“Are you okay?” he asked.
She blinked at the reserved demeanor of a man who two seconds ago had ripped at her clothes. He calmly buttoned his shirt and waited for her response. Except for the bulge in his black pants, he looked entirely unaffected by the episode. Just as he had when he’d kissed her at her parents’ house.
The heavy meal lurched in her stomach and Alexa fought past the nausea. She took a deep yoga breath and sat up, pulling down her top. “Sure. Answer the door.”
He stared at her for a few moments, as if checking to see if he believed her facade, then nodded and walked out of the room.
She mashed her fingers against her lips and tried to hold it together. She’d made a monumental mistake. Obviously, her recent celibacy had caused her hormones to go insane, until any man who touched her set her off like a firecracker. His last statement flashed in her mind with a mocking finality.
This means nothing.
She heard conversation in the hallway. A tall, leggy brunette entered the room with the ease of someone who knew the house well. Alexa stared at one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen—obviously Nick’s ex.
Chorus girl legs started with black platform heels and disappeared under a pair of silk trousers. Her slim hips were encircled with a silver chain belt, and a metallic stretchy top molded to her small breasts, dipping at the neckline and exposing the top of her shoulders. Her long raven hair fell down her back in a mass of perfect waves. Not a frizzy curl in sight. Her eyes were a startling emerald color, with long, black lashes. Her full lips set off high cheekbones and she radiated an air of relaxed elegance. She looked around the room, then focused on Alexa.
Alexa knew then she was going to throw up.
The goddess turned to Nick with an air of apology. Even her voice was a husky reminder of sex. “I just had to meet her.”
With horror, she realized Gabriella not only slept with Nick, but actually cared about him. The obvious hurt shimmering in those eyes accused her woman to woman for stealing her man. Part of Alexa watched the scene from above with actual humor. It was like an episode of The Real Housewives of New York gone horribly wrong. At least it wasn’t Jersey Shore. Her crazy thoughts rocketed and she grabbed at the tendrils of her sanity.
Alexa rose and looked up at the skinny goddess who towered over her. She dug deep for composure and pretended she wore real clothes and not a gym outfit. “I understand,” she said formally.
“Gabby, how did you get past security?”
Artfully tousled curls slid over one shoulder. Gabriella reached out and pressed something in Nick’s hand. “I still had my key and the security code. After you told me you were going to marry, well, things got a bit intense.”
The words pummeled Alexa’s sensitive skin like wasp stings. To hell with this. She refused to allow Nick to continue a relationship on the side when they had signed a contract. Therefore, she needed to pretend to be the possessive wife. She swallowed hard and forced herself to smile calmly at her adversary.
“Gabriella, I’m sorry if you were hurt by our decision. It came rather fast for both of us, you know.” She laughed and positioned herself between the two. “We knew each other from years ago and when we met again, we got caught up in a whirlwind.” She pretended to look up with adoration at her current husband, though her fists ached to get one good punch in. He slipped his arms around her and his body heat burned through the thin material of her yoga pants. “I have to ask you to leave. It’s our honeymoon night.”
Gabriella studied them with an assessing air. “Odd you wouldn’t be taking a trip somewhere more…romantic.”
Nick saved her. “I have work obligations so we delayed our island getaway.”
Gabriella spoke in a clipped manner. “Fine. I’ll leave. I needed to see for myself who he chose over me.” Her expression informed Alexa she didn’t understand Nick’s decision. “I’ll be out of town for a bit. I committed to help in Haiti with some of the rebuilding.”
Oh. My. God. She was a humanitarian. The woman looked perfect, had money, and actually helped people. Alexa’s heart sank. Gabriella turned and focused on the deck of cards. “Hmmm, I always loved cards. Just not for a wedding night.”
Gabriella didn’t give them a chance to reply. With the gracefulness of a cobra, she slithered out the door without a backward glance.
Alexa jumped away from Nick at the sound of the click. An awkward silence settled over the room as her thoughts spun.
“I’m sorry, Alexa. I never expected her to show up at my house.”
The question rose from deep within. She swore she wouldn’t ask, but the short and bloody battle ended before it had even begun. The words sprung from her lips. “Why did you marry me and not her?”
Compared to Gabriella, Alexa lacked in every facet. Nick’s girlfriend was beautiful, elegant, and skinny. She spoke with intelligence, volunteered for worthy causes, and actually behaved with class for a woman scorned. She also cared about Nick. Why would he have hurt her?
Nick stepped back. “It doesn’t matter,” he said coldly.
“I need to know.”
Ice slithered down her spine as she caught the resolution on his face. The shutter slammed down, and suddenly she looked upon a man with absolutely no emotion or feeling. “Because she wanted more than I can give her. She wanted to settle down and raise a family.”
Alexa took a step back. “What’s so wrong about that?”
“I told Gabriella the truth from the beginning. I don’t do permanent. I never want children, and I will never be the type of man to settle down long-term. I promised myself years ago.” He paused. “So I married you instead.”
The room spun as the finality of his statement washed over her. Her husband may experience fits of passion. His touch may be warm, and his lips even warmer, but his heart was carved in stone. He’d never let a woman inside—he was too badly damaged to take a chance. Somehow, his parents had convinced him love does not exist. Even if a weak ray glimmered on the surface, he still believed there was no happy ending. Just children as casualties and a lifetime of hurt.
How could any woman fight such a hardcore belief with any hope of winning? His need for a business marriage suddenly made perfect sense.
“Are you okay?”
She decided to end the night with her finale. Nick Ryan could break her heart. Again. She needed to act cool and efficient in order to save her pride. And she must always keep her distance. Alexa schooled her features to give away nothing and pushed the pain deep inside her body until it was a tight ball in her stomach.
“Stop asking me if I’m okay. Of course I’m okay. Just don’t think you can sneak in a quickie with your ex. A deal is a deal.”
His face tightened. “I gave you my word, remember?”
“You also cheated at poker.”
The reminder of their poker game gone awry made humiliation burn through her. He shifted his feet and pushed his hand through his hair and Alexa knew the speech was coming. “About what happened—”
She gave an Academy Award-worthy laugh. “Oh, Lord, we’re not going to have a talk about that, are we?” She rolled her eyes. “Listen, Nick, I have to admit something. Sure, this marriage is a business arrangement, but I was wearing the dress, and it was technically our wedding night and…” She threw her hands up in surrender. “I got carried away with the whole idea. You just happened to be, well—”
“I was thinking more…handy. You were handy. It didn’t mean anything so let’s just blow the whole thing off, okay?”
He studied her with narrowed eyes, taking in every feature of her face. The clock ticked and she waited. A strange play of emotion flickered in his eyes, until she swore he stared at her with regret.
It must have been a trick of the light.
He finally nodded. “We’ll blame it on the wine and the full moon or something.”
She turned. “I’m going to bed. It’s late.”
“Okay. Good night.”
She walked up the spiral staircase and slid beneath the covers, not wanting to brush her teeth or do her skin routine or change into her pajamas. She pulled the downy comforter up to her chin, buried her face in the pillow, and embraced sleep, a place she didn’t have to think or feel or hurt.
Nick looked at the deserted staircase. Emptiness pulsed inside him and he had no idea why. He poured the rest of the wine into his glass, adjusted the volume on the stereo, and settled onto the sofa. The opera music flowed over him and soothed his nerves.
His almost-mistake loomed before him. If Gabby hadn’t shown up, Alexa would’ve been in his bed. No more uncomplicated marriage.
When had his need for a woman ever caused havoc with his plans? Even when he’d courted Gabriella and they’d become intimate, he’d never been attached to the outcome. His goal was clear and necessary. But even that wasn’t enough to stop him once he’d gotten a taste of Alexa McKenzie. She wrecked his mind, made him laugh, and tempted him with the delights of her body without a single subtle manipulation. She was different from any other woman he’d ever known, and he wanted her to stay in the category of his friend. His sister’s best friend. He wanted to laugh at their past, live in harmony for one year, and say good-bye with ease.
The first lousy night he’d gone and ripped off her shirt.
He drained the glass of wine and switched the stereo off. He’d fix it. She already admitted she only wanted a warm body in her bed. Obviously, she wasn’t attracted to him, and she’d probably drunk too much wine and gotten caught up in the wedding fantasy. Just as she admitted. She wanted the money, and she missed the sex.
His stubborn mind screamed she couldn’t react so passionately to every man who touched her. He firmly ignored the warning, moved from the couch, and headed up the stairs to his own bed.
Alexa looked over the crowd and wished she was back at BookCrazy, holding her Friday night poetry reading. The business dinner tonight was the turning point in Nick’s career. She knew heavy hitters swarmed the halls for the chance at glory, and Nick needed to dazzle the crowd in order to get a hearing.
She handed the hostess her coat and let Nick lead her into the packed ballroom. “I’m assuming you have a general plan of attack?” she asked. “Who are the two players you need to concentrate on?”
He motioned toward a thick cloud of cigar smoke. A tight circle of conservative businessmen surrounded a man impeccably dressed in a gray suit and silk tie. “Hyoshi Komo is building the Japanese restaurant. His vote is key to gain the third partner in the waterfront deal.”
“So, why don’t you go over there and give your pitch?” She plucked a salmon tart from the tray of a tuxedo-clad waiter and grabbed a glass of champagne from another.
“Because I don’t want to be one of the crowd. I have a different plan in mind.” She sipped the bubbly and sighed with pleasure. “Don’t get drunk.”
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