Nick dropped the letter in his lap and went through the motions. “Fine. Back from Mexico so soon?”

“Yeah, I got married.”

Wife number four. His mother would pop out of hiding to make trouble—that seemed to be the pattern. Maggie and he were only pawns to make the game more interesting. Nausea clawed at his gut. “Congratulations. Listen, I gotta go, no time to chat.”

“I have something to discuss with you, Son. Meet me for lunch.”

“Sorry, I’m busy.”

“I just need an hour, tops. Make the time.”

The warning pulsed through the phone. Nick squeezed his eyes shut as he fought instinct. He better meet him, just in case Jed had some twisted idea to go after Dreamscape and challenge the will. What a mess. “Fine. I’ll meet you at three o’clock. Planet Diner.”

He clicked off the phone and glanced back at the letter.

Why would Alexa lie about her use for the hundred and fifty thousand dollars? Was she involved in something he had never suspected? If she requested a loan from the bank for the cafe and was rejected, where had his money gone?

The questions whirled through his mind and made no sense. For some reason, she didn’t want him to discover the truth. If she really wanted more money, she would’ve asked him to co-sign the loan papers and it’d be a guaranteed acceptance. What the hell was going on?

He waited for the car and took a trip to the office to stall for time. His quick call to check on her confirmed she’d be fine until he finished his lunch with Jed. Temptation urged him to ask some serious questions, but another part of him wondered if he wanted to know the truth. He may be in love with her, but the bottom line still hadn’t changed. He couldn’t offer her stability and children. Eventually, if she stayed, she’d end up hating him. Terror washed over him at the thought.

Jed waited in a corner booth. He studied the man who shared his blood. Money and laziness seemed to agree with him. His hair was highlighted by the Mexican sun, and the deep tan that lined his face gave him a character he didn’t really have. He was a tall man, and wore his designer clothes well. Today he was clad in a Ralph Lauren red sweater, black pants, and leather loafers. His dark eyes held a slight sheen of alcohol-induced humor. Probably a cocktail before confronting his long lost son. As Nick slid into the booth, he noted the similarities in their faces and bone structure. He shuddered. What he dreaded most in life was sitting right across from him. The possibility of becoming his father.

“Nick, good to see you.” Jed reached out and shook his hand, then spent a few minutes flirting with the waitress.

Nick ordered a coffee. “So, what brings you to New York, Jed?”

“This is Amber’s hometown. Came back for a visit. I’m thinking of settling back in town for a while. Set up house. Maybe we can spend a bit more time together?”

Nick tested the spring on the box for any emotions but it held tight. Mercifully, he felt nothing. “Why?”

Jed shrugged. “Thought I’d hang out with my only son. It’s been a while, you know. How’s business?”

“Good.” Nick sipped his coffee. “What did you want to talk about?”

“Heard you got married. Congrats. Love, money, or sex?”

Nick blinked. “Excuse me?”

His father gave a loud laugh. “Why’d you marry her? I married your mother for love and that ended in a frickin’ disaster. Wife two and three were for sex, and that blew up. But Amber is all about the money. Money and some respect. I already sense this one will be permanent.”

“Interesting theory.”

“So, which one is it?”

His jaw tightened. “Love.”

Jed hooted and cut into his pancakes. “You’re screwed. At least you got a nice piece of the pie from Uncle Earl. I heard all about it.”

“Don’t even think about contesting the will. It’s already done.”

“Arrogant, are you? You know, I think we’re more alike than you want to believe. We both like money, and we both like women. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Jed pointed his fork at him. “I’m not here to make trouble—I got my own fortune and don’t need yours. But Amber has a bug up her ass about me getting closer to my children. I thought we could all do lunch together. You know, Maggie and you, and Amber’s kids.”

The ridiculousness of the situation caused a moment of speechlessness. Nick thought of all the times he’d begged Jed to have a lousy conversation with him, let alone a meal. And now because his new wife pressed him, Jed assumed he’d jump to experiment with a father/son relationship. A twinge of bitterness leaked through the ice. Too little. Too late. Even worse, Jed didn’t really even care.

Nick drained his coffee. “Appreciate the offer, Jed, but I’ll pass. Haven’t needed you before. Don’t need you now.”

His father’s eyes turned mean. “Always thought you were better than me, huh? The golden boy. Listen up, son, blood is blood, and soon you’ll realize you’re destined to make the same mistakes I did.” He practically snarled his next words. “Wanna know the truth? I married your mother for love, but she only wanted my money. Once I sniffed out the truth, I was going to break it off but it was too late. She got pregnant. And I got stuck. With you.”

Nick swallowed as the nightmare enfolded before him. “What?”

Jed gave a nasty laugh. “That’s right, you were her desperate attempt to keep me, and it worked. A kid means child support and alimony for life. I decided to stay and make it work, but I never forgave her.”

The knowledge made perfect sense as the pieces snapped into place. Jed never wanted him in the first place, nor Maggie. “Why tell me this now?”

His father smiled coldly. “As a warning. Watch this new wife of yours. If she married you for money and feels you slipping away, the oops will be coming. Mark my words. And then you’ll be trapped just like me.” He paused. “Because you are just like me, Nick.”

Nick looked at his father for a long time. A tiny trickle of fear escaped from the box as he recognized the man who had fathered him garnered no respect from his own family. What if Jed Ryan was right? What if all these years he’d been fighting his genes, and his time was up? What if he was destined to become like his father, whether he took the short or the long road?

The past few weeks had tricked him into believing in things that didn’t exist. Love. Truth. Family. Alexa had already lied about the money. What else did she lie about? A chill skated down his spine. What if she had been working a bigger plan the whole time he’d been falling in love with her?

The doubts attacked with a vicious punch, but he ignored them and held his head up. “We’re nothing alike. Good luck, Jed.”

He threw some bills on the table and left, but his spoken words mocked him with every step.

Because in his secret heart, he wondered if it was really true. He wondered if he was more like Jed Ryan than he thought.

Chapter Ten

She was pregnant.

Alexa stared at the closed door where the OB/GYN had disappeared. Yes, she’d been feeling a bit nauseous. Yes, she hadn’t gotten her period when she was due, but easily blamed it on stress. The craziness of the holidays with her family and work and Nick. And why would she have considered the possibility when she was on the birth control pill?

The words from the doctor rang in her ears.

“Did you take any other medicine for the past month?” he had asked.

“No. I just take Tylenol when I have a headache…but wait, I did. I had walking pneumonia and I had to go on…” She trailed off as the knowledge took root.

The doctor nodded. “Antibiotics. Your primary should have warned you it reduces the effects of the pill. I see this slip up a lot, actually. Happy news, I hope?”

A longing welled up from deep inside and burst through like a starburst of emotion. Yes. It was happy news.

At least for her.

She climbed behind the wheel of her Volkswagon. Then rested both palms on her flat belly.

A baby.

She was going to have Nick’s baby.

Her mind flashed back to the past few weeks. They’d grown closer, until the natural rhythm of husband and wife became second nature. Christmas with her family seemed more relaxed, as Nick made a true attempt to enjoy himself. He made love to her with a passion that reached deep and grabbed her soul. She believed the walls slowly crumbled between them. Sometimes, she caught him staring at her with such raw, naked emotion, she lost her breath. Yet, each time she opened her mouth to tell him she loved him, his entire demeanor shut down like a robot. As if he sensed that once she spoke the words, there’d be no turning back.

She had waited for the perfect time, but now her time was up. She loved him. She craved a real marriage beyond a contract. And she needed to tell him what she’d done with the money.

Tension fluttered in her belly. He’d refused to marry Gabriella because she’d wanted a child. Logically, Nick was afraid he’d repeat the mistakes of his father. But Alexa hoped once he realized the baby was real, and part of him, he’d open himself up and finally let himself love.

She drove home in a state of excitement and anticipation. Keeping the truth from him hadn’t even occurred to her. She expected a reaction of shock and a little fear. But her gut told her Nick would eventually warm to the idea. After all, this wasn’t a planned event so Fate had sent them this baby for a good reason.

Stubbornly, Alexa believed she’d make her husband happy. The news would force him to finally open up to her and take a risk. She knew he loved her.

She pulled her car into the driveway and made her way into the house. Old Yeller trudged toward the door to greet her, and she spent a good amount of time stroking his ears and kissing his face until she saw the healthy signs of his tail thump. She hid a smile. If only her husband could be this easy. A little love and patience, and her dog bloomed.

She walked into the kitchen where he was hard at work with dinner. The apron tied around his waist declared him CHEF OF THE YEAR, a Christmas present from her mother. She snuck up behind him and came up on tiptoes, squeezing him tight and nuzzling her nose against his neck.

He turned around and gave her a proper kiss.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

They smiled at each other.

“Whatcha cooking?” she asked.

“Grilled salmon, spinach, roasted potatoes. And the salad of course.”

“Of course.”

“I have news,” he said.

Alexa studied his face. A gleam of triumph lit his eyes and those carved lips kicked up a notch. “Oh my God. You got the contract.”

“I got the contract.”

She let out a whoop and jumped into his arms. He laughed and swung her around, then bent his head and kissed her. The familiar warmth and heat coursed through her, and she dug her nails into his shoulders and hung on. When he’d kissed her deep and thorough, he eased away and beamed down at her. Her heart pumped up and filled with so much joy Alexa worried she’d burst.

“We’re celebrating, baby. We have an extra bottle of champagne from New Year’s Eve chilling in the fridge. Let’s get drunk and crazy.”

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