Gabriella laughed when she saw the surprised look on his face. “She’s playing you, Nick. You’ll never get out of this marriage without a baby or giving up a hell of a lot of money, no matter what she’s told you. Your worst nightmare will come true.” Her lips twisted in disgust. “Just mark my words when her little, ‘Ooops, I guess we made a mistake’ pops up.”
Gabriella walked away and stopped with her hand on the door handle. “Good luck. I’m going to take the job in California, but if you need me, call.”
She slid into the car and drove off. His spine tingled with icy foreboding. He’d bet his life Alexa could be trusted, and would never try to trap him for more money—who marries a billionaire and asks for only one hundred fifty grand? Gabriella was only pissed because she hadn’t been able to keep him.
Nick winced when he thought of the kiss. His first instinct was to ignore the whole episode. But he owed his wife honesty. He’d explain he and Gabriella met by the river in public, she had initiated the kiss, and would be moving to California. End of story. He’d be calm and rational. Alexa had no reason to be jealous. She may be a little annoyed, but a kiss was easily dismissed.
At least, that kiss was.
Some others were harder to forget.
With that thought, he walked to the car and drove home.
Alexa closed her eyes and fought a bone-weary despair.
She sat in her battered yellow Volkswagon with the windows rolled up and Prince blasting on her stereo. The bank parking lot emptied as five minutes turned into an hour and continued ticking. She stared out her windshield and tried to fight off the bitter taste of failure and disappointment that ate at her gut like acid.
Yes, BookCrazy was doing well and she’d just turned a profit. But the bank was not thrilled with the idea of pouring more money into her business, when she barely broke even now, and had no collateral and no savings and nothing to back her up. She thought of her favorite Sex & the City episode and wondered how many pairs of shoes she had. Then realized she didn’t even have that many.
Of course, her Mr. Big was really her husband and with just a tiny addition on those loan papers she would have scored. She wondered if she’d been stupid and prideful not to use the connection, and almost got out of the car.
She let out a long, sorrowful groan. A deal was a deal, and she’d already collected her money. Now she was back to square one, stuck with a husband for a year who didn’t like her—but who occasionally wanted to have sex until his mind cleared.
And she was dead broke.
Oh, yeah, she’d hit the jackpot.
Cursing, she started the engine and shoved the formal rejection letter into her glove compartment. Bottom line remained. She wouldn’t use Nick’s money to further her career when their relationship was only temporary. She needed to secure that loan on her own damn credentials. If she used Nick, the cafe wouldn’t truly belong to her. No, she’d wait another year, garner more profits, and try again. No need to turn suicidal and depressed because of a little setback.
Guilt gnawed at her stomach. The lies added up to an impressive pile. First to her parents. Then to Nick. How was she supposed to explain the lack of expansion when Nick had already handed over the check? And her parents thought she was now rolling in dough. They’d be questioning Nick about when he’d begin the architectural work for BookCrazy. After all, why wouldn’t her husband help his own wife with her business?
The elaborate tower of cards swayed and threatened to topple.
She drove home amidst the edges of gloom and pulled in next to Nick’s car. She hoped he had made dinner, then realized she couldn’t have anything but a salad because she cheated on her diet at lunch with a delicious, greasy cheeseburger deluxe and large fries.
Her mood turned blacker.
When she walked in, the house practically expanded with the scent of garlic and herbs and tomatoes. Alexa threw her purse on the couch, kicked off her shoes, and hiked up her skirt to rip off her pantyhose before entering the kitchen.
“What are you doing?”
He turned his head. “Making dinner.”
She gave him a scowl. “I just want a salad.”
“I already made it. In the refrigerator, chilling. How was your day?”
His nice tone ruffled her nerves. “Just ducky.”
“That good, hmmm?”
She ignored him and poured herself a large glass of water. Water and dry lettuce complemented each other nicely. “Did you feed the fish?”
He stirred a pot of sauce that bubbled over, and the smell made saliva pool in her mouth. How the hell he had learned to cook like an old Italian grandmother was beyond her, but the whole thing was getting annoying. What husband got home from work and cooked a gourmet meal for God’s sakes? He wasn’t normal.
He threw in the spaghetti. “Odd choice of a word, isn’t it? Fish is either singular, or plural. Imagine my surprise when I walked in the study and found not one fish in a tiny fish bowl, but an entire aquarium.”
She practically vibrated for the need to fight. “Otto was lonely and you were practicing animal cruelty. He was too isolated. Now, he has friends and a place to swim.”
“Yes, nice little tunnels and rocks and algae to play hide and seek with his buddies.”
“You’re being sarcastic.”
“And you’re cranky.”
She slammed her water glass down on the table. Liquid sloshed over the rim. With a defiant turn on her heel, she ditched the water, walked over to the liquor cabinet, and poured herself two fingers of Scotch. The liquid sizzled down her throat and calmed her nerves. She caught sight of his shoulders shaking a little but when she looked at him with suspicion, he didn’t seem to be laughing at her.
“I had a bad day.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“No. And I’m not eating any spaghetti.”
He left her in silence while she had another drink and started to settle. She sat in the cozy kitchen surrounded by the sounds of old-fashioned cooking and a heavenly silence. He wore an apron tonight over his faded jeans and T-shirt. Instead of softening his masculinity, the plain black apron emphasized lean hips, a broad chest, and a magnificent butt. His grace and ease in such a domestic environment made her breath hitch just a bit.
He set the table, dispersed his food and her salad, and began to eat. Her curiosity about his day piqued.
“How’s the waterfront contract going?”
He expertly rolled his spaghetti over his fork and popped it neatly into his mouth. “Had a drink with Hyoshi and he gave me his vote.”
A deep sense of pleasure cut through her fog. “Nick, that’s wonderful. That only leaves Michael.”
He frowned. “Yeah. Conte may cause a problem.”
“You can talk to him Saturday night.”
His frown deepened. “I’d rather not go to the party.”
“Oh. Okay, I’ll go alone.”
“Forget it, I’ll go.”
“We’ll have fun. It will give you another chance to pitch him in a relaxed environment.” She left her salad in front of her and stared hungrily at the bowl of spaghetti. Maybe she’d sneak in a forkful. After all, she had to try the sauce.
“If Conte nixes the deal, the whole thing is off.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’re the best.”
She concentrated on her pasta. When she finally looked up, it was to see a strange expression cross his face. He seemed unsettled. “How would you know?”
Alexa smiled. “I’ve seen your work. I used to watch when we were young, and you’d build things in the garage. I always thought you’d be a carpenter, but when I saw Mt. Vesuvius restaurant, I knew you found your true calling. The whole place pulled at me, Nick. From the trickling water, to the flowers and bamboo and the resemblance to an old Japanese hut in the mountains. You’re a brilliant architect.”
He looked positively awestruck at her comment. Didn’t he know she had always admired his talent, even when they’d ruthlessly teased each other? Even after the long years apart? “Why do you look so surprised?”
He seemed to shake off the spell. “I don’t know. I never had a woman interested in my career. No one really understands it.”
“Then they’re stupid. Can I finish this last portion or do you want some more?”
His lips twitched as he handed over the bowl. “Be my guest.” She fought a groan as the spicy tomato sauce danced on her tongue. “Alexa, what’s going on with your bookstore expansion?”
The strand of spaghetti caught in her throat and she choked. He flew up from the chair and began pounding on her back, but she shook him off and guzzled a few mouthfuls of water. The poem flashed in mocking horror past her vision. Oh, the tangled web we weave, when first we first practice to deceive…
“Are you okay?”
“Fine. Just went down the wrong pipe.” She changed the subject. “We have to go over my parents’ for Thanksgiving.”
“No, I hate holidays. You didn’t answer my question. You got the cash and I was under the impression you needed to start the cafe right away. I have some ideas I’d like to go over with you.”
Her heart beat so fast the blood roared in her head. This was bad. Very, very bad. “Umm, Nick, I don’t expect you to help me with the cafe. You have enough on your plate with the waterfront project and the board hounding your every step. Besides, I already sort of hired someone.”
She waved her hand in the air in a dismissive gesture. “Forgot his name. A customer recommended him. He’s, um, drawing up the plans and we’ll start soon. I may wait until spring.”
He frowned. “No reason to wait. I don’t trust this guy already. Give me his number and I’ll talk to him.”
“Because I don’t want you involved.” The words seemed to punch him like a surprise right hook. He winced, then quickly recovered. The misery of her lies festered, but she reminded herself to stick to business, even though she knew in some strange way she hurt him.
His face reflected disinterest. “Fine. If that’s what you prefer.”
Her voice gentled. “I’d just like to stick to business in our relationship. Getting you involved in my cafe project isn’t a good idea. Don’t you agree?”
“Sure. Whatever you want.”
The silence beat around them and verged on awkwardness. She cleared her throat. “Back to Thanksgiving. You have to go, there’s no choice.”
“Tell them I have to work.”
“You’re going. It’s important to my family. They’d suspect something’s up if we don’t attend.”
“I hate Thanksgiving.”
“I heard you the first time but I still don’t care.”
“Family holidays weren’t in the contract.”
“Sometimes we can’t follow the contract to the letter.”
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