Professional grifter and modern-day Robin Hood, Cal Sherwood is looking for a partner for a long con. Sexy Fin, doing her best Marilyn Monroe act for her cause, has the necessary qualifications. By the time he cuts her free, her charity would be thriving, and she’d have helped him charm billions out of arrogant, gullible marks to fund his social justice causes.
But just when he thinks he’s about to pull off the best con ever, his feisty new partner gets the upper hand.
One Night Wife
by Ainslie Paton
Copyright © 2018 by Ainslie Paton. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Was she desperate enough to stand on a barstool in a crowded pub and ask for money? Finley Cartwright sipped her second Midori Sour and considered the state of her desperation and the amount of courage that was contained in a green cocktail.
She hadn’t meant to overspend on their new Dollars for Daughters website, or be the cause for her stressed business partner, Lenny Bradshaw, showing up for work that morning with her shirt on inside out.
Now they had to choose between paying for their gorgeous, new, electronic home or the rent on their pokey, made-of-old-bricks office.
The charity was supposed to be Fin’s way out of waitressing and sweating on her agent finding her a TV commercial or getting a callback after an audition for patient in coma or woman’s legs.
The seed funding for D4D had come from Lenny’s filthy rich, Wall Street dad, and they’d expected it to keep coming. Enough money to rent an office and start saving the world one microloan at a time.
It’d been a good plan until he was arrested and charged for insider trading, racketeering, and money laundering and sent to prison for a wicked long time.
So yeah, Fin was desperate and in need of courage, because Lenny’s family was melting down, and for once, her superbly well-organized best friend was all out of solutions.
She took in the talent in the crowded pub. It was wall-to-wall suits, people in good jobs who could afford to make a charitable donation.
The barstool option was looking good.
She toasted herself, “Here’s to nothing,” downed the last of the drink and climbed on the stool, yanked her T-shirt down and gave the room her biggest smile—the one that regularly failed to get her into a second-round audition—and with arms thrown wide, began.
“Ladies and gentlemen.”
There were catcalls of siddown you’re drunk and show us yer tits.
“A moment of your time.” She used her hands to signal for quiet. She knew what she looked like to her audience—an embarrassment of free entertainment—and she was just tipsy enough not to care. “I wonder if you fine, upstanding patrons of the Blarney would settle a bet for me?”
“Take your shirt off, and I’ll settle between your legs, darlin’.”
She popped her hip and weathered the bawdy laugher.
“I bet my good friend, Liam”—she pointed at the bartender—“I could get fifty of you to give twenty bucks to charity tonight. I told him you look like generous people with your good suits and your fancy lifestyle watches and your sharp haircuts. I told him you care that one in ten people survive on less than two dollars a day. But Liam told me you were a bunch of miserable, stuck-up bastards who wouldn’t put your hands in your pockets for your own destitute mother. Is he right?”
Cheers, jeers, but no one was turning away. She pulled the band from her hair and shook it out to make sure they paid attention. There were murmurs. They liked the hair.
“My charity makes small loans available to women in need, so they can raise their families and send their kids to school. It’s called microfinance, and your donation can help to change lives and make the word a better place.”
“Siddown before you fall down, babe.”
Heads were turning away. She was losing them.
“Please don’t destroy my faith in you. Pick up your cell phone.” She took hers from her pocket and held it up. “Google Dollars for Daughters. That’s my website.” The old clunky one. “You can donate there, get a tax-deduction, and change someone’s life.”
She repeated the details, waving her phone. But the noise level of the bar had risen, people going back to what they were doing before her commercial. “Whatever small change you can give makes a real difference.”
A few men had their cell phones out, a couple of women. Maybe, just maybe, this had been bold enough to work.
“Thank you. Thank you.” She went to her knee to slip her butt back on her stool and knocked her elbow against the man next to her.
“How do you think you did?” he asked.
The guy was one of the power suits, but he’d lost the tie and had a weary air about him. He had dark hair and blue, swimming-pool-lit-at-night eyes. They made it hard not to stare at him. He had a touch of a young Josh Hartnett or Sam Claflin about him. “Did you donate?”
He angled his phone her way. “Your site crashed.”
“Shit.” She could see a little wheel spinning, spinning. That had to mean it had been hit hard. “It wouldn’t be doing that if a lot of people hadn’t tried to donate.” She wouldn’t know how many donations she’d gotten until she checked the bank account.
“Was this little show really a bet?” power suit asked.
“More like a performance.” She felt a little high. The cocktails, the adrenaline; it’d been a long time since she’d performed for an audience of more than ten people. If this worked, she could come back tomorrow night and try the same thing with a different crowd.
“Which would make the rest of your business strategy a three-ring circus.”
Power suit. Entitled attitude. Too good looking. Nothing better to do than harass a woman on a Friday night. “Do you give to charity?”
“I do. Often and a lot.” Well sure, he was going to say that. “I admire your enthusiasm.”
Fin squinted at him. It was hard to tell if he was yanking her chain. “Maybe you could make an enthusiastic donation.”
He laughed. “I tried.” Shame about the way that made his pool eyes spark. “Your pitch needs work.”
“Everyone’s a critic.”
“Some of us are more qualified than others.”
What a jerk. “You’d be one of the qualified ones.”
“I make pitches for a living.” Power jerk held out a card. She hesitated. If she took it, she’d be obliged to talk to him. He put it on the bar and slid it towards her with one finger. It read, Caleb Sherwood, CEO, Sherwood Venture Capital.
“You’re not on our list.” Lenny had put together a list of venture cap and investment firms to target for donations, so they could expand quickly, and Fin had it memorized like a script. She put a finger on the card and moved it along the bar toward the edge until she could catch it in her other hand. “You should be on our list. Every big finance player in the city is on our list.”
“We’re a private, family company. We don’t do lists.”
She put the card in her pocket. “But you make big money, so now you’re on our list.”
“We don’t have barstools at Sherwood. You’re going to need to refine your pitch if you want to talk to us about a sizable donation.”
That was almost an invitation to pitch to a venture cap firm. A chance to replace the funding Lenny’s dad would’ve been providing if not for that orange jumpsuit. Fin’s tongue went to the roof of her mouth. Power jerk was someone she needed.
“That was…I just…wouldn’t normally… You were right. It was a just a silly bet.”
“You’re a terrible liar.”
“No, I’m careful what I say to strange men in pubs.”
He roared with laughter. “You’re the worst liar I’ve ever met.”
Power jerk dickhead. Power jerk dickhead she needed. Still, he was offensive. He’d called her a liar. “You can’t say that.”
“You just pitched the whole bar without checking on your website’s capacity, and that’s not anyone’s definition of careful. Plus, you were ready to fuck me off until you worked out I could be useful.”
“It might be an unusual approach, but it’s hardly reckless.” Also, language. They’d only just met.
“You have five minutes to pitch me.”
“What, now, here?”
The jerkwad made a big deal of looking at his fancy watch. “We don’t do lists.”
This was the Blarney, and it was loud; she wasn’t exactly sober. Caleb Sherwood was a beautiful, arrogant ass, but he’d invited her to pitch. She needed to fix what she’d screwed up by overspending on the website. It was not negotiable. She’d pitch.
“Do you have a daughter, Mr. Sherwood?”
He looked like a man who’d have a trophy wife and a couple of adorably awful kids. “You don’t?” He shook his head. “No, wife, no children?”
“Is your charity going to sell me a wife and child?”
“No. Gross. Why would you ask that?”
“Because a good pitch is about uncovering a need. I can only assume by your opening that you need me to have a family or you’re selling me one.”
Good point. Script note. He wasn’t married.
“Rewind.” She made a circular gesture with her hand. “Did you know that in the developing world if you improve the life of a woman, you improve the life of the whole family?” She held her flattened palm out towards him. “Pretend I’m showing you the research.”
“There’s no pretending in a pitch.” That would’ve sounded threatening if power jerk wasn’t smiling. It was unfair how a man could look so good and sound so tricksy at the same time.
“The research says that if you help a woman with a small loan, she’ll use it to advance the long-term needs of her family. She won’t drink it or gamble it away like men often do.”
He looked her straight in the face and said, “Thank you for your pitch.”
Shit. Probably shouldn’t have made the crack about men being irresponsible, but that’s what the research said, and she wasn’t finished with Caleb Sherwood. “That was my intro, and my time isn’t up.”
“This is a pitch, not a court case. I’ve given you as much time as I give any other entrepreneur who pitches me.”
“Do they all pitch you in a noisy pub when they’ve possibly had a glass too much?”
“They take whatever chance they get.”
And she’d blown hers. Now she really needed a drink. “Are you leaving?”
He sighed. “I’d rather hoped you were.”
He wanted to watch her slink off in defeat. No chance. She’d wait him out.
“My name is Finley Cartwright.” She probably should have told him that up front.
“Finley. You don’t get to call me Fin.” Fin was reserved for friends and anyone she’d met before being with her ex, Win Oxley-Prescott, a man who could wreck a girl with false promises and excellent restaurants.
“—had a tough couple of months and an appalling afternoon and you were momentarily entertaining, and I admire your spirit.” He rubbed his jaw. “But I want to be left alone to find peace in my beer glass.”
He said all that without looking at her, without taking any notice of her interruption. “No, you don’t.”
Now he looked at her, locked those blue beauties on her murky browns. “If I wanted someone to argue with, I could’ve stayed in the office where everyone hates me.”
If he was making a play for sympathy, he was hard out of luck. If he didn’t want her to keep pitching, he should leave. “Dollars for Daughters is a microloan charity.”
He peeked through his fingers at her, trying not to grin. “Oh God, you’re still here.”
“I’m tenacious.” Caleb Power-Jerk Sherwood didn’t need to know about all the times she’d given up too easily. Which was like, all the time.
“Go away, Fin.” He so didn’t mean that. His voice was all stifled amusement.
“It’s Finley. For every dollar committed, we can improve the life of a family living in distress, poverty, or danger.”
“If I give you a dollar, will you go away, Finley?”
“If you give me a thousand dollars, I’ll go away.” He straightened up, and studied her, making her stomach go tight. She’d overplayed that hand. “How about a hundred?”
“You have no idea how bad your pitch game is, do you?” He said that almost fondly.
“I’d be better if—”
“There’s no ‘if’ in pitching.”
She sighed. “Given the circumstances, I’m not that bad, am I?”
“You’re shockingly bad.”
“You’re only saying that to get rid of me.”
“I’m saying that because it’s true. You could’ve had me for five thousand, but you lacked the confidence to tough it out. You don’t know your audience. You don’t commit. You’re not careful, and you give tenacious a bad name.”
Wow. Where did he get off? “I listened to TED talks about persuasion, and I’m an actor. I can read an audience.” She took his card out of her pocket and put it back on the bar.
“Not well enough, and asking for money is the hardest pitch of all.”
“I made the whole bar listen.”
“You made the whole bar laugh, and I don’t think that was your ambition. My bet is your website was down before you even called it out.”
She put her finger on the card and moved it across the bar toward him. “Congratulations. You’re off the list.”
He moved it right back to the very edge in front of her, until it tipped off and she was forced to catch it. “I could help.”
Not if he was the last sexy ass, power jerk, venture cap pitch coach in hell. She dropped her feet to the floor. She was out of here.
She made it halfway to the exit before she saw him coming in—Win, with his arm around his shiny fiancée. What was he doing slumming it here? When they’d split, he got everything uptown, she got the Blarney. There was no avoiding him, because he’d seen her, and her legs weren’t working.
“Finley, how are you, starlet?” Win zoomed in for a cheek kiss, and there was his expensive scent, part spice, part old money. He looked his glossy, rat-faced, pretty-boy self. No trace of the lying, sneaking, coldhearted fraud. He had no shame. Any other man seeing his dumped, cheated on ex-girlfriend, whose stuff he’d never returned, would’ve hit the avoid button so fast it sucked him into another dimension. The new fiancée stood beside him looking as polished as ever, while Fin’s hair was all over her face.
“Are you here alone?” Win asked.
Yes, so alone, so very alone. “No,” she choked out.
Win looked over her head. “Lenore is here? I should say hello.”
Win had no clue how much she and Lenny hated him. You’d think he’d get that, but no, he couldn’t see how anyone could hold a grudge against him for longer than it took a parking meter to run out, and Win didn’t feed meters; he just paid the fines and sent someone else to get his car when it was towed.
“No,” she repeated.
Win’s eyes came back to hers. “You’re not seeing that barman, are you? Always thought he had a thing for you. You can do better, Finley.”
“Cal. Cal Sherwood.” She snuck a look over her shoulder. He was still at the bar.
Win scrunched his face. “Don’t know him.”
“Very private. Not on any lists.”
“Are you going to introduce us?”
Absolutely fucking not.
“Is she acting?” The shiny one pulled at Win’s arm like Fin was a zoo exhibit. Is that a wombat or a capybara? “You said she was an actor.” But he’d never have said she was fricking invisible.
“An aspiring one, aren’t you, Finley?”
She’d show him aspiring. She gave him her middle finger. Then, she wove her way back to the bar, checked Win was watching, tapped sexy ass, jerkwad Caleb Sherwood on the shoulder, and held her breath. He said he could help, but she didn’t know if he meant it. When he swung around, and his handsome face crinkled into a big, what-can-I-do-for-you smile, she threw her arms around his neck and said, “Roll with it.”
Right before she kissed him.
Ainslie Paton always wanted to write stories to make people smile, but the need to eat, accumulate books, and have bedclothes to read under was ever present. She sold out, and worked as a flack, a suit, and a creative, ghosting for business leaders, rabble-rousers and politicians, and making words happen for companies, governments, causes, conditions, high-profile CEOs, low-profile celebs, and the occasional misguided royal.
She still does that. She also writes for love, and so she can buy shoes, and the good cat food.