The Marriage Mandate

Book Two in Dynasties: Tech Tycoons

Will her family’s worst enemy make the best fake fiancé? Find out in this new Dynasties: Tech Tycoons novel by New York Times bestselling author Shannon McKenna.

“I have a wild idea…

I just need your help.”

Tech heiress Maddie Moss must marry or lose the family company. So she chooses the last man her controlling grandmother will accept—Jack Daly. Her brother’s ex–business partner is a thief, a traitor and—most importantly—guaranteed to force Gran to relent. But Jack is also impossibly hot. And he’ll only play along on one specific condition, which has Maddie questioning everything she thought she knew about Jack…even before she lands in his bed!

From Harlequin Desire: A luxurious world of bold encounters and sizzling chemistry.

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Chapter One

“Take heart, girlfriend.” Geri, one of Maddie Moss’s good friends, lifted her mojito and clicked her glass with Maddie’s. “You’re in the perfect place. Trix and Terrence’s wedding extravaganza is just the place for supercharged man hunting. You’ll be matched up in no time.”

“I’m not in the mood for man hunting,” Maddie Moss said rebelliously as she frowned out at the cocktail gathering, one of the many events that were crowded into her good friend Trix’s blow-out wedding weekend. “It’s crass and undignified and desperate, and it’s not who I am.”

“Too bad for you, hon,” Geri said, not without sympathy. “You don’t have much of a choice, right? And shopping really can be fun. Look around yourself. What about Aston or Gabe or Richie or Herschel or Sam or Bruce?”

Maddie looked at each of the men that her friend had nominated in turn, sipped her margarita and shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “They won’t do.”

Geri rolled her eyes impatiently. “For a woman under constraint, you’re very persnickety. Your grandma said that the rule was, married by your thirtieth birthday, which is in a couple of months. And not just engaged, but full-on married. Am I right? Weddings take time to plan, and you still don’t have a groom. Tick tock, tick tock.”

“Believe me, I’m hyperaware of my timeline,” Maddie muttered. “And of the penalties for missing it.”

“Oh, stop complaining. This wedding is a veritable eligible bachelor buffet. And just as a backup, next week you’ve also got Ava Maddox’s wedding to attend. So if you don’t get lucky here, you get another shot there. I mean, just look at them, arrayed before you in all their glory, peacock tails spread out. Aston’s very smart, and he’s going to inherit Hollis Breweries. And Gabe has great abs. Didn’t you see them at the beach, earlier today?”

“Couldn’t have missed them if I wanted to,” Maddie said. “Gabe makes sure that everyone sees his abs.”

“Not a single one of them is bad looking,” Geri persisted. “And some are pretty handsome. Sam’s good-looking, so are Aston and Richie. Bruce is an up-and-coming DA. Herschel just got hired as chief operating officer at some new electronics company. It’s not a bad lineup, Maddie. Keep your mind open, okay?”

“I know these guys too well, Geri. Aston is an arrogant asshat. I had dinner with him once, and he yelled into his phone for the entire meal. Sam can’t talk about anything but sports. Richie mansplains math theory to me whenever we talk—”

“Oh, God forbid,” Geri murmured. “Math theory? To the math goddess herself? Hasn’t he been warned?”

“Apparently not,” Maddie said. “Herschel is afraid of me, which gets boring really fast. Gabe is like an overexcited Labrador puppy, plus, he can’t seem to keep his shirt buttoned over his six-pack.”

“That leaves Bruce,” Geri encouraged. “He’s aggressive, ambitious. A go-getter.”

“Yeah, he definitely goes out and gets a whole lot of everything,” Maddie said dryly. “Hilary dumped him four months ago because he gave her chlamydia.”

Geri sighed and took a sip of her drink. “Well, damn, girl. Nobody’s perfect.” Her eyes sharpened, focusing over Maddie’s shoulder. “Wait. I take that back.” Her voice had lowered to an awestruck whisper. “I just saw perfection in human form. One of Terrence’s out-of-town groomsmen who couldn’t make it to the rehearsal dinner last night. I spotted him when he got out of his cab from the airport. Trix said he was one of Terrence’s old friends, some science genius who lives abroad. He has an amazing ass, among his many other magnificent attributes. Lord save us.”

Maddie turned to look, her curiosity piqued.

She froze as pure panic made her whole body vibrate like a plucked string. Her mind went blank.

Jack Daly? He was one of Terrence’s groomsmen? And he was going to be in the wedding party, along with her? Oh, dear God.

It hardly seemed possible, but after nine years, the man was even more gorgeous than she remembered. He looked tougher. He was casually dressed, in loose tan pants and a white linen shirt, open at the throat, showing a sliver of deeply tanned chest. He had a tall, rangy body. Broad shoulders, long legs, huge hands, a square jaw. She’d always loved his hooked nose. Intense, deep-set dark brown eyes under a heavy slash of dark eyebrows. He was more heavily muscled than she remembered, his face harder.

Maddie whipped her head back around as Jack’s gaze flicked toward her.

Geri looked puzzled. “You okay? Your face looks flushed. Is it the hottie? He certainly made my temperature spike. Whew! Be still, my heart.”

“I know that guy,” she admitted.

“Omigod, really?” Geri’s eyes sparkled. “Will you introduce me?”

“No! Absolutely no, Geri. He’s bad news. The absolute worst. Total nightmare. Put him out of your mind and lock the door.”

Geri’s very red lips fell open for a moment. Then she leaned forward across the table, bright-eyed. “Yum. Scandal, eh? Tell me everything!”

“It’s not like that, Geri,” Maddie said. “It’s not fun, hot, juicy scandal. It’s sad, awful, stupid scandal. No fun at all.”

“Well, I’m still curious,” Geri prodded. “Come on. Deliver the goods.”

Maddie blew out a frustrated breath, her heart still thumping far too fast. “Fine, if you must know. You know my brother Caleb, of course.”

“Of course. Every straight woman with a pulse knows your brother Caleb,” Geri said. “We’re all devastated that he’s been taken off the market. What about him?”

“Caleb and Jack Daly were best friends, back in high school,” Maddie said. “They were also roommates at Stanford. After college, they launched a start-up together, called BioSpark. Enzymatic recycling. They grew microbes that produced enzymes that could digest and break down plastic waste at accelerated rates in landfills and the ocean. They’d developed this product, Carbon Clean. Everyone was excited about it. They were just about to go public, and make a real killing.”

Geri made an appreciative sound in her throat. “Mmm. So Jack Daly has a brain behind that pretty face, too? It hardly seems fair.”

“It’s not funny, Geri,” Maddie said sharply. “He screwed my brother over. Caleb can’t definitively prove that Jack leaked the research to Energen, one of their competitors, but the evidence all points to it. And it’s a proven fact that Jack secretly invested seven hundred thousand dollars in Energen stock right before Energen went public, days before BioSpark’s IPO. Word got out, and BioSpark’s IPO tanked. And Jack went to jail.”

“Oh,” Geri murmured, crestfallen. “Bummer. What a waste of a delicious man.”

“He got out on a technicality six months later, which drove Caleb absolutely crazy,” Maddie went on. “But that’s who we’re dealing with, Geri. A lying, cheating, backstabbing criminal. Leave that guy alone.”

“Hmm.” Geri studied Jack, eyes bright with speculation. “Strange. Wouldn’t he have made more money eventually if he’d just stayed the course with his own company?”

“We all certainly thought so, sure, but who knows how his twisted reasoning went,” Maddie said. “Of course, he told everyone he’d been set up, blah-blah-blah, but the evidence against him was overwhelming.”

“Strange,” Geri murmured again.

Maddie steeled herself not to look. “Please stop staring at him, Ger. You’ll draw his attention to us.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Physiologically, I simply can’t. So why would he do it?”

“I doubt we’ll ever know. Caleb and Gran figured he must have been jealous.”

“Of what? Didn’t they open their company together, as equal partners? And equally handsome, too. What stunning foils for each other they must have been. Mmm.”

“Jealous of our family background,” Maddie explained. “Our upbringing. I mean, I never knew my parents, and Caleb and Marcus just barely remember our mom, but Gran and Grandpa Bertram were always there for us. We had everything we needed in life to do well, and Jack just…didn’t. His dad was killed in a work accident when Jack was just a teenager, and he ended up in foster care. So it was pretty miraculous that he did so well in school. Great grades, great test scores, full ride at Stanford, et cetera, et cetera. But evidently all that trauma left its mark. Some stuff only comes out over time, under pressure.”

Geri’s eyes went big and soft as she sucked up her drink with her straw, rattling the ice cubes. “Aw,” she murmured, “that’s so sad.”

“Don’t you dare feel sorry for him!” Maddie hissed. “He messed up my big brother! It really cut Caleb to the heart. He was never the same afterward.”

“I’m sorry for Caleb, too, but damn, how can I help feeling sorry for Jack? It’s your own fault, Mads. The way you told the story tugged my heartstrings.”

“Well, pull your heartstrings loose because you’re not getting anywhere near Jack Daly, if I have anything to say about it.”

Geri rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Mads. Agreed, he was a bad boy. Agreed, he did a bad thing. But it was nine years ago, right? He paid his debt to society. And he’s a total dreamboat. And he must be scary smart, to go into business with a Moss.”

“Sure, he’s smart. Genius level. Didn’t do him much good, did it?”

Geri rested her chin on her clasped hands, studying her friend with interest. “My, my,” she said thoughtfully. “So passionate. It’s refreshing, after seeing you mope around for months since this marriage mandate nonsense popped up. You have color in your cheeks. Your eyes are sparkling. Intriguing, Mads.”

Her tone got Maddie’s back up. Geri just refused to grasp the gravity of Jack Daly’s crimes. “Do you blame me for being passionate about this?” she demanded.

“Not at all,” Geri soothed. “But you’ll be standing up at the altar with this guy at the wedding, if he’s Terrence’s groomsman. The wedding pictures will have you guys together, plastered all over social media. Awkward.”

“Caleb will go ballistic,” Maddie said grimly. “He’d rip Jack’s head off if he ever saw him. Gran, too. Elegantly, of course, but he’d still end up headless.”

“Really.” Geri’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Honey. I sense an opportunity here.”

“How so? I see a big, messy problem.”

“Consider this,” Geri said. “You need a raw force of nature, powerful enough to push back against your grandma. Could Jack Daly be that force?”

Maddie’s body tightened up at Geri’s vague, oblique suggestion and its dangerous implications. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“I don’t know yet,” Geri said. “I’m just feeling my way. But you seem to be stuck, Mads. Maybe, somehow, the powerful emotions elicited by this Jack Daly could be useful to you somehow. I’m just throwing it out there, you know? Chew on it.”

“I am bewildered, babe,” Maddie told her.

“I get that a lot,” Geri said serenely. “In any case, it could be entertaining. I mean, he’s gorgeous. Why not bop him around a little?”

“Because he has no conscience? Because he screwed my brother over?”

“I never said you had to marry him, Mads, or even let him near the good silver. You could just use him for your own wicked, selfish purposes. Pretend to get involved with him. Scare your grandma to death with him. God knows, she deserves it, for jerking you around like this.”

“Are you actually suggesting that I…holy crap. You’re joking.”

“Of course I am, honey,” Geri said lightly. “But there’s a little bit of truth in every joke. And be straight with me. When Caleb brought that stunning Adonis home for Sunday dinners and spring breaks and summer barbecues—you thought about it.” Geri read Maddie’s face and nodded sagely. “C’mon. You looked covetously upon his male beauty. Fess up.”

“Well, yes,” Maddie said defensively. “Of course I crushed on him. But he never even noticed me. I was just the geeky little sister with the braces and the glasses and the bad hair.”

Geri gave Maddie an assessing look, and made a low, purring sound of approval in her throat. “Well, not anymore, hmm? You’re all grown-up, and smokin’ hot. I love that blue halter dress. Does great things for the girls. Not that they need any help.”

“Thanks,” Maddie said graciously. “The girls thank you, too. And you’re looking pretty fine yourself, in that little yellow number. Nice choice.”

Geri preened, adjusting her blond curls. “I try,” she said demurely. “Just let me know if you decide to make that guy a part of your strategy to wiggle out of your Gran’s mandate. Because if he’s not otherwise engaged, I just might take him for a whirl this weekend myself.”

“Don’t!” Maddie burst out. “Promise me you won’t, Geri.”

Geri blinked innocently. “Wow. The emotional intensity just gives me chills.”

“Not at all,” Maddie said, her voice grimly controlled. “But that guy is toxic. He would be toxic for you, too. So please. Don’t.”

“Ah, sweet, sweet poison.” Geri leaned her chin on her hand and gazed longingly across the room toward Jack Daly. “Maybe just a little, bitty taste?”

Unable to resist any longer, Maddie dared a quick peek of her own. Jack was at the bar, talking to Terrence, the future bridegroom. He took a pull off his beer, and then glanced out around the room. Their eyes met, and she whipped her gaze away, but not before a shudder of physical awareness had jolted her whole body.

And Geri’s sharp blue eyes saw it all. “Well, get out there and mingle,” she said. “I’ll give you some time to ponder this indecent suggestion, and then, I start making some indecent suggestions of my own. Because life is short—but I am betting that guy is not.”

Maddie flushed again. “Geri! Did you hear nothing that I said?”

“Wow, honey. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were almost possessive.”

“Geri, please stop it,” Maddie said through her teeth.

Geri’s lips twitched. “Okay, I’ll be good,” she soothed. “Don’t worry about me. Go on. Get out there, Mads. You’ve got a husband to find. Happy hunting.”

Maddie tried to stop it, but her eyes kept being drawn back to Jack Daly.

He was a liar. A thief. A traitor to his friends. She had to repeat that litany of his deadly sins to herself, over and over again.

Until it finally took.

* * * * *

Jack couldn’t figure the mystery woman out. She was a jaw-dropping bombshell. Ice-blue halter dress, luscious curves, pale brown skin, a crown of wild black ringlets, fabulous lips. One of prettiest women he’s ever seen. Something about her was familiar, but no way could he forget a face like that. Lips like that, painted with a plum-colored gloss. Just a glance made him break out in a sweat.

She wouldn’t look at him. Unlike the sultry blonde at the table with her, who had stared fixedly. Then again, a woman as pretty as the one in the blue dress would have trained herself to avoid eye contact, like a waiter in a busy restaurant. He’d been a waiter, so he knew good and well that the only way through a bustling dining room was to keep eyes strictly forward.

She looked his way for a split second—and then whipped her gaze away as a bolt of horrified recognition zinged through him.

Oh, yeah. He knew that girl. That was Maddie Moss. Caleb Moss’s little sister.

She looked completely different than he remembered. Sure, she’d been cute, back in the day, but he and Caleb had been distracted with their big plans, and busy with their high-energy lives, and they had largely ignored her when they came across her. Little Mads, with the metal-mouth and the glasses, all knees and elbows and smart remarks.

Well, goddamn. She was a stunner now.

“Everything okay, man?” Terrence, the bridegroom-to-be, waved his hand in front of Jack’s face. “Did you see a ghost?”

“No. The bombshell in the light blue dress,” Jack told him.

“Whoo, yeah.” Terrence whistled appreciatively. “Good taste. Trix had to really struggle to decide if she wanted to have a bridesmaid that good-looking. The bride doesn’t want to get shown up by her bridesmaids, you know? But she liked Maddie so much, she decided it was worth it. She’s definitely the hottest in the pack. Want me to pull strings to get her next to you in the procession? And at the reception? I could swing that.”

“She’s one of Trix’s bridesmaids?” Jack’s voice cracked with horror.

Terrence’s eyes narrowed. “Uh…and this is so terrible why, exactly? I thought you’d be psyched. I mean, look at her. Who can object to that?”

“You remember my troubles nine years ago with Caleb Moss?”

“Sure,” Terrence said. “But I also know that you’re innocent, and so does everyone else with half a brain. What about it?”

“I appreciate your vote of confidence,” Jack said, meaning it with all his heart. “But Maddie Moss is Caleb’s sister.”

Terrence’s eyes widened with shock. “Oh, shit!” He turned to look in Maddie’s direction. “But she doesn’t look like she could be Caleb’s sister. She’s biracial, right? Is she, what, adopted, or something?”

“No. Different dads. Their brother Marcus has a different dad, too. Asian. But they’re all Mosses. And they all collectively hate my guts.”

“Damn, Jack. That totally sucks. I’m really sorry we did this to you. Do you think that she’ll make a thing of it? That it’ll be a problem?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” Jack said. “I haven’t seen her for nine years, and back then, she was just a kid, so that’s a big question mark. She definitely recognized me. She’s ignoring me now.” Jack stared out into the crowd. “The smart thing would be for me to pull out of the wedding party. Ask someone else to be your fourth groomsman, and I’ll revert to being a normal guest, ready to scram if things get complicated.”

“Hell, no.” Terrence’s voice was sharp. “I let Trix have her way about every detail of this wedding, but I’ll be damned if you won’t stand up with me when I take my vows. You’re the only reason I got through college, man. What happened with BioSpark was a disgrace. If the Moss chick gets her back up, she can be the one to scram. Not you.”

“Don’t get mad at her for something she hasn’t done yet,” Jack soothed.

Terrence tossed back the last swallow of beer. “Trix is signaling me. Time to mobilize for the bonfire cookout on the beach. You’ll be there?”

“I’ll be there,” Jack assured him. “Sorry I couldn’t make the rehearsal dinner last night. Hey, your lady beckons. Don’t make her wait.”

Terrence headed straight for Trix, a skinny redhead with a toothy smile. She was a nervous wreck, but she was a bubbly, happy nervous wreck, and Terrence doted on her.

Terrence was a great guy. Jack was deeply grateful for that small but precious handful of old friends who had stuck by him after the BioSpark disaster. He’d had an impossible time finding work in his field after that. No one wanted to hire a person who had been accused of passing intellectual property to a competitor, or betting against his own team.

He’d only started to find work in biotechnology a few years ago, thanks to the influence of some friends who had contacts in overseas companies. In the past four years, he’d worked in Asia, Hungary and South Africa. He’d been very glad to leave the long string of random jobs and work in biotechnology again, even at a lower level, with smaller budgets. He’d learned to content himself. To be grateful. Things could be so much worse.

He glanced at the table where Maddie Moss had been sitting with her blonde friend. She had slipped away, avoiding eye contact except for that one electric moment that still reverberated inside him.

It was probably no big deal. She would probably just avoid him. Pretend he didn’t exist. That would be the smart thing, and Maddie had the Moss smarts.

So he would do the same. Damn. Terrence had no clue about Maddie, but Trix did, and she should have known better. This weekend was going to be tense and awkward.

Boo-hoo, poor you. It sounded like Dad’s gruff voice in his head. You know what’s tense and awkward, boy? A jail cell. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

So his life had gotten derailed. At least he had a life, and he was free to live it. He wasn’t rotting behind bars.

Therefore, no whining allowed. Even if his efforts to work again in his chosen field fell through, he’d still be fine. He’d live. It was good to be alive.

No more dark thoughts, or else he’d turn into a black hole and suck all the air and the energy out of Trix and Terrence’s party.

But it hurt to be reminded that his best friend, as well as that man’s entire family, saw him as a ruthless predator. And that he was unable to prove his innocence to them.

That made him so frustrated, he wanted to explode.

End of Excerpt