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A selection from The Pretend Proposal

Thomas Waverly needed a bride.

Time was of the essence, so he couldn't afford to be too picky. Even so, as he mentally thumbed through his little black book, he knew that none of the women he'd dated in the past would do. They would read way too much into the situation. They would expect it to be real. But the heirloom diamond engagement ring and all talk of a future wedding would be only for his grandmother's benefit.

Nana Jo was dying. At least she claimed to be.

Her physician assured Thomas that Josephine O'Keefe was in good health for a woman who'd had a hip replacement the previous year, a brush with breast cancer two decades prior and was now closing in on eighty-one. Her heartbeat could be a bit irregular at times, but medication had been prescribed to take care of that and, according to the doctor, it was. Nana Jo, however, was of another opinion. She was dying.

It was the dreams, she told Thomas. For the past year, each night as she slumbered, she'd dreamed of her late husband and daughter—Thomas's mother. Nana Jo was sure the dreams were an omen of her own impending death, and nothing Thomas said could convince her otherwise. It was downright unnerving.

The previous Christmas, when he'd made the drive to upstate Michigan to spend the holiday with Nana Jo in her small condo in Charlevoix, she'd told him that the only gift she wanted was to see her only grandchild happily settled before she passed on.

The woman had raised him after a car accident claimed his mother, after which his father had fallen into an alcoholic tailspin. Thomas had been eight, and he'd essentially lost both of his parents. Without hesitation, and despite her own grief, Nana Jo had stepped into the huge void. Instead of enjoying her retirement, she'd taken on full-time parenting. And she'd done an incredible job.

How could he deny her wish? How could he indulge it? It was a no-win situation. So, yes, he'd lied.

He wasn't proud of that. Thomas wasn't one to bend the truth, whether in personal dealings or professional ones, but he would do anything to erase the worry he saw in her eyes. Anything short of actual marriage, that was. So, even though he was between relationships, he'd said, "I've been seeing someone…special. For several months now, in fact."

The distinction had buoyed Nana Jo's spirits considerably. And no wonder. He'd never dated a woman longer than three months. By that point they were usually expecting things, like an exchange of house keys, a toothbrush in his bathroom and maybe even a drawer of their own in the bureau in his bedroom.

By three months, they were getting clingy, needy. The L word, he knew, wouldn't be far behind.

Love. No thank you.

He'd seen firsthand what that four-letter word had done to his father. It had been twenty-seven years since Thomas's mother's death, but Hoyt Waverly still couldn't face life as a widower without a fifth of whiskey handy. Over the years, the brands had become cheaper as Hoyt's finances had deteriorated right along with his health. Today, he was a shell of a man, who only turned up occasionally on Thomas's doorstep and then only because he'd run out of money.

Thomas had no desire to end up like his old man. So, he made a point of ending relationships before three months passed, sometimes before then if the woman started to fall for him a little too hard or too fast.

It wasn't that Thomas was God's gift to women. His ego was healthy, but not overblown. He supposed he was good-looking. Enough of his dates had told him so. And he made a decent living. Not exactly a millionaire since he'd poured so much of his own money into starting his business, but he was plenty comfortable thanks to hard work and some sound investments. Still, the real attribute that seemed to clinch it for him with members of the opposite sex wasn't his looks, his bank account or even, to his chagrin, his skill as a lover. It was his manners.

Apparently, while growing up, he'd paid too close attention to Nana Jo's instructions. She'd insisted that he be polite, chivalrous, attentive and always act interested in other people's opinions and pastimes—even when he wasn't. As a result, over the years a number of women had expressed, covertly at least, their desire to become Mrs. Thomas Waverly. But he wasn't in the market for marriage. Not now. Not ever.

For the past several months, of course, Nana Jo had thought otherwise. To her, special implied altar-bound.

He should have corrected her. But she was so happy, so excited. It was all she talked about whenever they spoke on the telephone. He just didn't have the heart. So, he kept his answers brief and changed the subject at the earliest opportunity. Still, she was so certain that he was heading toward "I do" with the fictional woman he'd named Beth that, finally, he'd just agreed with her.

He wasn't sure where the name had come from. Only that it seemed a suitable moniker for the sensible and sweet woman his grandmother believed had snagged his heart.

His lie had succeeded in easing Nana Jo's mind; now his was in turmoil. She was insisting on meeting his fiancée, and she wouldn't take no for an answer any longer. If Thomas didn't bring the young woman to Nana Jo's home in Charlevoix for the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, she threatened to get in her car and make the long trip downstate to meet his Beth.

He didn't like the idea of his grandmother tooling around town in her vintage Cadillac DeVille, much less getting on an expressway where other vehicles would be whizzing by and no doubt honking their horns in irritation since she always drove at least ten miles per hour below the posted speed limit. But if he told her the truth, she would only go back to insisting that she had one foot in the grave. He couldn't stand the thought of that.

The only solution, as far as he could see, was to produce a fiancée now, and then later, after a reasonable length of time had passed, have that fiancée call things off. If he seemed heartbroken, perhaps Nana Jo would stop pushing so hard, forget about the "dreams" and go back to living her life to the fullest.

A tall order, to be sure. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes.

A tap sounded at his door. "Excuse me, Thomas."

He opened his eyes to find his secretary standing there with a look of concern pinching her features. Annette was two decades older than Thomas and, like his grandmother, she worried about him. She, too, thought he should be married or at least in a serious relationship at this point in his life. As his employee, however, Annette was much less vocal on the subject, thank goodness.

"Is everything all right?" she asked now.

"Headache," he murmured. It wasn't a complete lie. It was Monday and he had until Thursday to figure a way out of this mess. His temples had begun to throb. He pushed back his chair from his desk and started to rise. "I think I'll knock off a little early."

"Oh." Annette's lips pursed.


"No. Not really. It's just that the head of Literacy Liaisons is here to see you."

"Right now?" She nodded.

Reaching for his calendar, he said, "I don't recall an appointment being scheduled."

"That's because she doesn't have one. She dropped in unannounced hoping for a few minutes of your time." Annette shook her head. "It's all right. I'll tell her that she needs to make an appointment. Maybe one day next week?"

Thomas held up a hand. "No. That won't be necessary. I'll see her now. Might as well get this over with." He rubbed one temple. "I assume she's after a donation."

His secretary smiled. "I'm sure you're right."

Three things struck Thomas immediately when the young woman entered his office. First, how small she was, despite wearing a pair of three-inch-high pumps that were the same color as her conservative gray pant-suit. Even in them, he doubted she topped out at five-five.

Second, her mouth. It was wide with full lips that were curving into a smile that lit up a pair of surprisingly dark eyes for one so fair. Add in a slightly upturned, freckle-dusted nose and bobbed blond hair that fell even with a blunt chin, and the adjective cute was a far better description for her than beautiful.

Third—and perhaps this was only because he was feeling so desperate—she wasn't wearing a wedding ring. In fact, other than a pair of simple pearl earrings, she wasn't wearing any jewelry at all.

He eyed her speculatively, both ashamed and intrigued by the direction of his thoughts. What if…? Nah.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Waverly. I'm Elizabeth Morris." She extended her right hand. "Thank you for taking the time to see me on such short notice."

He shook her hand. Like the rest of her, it was small. And soft. Her grip, however, was not. It was firm and all business. He liked that about her. There was nothing worse than a limp handshake, even coming from a petite woman who barely looked old enough to order a drink.

"Have a seat," he said.

"I'm pretty sure you've guessed I've come here today to ask for money." Those full lips bowed again, making him appreciate her forthrightness all the more.

The headache he'd been nursing began to disappear. He steepled his fingers in front of him and, in his most businesslike tone, said, "Waverly Enterprises is always interested in helping worthy causes in our community. Why don't you tell me a little bit about yours?"

She exhaled discreetly, as if she hadn't been sure Thomas wouldn't show her the door.

"Literacy Liaisons specializes in helping adults in our community learn to read."

"Is illiteracy really an issue in Ann Arbor?"

She tilted her head to one side. "That surprises you?"

"A little." The city was home to the University of Michigan and one of the best medical facilities in North America.

"Despite the fact that we live in a college town with a lot of highly educated residents, there are people here and in the surrounding communities who are either illiterate or functionally illiterate. That means they may be able to read well enough to get by during, say, a trip to the grocery store, but they cannot read well enough to hold a decent job. Many of them wind up poor, sometimes even homeless."

She inched forward on her chair, warming to her subject. Her face lit with the kind of passion that went hand-in-hand with conviction.

"They aren't intellectually challenged, although many of them do have undiagnosed learning disabilities such as dyslexia. As children, they fell through the cracks in our educational system and now, as adults, they continue to fall through the cracks. Our goal is to change that."

Finished, she shifted back in her seat. Her demeanor remained confident; her expression, determined. The mouse who roared, Thomas thought, more impressed than amused by the description.

"But it takes money," he said.

"It does, even though we rely heavily on volunteers for tutoring, we have to supply materials and, sometimes, day care or even transportation to our offices if the client is indigent. We deal specifically with lower-income people who would not be able to afford such services otherwise."

Intrigued now by the cause as much as by the woman, he asked, "How long has Literacy Liaisons been in business?"

"Nearly ten years."

"And how long have you worked there?"

"I founded it, Mr. Waverly." Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, "How old are you?" He apologized immediately. "I'm sorry. It's just that."

"I look young. I know." She tugged at the lapels of her jacket and added, "My power suit notwithstanding."

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