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Christine Rimmer New York Time Bestselling Author
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Christine Rimmer - New York Times Bestselling Author

Valentine Bride

Chapter One
by Christine Rimmer

Caleb Bravo stood in the doorway to his housekeeper’s bedroom. He was holding the note she’d left propped on the kitchen counter. “What the hell, Irina?” He shook the note at her.

“Oh. Hello, Caleb. You are home early.” She spoke without giving him so much as a glance, her head tipped down as she tucked a gray sweater into one of the two tattered suitcases spread open on her bed.

He entered the room. “I asked you what you’re doing.”

She straightened at last and faced him. “I am leaving,” she said in her throaty, deadpan, Argovian-accented English.

“Just like that? Out of nowhere?”

“Is no other choice.”

“Of course there’s a choice.” He held up the note again. “Three sentences,” he accused. “Caleb, I must leave. I will not come back. Thank you for everything you do for me.” He wadded it up and fired it at the wastebasket in the corner. “Couldn’t you at least have told me why?”

She turned and took an envelope from the nightstand. “One hour ago, from the mail, this comes for me.” She gave it to him.

There was a single sheet of paper inside—a letter, a very official-looking one, topped by the seal of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He scanned it swiftly. They were revoking her asylum. She was to report to her San Antonio service center immediately.

“What the hell?” he said again. “Don’t you have a green card? Aren’t those good for several years, at least?”

“I have permit to work. I apply for green card. But there are…delays. Many delays.”

“They can’t do that, just…send you back to Argovia.”

“But they do.” She took the letter from him, refolded it, slipped it in the envelope, put the envelope on the nightstand—and returned to her packing. He watched her as she moved on silent feet from the bureau to the bed and back to the bureau again.

This was not happening. It couldn’t be happening.

No way was he getting along without Irina. She was the best. She picked up after him, saw to his laundry, cooked tasty meals when he asked for them—and never batted an eye when she saw him or a girlfriend walking around the house naked.

She was the perfect live-in housekeeper. Quiet and competent and always calm. She anticipated his every need and also somehow managed to be next to invisible. He would never find another like her.

And what about Victor?

Her cousin, Victor Lukovic, was his best friend in the whole damn world. He owed Victor his life. He couldn’t stand it if Victor thought he’d somehow chased his little cousin away.

“Irina.”

“Yes?” She smoothed the folds of a brown wool scarf.

“Where, exactly, are you going?”

She frowned and shook her head. And then returned to the bureau for a stack of depressingly plain white cotton underwear.

He tried again. “So…back to Argovia, then?”

She put the underwear in the larger of the two suitcases. “I never go back there.” She flipped the suitcase closed and zipped it shut.

“But if not there, then…?”

“You have no need to know.” She grabbed the laptop she’d bought a few months after she started working for him and stuck it in the side pocket of the smaller suitcase. Then she zipped that suitcase shut and dragged it to the floor. The larger one followed, landing with a heavy thump.

“Do you even know where you’re going?”

No answer. She arranged the suitcases side-by-side, with a small space between. And finally, she stepped into that space and faced him again.

“Thank you for everything you do for me, Caleb. You are good boss. The best.” As usual, she was dressed from head to toe in nondescript gray. He’d never seen her in anything bright-colored, or in short sleeves. And she wore high-necked shirts and sweaters year-round, in complete defiance of San Antonio’s killer-hot summers. Her straight, dark-brown bangs half-covered her enormous brown eyes. She looked…so pitiful. Lost. And alone.

He asked, “Have you called Victor about this?”

“No. My cousin does too much for me already. He does not need this trouble.”

“Irina, come on…” Without thinking, he reached for her.

She flinched and ducked away from his outstretched hand. “Please. I must go now.”

Damn. Bad move. He knew she didn’t like to be touched. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“You have done nothing wrong.” She spoke gently as she hefted the suitcases, one in either hand. “Please. Move from in my way.”

Like hell. “Come on. You can give me a little time, okay, before you…vanish into thin air? No one’s coming to get you in the next ten minutes.”

She shifted the suitcases and muttered something low in Argovian, her dark head tipped down. And then, glancing up, she said his name on a hopeless little sigh. “Oh, Caleb…”

He gave her a coaxing smile. “What can it hurt? Just a minute or two, to talk this over…”

“For what? Is no use.”

“Irina. Please.” He tried really hard to look pitiful and needy.

It must have worked. With a second sigh, she set down her bags. “Okay. You go ahead. You talk.”

“I can’t believe you were just going to walk out like this, just leave me worrying and wondering what the hell happened to you. If I hadn’t come home early…” He shook his head in disbelief. “You were going to just go, weren’t you? Just…disappear?”

“Yes. Are we finished with the talking now?”

The brilliant idea struck him right then, as he stared at her standing there, so lost and sad, between her two beat-up suitcases. He knew what he had to do. “We’ll get married,” he said. “It’s the perfect solution.”

She gave no response, only gazed at him steadily from behind those too-long bangs of hers.

He needed to get her away from the suitcases. “Come on.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Into the living room. Let’s sit down. We’ll have a drink. We’ll talk it over. We’ll work it out, together.”

She continued to stand there, silent, between her suitcases, watching him with an expression that gave nothing away.

“The living room?” he said again, almost afraid to turn his back on her for fear she might toss her suitcases through the window behind her and jump out after them.

There was another too-long moment while she continued to stare at him. And then, just as he was giving up hope, she spoke. “Yes. All right. We talk.”

“Great,” he said. “Fantastic.” And he turned, ears attuned to the soft whisper of her flat black shoes on the hardwood floor. In the living room, she perched carefully on a leather club chair.

“Drink?” he asked, thinking he could use a nice, stiff one about now.

But she pressed her lips together and shook her head. “No, thank you.”

So he sat in the chair a few feet from hers and put on his most sincere expression. “Irina, I can’t afford to lose you. That’s all there is to it. You’re too damn good at what you do. I could never replace you. It’s just impossible.”

Strange. She’d worked for him for two years. The whole hands-off thing had never been an issue before. But right now, it was a pain in the ass. If he could only touch her, he knew he could convince her. But he sat in his chair and she sat in hers and, since physical contact was off the table, he decided he’d have to settle for pitching his heart out. Luckily, he was a master at pitching. He did it for a living, after all.

He said, “You have to admit it. We get along great together. I have no complaints. Do you?”

She swallowed and shook her head, long bangs flying out and then settling like a dark veil over those big, haunted eyes.

“Plus, there’s Victor. Irina, what would I say to Victor if we don’t work this out? I can’t believe you weren’t even going to tell him.”

She hung her head and softly admitted, “I…cannot tell him. He has family here. And he does too much for me already. It is better he is not involved.”

“I owe him my life,” Caleb said, with just the right touch of drama.

Or so he thought until he realized she was trying not to smile. “You should not drive so fast.”

Yeah, okay. He liked to drive fast, always had. While they were still at UT, Victor had pulled him from a burning car after Caleb lost control of the wheel and crashed into a brick wall. He still regretted wrecking that car. A classic Mustang, a ’68 fastback he’d restored himself in high school, with a little help from his brother, Jericho. They didn’t make them like that Mustang any more.

“This isn’t about my driving,” he reminded her, in a tone both severe and reproachful. “This is about you and me and poor Victor, who’s going to be beyond freaked if you just walk out of my house and disappear. This is about the fact that you need to let me do this one thing for you, for us, really—and for the man who saved my life.”

Irina was watching him, her expression unreadable. Finally, she said gently, “You marry me so you will not have to marry that Emily person.”

Bust-ed.

Yeah, all right. Getting Emily Gray off his back would be a nice bonus. What was he thinking to sleep with a colleague, anyway? He never should have done that. But it was a problem he had when it came to women. How could a man resist? They smelled so good and they had such soft skin...

He cleared his throat. “Irina, you know I wasn’t ever going to marry Emily.”

“Too bad Emily does not know that.”

True. Too true. Just the other night, Emily had followed him around the house chanting “Tick-tick-tick-tick!” For Emily, lately, it was all about her biological clock. She wanted a ring and a baby before she hit thirty-five. Caleb just wanted her off his back. But Emily was a driven woman. She refused to accept that he was not the man for her.

Enter Irina and her immigration issues.

He granted her his most charming smile. “Well, once you and I are married, Emily will get the picture crystal clear.” There was a silence. A nerve-racking one, Caleb thought. Irina continued to study him from beneath the fringe of her bangs, her slim hands neatly folded in her lap. He kept his mouth shut, too, kind of hoping she would agree with him that their getting married would be useful to both of them. But she just sat there. When he couldn’t stand the silence any longer, he suggested, “Look, can we forget about Emily? Please?”

She nodded, a single regal dip of her head.

“So, then, it’s settled,” he said with easy confidence, assuming the sale as he had known how to do since before he could talk. “We’ll fly to Vegas tomorrow and be married on Valentine’s Day. Next week, you can visit the SA service center with a marriage license in your hand.”

“You do not understand.”

“Understand, what?”

“A green card marriage is not so easy as the movies and the TV make you think. Your government is very…” She frowned, seeking the word. “…very strict that the marriage must be a real one. There will be meetings, you understand? Meetings with Immigration officials. And the case workers could come to the door at any time, giving no notice, to try and prove us to be liars.”

“Oh, come on. It’s a government agency. I’ll bet my Audi R8 that they don’t have the personnel to have them wandering around dropping in on people randomly.”

“It is not random. And you are right, home visits do not happen often. But they do happen, Caleb. If they are not believing the marriage is true and if they can prove we lie, that would be very bad.”

“They would deport you, you mean?”

“Much worse than that. It is a crime to make a false marriage to get a green card. If Immigration discovers the marriage is not real, we both pay big fines and go to jail. And when I am released, then they deport me. And I am afterwards barred from ever in my life trying again to get a green card.”

This began to look like something of a challenge. Caleb had always enjoyed a challenge. “We can do that. We can convince them. I’m real convincing when I put my mind to it.”

“There is more.”

“What do you mean, more?”

“The marriage must last for two full years.”

Those words shut him up. For a half a second, anyway. “You’re not serious.”

“I am. Two years. Is it your wish to be married to your housekeeper for two years?”

It was not his wish, as a matter of fact. “Two years. That can’t be. You’re absolutely certain?”

“Yes. I am.”

“It seems a little…extreme.”

“Think. A true marriage is meant to last until there is death. Two years.” She snapped her fingers. “Is nothing next to a lifetime. But is enough for Immigration to believe that the marriage is one that is made in good faith.”

“Enough? It seems like too damn much to me.”

She jumped to her feet so fast it startled him.

“Whoa. Irina. What?”

“I go and get the book for you.”

“What book?”

U.S. Immigration Made Easy. It has much about green card marriage. I show you the right page about how it must be a marriage of two full years for a permanent green card, about what happens to you and to me if we make a false marriage.” She drew herself up. “You think I am a fool? You think I do not consider all possible ways to stay in this country? I am many things, Caleb Bravo. But not a fool.”

He put up both hands. “All right. Fine. I believe you. I don’t need to see the book.”

“You are sure?”

“I’m sure. Sit back down.”

She perched on the edge of the chair cushion again and glared at him, narrow-eyed, from under her bangs.

He looked at her sideways. “Are you mad?” He tried to remember if he’d ever seen her mad before.

“You must know I never lie to you. I swear it. Without you to give me this job I will still be in Argovia.”

“Irina. I believe you. Okay?”

Her expression softened and she said in a near-whisper, “Yeah. Okay.”

Two years. Scary. He’d been thinking more along the lines of a few months, that she would get her precious green card quickly and then they could quietly divorce and go back to business as usual.

But really, now he thought about it a little more, she might very well decide to quit working for him once she had permanent resident status.

But he would cross that bridge when he came to it. Whatever happened in the end, he did want to help. Plus there was the extra bonus of getting rid of Emily. And he would be doing right by Victor, who had trusted him to look after his precious cousin.

“It’s going to be fine,” he said. “We’ll get married. For two damn years, if that’s how it’s got to be.”

She folded her arms around her middle, a gesture that spoke to him of self-protection. And she dipped her head to the side. “There is another problem.”

“What other problem?”

“You, Caleb. You are the problem.”

He didn’t get it. “Actually, I’m trying to be the solution.”

“It is only…how you are.”

“And how’s that?”

She lifted one hand just long enough to give a dismissive little wave. “Always with the women.”

What could he say? He did like women. “Yeah. So?”

“So, if we are married, while we are married, it has to be like a real marriage.”

“Got that.”

“It is not only as immigration demands, it is as I demand.”

He blinked. “As you…demand?”

Another regal nod. “It must be…how do you say it? The real thing. We must make the honest try. It is the only way I can see to rightness on this, the only way of making like real for Immigration. Even if it would not be truly real, it must be honest. For a man such as you, I know this is not easy to do.”

He had no idea what she was saying. But it didn’t sound all that flattering. “What does that mean, a man such as me?”

She shrugged. “You know…” She pantomimed with both hands out flat, a small space between her palms.

“Shallow. You’re saying I’m shallow?”

She pressed a hand to her chest. “But good in heart.”

“Gee, thanks—and why am I beginning to get the feeling you’ve already thought this through?”

Another shrug. “Because I do. I think about…the ways that it can be. I always know, if I have trouble, that you maybe start thinking to marry me for my green card. I am working for you for two years. I know how your mind is going.” She tapped the side if her head with an index finger. “So I think about it, about if it happens. I think what I would need from you to say yes to marry you. I think about my…how do you say it? My conditions.”

He tried not to gape. “I offer to save your butt and you’ve got conditions?”

“Um-hm. I do, yes. While you are married to me, you give up the women.”

Give up the women

Two years without sex? It was impossible. “Come on. I’m a man, you know? A man with…needs.”

“Yes,” she calmly agreed. “I know.”

So she was planning to sleep with him, then?

Okay, that was hard to imagine. Caleb liked women. All women. But never once in the whole time Irina had lived in his house, had the thought of sleeping with her so much as crossed his mind. Until just now. And now he was thinking about it, he wasn’t really sure what he thought of it. It seemed…wrong, somehow.

But hey. She was a woman and he was a man. And they would be legally married. Why not, if she was the only woman available?

He asked, “You’re saying you want it to be a real marriage then, while it lasts, a real marriage in every way?”

“No, I am saying that you can…make your own satisfying.”

We’re not really having this conversation. But they were. “Satisfy myself, you mean?”

“Yes. Please.”

No way. If she had conditions, so did he. “Look. I hate to put you out. But that’s not going to cut it. I do get your point. If we’re going to convince Immigration that we’re the real deal, I can’t be seeing anyone else without risking everything. So I will agree to give up the women.”

For a moment, he thought she might burst into tears. “Caleb. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. Because you’ve got to help me out here. I’m not gonna go two years without a woman in my bed.”

The dewy-eyed gratitude vanished. Now, her expression was not the least flattering. In fact, she looked kind of white around the mouth, her eyes even more haunted than usual. But she spoke in a reasonable tone. “I will not jump to the covers.”

“You mean you won’t hop into bed with me?”

“Yes. We cannot. I must have…time.”

“Time.”

“To…know you better in the way that a woman knows the man she marries. A month. Please. Can you hold your needs for a month?”

Hold his needs? He might have laughed. Or told her to forget it, that it was impossible. She clearly didn’t want to have anything to do with him in bed—and he felt zero excitement at the idea of trying to change her mind.

She never dated, not that he knew of. And wouldn’t he have known about it, if she did? Yeah, he could be oblivious sometimes. He’d grown accustomed to paying very little attention to her. He gave her a yearly raise and bonuses at Christmas. And at least every few months, he made a point to tell her how much he appreciated the great job she was doing for him.

Most of the time, though, he forgot she existed and she seemed fine with that—but come on. He wasn’t that damn oblivious. They lived in the same house, after all. He would have noticed if there had been a boyfriend.

Was she a virgin? He didn’t know if he was up for dealing with a virgin. He’d had one virgin girlfriend, when he was a freshman in college. One had been more than enough. The first time he made love with her, there had been blood and she’d cried for hours. After that unpleasantness, he’d sworn off the innocent type. He didn’t need the hassle.

But he wasn’t about to let Irina go out the door lugging her battered suitcases and get lost in America, never to be seen again, either.

And really, maybe they were worrying about too much all at once. “How about if we just play it by ear, then?”

She lifted a hand and brushed at her ear, a tentative, questioning touch. “Ear?”

“Figure of speech. What I meant was, we don’t have to put any time limit on anything other than the two years we’ll be married. Eventually, we’ll, uh, have sex. But not until you feel you’re ready.”

“Maybe I never feel I am ready.”

“Irina?”

“Yes, Caleb?”

“Forget about sex.”

“But you said that you—”

“Stop. Listen. We’ll just…fly to Vegas tomorrow and tie the knot and take it from there, just see how it goes.”

“I know what that means.” She looked pleased with herself. “To tie the knot is to marry.”

“That’s right. We’ll get married. I’ll give up the other women. And as far as the sex thing goes, I won’t push you or anything. You don’t have to worry about it, okay? We’ll wait and see.”

 

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