His for a price(4)

By: Caitlin Crews

He’d have known the moment she descended the stairs in the great hall outside the library. He always knew. She’d often thought he was half cat. She didn’t like to speculate about the other half, but she was fairly certain it, too, had fangs.

“I hope you’re not gloating, Nicodemus,” she said briskly, because she thought simply waiting for him to turn around and fix those unholy dark eyes of his on her might make her dizzy—and she felt vulnerable enough as it was. She thought she could smell the smug male satisfaction heavy in the air, choking the oxygen from the room as surely as if one of the fireplaces had backed up. It put her teeth on edge. “It’s so unattractive.”

“At this point the hole you have dug for yourself rivals a swimming pool or two,” Nicodemus replied, in that voice of his that reverberated in her the way it always had, low and dangerous with that hint of his Greek childhood still clinging to his words and wrapping tight around the center of her. “But by all means, Mattie. Keep digging.”

“Here I am,” she said brightly. “Sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, as ordered. What a happy day this must be for you.”

Nicodemus turned then. Slowly, so slowly, like that might take the edge off the swift, hard punch of seeing him full on. It didn’t, of course. Nothing ever did. Mattie ordered herself to breathe—and not to keel over. He was as absurdly gorgeous as ever, damn him. No disfiguring accidents had turned him into a troll since she’d seen him at her father’s funeral.

He was as smoothly muscled as he’d been when he was in his twenties and honed to steel-like perfection by the construction work he’d somehow catapulted into a multi-million-dollar corporation by the time he was twenty-six. The fine, hard lines of his face were nearly elegant while his corded strength was as apparent in the line of his pugilistic jaw as in that impossibly chiseled chest of his that he’d concealed very poorly today behind a tight, black, obviously wildly expensive T-shirt that made no concession whatsoever to the weather. He was too elemental. He’d always made the hair at the back of her neck stand on end, her nipples pull painfully taut and her stomach draw tight, and today was no different.

Today was worse. And on top of that, Nicodemus was smiling.

I am lost already, she thought.

Nicodemus was a sheer, high, dizzying cliff and she’d spent ten years fighting hard to keep from toppling off. Because she still had no idea what might become of her if she fell.

“You really are gloating,” she said, folding her arms over her chest and frowning at him. It was more of a smirk than a smile, she thought as she eyed him warily, and that too-bright gleam of a warmth like honey in his dark coffee gaze. “I don’t know why that surprises me, coming from you.”

“I’m not sure that gloating is the word I’d choose.”

He was lethal, pure and simple, and his dark gaze was too intent. It took everything she had to keep from turning and bolting for the door. This day was always coming, she told herself harshly. Accept it, because you can’t escape it.

Though she’d tried. God, but she’d tried.

“The first time I asked you to marry me you were how old?” he asked, his voice almost warm, as if he was sharing a fond reminiscence instead of their long, tortured history. “Twenty?”

“I was eighteen,” Mattie said crisply. She didn’t move as he roamed toward her. But she wanted to. She wanted to bolt for her childhood bedroom on the second floor and lock herself inside. She made herself lock her gaze to his, instead. “It was my debutante ball and you were ruining it.”

Nicodemus’s mocking little smile deepened, and Mattie fought not to flush with the helpless reaction he’d always caused in her. But she could still remember that single waltz her father had insisted she dance with him that night. Pressed up against his big body, much too close to his fierce, demanding gaze, and that mouth of his that had made her nothing but...nervous. And needy.

It still did. Damn him.

“Marry me,” he’d said instead of a greeting, almost as if he’d meant to let out some kind of curse, instead.

“I’m sorry,” she’d said, holding Nicodemus’s dark, dark eyes as if they hadn’t bitten deep into her, making her chest feel tight. She’d been a brash girl when she’d wanted to be, back then, forever attempting to get her father’s attention, but her voice had been small. He had terrified her. Or maybe that wasn’t terror, that overwhelming thing that had swamped her, fierce and instantaneous, but she hadn’t known what else to call it. “I don’t want to marry you. Or anyone.”

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