I Married a Billionaire (I Married a Billionaire #1) : chap 1
When your billionaire boss’s attorney contacts you out of the blue, your first instinct is to assume something is horribly wrong and that you’re about the pay the price. I still remember the way my throat tightened, the sweat on my palms - what was it about? I was sure I’d done nothing wrong, but if Mr. Thorne decided I had, there wasn't much recourse.
My boss was notoriously difficult to work for. Thankfully, I rarely saw him. At most he was a vaguely menacing presence in the corner of my eye; a whiff of expensive cologne as he passed by my desk. To him I was surely no more than a line on the payroll sheets that he blindly signed every quarter; I wasn’t even confident that he knew my name.
And I liked it that way. I’d had overinvolved, micromanaging bosses before, and I much preferred a cold distant figure that I didn’t even have to speak to. I worked hard - I didn’t need someone hanging over my shoulder to make sure I was doing everything right.
As one of the graphic designers, I reported directly to Lisa, the head of Creative. She was pleasant enough, but I’d never gotten any feedback from her other than a nod of acknowledgement when I showed her my mockups and designs. Quite a few of them made it onto marketing and training materials, so I assumed Mr. Thorne liked my work.
So when a man approached me in the hallway and introduced himself as Mr. Thorne’s attorney, the only thought that popped into my head was that I had somehow unwittingly committed copyright or trademark infringement, costing the company millions of dollars, and I would be fired on the spot. Or perhaps I’d accidentally incorporated something obscene into one of my designs…
“Mr. Thorne would like to see you about a special project.”
I snapped out of my panic mode.
I must have sounded skeptical, because he went on: “It’s very important. A logo redesign for the company. He wants to keep it quiet for the meantime, but he asked to speak to you specifically.”
I was torn between flattery, and a curious sense of foreboding. I was proud of myself, of course, for attracting his attention. Then again, the attention of a man like that might be something I’d regret having in the very near future.
“Right now?” was all I could muster, for all the thoughts swirling in my brain.
“Yes,” said the attorney. “Right now.”
I followed him down the long hallway that led to Mr. Thorne’s office. It was separated from the rest of us by enough distance to make him seem untouchable. I wondered if he’d learned about that in one of his many management conferences.
I hesitated at the door. I’d never been inside his office before. Aside from Lisa, I didn’t know anyone here who had. I felt like the attorney would soon ask me to take off my shoes, or perform some act of contrition.
Instead, he simply pushed the door open and walked in, gesturing for me to follow.
The office was not at all what I expected. I would have imagined it as something Spartan and cold, with a lot of empty space, no human touch whatsoever. Instead, the first thing that caught my eye when I walked in was the variety of tropical plants thriving around Mr. Thorne. Some were clustered by the window, some featured in a small alcove against the back wall, and a few small ones even lived on his massive mahogany desk. The multitude of grow lights gave the office a soft, welcoming glow. The ceiling, too, was just the right height - not so tall that the space was forbidding, but not so low that it felt stuffy and cramped.
Mr. Thorne himself stood in the center of the room, by a grouping of lounge chairs and a small coffee table. He was smiling guardedly. Or maybe that was just his normal smile. I didn’t think I’d ever looked at him fully in the face before, and I’d certainly never seen him smile. It made him look younger. Not that he'd looked old before, but the difference was marked. I actually had no idea about his age, but I'd always guessed him to be in his early thirties.
“Please, Ms. Wainwright,” he said, gesturing towards one of the chairs. “Take a seat. Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee? Water? Juice?”
I shook my head.
“Before we begin, I want to assure you that this meeting is absolutely nothing to be concerned about. I have no issues with your job performance here. I have a business proposal for you, which I believe to be mutually beneficial. My attorney is here to oversee our negotiations and ensure that each of us is getting a fair deal. Do you follow so far?”
I nodded, swallowing hard. I suspected he was about to ask me to do something that was against every business ethics seminar I’d ever been forced to sit through.
He took a seat in one of the chairs opposite me, unbuttoning his suit jacket. “I want you to understand that if you refuse, your employment here would not be jeopardized in any way.”
The attorney was twirling his pen between two fingers, staring at the floor. I got the feeling he wasn't very happy with what was going on, but he wasn't about to say anything as long as he was getting his paycheck.
"Ms. Wainright, as I'm sure you know, I've been living and working in this country for a long time. This place is my home. This is where I have built everything that's important to me. But, as it happens, I was born just across the border, in Toronto. Unfortunately, I put my trust in the wrong person to handle the paperwork that should have allowed me to legally live and work here. He stole a lot of money from me, but worse than that, he failed to properly file my papers. I was not aware of this until I received notice from the INS that I was no longer welcome here." He paused, fiddling with his cufflinks. "You're an intelligent woman, I'm sure you can see where this is going."
Well. This certainly had taken an interesting turn.
I forced myself to think about this logically, if such a thing were possible. He was a good-looking guy, of course - no question about that - in fact, I couldn't help but think I'd look slightly dingy by comparison, on his arm. But obviously he didn't think so. Or he didn't care.
I cleared my throat. "Mr. Thorne...sir...can I ask why you picked me?"
He looked at me for a moment. "Your supervisor," he said, finally. "Mrs. Anderson. Lisa. She's one of the few people who know about my...problem. When she came to me and told me that you and she had several conversations where you expressed distaste for the institution of marriage, I thought you might be interested."
"That's - quite a leap of logic," I said, frowning at him. If I'd known Lisa was practically in Mr. Thorne's pocket, I never would have had so many deeply personal conversations with her. She'd just gone on maternity leave, so I wouldn't even have an opportunity to corner her and ask her what the hell she was thinking. Not that I'd dare. I tried to think of other things I'd said to her, my ears starting to burn as I searched my mind.
Mr. Thorne bit his lip. "I've offended you," he said, standing up. "I apologize."
"Wait," I said. "Are you serious about this?"
"Yes," he said. "Of course."
"You're not playing some kind of elaborate prank on me?"
His smile returned. "What sort of person do you think I am?"
The attorney made a small noise, shifting in his chair.
"I assume I'll be compensated in some way?" I said, trying to sound cool and composed. I didn't know the proper way to react in this situation - hell, I didn't know if there was a proper way - but I was trying to pretend like he hadn't completely floored me with this offer. A marriage of convenience? Who even did that in real life?
"Of course," said Mr. Thorne, sitting back down and reaching for the sheaf of papers sitting on the table. "It's quite simple, when you cut through all the legalese. You will need to live with me for the next year, at least, for appearance's sake. During that time, I will support you and provide for all of your needs and wants. After that time passes, you will be compensated with two million dollars U.S., payable in cash or bearer bonds."
My heart stopped for a moment.
Mr. Thorne didn't skip a beat. "You will need to end your employment here, obviously - again, for appearance's sake. But I will ensure that you receive an even better job placement at another firm, after the terms of the agreement are fulfilled. In the event of any legal trouble, you will still be compensated, so long as you make a reasonable effort to keep the façade intact."
"What constitutes a reasonable effort?" I wanted to know.
He rustled some pages. "That's spelled out here, as well. You're agreeing to spend a minimum of ten hours going over the details of our fictional relationship in preparation for the INS interview. When in public, you will behave at all times as if we are a couple. This may include some physical interaction, which..." he drifted off, staring at the carpet. Was he embarrassed? Surely not. "...I hope you will find...agreeable..."
The attorney sighed loudly. "I feel compelled to point out that a contract for an illegal agreement will not hold up in court."
I hadn't even considered that, but of course he was right.
Mr. Thorne nodded. "The contract is a formality. Just to clarify the obligations we'd both have."
"It sounds...." I wasn't sure how it sounded. "Can I have some time to think about it?"
"Excellent," said Mr. Thorne, briskly, his professional demeanor returning in a moment's time. I noticed there was still some extra color in his face, though. "You can peruse the contract as thoroughly as you'd like, but I'm afraid I can't allow it to leave this room. For obvious reasons."
"Of course," I said. I flipped through the pages, my eyes scanning the words as if I could possibly make sense of them. My head was swimming, and I felt like I was in some kind of dream. Some part of me was convinced that I would wake up at any moment.
"You can take a few days, if you like." said Mr. Thorne. " Come to my office anytime if you want to look over it. I'll keep it in my desk."
"Thank you," I said. "I think I'll come back tomorrow."
He nodded, taking the papers from me and straightening them. "I'll see you then."
I spent the rest of my work day in a haze. Two million dollars? If I played my cards right, with the lifestyle I was accustomed to, I could live off of that money forever. Probably. Couldn't I? I actually had no idea; I'd never considered the possibility of having a few million dollars dropped in my lap. I had fantasies, of course. Didn't everyone? But I had never given them any serious thought.
I supposed I could hire someone to manage the money. Mr. Thorne probably knew some reputable financial planners - people who would make sure that I never had to work another day in my life. I could pursue my art on my own terms, instead of toiling away as a corporate drone for the rest of my working years.
Whoa, Maddy. Step back a minute.
My brain was already churning as if I had the money in my bank account. But if I decided to do this - and that was a huge if - it would still be a long time before I saw a dime. And in the meantime, living with Mr. Thorne, I'd probably get used to a higher standard of living. Even for someone like me, who'd never been pampered in my life, it would be difficult to go back to normal. I would be best if I could consult with some neutral third party about all of this - a professional. Someone who could give me some really solid advice. But I was pretty sure I'd have to pay handsomely for that, and I didn't exactly have Daniel Thorne money.
Sitting up in bed that night, with no hope of sleeping, I finally got a pen and paper and began to write down a list of questions and concerns. Part of me couldn't believe that I was taking his offer seriously, but how could I not?
I dragged myself out of bed the next morning after a few hours of fitful sleep. When I got to work, I made a beeline for Mr. Thorne's office.
I stopped at his assistant's desk. She looked at me with barely restrained contempt.
"I need to see Mr. Thorne," I said. "About the special project. He told me to stop by anytime."
Her lips thinned as she pressed the button on the intercom.
"Mr. Thorne. Ms. Wainright is here to see you."
"Thank you, please send her in."
I walked in slowly, shutting the padded door behind me. I was sure he'd look up when I came to a stop in front of his desk, but his head stayed down as she shuffled through a pile of paperwork.
I cleared my throat.
"Ms. Wainright," he said, blinking. "Good morning. You're very...early."
I frowned a little. "I get here at this time every day."
"Of course," he said, beginning to collect himself into the smooth professional that I somewhat recognized. "Please. Take a seat."
I sat down in the chair across from his desk, clutching my notepad to my chest. "I just have a few questions about the proposed arrangement," I said. "I can come back later if this is a bad time."
"No, no, not at all," he said. "Please. Go on."
I stared at my paper. The questions all sounded stupid now that I was in front of him, under his piercing green stare. But somewhere in the rational portion of my mind, I knew that they were still important. I swallowed hard and then began to speak.
"There's only one copy of the contract, right? Who will keep it?"
Mr. Thorne answered quickly. "Excellent question. My attorney, Mr. Wegman, is responsible for keeping the document private and secure. I realize this may sound like a conflict of interest, since I'm paying him, but I assure you that he will be representing us both equally in this arrangement. I made certain to add the terms of his payment into the contract as well, so he is highly motivated to keep it safe."
"During the term of our marriage, while I'm...living with you." I hesitated. "I understand that I'm supposed to act like your wife. Will there be any other restrictions or expectations on my behavior that I should be aware of?"
"None whatsoever," said Mr. Thorne. "So long as you appear to be in love with me, and faithful, I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to live the rest of your life as you choose." He hesitated.
God, this was so weird. My mouth was incredibly dry. "You said you'll be supporting me. Will I have a daily allowance, or...?"
"My credit card," he said, easily. "There is no limit. You'll be added as a joint member on the account and have your own card. You may use it to pay for anything you like. You see, Ms. Wainright, this whole arrangement requires a mutual trust. But in the time you've been employed here, I've seen no reason to believe that you are dishonest or that you take undue advantage of situations. That's one of the other reasons I chose you."
I looked up from my paper. "I thought you chose me because I don't believe in marriage."
He laced his fingers together thoughtfully. "That was the deciding factor," he said. "But I had already evaluated your character."
He was talking about me like I was a set of characteristics rather than a person. Then again, I supposed that came with the territory. Being a successful businessman meant coldly evaluating situations, completely devoid of any emotional impulses. It meant reading people like they were a string of zeroes and ones who happened to have an organic brain rather than one made of chips and diodes.
It must be liberating, to not have to worry about other people's feelings.
But perhaps that was best. If I was going to enter into a marriage of convenience, it really ought to be with someone who was going to keep things professional and break it off at the end without any messiness.
And pay me a whole truckload of money, of course. That was a nice bonus.
"There was something else I wanted to address with you," he said, looking down at the desk. "I meant to bring it up yesterday. If, during the term of our marriage, you were to meet someone..."
"I'm not worried about that," I interrupted, quickly.
He looked up at me, his eyes searching my face. It seemed like I'd succeeded in reminding him that I was, in fact, a human being. "Are you certain about that?"
"Yes," I said. "Can we move on?"
"Of course," he said. "That brings me to my next point. It's important that we keep things professional. With an arrangement like this, sometimes the lines can become blurred. But I hope we can both act as checks and balances against each other to ensure that things stay appropriate. You're clearly a sensible person, so I don't anticipate this being too much of a problem. But it would be foolish to pretend we're not human beings." He gave me a sharp look, like he'd been reading my mind. I fidgeted. "If you feel things are becoming too personal, please don't hesitate to let me know. And I will do the same for you."
I nodded, trying to ignore the uncomfortable prickling at the base of my neck. It almost felt like he was looking through me.
He was silent for a while, and I realized he was waiting for some sort of verbal acknowledgement.
"Yeah," I said. "Of course, that...that sounds good," I said, my voice cracking a little. I realized belatedly that I was making it sound like I'd already consented to the arrangement, and briefly panicked. "I mean - if I decide to go through with this."
"Of course," he said, raising both hands in a supplicating gesture. "Nothing is official until we both sign the contract in the presence of my attorney."
"Sorry," I said. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't misunderstanding me."
He smiled. "I'm a very cautious man, Ms. Wainright. I'm not in the habit of making assumptions until I have signatures in triplicate."
"Well, that's good to know." I stood up. "Thank you, Mr. Thorne. I appreciate your time."
"I ought to be thanking you," he said, rising as well and extending his hand for me to shake. "Take as much time as you need. I have a few months before they'll loose the hounds, so it's not terribly urgent."
I had to laugh. "I appreciate that, but I don't think I'll be able to sleep properly until I make a decision." And maybe not even then.
He looked a little bothered. "I never meant to cause you any distress," he said. "I meant it when I said that refusing wouldn't impact your career. You can continue to work here as long as you like. You'll be treated like any other employee. And if you choose to leave I will always give you a positive reference. You have my word."
"I know," I said. "It's not that. I just...I guess I can't decide if the risk is worth the reward."
He considered this for a moment. "I won't pretend there isn't a risk," he admitted, finally. "But...it is not as great of a risk as you might think. I am in...an advantageous position."
My eyes narrowed. "What does that mean, exactly?"
Mr. Thorne shrugged a little. "Money opens many doors, Ms. Wainwright. As I'm sure you know."
"If it's a question of money, why do you need me at all?"
"I said 'many' doors. Not every door."
"Fair enough," I said. "I'll get back to you when I'm made my decision."
"Thank you," he said. "Again. For everything."