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**The Marriage Bargain ranked #6 on Amazon’s Best Books of 2012!**
THE MARRIAGE BARGAIN
Book 1 of the Marriage to a Billionaire series
A marriage in name only…
To save her family home, impulsive bookstore owner, Alexa Maria McKenzie, casts a love spell. But she never planned on conjuring up her best friend’s older brother—the powerful man who once shattered her heart.
Billionaire Nicholas Ryan doesn’t believe in marriage, but in order to inherit his father’s corporation, he needs a wife and needs one fast. When he discovers his sister’s childhood friend is in dire financial straits, he’s offers Alexa a bold proposition.
A marriage in name only with certain rules: Avoid entanglement. Keep things all business. Do not fall in love. The arrangement is only for a year so the rules shouldn’t be that hard to follow, right?
#1 Bestseller on Barnes and Noble for Romance and All Books!
Reviews for The Marriage Bargain
“Jennifer Probst pens a charming, romantic tale destined to steal your heart” – NYT Bestselling Author Lori Wilde
“A passion that is explosive as the love that unfolds is tender, a beautiful happily ever after that encompasses everything; Jennifer Probst delivers a fiery and wild romance that goes straight to your heart.” – Maldivian Book Reviewers – 5 stars
“A charming, fast-paced story full of non-stop sexual tension that crackles off the page. The Marriage Bargain will hook you and leave you begging for more!” – Laura Kaye, Author of Hearts in Darkness
“Absolutely amazing! I was hooked from the beginning and couldn’t put it down.” - Kris, Bitten By Paranormal Romance
“THE MARRIAGE BARGAIN is one of the cutest stories I have read in a while. The story is highly amusing and kept me chuckling throughout when I wasn’t mopping the tears away.” – Kay Quintin, Fresh Fiction
“Wow, this was so, so good! The relationship between Nick and Alexa’s is so intense, I just wanted to keep on reading and found myself so disappointed when I finished!” – Donna, Book Passion for Life – 5 stars
Thirteen years ago…
“Ready or not, here I come!”
Alexa tore her hands away from her eyes and spun around. The woods shimmered with an eerie silence, but she sensed her friends close by. Without hesitation she ran, her sneakers pounding over the brush and sticks as she whizzed in and out of the large pine trees. Her ears pricked as she caught the tail end of a giggle.
She headed toward the sound, but the echo threw her off and all she managed to surprise was a squirrel with a large nut. The cool shade lured her deeper. One quick check in Maggie’s usual hiding spot only revealed a pile of leaves. Alexa slowed her pace and almost decided to turn when she heard a voice.
“A little old for hide and seek, aren’t you?”
Alexa pivoted on her sneaker and glared at her best friend’s older brother. “It’s fun.” She dismissed him with a haughty sniff. They used to be close, until he suddenly woke up one day and decided she wasn’t worth his time. He never talked to her, or snuck into her house for chocolate chip cookies, or told her raunchy jokes any longer. Seems only the older, silly, busty girls snagged his attention now. Who cared? She refused to follow him around like a little kid. “Anyway, you wouldn’t understand. You never want to hang with us. What are you doing out here alone?”
He got up from the ground and walked toward her. Nick Ryan was sixteen years old and a pain in the butt. He made fun of everything she did, and pretended he had the right to play God just because he was two years older.
He stood on long, muscled legs. His hair curled around the top of his ears and over his forehead, and was an intriguing mix of colors, from pale brown to gold. Like her Chex cereal, Alexa thought. A combination of rice, wheat and corn. His face was all lean, angular curves, set off by a sulky lower lip that always intrigued her. Light brown eyes gleamed with intelligence and a hint of pain. Alexa knew what pain felt like. That was the only quality she related to. Nick Ryan was a rich kid who kept to himself and seemed to have no friends. She always wondered how his sister, Maggie, had turned out so social.
“You should be careful in the woods, brat. You could get lost.”
“I know my way around better than you.”
He gave a dismissive shrug. “Probably do. You should have been a boy.”
Her temper spiked. She clenched her fists at her sides and tossed her ponytail. “And you should have been a girl. Everyone knows you don’t like to get your hands dirty, pretty boy.”
Direct hit. He actually looked annoyed. “You should learn to act like a real girl.”
“Make-up. Looking pretty. Kissing boys.”
She’d never spend her precious pennies on lipgloss. It was hard enough to afford anything new, let alone make-up or perfume. Alexa made a gagging sound. “Gross.”
“Bet you never kissed anyone before.”
She heard the taunting tone in his voice. At fourteen, most of her girlfriends had already had their first kisses—Maggie included—but the thought always made her stomach turn. She’d rather die than admit it to Nick. “Yes, I have.”
“None of your beeswax. I’m outta here.”
“I dare you.”
Her sneaker stopped mid-flight. A sharp bird call cut through the air, and Alexa felt like she’d hit a turning point. She stuck out her chin. “Dare me to what?”
“Show me you can kiss.”
Her stomach slid and her heartbeat thundered and her palms sweat. She made a face. “With you?”
“I knew it.”
“Why would I want to kiss you? I hate you!”
“Okay, forget it. I just wanted to see if you were a real girl. Now I know you’re not.”
His words sliced through her. All the doubt and uncertainty bubbled up inside and confirmed she was different. Why wasn’t she like Maggie? Why did she prefer painting and reading and animals to boys? Maybe Nick was right and she was deficient. Maybe…He started to walk away.
He stood with his back toward her for a few moments, as if considering her plea. Slowly, he turned around.“What?”
She forced herself to close the distance and stopped in front of him. Her legs shook. Her body felt funny. Almost like she was going to throw up. “I know how to kiss. And I’ll…I’ll show you.”
“Fine. Go ahead.” He cocked his hip in an arrogant stance like he did this every day and was already getting bored.
Drawing on her knowledge from the movies, she leaned forward. I will not screw this up. Relax my lips. Deep breath. Angle my head more to the side so we don’t bump noses. God, what if I hit his chin and make him bleed? No, don’t think about that. Kissing is a piece of cake.
No big deal. No big deal. No big deal…
His breath was light and warm as it rushed over her lips. She arched her neck upward and paused. Then his lips touched hers. She barely felt the brush but an array of sensations passed over her. The touch of his fingers over her shoulders. The gentle pressure of his mouth. The earthy scent of the woods mixed with a teasing hint of cologne.
In those few moments, he’d given her a rare gift. Her heart burst open and a strange elation soared through her veins. Her first real kiss. How long had she dreaded and feared the experience, horribly afraid she’d hate boys and kissing and not be normal? She knew then she was a mature girl and would never question that part of herself again.
He slowly pulled away and her eyes drifted open. Their gazes met and locked. Her emotions poured through her in roaring, choppy waves, like she was zooming down the log ride at Great Adventure, and hung on with fear and excitement. She held her breath and waited.
An odd expression crossed his face. He studied her as if he’d never seen her before. For one glorious moment, she glimpsed something deep within his golden brown eyes—a shred of vulnerability he never shared. His lips curved in a hint of a smile. She smiled back. Felt safe. Knew he wouldn’t make fun of her or ignore her any longer. Things changed. What she denied and protested for so long suddenly popped out of her mouth without thought of consequence.
“I’m going to marry you one day.”
She never questioned his response, confident in their friendship and their kiss. She trusted him with a bone deep knowledge. Alexa waited for his smile to grow larger, waited for his agreement, waited for their entire relationship to finally change after that one perfect kiss.
A shutter slammed over his face and the boy she kissed seemed to disappear.
Then Nick laughed.
She blinked, not understanding his reaction, but when her gaze once again met his, coldness seeped into her chest.
“Marry? Oh, that’s a good one, Al. When I get married it’ll be to a real woman. Not a child.” He shook his head in sheer mockery, as if the thought would keep him amused for days on end. For laughs with his buddies. And his real girlfriends. She stood there in the woods, only able to watch in horror, for once not able to make a smart mouth comeback.
His humor eased to a chuckle. “You got potential, though. With a little practice, you might get good at this kissing thing. See ya, kid.”
He walked away.
A giggle rose through the air. With slow horror, she turned and caught one of her friends hidden in the bushes. Now everyone would know.
In that moment, on the brink of womanhood, she made her first decision: she’d never let Nick or any other boy humiliate her again. The only love worth counting on was family and friends. Boys could not be trusted, and she was smart enough not to need another lesson.
She turned and ran, hide and go seek forgotten, and wondered what the ache in her chest was. Of course, she was still too young to pinpoint the actual cause.
Years later, she’d finally understand.
Her heart had been broken.
Alexa groaned and set the plate on top of her huge belly. Her obvious disgust with the ability to suddenly balance large objects on her body made Maggie press her lips together in a desperate effort to smother a laugh. Her best friend’s frown deepened. “Shut up, Maggie. I’m miserable. Why won’t she come? Almost two weeks late and the doctor keeps telling me to be patient. I want her out. O-U-T, out.”
Maggie grabbed the dish—scraped clean of cake—and handed her a glass of milk. The sight of her friend’s discomfort lured her to fix it, but the only thing left at this stage was dessert and foot rubs. She’d even tried to buy Alexa hot pink flip-flops with rhinestones, but the space between her toes was nonexistent. She clucked in sympathy and perched on the arm of the slate gray sofa. “I know, babe. It sucks. I bet in a day or two you’ll be holding her in your arms and wishing you had more time to sleep. I hear they cry day and night.”
Alexa wiggled her swollen feet and sighed. “I don’t sleep anyway.”
“Poor baby. I got her a present.” Maggie scooped up the gift bag and swung it in front of her. “Straight from Milan, from one of the top baby designers.”
“You gotta stop buying her stuff, Mags. Her closet is already bigger than mine.”
“Good, then I’m doing my job.” Maggie watched her friend part the tissue and remove the black jeans, hot pink T-shirt, and matching leather jacket. The tiny leather boots were studded with miniature pink diamonds. “Do you like it?”
“Oh, my God, how cool! I cannot believe you found something like this in a baby size!”
Pleasure shot through Maggie. “My goddaughter won’t take any crap from the other kids in the playground. We’ll start her off early being bad to the bone.”
Alexa laughed. “Nick, get over here and see what your sister brought.”
Her brother walked in from the kitchen and picked up the outfit. A look of sheer horror crossed his face. “Hell, no. My daughter will not be wearing biker gang gear straight from the womb.”
Alexa’s eyes shot sparks of fury. “You will not insult your sister, or her lovely gift. I think it would be a perfect homecoming outfit to put her in.”
Maggie settled back for the show. Her usually laid-back friend now had mood swings that scared even her. Hormones were a hell of a thing, but her brother seemed to handle it with aplomb—in fact, Maggie caught a twinkle of amusement at his wife’s challenge. The back and forth battles between them reminded her of their childhood rivalry. Who would have thought they were each other’s soul-mates the whole time? If Fate hadn’t stepped in with a forced marriage, maybe they would’ve never gotten together. Of course, Alexa still insisted it was that ridiculous love spell, but Maggie just let her believe it. No harm.
“Over my dead body,” he tossed back with a casual air. “She wears the little ducky thing we agreed on last week.”
Alexa stuck out her bottom lip in sheer defiance. “If I’m pushing her out, I’m the one who’s going to pick the clothes.”
“Hmm, seems I hear this a few times per day. If I could have the baby for you, you know I would.”
Alexa bristled. “Liar. All men say stuff like that.”
Her brother threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Is there anyone who will stand up for me and my intentions? Someone preferably with testosterone?”
As if the Zeus himself threw down his thunderbolt, footsteps echoed down the hallway, past the kitchen, and stopped right behind them. Slowly, Maggie turned her head.
“Ah, cara, this time I think Nicholas means it. What man would not take the pain for his woman?”
Her skin prickled in warning and…something else, something she refused to name. Count Michael Conte closed the distance and clapped Nick on the shoulder. She tried not to roll her eyes at the smooth gesture, or his trademark smile. The comfortable look shared between them was purely male—one man rescuing another from a crazy woman. Not that Nick needed much help. Already, he reached out to help his wife out of the chair, murmuring some comforting nonsense, and smoothing her blouse over her swollen belly. The sheer tenderness of the gesture and the look on his face lashed at her like the slice of a whip. The old Nick was truly gone. In his place stood a man filled with love for his wife and unborn baby. A changed person, because he’d finally allowed himself to believe one other person in the world could love him for who he was, flaws and all.
Emotion clogged her throat, and Maggie fought the tide back with practiced ease. God, where was this ridiculous envy coming from? Nick and Alexa deserved all the happiness in the world. She needed to get it together.
“Why does it seem wherever there is trouble, you are right in the middle, no?”
The lilting Italian accent stroked her ears and other places, but Maggie refused to answer the mocking question. Why the hell was he even here? Their normal Friday get together with Alexa’s family was tradition, and one Maggie looked forward to. Pizza, pasta, and Chianti. The host’s house changed every week, but it was something important to her—a staple in her crazy life she clung to.
Until Michael Conte barged in.
Suddenly, he appeared every Friday night, with a cannoli cake and array of pastries as indulgent as his come-hither, black-as-ink eyes. He acted as if their blind date had never happened, and that he was innocent.
Maggie knew the truth.
The man was in love with her best friend.
Oh, he tried to hide it. But she saw the sweet glances he threw at Alexa. Heard his Italian endearments and rich laughter at pretty much anything she said. Frustration nipped at her nerves. No one even suspected, especially her brother. He got over his once well placed jealousy and opened his house to their new friend. Somehow, falling in love with Alexa made him believe again in people’s good qualities.
Luckily, Maggie wasn’t as blind.
Nick shot her a look of warning. “Maggie was always the hellcat in the family.” His lips tugged in a grin. “I remember when Mom came home one night with one of her new boyfriends. He was drunk and mean.”
Alexa frowned. “Please tell me no one got hurt.”
“Only him. He liked to smack me around sometimes and Maggie was worried he’d slip into my room after Mom went to sleep. So she rigged a trap for him. Sure enough, one night he opened my door.”
“What happened?” Alexa asked.
“His foot hit the trip rope, a wet mop flew through the air, and he fell down on his ass. Woke us up, and we both made a big ruckus, big enough for Mom to throw him out.”
Maggie laughed it off and cut a hand through the air. “No biggie. I was bored and looking for a bit of entertainment.”
Michael stared at her, one brow lifted as if trying to figure her out. Her skin warmed, then heated to a sizzle. Oh, hell, no. She wouldn’t let him get in her head again. Once was enough.
“Well, I think we’ve had enough excitement today. I better get going,” she said.
Alexa sighed. “Yeah, I better get to bed, too. Or at least put my feet up and watch trashy TV until the acid reflux hits.”
She froze. Her mouth fell open and a weird squeak chirped from her lips. “Oh, my God. I’m wet.”
Nick looked down. “Babe, you spilled your milk. No biggie. I’ll get you another one.”
The realization of Alexa’s expression hit Maggie full force. Her heart beat faster. “It’s not milk, Nick.”
“Oh.” He glanced back and forth between them with a confused expression on his face. “What was it?”
Alexa’s voice came out high. “It’s time.”
“Time for what?”
Maggie let out an impatient screech. “Time for the baby, you idiot! Her water broke! The baby’s coming.”
Like in a bad sitcom, everyone stood stock still, as Alexa panted in anxiety with a wet splotch over her pants. Then the room exploded.
Maggie and Alexa watched in astonishment as the men scurried around like Chicken Little had just declared the sky was falling.
Nick raced to the bedroom and came downstairs with the overnight bag already packed, then grabbed bottles of water from the kitchen, and blankets as if they’d deliver the baby on the way there. Michael punched numbers on his cell phone and told Alexa’s mom to get to the hospital. Nick tossed Michael the keys to start the car, like it was a blizzard and he didn’t think the car’s engine would turn over, even though it was a frickin’ BMW. Michael disappeared, and Nick tore down the hallway, slamming the door to the garage behind him.
Maggie looked at her best friend. “What the hell are they thinking? It’s not the fifties. You’ll be in labor for a while.”
Alexa sighed and rubbed her back. “When they’re excited the blood kind of leaves their brains for a while. It’s not their fault.”
“I guess. Do you want to change your pants before you go to the hospital?”
“Good idea. I’ll be right back. Stay here so Nick doesn’t go nuts when he comes back.”
Maggie began cleaning up the leftovers from the table, then watched as her brother skidded back down the hallway, eyes wild. “Can you feed Old Yeller and walk him? I just called the doctor and told her we’re on the way. Thanks, Maggie, see you at the hospital.” He grabbed the bag and shut the door behind him.
Maggie stared at the closed door and slugged back the last sip of wine, wondering when he’d notice his wife wasn’t in the car with him.
A few seconds later, Alexa trudged back down the hall in yoga pants and a T-shirt. “Where’s Nick?”
Alexa muttered something under her breath. “Are you kidding me? I’m in an I Love Lucy rerun! Remember when Ricky went to the hospital and left her behind?”
“Oh, God, I loved that episode. How about the one with the chocolate?”
Alexa laughed. “Yes! She kept popping the candies in her mouth because she couldn’t wrap them fast enough. You gotta love Lucy.”
The door flung open. Nick and Michael rushed in, looking frantically around like they lost something important. Like a wife in labor. “What are you doing?” Nick yelled. “I thought you were in the car.”
Alexa sniffed. “I had to change, and then we were talking about the I Love Lucy episodes. Don’t yell at me or I’ll have Maggie take me to the hospital in a separate car.”
Nick’s mouth fell open. “I don’t want to talk about I Love Lucy! The baby’s coming—let’s get out of here.” As if realizing he was losing it in front of his pregnant wife, Nick dragged in a breath and spoke calmer. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m freaking out. Are you ready?”
A smile bloomed over Alexa’s face. “Yes.” She leaned over and gave Maggie a hug and a kiss. For one moment, their gazes met, and something deep and female and eternal passed between them. “The baby’s coming,” Alexa whispered in excitement.
Maggie blinked back sudden tears and squeezed her hands. “Knock ’em dead, babe. I’ll be there in a few.”
“Alexa! We need to go. Now!”
Alexa waddled away. Their voices rose and fell in one of their ridiculous arguments, and then the house filled with silence.
The baby was coming.
Maggie pressed her fingers to her mouth. Things were about to change. An undercurrent buzzed through the air, stealing her breath and bringing excitement. Danger.
“They will never be the same.”
Her head lifted as if a wolf scented her mate. Michael walked toward her in that slow, graceful stride, as if toying with his prey. This time she decided to answer. “No, they won’t. They’ll be stronger.”
His lip kicked up in a half smile. “Why does it sound like a threat, cara? Week after week I eat dinner with you, and you barely say a word. You study me as if I am about to steal the family jewels. You sneer at my presents to Alexa and Nicholas, and mock my endearments. So, now that we are finally alone, perhaps you will speak your mind?”
The anger hit and she embraced it greedily. “I know the truth, Count. Oh, you hide it well, and I’ve studied your moves. Waiting for opportunities to be alone with Alexa. Befriending Nick until he welcomes you as part of the family. I’ve noticed it all, and you won’t get away with it while I’m around.”
She gave him credit. He didn’t pretend to be shocked, or jerk back with surprise. Something flickered in his eyes for a brief moment, but then disappeared. He cocked his head and studied her, his gaze freely roaming over her figure. “Is this what you truly believe?”
A hollow sense of victory shook her at his refusal to deny her claim. “Yes.”
“I see. So it will not matter if I protest this statement, because you have already made up your mind?”
“Oh, you’re good, Count. But I’m better. And I have more to protect.”
An odd sense of pride filled his voice. “Yes, you do protect the people you love, don’t you?”
He didn’t give her time to respond. With a stately nod, he turned. “I bid you bella notte, cara. I shall see you at the hospital. Beyond that, we will have to wait and see.”
Then he left.
Maggie stared at the closed door for a while. A quiet patter of feet echoed through the room, and as if he sensed her sudden need for comfort, Old Yeller took his place beside her. She stroked his head, adjusting his Mets bandanna, and let the peace of the animal settle her nerves.
Michael Conte wanted to play games. So be it. She’d do anything to keep him from hurting Nick and Alexa.
“Come on, babe. I’ll feed you, finish cleaning up, and then go meet your brand new family member.” Somehow, someway, Michael Conte rattled her mind, her body, and her peace. She refused to consider the possibility of her heart. Too many years and bad moments had only turned her into the Tin Man. She had nothing left to give.
Still, the memory of one of her favorite movies, Mary Poppins, beckoned. It was as if the winds were about to change and no one would ever be the same.
She shook off the thought and got to work.
Without further ado, please enjoy this secret scene. Alexa cast a spell for a soul-mate with money, but she hasn’t found him. Yet. Enter Maggie…
The following took place right before her meeting with Nick.
Alexa pushed her black framed glasses down her nose and peered at her friend from over the lenses. This usually intimidating effect was ruined by her open mouth and bug eyes as Maggie’s statement echoed in the air like a cannon blast.
“What did you say?”
Maggie preened and put every peacock in the world to shame. “I found him. Your future husband.” She dropped her voice. “He’s got the money.”
Alexa used her thumb to close her guppy mouth and slid off the stool behind the counter. She worked her way through the stream of people with the ease of an expert and headed toward the back of the store. BookCrazy catered to both the eclectic reader of poetry, literary, and erotica, but remained true to lovers of popular fiction, romance and mystery. Tucked in the corner of Main Street and close to the State College University of Upstate New York, BookCrazy needed to be fresh enough for college students, yet discriminating enough for professors. The busy streets overflowed with artists, and Alexa had used her client base to advertise and decorate appropriately.
Roomy aisles separated each section and clear signs in neon color directed the browser to a specified interest. Aromatic candles burned in the air and gave off delicious scents such as vanilla and warm apple pie. Both classical and modern music ebbed and flowed in waves, with periods of silence in between.
As she moved from the busy center of the store toward the rear, the environment changed. She believed booklovers came from two different worlds, and was determined to serve both. The front balanced wild colors and sounds and scents. The back honored the purity of books and the people who loved and lived for the written word. This type craved silence. The simple sounds of pages turning. The scent of paper and bound leather drifting in the air.
In this section, the lights dimmed, the music from the speakers softened, and scents faded away. Alexa dedicated the back of BookCrazy for the serious stuff. No clutter blocked the massive piles of books neatly stacked on the shelves. Oak tables and overstuffed chairs lined the walls, with sleek curved reading lamps beside each seat. No clocks. No distractions. Just empty space and hundreds of books.
It was one of Alexa’s favorite places.
She led Maggie over to the Occult section where it was usually quiet, and lowered her voice. “What are you talking about? Where is he? Do I know him? Does he know me?”
“Oh, you both know each other.”
“Does he fit my list?”
Maggie winced. “Well, he has the money.”
“Has he loved me from afar? Is it a friend who had feelings for me I never knew about? Is it a customer? An acquaintance?”
Maggie looked uncomfortable. “He has the money,”she repeated.
Suspicion nudged her. Alexa waited a beat and felt reality crash back into her world. “Who is he?”
“He’s cute. I think. He has money. And he needs a wife fast.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s intelligent and creative in his own sense.”
“Who is he?”
“He owns a fish.”
A hushed silence fell over the Occult section. Alexa heard her assistant’s low voice urging a customer to purchase one of the handmade leather bookmarks. The cheery ring of the bell over the door. The steady click of the cash register buttons. The whispering sound of pages turning as people glanced through books.
And the roaring in her ears.
Alexa shook her head to try to clear it. Choppy images of Maggie’s older brother flashed through her mind, but unfortunately only one picture took form and lingered. The day in the woods. Her first kiss. Her first humiliation.
She lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. “That’s a lousy joke.”
“No joke. All truth. Come sit down with me.”
She dragged her across the room. Alex took a seat in one of the overstuffed apple green chairs and perched on the edge, ready to take flight.
“Hear me out.” Maggie took a deep breath and gave her pitch. “This is confidential. You know my Uncle Earl finally passed away?”
“Well, when the reading of the will came, there was a certain condition that prevented Nick from retaining full control.”
“He needs a wife.”
Alex leaned back in the chair. Then blinked. “You’re kidding me.”
“Nope. Uncle Earl was into this family thing. He could never have children of his own and looked at Nick as a son. He probably thought Nick would never settle down since he had two screwed up parents. This was a little push in the right direction.”
“What are the conditions?”
“He has to be married a full year. A prenuptial is okay, but the marriage has to look like a real marriage to outsiders.”
“Isn’t your brother dating anyone?” she asked. “There has to be some woman he has feelings for. Someone who doesn’t think marriage is out of the question.”
Maggie shrugged. “He’s dating some supermodel but he already told me he can’t marry her. He’s looking for someone he can trust to keep this a secret. He needs to know when a year is up she’ll walk away without fighting him for control of the business or making life messy. Prenuptials aren’t ironclad, you know.”
“Gabriella or something like that. Anyway, he doesn’t have a prospect in sight.”
“Hmmm, not surprising. Nick was always such a charmer.”
Maggie snorted. “Damn, we had such a good time ripping him apart in the old days, didn’t we?”
“We had a lot of material. So, what happens if he doesn’t get married?”
“The company gets split between the board of directors.”
“He’ll have some control. Your fifty percent.”
“Not good enough. Nick is looking at some big contract down at the waterfront. He wants to go after it and the board is leery. Without the shares, he’ll never get a shot.”
Alexa raised one black brow. “He wants the contract enough to marry someone for a year?”
“Too bad. Well, I’m sure he’ll find someone.”
“He did. You.”
Alexa chuckled. “Cute, very cute. First of all, I can’t stand your brother. I find him arrogant, stuffy, and boring.”
“So do I. But he has something you need, Al.”
“He’ll pay any amount of money you want.”
Alexa nibbled on her bottom lip. Thought about it for one second. Then laughed. “Couldn’t work. We’d fight constantly.”
“You wouldn’t have to fight because you wouldn’t have a real marriage. Think of it as a business arrangement. He pays you well, you accompany him to some functions, and the year is up. Then you’re both free and you both get what you want.”
Humor struck. Giggles burst out of her lips at the ridiculousness of the situation. She tried to stifle the noise by mashing her fingers over her lips. “You want me to be a hooker for your brother.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t have to sleep with each other, for God’s sakes! Yuk, just the idea grosses me out. Separate bedrooms. You never have to touch each other in private.”
“He’s going to go one year without sex?”
“Probably not. He just wouldn’t be having sex with you.”
“You think Gabriella would continue sleeping with him once he has a wife?”
“Depends on what he’s giving her to stick around.”
The giggles struck harder. “Just call me the next Pretty Woman! Ah, but I come real expensive you see – at least one hundred fifty thousand dollars!”
Maggie shook her head in exasperation. “You’re not listening, you don’t have to sleep with him!”
Heads turned. A tall man in a business suit stared at Maggie with interest. His gaze caught and held on the lean length of thigh revealed from her short red miniskirt. Maggie winked and deliberately turned from his view to expose her backside. Still halfway hysterical, Alexa clawed for some control.
Marry Nicholas Ryan.
Not if he was the last man on earth.
Images flashed before her of the young boy he had been. Gangly legs and curly blonde hair. Serious brown eyes that held haunting secrets of childhood gone wrong. His insults and tormenting and the way he had touched her shoulders when he bent his head for her first kiss.
Over a decade ago.
Yet it still felt like yesterday.
Her skin itched when she thought of seeing him again. Though Maggie and she were close, Alexa hadn’t seen her brother in years. He kept to himself, and had no relationship with either of his parents. Self made, he took no interest in any of the people he grew up with and never made a move through Maggie to ask how she was doing. Part of her resented his easy dismissal of their childhood, especially since she was like Maggie’s sister. She always wondered how he turned out as a grown man, but the curiosity burned through her and sputtered quickly. It mattered no longer. Alexa really didn’t care who Nick was anymore.
And she had no intention of marrying him.
She took a deep breath as the last of the giggles passed and faced her friend. “No, Mags.”
She smiled. “When I made that list I needed the money, but I also wanted a soul-mate. I’m not looking for a business marriage. I want the real stuff.”
Maggie chewed on her lower lip. “You could do this for a year and then find your soul mate. Then you wouldn’t care if he had money.”
“I can’t do it. I can’t sacrifice that kind of time in my life for something that’s a lie. The money would be dirty.”
“It’ll save Tara.”
“I’ll find another way.”
“Scarlett did it. She married three times to save her home. You’ll only be doing this once.”
Maggie sighed. “Well, at least think about it. Nick only has a couple of days left, and I actually feel sorry for him. He may be a geek, but he’s a genius when it comes to buildings. He could make a difference if he gets this deal.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Good enough.” Maggie turned around and studied the man whose gaze was still stuck on her thighs. Her lips curved in a smile that promised the moon, stars, and a quick trip to heaven. His Adam apple bobbed as her cat green eyes narrowed with interest. “I’ll catch you later. Much later.”
Alex groaned. “How do you do that? No woman I know can pick up guys in the bookstore. I own it, for God’s sakes, and I still can’t score a date in here.”
“You want him?”
Alex shook her head. “No, sloppy seconds ain’t my style.”
“Hmmm, just call me Rizzo. See ya later.”
She watched her friend saunter over and close the deal within a minute. The couple walked out together for coffee and the promise of something bigger. Alexa rose from the chair and muttered under her breath. Some friend. The least she could have done was make the man buy a book before he scored.
She made her way back to the register, stopping to greet customers and introduce herself and make sure everyone was happy. In the back of her mind, Maggie’s words echoed like a bad song she couldn’t stop singing.
Nick Ryan needed a wife.
She remembered his passion for building things. He’d lock himself in the garage for hours to tinkle with wood and fixtures, his fingers patient as he tried to match the creation he had within his mind. She’d been fascinated by that part of him, and wondered what he saw when he looked at a bunch of raw materials. Of course, to his face she’d only made fun of him, especially with Maggie around. But inside she thought maybe he sought beauty through building as she did with words.
Not that it mattered.
She refused to marry him. Making such a choice would turn her world on a path that only led to trouble. Arranged marriages were something out of medieval times and had no place in the current century.
“Excuse me, miss?”
She smiled down at the elderly woman with the slightly trembling fingers and sweet smile. “Yes, may I help you?”
“Do you have Gone With The Wind? I looked under the M’s but couldn’t find a copy.”
Alexa kept her smile in place while an icy sense of foreboding settled over her like thick smog. “Of course, follow me. We keep it in the display area by classics. It’s one of my favorites.”
“Mine too, dear. They don’t make them like Scarlett anymore, do they?”
Alex scooped up the fat paperback and handed it over. “No, they don’t. I hope you enjoy it. May I check you out?”
As she headed toward the register, a strange sensation prickled her nerve endings. Her innocent homemade campfire now seemed a portent of danger – a harbinger of the worst kind of disaster known to womankind. She’d needed an answer to save Tara. It wasn’t the answer she wanted, but time was running out. The last phone call from her mother informed her she’d decided to sell the house.
Alexa needed to make a decision.
Her hands shook as she tucked the novel into the bag and handed it to her customer.
I hope you enjoyed it!
This next one was cut completely and changed. Nick and Alexa visit his parent’s house around the holidays and he is struck by their family drama. This leads into a scene where Alexa confesses her love to Nick. Of course, this was changed around in the book – I think for the better – but it’s fun sometime to compare the before and after to a book! Oh, and there’s a sex scene in this one so be warned. Remember – this never went through a professional edit so be kind!
When Nick stepped through the door of his childhood home, his past didn’t come back to haunt him. Instead, all the memories swirled into a tight ball and slammed him in the gut like a sucker punch.
It had been years since he showed up for a holiday. He made sure to travel on business whenever an opportunity to see his parents came up. Maggie visited on a regularbasis, but Nick had orphaned himself years ago without a second thought.
He looked at the scene before him in all its false Christmas glory. The mansion was strung with brightly colored lights and covered with holly and mistletoe but no warmth invaded any of the rooms. The floors still gleamed with cold, unforgiving marble; the furniture stood stiff and unyielding. Crystal vases and elaborate sculptures covered all surfaces to emanate a museum like quality. The Christmas tree reached the ceiling and sparkled with icicles and snow angels. Each ornament was so perfectly placed, an observer could only admire it from afar. The house was a child’s nightmare, filled with things not to be touched or looked at or sat upon.
Nick glanced through the packed rooms and studied the people who claimed to know his parents. Nothing had changed. Women dressed in short, tight dresses who giggled and dripped champagne as they walked. Loud mouthed, portly men who claimed to be directors or know someone in the business smoked cigars and gazed at the women’s breasts. Accountants and lawyers and investment bankers made up the other half, as they talked about money and property and tried to outdo the other. He heard splashing from the indoor, heated pool and knew that scene would put Hugh Heffner to shame. Once again, not one blood relative. Just a bunch of strangers who didn’t care about him or anyone else in the room.
He turned his head. Alex stared at him with a question in her eyes. She tugged her lower lip between her teeth and began to nibble. He knew by her habit she worried about bringing him here, probably afraid he’d fall apart when faced with his father. Automatically, he reached over and took her hand in reassurance.
“Let’s go find Maggie.”
He led her through the massive rooms, nodding to people as they greeted him, and made his way to the outside balcony. Without pause, he walked down the stone pathway to the gardens until he reached the heavy stone fountain of the goddess Diana. The sculpture seemed to hang back from the rest. With her bow in hand, and her head thrown back in challenge, she seemed to dare anyone to come near her. A cluster of oak trees formed a tight background of privacy. Nick remembered how his sister crept out late at night to sit under Diana’s bow. Sometimes Nick discovered her weeping, and he’d watch her, afraid to go back to his own bed, and too afraid to go to her. So, he’d sit down a few feet on the grass carpet and offer her the only thing he could. His presence.
Nick reached the sculpture and found his sister. Maggie held a glass of champagne in hand and stared out into the night. And this time, when he felt the sharp ache grab at his heart, he didn’t push it away. Years ago, he knew every aspect of his sister’s personality. Today, she was like a stranger. All those holidays he refused to see his parents, he had never thought about how it affected his sister. She made herself visit each year. Instead of being her support, he abandoned her and carved his own path. Shame filled him at the easy way he had given up the only person who had ever truly cared about him.
His sister turned. Within moments she screened her face to hide her emotions, but Nick recognized pain well. “Hey guys, you finally made it. Merry Christmas.” She hugged both of them. “Did you see the duo yet?”
Nick shook his head. “I was hoping not to. You?”
She raised the champagne glass in a mocking toast. “Ah, then let me share the news. Seems we have a new stepmom, big brother.”
Disgust rattled through him. “He married again? Is she legal drinking age?”
“Barely. But this one takes the cake. Blonde, huge bust, white teeth, and a Coppertone tan. She does commercials and is going to be a star.” Maggie drawled with a false southern twang. “Of course, he went directly to find Mom and throw that one in her face. Fireworks should start any minute.”
Nick gave her a puzzled look. “Why should Sarah care? You told me she has her own boy toy on the side. Besides, she invited him.”
Maggie laughed. “Guess you don’t know the pattern around here. Dad calls her up for a while and is extra sweet. She starts thinking maybe they’ll get back together and invites him over. Then he shows up with his new cookie in tow, she gets drunk, makes a scene, and throws him out. Then it starts all over again. Except this time should be really good cause he’s gone and married her.”
Alex looked sick. “Maggie, you never told me this stuff.”
Maggie shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You get numb after a while. Right, Nick?”
A chill raced down his spine at her remark. “Right.” He gripped his wife’s hand a bit tighter. “How long do you usually stay at these things?”
Maggie rolled her eyes in high dramatic fashion. “Either until they have their blowout or I have someone interesting to bring home with me.”
Alex wrinkled her nose. “I’m betting on the first since none of these guys look your type.”
“You’re right. I’d have to be sixteen with tons of silicone in order to rate in this place. Did you see the hot tub scene yet? Puts The Bachelor show to shame.”
Foreboding filled the air. His gut twisted in the primitive recognition of danger. Never one to believe in signs, he realized something may happen tonight to change things. Damnit, he’d been happy lately. Content. Almost as if a cellar door burst open and let in the light from years of decay. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. Now that he got a taste of such intimacy, he didn’t want to go back.
He glanced at the two women between him. Then opened his mouth to tell them they were getting the hell out of Dodge. He’d grab a bottle of champagne, take Maggie back to his house, and they’d sit in front of the fire and talk about old times. He wanted to know his sister again. He wanted them to become their own family. He wanted…
“Well, look who finally decided to show up.”
Nick turned to face his father. Money and laziness seemed to agree with him. His hair was streaked golden by the Mexican sun, and the deep tan that lined his face gave him a character he didn’t really have. He was a tall man, and wore his designer clothes well. Tonight he was clad in a Ralph Lauren red sweater, black pants, and leather loafers. His brown eyes held a slight sheen of alcohol induced humor. Nick gazed at Jed Ryan and looked into his own face years from now. What he saw made him shudder. What he dreaded most in life was standing a few feet before him. The possibility of becoming his father.
He kept his face impassive as he nodded. “Merry Christmas, Jed.”
Jed gave out a loud bear laugh. “That’s no way to greet your father, boy. Give me a hug.” He didn’t wait but embraced him quickly, as if putting on a show for the guests. He turned his attention to Alex. “And who is this beautiful creature beside you?”
Nick cleared his throat but his voice still came out hoarse. “This is Alex, my wife.”
Alex stuck out her hand for the introduction but Jed picked her up and swung her around. Nick also noticed his palm lay flat on his wife’s bottom for a quick feel, and he smothered the quick flare of rage that ignited. She took a few steps back when released which told Nick she had noticed the same thing.
“Alex, welcome to the family. Maybe you’ll bring Nick around a bit more. He seems to be a workaholic.”
“So unlike his father.”
Jed’s head turned toward Maggie. The insult seemed to go right over his head as he reached out and chucked her under the chin. “Hey, baby. Did you meet Amber?”
Maggie smiled sweetly. “I think so. Was that the one drinking the Shirley Temple?”
“Have some respect. She’s your new stepmother.”
Maggie snorted. “Probably not legally. The ink on your last divorce papers wasn’t even dry. You could possibly be a bigamist.”
“Don’t be bitchy. You need to act like your brother and get married. Pop out a few kids. I should have some grandchildren.”
Maggie spluttered on her champagne. “Jed, you couldn’t even take care of a hamster, let alone human beings.” She gave a killer smile. “Besides, I’m more my father’s daughter. I like things quick and easy. Marriage usually isn’t.”
Jed laughed. “That’s my girl. You always were a difficult kid.”
“How would you know? You were never around.”
“This isn’t going to be one of those blame everything on the father sessions, is it? If it is, I think I’ll go get another drink and see where Amber is.”
“I think she was doing a favor for that new director.”
Jed’s response was smothered by the sudden crash and screech of female voices. Foul language drifted amidst the sounds of Have a Merry Little Christmas.
Maggie sighed. “Show time.”
They all darted for the back door in a group and pushed their way into the crowd. Nick saw Sarah in the middle of the circle. She wore a skimpy red halter dress with her breasts spilling out. Her face scrunched up like a demoness as she sloshed her martini around the sides of the glass and bellowed at her target, namely the newly wedded Amber, who flashed her wedding band around like a magic weapon constructed to derail evil.
“He could have never married you!” Sarah spit out the words like venom. “He came tonight to see me.”
Jed placed himself in between them and tried to calm his bride down. She took the opportunity to dart in front of him and get in Sarah’s face. “He came tonight to tell you to leave him the hell alone. He never wanted you, he wanted your money.”
“Look at you!” Amber laughed with pure scorn. “You’re old but you pretend not to be. You have two kids and you’ve gotten fat and Jed lost interest in you a while ago. He feels sorry for you!”
“He always comes back to me. You’re one in a long line of nothings, sweetie. What is this, his fifth or sixth marriage? They never last long, and then he comes back to the mother of his children.”
“You’re used goods, Sarah. He just likes to play with you, and his children mean nothing to him.”
“His children mean everything to him!”
They both lunged. Sarah’s glass dropped and shattered on the marble floor. Jed caught Amber and swung her around, kicking and screeching, while Nick and Maggie hung onto Sarah. A huge roar of approval for the fight rose from the crowd, like they were teenagers in a cafeteria rather than grown ups at a holiday party. Nick held tight to his mother and dragged her into a corner, as she wept with dramatic flourish, declaring her life truly over, for she was old and ugly and fat, and no man would ever love her again.
Nick looked into his mother’s face, still lovely with her aristocratic bone structure and full lips. But her eyes were filled with a haunting bitterness and rage that never seemed to go away, only temporarily under alcoholic blindness. He comforted her like he used to, telling her she was beautiful, and worthy, all the while feeling the old, familiar sickness course through him, an endless reminder that all relationships ended in pain, whether it be public or private.
He looked up and spotted his wife beside them. Her face reflected sadness, not the horror he steeled himself for. And when her gaze finally locked on his, the only thing he saw was understanding. A pure, shared understanding of pain, and the acknowledgement drove him to break contact and push the emotion away to that cold, dark place, and when he finally managed it, Nick made the decision to close and lock the lid.
When his mother was calm, he spent some time getting her settled with an attractive film producer who wanted to stroke and soothe her ruffled feathers. Then he turned to his sister and announced he was going home.
Maggie nodded. “Me too.”
They made their way back through the crowd, dispelling good-bys, and met Jed at the door. The lovely Amber had been whisked away to the bathroom to repair the damage of her emotional confrontation. Jed kissed Alex and Maggie, then pulled Nick aside.
“Can I talk to you for a second?”
Nick nodded and they went outside. The icy December wind rushed up their nostrils and stole their breath, but Nick felt cleaner than he had all night. Their figures cast eerie shadows of flashing red and green from the Christmas lights.
“I’m thinking of settling back in town for a while. Set up house with Amber. Wanted to know if you’d have breakfast with me next week.”
Nick tested the spring on the box for any emotions but it held tight. Mercifully, he felt nothing. “Why?” he asked.
Jed shrugged. “Thought I’d hang out with my son. It’s been a while, you know. How’s business?”
“Fine. Listen, Jed, don’t take this the wrong way, but we don’t have much to discuss. We were never close, and I don’t feel like pretending.”
“A little arrogant, are you? You know, I think we’re more alike than you want to believe. We both like money, and we both like women. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Nick looked at his father for a long time. A tiny trickle of fear escaped from the box as he recognized the man who had fathered him garnered no respect. What if Jed Ryan was right? What if all these years he’d been fighting his genes, and his time was up? What if he was destined to become like his father, whether he took the short or the long road? What if he was only kidding himself thinking he could have a normal marriage with Alex, when he knew the legal and emotional odds ahead?
Still, he held his head high and gazed right into his father’s eyes as he stated the words.
“We’re nothing alike. Good luck, Jed.”
Then he turned and left.
Alex gazed at her husband as he undressed in the darkness. They had driven home in silence, and for once, she hadn’t pushed for a conversation. She admitted she had made a huge mistake in trying to make him face his past. The truth of what Maggie dealt with during the holidays slapped her in the face like the tail end of a fish. And when she’d seen Nick’s face turn cold, had literally watched him physically distance himself from the emotions of that horrible scene, she realized that was how he coped. Alex had seen things differently. She believed the open wound from his past was the last block standing between them. She hoped by forcing a confrontation, he’d be able to face his past and finally let it go.
The whole thing had backfired.
Alex shuddered in memory of the raw ugliness she’d seen. Maggie confided in her through the years, but had always kept her away from the true family scenes. Nick rarely spoke of his parents, so in her mind, she constructed a family with flaws that needed to come together. Like her own. Instead, she’d managed to rip open wounds that may have scabbed over by his distance from her parents. She felt him pulling away from her, inch by slow inch, each precious step forward now yanked back, and it was all her fault.
For once, he didn’t reach for her. He lay beside her in the dark, turned on one side. His breathing remained even but she knew he was awake. She stayed in the same position for a long time, willing sleep to come, trying to give him the space and distance he desperately seemed to need tonight, but an inner voice rose up and cried out for her to drag him back. Their relationship had blossomed over the last few months. When he had told her the dog could stay, she believed a wall had collapsed. Now, the damn thing was back up, double industrial strength, and Alex knew she didn’t have the patience to wait six more months for it to come down. The contract would be up and the relationship over. She could be logical and save herself a lot of pain by staying on her side of the bed and letting Fate take its course. Or Mother Earth. Or whoever was out there trying to take care of emotional women. Instead, she did the only thing she could – the only thing that was part of who she was.
She went full steam ahead and damn the consequences.
Alex rolled over and put her arms around him. He stiffened against her, but not in the way she craved. Instead, his back went ramrod straight and his voice came out low in the night.
“Alex, not tonight, okay. I’m real tired.”
She disregarded the request and pushed him onto his back. Slid over and up until her body pressed against every inch of his. Hip to hip. Thigh to thigh. Softness cradled against hard muscles and sharp angles. His chest rose up against her breasts with each breath he took. She lowered her lips to his and cradled his cheeks in her palms.
“Alex, I don’t—“
“Please.” She whispered the words in the dark against his mouth. A longing. A need. A raw vulnerability that shook through her and pushed her forward. “I need you, Nicholas. I need to make love to you.”
She lowered her head and kissed him. Gently, she pushed her tongue through the unyielding line of his lips in a question, exploring the slick, hot cave of his mouth, his musky, earthy scent rising to her nostrils and causing a moan to rumble deep in her throat.
Her name came out in desperate denial. Keeping his head still, she ignored his plea and made a final one of her own.
“I’m begging you. Begging you…”
His body shook beneath hers. Then he reached for her.
He kissed her back, tangled his tongue with hers, but when he tried to flip her over she refused, hooking her feet around his ankles and plunging her fingers into his hair. The desire coiled and twisted like a snake in her belly, and she let it all go, let it flow through her and out until she became like a wild creature, desperate for the taste and touch and scent of him.
She tore her lips from his and moved downward. Took his male nipple between her teeth and tugged. Swirled her tongue around, nipped at the ridged planes of his chest, needing more, always more. She heard her name echo through the air but she was sinking deeper into the pit, a roaring in her ears and her blood as her hands moved hungrily over him, the swirls of crisp hair tickling her palms, as she wiggled her hips downward until her mouth grew near his pulsing hardness. She dropped tiny kisses around his hips, pelvis, stomach. Blew out a stream of hot breath, then dipped her head and took him in her mouth.
She heard him cry out; felt him try to drag her back up his body but she was too far gone, needed him in the most intimate way a woman could love a man, and she moved her lips over his hard shaft and pleasured him until she pushed him to the edge of control.
He shot up. Grabbed her by the hips. Dragged her up. Flipped her over.
Then drove into her with one quick plunge.
She came instantly. She noted the quick surprise shimmer in his eyes, followed by raw, male satisfaction. He exploded inside her with a harsh shout and then his lips took hers in a savage kiss and she squeezed her thighs around his hips in an unnamed plea to keep him with her. The kiss gentled as he murmured soothing words, smoothed back her hair and they coasted down from the edged, ragged peak.
And then Alex did something she had never done before.
She wrapped her arms around her husband and cried, hot, tears of release and emotion, and he held her tight and kissed them away and she took the ultimate risk of all as she whispered the words in the darkness of the night.
“I love you.”
Seconds ticked by. She waited, knowing there would be no answer. Knowing he didn’t have it to give back to her but not caring. Then, he pressed his lips against her temple and gathered her into his chest, still pulsing inside of her, her legs wrapped around his thighs, his heart beating hard against her breast. And she knew then he acknowledged what she said to him. Honored it. And something told her he desperately wanted to give the words back.
But he said nothing.