Title: The Perfect Illusion
Author: Winter Renshaw
Release Date: 27th April, 2017
Genre: Contemporary Romance
And it’s only three months.
I’m in the midst of scrawling “I QUIT!” onto his fancy cardstock letterhead when my boss corners me. He needs a favor, he says. And then he asks how well I can act …
Hudson Rutherford needs a fiancée.
With his old-moneyed parents forcing him to marry some bratty hotel heiress and his hedonistic, playboy lifestyle at stake, the only way to get them to back off is to make them think he’s truly, madly, deeply in love … with me—his third personal assistant this year.
But I can hardly stand working for him as it is.
Hudson is crazy hot and well-aware. He’s arrogant, spoiled, and silver-spooned. He checks me out when he thinks I’m not looking, and his life is a revolving door of beautiful women. Plus, he can’t even pronounce my name correctly—how’s he going to convince his family he’s in love with me?!
I’m seconds from giving him a resounding “no” when he flashes his signature dimpled smirk and gives me a number that happens to contain a whole mess of zeroes …
On second thought, I think I can swallow my pride.
But, oh baby, there’s one thing I haven’t told him, one teensy-tiny thing that could make this just a hair complicated …
Here’s hoping this entire thing doesn’t explode in our faces.
Dear Mr. Rutherford,
I humbly request that you accept this as my two-weeks’ notice. As of Friday, May 26th, I will be stepping down from my position as your personal assistant. I’ll do my best to ensure this is a smooth transition for the company.
I press my pen into his thick cardstock, scratching out my neatly written resignation before crumpling the paper in my hand and pushing it to the corner of my desk. It’s too nice, and Hudson Rutherford does not deserve nice.
It’s half past seven, which means I have thirty minutes to come up with something better than this—something that’s going to leave a lasting impression.
I’m his third personal assistant this year and it’s only May. There’s a reason no one can tolerate working for him longer than a month or two, and someone ought to point this out to him.
Might as well be me.
Clearing my throat, I try again.
You’re rude and inconsiderate, and I no longer wish to work for you. You think the world revolves around you. Your excessive wealth disgusts me, as does your secret Rolodex of women’s phone numbers that you keep hidden in your third desk drawer on the left. Your good looks are overshadowed by your vanity and arrogance, and your kindness, I’m convinced, is non-existent. You treat your employees like indentured servants, and you’re the most hypocritical asshole I’ve ever met.
I work sixty hour weeks for you without so much as a thank you, a raise, or a glowing performance review. I’m tired of running your menial errands, and I didn’t spend four years at college to make photo copies and coffee.
I didn’t sign up for this.
You lied to me.
With zero fondness and absolutely no gratitude,
Sighing, I crumple this one too. I think my message got lost amongst all the spiteful word vomit, and the last thing I want to do is come across as trite.
Fed up is what I am.
Underutilized, underpaid, and overworked.
But not trite.
I toss the wrinkled paper in the waste basket and grab one last sheet of letterhead. Ditching the formalities, I decide to go a more direct route. My mother once told me it’s not in what you say, it’s in what you don’t say. And my father always says actions speak louder than words. Maybe I’ve been overthinking this whole resignation letter? With my pen firmly gripped, I scrawl my final version.
Smiling, I admire my work, fold it into thirds, then slide it into a cream-colored envelope with Rutherford Architectural’s logo in the upper left corner. Licking the seal and scribbling his name on the front, I stick it on top of a pile of mail I plan to hand to him the second he arrives. I’ll give him a moment to read it, and while he’s doing so, I’ll pack up my things and make a beeline for the elevator before he has a chance to stop me.
“Mary.” I glance up from my work station to see Hudson strolling into work in his signature navy suit and skinny black tie. He’s early today.
“It’s Mari,” I correct him for the millionth time, inhaling his cedar and moss cologne. It’s the only thing I’ve come to like about this man. “Rhymes with sorry—remember?”
His eyes narrow in my direction, and as he angles toward me, I see his right hand lifted to his ear. He’s on the phone.
Hudson says nothing, only gathers the mail from the corner of my desk and strides down the hall toward the enormous glass-walled office that tends to make my stomach twist every time I have to walk in that direction.
This entire office space was his design. Glass walls. Zero privacy. Everything is clean-lined and modern. Chestnut-colored leather seating, white walls, reclaimed wood and custom mid-century modern lighting installations are working in tandem here to create a space buzzing with creative inspiration, and all decorative accessories have to be approved by the head honcho himself. I tried to bring in a gray ceramic planter last month for my dendrobium orchids and Hudson said it was too drab and industrialist. He claimed it would fuck with his energy—and he uses words like “fuck” and “energy” because he thinks he’s some kind of renaissance boss.
My heart’s pounding crazy fast, and I’m stuck trying to determine if I should bolt now or wait. Hudson usually checks his mail first thing in the morning, but for all I know, he’s still on his phone call.
Drumming my fingers against my glass desktop, my feet remain firmly planted on the wood floor, though they may as well be frozen solid. The second my phone rings, it sends my heart leaping into my throat. I’m not afraid of him—I just hate drama. And I have a feeling Hudson’s going to try to make this into a big thing.
“Yes?” I answer, my eyes scanning the caller ID. Hudson’s extension flashes across the screen.
He read it.
And now, the moment of truth.
“Mary, what is this?” he asks.
“What is … what, sir?” I ask. And that’s another thing—what kind of twenty-nine-year-old architect demands to be called “sir?”
“This invitation to the Brown-Hauer Gala? RSVPs were due two weeks ago. Call and find out if it’s not too late,” he says, his voice monotone. The tear of paper fills the background. He’s quiet.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to go?” I ask. I’m not sure why I’m phrasing this as a question because he did say he didn’t want to go. As a matter of fact, I know I have it in an email …
“I said that?” he asks, a sardonic chuckle in his question.
“I don’t remember saying that.” He exhales. “I never would’ve said that. Not to the Brown-Hauer. That gala hosts the who’s who in the architectural world, are you fucking kidding me?”
His voice raises slightly, and my breath seizes. I should just hang up and get the hell out of here.
“Mary,” he says.
“Mari,” I correct. “Rhymes with sorry.”
In case he didn’t hear me two minutes ago …
“Can you come back here for a second?” he asks, his voice as stiff as his winning personality. “There’s something we need to discuss. Immediately.”
Anxiety forces my jaw into a tensed state. I shouldn’t let this asshole get to me, and I know that, but he’s literally the boss from hell. People like him are the reason happy hour was created.
At least he won’t be my boss for much longer.
I’m almost positive he’s read my note and he’s calling me back to try and talk me out of it but I refuse.
My stomach churns, and I think I’m going to be sick—but not because I’m nervous.
Not because he scares me.
But because I’m pregnant.
And morning sickness is one hell of a bitch.
“I need a minute,” I say, reaching for the bottle of room temperature water in front of me, though the sight of it intensifies my nausea. I meant to stop for saltines and ginger ale on the way here this morning, but I spaced it off because I was too preoccupied with second-guessing my decision to quit my job so abruptly with single motherhood on the horizon.
“You may have a minute to spare, but I don’t,” he says. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait. My office. Now.”
Hudson hangs up before I have a chance to protest, and before I can stop myself, I’m marching back to his office like Darth Vader on a mission, heavy breathing and all.
I’m doing this.
I’m standing my ground.
And I’m walking out of here with my head held high.
Normally I’d knock three times on his door and wait for him to tell me to enter, but seeing how all the walls here are made out of crystal-clear glass, he’s looking directly at me, and I’m seconds from quitting, I don’t see the need.
Rushing into his office, I place my hands on my hips and plant myself in the doorway. Hudson reclines in his chair, his hands resting behind his neck as his full lips hold an amused little smirk that perfectly contradicts the snarky tone he took with me a few moments ago.
Everything about this man is a walking contradiction, and it drives me crazy.
“What’s with the attitude, Mary?” he asks, eyes scanning me from head to toe and back. “It’s Friday. Lighten up.”
I glance at his desk where my letter rests on top of the mail pile.
He hasn’t opened it yet …
“What did you need?” I ask, but only because I’m curious. I don’t actually intend on doing a damn thing for this smug asshole from this moment on.
“Did you get my email this morning?” he asks.
Ah, yes. The infamous pre-work emails he sends from his treadmill at five in the morning. Not going to miss those.
My brows meet. “I haven’t had a chance to check it yet.”
“I’m going to need you to pick up my dry cleaning at ten. Drop everything off at my place afterwards, then stop by Palmetto’s Deli to grab me a number four with no mustard. And make sure you check it before you leave. Last time you didn’t, and you know how much I despise soggy bread. Oh. And after lunch, I need you to call the Brown-Hauer foundation and get me on the list for their gala. Email me as soon as you’re finished so I know you didn’t forget …”
He’s rambling on, but I tune him out. My fists clench at my sides, and my vision darkens. He doesn’t need to qualify his requests with insults.
This is why I hate this man.
This is why I have to quit. Immediately.
I don’t care what he says, I refuse to let him talk me out of this.
I came to Manhattan with a gleam in my eye, my little Nebraskan heart filled with optimism and hope. I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be someone.
Little did I know, nobody in New York cares if you graduated at the top of your class at some tiny little private college just north of the Bible belt. All that matters out here, is who you know. And if you don’t know anyone? Then you have one of two options: screw your way to the top or work your ass off and hope that someone throws you a bone.
I had every intention of doing this with integrity, but clearly accepting a position at Rutherford Architectural was a bad move in the wrong direction.
So much for building up a respectable curriculum vitae.
“Mary, are you listening?” he asks, leaning forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his glass desk. Behind him is an expansive view of downtown Manhattan flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with every architectural college text, magazine, and coffee table book known to man. If there’s one other positive thing I could say about Hudson Rutherford—besides the fact that he smells like money and oozes obnoxious charm that apparently no one but me can see through—is that he’s passionate about architecture. The man lives, sleeps, and breathes design.
If I wasn’t so busy hating Hudson, I’d probably find his intense passion kind of sexy …
“No,” I say.
“Excuse me?” He scoffs, smoothing his thin black tie down his muscled chest before straightening his shoulders.
“When you speak to me like that,” I say, holding my head high, “it makes me want to tune you out. I can’t help it. It’s an automatic reaction.”
His jaw clenches, but his eyes glint, and I wonder if he’s ever had an assistant speak up before?
“Am I supposed to speak to you like you’re on my level? Like we’re equals?” he asks, chuffing. “Mary, I’m your boss. Your superior.”
“Which is exactly why you should talk to me with a little more respect. It’s called being professional.” My lips are tight and numb. I can’t believe I’m saying this … “I make your coffee. I field your calls. I grab your lunch. I do anything and everything you ask because let’s face it, I’m the idiot who signed up for this job, but you treat me like your whipping post. If you forget something, it’s always my fault. If someone else forgets something, it’s always somehow my fault. If you’re having a bad day, it’s my fault. If I only work fifty hours instead of my scheduled forty, you make me feel like a slacker. If I ask for a day off, nine times out of ten, I’m told ‘no.’ It’s exhausting working for you, Hudson. It’s only been two months, and I can’t do it anymore.”
“So what are you saying?” he asks. I try to get a read on his expressionless face, but it’s impossible. He’s a man who holds his cards close to his chest at all times. I’m not sure whether he’s panicked, relieved, or something else entirely.
Pointing to the letter on the top of his mail pile, I say, “I quit.”
It doesn’t feel as liberating as I thought it would, and it’s all rather anti-climactic, but it’s done. I turn on my heels and show myself out of his office, hurrying to get the hell out of the place I’ve come to call the Pristine Palace for the last two months.
“Wait,” he calls after me as I head for my desk to gather my things. I glance behind me only to see him standing in his glass doorway. “I’d like to make you an offer before you go.”
Ha. Just as I expected.
I smirk, rolling my eyes as I keep walking. “No, thanks.”
“Mary.” There’s a deep husk in his voice, but I continue strutting away, my heels clicking on the reclaimed wood floor.
When I reach my desk, I grab my bag from the bottom drawer and toss a few personal items inside: my hand cream, lip balm, a tiny bag of emergency chocolate, and my back up water bottle. I’d toss some company pens in there too because they’re fancy as hell, but I prefer never to so much as glance at the Rutherford Architecture logo ever again. Before I forget, I slide the elevator key to his penthouse apartment off my keyring and slap it on the desktop.
“Fine.” The sudden, close proximity of Hudson’s voice jumpstarts my heart. I glance up to see him standing before me, his smooth hands splayed across my desk and his back arched. His sapphire blue eyes meet mine, refusing to let them go. “You can quit. Be my fucking guest. I’ll have you replaced by tomorrow afternoon.”
I offer a faux smile. “Glad everything’s going to work out for you.”
I fling my bag over my shoulder and stand tall, eyes grazing past his shoulder toward the elevator bay where the doors part and Hannah from accounting steps off. Our eyes meet, and she gives me what is clearly her “Oh, shit …” face.
It’s a shame I won’t be sticking around long enough to tell her everything’s fine. Everything’s abso-fucking-lutely fine.
“Goodbye, Hudson. And best of luck in finding a suitable replacement. I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you needed.” I move out from behind my desk and give him a sarcastic smirk, only I’m not prepared when he slips his hand around my wrist and guides me closer to him. “What the hell are you doing?”
I yank my hand from his, clutching it against my chest, fingers balled into a tight fist.
“One last thing before you go …” he says, his eyes softening just enough that I almost believe he’s being sincere for the first time since I’ve known him.
Trying not to laugh too loud, I shake my head. “No.”
“Hear me out,” he says.
“Why should I?”
“Because I’ll make it worth your while.”
Rolling my eyes, I suck in a deep breath, mulling over the extent of my curiosity. What could he possibly need from me, a disgruntled employee in the midst of storming out of his office?
My stomach gurgles and another wave of morning sickness evolves into an impressive hot flash. A sheen of sweat forms across my forehead. I think I’m going to be sick, and if he doesn’t get the hell out of my way, I’m about to be sick all over his immaculate Prada suit.
The wave passes, dissipating into nothing, and I pull in a clean breath of the hospital-grade air Hudson insists on piping through the office vents because it helps “keep his energy clean.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but there isn’t anything you could say or do at this point that would convince me to work another day next to you. I won’t be doing you any favors, Hudson. You disgust me.”
Oh, god. Here comes the word vomit, rising up my chest with unstoppable force.
“You walk around like you’re better than everyone,” I add. “You’re self-centered. And arrogant. And cold. And inconsiderate. And rude. And you’re delusional if you think you’re going to get me to stick around, so, goodbye.”
The corner of his mouth smirks, revealing a half-second flash of a dimple that sends an inconvenient and unexpected weakness to my knees. I hate how attractive this man is. And I hate how distracting his looks are.
“Calm down, Mary.” His voice is low, and when he leans in close, I find myself inhaling—and enjoying—the warm, musky scent radiating off his skin. “I know I’m a pain in the ass to work for. Well aware.”
“Then why don’t you try to change that?”
“Why should I? There’s an entire city full of girls just like you begging to work here. Why should I have to change who I am to accommodate them? Besides, there’s a whole world of assholes just like me—no, worse than me—waiting on the outside. If my employees can’t handle me, they’re sure as hell not going to be able to handle the next guy. The way I see it, I’m doing you all a favor. I’m prepping you for the real world.”
“I refuse to believe bosses like you are the norm.”
“Then you’re extremely naïve.” He huffs, his indigo-blue eyes lifting to the ceiling then back to me. “Anyway, three million dollars.”
“Three million dollars—what?” I squint at him, not sure where he’s going with this.
“If you agree to help me out, I’ll give you three million dollars. Cash. And then you’ll never have to work with this insufferable asshole ever again.”
He’s got to be joking.
“Aside from the fact that you’ve officially lost it, I’m not sticking around, not here. Not as your personal assistant. I’m better than this.”
“I’m not asking you to be my personal assistant.”
“Okay, whatever it is, I’m not interested. I have a degree in business analytics and international marketing with a minor in finance.” My arms tighten across my chest. I’m not interested in his bait money or whatever the hell kind of stunt he’s attempting to pull. “I know my worth, and I know when a job isn’t worth it.”
“So you understand that three million dollars is a pretty generous chunk of change, yes? Since you, uh, minored in finance and you know all about … worth?” He’s trying to fight a smile, like he’s not taking me seriously.
“Can you not?” I lift my hand to my right hip.
“Can you not be so patronizing? It never ends with you.”
“I’ll work on it,” he says. “If you stick around.”
“No need,” I remind him. “I’m not.”
“Swallow your pride and agree to help me,” he says. “You won’t regret it.”
“No,” I say with as much conviction as I can drum up. A wave of nausea rolls over me once more, a silent reminder that it’s not about me anymore. “Whatever it is … no.”
Three weeks ago, after a sexually debilitating dry spell no twenty-five-year-old should ever have to endure, I downloaded one of those stupid dating apps that everyone knows is really only used for hooking up, and I found myself the perfect one-night stand.
I thought I was smart about it. I’m on the pill. He used a condom. All precautionary measures were taken.
He was Ivy League educated, or so he claimed, and he had one of those rich people names, Hollister. His photos were all Nantucket and sailboats and he quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald in his bio. When we met, Hollister was friendly and well-mannered, well-groomed and clean cut. With disarming honey brown eyes and thick, sandy brown hair, he was everything he had shown himself to be. And the night was satisfying enough if not a little boring. But it filled the void and accomplished the mission, and we both went on our ways.
But a few days ago, I happened to pop open my birth control pack and realized I was four sugar pills in with no sign of Aunt Flo. An hour later, I’d purchased an array of tests from the local Duane Reade, never believing in a million years I’d find myself face-to-face with a myriad of blue plus signs and happy faces.
That’s the day the bottom dropped out.
Hollister was the first person I called—it only seemed right since he was the father. But his number was conveniently no longer in service. I had no way of getting a hold of him and no way of knowing what his last name was. I even spent hours trying to find him again on the dating app, but it was as if he’d just disappeared into thin air.
So now it’s just us …
Me and this tiny little life I’m now fully responsible for—on my own.
This weekend I’ll pack up my place, rent a moving truck with whatever credit remains on my MasterCard, and hightail it back to Nebraska. I can’t afford to raise a baby in this city, at least not by myself. And now that I don’t have a job, I can’t afford the rent on my shoebox studio anyway.
“You’re a fool.” Hudson watches me sling my purse over my shoulder, and then he eyes the elevator bay in the distance. “With this money, the right investments and a little time, you could be an extremely wealthy woman. Now you’re going to spend the rest of your life working for assholes exactly like me because you were too proud to say yes to this one little favor.”
“You’re planting doubt in my head,” I say. “You’re trying to manipulate me. I see through you, Hudson. Always have. You’re nothing more than a self-serving asshole. You couldn’t shut it off if you tried.”
“You’re right. Me and every other man in this city.” His soft, strong hands slip into his pants pockets and he exhales like a man who shamelessly owns his behavior and makes no apologies. “Anyway, aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know what I want from you?”
“Not really.” My lips bunch in one corner. “You pay me forty grand a year here, which isn’t really a livable wage in this city I might add. And you work me to the bone. I shudder to think of how much work three million dollars would entail.”
“Can you act, Mary?” he asks, ignoring my refusal.
“It’s not random at all. It’s pretty straightforward. Stop wasting my time and answer it.”
“I was in drama club in high school,” I say, smoothing my hair from my face and pulling my shoulders back like a proud drama nerd. “And for a couple years in college. I’ve done community theatre as well.”
I’ve never seen him full-on smile like this.
“Perfect.” His blue eyes crinkle at the corner. “I have to have you, Mary. You’re hired.”
My jaw hangs. “I’m … what? I didn’t say … I don’t want … no.”
Hudson wraps his hand around my wrist, pulling me just outside the front doors of the office and out of ear-shot of the rest of the office.
“Listen,” he says, voice low. He tightens the space between us. “I’m sure you’re wondering what the fuck I’m about to propose and rightfully so. But believe me when I tell you it’s going to change your life. And mine—because I’m a self-serving bastard and we both know that. But it’ll be the easiest three million you’ll ever make in your life, and when it’s all said and done, you’ll never have to see me—or work for anyone like me—ever again. It’s win-win, Mary. And you’d be a damn fool to walk away.”
I inhale, harboring a breath before letting it go. When our eyes meet, I silently chide myself for remotely considering making a deal with this devil.
Sure, he’s impossibly handsome with his chiseled jaw, dimpled smirk, coffee-colored hair, steel blue eyes, runner’s build, designer wardrobe, and genius IQ—not that I’ve taken inventory of his assets before … but none of that is enough to overpower the ugliness that resides beneath his perfect, polished façade.
Without saying a word, I turn on my heel and press the call button on the nearest elevator.
“What are you doing?” he asks, voice rushed.
The doors part, and I step on flashing a smirk and shrugging my shoulders. “Being a damn fool.”
Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.
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