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“Of course, I apologize,” he murmured, his arms aching to hold her.

She gave him an odd look, and he wanted to leave. He was acting like a bumbling, bemused boy.

“Well, now that we got my change in hair color out of the way, would you like to try what I fixed for Zoe and Christian?”

“Of course,” he said, following her to the island in the middle of her kitchen.

She made him a plate, placing bits of this and that on it.

He ate without speaking. The fact that he was in her presence was enough for him. Well, almost. He was a man after all, and he wanted her. He wanted to touch and kiss her, but he couldn’t walk into her apartment and say that, now could he?

“Everyone around here loves chicken salad, and the fruit compote—it’s my great aunt Pearl’s recipe,” she said, describing the food. God, he missed her voice. It sounded as pleasing as ever. She stopped talking and looked at him expectantly.

Nod, he told his head. Fortunately, it listened.

“You haven’t been listening to a thing I said, have you?” She poured a glass of water for him.

“Not really,” he admitted, taking a quick sip. He was parched, he realized. Most likely from nerves. Oh, if his mates could see him now. Anxious over a woman who barely knew he existed in the world.

Her eyes widened, and her cheeks pinkened. “Oh, okay. Um, so what did you think?”

“Honestly?”

“Yes.”

“This menu seems a tad boring. You’ll need to dazzle the guests at my brother’s wedding.”

“So you don’t like anything?” she asked, staring at him in obvious disbelief.

Oh God, he’d hurt her feelings. He’d rather slit his own throat than hurt her. “Well, I—”

She pasted on a smile, much like the one she’d given him before. “Zoe said she wanted traditional southern, and that’s what I made, but if you think the people who come won’t like it, then I can try something different.”

Ah, hell. There had to be a way he could fix this. He glimpsed a plate of sweets and his mouth began to water. “The cupcakes with the light brown icing look promising,” he said, trying to repair the damage.

Wordlessly, she slid the plate in front of him.

He picked up a cupcake and bit into it. Salty and sweet with a hint of savory hit his tongue, and he nearly moaned his appreciation. Sublime. Her cupcakes were sublime in every way. So was she.

“Look, you can’t expect to impress people with such simple fare, though if you fed them these, they’d fall at your feet and worship you.” He blinked at the expression on her face. “What did I say wrong now?”

“Are you kidding me?” Her nose had scrunched up on one side and her brows had crashed together. “I think it’s time for you to leave, and please tell Zoe to come in person next time.”

“No,” he said around the last bite, and then wiped his hand on a cloth napkin decorated with green and silver squares. He might as well make a go of it, even knowing he had less of chance with her than with the Board. At least they were willing to reconsider restoring his position as President.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Excuse me?”

“I have a proposition for you.”

“If it involves you taking a really long walk off a really short pier into shark-infested waters, count me in,” she said sweetly.

He fought back a grin. “Bloodthirsty little American.”

“Ever consider it’s people like you that made us bloodthirsty?”

“Hardly.” He brushed an errant crumb off a cuff link. “People adore me.” Well, people who weren’t his brother, his cousin, his mother…or her, apparently. Actually, she adored him when he was conversing with her as Jules.

Jaw working, she looked nearly ready to bludgeon him to death. “You’re demented.”

“Possibly, and in light of what I’m about to propose, certifiably.” Taking another drink of water, he looked straight into Daisy’s eyes. “I’ll pay off your insurance bill if you agree to pretend to be my fiancée for a period of no longer than three months. Then we shall part as friends, with goals met.”

It was perfect, really. He could have the best of both worlds this way, until he found a way to tell her the truth.

Hazel eyes rounded. “Who told you about the bills in the first place? You didn’t seem that shocked when you read the letter.”

“Your Aunt Leah, of course,” he said, grateful the chatty woman had provided him with an airtight alibi.

Daisy crossed her arms over her chest. “Of course she did,” she grumbled.

“Think about it: all you’d have to do is pose as my fiancée for three months, and in return I’ll pay off your insurance bills.”

“What do you get out of it?”

You, he thought, I get to spend time with you. “My position as President of Romanov Industries. I’m here to make nice with the brother, acquire a fiancée, etcetera, so they will vote me back in. I won’t bore you with the details.”

Rounded eyes narrowed. “Try anyway.”

Clever girl. One should always know the specifics, and as he recalled that blustery winter day where she made him promise not to do anything to hurt Rose, she always wanted specifics. “My vice president, Liam Stewart, suggested fabricating a relationship to make me look more…stable. Quite Machiavellian of him, yes?”

“I guess.” She shrugged. “But why?”

Because he’d become reckless after his father’s death by making shady deals with shady people, acting out of character in his personal life by making it public fodder, and worst of all, had for a brief period set out to destroy Romanov Industries from the inside. And he hadn’t told anyone, not even the person that meant the most to him.

So much for the very untouchable golden child of Vladimir Romanov.

“I haven’t been myself for a while, and it wasn’t good for Romanov’s bottom line. We have shareholders to answer to, you know. So, I’m out, until I’ve proven myself to be different or rather the same.

“Whatever. Sometimes, I’m not sure who they want me to be. Hell, I’m not sure who I want to be,” he added in a murmur, gazing off into the distance.

She stroked the sleeve of his suit jacket, bringing his attention back to her. “Bless your heart. I’m sorry about your dad, by the way. Zoe said he’d died in a boating accident a few months ago.”

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