“How are you going to get it?”

Nick concentrated on his plate. Funny, she seemed able to tell when he lied. Had from childhood. “I already have one of the partners on board. Richard Drysell is building the spa, and we share the same vision. He’s having a dinner party next Saturday. The final two men I need to convince will be there, so I’m hoping to make an impression.” He didn’t share how Alexa fit into the mix. He looked upon his new wife as a way close the deal, but it would be better explained the night of the party.

Nick lifted his head and spotted her cleaned plate.

The full salad bowl remained on the table between them, untouched. The pasta and bread and wine were depleted. She looked like she was on the verge of exploding. “Well, the salad looks awfully good. Aren’t you going to eat it?”

She forced a bright smile and forked up a leafy piece. “Of course. I adore salads.”

He grinned. “Any dessert?”

She let out a groan. “Funny.” They cleaned up quickly, stacked everything in the dishwasher, and then she stretched out on the camel-colored sofa in the living room. Nick figured she was hoping for a faster way to digest.

“Are you going to work tonight?” she asked.

“No, it’s late. What about you?”

“Nah, too tired.” The room filled with a short silence. “So, what do you want to do?”

Her shirt snaked up a precious inch. The smooth, tanned skin of her stomach wreaked havoc with his concentration. He had some very clear images of what they could do. They involved slowly lifting her shirt. Then licking her nipples until they tightened under his tongue. The rest centered on stripping off those sweat pants and testing how fast he could make her burn up in his arms. Since none of those options were possible, he gave a shrug. “Don’t know. TV? Movie?”

She shook her head. “Poker.”

“Excuse me?”

Her eyes lit up. “Poker. I have a deck of cards in my suitcase.”

“You carry your own cards?”

“You never know when you’ll need them.”

“What do we play for?”

She jumped up from the sofa and headed toward the stairs. “Money, of course. Unless you’re too chicken.”

“Fine. But we’ll use my cards.”

She stopped mid-flight and looked at him. “Okay. I deal.”

He hit the remote and strains of Madame Butterfly echoed from the Bose speakers. He topped off their glasses and settled by the coffee table. She sat beside him, legs crossed. Her fingers flew through the cards with the ease of an expert, shuffling with lightning speed. Nick had a flash of her in a low-cut dress, dealing cards in a saloon while she sat on a cowboy’s lap. He shook off the image and concentrated on his hand.

“Dealer’s choice. Five card stud. Ante up.”

He frowned. “With what?” he asked.

“I told you we’re playing for money.”

“Should I have my butler unlock the safe? Or maybe we’ll just play for the family jewels?”

“Very funny. Don’t you have any singles lying around?”

His lip quirked. “Sorry. Only hundreds.”

“Oh.”

She seemed so disappointed he lost the battle and chuckled. “How about we play for something more interesting?”

“I don’t play strip poker.”

“I meant favors.”

His statement caught her attention. Her teeth caught her bottom lip. He watched the action with pure pleasure.

“What kind of favors?” she asked.

“The first one to win three full hands gets a free favor from the other. It can be used any time, like a voucher.”

Her face lit up with interest. “You can use the favor toward anything? No rules?”

“No rules.”

The challenge drew her in like a pure-blooded gambler on the scent of a long shot. He sensed his victory even before she agreed. Nick practically licked his lips as she consented, and knew for the next few months he’d finally have the control he needed in this marriage.

She dealt. He almost laughed at the obvious outcome, but he refused to be merciful. She threw one card out and scooped up a replacement.

He laid down his cards. “Full house.”

“Two jacks. Your deal.”

Nick gave her credit—she refused to buckle. Kept her emotions firmly hidden. He bet her father taught her, and if not for Nick’s past experience, she’d be a hell of a player to beat. She tossed down a pair of aces and surrendered gracefully to his three fours.

“One more hand,” he said.

“I can count. My deal.” Her fingers flew over the cards. “So, where’d you learn poker?”

He viewed his hand nonchalantly. “Buddy of mine kept a weekly game. It was a good excuse to do some serious drinking and hanging out.”

“Always thought you were more the chess type.”

He tossed in a card and replaced it. “I’m good at that, too.”

She gave an unladylike snort. “Show.” She displayed her straight and triumph gleamed in her eyes.

He almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

“Good hand.” He offered her a cocky grin. “But not good enough.” He threw down four aces. Then stretched his legs out in front of him and leaned back. “Nice try, though.”

She gaped in astonishment at his cards. “The odds on four aces in five card stud are…oh my God, you cheated!”

He shook his head and made a tsking sound. “Come on, Al, I thought you were a better competitor. Are you still a sore loser? Now about my favor…”

Nick wondered if actual steam leaked from her pores. “Nobody can get four aces unless he palmed the cards. Don’t lie to me, because I was thinking of doing it myself!”

“Don’t accuse me of something you can’t prove.”

“You cheated.” Her tone held a twist of wonderment and horror. “You lied to me on our wedding night.”

He snorted. “If you don’t want to pay your debt, say so. Just like a woman to be a bad loser.”

She squirmed with hot-blooded emotion. “You’re a swindler, Nick Ryan.”

“Prove it.”

“I will.”

She launched herself over the coffee table and into his arms. The breath whooshed out of him as she tumbled him back on the carpet and stuck her hand up his shirt sleeves for the suspected planted cards. Nick grunted as a full female figure pressed flush against every muscle, intent only on finding evidence of foul play. He tried to push her off but she switched her attention to his shirt pockets and he laughed. The sound started deep in his chest and he realized this woman had made him laugh more in the past week than he had since childhood. When her fingers slipped into his pants pocket he realized if she delved any deeper she wouldn’t come up empty-handed. The laughter eased into a hard twist deep in his gut and with one quick motion he flipped her onto her back, lay on top of her, and pinned both hands beside her head.

Her hair clip had come out during the scuffle. Coal black curls tumbled over her face and covered one side. Snapping blue eyes peeked between the strands, filled with a haughty contempt only she could pull off after tackling him to the ground for a wrestling match. Her breasts rose against her fleece top, unbound. Her legs entwined with his, her thighs slightly parted.

Nick was in deep trouble.

“I know you have the cards planted. Just admit it and we’ll forget this whole thing happened.”

“You’re crazy, you know,” he muttered. “Don’t you ever think about consequences of your actions?”

She stuck her bottom lip out and blew a hard breath. The curls obediently slid away from her eyes. “I didn’t cheat.”

Her mouth pouted. He smothered a curse, and his fingers tightened around her wrists. Damn her for making him want. Damn her for not seeing it.

“We’re not kids anymore, Alexa. Next time you go tackling a man to the ground, be prepared to take the heat.”

“Who are you, Clint Eastwood? Is your next line going to be, ‘Go ahead, make my day’?”

The heat in his groin rose to his head like a swarming fog, until he could only think about the wet heat of her mouth and the soft body beneath him. He wanted to be naked with her in a tangle of sheets, and instead she treated him like an annoying older brother. But that wasn’t even the worst part. She was his wife. The thought tortured him. Some buried, caveman instinct flared to life and pushed him to make his claim. By law, she already belonged to him.

And tonight was their wedding night.

She challenged him to turn anger to desire, to feel her lips slick and trembling under his, all sweetness and surrender and passion. The normal logic of his list and his plan and his need for a business marriage flew out the window.

He decided to claim his wife.



Alexa felt the man on top of her hold his body in a tight muscle lock. She’d been so intent on their argument she’d forgotten he pinned her to the carpet. She opened her mouth to make another smart remark about bondage, then stopped. Met his eyes. And sucked in her breath.

Oh, God.

Primitive sexual energy swirled between them like a tornado gaining speed and power. His eyes burned with a sheen of fire, half need, half anger as he stared down at her. She realized he lay between her open thighs, his hips angled over hers, his chest propped up as he gripped at her fingers. This was no longer the teasing indulgence of a brother. This was no old friend or business partner. This was the simple want of a man to a woman, and Alexa felt herself dragged down into the storm with her body’s own cry.

“Nick?”

Her voice was raspy. Hesitant. Her nipples pushed against the soft fleece with demand. His gaze raked over her face, her breasts, her exposed stomach. The tension pulled taut between them. He lowered his head. The rush of his breath caressed her lips as he spoke right against her mouth.

“This means nothing.”

His body contradicted his words as he claimed her mouth in a fierce kiss. With one quick thrust, his tongue pushed through the seam of her lips to travel beyond. Her mind fogged, caught between the dull pain of his statement and the pleasure pounding through her in waves. She gripped his hands and hung on, reveling in the dark taste of hunger and expensive chardonnay, rocking her hips upward to meet the hard length of his body, and rubbing her nipples against his chest. She lost control in those few moments, the ageless empty void for the past years temporarily filled with the taste and feel and smell of him.

Her tongue matched every thrust as a low guttural groan escaped her throat. He ripped his fingers away from hers and slid his palms up over her belly and cupped her breasts. Her nipples tightened, and he pushed the cloth up higher. He stared at her naked breasts, and the heat in his eyes nearly burned her alive. One thumb tweaked her nipple and she cried out. His head lowered. Alexa realized this was the moment of truth. If he kissed her again, she’d surrender. Her body ached for his and she couldn’t come up with one damn good reason to stop.

The doorbell rang.

The sound ricocheted off the walls. Nick jerked upward and rolled off her like a politician caught in the middle of a sex scandal, muttering some nasty words she hadn’t known existed.

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