Her Hired Man by Cat Shaffer by Cat Shaffer - Read Online

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Her Hired Man - Cat Shaffer

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coincidental.

Chapter One

Wesley Hatfield took a deep breath as Lillian Osborne leaned across the table and pushed the two-page document toward him with a slender, perfectly manicured hand.

Sign on the top line, print your name beneath it, and we’re good. When she smiled, Wes felt a shiver of doom run down his spine.

He wanted to run. Man, did he want to. He might have if there weren’t so many reasons to sign a contract for the first time in his twenty-nine years.

Like his mother’s steadfast belief that despite his stepfather’s dour predictions, he really would pull in a steady income before he turned thirty.

Tiny Ransome’s triple-jowled face scowling at him, a reminder he had ten more days to pony up for the transmission job on that classic AMC Javelin or be mighty sorry. And, of course, his bragging after one too many beers down at Smokey’s Bar and Grill that he’d take first in Detroit’s largest custom car show next month.

Right here. A pearly pink fingertip tapped the page of what might be pure gibberish for all Wes knew. He was too stunned being presented with a contract to absorb what he read. The money was all that mattered: Three thousand dollars, more than enough to pay off Tiny and get his 1974 Javelin back into perfect condition. To hell with everything else.

He gripped the pen with rigid fingers and signed his freedom away. Forty-eight hours of it, anyway.

Thank you, Mr. Hatfield. Lillian straightened and gave a tight, professional smile. Please wait and I’ll get you a copy. Then you can be on your way.

The wood-paneled conference room seemed empty after she left despite the lingering scent of the best damn perfume he ever smelled. She was a looker, Miss Lillian Osborne, even in a tailored black suit with her hair yanked back into a knot on the back of her neck. Blond hair gleaming under the fluorescent lights to frame a face with startling blue eyes and a cute little nose. And those legs...only a blind man could follow her without noticing their lanky perfection and the swing of her hips.

Mr. Hatfield? The receptionist who greeted him when he walked in less than a half-hour ago spoke from the doorway. Miss Osborne has a call, so she asked me to give you this.

She offered the stapled pages. He accepted them with a muttered Thanks.

Still blocking his escape, the receptionist said, Miss Osborne asked me to remind you that the airport shuttle will be at your home at 2 p.m. A short hesitation preceded the addition of, She can arrange for items to be charged at one of the mall men’s stores if you need an appropriate wardrobe.

Oh, hell no. He liked faded jeans and a NASCAR, his standard attire. He owned dress stuff. Okay, that meant a total of one suit he wore to weddings and funerals and two white shirts, but still….

Tell your boss I don’t need strange women picking out my clothes. Wes stalked toward the door. I’ll be ready to go when the van gets there. I signed her damn contract. Anybody who knows me can tell you I’m a man of my word.

The air of downtown Detroit never smelled sweeter than when he walked out of the office building onto the freedom of the streets. Lots of people he knew took off when the economy tanked and companies pulled out. Wes was born and raised in the Motor City with no plans to live anywhere else. He was happy right where he was, thank you.

Lillian peered through between the slats of the blinds to watch the man she just hired climb into an old orange car. She couldn’t believe she was desperate enough for something like this.

He says he has a suit.

She turned to smile at Rachel.

Maybe you should have asked him if it was more than a decade old. That man doesn’t appear to have a great sense of fashion.

But he does have a nice butt, Rachel pointed out, joining her for the view.

Which will not impress my client. I hope he knows how to use a salad fork and not to belch in public.

Quit worrying. You’re going to land this account. Your ideas are fantastic and we both know you can deliver. Everything will be fine.

Yeah. Lillian watched the car pull away. Keep telling me that until I leave, okay?

****

Six hours later, as the cityscape of Lexington, Kentucky, came into view far below, Wes fervently wished he was anything but a man of his word. Flying freaked him out. The thrust as the huge plane lifted off in Detroit, the drops and bumps of travel above the clouds and his anticipation of the scream of tires as the plane landed were enough to keep his white-knuckled hands tight on the seat arms all through the trip. He hadn’t exactly lied when Lillian Osborne asked if he was all right with flying. It was more like he hadn’t notified her this would be his first time.

Some things she didn’t need to know. Like how he’d sooner chop off a toe than soar above the ground. Traveling above the clouds was unnatural, at least for a rubber hits the road guy like him. He liked to control his own destiny. Who wouldn’t be nervous about giving strangers responsibility for his life thirty thousand feet up in the air?

Lillian obviously didn’t share his concern. They were barely off the runway when she fell asleep against him. Her head tipped over; her soft body wedged against him as she shifted in her sleep. While she napped, he tried to figure out when his life went down the tubes.

As close as he could tell, it had been sometime between seven this morning, when his old buddy showed up on his doorstep, and four minutes after ten, when he signed that damned paper of Lillian’s instead of ripping it up. The one thing Wes swore never to do was sign on the dotted line. No way was he going to end up like his old man, dead of a heart attack at forty-three with nothing to show for a life’s work but a stack of debts and a little bit of burial insurance. Nope, Wes wasn’t about to sell his soul. He planned to remain his own man.

He didn’t mind working, provided he got to do it his way. As long as it was legal, he’d take on anything. Mow lawns, lay bricks, roof garages, he did whatever it took to keep body and soul together while he laid the groundwork for his dream that began as a kid. Even before he got behind the wheel for the first time, he knew what he wanted to do with his life: Buy classic muscle cars, restore them and sell them to people who loved them as much as he did. If it meant pretending to be somebody’s husband to get his custom auto business off the ground, so be it.

He’d been buying, rebuilding and repainting wrecks for four years now, and he knew he was on the verge of hitting it big. The biggest car show in Detroit was twenty-seven days away. If he could walk away with the top prize, his hard-scrabble days were over.

Maybe his mother would finally understand why college wasn’t for him. He made good enough grades in his year of state college but he felt like a trapped animal in those classrooms. Mom hadn’t been happy when he dropped out, but she felt better when he landed a nine-to-five job at a big box store .

He socked away most of his pay and even drew up a plan for his restoration business that would satisfy any bank loan officer. Then came the double whammy. When the economic went bust, so did his job. After Mom’s cut in hours at the bank led to her falling behind on her mortgage, he did what he had to. He loved his city, he loved his mother and that nest egg managed to keep the wolf at bay when it came howling around her back door.

His change jar held almost as much as his savings account now so he was betting his future on the Javelin. If it meant tolerating this woman for a weekend, so be it.

Umph. Lillian moved against him, her eyelids fluttering as she began to waken. Wes sat very still as she wiggled, appreciating the view where her pristine white silk blouse gaped slightly open to show the curve of her cleavage.

Oh. Lillian’s eyes opened wide when she realized where Wes’s eyes were focused. She pulled the blouse together, straightened her jacket and said, Has the pilot told us to fasten our seatbelts yet?

I think he’s about to. I’d stay put.

Lillian gave him a tight smile. I’m not you. Let me out.

Bossy woman. Not even a please. Still he obliged, standing so she could move out into the aisle and toward the back of the plane. His buddy Bobby owed him big time.

Until Tiny’s unpleasant visit two days earlier, Wes’s life was good. Happy Hour every night at Smokey’s, where he could find female companionship if he wanted, or walk out alone. A cozy little house he rented cheap, big enough for poker games on Friday nights and entertaining good friends like Bobby.

Three thou, dude. Bobby had hunched down over his coffee in Wes’s kitchen, hanging on to the mug with both hands like someone was going to steal it away. The words shot out rapid-fire, taking every bit of Wes’s concentration to follow along.

Easy job, man. Pick up the package, haul it to Kentucky on a big bird, dump it off. No sweat. Easy money, man, to hand-deliver something for some rich broad.

Another swallow of mug’s black contents and Bobby said, Do it myself if it weren’t for the old lady. Gonna pop that kid any second now. Swears if I ain’t there, I’ll be singing soprano when she gets out of the maternity ward. He sipped some more, than repeated, Easy money, dude, for a few hours’ work.

Wes had every reason in the world to trust Bobby. Their friendship dated back to tenth grade when they got caught trying to drill a hole into the women’s locker room back wall. That, and the other adventures that followed, cemented their friendship fast. One thing Wes learned then and still knew was that Bobby was a stand-up guy. Plus he was incapable of lying, even in the tightest jam. If Bobby said this was an easy way to make a fast buck, it was.

Still Wes wished Bobby had listened a little more carefully to the guy representing Miss Osborne. He might not have been so eager to sign up if he knew he wasn’t delivering a package, but pretending to be hitched. Then again, he could have backed out before he signed that contract, but three thousand bucks...that wasn’t bad pay to make goo-goo eyes at her for one evening.

Excuse me.

Lillian was back, waiting to return to her window seat. Her voice put out a chill that could keep meat. Wes figured he wasn’t exactly what she had in mind when she looked around for a fake husband. But if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride, as his granny used to say, which meant that sometimes you have to take what life gives you.

Wes had no more than settled in his seat when the fasten seat belts sign blinked on and the flight attendant advised them to place their seat backs in an upright position in preparation for landing. Wes felt his innards tense even as he reminded himself that the odds of dying behind the wheel on an Interstate highway were far greater than in this hunk of tin. Trouble was, he was a long way from the steering wheel. If he were flying this plane...well, that would be different. Wes was a man who controlled his own destiny, be it good, bad or indifferent. He could handle almost anything as long as he was in charge.

The fact that he hadn’t since Lillian Osborne snatched that damned contract from his limp fingers might explain the tightness at his temples and the certainly his life had taken an incredibly wrong turn. Despite the tenseness vibrating through his body at what was coming when they hit the ground, he could still sense a different sort of tension in his companion.

Back in Detroit she was been a dragon lady, snapping out orders all the way to the airport. Of course, he was sure he hadn’t seemed like the brightest light bulb in the pack, either. Confusion can do that to a man.

The ding above him made him forget everything except the downward pitch of the aircraft and the way the ground rushed up at them as the pilot brought the plane down at Bluegrass Airport. Lillian sat in silence as they taxied to the terminal and