I reached out, slapping at the obnoxious noise pulling me from sleep. My head hurt. I had a vicious hangover. The last thing I wanted was to hear that annoying noise.
From somewhere in the murky depths of consciousness, I realized it was my phone incessantly ringing. I quickly fought through the alcohol-induced semi-comatose state and pushed my companion’s blonde head off my shoulder.
My eyes wouldn’t quite focus, but I managed to find my phone. I held it close to my face and tried to make out the letters. It didn’t take long to see M-O-M on the screen.
“Shit,” I murmured.
There was no way I could keep dodging her calls. My mother was relentless. If I didn’t answer, I had a feeling she would hop on the family’s private jet and fly herself across the Atlantic from London to New York to find me.
The woman beside me—hell if I could remember her name—groaned when I pushed her away from me. I wasn’t even sure I had asked her name. I cleared my throat and tried not to sound like I had been asleep.
“Mother,” I answered. “How nice of you to call at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning.”
“Stop it,” she scolded. “I’m going to assume you’re already up, showered, and headed out for a brisk walk in your new favorite city.”
“Yes, Mother, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“I hope I didn’t disturb you and your wife,” she said in a perfectly British tone. That wasn’t hard for her, considering she was British.
I glanced over at the mass of blonde hair. She wasn’t my wife. I didn’t have a wife. My mother only thought I did.
And that was the story I needed to stick with.
“We were sleeping,” I replied.
“I thought you might possibly be dead,” she continued her lecture. “I haven’t heard a word from you in weeks.”
“I’m not dead,” I said.
“You will be if you don’t get yourself home to London.” This time, her voice was full of anger. “You have been putting us off for too long. When will we have that wedding you’ve been promising?”
I blew out a breath and rubbed my face. It was too early, and I was still suffering the side effects of Jack Daniels. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve gone off and married a woman we don’t know in an absolutely horrific Las Vegas wedding like you were some American! Your father and I have given you plenty of space and let you enjoy your long honeymoon, but now it’s time you come home. It’s time for your family to meet this woman. A woman that is either so ugly or so beautiful you cannot send along a single picture of her. It really is a sad state of affairs, son.”
I loved getting this kind of phone call first thing in the morning. “Mom, I told you I’ve been busy.”
“Our friends don’t believe she exists,” she went on like I had said nothing. “Our oldest son has married and no one among our friends has met the woman? You know the importance of our friends meeting her. And us, for that matter, although that’s clearly not important to you.”
“Mom, I hear you,” I said. “I’ll be there.”
“Your grandmother’s birthday party certainly seems like the perfect time for us to meet your wife,” she said. “I expect you to be here. No more excuses.”
I couldn’t miss Nan’s birthday, but I was still navigating how to handle the situation. I had yet to think of an appropriate excuse for my pretend wife not to attend.
How difficult would it be to fake her death? She had never existed in the first place, so no one would miss her. I discarded the notion, simply because I doubted I could conjure up enough tears to play the grieving husband.
I sighed. “We’ll be there.”
“Yes, you will,” she said as if it had never been a question. “I’ve decided it will be far more convenient to hold your wedding here in London two days after the birthday celebration. The family will all be in London and our friends will be in town as well. We’ll make the most of the rented tables and chairs. Your father has also reserved a tent for outdoor events. It will be no problem to transform the decorations into wedding décor.”
I sat up in bed. “Are you having a laugh?”
“Do I sound like I’m laughing? I will not take no for an answer,” she declared. “I’m tired of waiting to see my oldest son, the heir to the family legacy, married.”
“Mom, that’s not your decision.”
“It is,” she insisted. “We’ve waited two years. I will not wait another two. I’m beginning to feel like you’re hiding something from us. I would like to meet the woman my son married. The woman who will stand beside you as you take over the family business. You know how people are. This marriage needs to be a social event with all the proper formalities observed. British society demands nothing less.”
“You care too much about tradition,” I said.
“And you don’t care enough. I don’t dare tell people you had—what did you call it? A quickie wedding. That sounds worse than running off to Gretna Green.”
Gretna Green was where young couples in love used to run off to back in the UK. It was definitely classier than running off to Vegas and getting married by an Elvis impersonator.
“I’m sorry I’m such an embarrassment to the family,” he said sarcastically.
She continued like she hadn’t heard him. “I truly thought maybe the next heir was on the way and that was the reason for the rush.”
“No, Mother,” I said.
“Great! If your bride would like to reach out, we can discuss décor. I want this wedding to please her as much as it will please me.”
“That’s generous.” I snorted.
“Don’t get cranky,” she snapped. “If this had been proper the first time around, we wouldn’t need to do this.”
“Fine,” I said.
“Fabulous,” she said, and I heard her clap her hand against her thigh. I could picture her sitting in her office at the family estate with her pearls and perfectly pressed dress. “I can’t wait to see you. And her.”
We talked a few more minutes. Rather, she talked, and I listened. I loved my mother, but I was so not used to the British society anymore. I liked the freedom I had in New York. I liked being able to move about without setting off the tabloid headlines. She filled me in on the recent gossip and updated me about my brother and two sisters.
After hanging up, it was time to ask my guest to leave. The usual awkwardness ensued as I gently urged her to leave without offering breakfast. I wasn’t interested in spending the morning together. She knew what she was getting into when she pawed all over me last night at the club. She wanted the same thing I did. We both got it and now it was time to get on with the day.
With her gone, I climbed back up the stairs of the townhouse I shared with my friend, Chandler. I headed for the shower with a lot on my mind. I had lied to my family, and it was coming back to haunt me.
I had known it was only a matter of time before it did. Telling them I was married seemed like the easiest way to get them off my back about returning to London and marrying a woman from the “upper echelon” of British society. The idea sickened me.
I probably should have thought that lie through a little more. Now, I was in quite the conundrum. When I blurted out the lie two years ago, the consequences of said lie had never entered my mind. I was certainly scrambling to figure it out now.
I wasn’t sure how I thought it was going to work out. They would never forgive me if I got a “divorce.” I’d already given up on killing her off. That was too difficult and would be borrowing bad karma. Now I was stuck with the lie and the only way out was not going to end well for me.
I headed back downstairs in desperate need of coffee. My family would be horrified to know I drank coffee in the morning these days. My parents were traditionalists. They still had tea served with biscuits every day. And their friends were worse. They clung to outdated notions despite the world changing around them.
I was sipping the strong black coffee, bitter like my mood, when Chandler stumbled into the kitchen. He looked as bad as I felt. “What day is it?” he asked.
“Saturday,” I answered.
“Shit. I think I drank too much last night.”
“You think?” I asked with a snort.
“Didn’t I bring home a woman last night?” he asked with confusion.
“Nope. You bombed.”
“Asshole,” he muttered. “Why are you up so early?”
“Because I got a phone call from my mother,” I said.
“You answered it?” he questioned.
“I had to. It’s the fourth time she’s called. She would show up at the front door if I didn’t.”
“More about your grandmother’s party?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “And my wedding.”
He choked on the coffee he just started drinking. “Oh shit.”
“Yeah. Oh shit. They are not going to buy my excuses anymore. I have to either fess up or find a wife. Finding the right wife is impossible, so I’m stuck with confessing. I’ll probably be disowned.”
“What if I told you I could help you find a wife?” he offered.
“It’s not about finding a woman to be my wife,” I said. “It’s finding one that doesn’t actually want to be my wife. I don’t want to be married.”
“Yeah, I’ve got the answer,” he said with a lopsided grin.
“I don’t think my family will accept you as my wife,” I said dryly. “I appreciate the offer, but that isn’t going to happen.”
“Not me, asshole. I know an agency. They rent out dates.”
“A call girl?” I asked.
“A professional escort,” he corrected. “Rather, a professional date.”
“Yes, we call those prostitutes,” I said. “But that could work, assuming this agency has someone that might pass as a wife.”
He smirked. “I’m sure they do. I’ve used them a couple of times for various events. I’ve been very satisfied.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not interested in hiring someone for a quick lay. I’ve never paid for it and I never will. What I need is a wife with some polish. Some sophistication. My mom has a discerning eye. She would never let me marry a woman that, well, you know.”
“They don’t do that,” he said. “They are actually professional dates. They dress right, know what to say and how to act. No one will know they are paid to be with you.”
It sounded intriguing. “How come I’ve never heard of this place?”
“It’s not one of those things you advertise,” he said. “Guys don’t like to admit they have to pay to get a date.”
“I happen to know you don’t need to pay, so why are you paying women to go out with you?”
“I only pay women to accompany me when I have an event that requires a woman to be a good date without expecting too much,” he said. “A lot like you, I suppose. I’m not trying to settle down. I don’t want to give a woman the wrong impression by taking her to something meaningful. So, I hire a date. She knows what to say and do and she doesn’t expect me to ask her out again. She doesn’t expect flowers or a phone call. It’s really very convenient. No sex, no emotions. Just a nice night out.”
“Really?” I asked. “Why have I never heard of this?”
“You’ve never had a problem finding a date,” he said, shrugging.
“Neither have you.”
He shrugged. “My real dates usually aren’t the best conversationalists. Look, I’ll give you the number of the place, and you can decide if you want to call.”
“I don’t know.” I hesitated. “I don’t think I can get one of those past my mom. Plus, what if someone recognizes her?”
“These women are professionals,” he said. “No one is going to know. And if they do recognize your date or fake wife, do you actually think they are going to admit it?”
“Damn,” I said. “I can’t believe this is a thing.”
“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “There are background checks to make sure no one is a creeper or dangerous. The lady in charge asks what you want in a date and then picks the right woman for you. She does have a catalog of sorts you can look through as well. But generally, I trust her instincts.”
I laughed at the idea. “I can just rent a woman? Shit. Why have I not done this before? Do you think there will be one willing to pretend to be a wife?”
“I’m sure for the right amount of money, she’ll pretend to be anyone you want, for as long as you want,” he said. “Good thing you’re filthy rich.”
“Get me that number,” I said.