‘I’m insisting you date her. Five dates together, then I’ll have this surgery.’
Billionaire CEO Connor Stewart is being blackmailed. By his own grandmother, no less, who is refusing to have life-saving surgery unless Connor dates Mia Simms, his dull and dowdy marketing employee.
For Violet’s sake, Connor agrees to the crazy scheme. There’s no risk of breaking his ‘short-term only’ rule with Mia Simms; she’s not the kind of woman Connor is interested in … and he’s sure she’s hiding something. He just doesn’t expect it to be delicious curves and a firecracker personality.
Mia Simms is hiding something, and it’s much more dangerous than her looks. All she wants to do is live life in the safety of the shadows and avoid discovery. But perhaps a short-term fling is exactly what she needs to remind her to live.
But what if Violet is right to push them together? Can Mia trust Connor enough to let him see the real person behind the facade she’s built? Or is Violet’s little scheme about to put both their lives in danger?
Connor’s attention jumped to the heart monitor the second his grandmother’s eyes fluttered closed.
The regular sinus rhythm on the screen assured him all was well and he released a breath; she was simply resting.
It’d been a long night at London Bridge Hospital with a lot of medical staff buzzing in and out of the room and countless tests being conducted.
‘You look rumpled, dear.’
Shifting his attention away from the screen he saw a weary half-smile on Gran’s face. ‘I thought you were dozing off.’
She shook her head. ‘You’re definitely in need of a shave.’
‘You don’t look so hot yourself,’ he teased, but she did look unnaturally pale.
She reached out her hand and Connor held it. Swallowing down on the constriction in his throat he realised that this woman, who’d always been a powerhouse of strength and vitality, was as vulnerable as everyone else to the problems of ageing.
‘Make certain you don’t work too hard, Connor.’
‘I don’t need to work as hard as you did. The company’s in a great position.’ His grandparents had taken the Stewart family’s small import company and expanded it into the world-renowned Stewart Luxe Hotels and Cruise Liners. After his grandfather, Archibald, had a major stroke, his grandmother had taken over as CEO. Under her guidance, the UK-based business expanded into the USA. She’d made it a Fortune 500 company, but she’d also worked damned long days in the process.
Five years ago she’d handed the reins to Connor, but hadn’t retired completely. At eighty years old, she was still a very sharp and energetic member of the Board of Directors.
Obviously, she needed to slow down.
‘Good morning.’ The cardiac specialist, Dr Forrester, entered the private room.
‘Good morning, doctor. Please don’t beat around the bush.’ Violet’s tone was stoic, but Connor felt a slight tremble of her fingers. ‘Tell me the news.’
The specialist took the chart at the end of the bed and scanned it. ‘All the test results are back.’
Connor squeezed his grandmother’s hand and tried to read the doctor’s face. Let it be good news.
‘You’ve had angina, not a heart attack. However, this is a fortunate warning and gives us the chance to act.’
Connor felt his world tilt with uncertainty. ‘What needs to be done?’
‘One of the arteries is almost completely blocked. It’ll require a surgical procedure to insert a stent to open it up.’
‘I see,’ Violet ventured a little shakily after the doctor finished detailing the procedure.
‘How soon does this need to happen?’ Connor asked.
‘As soon as possible. If left untreated, this condition can lead to either a heart attack or stroke.’
Hell. A heart attack was bad enough but remembering what his grandfather had been through, the prospect of a stroke was worse. ‘How soon can you perform the procedure?’
‘Tomorrow. I’ll have you added to my list, Mrs Stewart.’
Violet’s eyes widened. ‘So quickly?’
‘Thank you, doctor.’ Tomorrow was great as far as Connor was concerned. Violet drew herself up against the pillows. ‘No. Not tomorrow.’
‘Gran!’ What the devil…? ‘Why not?’
‘There’s something I need to arrange first.’
‘Nothing that’s as important as this,’ Connor declared.
A light appeared in his grandmother’s blue eyes—one Connor recognised as sheer stubborn determination. Her pallid cheeks became tinged with colour. ‘That’s my decision to make.’
Connor had inherited the same stubborn determination and wielded it with ruthless efficiency in his position as CEO at Stewart Corporation. When armed with facts and convinced his points were sound, there’d never been an argument he couldn’t win in the boardroom—no deal he couldn’t negotiate to everyone’s satisfaction.
That was the boardroom.
This was his grandmother.
‘Whatever it is, I can take care of it for you,’ he insisted with growing concern. ‘That’s my intention, but it can’t be done in one day.’
What the hell is so important?
‘You need to understand that this condition is like a ticking bomb,’ the doctor emphasised firmly. ‘It’s a race against the inevitable.’
‘I understand, doctor, and I promise I’ll have the procedure as soon as I can.’ Damn it all! She’ll have it tomorrow.
‘Doctor, would you give us a few moments, please?’ Connor asked.
‘Certainly.’ After a nod to Connor, Dr Forrester replaced the clipboard at the end of the bed. ‘If you have any questions let me know, but I want to see your name on my list tomorrow, Mrs Stewart.’
The second the door closed behind the cardiologist, Connor turned to his
grandmother. ‘Tell me what it is you need and I’ll get right on it. Don’t stall on this, Gran.’
She sent him a tremulous smile. ‘This trip to the hospital has made me aware of my mortality.’
‘You’re not dying on me yet.’
He refused to contemplate that Gran’s life might be drawing to an end. It was decades ago, but it seemed like yesterday that his grandparents had saved him from living within the conflict of his parents’ marriage.
The afternoon he’d locked himself in his room and phoned Violet and Archibald in tears was still firmly etched in his mind. He’d been scared witless listening to his parents’ screaming match punctuated with smashing crockery. His grandparents had arrived soon after his call and announced they were taking him to live with them until his parents sorted themselves out.
He’d never moved back home.
‘Connor, whatever time I have left, there’s one thing I want more than anything.’ The gravity of her tone made a great weight press on his chest. ‘Tell me, Gran.’ ‘I want to see you settled.’ Her words dropped into the air between them like a boulder dropping into a still pond. Shock waves rippled out from the forceful impact and caught him off-balance.
Shit. Of all the things she could’ve requested of him… ‘I’m hardly unsettled.’ ‘Married, Connor. I want to see you happily married.’
Tension speared through him. ‘Be reasonable. You know that’s not going to happen. Ask anything else of me, Gran.’
‘There’s nothing else. It’s my dearest wish.’
Damn it. She knew this was a no-go zone for him. How could she even think of putting him in such a position? ‘One trip down the aisle with disastrous consequences was quite enough.’
‘I always knew Rachel was all wrong for you.’
Yes. Gran had warned him, but he hadn’t listened. He’d thought he’d found his soul mate. He’d thought Rachel had loved him and that they would build a happy life together, as his grandparents had in their marriage.
‘What you and Grandad had was rare. Once, I wanted the same kind of love. Now, I’m happy without it.’
‘No Gran. I’m happily divorced and not about to fall into the matrimonial trap again.’ He failed to suppress a shudder. ‘I should’ve learned from my parents.’
She squeezed on his arm. ‘I know you want to avoid more pain, but you’re missing out on so much happiness.’
Gran was wrong. ‘I’m perfectly happy as I am.’
‘Archie and I were soul mates,’ his grandmother continued. ‘I’m certain there’s a soul mate for you.’
‘Right, she’s just around the corner,’ he intoned with heavy sarcasm.
Violet smiled. ‘You have no idea how right you are.’
‘Oh hell, Gran,’ he tried to make light of the serious topic. ‘Have you been sizing up all the single females you’ve met at the hospital?’
This time, she laughed before she grew serious again. ‘There’s a young lady I want you to date.’
His jaw slackened as he registered the resolve in her gaze. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘I’m not. I have a young friend I’d like you to get to know.’
His eyebrows shot up and he didn’t bother trying to hide his horror. ‘You’re trying to play matchmaker?’
‘I’m not trying, I’m insisting you date her. Five dates together, then I’ll have this procedure.’
He couldn’t have understood her. She couldn’t really be saying…
‘Mia’s twenty-six. She’s smart, honest, caring and perfect for you.’
‘No, Gran.’ Had she gone mad? ‘There’s hardly anything I wouldn’t do for you, but I will never go on a blind date—let alone one arranged by my grandmother!’
‘It would hardly be a blind date. You know Mia.’
It wasn’t a particularly common name.
‘The only Mia I know works for us.’
‘She does indeed.’
His head jerked back sharply. ‘Mia from marketing? Mia Simms?’ ‘One and the same.’ His grandmother wore a self-satisfied smile. ‘Now I know you’re joking, but it’s not remotely funny.’
I’m deadly serious.’
He jumped up from the chair. ‘Absolutely not!’
Gran had to have lost her mind. What type of drugs had they been pumping into her?
‘She’s wonderful, Connor.’
Summoning up a mental image of the young woman from the marketing department, he cringed. Sure, he’d noticed the attractive slant of her high cheekbones and the fullness of her lips, but it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d been the most gorgeous woman on the planet. The clothes she wore reflected her personality: dull, shapeless and downright dowdy. ‘She’s awful!’
‘Rubbish! She’s one of the sweetest young women I’ve ever met.’
‘I don’t care if she’s sweet. She’s completely boring. Besides, have you seen her?’ ‘Frequently.’ Violet raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Appearance isn’t everything. Have you ever spoken to her?’
‘Once.’ He was unlikely to forget it. ‘I asked her a question during a marketing presentation and I’ve never been game to put her through the torture again.’ He looked heavenward as he remembered the incident. ‘She turned beetroot red, started stammering and I thought she was going to run from the room. Someone else ended up answering my question.’
‘Really? That’s interesting.’ Her lips quirked. ‘Mia doesn’t normally stammer and as for her running from a room…’ Violet put her hand to her chest and laughed. ‘You certainly haven’t made any attempt to get to know her if you think she’s nervous. I don’t think I’ve ever met a young woman with quite as much strength.’
He tried to grapple with the absurdity of his grandmother’s words. ‘Mia Simms is a timid mouse and dresses more blandly than a Norland nanny! You couldn’t have picked a less interesting or less attractive woman for me to date.’
‘Looks can be deceiving.’
Not in this case.
‘How do you even know her?’ He couldn’t think of a time when Miss Simms had made a presentation to a group of board members.
‘Mia comes over every Saturday afternoon for tea and mahjong.’
‘She comes to your home?’
‘Absolutely. She’s a very down-to-earth young lady whose friendship I treasure.’
Violet clicked her tongue impatiently. ‘Sit down, Connor. I don’t like you towering over me while I’m here in a hospital bed.’
He sat down grudgingly. ‘How did you meet?’
‘That’s not important,’ Violet insisted.
‘I think it is. It’s hardly normal for a twenty-something year old to be playing mahjong on a Saturday evening with a group of elderly ladies.’
There was an amused twinkle in Violet’s eyes. ‘She’s twenty-six and we’re young at heart!’
‘This is serious, Gran. You and your friends are all very wealthy women. What’s her motive?’
‘Oh Connor. Don’t be offensive.’ Violet shook her head. ‘You are way too cynical—especially when it comes to women and money.’
‘I’ve learned the hard way. And don’t avoid the question. What do you know about her besides the fact she works for us?’
‘Quite a lot as it happens, but nothing I’m prepared to share with you. When you get to know her, you’ll see I’m right. She’s simply delightful.’