The Marriage Bargain(6)

By: Jennifer Probst


He focused his attention on the dip of her dress. “I guess you’re right. Some things remain the same. Others keep expanding.”

Her breath caught at the jab, but she surprised him when she smiled. “And other things remain small.” Her pointed stare settled directly on the bulge in the center of his pants.

Nick almost sputtered in his coffee but managed to set the cup down with calm dignity. A rush of heat punched his gut as he remembered the day in the pool when they were kids.

He had been teasing Alexa mercilessly about the changes in her body when Maggie snuck up behind him and yanked down his swim trunks. Exposed in all senses of the word, he’d stalked away and pretended the whole episode didn’t bother him. But the memory still ranked as his most embarrassing moment.

He motioned to the papers in front of her. “Maggie told me you needed a specific amount of money. I kept the figure open for negotiation.”

An odd expression crossed her face. Her features tightened, then smoothed back out. “Is this the contract?”

He nodded. “I know you’ll need your lawyer to look it over.”

“No need. A friend of mine is a lawyer. I learned enough, since I helped him study for the bar exam. May I see it?”

He slid the papers over the polished wood. She reached in her purse for a pair of small, black reading glasses and pushed them up the bridge of her nose. Minutes passed as she studied the contract. He took the opportunity to study her. His strong attraction irritated him. Alexa wasn’t his type. She was too curvy, too direct, too…real. He liked to know he was safe from any emotional outbursts if something didn’t go her way. Even when Gabby became upset, she always handled herself with restraint. Alexa scared the hell out of him. Something in his gut whispered she wouldn’t be easy to handle. She spoke her opinion and exhibited emotions without thought. Such reactions caused danger and havoc and messiness. The last thing he needed in a marriage.

Yet…

He trusted her. Those sapphire eyes bespoke a certain determination and fairness. Her promise meant something. After a year, he knew she’d walk away without a glance backward or a desire for more money. The scale tipped in her favor.

One cherry red fingernail tapped the edge of the page in a steady rhythm. She looked up. Nick wondered why her skin took on such a pale tone when she’d seemed so flushed and healthy a moment ago.

“You have a list of requirements?” She said it as if she were accusing him of a capital crime instead of making a list of assets and liabilities.

He cleared his throat. “Just a few qualities I’d like my wife to have.” She opened her mouth to speak but no words emerged. She seemed to struggle to get them free.

“You want a hostess, an orphan, and a robot all rolled into one. Is that fair?”

He took a deep breath. “You’re exaggerating. Just because I’d like to marry someone with grace and business sense, doesn’t mean I’m a monster.”

She gave an unladylike snort. “You want a Stepford wife without the sex. Haven’t you learned anything about women since you were fourteen?”

“I learned plenty. That’s why Uncle Earl had to force me into an institution that favors women in the first place.”

She gasped. “Men get plenty out of marriage!”

“Like what?”

“Steady sex and companionship.”

“After six months the headaches start and you bore each other to tears.”

“Someone to grow old with.”

“Men never want to grow old. That’s why they keep seeking out younger women.”

Her mouth dropped open. She closed it with one quick snap. “Children…a family…someone who will love you in sickness and health.”

“Someone who spends all your money and nags you every night and bitches about cleaning up your mess.”

“You’re sick.”

“You’re deluded.”

She shook her head, causing her silky black curls to lift around her face, then slowly settle. The flush was back in her skin. “God, your parents really screwed you up,” she muttered.

“Thank you, Freud.”

“What if I don’t fit in all these categories?”

“We’ll work on it.”

Her eyes narrowed and she bit her lower lip. Nick flashed back to the first time he kissed her, when he was sixteen. How his mouth had pressed against hers, feeling her tremble. His fingers lightly caressing the bare skin of her shoulders. The fresh, clean scent of flowers and soap teasing his nostrils. Afterward, her features shone with innocence, beauty, purity. Waiting for the happy-ever-after part.

Then she had smiled and told him she loved him. Wanted to marry him. He should have patted her on the head, said something nice, and gone on his way. Instead, her marriage remark had been sweet and tempting in a way that had scared the crap out of him. Even at sixteen, Nick knew no relationship could ever be beautiful—they all eventually turned ugly. He’d laughed, called her a baby, and left her alone in the woods. The vulnerability and hurt in her face had tore at his heart, but he’d hardened himself to the emotion. The earlier she learned, the better.

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