He turned on the treadmill and tried not to think of smoking. Even after five years, when the stress kicked up a notch, he longed for a cigarette. Annoyed at his weakness when the urge hit, he exercised. Running soothed him, especially in his perfectly controlled environment. No loud voices interrupting his concentration, no scorching sunlight, no rocks or gravel impeding his path. He set the panel and began the steady pace that would lead him toward a solution.
Even though he understood his uncle’s intentions, the sense of betrayal slowly ate away at his peace. In the end, one of the only family members he loved had used him as a pawn.
Nick shook his head. He should have seen this coming. Uncle Earl had spent his last few months alive spouting the importance of family, and had thought Nick’s response was lackluster. Nick wondered why his uncle was surprised. After all, his family should have been an advertisement for birth control.
As Nick had drifted in and out of relationships, one thing became clear—all women wanted marriage, and marriage meant messiness. Fights about emotion. Children tearing them both at the seams, wanting more attention. Needing more space, until the end became the same as every other relationship. Divorce. With children as the casualties.
He pumped up the incline and adjusted the speed as his thoughts whirled. Uncle Earl remained stubbornly optimistic until the bitter end that a woman would save his nephew’s life. The heart attack had struck hard and fast. When the lawyers finally descended like a pack of vultures on the scent of blood money, Nick thought the legalities would be easy. His sister, Maggie, had already made it quite clear she wanted nothing to do with the business. Uncle Earl had no other relatives. So, for the first time, Nick believed in good fortune. Finally, he’d have something completely his own.
Until the lawyers read the will.
Then he realized the joke was on him.
He would inherit the majority of the Dreamscape shares as soon as he married. The marriage must last for one year, to any woman he chose, and a prenuptial agreement was acceptable. If Nick decided not to comply with his uncle’s wishes, he’d retain fifty-percent; the balance would be split among the board members, and Nick would be nothing but a figurehead. Instead of creating buildings, he’d be stuck in meetings and corporate politics; exactly what he did not want to do with his life.
And Uncle Earl had known it.
So now Nick had to find a wife.
He hit the switch and the incline lowered. He slowed his pace and evened his breath. With methodical precision, his mind cut through the emotional emptiness and scanned the possibilities. He got off the treadmill, grabbed a chilled bottle of Evian from the minibar, and walked back to his chair. He took a swallow of the icy, clean liquid, and placed the sweating bottle on his desk. Waited a few minutes as he gathered his thoughts. Then picked up the gold pen and rolled it between his fingers.
He printed the words, each a nail banged into his own personal coffin.
Find a wife.
He wouldn’t waste any more time griping about unfairness. Nick decided to make a clear list of the attributes his wife would need, and see if he could think of any appropriate candidates.
Immediately, an image of Gabriella arose, but he squashed the thought. The stunning supermodel he currently dated was perfect for social functions and great sex, but not marriage. Gabriella was a sharp conversationalist and he enjoyed her company, but he was afraid she was already falling in love with him. She’d hinted at her desire to have children, which was a deal-breaker. No matter how he laid out the ground rules of a marriage, emotion would ruin it. She’d become jealous and demanding, like any normal wife. No pre-nup would ever stand up to her greed once she felt betrayed.
He took another drink of water and ran his thumb in circles over the rough edge of the bottle top. He’d once read if a person made a list of all the qualities he admired in a woman, one appeared. Nick frowned as he grabbed at the fleeting thought. He was almost positive the theory had something to do with the universe. Getting back what you put into the cosmos. Some metaphysical crap he didn’t believe in.
But today he was desperate.
He set the pen on the left edge of the page and wrote his list.
A woman who does not love me.
A woman I do not desire to sleep with.
A woman who does not have a big family.
A woman who does not have any animals
A woman who does not want any children.
A woman who has an independent career.
A woman who will view the relationship as a business venture.
A woman who is not overly emotional or impulsive.
A woman I can trust.
Nick read over the summary. He knew some of his desired qualities were stubbornly optimistic but if the universe theory worked, he might as well put down everything he wanted. He needed a woman who looked upon the venture as a business opportunity. Perhaps, someone who craved a large payoff. He intended to offer many fringe benefits, but he wanted the marriage in name only. No sex equals no jealousy. No overly emotional woman equals no love.
No messiness equals a perfect marriage.
He sifted through each woman he’d dated in his past, every female friend he’d exchanged words with, every business associate he ever lunched with.
He came up with nothing.
Frustration nibbled on the edges of his nerves. He was a thirty-year-old man, reasonably attractive, intelligent, and financially secure. And he couldn’t come up with one decent woman to marry.
He had one week to find his wife.
His cell phone rang. Nick picked it up. “Ryan.”
“Nick, it’s me. Maggie.” She paused. “Did you find a wife yet?”
A chuckle strangled his lips. His sister was the only woman in the world who got him to laugh on a regular basis. Even if it was sometimes at his expense. “Working on it now.”
“I think I found her.”
His heartbeat sped up. “Who is it?”
Another pause. “You’d have to meet her terms but I don’t think they’ll be a problem. Be open-minded. I know that’s not your forte. But you can trust her.”
He checked the last item on his list. A strange buzzing hummed in his ears as if in warning of his sister’s next words. “Who is it, Maggs?”
Silence fell over the line for a beat. “Alexa.”
The room whirled in a dizzying blur at the familiar name from his past. His only thought flashed like a mantra in vivid neon, over and over.
No frickin’ way.
Nick glanced around, satisfied with the result. His private conference room provided a business atmosphere, and the bouquet of fresh flowers his secretary had placed in the center of the table offered a personal touch amongst the plush wine carpeting, the rich gleam of cherry wood, and buttery leather chairs. The contracts were neatly laid out, along with an elegant silver tray filled with tea, coffee, and a variety of pastries. Formal, yet friendly—which would reflect the tone of their marriage.
He ignored the pitch deep in his gut when he thought of encountering Alexandria McKenzie again. He wondered how she’d grown. The stories his sister shared with him painted a picture of a reckless, impulsive woman. He initially balked at Maggie’s suggestion—Alexa didn’t fit the image he needed. Stubborn memories of a free-spirited kid with a ponytail bobbing teased his thoughts, even though he knew she owned a respectable bookstore. He still thought of her as Maggie’s playmate, even though he hadn’t seen her in years.
But time was running out.
They shared a distant past, and he sensed Alexa could be trusted. She may not fit his idea of the perfect wife, but she needed money. Fast. Maggie remained silent regarding the reason, but painted Alexa as desperate. A need for cash he was comfortable with—it was black and white. No gray areas. No ideas of intimacy between them. A formal business transaction between old friends. Nick could live with that.
He reached for the intercom to buzz his secretary, but the heavy door smoothly swung open at the same time and closed with a solid click.
Deep blue eyes cut straight to his with little hesitation and a clearness that told him this woman would lose any poker game—she was brutally honest and unwilling to bluff. He recognized her gaze well enough, but age had changed the colors to a disturbing mix of aquamarine and sapphire. Certain images came to mind—plumbing the depths of the Caribbean Sea in search of its mysteries. A canvas of Sinatra’s umbrella skies stretched so far and wide a man couldn’t find the beginning or end.
Her eyes were startling against the inky black of her hair, which consisted of corkscrew curls that tumbled past her shoulders and framed her face with a natural wildness she seemed unable to tame. High cheekbones set off a lush mouth. He used to ask her if she’d been stung by a bee, then crack up laughing. The joke was on him. Hot male fantasies were built around a mouth like hers—and it had nothing to do with bees. Just honey. Preferably warm, sticky honey poured over those plump lips and slowly licked off.
He reigned himself in and finished his inspection. He remembered torturing her when he found out she had to wear a bra. An early developer, she’d been mortified by his discovery, and he’d used the information wisely. Now, it wasn’t funny anymore. Her breasts were as lush as her mouth, and matched the curve of her hips. She was tall, almost as tall as he, and this package of female temptation came all wrapped up in a fiery red tank dress that emphasized her cleavage, skimmed over her hips, and fell to the floor. Scarlet toenails peeked through shiny red sandals. She remained still in the doorway, as if allowing him to drink his fill before she decided to speak.
Feeling somewhat staggered, Nick fought past his discomposure and relied on professionalism to hide his reaction. Alexandria Maria McKenzie had grown up well. A little too well for his taste. But there was no need to let her know.
He offered her the same neutral smile he’d offer any business associate. “Hello, Alexa. It’s been a long time.”
She smiled back but it didn’t reach her eyes. She shifted her feet and fisted her hands. “Hello, Nick. How are you?”
“Fine. Please sit down. Can I pour you coffee? Tea?”
“Cream. Thank you.” She slid gracefully into the cushioned chair, swiveled away from the desk, and crossed her legs. The slinky red material crept up and gave him a glimpse of olive skin, smooth and athletic.
He concentrated on the coffee. “Napoleon? Apple fritter? They’re from the bakery across the street.”
“No, thank you.”
“Yes. I’d never be able to stop at one. I’ve learned not to tempt myself. “
The word tempt fell from her lips in a low, smoky voice that stroked his ears. His pants tightened a notch and he realized her voice stroked other places as well. Completely disconcerted by his reaction to a woman he wanted no physical contact with, he focused on preparing her coffee and sat across from her.
They studied each other for a few moments and the silence lengthened. She plucked at the delicate gold bracelet encircling her wrist. “I’m sorry about your Uncle Earl.”
“Thank you. Did Maggie fill you in on the details?”
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