Meanwhile in another part of town ...
- What the hell of the answer no, you can't understand?
Her cousin Steffy gaped at him, Mark Robbins shook his head in annoyance. He did not have time for his organized meetings. He was sick of having to help her all the time, he had hers of his own business to run. From what he had seen this morning, Fitness Life appeared to be a well-oiled machine. However, her gyms were slowly losing money. He needed to understand why and what to do about it. But now she had to talk to the spinning instructor before starting her lesson. There were some complaints about too-loud music coming through the yoga room.
He left the office, but Steffy started following him through the gym like a puppy following the smell of bacon.
- Mark, please. I wouldn't ask you if she wasn't desperate.
Mark stopped to grab a pair of weights someone had left in the middle of the floor, and she slammed into her back.
- Damn it- she murmured.
When she turned around, Mark saw her adjust the green-rimmed glasses over her nose and had to suppress a smile. Her cousin was only twenty-five, but her dating agency, which started as a simple college project, had been quite successful and was turning into a profitable venture. Although, apparently not without some problems along the way. If not, she would not have come to ask for her help.
- That's not true- he replied, wagging a mocking finger in front of her face. Would you ask desperately or not. When did you need financial support, who did you come to? To me. When did you need to build the website, who did you come from? Back to me And when did you need ...
- Well- she snorted- Then she threw her hands in the air- Obviously, I ask you a lot of things, but I happen to be desperate now. I need you. So please ... help me. I beg you.
Mark looked around the gym and when he saw that spin class had already started, he sighed and then looked at her.
- It's okay. What kind of help are we talking about?
- I need you for a simple job as a chaperone. That is all.
Mark wasn't born yesterday. He could read lowercase clauses in a contract and also how to decipher his cousin's definition of the word “simple.”
— And how long does this so-called simple job last?
— Ah, that. Well- She bit her lip.
— Steffy- he warned- How long will this simple job take? Two hours? Three?
— Four and half days- she murmured coughing through her hand.
— Four and … a half days? It is for five days. Are you crazy? — He took a step back.
— I know it's a bit challenging. But Mark, please. The groom's family is doing it big for this … wedding.
— Marriage? That makes it a double no, and you know it.
Everyone, especially Steffy, knew he wasn't going to weddings. Never. He avoided them like the plague, along with cheap beer, country music, low-fat yogurt, and any movie that had “love” in the title.
— I'm sorry. Not. For me, weddings are a guarantee of failure. You will have to find another date. This time it won't be me.
— But … but I've already tried, and I need someone extremely attractive.
— Good job- He smiled.
— Not only that. Someone smart and… -She ran her fingers over his chest and shoulders- In perfect shape. This woman needs more than a chaperone. It's her sister's wedding, and family weddings are special. She can't bring anyone, she must be someone who can make her family believe that she is her boy. And what mother wouldn't want her daughter to date someone like you?
Mark crossed his arms, trying not to look amused. Once again you can stop flattering me, my answer is always no. Also, why the hell have you taken a job like that if you can't get it done?
— Hey, I'm perfectly capable of pulling it off. I am a professional. Roger was handsome and ready to work until … uh, the accident.
— Yes. An accident with a toaster- She wrinkled her nose. He and his girlfriend had a bad breakup over the weekend. Now that I think about it, maybe he should send some flowers. He is still in the hospital. Roger suffered second-degree burns — with reddened cheeks. His gaze traveled past his belt buckle, and when he returned. In the area of his jewelry, if you know what I mean.
Mark made a face. It must have been a terrible breakup.
— You don't have a boyfriend for this kind of emergency?
— Unfortunately not. Not yet. It takes time to build an escort base in addition to a client base. There are two conventions in Chicago these days and many women have needed our escorts to attend the various cocktails. I'm already using all the ones I have. Also, this client was quite specific in requesting him. Roger was the man who best fit his criteria. So now we are stuck.
— Correction. You're stuck- Mark arched an eyebrow.
— No, I mean we are. You have invested in this business as much as I have. Normally, I would have paid you back, but this could be a great deal. Marriage is a very profitable business. The bride will be the wife of Peter Lyons. That would allow me to advertise the agency on television when his team plays. Also, if you're happy with our service, you have no idea how many celebrities and potential high-end clientele we would have. We could make money. It will also be a profitable business for investors and if things start to take off, you will soon have the money you need to renovate your gyms and pay off the loan to the bank.
— I do not know…
— I will be able to return the money to you with interest, and then you will have enough for that program you want to start in this gym.
The mention of his idea of creating a children's center suddenly caught his attention. Ever since he graduated from college and opened his first gym, he has dreamed of starting such a program in his hometown of Freeport. He wanted it for high school athletes who needed more than physical training. He wanted a program in his gym that went deeper and served as a kind of character training for these young men. A place to go to get the support you did not receive in the family. Something he desperately wanted when he was little.
But now he needed money to restore the equipment and pay the debts that would soon be due. Until a few years ago Mark had the necessary funds for all this, but then her cousin approached him to ask for financial support for her dating agency and gave it to her. How could he not? Steffy was the only person who had been close to him after sustaining the injury that had cut short his college football career.
Not even his fiancée had stayed with him. And At that moment he had discovered who his true friends were.
And unfortunately, he realized that he didn't have many.
Steffy grabbed his arm and squeezed him.
— Mark, women love you, and you know it. I don't want to disappoint this woman. What if she reports me to Prisco?
— Who is she?
— Prisco is an association and dating agency. I don't want my name to end up on her blacklist. I have worked very hard, and I have a reputation to defend. Besides, I don't know, I like it. It looks …
— Beautiful?- Mark finished the sentence.
— Desperate. I want to help you.
Mark rolled his eyes. This was the summary of the entire disaster. Steffy wanted him to be the paid escort of a desperate woman and take her to a wedding.
Oh yeah, how she liked the idea.
Mark closed his eyes as if this could help muster all the strength he needed not to strangle his cousin. He took a deep breath and when he opened them again, he found her looking at him with big, hopeful eyes.
The words “I screwed you up” reflected on them, and she smiled as if she knew what her response would be before she even opened her mouth.
Devils. Of course, she would have said yes. He wouldn't have had the courage to disappoint her.
Also, as much as he hated the idea of pretending to be a crazy woman's boyfriend, he cared about the success of Steffy's agency.
— What is this woman's name?- She murmured.
Steffy squealed, jumping for joy, and then threw her arms around her neck.
— You're the best cousin of all- she said, hitting him on the cheek- Her name is Janet Campbell. She is about your age. Maybe a year or two younger. You will like her. She has a great personality.
Mark tried not to grimace, but when Steffy said “great personality” it usually meant “ugly” and most likely “allergic to the gym”. But her name seemed vaguely familiar. When he was the quarterback for the college's main team, he attracted more women than a sale at a designer clothing store. He probably in those days he had met a hundred Janet. When everyone loved him and thought he was a football god. Including his fiancée.
Then the bubble had burst with his running and he had finally laid a stone on both of them. He had become the owner of three successful gyms in Chicago and now appreciated the female company for what he was truly worth.
A temporary means to an end. A fun and fleeting medium that had a term and always made sure to have it.
No harm, no problem.
Steffy reached out and patted him on the cheek.
— Hey, I'm sorry it's a wedding. But maybe it's good for you. You know, it could be some kind of hangover remedy- he added with a shaky smile.
Hangover remedy. Uh. If so, you would have to get drunk continuously for the next few days. But if he was good at Steffy's business, he would finally get the money she so badly needed. He should just smile and dazzle this woman until her head spins. And she hoped it was the last time she had to help her cousin with her business.
— I'm a grown man I can handle a wedding. So when am I supposed to meet this desperate woman with a great personality?
— I'm glad you asked me- Her cousin dropped her hands and cleared her throat as if she had a cotton ball stuck inside her-of her- Now, don't be sensitive- she began.
— Sensitive? You are not allowed to call me or any other sensitive man. Plus the fact that you tell me not to become sensitive makes me… well, sensitive.
Steffy looked at his watch.
— It's okay. I just wish you weren't mad at me if I thought you'd finally accept the role of escort. She glanced over his shoulder and then swallowed again. It's just ... well ... your fake future girlfriend just walked in.