The Millionaire’s Wish

CHAPTER ONE

“How hard would it be to rob a bank?”

Allison Landry frowned at the financial statements covering her desk. One of her volunteers, who was also one of her best friends, had just come into the office with a letter in her hand.

“That bad, huh?” Rachel asked sympathetically.

“Or maybe we could pull off a jewel heist.”

“We could wear black leather catsuits,” Rachel suggested. “And hire a professional thief to help us. You know, like the guys in Ocean’s 11. Preferably a George Clooney lookalike. I’d also be willing to consider Brad Pitt.”

Allison’s mouth tipped up in a smile. “I’d go with Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but then I’m old-fashioned.”

Rachel laughed. “I’m liking this idea more and more.” She paused. “Okay, fill me in for real. What’s going on?”

Allison sighed, closing her eyes briefly as she ran both hands through her short brown hair. “It’s been a bad day. Kevin Buckley is in the hospital again—I heard from his parents this morning. And our financial outlook for the coming year is pretty grim. Donations have been down ever since the recession started, so we’re going to have to cut back on some of our existing services. And we’ll have to put the plans for Megan’s House on hold again—indefinitely, this time. It’ll be a struggle to keep some of our programs going at all, and it’s not the time to start something new.”

She felt the disappointment all over again as she spoke the reality out loud. For years she’d cherished the dream of building a retreat center for families dealing with childhood cancer. She’d hoped the dream was close to being realized, but the bleak financial picture in front of her said otherwise.

“It’ll happen someday,” she said now, half to Rachel and half to herself. She couldn’t let her determination be quenched. After all, this wasn’t the first time she’d had to face harsh realities. When you lost a sister to cancer—Megan had been just fourteen when she died—you also lost any illusion that life was fair.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel said, and Allison knew she really meant it. Still, her expression was more unhappy than the occasion warranted.

“Does the look on your face have something to do with that letter in your hand?”

Rachel nodded. “I hate to give you more bad news. It’s about Julie’s wish.”

Allison frowned. “But that’s the easiest one we’ve had in ages. She just wants to meet that software CEO—the man who designed that video game she likes so much. Rick Hunter, right? He lives right here in Des Moines. What’s the problem?”

Rachel shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “He turned us down.”

Allison just stared at her. “That’s ridiculous. He doesn’t even have to get on a plane. His company owns that big office building on Grand. He could walk to the hospital, for goodness’ sake.”

“He could, but he won’t. He sent us a donation instead.”

A donation. Of course.

Not that the money wasn’t welcome. As her financial statements clearly showed, they needed every donation they could get. But she was willing to bet this wasn’t the first time Rick Hunter, President and CEO of Hunter Systems, had pulled out his checkbook instead of volunteering his time.

And now he was trying to buy his way out of visiting a cancer patient.

“Let me see that,” Allison said, and Rachel handed it to her.

“must regretfully decline your request…busy professional…demands on my time…”

She crumpled the letter into a ball and threw it towards the waste basket. She missed by two feet. “Busy professional, he says. Can you believe that? We got the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers to visit one of our kids last year, and that was during football season!”

It had been a lousy day, and even though only part of her current frustration was really directed at Rick Hunter, he was her most convenient target at the moment.

Extremely convenient, in fact. As in a five minute drive from her office.

She shoved her chair back and rose to her feet.

“You look really pissed off,” Rachel said warily. “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?”

“That depends on your definition of crazy. I’m just going to have a little chat with—”

Rachel’s eyes widened. “You’re going to yell at him. You’re going to yell at Rick Hunter. Allison, you can’t do that!”

“I can’t, huh? Give me one good reason,” Allison said, turning off her computer and grabbing her purse.

Rachel was at her own desk now, rifling through file folders and stacks of papers. “He’s rich, for one thing. Like potential platinum donor rich. He designed the most popular video game in the world. He’s important.”

“Julie’s important, too.”

“Of course she is. I just think—got it!” she announced suddenly, holding up an issue of People magazine.

“What’s so exciting about that?”

Rachel opened the magazine to a two page profile—picture on the left and a short biography on the right.

“America’s Most Eligible Bachelors,” she said, as if that explained everything.

“I take it Rick Hunter made the list.”

“I’ll say. Allison, just look at him. You’ll have to agree there are better things to do with this man than yell at him.”

Allison rolled her eyes, but when Rachel brought the picture over she glanced at it to satisfy her.

Rick Hunter was on an unmade bed, leaning back on his elbows with a slight smile on his face, as if he found the person holding the camera mildly amusing. He was wearing a tuxedo, jacket off and tie loosened. That, along with the stubble on his jaw and the artfully tousled black hair, gave him an air of casual decadence, as if he’d recently enjoyed a very good time in that bed.

His eyes weren’t as casual as the rest of him. They were green, and the expression in them was reserved, even remote, but with a kind of intensity in their depths that probably had most women ready to fall at his feet. In spite of herself, she found herself looking into those eyes a shade longer than she meant to. When she realized it, she took the magazine from Rachel’s outstretched hand and tossed it back onto her desk.

“I admit he’s decorative,” she said. “So what? I hope you’re not saying I should be nice to Rick Hunter because you think he’s cute.”

“Puppies are cute. Kittens are cute. This man is gorgeous. I’m talking drop dead, stop the presses, melt your knees gorgeous.”

“You forgot to mention spoiled, selfish, arrogant—”

“I don’t think he’s like that,” Rachel objected. “Did you look at the article? He—”

“I’m not interested,” Allison said firmly. “He turned down a kid with cancer. There’s no possible for excuse for that, and I’m going to tell him so.”

Rachel grabbed her hand as she headed for the door. “You have to go home and change first.”

Allison glanced down at herself. She was wearing a typical outfit for a day when she had no meetings with hospital directors or wealthy philanthropists—jeans and a blue flannel shirt. Her feet were clad in an old pair of tennis shoes.

“I’m not going all the way back to my apartment to change clothes. Why, do you think his office has a dress code?”

“Very funny.” Rachel grabbed her purse and started looking through it. “At least let me put some makeup on you. Lipstick, mascara, something. Your face is all naked!”

“Sorry,” Allison said firmly. “This is going to be a come-as-you-are meeting.”

Rachel put her purse back on her desk. “There isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t primp before going to see Rick Hunter. You’re not normal, Allison.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“And yet, I still love you.” Rachel sighed. “Have fun storming the castle.”

* * *

Rick Hunter held the phone away from his ear as he typed one-handed, listening to his grandmother with half his attention while he focused on a complicated spreadsheet.

“—and it’s not that I’m prudish—I was a bit of a rebel in my time, I’ll have you know. Your grandfather could tell you stories. Well, he could if he were alive. But I do not appreciate half the people I know calling me to discuss this appalling magazine article, which refers to you as ‘The Playboy of the Midwest’, I might add.”

Rick winced. He’d only done that damn photo shoot because of his company’s upcoming annual charity event, a ball at the Grand Hotel to be followed by a bachelor auction. He wasn’t participating—he never did, despite his undeniable bachelor status—but the magazine, along with his marketing director, had convinced him it would be great publicity for the event if the company president was in the article.

“I didn’t write the copy, Gran. And I told you before—”

She spoke right over him. “I wouldn’t be so upset if it didn’t confirm what I always suspected. You have no intention of ever settling down, have you?”

He was correcting a complicated cell formula and missed the question. “What?”

“I said, you have no intention of ever settling down. The women you involve yourself with! The fluffy, brainless ones are bad enough, but the ruthless corporate types are even worse. I actually look forward to the straightforward gold-diggers you toss into the mix occasionally. Not one of the girls you’ve dated in the last five years has been someone I’d be proud to call my granddaughter. Not that I’ve had cause to worry, since you’ve never shown the slightest interest in committing to any of them.”

Rick sighed. “Okay, Gran, so you don’t like the women I date. But neither of us has to put up with them on a long term basis, so what’s your problem?”

“My problem is that my only grandson is still a bachelor! You don’t think I dream of the day you’ll settle down here with your wife and children?”

Here meant the Hunter estate, of course. The beautiful old mansion his great-great-grandfather had built in 1890. Not the house Rick had grown up in, but the only place he’d ever thought of as home. The only place he’d ever truly been happy.

“The fact is,” she went on, “I’ve been thinking things over. And I’m considering giving Hunter Hall to your second cousin.”

Rick’s hand froze over the keyboard. “What?”

“You heard me. Jeremiah and his wife are planning to have children, and they’d like to raise their family here. They’ve said so.”

Rick’s jaw tightened. “If Jeremiah’s shown any interest, it’s because of what the house might be worth on the open market. He and his wife don’t give a damn about the place. They’ll sell it, Gran.”

She sniffed. “That’s not what they’ve told me. And even if they thought that at one time, things change once you decide to have a family.”

She paused, and Rick thought about what it would mean to lose Hunter Hall. Maybe he’d never told Gran, but he loved it more than any place on earth.

“This house cries out for children. If I thought there was a chance you might change your ways…”

His grandmother had been hoping to marry him off for years. He, on the other hand, had never been interested in marriage. His own parents hadn’t exactly been a shining example of the institution, and he had no intention of repeating their mistakes. Better to stay clear of all that and focus on things you could actually control. Like work.

Even if work hadn’t been very satisfying lately.

Rick leaned back in his chair, staring at his computer screen. If work was getting stale it was his own fault, and was therefore something he could fix. He owned the damn company, after all.

A marriage, on the other hand, wasn’t something one person could control. Two hearts, two minds, two egos—and way too much risk. Date for fun, that was his motto—and when the fun started to fade, end things quick and clean, before either party had too much invested. And yes, that meant that he tended to date women he wasn’t likely to fall for.

“I just want to see you happy, Richard.”

“I am happy.” Or content, anyway. He’d never expected happiness. His life was going according to plan, and he had no desire to make any changes. The only thing he wanted that he didn’t already have was Hunter Hall.

“Won’t you at least think about what I’ve said? It wouldn’t kill you to date a woman of character for once.”

Rick smiled at the old-fashioned phrase. “And what would a ‘woman of character’ want with me?” He’d meant it as a joke, but his voice sounded a little bitter in his own ears.

His grandmother sighed. “If you don’t know the answer already, it won’t do any good to tell you. I’m sorry about Hunter Hall, dear, but I need to believe that this house will echo with the voices of children someday.”

Rick looked at the opposite wall, where the original advertisement for Magician’s Labyrinth hung in a mahogany frame. He’d modeled the magician’s house after Hunter Hall, and the image had been part of the game’s cover art ever since.

“It’s your house, Gran. You can do whatever you want with it.”

“I just wish you’d consider—”

“Yeah. I have to get back to work, okay? I’ll talk to you soon.”

But he didn’t get back to work. He leaned back in his chair, frowning at his spreadsheet without really seeing it.

Maybe this was for the best. Wanting something you couldn’t achieve through your own efforts was a weakness, and Rick had never tolerated weakness.

His paperweight was a replica of the magician’s house carved out of stone, a gift from his gaming programmers a few years ago. He picked it up now, feeling the smooth, compact weight of it in his palm. The thought of losing Hunter Hall made something clench inside him, as if his internal organs were being put through a wringer. His grip tightened. The peaks of the roof cut into his skin, and he knew this one childhood dream still had a hold on him.

His private line lit up. He set the paperweight back down on his desk and put his assistant on speaker. “What is it, Carol?”

“I’m sending a woman in to see you.” She sounded irritated, but then she always did. After six years, he still wasn’t sure if the irritation was for the world in general or him in particular.

He frowned. “You know I’m preparing for the product review tomorrow. Who is it you want to send in?”

“Someone from that foundation. The one that runs the Wish Upon a Star program.”

He felt a twinge of guilt. That girl—Jenny or Julie or something. She was undergoing cancer treatment, and she wanted to meet him. Her request had come in a letter from a nonprofit agency, explaining who they were and what they did, and asking if they could arrange a hospital visit on the girl’s behalf.

“I told you to decline their request and send them a check.”

“Which I did, mon capitaine. But someone has come in person to speak with you about the matter. A Ms. Allison Landry.”

“Ms. Landry is out of luck. Send her on her way.”

“No.”

His eyebrows drew together. “What do you mean, no?”

“Look, boss. There may be assistants out there who could turn away a righteous woman trying to help a girl with cancer, but I am not one of them. I’m sending Ms. Landry in.”

Rick felt another twinge of guilt, but he refused to give into it. He had no desire to visit a cancer ward and his reasons were no one’s business. And he’d had it up to here with righteous women today, between his grandmother and Carol and now this latest interruption.

He pictured her as a woman with iron gray hair and an iron gray demeanor, and the thought of her invading his inner sanctum and scowling at him in disapproval was too damn irritating to deal with.

“I’m in a bad mood. If she comes in here I’ll just snarl at her.”

Carol snorted. “This one can take it. She’ll snarl right back.”

Definitely iron gray.

Rick sighed. “Fine. Go ahead and send her in.”

Copyright © 2011 by Abigail Strom. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.