His for a price(10)

By: Caitlin Crews

“What a resounding recommendation,” he said, torn between laughter and incredulity that she dared speak to him the way she did. She always had. Only Mattie, in all the world. Maybe that was why she haunted him. “Who wouldn’t marry me?”

She eyed him for a moment that bordered on the uncomfortable. “Why me?”

And what could he tell her? That he’d been hit by something he still didn’t understand? He didn’t believe that himself. Nicodemus got what he wanted, no matter what it took. It was how he’d clawed his way to where he was today. It was how he’d first claimed Arista, then rid himself of her and her sharp claws. It was how he’d survived learning the truth about his stern, rigidly moralistic father and what his exposing that truth had done to his mother. It was what he did. Why should this woman be any different? He told himself that was all there was to it.

He’d been telling himself that for years.

He forced a smile. “I like you. That’s why.”

“If you do,” she said drily, “then I suspect you might be mentally ill.”

“Perhaps I am.” He shrugged. “Does that make me less of a catch? A little more Quasimodo than you thought?”

He’d meant to simply outline what would happen from here now that she’d finally come to him. Lay down the law with the supreme pleasure of knowing that this time, she’d do as she was told. Because this time, she had to do it.

And he hadn’t lied to her. He never lied. He didn’t care how she came to him. Angry or on her knees, whatever worked. Nicodemus didn’t waste much time worrying about the cost of Pyrrhic victories. It was the victory itself that mattered.

It was the only thing that mattered.

“It makes you much more likely to find yourself committed to a mental institution by your devoted wife one day,” Mattie was saying. She smiled that fake smile of hers. “Depending on the fine print of our prenuptial agreement, of course.”

She was eyeing him with a certain mild arrogance, as if she was the one with all the power here. When he could tell—from the way she sat with her legs crossed tight and her arms over her middle, from the telltale fluttering of her pulse at her neck and that faint flush high on her cheeks—that she knew she was on precarious ground.

But then, so many things about this woman were an act. Smoke and mirrors. And he vowed he would find the truth beneath it all no matter how long it took him. He would take her apart and put her back together the way he wanted her.

He’d been waiting for this—for her—for years.

“We marry in two weeks,” he said, watching her face as he said it. Something flashed through her dark eyes, but then he saw nothing but that polite mask of hers that he’d always known better than to believe. “It will be a very small ceremony in Greece. You, me, a priest and a photographer. We will honeymoon for two weeks at my villa there. Then we will return to Manhattan, where your brother and I will finally merge our companies, as was the wish of both your father and me.” He smiled and let her see the edge in it. “See? Simple. Hardly worth all this commotion for so many years.”

“And what is my part of this?” she asked as if she couldn’t care less either way.

“During the wedding I expect you to obediently recite your vows,” he said silkily. “Perhaps even with a touch of enthusiasm. During the honeymoon? I have a few ideas. And ten years of a very vivid imagination to bring to life, at last.”

There was no denying the flush that moved over her face then, or that look of something like panic that she blinked away in an instant. Not touching her then very nearly hurt—though wanting Mattie was second nature to him now. What was waiting a little bit longer after a decade?

Besides, he suspected that his feigned laziness drove her crazy, and he wanted any weapon he could find with this woman he still couldn’t read. Not the way he wanted to read her.

“I meant when we return in all our marital splendor to New York City,” she said, and it occurred to him to wonder if it was difficult for her to render her voice so loftily indifferent. If it was a skill she’d acquired once and could put on whenever she liked or if she had to work at it every time. “I have my own apartment there. A life, a job. Of course, I’m happy to live separately—”

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