The marriage bargain, p.6
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       The Marriage Bargain, p.6

         Part #1 of Marriage to a Billionaire series by Jennifer Probst
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Page 6

 

  A demanding squeal pulled her attention away. She lifted up the blonde angel at her feet and covered her three-year-old niece with kisses. “Taylor, the Troublemaker,” she said, “meet Nick Ryan. Uncle Nick to you, squirt. ”

  Taylor looked him over with the careful attentiveness only a child exudes. Nick awaited her opinion with patience. Then her face broke in a sunny smile. “Hi, Nick!”

  He smiled back. “Hi, Taylor. ”

  “Approval bestowed,” Alexa said. She urged Nick over. “Let me make the rest of the introductions. My twin sisters, Isabella and Genevieve, now all grown up and out of diapers. ” She ignored their dual groans and grinned. “My sister-in-law, Gina, and you know my brother Lance and my parents. Everyone, this is Nick Ryan, my fiancé. ”

  She didn’t even stumble over the word.

  Her mother grabbed Nick’s cheeks and gave him a smacking kiss. “Nicky, you’re all grown up. ” She flung out her arms in welcome. “And you’re so handsome. ”

  Alexa wondered if that was a hint of red on Nick’s cheeks, then dismissed the thought.

  He cleared his throat. “Umm, thank you, Mrs. McKenzie. It’s been a long time. ”

  Lance gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder. “Hey, Nick, haven’t seen you in centuries. Now I hear you’re going to be part of the family. Congrats. ”

  “Thanks. ”

  Her father walked over and stuck out his hand. “Call me Jim,” he said. “I remember you used to torture my little girl on many occasions. I think her first official curse word came out with you in mind. ”

  “I think I still have that effect,” Nick said wryly.

  Her father laughed. Gina broke out of Lance’s embrace to give him a big hug. “Now maybe I’ll have someone to even out the odds around here,” she said. Her green eyes sparkled. “You can get outnumbered in family meetings. ”

  Alexa laughed. “He’s still a man, Gina. Trust me, he’ll take Lance’s side every time. ”

  Lance grabbed his wife back and wrapped his arms around her waist. “The odds are turning, baby. I finally got another man in the house to battle all the PMS. ”

  Alexa punched his arm. Gina punched the other one.

  Maria clucked her tongue. “Lancelot, men do not speak like that with ladies around. ”

  “What ladies?”

  Maria swatted him on the backside. “Everyone inside. We’ll have a champagne toast, eat, and then have some good espresso. ”

  “Can I have champagne?”

  “Me, too?”

  Maria shook her head at the two girls begging at her feet. “You’ll have sparkling apple cider. I bought a bottle for this occasion. ”

  “Me too! Me too!”

  Alexa smiled down at the shiny-eyed toddler in her arms. “Okay, squirt. Apple juice for you, too. ” She placed her niece back on the ground and watched her race to the kitchen to get in on all the excitement. The embracing warmth of her clan settled around her like a fuzzy cloak, and fought with the nerves jumping in her belly.

  Could she pull this off? Casting a love spell to meet a nameless, faceless man with money to bail out her family was one thing. Nick Ryan in the flesh for one full year was another. If her parents suspected she had made a marriage bargain to save the house, they’d never forgive her. Or themselves. With the steady stream of medical bills from his heart condition, family pride pushed them to refuse any financial help from others. Knowing their daughter sacrificed her integrity to bail them out would break their hearts.

  Nick watched her with a strange expression on his face, as if trying to figure something out. Her fingers clenched to keep from reaching out to touch him. “You okay?” she asked.

  “I’m fine. Let’s go in. ”

  She watched him walk inside and tried not to feel hurt by his clipped words. He’d already warned her he didn’t like big families. She shouldn’t be childish by taking his actions so personally.

  She stiffened her resolve and her chin and followed him. The hours passed with hearty Italian lasagna, fresh garlic bread with cheese and herbs, and a bottle of Chianti. By the time they retired to the living room for espresso and Sambuca, a nice buzz hummed in her blood, fueled by good food and good conversation. She glanced up at Nick as he settled himself next to her on the worn beige sofa at a careful distance.

  Misery etched out his features.

  He listened politely, laughed in the right places, and did a perfect job of looking like a gentleman. Except he wouldn’t look her in the eye, moved away when she tried to touch him, and wasn’t acting at all like the besotted fiancé he was supposed to be.

  Jim McKenzie sipped his espresso with a casual demeanor. “So, Nick, tell me about your job. ”

  “Dad—”

  “No, it’s okay. ” Nick turned to face her father. “Dreamscape is an architectural firm that designs buildings in the Hudson Valley. We designed the Japanese restaurant at the top of the mountain in Suffern. ”

  Her father’s face lit up. “Wonderful place to eat. Maria always loved the gardens there. ” He paused. “So, what do you think of Alexa’s paintings?”

  She hid a wince. Oh, God, this was bad. Very bad. Her painting was a futile attempt at artistic expression, and most agreed they sucked. She painted more for her own therapy than to wow others. She cursed herself for not letting him pick her up at the apartment instead of her bookstore. As an alcoholic counselor, Jim honed in on weaknesses like a trained vulture and now he scented blood.

  Nick kept the smile pasted on. “They’re fantastic. I’ve always told her she should hang them in a gallery. ”

  Jim’s crossed his arms. “You like them, huh? Which one do you like the most?”

  “Dad—”

  “The landscape one. Definitely puts you right at the scene. ”

  Panic flirted with her slight drunken buzz as her father caught the tension between them and stalked him like a predator. She gave Nick credit for trying but he was doomed before he began. The rest of her family knew the drill and watched the process begin.

  “She doesn’t paint landscapes. ” The words hung in the air like a cannon blast.

  Nick’s smile never faltered. “She just tried her hand at landscapes. Darling, didn’t you tell them?”

  She fought back panic. “No, sorry, Dad, I haven’t brought you up to speed. I’m painting mountain landscapes now. ”

  “You hate landscapes. ”

  “Not anymore,” she managed cheerily. “I have a new appreciation for landscapes since meeting an architect. ”

  Her comment only elicited a snort before he continued. “So, Nick, baseball fan or football?”

  “Both. ”

  “Great season for the Giants, huh? I’m hoping for another New York Super Bowl. Hey, have you read Alexa’s new poem?”

  “Which one?”

  “The one about the rainstorm. ”

  “Oh, yes. I thought it was wonderful. ”

  “She never wrote a poem about a rainstorm. She writes about experiences in life relating to love or loss. She’s never written a nature poem, just as she’s never painted a landscape. ”

  Alexa chugged the rest of her Sambuca, ignored the espresso, and hoped the liquor got her through the evening. “Umm, Dad, I just wrote one about a rainstorm. ”

  “Really? Would you recite it for us? Your mother and I haven’t heard some of your new work. ”

  She swallowed. “Well, it’s still in creation mode. I’ll definitely share as soon as it’s perfect. ”

  “But you let Nick see it. ”

  Sickness clawed at her gut, and she prayed for escape. Her palms grew damp. “Yes. Well, Nick, maybe we better get going. It’s late and I have a lot of wedding plans to get together. ”

  Jim put his elbows on his knees. The circling stopped and he launched in for the kill. The rest of the family watched with impending doom. The sympathetic look on her brother’s face told her he didn’t think there’d be a wedding any longe
r. He wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist as if reliving his own horror when he’d announced she was pregnant and they were getting married. Taylor busied herself with Legos and ignored the crisis.

  “I meant to ask you about the wedding,” Jim said. “You’re putting it together in a week. Why not give everyone some time to get to know Nick and welcome him into the family? Why the rush?”

  Nick tried to save them both. “I understand, Jim, but Alexa and I talked about this and we both don’t want a big fuss. We decided we want to be together and start our lives right away. ”

  “It’s romantic, Dad,” Izzy ventured.

  Alexa mouthed a thank you but she was suddenly double-teamed.

  “I agree. ” Maria held a dishtowel in her hands as she stood in the doorway of the kitchen. “Let us enjoy the wedding. We’d love to throw you an engagement party so Nick can meet the rest of the family. There’s just not time for everyone to come down on Saturday. All your cousins will miss out. ”

  Jim stood. “Then it’s settled. You’ll postpone the date. ”

  Maria nodded. “Excellent idea. ”

  Alexa grabbed Nick’s hand. “Darling, can I see you in the bedroom for a second?”

  “Of course, dear. ”

  She dragged him down the hallway and pushed him into the bedroom. The door swung partially closed. “You’ve ruined everything,” she whispered furiously. “I told you to pretend but you suck at it and now my parents know we’re not in love!”

  “I suck at it? You’re acting like this is some stupid play you’ve put together for the neighbors. This is real life, and I’m doing the best I can. ”

  “My plays were not stupid. We made a lot of money in admission tickets. I thought Annie was excellent. ”

  He snorted. “You can’t even sing and you cast yourself as Annie. ”

  “You’re still pissed because I wouldn’t let you play Daddy Warbucks. ”

  He plowed ten fingers through his hair and made a noise deep in his throat. “How the hell do you get me on these ridiculous subjects?”

  “You better come up with something quick. God, don’t you know how to treat a girlfriend? You acted like I was some polite stranger. No wonder my father suspects!”

  “You’re a grown up now, Alexa, and he’s still interrogating your boyfriends. We don’t need their permission. We get married on Saturday and if your parents don’t like it, too bad. ”

  “I want my father to walk me down the aisle!”

  “It’s not even a real wedding!”

  “It’s the best I’m going to get right now!” The grief leaked out for one moment as the truth of her predicament hit full force. This would never be a real marriage, and something would be forever ruined once Nick’s ring slipped onto her finger. She’d always dreamed of love everlasting, white picket fences, and tons of children. Instead, she got cold hard cash and a husband who politely tolerated her. She’d be damned if her sacrifice failed because of his inability to fake enough emotion for her parents.

 
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