Ivan Rasmussen looked at his world as if he were the almighty himself. Katie supposed that in Ivan's creation story, he looked at his hugely successful company and like the almighty, saw that it was good. He looked at his grand house in exclusive Society Hill and saw that it was good. He looked at his most recently acquired wife, who was able to trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower, and saw that she was good.
But when Ivan looked at his youngest daughter, Wilhemina, he saw that she was not so good. She was a mess. Wilhemina bore the influence of every woman who’d passed through her life from her now-deceased Las Vegas showgirl mother to the Slovakian housekeeper who’ d once sneaked cookies to her. Unfortunately Wilhemina had inherited her looks from her portly father, Ivan. All her personal stylists had quit, and although Wilhemina was eager to do charity work, no one really trusted her to complete an assignment.
Staring at a recent photograph of Wilhemina, Ivan pinched the bridge of his nose as he stood beside the full-length window of his home office furnished in leather and aged oak. "Patricia and I are finally taking a cruise to Europe," he said. "We’ll be gone for six weeks."
Katie’s’ palms grew moist. She prayed he wasn’t going to release her. "Congratulations," she said, fighting her nerves. "You and Mrs. Rasmussen will enjoy the time together."
"Yes," he said with a lack of enthusiasm. "There won’ t be much for you to do while I’ m gone, so I’m giving you a temporary assignment. There’s a possibility for a bonus in it for you, too," he said and glanced at her. "I want you to look after Wilhemina."
Katie breathed again, slowly. Wilhemina was odd, but not impossible. "You want me to keep her personal calendar organized?"
He shoved one of his hands into the pocket of his Brooks Brothers wool slacks. "In a manner of speaking." He stretched his sagging chin upward and nodded. "I want you to be her companion. When Wilhemina gets bored, she--" He sighed. "She eats."
Katie nodded, aware of Wilhemina’s diet struggles. "Oh, yes sir."
"It’s no secret we’ve been hoping Wilhemina would find a nice young man to marry. Despite all our efforts, no one has been found."
"I’m sorry, sir," Katie said, unable to conjure another response. She knew Ivan had exhausted every possible means short of cosmetic surgery to find an approved husband for Wilhemina. He had employed high-class matchmakers and used on-line dating services with disastrous results. She heard he’d even consulted a love magic specialist in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
"You’ re a sensible woman, responsible, highly-motivated, compassionate. How would you like a shot at it?"
Katie blinked. "A shot at what, sir?"
"At finding a husband for Wilhemina. The primary requirement is that the prospect will have to pass a security test."
Katie’s mind reeled. "You want me to find a husband for your daughter?" she asked, unable to keep the disbelief from her voice.
He lifted his chin again, stretching his neck against his crisp white collar in a gesture that indicated his supreme discomfort. "I realize it’s a long shot, but I’ll make it worth your while if you can do it."
"How does Wilhemina feel about this idea?"
He shrugged. "I haven’ t told her, but she won’t mind. She wants to get married."
"I don’t know what to say," Katie said.
"Katie, you’ve met my daughter. She needs to be guided and protected. I’m not getting any younger and I want the peace of mind that she’ll be taken care of after I’ m gone. God knows, I can’t count on Patricia."
Katie swallowed a wince. She knew Patricia regarded Wilhemina as the proverbial millstone around Ivan’s neck. "Why me?"
"Because you’ll view it as a job, as a challenge."
That sounded like a load of malarkey.
"And there’s the bonus," Ivan said with the same gleam in his eye that she suspected the serpent had worn when he was tempting Eve.
"Which is?" she prompted.
"Fifty thousand dollars," he said, and watched her with a cagey expression on his face.
Katie didn’t breathe for a full moment. When she finally did squeeze in a millimeter of oxygen, she couldn’t have formed words if her life depended on it.
"Okay, to hell with it. A hundred thousand dollars if you can find a husband for Willie who meets the approval of my security specialist."
A hundred thousand dollars! Katie’s world spun on its axis. A hundred thousand dollars could change her life. It could change her brother Jeremy’s life. Katie was bound and determined to make sure he received the special help he needed. She took a deep breath. "Let me get this straight. You will give me a bonus of one hundred thousand dollars if I am able to find a husband for your daughter. This husband must meet the approval of your security specialist."
Ivan nodded crisply and extended his hand. "Do we have a deal?"
"I’ d like the agreement in writing," Katie said, fully aware that she was negotiating with Ivan the terrible, one of the craftiest men in America. "Expenses in addition to the hundred thousand must be covered, and they will be non-refundable. I also want the guarantee of my current position if I can’ t--"
"- -Never say can’t," he said, wagging his finger at her. "Can’t is a four-letter word."
"Regardless of the outcome of this endeavor," she said, slowly searching for acceptable words, "I want a guarantee that I will retain my current position."
"Of course," he said, looking as if he was certain he’d gotten the better end of the deal. He extended his hand again, but a knock sounded at the door.
"I’ll get that," Katie said, quickly stepping past him.
Ivan stuck his arm in front of her, blocking her. "It’s Wingate. I’ve been waiting for him," he said, surprising Katie with his eager bolt to the door. Ivan opened the door, again wearing his shark smile. "Michael, my boy," he said in a hearty voice. "Come in, come in."
Michael was not a boy, Katie immediately concluded as she watched the tall, dark man slowly stride into Ivan’ s office. His wore his dark suit far better than Ivan wore his. His leather shoes gleamed from a scrupulous buffing. His red silk tie contrasted with his crisp white shirt.
Katie scrutinized him. His square jaw was perfectly shaven, his mouth held just a hint of sensual curve. High cheekbones framed a roman nose. H is eyes were cool, dark and observant and his short hair meticulously groomed. Katie wondered if he was a marriage candidate for Wilhemina. If so, Katie suspected the poor girl would have her hands full trying to keep this man under control.
"It’s good to see you again, Mr. Rasmussen. I’m glad you called," Michael said, smoothly accepting Ivan’s pumping handshake.
"Call me Ivan. Michael Wingate, this is my personal assistant Kate Collins. The two of you will be coordinating a special project together."
"Special project?" Michael tossed Ivan a cautious sideways glance as he leaned forward to offer his hand to Kate. He flicked his dark gaze over her and she felt his instant assessment and brief flicker of curiosity.
She had the uncomfortable sense that this man might see more than she would like. Kate gave his strong hand a brief squeeze. "Mr. Wingate," she murmured.
"Miss Collins," he said, and turned back to Ivan. "You mentioned a special project, sir."
Ivan lifted his chin and gave a nod. "Yes, I told you I have an interesting business proposition for you."
"But you wouldn’t elaborate when I asked," Michael said in a silky smooth voice.
Ivan smiled coyly. "I like your drive, boy."
Kate’s stomach twisted. Someone got the shaft whenever Ivan was coy. She prayed it wouldn’t be her. She looked at the broad-shouldered back of Michael Wingate and had a niggling suspicion that this was not a man who liked to play.
She noticed Michael remained silent. A negotiation strategy, she suspected, having watched Ivan engage other men. He who speaks first loses, she’d once heard Ivan say.
Ivan cleared his throat. "I have a family matter that requires your services. I’d like to see my daughter settled and married. While my wife and I are away on a cruise, my assistant, Miss Collins, has agreed to help Wilhemina. I would like you to handle the security details."
Complete silence followed again, although this time, a hushed quality of shock filled the air. Unable to deny her curiosity, Kate surreptitiously took a half-step forward so she could view Michael Wingate’s face. He did not look pleased. She wondered when Ivan was going to tell the security consultant about the cat.
"Mr. Rasmussen, I appreciate you thinking of me, but I no longer provide bodyguard services myself. Perhaps I could assign one of my employees to assist you. I was interested in providing a security program for your company."
"I know," Ivan said. "But I’ve used the same security for three years. Except for some dated equipment, they’ve done a decent job. If I’m going to change security companies, I’ve got to be sure you’re going to do a better job than they do."
"I’ve shown you our employees’ resumes and you know our record is exemplary," Michael said, and Kate noticed the slightest twitch of impatience at the corner of his right eye.
"But your other clients are small potatoes compared to Ivan Enterprises," Ivan said, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. He swaggered, as much as a short, portly man could swagger, over to his desk and withdrew a Cohibo Esplindedo cigar from the wooden humidor. He offered one to Michael. "You and I both know that if you win my security contract, you’ll be moving in a totally different league. If you want a shot at my company business, you have to prove you can take care of my family business."
One day, Michael Wingate promised himself as he accepted the cigar, he would be able to tell Ivan Rasmussen to stick his prized Cohiba Esplindedo up his ass. Not now, though, he thought as he watched Ivan make a show of trimming and lighting the cigar. As much as he hated the fact, the truth remained that Ivan Rasmussen not only offered Michael the opportunity to take his business to the next level, an association with the manipulative little bastard would give Michael the chance to gain back a measure of his respect. That combination kept Michael from dropping his Cohiba onto the floor and grinding it into Ivan’s antique oriental rug.
Instead Michael drew no pleasure as he trimmed his cigar and puffed. From the time he was a child, Michael had known the art of cigar smoking was a necessary evil among Philadelphia’ s elite. Since he’d become an adult, he’d learned the size of the cigar correlated with the wannabe dick size of the smoker.
Ivan wore a thoughtful, cagey expression. The man knew he held all the trump cards. Michael fought the sensation of chains closing around him. He could take this or leave it, he told himself. He could walk out of here. But Ivan’s offer included too many benefits, none of which included working with his strange assistant. Michael wouldn’t be worth a nickel as a security specialist if he hadn’t learned how to assess a person in sixty seconds or less. With the exception of her killer legs, the woman was so plain Michael wondered if she had gotten an un-makeover. Her drab shapeless dress, unflattering hairstyle and glasses made her look older than she was. He wondered why she wanted to look older. There was always a reason. In his profession, he’d learned everyone had secrets. He wondered what secret the deliberately, painfully plain Miss Collins hid. Her unlined skin and watchful blue eyes gave her youth away. He could feel her watching him even now. He pegged her age at twenty-six, her sexual appeal, intentionally zip. For a sliver of a second he wondered if she was one of those women who dressed like plain-jane, but made love like a man’ s favorite bad girl fantasy. He pushed the thought aside.
"What are the terms?" Michael asked, returning his attention to the more important matter at hand.
Ivan smiled broadly. "I knew you would be interested. You’re hungry," he said. "I like that. It’s a piece of cake. Miss Collins will provide prospective candidates for my daughter to marry. You will thoroughly screen them. No ex-convicts, no freeloaders, no disease carriers and no rednecks. I can’ t accept a redneck for a son-in-law. And you’ re to provide protection for Wilhemina and my home in my absence."
Michael had learned the hard way to detest vague agreements. "What is the duration of the assignment?"
"Just until Patricia and I return from the cruise," Ivan said with a shrug.
"And we agree that if I handle the security for your daughter, then my company will handle the security for Ivan Enterprises beginning on the date of your return," Michael clarified.
Ivan frowned. "Well, we might have to negotiate the start date for your company. After all, I’ll have to give the current security company notice."
Michael felt as if he were nailing a slimy worm to the wall. "What exactly would the start date be?"
Ivan rolled his shoulders in a near-squirm. "How about six months after I get back from Europe?"
"How about two weeks and in writing?" Michael returned. He was nobody’ s fool.
Ivan stretched his neck and gave an uneasy chuckle. "You and Miss Collins have a bit in common. You both drive a hard bargain. She wanted the agreement in writing, too. No problem. I’ll have my attorney draw up the papers."
"That’s not necessary," Michael interjected, not detracted by Ivan’s false flattery. "I’m sure your attorney is busy with other matters. I’ll have my attorney draft an agreement." He pulled out his palm pilot and flipped through his calendar. "Shall we meet Thursday at ten a.m. or three thirty?"
"Ten a.m., but my attorney will want to look over the agreement before I sign it," Ivan said with a wary glint in his beady eyes. He wore the expression of a man having second thoughts, as if he knew he’d dangled a juicy t-bone in front of a starving dog, and if he weren’t careful, the dog would take a few of his fingers along with the steak.
Michael would have to say that Ivan’s uneasiness was warranted, he thought as he stubbed out his cigar in a crystal ashtray. After getting the shaft from his former business partner four years ago and getting dumped by his fiancé at the same time, Michael might not be a desperate man, but he was damn well determined. He'd learned never to depend on anyone, and his painful education, which had started at an early age, had turned all his soft spots to steel.
* * *
One week later, Ivan and Patricia were making last-minute preparations for the trip. Katie was to move in the following day, but she knew from Ivan’s schedule that her boss had planned a meeting that afternoon with his attorney. She’d met Ivan’s attorney, Gaston Hayes, before, and the beady-eyed, sharp-nosed man reminded her of something from the dark underworld. He gave her the creeps.
But he was important to Ivan, and since Katie had just entered into a legally-binding agreement with Ivan, she suspected she had better stay informed. She wasn’t normally snoopy and was scrupulous about respecting her employer’s confidentiality, but this time she felt she had to make an exception.
Checking her watch, she saw that Gaston was due in two minutes. He was always prompt. Katie could hear Ivan trying to escape a discussion about packing with Patricia. Looking behind her and in front of her, she crept into Ivan’s office and walked directly to the closet. Suddenly hearing voices, she opened the closet door, stepped inside, and closed it.
A hand closed over her mouth.