He walked to his own room. She’d rejected him. Her own damn husband. And he was stuck with the one thing he’d been horrified of.
A wife he was attracted to.
He shut his bedroom door and forced the thought out of his mind.
Alexa sat at the table and faced her parents. Her hands shook with joy and relief as she pushed the check across the battered kitchen table that was covered in happy yellow plastic suns. “Nick and I want you to have this to pay off the mortgage,” she announced. “There will be no arguments or protests. We talked about this for a long time, and we’re lucky to have so much money. We want to share. It means a lot to us, so please accept this as our gift.”
Their matching stunned expressions made tears prick her eyes. How many nights had she tossed and turned, feeling guilty for being unable to get her parents out of their financial mess? As the oldest sibling, she hated the helplessness that choked her. She decided dealing with Nick and her own burgeoning emotions was worth it. The payoff of security and safety for her family eased a deep ache, which she’d fought since her father had the heart attack.
“But how can you do this?” Maria pressed trembling hands to her lips as Jim put his arm around her. “Nick shouldn’t feel like we’re a burden. You’re a young married couple with dreams. For your bookstore. For a family with lots of children. You shouldn’t be taking care of us, Alexandria. We are the parents.”
Jim nodded. “I already decided to take an extra job. We don’t need the money.”
She sighed at her parents’ innate stubbornness. “Listen to me. Nick and I have plenty of money, and this is important to us. Dad, a second job isn’t an option in your condition, unless you want to die. You heard the doctor.” Alexa leaned forward. “This will give you the home free and clear so you can concentrate on paying the other bills. Save for Izzy’s and Gen’s college. Help Lance through his final year of medical school. We’re not giving you enough to retire, guys, just enough to make things a bit easier.”
They exchanged glances. Wild hope glimmered in her mom’s eyes as she clutched the check. Alexa gave them a tiny nudge to push them over the edge. “Nick didn’t want to come with me today. There’s one condition to this money—he never wants to hear about it again.”
Maria gasped. “I have to thank him. He needs to know how much we appreciate this—how he’s changed our lives.”
She swallowed around the tightness in her throat. “Nick doesn’t like to show a lot of emotion. When we discussed this, he insisted he never wants the money mentioned again.”
Jim frowned. “He won’t accept a simple thank you? After all, if it wasn’t for me we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Anyone can get sick, Dad,” she whispered.
The grief of the past ravaged his face. “But I left.”
“And came back.” Maria grasped his hand and smiled. “You came back to us and made it right. No more talk like this.” Her mother straightened in her chair, eyes shining with emotion. “We will accept the check, Alexandria. And we’ll never mention it to Nick. As long as you promise to go home and tell him he is our angel.” Her voice broke. “I’m so proud you are my daughter.”
Alexa hugged her. After a few more moments of conversation, she kissed both her parents and left the house. Poetry night was taking place at BookCrazy and she couldn’t be late. She started her shuddering Volkswagon Bug and headed toward her store as her thoughts whirled.
The money ruse was unfortunate but necessary. She’d never admit to Nick how bad her parents’ financial situation was. The image of him tossing a wad of money at her like enough bucks could solve any problem made her squirm. Her pride was important, and so was her parents’. They solved their own problems. She had an instinct that Nick Ryan believed money took the place of emotion, which was a lesson his parents had delivered on a daily basis. She shuddered at the thought.
No, she’d manage to do this on her own.
She settled down and drove to work.
Alexa glanced around BookCrazy with satisfaction. Poetry nights drew a large crowd, and all were book buyers. Every Friday night, she transformed the back of her store into a performance center. Moody, background music floated through the dim lit aisles. Overstuffed apple-green chairs and battered coffee tables were dragged from the storeroom and arranged in an informal circle. The crowd was a nice mix of intellectuals, some quite serious and others who just wanted an entertaining night out. She dragged the mic over to the small lifted platform, and checked her watch again. Five minutes to go. Where was Maggie?
She watched people settle into the chairs and mumble about coffee while discussing stanzas and imagery and the bleeding of emotion. On cue, the door opened to release a rush of brisk air, and Maggie stepped inside. “Java, anyone?”
Alexa raced over and grabbed two steaming cafe mochas. “Thank God. If I didn’t serve them caffeine they’d read to each other in the Starbucks down the street.”
Maggie set the cardboard tray down and lined up the cups. Her cinnamon-colored hair swung past her jawline when she shook her head. “Al, you’re nuts. You know how much money you spend on coffee just so these artists can read poetry in front of each other? Let them get their own coffee.”
“I need the business. Until I find a way to get a loan to expand the store, I need to keep them caffeinated.”
“Ask Nick. He’s technically your husband.”
She shot her friend a warning look. “No, I don’t want him involved. You promised you wouldn’t say anything.”
Maggie threw her hands up. “What’s the big deal? Nick knows you’d pay off the loan.”
“I want to do this on my own. I took the initial payoff and that was the deal. No more. It’s not like this is a real marriage.”
“Did you give the money to your parents?”
Alexa smiled. “Almost made the company of your brother worth it.”
“I still don’t get it. Why not just tell Nick the truth about the money? He’s a pain in the ass but has a good heart. Why are you playing games, girlfriend?”
She turned away, afraid to confront her friend. She’d always been a sucky liar. How could she possibly tell Maggie she lusted after her brother, and needed every barrier imaginable to keep her distance? If he believed she was a cold-hearted money grabber, he might leave her alone.
Maggie studied her face for a long time. Her green eyes filled with shock as the light bulb suddenly flashed. “Is something else going on with you two? You’re not attracted to him, are you?”
Alexa forced a laugh. “I hate your brother.”
“You’re lying. I always know when you lie. You want to sleep with him, don’t you? Oh, yuck!”
Alexa snatched the last cup of coffee. “This conversation is over. I am not attracted to your brother, and he is not attracted to me.”
Maggie followed close on her heels. “Okay, now that I’m over the initial grossness of the idea, let’s talk about it. He’s your husband, right? You might as well be getting sex for the next year with someone.” Alexa walked to the platform. All eyes were now on her. The word sex definitely got people’s attention, she thought. She ignored her friend and made the initial introductions for poetry night.
As the first poet made his way on stage, she stepped aside and settled herself into her chair. She grabbed her notebook in case she needed to write down any nuggets of inspiration and cleared her mind for the reading.
Maggie knelt and whispered, “I think you should sleep with him.”
Alexa let out a long-suffering sigh. “Leave me alone.”
“I’m serious. I’ve now had a few minutes to think. It’s perfect. You both have to be faithful anyway, so you know he won’t be sleeping with someone else. This way you get the sex you need, and in a year, just say good-bye. No hard feelings. No complications.”
She squirmed. Not because she was embarrassed by Maggie’s suggestion. No, just the opposite. The possibility intrigued her. She lay awake at night, picturing him in the room down the hall. His naked, muscled body stretched out on the bed, waiting for her. Her hormones shook greedily at the image. Hell, at this rate she’d end up in the mental institution by the end of the year.
Maggie snapped her fingers in front of her face and jolted Alexa out of her reverie. “You disappeared on me again. Is Nick coming tonight?”
“Oh, yeah, your brother would just love this kind of night out. He’d probably prefer a root canal and a prostate exam.”
“How are you two getting along? Besides the physical attraction.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “Lying again. You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
Alexa realized she’d always confessed everything to Maggie except for one event. The first time Nick kissed her. She’d known she loved him back then. Friendship turned to rivalry and then to a girlish crush. That first kiss twisted emotions so pure within her she believed it was love. Her heart beat for him, full of joy at the possibility of them being together, so she uttered the words, her voice echoing through the trees.
“I love you.”
Then waited for him to kiss her again. Instead, he stepped back from her and laughed. Called her a silly baby and walked away.
She learned her first lesson in heartbreak in that moment. Fourteen years old. In the woods with Nicholas Ryan.
She wasn’t about to repeat the lesson.
She pushed the memory away and decided to keep her second secret from Maggie. “There’s nothing going on,” Alexa repeated. “Can I listen to the next poem in peace, please?”
“I don’t think peace is in the cards tonight, babe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nick’s here. Your husband. The guy you’re not attracted to.”
She swung her head around and stared in shock at the figure in the doorway. He was obviously out of his element, but his presence was so confident, so overwhelmingly male, she sucked in her breath and realized the man had the power to fit in anywhere. And he wasn’t even wearing black.
Most men who wore designer clothes allowed the fabric to dictate to them. Nick wore his Calvin Klein jeans as if he wore nothing at all. The denim hugged his thighs and hips as if folding to his will. He reflected a man who knew himself—and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought.
The turtleneck was a deep caramel cream in a thick cable knit stitch that emphasized his chest and stretched over broad shoulders. Definitely Ralph Lauren. The boots were Timberland. His hair picked up the color of the sweater, mixing with white blond and shades of mocha, carefully tousled. His jaw clenched with unconscious demand as he searched the darkened bookstore. But his eyes…
A swirl of chocolate brown the color of Hershey’s syrup. Hints of gold and amber that reminded her of aged whiskey. A combination that dripped of sinful sex and indulgent cravings. She waited as he perused the room, skated over her, stopped, then came slowly back.