His for a price(3)

By: Caitlin Crews

Their father had loved the company his own grandfather had built from little more than innate Whitaker stubbornness and a desire to best the likes of Andrew Carnegie. And Mattie thought both she and Chase had always loved their father in their own complicated ways, especially after they’d lost their mother and Big Bart was all they’d had left.

Which meant they would each do what they had to do. There was no escaping this, and if she was honest, Mattie had known that long before her father died. It was as inevitable as the preview of the upstate New York winter coming down hard outside, and there was no use pretending otherwise.

Mattie would make the best of it. She would ignore that deep, dark, aching place inside her that simply hurt. That was scared, so very scared, of how Nicodemus Stathis made her feel. And how easy it would be to lose herself in him, until there was nothing left of her at all.

But you owe this to them, she reminded herself sternly. All of them.

“He’s here already, isn’t he?” she asked after a moment, when there was no putting it off any longer. She could stand here all day and it wouldn’t change anything. It would only make the dread in her belly feel more like a brick.

Chase’s gaze met hers, which she supposed was a point in his favor, though she wasn’t feeling particularly charitable at the moment. “He said he’d wait for you in the library.”

She didn’t look at her brother again. She looked at the polished cherry desk, instead, and missed their father with a rush that nearly left her lightheaded. She would have done anything, in that moment, to see his craggy face again. To hear that rumbling voice of his, even if he’d only ordered her to do this exact thing, as he’d threatened to do many times over the past ten years.

Now everything was precarious and dangerous, Bart was gone, and they were the only Whitakers left. Chase and Mattie against the world. Even if Chase and Mattie’s togetherness had been defined as more of a polite distance in the long years since their aristocratic mother’s death—separate boarding schools in the English countryside, universities in different countries and adult lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. But Mattie knew that all of that, too, was her fault.

She was the guilty party. She would accept her sentence, though perhaps not as gracefully as she should.

“Well,” she said brightly as she turned toward the door. “I hope we’ll see you at the wedding, Chase. I’ll be the one dragged up the aisle in chains, possibly literally. It will be like sacrificing the local virgin to appease the ravenous dragon. I’ll try not to scream too loudly while being burned alive, etcetera.”

Chase sighed. “If I could change any of this, I would. You know that’s true.”

But he could have been talking about so many things, and Mattie knew that the truth was that she’d save her tears because they were useless. And maybe she’d save the family business, too, while she was at it. It was, truly, the least she could do.

Nicodemus Stathis might have been the bane of her existence for as long as she could remember, but she could handle him. She’d been handling him for years.

She could do this.

So she held her head up high—almost as if she believed that—and she marched off to assuage her guilt and do her duty, at last, however much it felt like she was walking straight toward her own doom.

* * *

The worst thing about Nicodemus Stathis was that he was gorgeous, Mattie thought moments later in that mix of unwanted desire and sheer, unreasonable panic that he always brought out in her. So gorgeous it was tempting to overlook all the rest of the things he was, like profoundly dangerous to her. So gorgeous it had a way of confusing the issue, tangling her up into knots and making her despair of herself.

So absurdly gorgeous, in fact, that it was nothing but unfair.

He stood by the French doors on the far side of the library, his strong back to the warmth and the light of the book-laden room, his attention somewhere out in all that gray and rattling wet. He stood quietly, but that did nothing to disguise the fact that he was the most ruthless, wholly relentless man she’d ever known. It was obvious at a glance. The thick, jet-black hair, the graceful way he held his obviously dangerous form so still, the harsh beguilement of the mouth she could only see in the reflection of the glass. The menace in him that his smooth, sleek clothes couldn’t begin to conceal. He didn’t turn to look at her as she made her way toward him, but she knew perfectly well he knew she was there.

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