She needed him to want only her.
That was the last proverbial nail in her coffin. Because tonight, she still wasn’t convinced he wanted his wife in his bed.
Dully, she congratulated herself on being as logical as Nick. If she couldn’t sleep with him, she’d have to keep pushing him away and walk the line between friendship and desire. She was tired of fighting. So, she chose honesty with a twist. Just like a hot toddy—the medicine went down better with a little bit of liquor.
“Nick, I’m sorry.” She pulled herself to full height and wrapped herself in an invisible cloud of dignity. “I was wrong to hide those dogs from you. I’ll get everything cleaned up and drive them back to the shelter in the morning. If they need me again, I’ll tell you and I’m sure we can work it out.”
She continued in a rush. “And about what happened here. It’s okay. I got caught up in the moment like you, and I’ve heard anger usually turns to passion, and let’s face it, we’re both sexually frustrated. These episodes are bound to happen. And I don’t want to talk about it—I’m sick of talking this business relationship to death. It’s just about money so we need to stick to the contract. Okay?”
Nick struggled for composure at his wife’s speech. The itch between his shoulder blades warned him she hid a lot more than she let on. He knew this moment could turn on a quarter and not a dime if he took one step away from his logically plotted course.
He pushed the nagging thought away and looked at her. As the days passed, he realized she became more beautiful to him. Light shimmered from her eyes, and smile, and her very heart. Their dialogues pushed open doors he thought had been locked, but the result was a strange flow of emotion he didn’t feel comfortable with—and never would. She was a woman who needed a secure relationship. Hell, she was a woman who deserved it. He could only give her sex and friendship. Not love.
He’d made his decision years ago. The cost was too great.
So, Nick watched the fragile thread snap between them again with a mixture of emotions and too much damn regret.
He forced a nod and a slight smile. “Apology and explanation accepted. No more analyzing.”
She smiled back but her eyes remained distant. “Good. Why don’t you go upstairs while I clean up?”
“I’d rather do it myself.”
He moved toward the stairs and studied the hound dog crouched in the corner. A long, yellow body. Ugly face. Canine eyes echoed his own past—lots of pain and no one to count on. Matted fur matched a long tail, hanging limply to one side. Definitely a loner, like an older kid in an orphanage flung amidst cute, little babies. Probably caught trying to steal some food. Probably no family or kids or connections. The dog stood quietly at the foot of the stairs and watched him climb.
Nick remembered the summer he’d found an old mutt in the woods. The dog was starved, with clumpy fur and hopeless eyes. Nick dragged him home and plied him with food and water. Eventually he nursed him back to health and made a friend.
He’d managed to hide him from his mother for a while since the house was so big, and the housekeeper agreed to keep the secret. Then one day he arrived home from school and went looking for him and noticed his father was back from a trip to the Cayman Islands. He knew immediately his dog was not there. When he confronted his father, Jed Ryan laughed and gave him a rough push. “No losers in this house, buddy. Maybe if you got a real dog like a German Shepherd. That mutt was good for nothing and actually crapped in the house. I got rid of it.”
Jed Ryan had walked away, and Nick remembered the lesson again. Never get attached. He’d thought about that dog every day for years, then finally locked it away where the thought could never bother him again.
For the second time that night, Nick hesitated, wanting to take a chance on something but too afraid of the consequences. His heart hitched with longing, unrest, confusion. Then he turned his back on his wife and the ugly dog and shut the door behind him.
Nick stood on the dock and watched the line of boats bob in the water. Cranky waves rose and hit the shore as a harbinger of winter. The burnt orange sunset cut through the threatening dark and illuminated the archway of lights from the Newburgh Beacon Bridge. He stuck his hands in his Armani suit jacket and breathed in the fresh, clean air. Calmness seeped through his body as he stared at his beloved mountains, and once again, he knew this was where he belonged.
Ten years ago, the waterfront property had been infested with drug dealers and crack addicts. The beautiful lines of the river were steeped in garbage, the elegant brick buildings stood empty, their broken windows a cry for help. Eventually, investors saw the potential of the area and began to throw money into a dream of restoration.
Nick and his uncle watched the project carefully and bided their time. Somehow, they had both suspected the opportunity would finally come for Dreamscape to profit locally. The first daring person to open a bar in the area began to draw a new crowd who wanted to have a beer and some Buffalo wings while watching the seagulls. As the cops descended into the heart of the city, cleanup projects sprouted up from not-for-profit organizations. The last five years proved the project was worthy of investors’ attention. The restaurants and spa Nick wanted to build would change the Hudson Valley forever. And he knew he was the one meant to build it.
His mind flashed back to his meeting with Hyoshi Komo. Nick had finally closed the deal. There was only one man left who stood in the way of his dream.
Nick swore softly as he watched the sun begin to sink. Hyoshi had agreed to give Nick the contract only if Michael Conte backed him. If Nick couldn’t convince Conte he was the man for the job, Hyoshi would pick another architect and Dreamscape wouldn’t have a chance.
Nick couldn’t let that happen.
He was a man who had traveled widely in search of an education for architecture. He’d looked upon the glittering gold domes in Florence and the tall elegant towers in Paris. He’d seen pristine exotic islands, the majestic Swiss Alps, and the raw, carved rocks of the Grand Canyon.
Nothing in his sight or mind or heart came close to his mountains.
A mocking smile touched his lips as the corny thought caught and held.
He studied the view for a long time, as his mind sorted his problems with his wife and the contract and Conte and still came up empty. His cell phone rang and interrupted his thoughts.
He punched the button without checking caller ID. “Hello.”
He smothered a curse. “Gabriella. What do you want?”
She paused. “I need to see you. There’s something important to discuss and I can’t over the phone.”
“I’m down by the river. Why don’t you come to the office tomorrow?”
“By the marina?”
“I’m on my way. Be there in ten.”
The phone clicked.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered. He quickly went over the options and reminded himself he had every right to leave. Then the guilt pricked. Gabriella may still be upset he’d ended the relationship so abruptly. Maybe she needed to yell at him some more. He knew women believed in closure, and had a thing about competition. She was probably driving herself crazy that Alexa had “won” him.
So he decided to wait and listen to her ranting, then apologize and get on with his life. Fifteen minutes later, Gabriella showed up.
He watched her climb out of her silver Mercedes convertible. She walked over with a lazy confidence that invited men to look their fill. He neutrally admired the cropped black T-shirt that exposed her flat stomach and showed off her belly ring. Hip hugger jeans slung slow, cinched with a thin black belt. Low-heeled black boots crunched on the gravel until she stopped in front of him. Wine red lips pursed in a professional pout.
“Nick.” Her eyes burned but her tone was chilly. “It’s good to see you.”
He nodded. “What’s going on?”
“I need some advice. I got a contract offer for Lace Cosmetics.”
“That’s a huge account, Gabby. Congratulations. What’s the problem?”
She leaned in. The expensive scent of Chanel drifted in the air. “It’s a two-year deal but I’d need to relocate to California.” Emerald eyes widened with the perfect amount of innocence and desire. “This is my home. And I hate Baywatch mentality. I’ve always been a die-hard New Yorker. Like you.”
A warning bell clanged somewhere in his brain. “You need to decide this for yourself. It’s over between us. I’m married.”
“We had something real. I think you got spooked and jumped at the first female you could control.”
He shook his head with a twinge of sadness. “I’m sorry, that’s not true. I have to go.”
“Wait!” One moment she stood a few inches away, the next she was squished against his chest with her arms looped around his neck and her hips seriously grinding against his.
“I miss this,” she murmured. “You know how good we are together. Marriage or no marriage, I still want you. And you want me.”
“I’ll prove it.” She dragged his head down to meet hers and he had a second to decide what the hell he’d do. Push her away and keep to the letter of the contract? Or take the opportunity to test the hold his wife had on him?
The thought of Alexa drifted past. He stiffened his shoulders and began to back away, but the taunting inner demon rose up and whispered its warning. His wife wasn’t real, just a fleeting image that would shatter into heartbreak and pain and remind him nothing lasted. Gabriella would make him forget. Gabriella would make him remember. Gabriella would force him to face the truth of his marriage.
The truth they had no real marriage.
So, he grabbed the opportunity and took her lips, plundering her mouth as he had in the past. Her taste invaded his mouth, and her hands frantically rubbed up and down his back in an invitation to drag her to the car and take her right there, and for a little while he’d be clear of his frustration and longing for someone else.
He almost bent to her will, but then another realization took hold.
He was on automatic. Once, he’d experienced arousal with this woman. Now, there was only a minor buzz, which paled to the earth-shattering reaction Alexa caused with just a touch. Gabby’s taste didn’t please him, and her breasts didn’t spill over into his hands, and her hips were too sharp and jabbed against his waist.
And he realized she wasn’t Alexa, would never be Alexa, and he didn’t want to settle.
Nick pulled away.
She took a while to accept his rejection. Sheer rage swept over her face before she managed to calm herself. He tried to stumble out an apology but she cut him off. “Something’s going on, Nick. All the pieces don’t add up.” Her spine straightened with a stiff dignity. Nick knew every action was calculated to cause the most dramatic effect. It was another element so different between her and Alexa. “Let me tell you my theory. You needed to get married fast for some business deal and she fit the bill.”
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