“Okay. See ya.”
She let herself into her apartment, closed the door behind her, and slid her back down the frame until she hit the floor.
Nick watched her safely enter her loft and waited for the light to click on. The low purr of the BMW was the only sound to break the silence.
His annoyance at her blunt admission bothered him. Why did he care if she wanted the money? It was a perfect motivation to get them both through the next year with no damages. He needed to keep his distance. Her parents caused a dangerous longing to bubble up from deep inside. He quickly squashed the emotion, but the idea that he still retained some sick ray of hope for a normal family pissed him off.
Maybe it was the way she looked tonight. She’d pinned her hair up, and stubborn black curls stabbed through the bobby pins to lay across her cheek and down her neck. Her skin looked warm to the touch, slightly flushed with pleasure from being around her family. She smiled so easily, her lips full and relaxed.
He’d wanted to dip his head and taste what lay beneath those ruby, bee-stung lips. Wanted to slip his tongue deep inside and tempt her to play. The snug material of her jeans showed off the curve of her buttocks and swing of her hips. A hot pink button-down shirt seemed conservative enough, until she leaned forward and Nick caught a glimpse of pale rose lace cupping her full breasts. The image burned through his mind and wreaked havoc with his concentration. He’d spent most of the evening trying to get her to bend down to sneak a peek. Just like a horny teenager.
The light bulb kicked on and he roared away from the curb. Temper bit at him like a moody pit bull. She bothered him in a deep gutted way. So did her family. He remembered how loving her mother was. Remembered the guilt when he’d wished his own mother would disappear and leave him with Maria McKenzie. Remembered the old pain of being out of control in a world not meant for children to be alone. Remembered things he’d vowed to never unearth. Marriage. Children. Connections only caused a ripping pain no one deserved.
He had erected walls so Alexa wouldn’t spot any moments of weakness. If she suspected he desired her in any way, the rules would change. He didn’t intend for this siren of a woman to have any power over him.
Until the kiss.
Nick muttered a foul curse. He remembered how her breath came in choppy gasps and her eyes snapped. That damn shirt finally gaped open enough for him to spot ripe flesh encased in pink lace. He’d been ready to push her away, and then she’d grabbed him at her mother’s call. Wasn’t his fault he gave in to instinct to save their ruse.
Until her hot, wet mouth opened under his. Until her sweet taste swamped his senses, and the maddening scents of vanilla and spice made him want to howl at the moon. He finally knew she approached sex the same way she approached anger—no holds barred—no prisoners taken. Demanding. Punishing. Passionate.
He was so screwed. And not in a good way.
But she’d never know. He had made sure to screen his face to a nothing blankness, though his jutting erection screamed he was a liar. Didn’t matter. Nick refused to break the rules. Alexa was a woman who lived in the light and would never be happy with the deal he’d made himself when he was a child. One year was enough.
He hoped he emerged in one piece.
Nick turned to look at his sleeping bride. Her head rested against the door of the limousine. Her headpiece had been ripped off, and crumbled white lace lay at his feet. Raven curls shot off in all directions and hid her bare shoulders from view. The glass of champagne in the cup holder lay untouched, the bubbles gone flat. A sparkling two-carat diamond bound her finger and exploded sparks of light from the last rays of the dying sun. Plump, ruby lips parted to allow breath in and out. A delicate snore steadily rose in the air during each exhalation.
Alexandria Maria McKenzie was now his wife.
Nick reached for his own champagne glass and silently toasted to success. He now fully owned Dreamscape Enterprises. He was about to go after the opportunity of a lifetime and he didn’t need anyone’s permission. The day had gone off without a hitch.
He took a healthy swig of Dom Perignon and wondered why he felt like crap. His mind flashed back to the moment the priest made them man and wife. Sapphire eyes filled with pure fear and panic as he leaned down to give her the necessary kiss. Pale and shaken, her lips trembled under his. He knew it wasn’t with passion. At least not this time.
He reminded himself she only wanted the money. Her ability to pretend she was an innocent was dangerous. He mocked his own thoughts by raising his glass again and downing the last of the champagne.
The limo driver lowered the smoked window by a degree. “Sir, we’ve arrived at our destination.”
“Thank you. You can pull up front.”
As the limo climbed the long, narrow drive, Nick gently shook his bride awake. She stirred, snorted, and collapsed back into sleep. Nick fought a smile and started to whisper. Then stopped. He slipped back into his old role as tormentor with comfortable ease—he leaned over and yelled her name.
She shot straight up. Eyes wide with shock, she pushed her heavy mane of hair out of her ears and looked down at all the white lace like she was Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole. “Oh, my God, we did it.”
He handed over her shoes and headpiece. “Not yet, but it is our honeymoon. I’ll be happy to oblige if you’re in the mood.”
She glared at him. “You didn’t do anything for this wedding but show up. Try scheduling every last detail within seven days and I’ll sit back and watch you collapse.”
“I told you to get a Justice of the Peace.”
Alexa snorted. “Typical male. You don’t lift a finger to help and cry innocent when challenged.”
Her mouth gaped. “I do not snore!”
“Do not. Someone would have told me.”
“I’m sure your lovers didn’t want to be kicked out of bed. You’re cranky.”
The door swung open and the chauffeur offered his arm to help her. She stuck out her tongue and left the limo with the haughtiness of Queen Elizabeth. He smothered another laugh and followed. Alexa stopped short at the curb. He watched her take in the arching lines of the mansion, which resembled a Tuscan villa. Sandstone terra cotta created an image of casual elegance, and its high walls and large windows lent an aura of history. A lush green lawn hugged the drive and led up to the house, then sprawled out for acres in cheery abandon. Colorful geraniums spilled from each window-box to mimic old age Italy. The top of the house opened up to a wrought iron balcony which held tables, chairs, and a hot tub sunk amidst leafy trees. She opened her mouth as if to comment, then shut it with a snap.
“What do you think?” he asked.
She tilted her head. “It’s stunning,” she said. “The most beautiful house I’ve ever seen.”
Pleasure shot through him at her obvious delight. “Thank you. I designed it myself.”
“It looks old.”
“That was my goal. I promise I have all the necessary indoor plumbing.”
She shook her head and followed him inside. Marble floors shone to high polish and cathedral ceilings created an illusion of space and elegance. Large, airy rooms set off the center spiral staircase. Nick tipped the driver and closed the door behind him. “Come on, I’ll show you around. Unless you want to get undressed first.”
She grabbed handfuls of gauzy material and lifted her train. Her stocking feet peeked out from underneath. “Lead on.”
He took her on the grand tour. The fully equipped kitchen boasted a gleaming center of stainless steel and chrome, but Nick had made sure the room retained the warmth an Italian grandmother would be proud of. A heavily cut wooden island held baskets filled with fresh fruit and cloves of garlic, herbs sunk in bottles brimmed with olive oil, dry pastas, and red, ripe tomatoes. The table was thick oak with sturdy, comfortable chairs. An array of wines peeked out from an extensive wrought iron rack. Glass doors led from the kitchen to the sunroom, complete with wicker furniture, bookcases, and vases of daisies spilling through the room. Instead of colorful paintings, black and white photographs took up wall space, and displayed an array of architecture from around the world. Nick enjoyed her expressions as she took in every inch of his space. He led her up the staircase to the bedrooms.
“My room is down the hallway. I have a private office but there’s a spare computer in the library you can use. I can order anything else you need.” He pushed open one of the doors. “I’ve given you a room with a private bath. I wasn’t sure of your taste so feel free to redecorate.”
He watched her take in the neutral, pale tones of the king-sized poster bed and matching furniture.
“This will be fine. Thank you,” she said.
He stared at her for a moment as the formality pulsed between them. “You know we’re stuck here for at least two days, right? We used work as an excuse not to go on a honeymoon, but I can’t show up at the office until Monday. People will gossip.”
She nodded. “I can use the computer to keep up. And Maggie said she’d help out.”
He turned. “Get comfortable and meet me down in the kitchen. I’ll cook something for dinner.”
“I don’t like strange people in my kitchen—I had enough of that growing up. So, I learned.”
“Are you good?”
He snorted. “I’m the best.”
Then he shut the door behind him.
Alexa turned and studied her new room. She knew Nick was comfortable living with grand wealth, but the tour had made her feel like Audrey Hepburn’s character in My Fair Lady—hopelessly common beside the sophistication of her tutor.
The heck with it. She needed to keep her life as normal as possible, marriage or not. Nick was not her real husband, and she didn’t intend to get sucked into any domestic ruse and find herself lost at the end of the year. She probably wouldn’t even see him often. She assumed he also worked late hours, and besides the occasional party they’d need to attend, they’d lead separate lives.
Her mental pep talk helped, so she ripped off her dress and spent the next hour in a bubble bath in the luxurious spa tub attached to her room. She glanced just once at the sheer black nightie her sisters had thrown in her overnight bag, then shoved it to the back of a drawer. She threw on a pair of leggings and cropped fleece sweatshirt, clipped up her hair, and made her way down to the kitchen. Alexa followed the sounds of crackling and slipped into one of the heavy carved chairs in the kitchen. She drew her bare feet up to the edge of her seat, wrapped her arms around her knees, and watched her new husband.
He hadn’t changed out of his tuxedo. He’d taken off his jacket, and rolled crisp white shirt sleeves up past his elbows. The onyx pearl buttons had been undone to mid-chest, and revealed a mat of golden hair sprinkled across carved muscles. His shoulders were broad, and demanded the fabric stretch to accommodate. His black pants covered him like a lover and emphasized the long lean length of his legs and hips. Alexa had a hell of a time ignoring the hard curve of his butt. The man had a great ass. Too bad she’d never see it naked. She didn’t think seeing his bathing suit pulled down as a teenager counted. Besides, she’d been too busy staring at his front.