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Contract for Marriage
By Barbara DeLeo, Ann L. Kopchik
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Barbara DeLeo
All rights reserved.
A kaleidoscope of color sparkled overhead as Ruby Fleming kicked to the surface of her late parents' Olympic size swimming pool. The cool water across her skin was a relief from the sticky heat of a New Zealand summer's evening and the heart-wrenching turmoil of the last few weeks. It seemed too cruel to be real that the precious life inside her had lost both a father and grandmother in the space of a month.
Ruby broke through the surface, tossed her long hair over her shoulder, and flicked water from her eyes. When she'd got her breath and focused, her heart constricted in her chest. Then she froze. An imposing figure stood shadowed by the wisteria-covered terrace above the pool, a selection of designer luggage at his feet.
Dread crawled the length of her spine. The last of the mourners had left in the days after her mother's funeral, and Stella the housekeeper hadn't been here when Ruby had arrived in such a hurry from New York. She should be the only person on the estate.
This six-foot plus package of sizzling masculinity made a lie of that.
Her heart beat harder as she waded in shoulder-deep water to the pool's tiled edge. How long had he been standing there, watching her, waiting?
Razor edged suit. Vanilla crème shirt against mocha skin. A stance of unleashed determination. Her stomach somersaulted as she blinked and then frowned. There was something familiar ...
The man stepped forward, the classic angles of his face grim, and the sense of familiarity burned deeper.
"My condolences for the loss of your mother. She was a very generous and caring woman. She'll be missed."
The words, like tumbling river stones, washed over her in a wave of realization. His voice was more mature than she remembered, but its sensuality, the way it sang in her ears and rocketed straight to her core, was the same as ten years ago.
She swallowed away his name as her pulse sprinted. The month-long scar of tears and regret she wore like a brand bit deep. "I'm sorry you couldn't get here sooner. The funeral was Friday."
As he moved closer, the dark cloud stamped across his face shifted a fraction, and, on reflex, Ruby splayed the fingers of both hands across her bare belly beneath the water — holding herself together, keeping every part of her private.
She hadn't seen Christo Mantazis in a decade, but knew being around him caused her to lose focus on what was right, what was important. And nothing was more important than this baby.
He'd been nineteen then, time he moved out of the quarters he shared with his mother, Stella, the estate's housekeeper. With no more impressive street address and no more influential people to mix with, he'd tried to stay connected with Ruby's privileged world by bedding her. Only when her father caught them and confronted him did Christo back away. Fast. He'd been seen with other women at the polo club and the yacht club, trying to make connections that would stick.
She'd asked Christo one question on the day her father had banished him from the estate and her life — did he want her, or the package she came with? He'd left the house without giving her an answer. Without fighting for their relationship. Without fighting for her. And he'd taken a precious part of her heart with him.
"I've come from the airport." His voice lowered and took on a harder edge. "We were in Greece when we heard."
We. Did he mean himself and his mother?
Ruby craned her neck, searching, and kept her voice steady when she asked, "Is Stella with you?"
"Mother is back at my apartment. She's upset about Antonia's death, especially distraught that the funeral was held so quickly. I've brought my aunt from Greece to stay with her until matters are finalized."
Ruby dipped her shoulders lower, glad for the cool water on her overheated skin. Seeing Christo again unsettled her more than she'd ever imagined, particularly when he was talking in riddles.
He dragged gold-rimmed aviator glasses from his face and her breath hitched as his onyx gaze pinned hers. Glossy black hair licked the burnished skin of his face and framed a masculine jaw darkened by the shadow of travel-induced stubble. His lips, lips she'd once hungered for, were set in a rigid line. Ten years might've passed, but he was as striking ... no, more striking than she remembered.
He tapped the sunglasses against a thigh standing taut under the fine suit fabric. Memories of being tangled in his arms ripped through her, and her stomach looped. She bit her lip. God help her, she hoped he wasn't staying long.
He reached for the jacket's inside pocket and withdrew a white envelope.
"This contains a bank check for an amount to cover my purchase of your share of this property." His voice cut through her, face impassive. "In a perfect world I wouldn't intrude on your grief so soon, but I've no choice. My offer's more than generous."
Ruby blinked. Her share of this property? She was an only child. Her mother didn't have anyone else to leave the house to. She touched her palm to her belly — well, no one her mother had known about.
Trying to clear her mind, she shook her hair and water droplets rained on the surface of the pool. "What offer?"
He bent and scooped up the large red towel at his feet and held it open invitingly. "Come out of the water and we'll discuss it." The power of his look and the cold, detached tone didn't match the broad expanse of his open arms.
Ruby's blood chilled and she clutched her body tighter. "I'm fine where I am, thank you." She wasn't moving from the privacy of the water. He didn't need to see more of her ripening body than he already had. "Tell me, Christo, what offer?"
He stood silent for a moment then tossed the towel and envelope on the ornate iron table. He pulled up a chair before effortlessly folding his six-plus frame into it. Drumming his fingers on the tabletop, he lifted his chin and fixed her with a firm stare.
"You return to New York when?"
The early evening breeze shuffled leaves at the corner of the tennis court, and despite the heat of the day, Ruby shivered. He'd avoided her question and his tone was rough, careless — so different from the secret, sensual way he'd spoken to her in the past. Whispering of his desire for her, words she'd foolishly believed. She looked down and swallowed past the lump in her throat. Her world had been so turned on its head in the last month, nothing was clear anymore.
In a matter of weeks she'd learned of her pregnancy and that the father — a man she'd dated briefly — had died in a car wreck. Now her mother, who she hadn't seen in years, was gone and it was as if she were being pulled down some frightening black hole. And here was Christo, a shock in itself, using phrases like "share of this property."
Christo had changed. The fiercely passionate boy was now an intense man who radiated heat and raw energy, and something wild and pulsing strained beneath his surface. Something that caused a glow to burn through her body every time he looked at her.
He'd asked when she was returning to New York. She lifted her chin. It was none of his business.
"I'm not making any big decisions right now."
"You wouldn't come back here to live." The bold certainty in his statement stung. "You haven't been back since you were a child."
A child? She gripped the frigid edge of the pool. He'd thought of her as a child back then? She'd been a young adult and there had been nothing childlike in the way she'd felt about him. And nothing innocent in the inexcusable way he'd treated her. Leaving without an explanation. Never contacting her again.
Eighteen and ecstatically happy in his arms, she'd been devastated when her father had confronted him with the truth of his womanizing and banished Christo from the house. When she'd angrily gone after him to explain how much he'd hurt her, Christo turned the anger back on her, asking why she hadn't stood up for him. Couldn't he see that he'd broken the trust she'd so carefully placed in him? Taken her from the heights of sizzling passion to the depths of confusion? If her father's allegations weren't true then Christo would've stayed and fought for her. Not walked out of her life. Of that she was certain.
The double hurt that had bored through her all those years ago leaked into her words. "I've been back." She scanned his inscrutable face. When you were on your annual trip to Greece. In truth, returning from the States on those few occasions had been difficult, hurtful. Leaving New Zealand because she couldn't live with the secret of her mother's long-term affair — and the broken family it had caused — had seemed her only option then, but in recent years she'd yearned for a sense of her old self, her heritage.
Being away for a decade had meant she'd managed to avoid Christo. Whenever his name was mentioned when she was back, she'd tried to blank out the details. He had no business being here now, and hadn't since her father had told him all those years ago to never come back.
She asked again. "What offer, Christo?"
Dark shadows passed across his chiseled features and he leaned back in the chair, scrutinizing her. "Antonia didn't discuss her will? She told you nothing of her plans?"
Her heart drummed in her chest. Surely he would know that she and her mother hadn't been close. "No, she didn't. Her death was so sudden — her heart problem had been undetected. Her lawyer has asked to see me tomorrow to discuss her wishes. I'm sure everything will be in order." A stab deep in her throat reminded her how little she'd known of her mother in the last few years. Forgiveness for the pain her mother had caused their family with her affair hadn't come easily to Ruby. Now she'd never have the chance to tell her mother she'd loved her despite the past. She blinked that tragedy away.
She scanned Christo's face, the dark lashes that framed his unforgiving stare, and she swallowed. Why was he mentioning estates and offers when it was her mother who'd been buried this week? "Tell me what you know, Christo."
"You and I are joint beneficiaries of the major part of your mother's estate. This property." His jaw set firmer. "I'm here to buy you out."
For a moment the water around her seemed to move before she realized it was her body that was swaying. She grabbed hold of the tiled edge to steady herself, his words pulsing in her head. They didn't make sense. None of this did. "You can't ... she wouldn't ..."
In a second he was on his feet, his sleeve pushed up, holding out a strong hand to her.
"Ruby, take my hand." She stared at his broad, welcoming palm and tried to straighten everything in her mind, wanting someone to save her from this nightmare. Anyone but him.
He was to have a half share of this house? Her childhood home? The place that should pass to her child as it had to five generations of Flemings before?
His voice deepened, commanded, "Ruby, get out of the pool."
Mindless, she put her hand in his and the second their skin connected, a bolt of heat flared through her, a connection so strong it stole the breath from her lungs. With frightening speed he lifted her out until she stood, dripping on his beautifully polished shoes. As her cool hand warmed in his sure grip, she slowly looked up into his face and her throat closed.
Eyes the color of midnight sent a smoldering rope throughout her body and she dragged in a bigger breath as he surveyed her from top to toe. This wasn't happening. Couldn't be. He reached for the towel and placed it around her shoulders.
Grabbing the loose corners, she rushed to conceal the curve of her belly. "I don't believe you." Her voice was rough and raw. "My mother would never leave half the house to you after what you did. We might've had our difficulties, but she'd never want to hurt me."
Holding her steady, the strength in his hands burned through the towel, his polished, perfect male scent invading her senses. "You will believe it. The documentation is succinct and clear. You'll receive all the details from your mother's lawyer in time, but we'll resolve ownership now to keep things simple."
Ruby sank into the iron chair behind her, limbs loose, skin chilling. "Why would she do this? We hadn't spoken much lately, but I'd have thought that with something so significant ..."
He took the chair opposite and leaned back, twilight causing the bronze of his skin to deepen and shadows to settle in the contours of his face. "So I could buy your share."
"You spoke to her about it in person?"
For the briefest moment a soft change swept across his face before it vanished. "She was a complex but deeply caring woman. We spoke many times. She knew you had no interest in returning here to stay so she wanted to offer you an easy exit. At the same time she'd ensure the house went to someone who appreciated it."
With frozen fingers, Ruby pulled the towel tight across her body as his stare hardened once more. Her father had banished him and Christo had been furious at her father's decree. The son of an immigrant housekeeper, he'd seen her as an open door into another, more privileged world. What on Earth had persuaded her mother to leave this property to Christo Mantazis now? He'd obviously convinced her that either he'd made a mistake all those years ago, or that by some miracle he'd changed.
From the way he sat, inscrutable and closed but with his gaze skimming her body, Ruby believed neither. She raised her chin a fraction. "I can't think why she'd have wanted to provide for you, but why didn't she just give you money? Why a share of our house?"
With an ironic smile he flicked his wrist and a designer watch jangled against the table. "It's not money I need, Ruby." His voice was smooth and self-assured.
The exquisite suit, the brand name luggage — he'd come a very long way in ten years. "Then, what?"
He leaned forward, a forearm resting on the table edge and the crisp, clean scent of him surrounded her. "My mother has lived in this house for decades. It's the only home she's ever known in this country and the only place she'll be happy. You haven't lived here for years."
Her mind raced. Although she felt for Stella — losing a close friend and her job at the same time — Ruby couldn't possibly sell this house, her baby's birthright. This estate had been in her father's family for generations, and although it hadn't housed a happy family in a very long time, she intended to change that. In the last few years something had been calling her. A yearning to put right the hurts of the past, to find the old self she'd fled from. Her mother's unexpected death had been a cruel blow to her search, but Christo wasn't going to stop that journey with his confident words and dollar bills.
The solution was simple. "I intend to keep the house, but Stella can stay of course. It's so huge that there's always plenty to do here. I'll buy your half and everything can be settled."
His look hardened and the confidence oozing from him funneled through her. "As I said, I don't want your money. What I want is this house for my mother's retirement. Not a house for her to keep working in. I'll pay you three times its worth to see that happens. You can buy yourself a permanent place in New York and never feel tied to Auckland again."
Ruby sat straighter, her shoulders tightening. He was telling her what to do and where to live now? "I won't be selling my share, Christo. I grew up in this house, it's part of my heritage, and even though I haven't spent much time here recently, it's more important to me than you understand. Your mother can stay here without working for as long as she wants. God knows she deserves it after being such a wonderful companion to my mother. Whether I spend most of my time in New York or here, Stella will always be welcome in this house." Light relief danced through her chest as the idea blossomed. "Yes, I'd love to think of her here. It'll be perfect for both of us." And my precious baby, Ruby thought as she put a hand to her trembling lips. There was a time Stella Mantazis had been like a second mother to her, and now that her own mother was gone she couldn't think of anyone more perfect to share her house — or her baby — with.
"Not good enough." His stare held stark irritation. "Now's the time for my mother to be taken care of and cherished, not put up as some sort of charity case lodger. She'll live in this house as its owner, nothing less."
The weight of his determination and the events of the last few weeks drilled into her. Now was not the time to be having this discussion. "This house belongs to me and future generations of Flemings. It's where I'm going to stay." She stood.
"And where I'll stay, also."
Blood changed direction in her veins. "I beg your pardon?"
He moved from the chair and pushed himself to his full height, determination flaring across his features. "Your mother spoke of one condition in her will."
Her lips dried but she forced the words out. "And what's that?"
"The first person to leave forfeits their share." He picked up a suitcase in each hand. "If you're staying, Ruby, then you can bet I'm staying too."
Excerpted from Contract for Marriage by Barbara DeLeo, Ann L. Kopchik. Copyright © 2012 Barbara DeLeo. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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