Home > The Marriage Bargain (Marriage to a Billionaire #1)(5)

The Marriage Bargain (Marriage to a Billionaire #1)(5)
Author: Jennifer Probst


“So, you’ll agree to the terms?”


Annoyance surged. He narrowed his eyes and studied her. Then decided to go for the close. “We’ve been able to agree on everything else. We’ve compromised. It’s only one year, and then you can walk away and have a damn orgy for all I care.”

Ice blue eyes stared back at him with sheer stubbornness and steely determination. “If you get to have your orgies, I get mine. If you want to be celibate, so will I. I don’t care about your crap regarding men and women and their differences. If I have to go to bed alone for three hundred sixty-four nights, then so will you. And if you want action, you’ll have to turn to your own wife.”

She tossed her head like a stallion just out of the gate. “And since we know we’re not attracted to each other, you’ll just have to find some other ways to ease the pressure. Use a little creativity. Celibacy should open other outlets.” She smiled. “’Cause that’s all you’re gonna get.”

Obviously, she had no idea he was a master poker player, and had spent the past few years blowing off steam in games where night turned into day and he walked off thousands richer. Like his old smoking habit, poker called to him and he used the vice for pleasure, not profit.

He refused to let her beat him, and sensed victory close. He dove for the jugular. “You want to be unreasonable? Fine. Deal is off. Kiss your money good-bye. I’ll just have to manage the board for a while.”

She slid out of the chair, hooked her purse over her shoulder, and stood before him. “It was nice to see you again, Pretty Boy.”

Direct hit.

He wondered if she knew how her mocking endearment irritated him and made him want to shake her until she took it back. Even as a kid, he’d hated it, and the years hadn’t dulled the sharp edge of the insult. As he did when he was younger, he gritted his teeth and bore the annoyance with an easy grin. “Yeah, it was nice. Stop by some time. Don’t be a stranger.”

“I won’t.” She paused. “See ya.”

That was the moment Nick knew he was wrong. Dead wrong. Alexandria Maria McKenzie could win at poker—not because she lied, but because she was willing to lose.

She also played a mean game of chicken.

She turned. Strode to the door. Twisted the knob. Then…

“Okay.” The words fired out of his mouth before he had time to think. Something told him she’d walk away and wouldn’t call back later to say she changed her mind. And damn it, Alexa was his only candidate. One year of his life was nothing compared to the gift of a future to do what he always dreamed about.

He gave her credit. She didn’t even gloat.

She turned back around and spoke in a crisp, businesslike tone. “I know the contract doesn’t state our new agreement. Do you give me your word you’ll stick to the new terms?”

“I can draw up a revised document.”

“No need. Do you give me your word?”

Her figure shimmered with energy. Nick realized she trusted him on the same level he trusted her. A prickle of satisfaction ran through him. “I give you my word.”

“Then I’ll shake on it. Oh, and the dissolution of the marriage after one year? My family can’t be hurt in this deception. We cite irreconcilable differences and pretend to part friends.”

“I can live with that.”

“Good. Pick me up tonight at seven and we’ll go see my family to break the news. I’ll take care of all the wedding arrangements.”

He nodded, his brain a bit foggy from his decision and her nearness. Was that subtle fragrance from her skin vanilla? Or cinnamon? He watched in a daze while she dropped a business card on the cherry wood table.

“My address at the bookstore,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight.”

He cleared his throat to reply, but it was too late. She had already left.

Chapter Three

Alexa squirmed in her seat as the silence in the black BMW stretched between them. Her husband-to-be seemed just as uncomfortable, and chose to focus his energy into his MP3 player. She tried not to wince when he finally settled on Mozart. He actually enjoyed music without words. She almost shuddered again when she thought of sharing the same residence with him.

For. An. Entire. Year.

“Do you have any Black Eyed Peas?”

He looked puzzled by the question. “To eat?”

She held back a groan. “I’ll even settle for some of the old classics. Sinatra, Bennett, Martin.”

He remained silent.

“Eagles? Beatles? Just yell if any of these names sound familiar.”

His shoulders stiffened. “I know who they are. Would you prefer Beethoven?”

“Forget it.”

They veered back to silence with a piano background. Alexa knew they were both nervous as the miles to her parents’ house shortened. Playing the loving couple wouldn’t be easy when they couldn’t even carry on a two-minute conversation. She decided to try again.

“Maggie says you have a fish.”

That remark rewarded her with a chilling look. “Yes.”

“What’s his name?”


She blinked. “You didn’t even give it a name?”

“Did I commit a crime?”

“Don’t you know animals have feelings just like people?”

“I don’t like animals,” he said.

“Why? Are you afraid of them?”

“Of course not.”

“You were afraid of that snake we found in the woods. Remember how you wouldn’t get close, and you made some excuse to leave?”

The air in the car seemed to drop a few degrees. “I wasn’t afraid, I just didn’t care. I told you I don’t like animals.”

She gave a snort, then settled back to silence. Cross another quality from her list. Earth Mother sucked. Alexa decided not to tell her future husband about the humane animal shelters. When they were overbooked, she always took the extra animals into her house until new spots opened up. Something told her Nick would have a fit. If he ever got up enough emotion to lose control.

The possibility intrigued her.

“What are you smiling about?” he asked.

“Nothing. Do you remember everything we discussed?”

He gave a suffering sigh. “Yes. We went over all your family members in detail. I know names and general backgrounds. For God’s sakes, Alexa, I used to play at your house when we were younger.”

She snorted. “You only wanted my mother’s chocolate chip cookies. And you loved torturing me and your sister. Besides, that was years ago. You’ve had nothing to do with them over the past decade.” She tried hard to bite back the bitterness, but the ease with which Nick had shed his past without a glance back left her a bit pissed off. “Speaking of which, you never mention your parents. Have you seen your father lately?”

She wondered if it was possible to get frostbite from the chill he emanated. “No.”

She waited for more but nothing came. “How about your mom? Did she remarry?”

“No. I don’t want to talk about my parents. There’s no point.”

“Wonderful. What are we supposed to tell my family about them? They’ll ask.”

His words were clipped. “Tell them my father’s lounging in Mexico and my mother is off somewhere with her new boyfriend. Tell them whatever you want. They won’t be at the wedding anyway.”

She opened her mouth but his warning glare told her this conversation was over. Great. She just adored his chattiness.

Alexa pointed toward the upcoming street sign. “Here’s the turn for my parents’.”

Nick pulled into the circular driveway and cut the engine. They both studied the white Victorian house. Even from outside, the structure radiated friendly warmth from each classic pillar to the graceful wraparound porch. Weeping willow trees surrounded the edges of the sloping lawn almost as in protection. Large picture windows with black shutters dotted the front. Darkness now veiled the symptoms of neglect due to financial difficulties. It hid the peeling white paint on the columns, the cracked step at the top of the patio, the worn roof. She gave a deep sigh as the home of her childhood settled around her like a comforting blanket.

 “Are we ready?” he asked.

She glanced at him. His face was shuttered, his eyes distant. He looked hip and casual in his khaki Dockers, white Calvin Klein T-shirt, and leather boat shoes. His sun-bleached hair was neatly tamed except for one stubborn curl over his brow. His chest filled the shirt out nicely. A little too nicely for her taste. Obviously, he lifted weights. She wondered if he had a washboard stomach, but the thought did bad things to her own tummy so she pushed away the idea and concentrated on their immediate problem.

“You look like you stepped in a pile of dog doo.”

His neutral expression slipped. The corner of his mouth kicked up an inch. “Hmmm, Maggie said you wrote poetry.”

“We’re supposed to be madly in love. If they suspect otherwise, I can’t marry you, and my mother would make my life a living hell. So put on a good act. Oh, and don’t be afraid to touch me. I promise I don’t have cooties.”

“I’m not afraid to—”

His breath hissed as she reached out and brushed the errant curl away from his eyes. The silky feel of his hair as it slid through her fingers pleased her. The shocked expression on his face tempted her to continue the caress by sliding the back of her hand down his cheek with one slow motion. His skin felt both smooth and rough to the touch.

“See? No big deal.”

His full lips tightened with what she figured was annoyance. Obviously, Nick Ryan looked at her not as a grown woman, but more of an asexual human being. Like an amoeba.

She flung open the door and cut off his response. “Show time.”

He muttered something under his breath and followed her.

They didn’t have to worry about ringing the doorbell. Her family streamed out the door one by one, until the front porch overflowed with her screeching sisters and two appraising males. Alexa had already called ahead to warn them of her engagement. She’d come up with a story about seeing Nick on the sly, a whirlwind romance, and an impulsive engagement. She played up their past so her parents believed they had always been in touch over the years as friends.

Nick tried to huddle back but her sisters refused to comply. Isabella and Genevieve launched themselves into his arms for a big hug, chattering at once.


“Welcome to the family!”

“Izzy, I told you he’d turn out to be gorgeous. How awesome is this? Childhood friends and now husband and wife!”

“Did you set a wedding date?”

“Can I be in the bridal party?”

Nick looked as if he was about to vault over the porch and make his escape.

Alexa collapsed into laughter. She cut off her younger twin sisters by pulling them to her for a hug. “Stop scaring him, guys. I finally got a fiancé. Don’t ruin this for me.”

They giggled. A double vision of two sixteen-year-old girls with chocolate hair, navy eyes, and long skinny legs stood before her. One had braces, one didn’t. Alexa bet their teachers were grateful for the distinction. Her sisters were full of mischief and loved playing the switch game.

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