The Marriage Bargain Chapter One
She needed a man.
Preferably one with $150,000 to spare.
Alexandria Maria McKenzie stared into the small homemade campfire in the middle of her living room floor and wondered if she had officially lost her mind. The piece of paper in her hand held all the qualities she dreamed her soul mate would possess. Loyalty. Intelligence. Humor. A strong sense of family and a love for animals. A healthy income.
Most of her ingredients were already cooking. One hair from a male family member—her brother was still pissed. A mix of scented herbs—probably to give him a tender side. And the small stick for…well, she hoped that didn’t mean what she feared.
With a deep breath, she threw the list into the silver bucket and watched it burn. She felt like an idiot for creating a love spell, but she had no options left and little to lose. As the owner of an eclectic bookstore in a trendy upstate New York college town, she figured she was allowed some quirks. Like sending up a prayer to Earth Mother for the perfect man.
Alexa reached over and grabbed the fire extinguisher as the flames leaped. The smoke rose and reminded her of the burned pizza crust on the bottom of her toaster oven. She crinkled her nose, shot the spray into the middle of her carpet, and went to hunt up a glass of red wine to celebrate.
Her mom would have to sell Tara.
Her family home.
Alexa grabbed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and thought about her dilemma. Her bookstore was mortgaged to the hilt. The café expansion would take careful planning, and there wasn’t a dime to spare. She looked over the Victorian loft apartment and easily calculated there was nothing to sell. Not even on eBay.
She was twenty-seven and probably should live in a stylish condo, with designer clothes and a date every weekend. Instead, she took in homeless dogs from the local shelter and bought chic scarves to update her outfits. She believed in living in the sunlight, being open to every possibility, and following her heart. Unfortunately, none of those traits would save her mother’s house.
She took a sip of the ruby red wine and acknow-ledged there was nothing left to do. No one had enough money, and this time when the tax collector came, there wouldn’t be a happy ending. She was no Scarlett O’Hara. And Alexa didn’t think her last-ditch attempt to make a love spell to lure the perfect man to her door was going to help.
The doorbell rang.
Her mouth fell open. My God, was it him? She looked at her grungy sweatpants and cropped shirt and wondered if she had time to change. She got up to rummage through the closet, but the bell rang again, so she walked over, took a deep breath, and reached for the knob.
“About time you answered the door.”
Her hopes plummeted. Alexa stared at her best friend, Maggie Ryan, and scowled. “You were supposed to be a man.”
Maggie snorted and walked in. She waved a hand in the air, flashing cherry red nails, and flopped onto the sofa. “Yeah, keep dreaming. You scared your last date off, so I won’t be setting you up again. What happened here?”
“What do you mean I scared him? I thought he was going to attack me.”
Maggie raised a brow. “He leaned in to give you a good-night kiss. You stumbled and fell on your ass, and he felt like an idiot. People kiss after a date, Al. It’s a ritual thing.”
Alexa tossed the remaining trash into a bag and scooped up the bucket. “He had tons of garlic at dinner and I didn’t want him near me.”
Maggie grabbed the wine glass and took a healthy swig. She stretched out long legs clad in black leather and hooked her high-heeled boots over the edge of the battered table. “Remind me again why you haven’t had sex in the last decade?”
Alexa gave up and laughed. “Okay, you win. Why are you gracing me with your presence on a Saturday night? You look good.”
“Thanks. I’m meeting someone for drinks at eleven. Wanna come?”
“On your date?”
Maggie made a face and drained the rest of the glass. “You’ll be better company. He’s a bore.”
“Why are you going out with him?”
“He looks good.”
Alexa dropped next to her on the couch and sighed. “I wish I could be like you, Maggie. Why do I have so many hang-ups?”
“Why don’t I have any?” Maggie’s lips twisted in self-deprecating humor, then she pointed to the bucket. “So, what’s the deal with the fire?”
Alexa sighed. “I was creating a love spell. To, uh…get a man.”
Her friend threw back her head and laughed. “Okay. What’s that have to do with the bucket?”
Alexa’s cheeks flamed. She’d never live this down. “I made a fire to honor the Earth Mother,” she whispered.
“Oh my God.”
“Hear me out. I’m desperate. I still haven’t met Mr. Right and another small problem came up I need to solve, so I combined both my needs into one list.”
“What kind of list?”
“One of my customers told me she bought this book on love spells, and when she made a list of all the qualities she was looking for in a man, he showed up.”
Now Maggie looked interested. “A man appeared in her life with all the things she wanted?”
“Yep. The list has to be specific. It can’t be too general, or supposedly the universe gets confused with your desires and sends nothing. She said if you follow the spell, the right man will appear.”
Maggie’s green eyes gleamed. “Let me see the book.”
Nothing like another single female to make you feel better about the quest for a man. Alexa tossed her the little fabric-covered book, feeling less like an idiot.
“Hmmm. Show me your list.”
She waved toward the bucket. “Burned it.”
“I know you have another copy under your bed. Forget it, I’ll get it myself.” Her friend stalked off toward the canary yellow futon and stuck her hand under the cushions. Within seconds she held the list triumphantly between bright red fingernails and licked her lips as if she was about to dive into a lusty romance novel. Alexa settled on the carpet and slumped over. Let the humiliation begin.
“Number one,” Maggie recited. “A Mets fan.”
Alexa braced herself for the explosion.
“Baseball?” Maggie shrieked. She waved the paper back and forth in the air for dramatic effect. “Damn it, how can you make your number one priority baseball? They haven’t made it to the World Series in years! It’s a fact in New York there are more Yankees fans than Mets fans, and that wipes out most of the male population.”
Alexa gritted her teeth. Why was she constantly barraged over her choice of New York teams? “The Mets have heart and character, and I need a man who can root for the underdog. I refuse to sleep with a Yankees fan.”
“You’re hopeless. I give up,” Maggie said. “Number two: loves books, art, and poetry.”
She paused to think about it, then shrugged. “I accept. Three: believes in monogamy. Very important to the list. Number four: wants children.” She looked up. “How many?”
Alexa smiled at the thought. “I’d like three. But I’d settle for two. Should I have specified how many in the list?”
“No, Earth Mother will get it right.” Maggie continued. “Number five: knows how to communicate with a woman. Good one. I’m sick of reading books about Venus and Mars. I’ve gone through the whole series and I still don’t have a clue. Number six: loves animals.” She groaned. “That’s as bad as the Mets!”
Alexa scooted around on the carpet to face her. “If he hates dogs, how can I continue my volunteer program at the shelter? And what if he’s a hunter? I’d wake up in the middle of the night and find a dead deer staring at me from over the mantelpiece.”
“You’re so dramatic.” Maggie turned back to the list. “Number seven: has a moral code of ethics and believes in honesty. Should’ve been number one on the list, but what the hell, I’m not a Mets fan. Number eight: a good lover.” She waggled her eyebrows. “That would be number two on my list. But I’m proud the item even showed up. Maybe you’re not as hopeless as I thought.”
Alexa swallowed hard, dread curling her insides. “Keep going.”
“Number nine: has a strong sense of family. Makes sense—you guys remind me of the frickin’ Waltons. Okay, number ten…”
The clock ticked. Alexa watched Maggie read the item again.
“Alexa, I think I’m reading number ten wrong.”
Alexa sighed. “Probably not.”
Maggie recited the last request. “Needs one hundred and fifty thousand dollars available cash.” She looked up. “I need more details.”
Alexa lifted her chin. “I need a man I can love, with an extra one hundred and fifty thousand thrown in. And I need him fast.”
Maggie shook her head like she surfaced from underwater. “For what?”
“To save Tara.”
Maggie blinked. “Tara?”
“Yeah, my mother’s home. You know, like in the movie Gone with the Wind? Remember how my mom used to joke about needing more cotton to pay the bills? I haven’t told you how bad it’s gotten, Maggs. Mom wants to sell and I can’t let her. They have no money and nowhere else to go. I’ll do anything to help, even marry. Just like Scarlett.”
Maggie moaned and grabbed her purse. She ripped out her phone and punched in some numbers.
“What are you doing?” Alexa fought panic at the thought her best friend wouldn’t understand. After all, she’d never asked for a man to solve her problems before. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
“Canceling my date. I think this new item needs to be discussed. Then I’m calling my therapist. She’s very good, discreet, and she takes midnight appointments.”
Alexa laughed. “You’re such a good friend, Maggie.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
Nicholas Ryan had a fortune at his fingertips.
But to get the one thing he wanted, he needed a wife.
Nick believed in many things. Working hard to accomplish a goal. Controlling anger and resorting to reason when a moment became confrontational. And creating buildings. Buildings that were solid yet aesthetically beautiful. Smooth angles and sharp lines blending together. Bricks and concrete and glass attesting to the solidity that people craved in ordinary life. The short moment of wonder when a person looks upon the final creation for the first time. All of these things made sense to him.
Nick did not believe in love everlasting, marriage, and family. These things made no sense, and he had decided not to incorporate such societal themes into his life.
Unfortunately, Uncle Earl had changed the rules.
Nick’s gut coiled, and his sick sense of humor almost caused a laugh to spill from his lips. He rose from his leather chair and stripped off his navy jacket, striped silk tie, and snowy white shirt. One flick of his wrist unbuckled his belt, and he quickly changed into a pair of gray sweatpants and matching T-shirt. He thrust both feet into his Nike Air sneakers and entered his office’s inner sanctum, which he’d filled with models, sketches, inspiring photos, a treadmill, some weights, and a fully stocked bar. He hit the button on the remote for the MP3 player. The strains of La Traviata filled the room and cleared his head.
He turned on the treadmill and tried not to think of smoking. Even after five years, when the stress kicked up a notch, he longed for a cigarette. Annoyed at his weakness when the urge hit, he exercised. Running soothed him, especially in his perfectly controlled environment. No loud voices interrupting his concentration, no scorching sunlight, no rocks or gravel impeding his path. He set the panel and began the steady pace that would lead him toward a solution.
Even though he understood his uncle’s intentions, the sense of betrayal slowly ate away at his peace. In the end, one of the only family members he loved had used him as a pawn.
Nick shook his head. He should have seen this coming. Uncle Earl had spent his last few months spouting the importance of family and had thought Nick’s response was lackluster. Nick wondered why his uncle was surprised. After all, his family should have been an advertisement for birth control.
As Nick had drifted in and out of relationships, one thing became clear—all women wanted marriage, and marriage meant messiness. Fights about emotion. Children tearing them both at the seams, wanting more attention. Needing more space, until the end became the same as every other relationship. Divorce. With children as the casualties.
He pumped up the incline and adjusted the speed as his thoughts whirled. Uncle Earl remained stubbornly optimistic until the bitter end that a woman would save his nephew’s life. The heart attack had struck hard and fast. When the lawyers finally descended like a pack of vultures on the scent of blood money, Nick thought the legalities would be easy. His sister, Maggie, had already made it quite clear she wanted nothing to do with the business. Uncle Earl had no other relatives. So, for the first time, Nick believed in good fortune. Finally, he’d have something completely his own.
Until the lawyers read the will.
Then he realized the joke was on him.
He would inherit the majority of the Dreamscape shares as soon as he married. The marriage must last for one year, to any woman he chose, and a prenuptial agreement was acceptable. If Nick decided not to comply with his uncle’s wishes, he’d retain 51 percent; the balance would be split among the board members, and Nick would be nothing but a figurehead. Instead of creating buildings, he’d be stuck in meetings and corporate politics—exactly what he did not want to do with his life.
And Uncle Earl had known it.
So now Nick had to find a wife.
He hit the switch and the incline lowered. He slowed his pace and evened his breath. With methodical precision, his mind cut through the emotional emptiness and scanned the possibilities. He got off the treadmill, grabbed a chilled bottle of Evian from the minibar, and walked back to his chair. He took a swallow of the icy, clean liquid and placed the sweating bottle on his desk. Waited a few minutes as he gathered his thoughts. Then picked up the gold pen and rolled it between his fingers.
He printed the words, each a nail banged into his own personal coffin.
Find a wife.
He wouldn’t waste any more time griping about unfairness. Nick decided to make a clear list of the attributes his wife would need, and then see if he could think of any appropriate candidates.
Immediately, an image of Gabriella arose, but he squashed the thought. The stunning supermodel he currently dated was perfect for social functions and great sex, but not marriage. Gabriella was a sharp conversationalist and he enjoyed her company, but he was afraid she was already falling in love with him. She’d hinted at her desire to have children, which was a deal breaker. No matter how he laid out the ground rules of a marriage, emotion would ruin it. She’d become jealous and demanding, like any normal wife. No prenup would ever stand up to her greed once she felt betrayed.
He took another drink of water and ran his thumb in circles over the rough edge of the bottle top. He’d once read if a person made a list of all the qualities he admired in a woman, one appeared. Nick frowned as he grabbed at the fleeting thought. He was almost positive the theory had something to do with the universe. Getting back what you put into the cosmos. Some metaphysical crap he didn’t believe in.
But today he was desperate.
He set the pen on the left edge of the page and wrote his list.
A woman who does not love me.
A woman I do not desire to sleep with.
A woman who does not have a big family.
A woman who does not have any animals.
A woman who does not want any children.
A woman who has an independent career.
A woman who will view the relationship as a business venture.
A woman who is not overly emotional or impulsive.
A woman I can trust.
Nick read over the summary. He knew some of his desired qualities were stubbornly optimistic, but if the universe theory worked, he might as well put down everything he wanted. He needed a woman who looked upon the venture as a business opportunity. Perhaps someone who craved a large payoff. He intended to offer many fringe benefits, but he wanted the marriage in name only. No sex equals no jealousy. No overly emotional woman equals no love.
No messiness equals a perfect marriage.
He sifted through each woman he’d dated in his past, every female friend he’d exchanged words with, every business associate he’d ever lunched with.
He came up with nothing.
Frustration nibbled on the edges of his nerves. He was a thirty-year-old man, reasonably attractive, intelligent, and financially secure. And he couldn’t come up with one decent woman to marry.
He had one week to find his wife.
His cell phone rang. Nick picked it up. “Ryan.”
“Nick, it’s me. Maggie.” She paused. “Did you find a wife yet?”
A chuckle strangled his lips. His sister was the only woman in the world who got him to laugh on a regular basis. Even if it was sometimes at his expense. “Working on it now.”
“I think I found her.”
His heartbeat sped up. “Who is it?”
Another pause. “You’d have to meet her terms, but I don’t think they’ll be a problem. Be open-minded. I know that’s not your forte. But you can trust her.”
He checked the last item on his list. A strange buzzing hummed in his ears as if in warning of his sister’s next words. “Who is it, Maggs?”
Silence fell over the line for a beat. “Alexa.”
The room whirled in a dizzying blur at the familiar name from his past. His only thought flashed like a mantra in vivid neon, over and over.
No frickin’ way.