The marriage bargain, p.30
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       The Marriage Bargain, p.30

         Part #1 of Marriage to a Billionaire series by Jennifer Probst
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Page 30

 

  Maria nodded. “Marriage is messy. People make mistakes. Sometimes we do terrible things. But the vows you spoke encompassed good times and bad. ”

  Nick choked on the lump in his throat. “I don’t have staying power. I’m like my father. He’s on wife number four, and he only cares about himself. I can’t stand hurting an innocent child. There’s nothing worse than not being wanted. ”

  He braced himself for disdain and shock. Instead, Maria laughed and crossed the room to take him in his arms in a tight hug. “Oh, Nicholas, how could you possibly say that? Don’t you remember how often you’d sneak into my house to steal cookies and keep an eye on your sister? You are a loving, whole man and nothing like your father. I see this every time you look at my daughter, and your love for her shines from your eyes. ”

  Jim cleared his throat. “You are your own man, Nick. You make your own mistakes and choices. Don’t go blaming anything on genes or hide behind excuses. You’re better than that. ”

  Maria cupped his face with her hands. Her eyes reflected love and humor and understanding. “A man like your father would never have given us such a generous gift. The money you and Alexa gave us allowed us to take care of our children and keep our home. ”

  Nick frowned. “Money?”

  She shook her head. “I know Alexa said it was a condition that I never mention it, but really, sweetheart, you must know how grateful we are. ”

  He played along, as his gut screamed the answer was the final piece to the puzzle of his wife. “Yes, of course, it was our pleasure. And you used it for…”

  Maria tilted her head. “To save our home, of course. Now Jim and I can take care of the bills, and the upkeep. We finally have a chance. And it’s all because of you. ”

  The puzzle lay before him in vibrant glory. Complete. The money he taunted her with had not gone to her business. She had lied and saved her family’s house. That was the reason she married him.

  She’d tried to get the loan on her own for her cafe, but was rejected. And now he realized why Alexa had never told him the truth. How could she? He’d never offered her a safe place to confess her truth. She refused to let him pity her or her family, or even hold something over her head. She took care of her own, because anyone Alexa loved she fought for ‘til the death. She was the most loyal, forgiving, headstrong, passionate woman he’d ever met in his life, and he was madly in love with her.

  The truth pulsed in every muscle in his body. She hadn’t lied about the baby. She hadn’t tried to get pregnant. Somehow, it had happened, but she had been stupid to trust him enough to tell him the truth, and try to explain. She actually trusted him enough to think he’d be happy about the baby.

  And he’d betrayed her. Choosing to believe the poisonous remarks of Gabriella and her father over the woman who loved him.

  For the first time since his epiphany, he wondered if she’d ever forgive him.

  He stared at Maria. This woman had given her daughter not only the strength to fight for what she believed in, but a heart which gave love unconditionally. A heart he prayed would give second chances.

  He thought of his father and his many women. He thought of how hard he had worked to avoid emotion so he wouldn’t be hurt the way his parents had hurt him. The way their relationship had hurt everyone around them.

  The lightning bolt crashed through the room and shook him to the core.

  He realized if he kept pursuing the same path, he’d be exactly like his father. Nick crushed his fingers into a tight fist. By cultivating distance in his relationships to avoid pain, he created a man who was a shell. But those actions caused the woman he loved more heartache than anyone deserved. He was a gutless coward who hurt people because he only cared about himself.

  Inside, the fear still clung to him with a stickiness he’d bred over the years. But for the first time, he wanted to try. He wanted to give her what she needed. He wanted to be a father, a husband, a friend. He wanted to protect her and care for her and live the rest of his days with her. Maybe if he gave her everything he had, everything he was, he’d be enough for her.

  The final wall around his heart shook. Crumbled. And broke.

  Somehow, Alexandria believed he was enough because she loved him.

  His hands trembled as he clasped Maria’s fingers. “I have to talk to her. ”

  Maria nodded. “Go make it right. ”

  He straightened his spine and faced his father-in-law across the room. “I screwed up, too. I can only hope she forgives me. But I’m going to try. ”

  Jim smiled. “You will, son. ”

  Nick glanced down at the ugly hound dog he’d begun to love. “I think I have an idea. ”

  …

  Maggie set down a steaming cup of herbal tea and whisked away the cappuccino that had taunted Alexa for the past few minutes. “No caffeine. Tea has antioxidants. ”

  She gave a weak laugh. “Yes, Mom. But I don’t think a cafe mocha when I’m this exhausted is going to cause any damage. ”

  “Caffeine stunts the baby’s growth. ”

  “So does stress and not making enough money to afford a baby. ”

  “Hmm, must be the hormones. You’re definitely cranky. ”

  “Maggs!”

  Her friend tossed a grin and plucked the lid off the tea. “I just like to piss you off. Make sure you haven’t turned into one of those mooning tragic heroines you like to read about so much. ”

  “Screw you. ”

  “Better. ”

  Alexa looked up at her with genuine warmth. She was going to be okay. After two weeks away from Nicholas, every day became a trial of strength and fortitude she was too stubborn not to meet. She’d kept the news a secret from her family, but planned to reveal the truth this weekend. Maggie would help her. And even though she hadn’t secured the loan for the bookstore, BookCrazy was making a more steady profit. She’d survive.

  Alexa repeated the mantra every hour of every day she spent away from the man she loved while her baby grew in her belly. He’d made his choice and she needed to face reality.

  “The count took me to dinner the other night. ”

  Distracted by good gossip, Alexa smiled and studied her friend. “And you didn’t tell me?”

  Maggie shrugged. “We clashed. All he did was talk about you. He’s in love with you, Al. ”

  Alexa laughed. “Trust me. There’s no spark and there never will be. ” She clucked her tongue with interest. “You fought, huh? You may have finally met your match. ”

  Maggie snorted. “That’s ridiculous. ”

  She pursed her lips in interest. “He may be the only man who can handle you, Maggs. ”

  “Pregnancy has warped your brain. ”

  For a moment, Alexa caught a glimpse of regret shimmering from Maggie’s eyes. She opened her mouth to say something, but the poets lined up and took their seats. Moody music played through the speakers to set the tone. Lights were dim, darkness fell outside. A buzz of creative energy filled the room as the poets began to recite their thoughts and dreams into the mic. She clutched a notebook close to her chest as she watched on the sidelines, and allowed herself to sink back into the comforting fold of images. She closed her eyes and let her senses take over, sharpening, judging, as pictures flowed through her mind like oils seep and blend onto a canvas.

  There was a brief pause as the poets changed.

  Then she heard the voice.

  At first, her mind was open to the deep, gravelly tone of the man who read into the mic. As her heart made the connection, a breathless, nameless fear filled her. Her breath hitched. Slowly, she forced herself to look at the poet standing on the stage.

  Her husband.

  At first, she thought her vision played tricks on her. The Nick Ryan she knew did not exist on the stage. Instead, a stranger stood before her.

  He was dressed entirely in Mets gear. A blue and orange cap was set backward on his head where stray blond locks escap
ed. He wore a Mets jersey, jeans, and sneakers. He held an orange chain in his hand, and she saw Old Yeller sitting beside him with a quiet dignity that bespoke of purebreds and not mutts. The dog wore a Mets bandanna around his neck. One ear crooked at a broken angle. His tail did not wag. Yet his eyes did not hold the haunted look she usually associated with her broken canine. Propped up in front of his two front paws, a cardboard sign displayed the words: COME HOME.

  She blinked once, twice, then realized the scene before her was real.

  Nick held a piece of ragged notebook paper between his fingers. He cleared his throat. She held her breath as his voice spilled into the mic and reached her ears.

  “I’m not a poet. But my wife is. She taught me to look for the extraordinary in the simplicity. She taught me about emotion, and truth, and second chances. You see, I never realized a person can keep giving everything with no thought to take. Alexa, you changed my life, but I was too afraid to reach for it. I believed I wasn’t good enough. Now I realize the truth. ”

  Alexa closed her eyes in desperation as tears leaked from her lids. Maggie’s hand gripped hers. Her husband wanted her back. Yet, to choose that road was like the famous poem, an unknown factor. She understood his darkness better, knew if she turned her back on him she’d be safe. She’d make it on her own. The darkness beckoned her like an old friend. In that moment, she had her own choice. And God help her, she didn’t know if she had the strength to try again.

  She opened her eyes.

  Low murmurings and comments drifted to her ears. She stared at the man she loved and waited for him to speak.

  “I love you, Alexa. I want you and I want our baby. I want this ridiculous hound dog because I’ve grown to love him, too. I also figured out what I don’t want. I don’t want to live my life without you. I don’t want to be alone anymore. And I don’t want to believe I deserve not to have you. And I swear to God, I’ll spend the rest of my life making this up to you. ”

  Her lower lip trembled.

  Maggie’s hand tightened on hers. “Do you still love him?”

  She choked on her response. “I’m afraid I can’t do it anymore. ”

  Maggie’s eyes burned with a fierceness that shot sparks. “Yes, you can. You can do it again, and again, and again. If you love him enough. ”

  Her husband stepped down from the mic and made his way toward her. The carefully built wall rocked on its foundation. “It was always you. You made me whole again. ”

  And then, he knelt before her and placed his hands against her belly.

  “My baby,” he whispered. “I was afraid I had nothing to give. But I do. And I want to give it all to you. ”

  The wall trembled with a shattering force and crashed around her.

  Alexa made her choice.

  She pulled him up and stepped into his arms. He held her close, his mouth to her ear, his hands around her back, as he whispered his promise to never hurt her again. A round of applause broke the silence, with loud hoots and high fives.

  Maggie grinned. “About time you came to your senses, big brother. ”

  Nicholas grabbed his sister and brought her into the embrace. His face reflected a lightness and peace Alexa had glimpsed before, but never seen burn bright.

 
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