A Bet with Benefits
Can she stay away from her irresistible ex? Don’t bet on it!
Mindy Eden’s on-again, off-again affair with Sam Blackwell left her with regrets. So when her sisters bet her she can’t attend a wedding as her gorgeous ex’s plus-one without falling for him again, Mindy stakes her future to prove she’s over Sam. Will a week of passion with Sam be the one gamble she’s ready to take?
Mindy Eden was doing far more than burning the candle at both ends—she was melting it from every angle. Her days were divided between her position as chief operating officer of her family’s department store, Eden’s, and her role as founder of her custom greeting card business, By Min-vitation Only, or BMO. Under Mindy’s leadership, Eden’s was rebounding after years of teetering on the edge, while BMO was growing by leaps and bounds. Money was rolling in, her to-do list was a mile long and she was sleeping about four hours a night. She loved every minute of it. This was no time to slow down for anything.
As she settled in the back seat of her car on her way to Eden’s, her cell phone rang. She’d been waiting for this call from Matthew Hawkins, the interim chief executive officer Mindy had hired to run BMO while she helped her sisters get Eden’s back on stable ground. “Matthew. Do you have news for me?”
“I do, and it’s not what we were hoping for.”
“Let me guess. They want more money.” BMO had just made an offer on an amazing old warehouse in New Jersey. The Mercer Building. It was a massive space, and it would be a huge undertaking to move the entire company, but it had to be done. Right now, they had production running out of four different facilities, with the administrative offices at a fifth site and bulging at the seams. The Mercer would make it possible to streamline their entire operation and give them room to grow, and it would be an incredible space to work from.
“I wish it was as simple as that. The building has been sold,” Matthew said flatly.
“What do you mean? I thought you were on top of this. You told me it was a done deal.”
“Unfortunately, I think your personal life interfered on this one. Your romantic personal life.”
Mindy was close to asking Matthew if he had his head screwed on right. There was no romance in her life. There wasn’t much personal in there, either. Aside from the time she spent with her sisters, Sophie and Emma, at Eden’s, she didn’t have a spare minute to socialize. “Is this some sort of cruel joke?”
“Your ex. Sam Blackwell. He bought the building. Right out from under us.”
Mindy was rarely caught off guard. She had a knack for anticipating problems and being a step ahead. But she had not seen this coming. Sam had been out of her life for five full months, since the last time she broke up with him and kicked him out of her apartment.
She’d never forget their last conversation.
You tell me to go and I’m not coming back. Ever.
My sisters need me more than I need you.
Have it your way, Min. Good luck with your dysfunctional family.
Mindy had broken up with Sam several times before that and he always found a way back. This time, he’d not only stayed away, he’d moved on to greener pastures. He’d been photographed with several gorgeous women in the tabloids, most recently with Valerie Cash, a former model turned executive fashion editor. That hadn’t been easy for Mindy to take. She couldn’t figure out what made him stay away this time. Unless, of course, it was because he’d finally believed her when she’d said that he was no good for her.
“Mindy? Are you there?” Matthew asked. “Sam Blackwell. Your ex-boyfriend.”
“He was never my boyfriend.” Sam never would’ve allowed himself such a label. He wasn’t the type—his words, not hers.
“Look, I couldn’t care less what role he played in your life. The bottom line is we have to start looking for something different. Maybe new construction. I can start meeting with architects and looking at commercial sites.”
There was no way Mindy was going to give up on the Mercer this easily. “Are you insane? We’re talking eighteen months on new construction, if we’re lucky. We don’t have that kind of time. And frankly, I’m a little shocked that you’re suggesting it. That kind of delay could destroy everything I’ve built.”
“With all due respect, I’ve built quite a lot since I’ve been here. I have a lot invested in BMO, as well.”
Mindy had to stop herself from biting down on her own tongue. BMO was her company, not Matthew’s. And he needed to stop acting this way. “I’m going to fix this. I don’t want you to do another thing until you hear from me.”
“How? The building is sold. If we try to buy it from Blackwell, he’ll make us pay through the nose.”
Mindy drew in a deep breath. Matthew was excellent at organization, but he wasn’t much of a shark. She, however, was well versed in the art of getting what she wanted out of Sam Blackwell. Not that she was an expert. She’d failed at that before, but she at least knew his tricks. “Let me handle it. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“This is technically my job.”
And technically, I can fire you. “BMO is still my company and this affects our entire future. I want to get this done quickly, and I know how to deal with Sam.”
“Good luck. I’d say you’re going to need it.”
Thanks for the big vote of confidence. “Goodbye, Matthew.” Mindy leaned forward to speak to her driver, Clay. “Change of plans this morning. We need to make a stop before I head into Eden’s. Eighteenth Street and Tenth Avenue. North side of the street.”
“All the way down by Pier 60, Ms. Eden?”
“Yes, please. All the way down.” All the way down to see Sam. Mindy sat back, glancing out the window and making a conscious effort to unclench her jaw and relax her shoulders. She’d spent the last five months wondering if Sam Blackwell would find a way to wander back into her life. Now she had no choice but to storm into his. She would not allow him to create problems for her from afar, pulling strings and making messes. He was going to have to do it up close and personal.
“I won’t be more than fifteen minutes,” she said when Clay pulled up in front of Sam’s office building.
“Got it. I’ll hang back and wait.”
Mindy climbed out of the car, breathing in the crisp October day deeply, if only for a boost of confidence. She strode inside, sunglasses on and head held high. With no turnstile or guard in front of the elevator bank, she bypassed the security desk and nobody said a thing. Mindy had learned long ago that if you act as though you know where you’re going, no one will question you. She did not want to give Sam even a minute to prepare for her arrival. She quickly scanned the directory and pressed the button for the seventh floor. Alone inside the elevator, she blew out a breath and decided to give herself a pep talk. “You got this. Sam Blackwell will not hurt you. Personally or professionally.”
When the ding came and the door slid open, the reception desk was straight ahead, manned by a suitably gorgeous woman Mindy did not recognize. Behind her, a solid black wall was emblazoned with the words S. Blackwell Enterprises in gleaming chrome. The furnishings were sleek and modern, not so much as a stray paper clip in sight.
“May I help you?” the receptionist asked coldly.
“Mindy Eden for Sam.”
“Is he expecting you?”
For an instant, Mindy considered answering honestly and saying no, but Sam had to be expecting her. He didn’t do things like buy a building out from under someone unless he was expecting a response. “Yes. He is.”
The receptionist picked up the phone and eyed Mindy as she spoke to Sam. “Yes, sir, Mr. Blackwell. Of course,” she said before hanging up. “He’ll be with you soon.”
An eternity went by as Mindy paced in the reception area. Back and forth she went, but she wasn’t about to sit down. She had too much anxiety coursing through her veins. The thought of seeing Sam made her nervous, a reaction she needed to stomp into submission. She would get what she wanted today. She would not let him control her.
She’d nearly convinced herself of it until all six feet and six inches of deliciously imposing Sam Blackwell appeared before her.
“Mindy.” His voice was smooth and low, the sound filtering into her ears and quickly spreading through her entire body. It was like being gently shaken awake, something Sam had done to her countless times, rolling over in bed and pressing his long, lean form against hers. Sam was insatiable. He always wanted more of everything. Seeing him now made Mindy want to give him at least a little something. He was too appealing for words in black trousers and a charcoal-gray shirt, no tie, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, showing off his firm forearms and his silver Rolex. His jet-black hair perfectly walked the line between tidy and messy. “I’d wondered when you’d turn up.”
Damn him. So he had planned this. He’d lured her here by buying the Mercer and she’d taken the bait. Maybe she should have let Matthew deal with this, but it was too late for that. She had to stay strong. Confident. She couldn’t let Sam rattle her. “I need fifteen minutes. In your office.”
“That sounds like a lot more fun than what I was just working on.” His eyebrows bounced, and the corners of his mouth threatened to curve into a smile.
Mindy cursed herself for thinking exactly what he was thinking. Fifteen minutes was plenty of time to do a lot of sexy things to each other. “If I do it right, it will only be fun for me.”
“I’ve had worse offers.” Sam waved Mindy closer, waiting until she started down the hall first. “Last door on the right.”
“I remember.” Mindy led the way, ignoring the intoxicating effect of having her lungs filled with Sam Blackwell‒scented air, hoping she could find the strength to outmaneuver him and get the Mercer Building, all with her pride and heart intact.
* * *
Sam had a definite opinion about most things, but he was uncertain how to feel about Mindy Eden showing up at his office. Judging by the tug in the center of his chest the instant he saw her, he’d missed her. As he trailed behind her down the hall, the tension building in his hips confirmed that at the very least he’d missed her body—every killer curve. But he didn’t trust Mindy. Not anymore. By the third time you get kicked out of a woman’s life, she’s officially taken the gloves off.
“What can I do for you?” Sam asked, closing the door behind him.
Mindy dropped her handbag in one of the chairs opposite his desk. “I had hoped you and I were beyond guessing games.”
“If we are, it’s because I don’t play them. I honestly have no idea why you’re here.” He rounded his desk but waited to sit. “Please. Have a seat.”
Mindy shook her head, her russet-red hair a wavy tumble across the shoulders of her trim-fitting black jacket. Peeking out from beneath her lapel was something black and lacy. He loved that she worked in a fashion-forward business and could apply a sexy edge to her wardrobe. “I’m not staying. I’m here about the Mercer Building. You know, the historic warehouse out in New Jersey that I was about to buy? You snatched it out from under me. You’re trying to meddle in my business.”
“I might have bought it, but it had nothing to do with your business.”
Mindy’s pouty berry-pink mouth went slack with disbelief. “So what, then? Was this some attempt to get back together with me?”
Wow. He had not seen that coming. “Is that really what you think?” He rounded his desk and closed in on her, enough to smell her perfume and see firsthand the touchable texture of her skin. His mind and body began to wage a battle. There was no telling which would win out—the urge to keep her at arm’s length or the one to wrap her up in them. “I don’t hear from you for five months and you think that I’m suddenly so struck with affection for you that I devise some silly plan to lure you to my office? Believe me, Mindy. If I wanted to get back together with you, I would call you. On the telephone. And I would ask you out.”
Mindy crossed her arms as if she was determined to keep him away. “I have a hard time believing you aren’t up to something, and it’s not my fault that I suspect it. That’s what you do. You meddle. You’ve interfered with Eden’s plenty.”
If only Mindy knew that what she saw as meddling, he considered to be nothing more than a favor. “I’m not a gatecrasher, Mindy, no matter what you think. I had nothing to do with buying that building out from under you. I don’t know why Eden’s would want it anyway. You have enough space in Manhattan to build a cruise ship.”
“It’s not for Eden’s. It’s for BMO. My company. We need to find a single space for our entire operation. Having things scattered all over the place is killing our margins.”
That was a different case. BMO was Mindy’s baby, but she’d left it in the hands of someone else. Had she managed to worm her way out of her duties at Eden’s? Was that why she was taking time to personally address this issue? “I thought you were letting the interim CEO take the reins.”
“I’m still involved in the day-to-day. I’m not really capable of being hands-off.”
The phrase made Sam want to thread his fingers through Mindy’s hair, but he pushed the thought aside. “I get that. I’m the same way.”
“It’s only a little more than a year until I will have fulfilled my two-year obligation to Eden’s and can hightail it out of there. I’m not going to stop putting my mark on the world with BMO.”
He’d always admired Mindy’s determination. When she wanted something, she did not take her eyes off the prize. That had actually been part of the fun of being with her—trying to distract her. It almost always involved the two of them taking off each other’s clothes. “Then how can I help? Do you want me to see if I can help you find a different space?”
“No. I want you to sell the Mercer Building to me.”
He stepped back, perching on the very edge of his desk and stretching out his legs, crossing them at the ankles. He pinched his lower lip between his thumb and index finger. It wouldn’t be a travesty if he decided to sell her the building, but Mindy was his key to an event he’d been certain before now he’d never get into. An event he needed to be at. “I need something in return.” He didn’t want to be greedy, but he also didn’t want to be foolish. Why do a favor for Mindy? Out of the goodness of his heart? She’d ground his ego into the dirt with her stiletto heels. He didn’t owe her a thing.
“A pile of money?”
“No. An invitation to your sister’s wedding.”
Mindy reared back her head, eyes wide with astonishment. “That’s in a week. There are no invites to be had. Plus, why would you even want to go to Sophie’s wedding? Half of the guest list doesn’t like you.”
Sam didn’t hurt easily, but that wasn’t an easy remark to hear. “It makes me look second-rate to not be attending the social event of the year.”
“Since when do you care what people think about you?”
“A good businessperson always cares about their reputation. I’ve been concentrating my work in New York and I need to be firmly entrenched in those social circles if I’m going to get anything real done in this town.” His sister, Isabel, had been the one to encourage him to stick closer to Manhattan over the last five months. She’d told him he couldn’t outrun his feelings by buzzing to Prague or Buenos Aires or wherever the smell of money and big deals lured him. Logic said that the minute Mindy dumped him last time, he would want to be as far away as possible. The Eden family was impossible to ignore in this city. But he suspected Isabel was right. He couldn’t avoid everything that caused him pain. Even when he’d had more than enough to last him a lifetime.
“I couldn’t get an invitation for the queen of England right now. Sophie has been moaning for months about how tight the guest list is, and now that we’re this close, she’s perpetually freaking out.”
Sam’s mind immediately leaped to a solution. He cleared his throat and prepared himself for another potentially insulting answer. “Who’s your date?”
A rush of pink colored Mindy’s cheeks. She batted her lashes and looked away. “I don’t have one. So what?”
“There’s no need to be defensive about it.” Sam had to fight the smile that wanted to cross his lips. He didn’t want to be so happy that Mindy Eden, one of the most extraordinary women in the city, didn’t have a date for her own sister’s wedding. But he was. “I could fix that for you. You’d be killing two birds with one stone. Getting your building and a date.”
“You’ll really sell me the building if I take you to Sophie’s wedding? That’s all you want?”
Sam was surprised Mindy had asked the question, a classic misstep in negotiations. Never let on that you think you’re getting a great deal. “Take me to the rehearsal dinner, too. You know, make it seem like I’m really in the inner circle.”
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea. You and I both know we don’t work as a couple.”
Sam shrugged and pushed off from the desk, taking his seat behind it. He was wary of the idea, only because he knew how frustrating it would be to spend time with Mindy and not be able to touch her. But he could get some real business done at Sophie and Jake’s wedding. He might even mend a few Eden fences. “Like I said, not struck with affection for you. But I think I could be convinced to keep you as a friend.”
Mindy’s blue-green eyes were full of questions, and maybe disappointment, too. He was okay with that. She’d taken him down many notches more than once. Let her know how much it hurt. “Okay. If you’ll sell me the Mercer Building for what you paid, I will bring you to her wedding.”
“And the rehearsal.”
“I’ll have to figure out how to play it with Sophie, but okay. The rehearsal, too.”
“For what I paid?”
“Yes. Not a penny more.”
“And as friends.”
She grumbled and plucked her handbag from the chair, hooking it on her arm. “If that’s what we’re shooting for, then yes. Friends.”
Sam got up to walk her out.
“I can find my way,” she shot at him.
“I know that. I just want to be sure you don’t steal anything on your way out.”
“Okay, then. You go ahead. I’ll just watch.” He leaned against the door frame, grinning to himself. Their impromptu meeting had been a win for him, especially the last part. He’d come off like a gentleman, when really he’d been after only a spectacular eyeful as Mindy walked away.
As Mindy left Sam’s office, only one thought was running through her head: What in the hell did I just agree to? Letting Sam be her date to Sophie’s wedding? On a long list of bad ideas, this not only belonged at the very top, it was the entire reason for making a list in the first place. Sam was trouble. Her family, for all intents and purposes, hated him. He was the king of underhanded behavior, which he always managed to explain away as somehow noble or good. Then there was the unavoidable fact that Mindy seemed to lose about fifty points off her IQ when she was around him. He had a real talent for making her do stupid things. Case in point, agreeing to let him take her to Sophie’s wedding.
Judging by the way she’d felt during their short meeting, it wouldn’t be hard for him to do it to her again. Her physical attraction to him was still off the charts. That was why she hadn’t taken a seat, even when her brand-new Louboutins were killing her feet. She couldn’t allow herself to linger or get comfortable, even when she’d wanted nothing more than to unbutton her jacket and ask him if he wanted to rekindle the flame between them. One more time. For old times’ sake. But Sam was too sly and clever. Whip-smart and devious. There were plenty of reasons to stay away.
Of course, he’d been clear that attending the wedding together would be only as friends. That one detail of their agreement had helped her decide she could escape this scenario unscathed. So she’d be on the arm of a ridiculously hot guy for a few nights, she wouldn’t have to go stag to Sophie’s wedding and she’d get the building her business so desperately needed. This was a win-win-win. As long as she kept her clothes on and her head out of the clouds.
Clay whisked Mindy off to Eden’s, dropping her off at the south entrance on Thirty-Sixth Street. She breezed through the store, past cosmetics and the perfume girls, through ladies’ accessories to the back elevators that would take her up to the executive offices. She still hadn’t figured out how to handle this news with Sophie, although she had an idea about an approach involving one of Jake’s groomsmen, Gerald, and his wandering hands.
“Hey, Soph,” Mindy said, knocking on Sophie’s doorway, which was almost always open. “Do you have a minute?”
“Sure. I can’t keep my mind on work right now anyway.” Her sister pushed back from her desk, gathering her sleek red locks in her hand and pulling them in a bundle over one shoulder. Always fashionable and put-together, Sophie was wearing a jade green floral dress with dramatic bell sleeves.
Mindy was making herself at home on Sophie’s gray velvet sofa when Emma appeared at the door.
“Discussing wedding stuff, by any chance?” she asked.
“Yes. Actually. That’s exactly why I wanted to talk to Sophie.” Mindy patted the seat next to her. “Join us.”
“You guys want to talk about the wedding?” Sophie asked, incredulous. “I always feel like I’m jamming it down your throat.”
Emma glanced over at Mindy and without words, conveyed their shared desire for the relief they would feel when Sophie’s wedding was over. “Oh, no. We love to talk about the wedding,” Emma said, putting on an excellent front.
“It’s the best part of the day,” Mindy lied.
Emma tucked her long chocolate-brown hair behind her ear and crossed her legs, showing off an incredible pair of cherry-red Manolo Blahnik pumps. The three sisters did enjoy outdoing each other when it came to shoes, although this was a daring choice for the otherwise more subdued Emma. Her charcoal tweed pencil skirt and jacket made a nice counterpoint. “Absolutely. Mindy, what’s your news?”
Mindy wasn’t about to stall. She wanted to get this over with. “I found a date for the wedding. If you can just let Jake know and have him somehow filter that news down to Gerald, that would be great.”
“Why don’t you tell Gerald yourself? Doesn’t he text you four or five times a day?”
This was true. Gerald had been putting the full-court press on Mindy from the moment he met her at the first engagement party. He was one of Jake’s business school pals, and Sophie had known him then, as well. He had it in his head that Jake and Sophie along with Mindy and Gerald would make the perfect pair of power couples. Mindy had been clear that she wasn’t interested, but she’d delivered that news gently, only because she knew she was going to see Gerald a lot at the various events leading up to the wedding. Apparently she’d been too soft with her approach. Gerald didn’t seem to be taking the hint.
“Yes. He does. I just don’t know how to work that particular detail into a text conversation.”
“Then call him,” Sophie said.
“I don’t want to encourage him. And this was all your idea in the first place. Telling me to get a date to send him a signal.”
“So?” Emma knocked Mindy’s knee with her own. “Who’s the guy?”
Mindy couldn’t afford to hesitate with her answer. “Sam.”
The room went dead silent. Mindy braced for the fallout.
“No. No way,” Sophie said. “Absolutely not.”
“What? You can’t tell me who I can bring as a date. I’m a grown woman.”
“Not around Sam you aren’t. And it’s my wedding. I don’t like Sam. My future husband despises him. And frankly, you shouldn’t like him, either. Just think about the things he’s done to interfere with our business.” Sophie gestured to Emma. “Or our own sister, for that matter. He was the one who leaked the story of Emma’s childhood to the tabloids.”
“Which was ultimately a good thing, wasn’t it?” Mindy turned to Emma, pleading with her eyes.
“It was.” Emma looked back and forth between Mindy and Sophie, seeming stuck. “I just wish I would’ve had the chance to do it myself.”
“See? There you go.” Sophie sat back in her chair. “You are not bringing Sam Blackwell to my wedding. If nothing else, he is going to stomp all over your heart, and I am not going to watch that happen again.”
“Ah, but see, that won’t be a problem. We agreed that we’re only attending as friends.”
“Why in the world would you even want to be friends with him? Does he have any friends? Is he capable of it?” Sophie asked.
Mindy had been afraid of that question, but she’d anticipated it. She considered telling Emma and Sophie about the deal for the Mercer Building, but that seemed like news for after the wedding. She didn’t want to give them any more reasons to question his motives. “Whatever you think of him, we were good friends. We understand each other, at least from a business standpoint. And I couldn’t find a date. That’s the very sad reality of my life right now. I know you think Gerald is harmless, but I’d like to keep him at bay.”
Sophie nodded, seeming to think hard about all of this. Emma sat back and wrapped her arms around her middle.
“What, you guys? Just tell me what you’re thinking. I can take it.”
“Even if it all goes fine, even if there are no problems, I worry about you and Sam together, especially in a romantic environment like a wedding,” Sophie said softly.
“It’s true. It’s hard not to get caught up in the romanticism. And you were so sad after the last time you and Sam broke up,” Emma added.
“I broke up with him because I couldn’t be in any way disloyal to you guys. I told him as much. And of course I was sad, but we’ve had five months apart and I think we’re ready to be friends.” Mindy doubted whether that was at all possible, but she had to try, at least to get the Mercer Building.
“I’m worried you’ll fall for him again. Then you’ll be miserable. Again,” Sophie said.
“I will not,” Mindy insisted.
“Wanna bet?” Sophie asked.
“I told you I won’t fall for him,” Mindy restated.
“Then bet me. I know you and you hate to lose. So we’ll make a bet and as long as you don’t lose it, you won’t get hurt.” Sophie grabbed the pencil on her desk and began tapping it against a legal pad. “The question is what to bet.”
“I know,” Emma said. “The one thing Mindy doesn’t want, to stay at Eden’s longer than she has to.”
Mindy was struck with horror while Sophie’s expression became one of sheer delight. “Yes. That’s perfect.” Sophie clapped her hands together gleefully. “You promise me there will be no romance between you and Sam, and I will stop pestering you about staying on at Eden’s beyond the deadline next year.”
“And if I lose?” Mindy asked, wary of the whole thing.
“Then you have to stay for one more year. That should give Emma and me enough time to convince you to stay full-time.”
Mindy was starting to feel trapped, a feeling she didn’t handle well. Sophie and Emma had both been making their case for Mindy to sell BMO and stay at Eden’s. But maybe this bet could be a good one. It would keep her from falling under Sam’s spell. The very last thing she wanted was to spend an extra year at Eden’s. The second-to-last thing she wanted was to deal with Sophie’s and Emma’s regular hints about her staying.
“We’re talking a real bet, you two.” Mindy pointed back and forth between Sophie and Emma. “You guys don’t get to say one more thing to me about walking away from BMO if I’m able to keep Sam in the friend zone. Not a peep. No guilt trips. Nothing.”
Emma nodded. “I’m good with it.”
“Me, too,” Sophie said.
“Fine. It’s settled.” Mindy got up from her seat, feeling pretty good about having gotten everything she needed out of a second meeting today. “Oh, and just so you know, I’m planning on bringing Sam to the rehearsal dinner.”
“Seriously?” Sophie asked.
“Yes. Just think of it as one more chance for you to win your bet.” Mindy stopped at the door and turned to Emma. “I almost forgot. Emma, did you have something you wanted to talk about?”
Emma noticeably winced. “I guess my mom and your mom had a phone conversation. It didn’t go well. Your mom hung up on mine.” Jenny Stewart, Emma’s mom, and Jill Eden, Sophie and Mindy’s mom, had a complicated relationship. They were sisters. Who didn’t speak to each other. They’d also each had children by the same man, making Emma not only Sophie and Mindy’s cousin, but their half sister, as well. It was a bizarre situation, to say the least. All three sisters had hoped that the occasion of Sophie’s wedding and the fact that they were all working together now might be a reason for the moms to make amends. Apparently not.
“Is this going to be a problem at the wedding?” Sophie asked. “I don’t think I can handle any more stress.”
Emma shook her head. “I figure I’ll handle my mom and Mindy can handle yours. As long as we keep them apart, it should be fine. There might be some steely silence, but that should be the extent of the drama. I promise we’ll keep everything going smoothly.”
Sophie took a deep breath, her shoulders rising and falling. “Okay, then. Let’s hope this all goes off without a hitch.”