work, instead of the other way around, Dr. Bates.”
Mariah grinned at him. “Grace was just saying she wanted to buy memberships in bulk, but I hadn’t gotten to ask her why yet.”
Jay lifted a hand. “Her husband—sorry, ex-husband—Vance Ward recently died. He asked Grace to make sure all the women he left behind found love with someone new. Thirty million dollars is riding on her success, most of which will belong to Grace if she succeeds. If she doesn’t fulfill his dying wish, none of the women get anything—her included.”
“Do you mind if I tell my own story?” Grace demanded, favoring Lane’s so-called grief expert with a glare.
“Sorry,” Jay said with a grin. “I’ll just sit here and listen.”
Grace turned back to Mariah Bates. She’d been hoping to convince Della Livingston, the assistant, to sell her the memberships without playing twenty questions about them with the owner of the business. The absence of greed in the assistant proved to be a serious obstacle to her success. The younger woman who’d summoned her boss was smarter than she looked for her age.
Grace spread her hands in front of her. “I know merely dating is no guarantee of finding love. I’m not a complete idiot, though Mr. MacKenna might not agree with that statement given that he’s been briefed on only the legal side of the matter. With cancer eating at him, I suspect Vance became eccentric and sentimental at the end of his life.”
“I’m not passing judgment on the man. I find Vance Ward’s last request to be oddly honorable… and also a tad selfish,” Jay promised with a smile.
Grace stopped talking and glared at him again, but quickly returned her gaze to the two women who ran the place. “Vance left me three hundred thousand dollars in a special fund with directions for me to make sure all his ex-wives and girlfriends lived happily-ever-after without him. As ridiculous as his dying request sounds in this day and age, I decided it was nice of him to at least care. After thinking about it for several days, I decided an agency like yours was their best chance. I’m here because I consider this to be a business proposition as well as me trying to fulfill his dying wish.”
Mariah leaned forward and cleared her throat. “That’s quite an unusual story.”
“Trust me, I know,” Grace admitted with a nod. “The women have five years to commit to someone new, and all of them will try because they want their inheritance from Vance. Who knows? Maybe they’re still fond of him like I am. Despite what Mr. MacKenna implied, my motivation is not to nab the bulk of Vance’s money for myself. I already have wealth. My only monetary motivation is a small beach house and a hobby car. Both were gifts Vance gave me during our ten-year marriage, which he bargained for and kept when he divorced me. Vance wants me to have them back now, and I want them back, so here I am doing the stupidest thing I’ve ever done for him.”
“For the sake of clarity, I feel I should add that Grace is to include herself in whatever plan she works out,” Jay interjected.
Grace shrugged. “I was going to buy a trial membership here anyway. Sydney and Dylan’s happiness inspired me to give The Perfect Date a try. Before I could sign up for my own reasons, Vance died and left me his womanizing mess to clean up.”
Mariah laughed. “I’m flattered… and overwhelmed by all this.”
Della chuckled. “I was too, which was why I wanted you to hear this directly.”
Sighing, Mariah nodded. “I would be happy to take on you as a singular client, Grace. However, the risks seem too high for the agency to take on the others as a group request. Your late husband’s ex-wives and former girlfriends would be here as a direct result of coercion from a dead man and bribery from his original ex-wife. There would be some very questionable press if one of them got unhappy and leaked the details. My fiancée is a cop who keeps me thinking about my liability and how unlawful some things can appear.”
Grace looked around. “Would the risk be worth it to you if it bought The Perfect Date a ten-year lease on office space in the Phillips sky rise? They have some very nice openings right now and parking would be included for your staff and clients. Apparently, I’m now in control of the entire building.”
Mariah chuckled and leaned back in her seat to stare. “That’s quite the bonus offer.”
Grace smiled and shrugged. “Well, I’m sure we can make you a deal that suits you. And it’s not like I’m asking you to guarantee results from anyone’s dating efforts. I’m simply asking you to lay a foundation for a few heartbroken women who need to start over. If Vance liked these women enough to marry them or spend time with them, the one thing I can promise is that your rich male clients will like them as well. They’re very well-maintained.”
“Exactly,” Claire said, smiling proudly at Grace. “But underneath their polished exterior, they’re all as heartbroken as you are over Vance. Isn’t that right, Grace? They need help as much as you do.”
Ignoring Claire’s comments, Grace rolled her eyes. “Claire exaggerates my situation. I’m not heartbroken over Vance nor am I grieving him. I’m a realist. Which is why I see no reason for Vance’s hard-earned wealth not to go to the people he wants to have it. Vance Ward had many faults, but being stingy wasn’t among them. Also, he was brutal when it came to telling the truth. He asked me for a divorce on our tenth anniversary and told me he’d fallen in love with someone else.”
“You have my sympathy for your situation, but I still don’t see how I could support your goals,” Mariah said, spreading her hands.
Grace leaned forward. “Okay. How about this then? If you find a happily-ever-after for even half of them in two years, I’ll see that Vance’s companies buy trial memberships and give them away as Christmas bonuses. That’s fifteen hundred dollars times approximately thirty-eight hundred unmarried workers in the Cincinnati area alone, Dr. Bates. In case your math is rusty, we’re talking at least six million over two years. Plus, you can still get the ten-year lease at Phillips. The word-of-mouth advertising for your business should be off-the-charts afterward.”
Mariah snorted as she shook her head. The woman drove a hard bargain. She could see how she got all those diamonds she was wearing. “I can see you’re serious about these offers.”
Grace nodded. “Yes, I am… and I’m desperate. My need to legitimize this plan is large. Vance required that it be backed by an expert. I chose you and your company for that reason. Your expertise and success are a matter of public record. If the women Vance cared about tell you they’re happy and in love, Vance’s attorney is willing to go with your word as verification. There will be no need to produce other proof. They can fall out of love after a period of six months without penalty, so long as they maintain their membership here and keep looking. I’m having this all put into a contract that each member of Vance’s harem will sign. I’m adding a privacy clause as well.”
“Wow, I’m speechless. What will you do if I refuse?” Mariah said, chuckling as she shook her head again.
“I’ll ask others. The agency that says yes will get everything I just offered you. If I fail to find an agency, I’ll have no choice but to sign a release and forfeit my inheritance. That will automatically forfeit the others as well. Vance’s attorney has given me thirty days to get my plan ironed out and in place.”
Mariah was nearly speechless and that almost never happened. “Maybe there is something you could do to protest the unfairness of your ex-husband’s last wishes. Is the will airtight?”
Grace’s mouth twisted into a smirk. “Ever heard of attorney Lane Everett?”
Mariah winced before frowning. “Unfortunately, yes. He handled my husband’s side of our divorce. My bank account suffered for his expertise. Even though he formally resigned as my husband’s attorney, I would still refuse him membership if he ever applied here. A woman has to draw the line somewhere.”
Grace laughed. “Hearing you say all that about Lane was worth the humiliation of coming to see you. Will you think about what I’m asking and hold your final answer until tomorrow?”
“Yes, I can do that for you,” Mariah said with a nod.
“Thank you for listening. You’ve been kind to hear me out,” Grace said as she stood.
Once she was on her feet, Grace waved her hands at her unwanted and unhelpful posse. “Let’s all get out of here before Dr. Bates calls her cop husband on us. I know I would in her shoes.”
* * *
When Della and Mariah were alone again, they stared at each other in silence for a full two minutes, and then burst out laughing.
Della recovered first. “We tend to get one or two strange cases a year, but this is like a decade’s worth all at once. That said, I do think Grace will take no for an answer tomorrow. She seems the type to have a Plan B ready to go.”
Mariah nodded. “I’m going to run this by John this evening. I might even give Bill a quick call. Forget leasing the sky rise—the money we’d earn would buy us a whole building. Despite my instincts to laugh this off, the businessperson in me is urging me to give this some consideration. She was smart to ask me to think about it.”
Della grinned. “You can tell Grace is a smart woman. It’s obvious why two of her closest friends are geniuses. I’m not sure how Claire fits into that woman trio, but you could tell she was a real sweetie.”
“And don’t forget another of our clients is directly involved in this whole hot mess. We would have to be very careful because of Jay.”
Chuckling, Della nodded as she stood. “Jay is a sweetie too. Don’t you wonder how some tough lawyer like Lane Everett even knows him? I’m sure their connection is fascinating.”
Della chuckled again as she pushed her office chair back to her desk.
“That’s your wicked laugh, Dr. Livingston. What are you really thinking?” Mariah asked as she rose too.
Della shrugged. “My romantic side kicked in. I find it ironic that Jay never took his eyes off Grace. He was studying her like an entomologist might study a bug. Didn’t you see him checking out her legs and butt when they left? I think he likes her.”
Mariah shrugged. “That’s a reflex with some men, especially the reticent ones like Jay. Sure, the attraction was there, but probably little else.”
“You might be right, but I think Jay genuinely likes her. Given their dissimilarities, I would never officially pair them up for a date, but from my own experience, I know opposites do attract. If you say yes to this, Grace will become a client. How could we not add Jay to her list of potentials? Of course, this is only hypothetical thinking since you pretty much have to say no to such a crazy offer. Right?”
“Reverse psychology is beneath you, Della,” Mariah said with a smirk.
Della laughed again. “Nothing is beneath me anymore. Elliston has been teaching me to be ruthless. We’re talking about bringing in six million dollars worth of business to The Perfect Date. My brain is shouting no, but my heart and wallet are leaning toward yes. Plus, Jay deserves someone smart, beautiful, and entertaining. Grace seems to be all of those.”
Mariah sighed. “To even consider saying yes would be madness.”
Della grinned. “We both agree on that point. It’s just intriguing.”
“Intriguing is not the descriptor I would have chosen, but let’s go with yours.”
Shaking her head, Mariah walked out of Della’s office in a confused daze.
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