Home > The Marriage Bargain (Marriage to a Billionaire #1)(10)

The Marriage Bargain (Marriage to a Billionaire #1)(10)
Author: Jennifer Probst

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 longer. 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?”

   
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