“And who’s going to be eating this huge meal?”

“Your neighbors.”

“Ah.” She raised her index finger in protest. “I don’t have the friendliest neighbors….”

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“Invite them, anyway.”

“And who’s going to check up to see if I’ve completed these tasks?” she asked. She suspected Simon hadn’t thought this completely through.

“I’ll be checking in on you during the first two tasks.”

“You might as well come to Christmas dinner, then. Can I invite my brother and best friend, too?”

“Of course,” he said, but he didn’t respond to her admittedly reluctant invitation.

“Can they bring a contribution?” She was thinking Shawn could scrounge up a cooked turkey somewhere and even Angie could manage stuffing out of a box.

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“No, you will be providing the entire meal.”

Cassie was afraid of that.

“Now that you know the tasks, do you feel you can handle them?”

“I guess so—but what exactly is the point?”

He smiled—a glimmer of a smile. “Each task will tell me something about you. Something important. However, you don’t seem very confident. Can you or can’t you? A yes or no will suffice.”

Lifting her hand to her brow she saluted him smartly. “Aye, aye, sir.”

Her gesture failed to amuse him, but he did relax somewhat. “Now that we’ve squared away that portion of our discussion, it’s time to finalize the paperwork.”

“All right. Oh—do I get to ask three things of you—small, easy-to-perform tasks?”

He sent her a withering look.

“Obviously I don’t,” she said under her breath.

“Let’s make this clear,” he said with exaggerated patience. “You’re the one who sought me out. You came to me because of your desire for a husband and a family. I don’t advertise. I didn’t ask you to step into this office. You came of your own free will.”

“I did,” she concurred.

“Then we play this by my rules.”

She resisted rolling her eyes for fear he’d demand she leave. “Rules,” she repeated softly. “Is this a game to you?”

“No, this is life, yours and John’s. He’s a good man who wants the same things you do.”

“Okay, I accept your rules.”

“Thank you.”

“Can I at least see his photograph?”

“No. You will meet when it’s time. There will be no information exchanged before that official meeting.”

Cassie didn’t like it, but she didn’t have any alternative. She nodded.

Simon opened a side drawer and withdrew a contract. “I advise you to have your attorney look this over before you sign it. This is a standard contract, stating what you can expect for your thirty thousand dollars.”

“What if John and I don’t gel? If we aren’t a good fit?”

“That occasionally happens and it’s a fair question. Your money will be refunded to both of you in full.”

“In that case, will you introduce me to another potential mate?”

“No.”

“No. No?”

“This is a one-shot deal.”

“One-shot?” That sounded risky.

“If I offered choices, my clients would be wondering who else might be available. When I pick a mate for you, it’s the best match I can find, someone I believe will complement your strengths, share your values and fulfill your desires—within reasonable parameters.”

“And your success rate is?”

“High. I don’t accept a client unless I’m confident I have the right person for him or her. It’s as simple as that.”

Cassie stared down at the contract. She’d feel better if she liked Simon more. The man was rude, arrogant and short-tempered.

It was as if he’d read her thoughts. “You don’t need to like me, Cassie,” he said. “In fact, it’s preferable that you don’t.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really,” he returned. “The last thing I want or need is for a client to fall in love with me. It only complicates matters, and I don’t like unnecessary complications. Understood?”

“Now who’s dreaming?”

A smile came and went. A smile that charmed her despite everything he’d said and done.

Chapter 5

Simon says: Maybe money can’t buy love—but it can get you practically everything else. O n the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, which she’d spent with Angie and her family, Cassie headed for Southcenter Mall. This was the venue for her first task and she was eager to prove herself to Simon, obviously a curmudgeon. Spending four hours soliciting money for charity couldn’t possibly be that difficult.

Since she’d be standing outside, Cassie dressed in wool pants and a hand-knit sweater over her long-sleeved blouse. Between the shirt and sweater, she could barely get her arms inside the sleeves of her coat. She added a hat, gloves and a scarf, dressing for the cold. When she met her one true love, she wanted to make sure she didn’t have a runny nose and a sore throat.

Cassie showed up at the mall at the required time and met the other charity bell ringers. Standing with her colleagues, she glanced around. Some were being paid and frankly she thought they looked kind of shifty. Others, like her, were volunteers.

“Smile and greet everyone,” the leader instructed. “Be friendly even if someone walks past you.”

Filled with enthusiasm, Cassie could hardly wait to be assigned her post.

“Make eye contact” was the second bit of advice. “And ring that bell. Remind shoppers of those less fortunate.”

“Got it,” Cassie said aloud.

“This is one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year, so you shouldn’t have any problem making your quota.”

In the back of her mind, she recalled Simon’s casually mentioning something about collecting a certain dollar amount and the way he’d made light of it. The recommended donation amount turned out to be $60 an hour. That was a dollar a minute! How was she supposed to know how much money she’d collected when the red pot was securely locked? It wasn’t as if she could pry the lid off and count the cash.

“Are we ready?” their helpful leader called out.

Cassie’s shout blended in with the others’. “Ready!”

One by one, they received their assignments. Cassie was told to stand in front of the Target store, which had an outside entrance. With bell in hand, she headed toward her designated post. This wasn’t so bad. Not only was she helping the underprivileged but she was moving toward the man of her dreams.

She waited eagerly as a couple walked up. Smiling sweetly, she jerked her hand several times in succession, making the bell jangle. “Merry Christmas,” she greeted them.

The couple avoided eye contact and entered the store via the door farthest from Cassie.

Their lack of generosity—and appreciation for her efforts—didn’t faze her.

Not much later, a grandmotherly type approached her. “Do you have change for a five?” the woman asked.

“Sorry, we can’t make change.”

“Oh, dear,” she said regretfully, “then perhaps I can give you something on my way out.”

“Don’t worry,” Cassie said cheerfully, “I’ll be here.”

In her first thirty minutes, Cassie estimated that she’d collected less than five dollars, which wasn’t even close to her hourly goal. She stomped her feet to ward off the cold. In an effort to liven things up a bit, she attempted to ring the tunes of popular Christmas songs.

She gave that up during “Frosty the Snowman” when a teenage boy walked past and reached for his cell phone. He said, “Hello. Hello. Hello,” before he realized it was her bell and not his cell. He stopped in front of her and glared.

“Sorry,” she said, and gasped when the youth shot her the finger.

“Well, Merry Christmas to you, too.” Of all the nerve!

After an hour Angie came by and mercifully handed her a cup of steaming hot coffee.

“God love you,” she said, gratefully accepting it.

“How’s it going?”

If it’d been Simon rather than Angie, she would have declared that this was the most wonderful, rewarding experience of her life. With Angie she felt compelled to tell the truth. “I can’t feel my nose.”

“Can I get you anything else?” her friend asked, her expression concerned.

“Put some money in the pot. I’m nowhere near my quota.”

“Oh, sure.” Angie put in a hefty donation.

“Thank you.”

“Do you want me to stand in for you? You look like you could use a break.”

“No way.” Simon Dodson was sure to find out about it and consider her unworthy of John. Cassie wasn’t willing to risk that.

“You have a donation quota?”

Cassie nodded. “I bet that guy at the other entrance isn’t having this problem,” she muttered. Her breath made small whiffs of fog. Her nose wasn’t the only body part in danger of frostbite. Even the knit cap wasn’t enough to completely protect her ears. She’d swear those weren’t earrings dangling from her lobes, but tiny icicles.

“I’ll come and see you again later,” Angie promised.

“Great, and thanks for the coffee.” Cassie wondered whether anyone would notice if she stuck her nose in the hot liquid.

Angie disappeared inside the mall and Cassie rang her bell with renewed enthusiasm. It helped to remember that in less than three hours she would have completed one of the tasks that would bring her closer to meeting John.

In retrospect she wished she’d pushed Simon to show her John’s photograph. Then again, she didn’t want any predetermined impressions of him. He was already bigger than life in her mind. She pictured him at the head of a boardroom table or the helm of a sailboat. Or…

Suddenly, she noticed the scruffily dressed middle-aged man standing in front of her. He looked like he belonged to a motorcycle gang. He had on a worn leather jacket that barely zipped up over his protruding belly and a bandanna around his head. His hair, long and greasy and tied in a ponytail, reached to the middle of his back. He made a beeline for Cassie as if destiny had called him to her side.

Her bell ringing became a whole lot less enthusiastic.

He looked her slowly up and down. Then he smiled as if to say her waiting days were over; he had arrived. “Hello, there, pretty lady.”

Cassie managed a weak smile in return. “Happy holidays.” This guy didn’t strike her as the charitable type.

“I bet you’re real cold standing out here all by yourself.”

She didn’t respond but his gaze lingered on her, which gave her a decidedly uncomfortable feeling.

“I could find ways to keep us both warm.”

“Ah…actually I’m warm as toast,” she said. An outright lie. She hoped he didn’t notice that, by this time, her nose was probably blue.

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