Authors: Carolyn Zane
To the good Lord, with thanks for our home.
Thanks to: My husband, Matt, for his never-ending supply of great ideas.
Thank you, Debbie, for the cruise.
Well, sister dear, my experiment posing as a homeless person isn’t turning out as I’d expected. I only spent a few days in the role before I met Tyler Newroth and agreed to be his wife.
Now, now, don’t go getting too excited. Tyler just needs a temporary wife—for a weekend or two. I’ll be going on vacation with him and our daughter (don’t ask, it’s too complicated). Erica, the man is irresistible! What am I going to do if he should find out who I really am?
Well, I’ve got to go practice being the perfect wife. I hope everything is fine with Will and the kids.
mily Brant adjusted and tightened the thin, dirty blanket to snugly cover the feverish child she cradled in her lap. The night air was so cold. Last week, before she’d begun sleeping outside to study the homeless, she’d thought it was warm all the time in L.A.
Just another one of her many misconceptions, she mused tiredly, and shifted to a more comfortable position. Her arms ached with the weight of the young girl she held. This was so much harder than she’d ever dreamed. She longed to throw in the towel on her thesis project, to go back to Northern California and her comfortable summer job as a nanny, but she couldn’t. Not now. Not after spending the last week with Carmen and Helga under this miserable freeway overpass. They needed her.
“How’s the kid?” Helga, known in the homeless circles as “the plastic lady,” poked her shower-capped head through her garbage bag poncho and looked with concern at the orphan in Emily’s arms.
Brushing the dark curls out of the child’s face, Emily lightly rested a hand on the warm forehead. “I don’t know,” she admitted to the eccentric older woman huddled next to her. “It could be a common cold...or it could be worse. She should see a doctor.”
Helga swore with the articulation of a seasoned sailor and shook her head. “I just hope it ain’t that damn TB. That stuff’s a killer,” she muttered, and ducked her grizzly old head back down into the dark recesses of her plastic poncho.
Emily’s thoughtful frown was determined. It wasn’t that bad yet, but if she didn’t do something soon, it would be. The eight-year-old girl moaned some nonsensical phrases, half in Spanish, half in English, and again Emily wished that she’d thought to bring at least one credit card with her.
But no, she’d wanted to make her research as authentic as possible. That’s what she’d promised the university she would do, and that’s what she’d done.
It was authentic, all right, she thought wearily, and settled back against the concrete embankment she now called home. Her stomach growled painfully, reminding her once again that authentic or not, she had to do something to get the three of them some food. And medicine for Carmen.
Raking her dirty hands through her stringy, tangled hair, Emily sighed. But what? What could she do to make money? Where could she go to get help? Briefly she thought about seeking help in one of the local homeless shelters, but they were already far too crowded and she and her two companions would be back out on the street before they knew what hit them. And, according to Helga, Carmen had already been in and out of every orphanage in the county. Emily wanted to weep at the thought. There had to be a better solution.
The thick, never-ending cloud of exhaust rolled off the freeway and Carmen shivered and moaned in her arms. Emily glanced over at the dotty old Helga, surrounded by her mountain of plastic, and knew then and there that if they were ever going to get some help, it was going to be up to her.
Doggedly, Emily shifted Carmen in her arms and reached for her journal—the one possession she’d carried with her to L.A. besides the clothes on her back—and flipped to the day’s entry. Pulling her pen out of the notebook’s spiral spine, she wrote.
Thursday, July 21. Nearly midnight.
As much as I hate to admit it, my enthusiasm for this project is waning. In its place, I’m feeling hopeless and abandoned by society, which, I guess, is a sign that my experiment is working.
This week I have seen so much sickness, crime and despair, I wonder what possible difference my little thesis project could make. I have learned, however, that even in the sorriest of situations, there is beauty.
Carmen is so delightful, despite the circumstances. Childlike and playful, and remarkably well-adjusted, considering the tragedy she has endured in her short life. And, Helga, though she is as rough around the edges as a saw blade, has a tender heart...although I suspect she may not be in the best of health, her racking cough sometimes frightens me.
Today, Carmen was feverish and completely listless. I have to get them both some good food and medicine soon. Or I fear what may become of them.
I guess I’ll do what I have to do to get work or money. I’ll exhaust every avenue available to me without ID or help from friends and colleagues, and then, if I’m unsuccessful, I’ll call my sister Erica and ask her to wire me some money. But only as a last resort. I still intend to maintain the integrity of this project....
Helga hacked and wheezed from the bowels of her plastic dome as Emily finished her latest entry. Yes, she resolved, and firmly closed her journal. Tomorrow, come hell or high water—which was a distinct possibility, given the fact that they were in L.A.—she would find a way to provide food and shelter for these two wayfaring souls she’d come to love so much.
yler Newroth tugged at the tie that threatened to strangle him. This meeting was not going at all the way he’d expected. It had to be some kind of joke. Had anyone told him before his transfer that his new, power-driven boss would likely be attracted to him, he’d have been flattered. But, had they told him her attraction could prove fatal—to his promising career—he’d have turned down this lucrative promotion in a hot New York second. Let some other poor fool be her boy toy. He had work to do.
Roxanne Delmonico leaned over Ty’s desk and looked him straight in the eye. Her considerable endowments preceded her as she tapped her perfectly lacquered nails on his desktop. “Well?” she purred. “How do you like your new job? The West Coast division of Connstarr is run somewhat...differently than the East Coast.”
That much had been obvious to Ty his first ten minutes on the job. From the second he’d walked into his new office three days ago, he had been literally chased around his desk by one Roxanne Delmonico, Vice President, West Coast Division, Connstarr Enterprises, and niece to Denny Delmonico, owner of the company. In all his years at Connstarr, this had never happened to him before. The East Coast division in Boston was run by a bunch of stuffy, old, cigar-smoking men. None of them had ever played stupid mind games with him. Or come on to him.
Yes, Tyler decided, his nerves wound tighter than the rubber bands inside a golf ball, there was some serious sexual harassment going on here, and it wasn’t coming from him.
“Well...” Ty cleared his throat. “I will admit there seems to be a little, uh, looser atmosphere out here.”
Roxanne’s bridgework sparkled as she threw back her head and laughed throatily. “Oh, Ty, baby. Really. You’re going to have to loosen up if you want to fit in around here. Come on! You’re so uptight!” Her smile was beguiling as her lips parted to reveal a set of perfectly capped teeth. In a single, feline movement, she hiked a very curvaceous hip up onto his desk.
Was this bimbo kidding? Tyler fought the urge to laugh out loud. She was something straight out of a bad B-grade movie. This whole situation would have been uproariously funny if he didn’t have the un nerving feeling that she was serious. He could read a veiled threat a mile away.
Come across, Ty, baby, or else.
That’s what she really meant.
Loosen up. Yeah, right, sure. Just the shot in the arm his career needed. A toss in the hay with Jezebel here, and he’d be out on his ear in no time. No thanks. His career was far too important for him to jeopardize by putting it into Roxanne’s sleazy clutches. Ty preferred to make it to the top because of his sterling reputation as a businessman. Not by conquering a basket case like Roxanne.
Ignoring his stony silence, Roxanne pouted prettily, pursing her moist red lips as though posing for a soap opera close-up. “You know, I’ve been thinking...” She sighed, her voice husky with meaning. “Since you and I are going to be working so closely together, we should probably make an effort to get to know each other a lot better. Say, over dinner? Perhaps this weekend?” She gazed at him, her hawklike eyes missing nothing.
Oh, for crying out loud. Why hadn’t he anticipated this question? “Well, uh...” Tyler’s mind was pitching and rolling, frantically searching for a way out of this politically sticky situation. Being new to his position as director of national accounts for Connstarr, one of the nation’s leading software companies, he had no desire to rock the boat his third day on the job.
But by the same token, if and when he ever decided to spend the weekend with a nymphomaniac, it would be one of his own choosing. Not one who could fire him if she didn’t like his performance. How the hell had he gotten into this mess? He didn’t want to have to resort to drastic measures to deal with this situation, but if she kept pushing, he didn’t know what else he could do. “Can I let you know?”
Roxanne laughed. “Sure, silly. But you don’t have much time. It’s Friday.”
Thank God for that much, Ty thought as he watched her swing her shapely stocking-clad legs up onto his desk—which was no simple task considering the snugness of her skirt. He leaned back in his chair as she strained across his desk, arching her back and tossing her big, blond hair over her shoulders.
In coy sotto voce, she suggested, “We could try out my little Welcome to L.A. gift, if you’re game.”
“Welcome to L.A.?”
“Didn’t you find it? I put it in your filing cabinet,” she whispered conspiratorially.
Tyler ran a hand over the muscle that jumped in his jaw. “That was
” He choked and tried to keep the shock out of his voice. He hadn’t dreamed that even Roxanne could be that tacky. He’d assumed that the bottle of champagne wrapped in sexy female lingerie and tied so fetchingly with handcuffs had been a practical joke sent by his buddies at Connstarr’s Boston division.
“So,” she pressed, relentless in her pursuit. “What do you say? You. Me. Tomorrow night? I can promise you’ll have an excellent time.”
Ty’s heart slammed against his ribs with a sickening thud. What on earth was he going to do with this nut case? The nut case who now held the key to his future at Connstarr.
He had to take control of this situation, he resolved, trying to tie the pencil he held into a frustrated knot. And he had to do it now, before it got further out of hand. The time to take a drastic measure was now. But how? How could he fend off her advances without provoking her ire?
Before he knew what came over him, he heard himself blurt out, “Under any other circumstances, Roxanne, I’m sure you’re right. Getting a little better acquainted for professional purposes would be a nice idea.” His smile was professional and aloof as he deliberately misunderstood her double meaning. “However, I promised my wife I’d spend some time with her this weekend.”
This was brilliant!
Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Surely she’d leave him alone if she thought he was married. Mentally congratulating himself on his stroke of genius, he sat back and waited for her to bow out gracefully.
Roxanne’s heavily made-up eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I was under the distinct impression that you were not married.” Her smile was hard.
Uh-oh. She wasn’t taking this quite the way he’d hoped. The ruthless look in her eyes made him sick. Big deal. He’d thrown down the gauntlet and he would see this battle through to the end.
“You were?” Tyler tugged at the knot in his tie. He suddenly needed air. Then again, maybe lying wasn’t such a good idea, after all.
“Your file says you’re single.” She arched an inquisitive eyebrow at him.
“Hmm...yes,” he hedged, crossing his fingers behind his back. “Well, it just happened a short while ago, actually.” He was getting in deep here. But what else could he do, short of accusing his brand-new boss—the owner’s niece, no less—of harassing him sexually. Not the impression he wanted to make, his first week on the job.
Sliding one high-heeled foot up alongside her knee, she looked over her shoulder at Ty through narrow, suspicious eyes. “Tell me about her,” she demanded.
Groaning inwardly, Ty dipped his brush and continued to paint his way toward the corner of doom. “She’s a lovely woman. We were...u-uh...” he stammered, trying to organize his jumbled thoughts into some sort of plausible explanation. “High school sweethearts.”
“But you only
decided to...tie the knot?”
The pencil Ty was holding snapped in two. “Just now,” he echoed brightly. “I just couldn’t stand to leave her in Boston.”
Roxanne smirked. “Isn’t that sweet?” she drawled, and buffed a bloodred nail on her designer silk blouse.
Fidgeting in his leather chair, Ty nodded noncommittally. “You’d love her,” he predicted, hoping the likelihood of Roxanne ever wanting to actually meet his wife was slim to none.
“I’m sure.” Roxanne was clearly not buying his trumped-up story. “Well, I must meet her sometime soon, and really get to know her.” She stretched languidly. “After all, we will be spending the entire week together soon.”
Puzzled, Tyler asked, “We will?”
Roxanne threw back her head of wild hair and laughed huskily. “Have you forgotten the company cruise? We sail next week.” Her piercing look sent a chill up Tyler’s spine.
He had forgotten about the cruise Connstarr was treating its management team and their families to next week. With the headaches of transferring to L.A. from Boston, and then the disgusting reality of Roxanne as a boss, it had completely slipped his mind.
His heart slid from his throat to the pit of his stomach and landed with a defeated plop. Where the heck was he going to get a wife at this late date?
Smiling a tiny smile, Roxanne said, “I expect you’ll be bringing her? I hear everyone will be bringing their families...
they have them.”
“Oh, yes.” Tyler was sweating profusely now. “She’s been looking forward to it.”
“How cute.” Her tone dripped with sarcasm. “I must admit I am disappointed.” She sighed. “I thought you would be going by yourself. But I imagine we’ll find a way to have some fun, anyway,” she said suggestively.
Ty shook his head imperceptibly, still unable to believe her incredible audacity.
Roxanne’s expression grew suddenly bitter as she swung her legs over the edge of his desk and levered herself up to stand next to him. “I was married once,” she admitted in a moment of true candor.
“Oh?” What happened? Had she killed and eaten him? Ty wondered absently as he waited for his new boss to continue.
“Yes. I found marriage too...confining.”
He was surprised at the depth of emotion that flashed briefly across her carefully painted facade. “Confining?”
“Yes.” The look was suddenly gone, replaced instead with her usual sultry expression. “You will, too, a man like you. Mark my words.”
“Uh-huh,” she purred. “You must know how irresistible you are.” Appraising him boldly with appreciative eyes, Roxanne continued. “All that thick, dark, gorgeous hair, those sexy, green, bedroom eyes—” she winked at him “—that...mmm, hard body. Not to mention your incredible talent here at Connstarr.” Abruptly she extended a businesslike hand. “It will be a
working with you, I’m sure.”
Not about to return her loaded compliment, Tyler briefly shook her hand. “Thanks.” His reply was curt as he escorted her to his office door.
Roxanne paused in the doorway and adjusted the handkerchief in Ty’s jacket pocket. “I’m looking forward to meeting your...wife. We must get together soon.” Laughing as though skeptical at his sudden change in marital status, she patted him on the cheek and disappeared down the hall.
For crimeny sakes, now he had just over a week to find a suitable wife. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already with his new job and living in a new city, he didn’t even know anyone well enough to date, let alone marry. He ran a tired hand over his jaw. In the next few days maybe he could find an out-of-work actress who could do the job. Hollywood must be crawling with them. Surely he could find someone by then.
* * *
Emily wiped the perspiration from her brow with a soiled handkerchief and sighed. She was obviously not cut out to be a beggar. Holding her crude cardboard sign up a little higher to shield herself from the sun’s blistering rays, she turned to check on Carmen and Helga.
Seated on a grassy freeway divider, they huddled together in the shade of an exit sign and waited for the words on Emily’s torn cardboard to work their magic. Will Work For Food. Emily had assured them that morning that this was their ticket to a filling meal and maybe even a decent place to sleep. Now, after a grueling morning in the hot L.A. sun, she wasn’t so sure.
So far, the only thing she
sure of was that she had encountered every kind of crackpot that Interstate 5 had to offer. The weirdos were out in force, and Emily had met and rejected them all.
At first Emily had hoped her benefactor would be a kindly old man or woman. At least that way she’d feel safe. But that morning when a pistol-packin’ granny had pulled up and claimed she needed some assistance with her target practice, Emily had thanked her for her gracious offer and sent her on her way.
“You’re sure now, dear?” she had inquired sweetly just before pulling away. “It’s easy work, really. You just have to stand very still.”
Then she’d longed for a nice young couple. Perhaps someone who needed a lawn mowed or a car washed. What she got was an invitation to join Mr. and Mrs. Party for some questionable social activities after-hours that night.
“Yes,” Mr. Party had confided in a low voice. “You are just what we’re looking for. Someone with connections. Someone who could score us some party favors, heh-heh, if you know what I mean.”
Emily hadn’t known, and hadn’t wanted to know.
Maybe a nice family would be more her style, she’d decided, until one self-righteous family man had thrown his hamburger at her and suggested that she “get her sorry butt off the freeway.”
Her feelings were hurt, her feet ached, and she was beginning to believe that there wasn’t a single soul on this godforsaken freeway that cared if she lived or died.
“Hey, lady! Wanna party?”
The voices of six, grungy-looking teenage boys in a convertible snapped her out of her depressing reverie. Howling and catcalling, they pulled onto the shoulder and shouted obscenities at her.
Emily nervously nibbled her lip. “No,” she called over the lump of fear that lodged so tightly in her throat she could barely breathe. Knuckles white, she shakily gripped her sign in front of her face as a flimsy barrier against their leering, wolfish expressions.
“Too bad. Your loss!” they jeered as, tires spinning in the gravel, they disappeared into the sea of warped and heartless people that made up this uncaring world.
Sighing with extreme relief, Emily dropped her sign on the freeway shoulder and walked on rubber legs over to join Helga and Carmen in the shade.
“Time for a break,” she announced in a shallow, shaky voice, doing her best to sound optimistic.
Helga muttered a few juicy expletives under her breath. “Bunch of damn creeps out there,” she shouted at the noisy freeway, and shook an empty plastic milk container at a passing truck for good measure. “And those people out there have the nerve to think I’m weird.” Again she swore colorfully.