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Living the Charade

By:Michelle Conder

Living the Charade
Michelle Conder

       CHAPTER ONE

IF the world was a fair place the perfect solution to Miller Jacobs's  unprecedented crisis would walk through the double-glazed doors of the  hip Sydney watering hole she was in, wearing a nice suit and sporting an  even nicer personality.

Unlike the self-important banker currently sitting at the small wooden  table opposite her who probably should have stopped drinking at least  two hours ago.

'So, sexy lady, what is this favour you need from me?'

Miller tried not to cringe at the man's inebriated state and turned to  her close friend, Ruby Clarkson, with a smile that said, How could you  possibly think this loser would be in any way suitable as my fake  boyfriend this coming weekend?

Ruby arched a brow in apology and then did what only a truly beautiful  woman could do-dazzled the banker with a megawatt smile and told him to  take a hike. Not literally, of course. Chances were she'd have to work  with him at some point in the future.

Miller breathed a sigh of relief as, without argument, he swaggered  towards the packed, dimly lit bar and disappeared from view.

'Don't say it,' Ruby warned. 'On paper he seemed perfect.'

'On paper most men seem perfect,' Miller said glumly. 'It's only when you get to know them that the trouble starts.'

'That's morose. Even for you.'

Miller's eyebrows shot up. She had good reason to be feeling morose.  She had just wasted an hour she didn't have, drinking white wine she  wouldn't even cook with, and was no further towards solving her problem  than she'd been yesterday. A problem that had started when she'd lied to  her boss about having a boyfriend who would love to come away for a  business weekend and keep a very important and very arrogant potential  client in check.

TJ Lyons was overweight, overbearing and obnoxious, and had taken her  'not interested' signs as some sort of personal challenge. Apparently he  had told Dexter, her boss, that he believed Miller's cool, professional  image was hiding a hot-blooded woman just begging to be set free and he  was determined to add her to his stable of 'fillies'.

Miller shuddered as she recalled overhearing him use that particular phrase.

The man was a chauvinistic bore and wore an Akubra hat as if he was  Australia's answer to JR Ewing. But he had her rattled. And when TJ had  challenged her to 'bring your hubbie' to his fiftieth birthday  celebration, where she would also present her final business proposal,  Miller had smiled sweetly and said that would be lovely.

Which meant she now needed a man by tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps she'd been a little hasty in giving Mr Inebriated the flick.

Ruby rested her chin in her hand. 'There's got to be someone else.'

'Why don't I just say he's sick?'

'Your boss is already suss on you. And even if he wasn't, if you give  your fake boyfriend a fake illness, you still have to deal with your  amorous client all weekend.'

Miller pulled a face. 'Don't mistake TJ's intentions as amorous. They're more licentious in nature.'

'Maybe so, but I'm sure Dexter's are amorous.'

Ruby was convinced Miller's boss was interested in her, but Miller didn't see it.

'Dexter's married.'

'Separated. And you know he's keen on you. That's one of the reasons you lied about having a boyfriend.'

Miller let her head fall back on her neck and made a tortured sound through her teeth.

'I was coming off the back of a week of sixteen-hour days and I was  exhausted. I might have had an emotional reaction to the whole thing.'

'Emotional? You? Heaven forbid.' Ruby shivered dramatically.

It was a standing joke between them that Ruby wore her heart on her  sleeve and Miller kept hers stashed in one of the many shoeboxes in her  closet.

'I was after sympathy, not sarcasm,' Miller grumped.

'But Dexter did offer to go as your "protector", did he not?' Ruby probed.

Miller sighed. 'A little weird, I grant you, but we knew each other at  uni. I think he was just being nice, given TJ's drunken pronouncements  to him the week before.'

Ruby did her famous eye roll. 'Regardless, you faked having a boyfriend and now you have to produce one.'

'I'll give him pneumonia.'

'Miller, TJ Lyons is a business powerhouse with a shocking reputation  and Dexter is an alpha male wannabe. And you've worked too hard to let  either one of them decide your future. If you go away this weekend and  TJ makes a move on you his wife will have a fit and you'll be reading  the unemployment pages for the next twelve months. I've seen it happen  before. Men of TJ Lyons's ilk are never pinned for sexual harassment the  way they should be.'                       
       
           



       

Ruby took a breath and Miller thanked God that she needed air. She was  one of the best discrimination lawyers in the country and when she  ranted Miller took note. She had a point.

Miller had put in six hard years at the Oracle Consulting Group, which  had become like a second home to her. Or maybe it was her home, given  how much time she spent there! If she won TJ's multi-million-dollar  account she'd be sure to be made partner in the next sweep-the  realisation of a long-held dream and one her mother had encouraged for a  long time.

'TJ hasn't actually harassed me, Rubes,' she reminded her friend.

'At your last meeting he said he'd hire Oracle in a flash if you "played nice".'

Miller blew out a breath. 'Okay, okay. I have a plan.'

Ruby raised her eyebrows. 'Let's hear it.'

'I'll hire an escort. Look at this.' The idea had come to her while  Ruby had been ranting and she turned her smartphone so Ruby could see  the screen. 'Madame Chloe. She says she offers discreet, professional,  sensitive gentlemen to meet the needs of the modern-day heterosexual  woman.'

'Let me see that.' Ruby took the phone. 'Oh, my God. That guy would seriously have sex with you.'

Miller looked over Ruby's shoulder at the incredibly buffed male on the screen.

'And they cater to fantasies!' Ruby continued.

'I don't want him to have sex with me,' Miller yelped, slightly  exasperated. The last thing she needed was sex, or her hormones, to  derail her from her goal at the eleventh hour. Her mother had let that  happen and look where it had got her-broke and unhappy.

'You can have a policeman, a pilot, an accountant-urgh, seen enough of  them. Oh, and this one.' Ruby giggled and lowered her voice. 'Rough but  clean tradesman. Or, wait-a sports jock.'

Miller shuddered. What intelligent woman would ever fantasise over a sports jock?

'Ruby!' Miller laughed as she took the phone back. 'Be serious. This is  my future we're talking about. I need a decent guy who is polite and  can follow my lead. Someone who blends in.'

'Hmmm...' Ruby grinned at one of the profile photos. 'He looks like he would blend in at an all-night gay bar.'

Miller scowled. 'Not helping.' She clicked on a few more. 'They all look the same,' she said despairingly.

'Tanned, buff and hot-to-trot,' Ruby agreed. 'Where do they get these guys?'

Miller shook her head at Ruby's obvious enjoyment. Then she saw the  price tag associated with one of the men. 'Good God, I hope that's for a  month.'

'Forget the escort,' Ruby instructed. 'Most of these guys probably  can't string a sentence together beyond "Is that it?" and "How hard do  you want it?"' Not exactly convincing boyfriend material for an  up-and-coming partner in the fastest growing management consultancy firm  in Australia.'

'Then I'm cooked.'

Ruby's eyes scanned the meagre post-work crowd, and Miller thought  about the sales report she still had to get through before bed that  night; she was still unable to completely fathom the predicament she was  in.

'Bird flu?' she suggested, smoothing her eyebrows into place as she racked her brain for a solution.

'No one will believe he has bird flu.'

'I meant me.' She sighed.

'Wait. What about him?'

'Who?' Miller glanced at her phone and saw only a blank screen.

'Cute guy at the bar. Three o'clock.'

Miller rolled her eyes. 'Five years of university, six years in a  professional career and we're still using hushed military terms when  stalking guys.'

Ruby laughed. 'It's been ages since we stalked a guy.'

'And, please God, let it be ages again,' Miller pleaded, glancing ever so casually in the direction Ruby indicated.

She got an impression of a tall man leaning against the edge of the  curved wooden bar, one foot raised on the polished foot pole, his knee  protruding from the hole in his torn jeans. Her eyes travelled upwards  over long, lean legs and an even leaner waist to a broad chest covered  by a worn T-shirt with a provocative slogan plastered on the front in  red block letters. Her lips curled in distaste at its message and she  moved on to wide shoulders, a jaw that looked as if it could have used a  shave three days ago, a strong blade of a nose, mussed over long  chocolate-brown hair and-oh, Lord-deep-set light-coloured eyes that were  staring right back at her.

His gaze was sleepy, almost indolent, and Miller's heart took off. Her  breath stalled in her lungs and her face felt bitingly hot. Flustered by  her physical reaction, she instantly dropped her eyes as if she was a  small child who had just been caught stealing a cookie. Her senses felt  muddled and off-centre-and she'd only been looking at the man for five  seconds. Maybe ten.                       

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