Billionaires' Brides of Convenience, Book 2
Ryder Pryce-Reed. Billionaire. Hollywood superstar. The man every man wants to be. The man every woman wants to have.
I am about to become his bride…but only so he can claim his grandfather’s legacy. The world is furious that he will belong to a working girl as ordinary as me.
Our deal was supposed to be simple. I marry him for a year; he ensures that my unborn child and I are taken care of.
But now everything’s complicated. We can’t keep our hands off each other. Enemies, both past and present, want to tear us apart. And…I’m in love with Ryder.
How do you keep a man everyone says isn’t yours to keep?
Note: This installment of Ryder and Paige’s story does NOT contain a cliffhanger ending.
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Paige refuses to have me in the room with her, insisting I stay outside. Does she blame me for what happened? I’m sure her fall had something to do with the bleeding. I can’t think of any other reason she’d have issues, because up to that point she’d been thriving as a pregnant woman, glowing and happy. Not even any morning sickness.
If I hadn’t rushed in at the club, Anthony wouldn’t have pushed her. And so she wouldn’t have fallen… I rub my face, then find a waiting room. A worn poster on the wall cites the dangers of cell phone use inside the hospital, something about how mobile devices interfere with medical equipment. I turn mine off. I don’t want anything to mess with the care Paige is getting, but not having something to distract myself with is painful. There are so many ugly thoughts and possibilities going through my mind…and the atmosphere here doesn’t help.
There’s a difference between movie hospitals and real hospitals. Movie hospital sets smell normal. They don’t give you that reflexive recoil in the deepest part of your heart. Real hospitals are the opposite. Decades of accumulated anxiety, misery, illness, and despair have settled in thick layers that no amount of chlorine can erase.
I park my butt in a molded plastic chair designed to be both uncomfortable and ugly and pull my baseball cap down. A large pair of dark sunglasses covers most of my face, but it’s my busted lip that seems to be making people hesitant to assume I am who I am — Ryder Reed, one of the hottest movie stars in Hollywood. I’ve done some action flicks, but I’ve never gotten into a public fistfight.
Still, curious gazes slide over me. I ignore them. I like to engage with the public and my fans — actors are mostly extroverts — but only on my own terms, and certainly not in some dingy ER waiting room.
The clock on the wall ticks interminably, and my eyes gradually become gritty and unfocused. And my ass is getting numb. Damn it, how long does it take to see if Paige’s all right? I guess the doctors want to be thorough and run all the appropriate tests.
Unless… Nausea roils in my belly. Unless the unthinkable has happened.
“Hey, are you that movie star?”
The boyish voice startles me out of my reverie. A child who looks like an animated marshmallow stands in front of me. A dingy white t-shirt and faded jeans don’t improve his appearance. He’s short enough that even seated my upper stomach is at his eye level. He’s five…maybe six.
“My brother said you are,” the boy adds, when I don’t respond.
Another boy joins him. He looks like the first, except slightly bigger and rounder and whiter. He’s so pale he practically glows under the neon lighting.
He pokes the smaller boy. “Told ya, dumbass. That’s Ryder Reed.”
“Did you get into a fight?” the younger boy asks, widening his eyes.
The older boy is entirely too gleeful. “Of course, he did. Look at his mouth. Bam!” he shouts as he makes a punching motion.
He’s drawing attention to me, and I grimace. Where the hell is his mother?
The bigger one points at my mouth. “He’s here to get treated for that lip.”
“Who did you fight?” the younger boy asks.
The older boy says, “It’s gotta be that girl.”
“The fat one. She came in all bloody.”
As ridiculous as their conversation is, the muscles in my face start to tighten. This is how rumors start, and I need to put an end to the bullshit right now. “It wasn’t the girl. I do not hit women.”
“That’s not true.” The older boy sniffs disdainfully, his mouth set in a knowing sneer that seems wrong on such a young face. “I watched Lethal Connection. You fought that chick, then punched her and stuff. Man, that was so awesome! The bitch went down!”
“Yeah!” The younger kid pumps a fist above his head. “Bitches need to go down!”
I stare at the children, horrified at their language and stunned that they’ve seen that movie. It was rated R for…well, pretty much everything. Violence, excessive nudity, profanity. You name it.
I lean forward. “Okay, c’mere.” They come in closer. “First, you shouldn’t say the b-word. It’s not nice. Second, she wasn’t a normal person, but a genetically enhanced humanoid cyborg.”
The younger kid lowers his voice to a stage whisper. “Then why was the girl who came with you bleeding? If you didn’t knock her out?”
His brother is still going off. “I bet she was being all bitchy and had to be put in her place.”
I feel like there’s a ticking bomb in my head. Kids this young pick up stuff from their parents. If this is their attitude, maybe it explains why their mother is nowhere to be seen. Or maybe they picked it up from R-rated movies they should never have been allowed to watch in the first place.
I make a time out gesture with my hands. “Listen, both of you. You can’t talk about women like that.”
The squishy nostrils flare on the older kid’s flushed face. “Why not?”
I grind my teeth. If this bratty kid were mine…
When I don’t bother to answer, he gets in my face. “Why the hell not?”
“I told you: because it’s not nice. Now, go find your mother and leave me alone, or I’m going to call the cops,” I say, giving them Serious Look Number Two. I’m not going to do that, of course. But I figure it should scare them.
Both boys start screaming and yelling. My head hurts even more, and I’m ready to call somebody — anybody — to come take these mini-psychos away from me.
A woman hustles toward me. She is obviously the prototype for the two marshmallow children, except larger and female. “Hey, what did you do to my kids?”
What the hell? “Nothing. They came over to talk to me. Which you would’ve noticed if you’d been watching them.”
She puts her hands on her hips. “What are you implying? I’m a good mother!” She raises her voice. “I take care of my kids, I watch ’em, and I teach ’em right!”
“You mean like letting them see movies like Lethal Connection?”
“This is America. Freest country in the world, and I’m entitled to let my kids watch whatever they want. I’m not some brainwashed statist!”
Clearly, I need to exit this conversation. At the same time, I’m stressed and about to erupt because her annoying kids think it’s okay to bother me when I’m doing my best not to talk to anybody. My fame does not give them the right to intrude into my private life. “Just take your kids and go away. Please.”
But Mrs. Marshmallow isn’t going to leave it alone. She starts to get in my face and scream hysterically about what a fit mother she is. She even demands that I apologize. For what? I haven’t said a single thing that isn’t true, and it’s not my fault she lets her kids watch R-rated movies and use foul language. The volume of her voice cannot make up for her lack of manners and common sense.
Unfortunately, her hysterics are drawing attention. I grit my teeth. Add this to the list of reasons I hate hospitals.
A young nurse comes over. She’s a tall, attractive blonde with light brown eyes and full lips that are currently turned down in disapproval. Still, she maintains her composure. Her ponytail swings as she turns to the loud woman first. “Ma’am, you need to be quiet. Or I’ll have to have security escort you out of the building until you calm down.”
The nurse might as well have tossed a bucket of gasoline over fire. The woman goes absolutely crazy. Spittle flies from her mouth, and her thick neck and cheeks go a deep shade of red even as the rest of her stays fish-belly white.
Another nurse comes up, fifty-something, and lays a gentle hand on my shoulder. “I’m very sorry, sir. I know you’ve been waiting a long time. Can you come with me for a moment?”
My gut tightens. I can’t read her expression, but it’s got to be bad.
I follow her down a long hallway. My feet feel like lead. I think of all the comforting words I need to say to Paige. “I’m so sorry” seems pathetically inadequate.
We come to the end of the hall and the nurse opens the door. I walk in, ready for some serious consolation action, then stop.
The room is empty. There are two cheap plastic chairs and a rectangular Formica table. No windows. As I make a slow circle in the center, my brows crease together. The place looks like something out of a spy flick — a torture room where the villain attempts to beat the truth out of the hero. All it needs is a lamp swinging over one of the chairs, casting dramatic shadows.
“It might be better if you wait here. More privacy. I’m sorry we don’t have someplace nicer, but we’re overflowing and understaffed right now.”
“My fiancée. Where is she?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll check.”
She turns, about to leave, then pauses. “Would you like some ice?” She indicates her lip with a sympathetic look.
“If you don’t mind. Sure.”
It doesn’t take long before she returns with the ice and cleans the crust of blood and other gunk off my lip. Her touch is professional, which I appreciate. I don’t have the energy or patience to deal with stalkerish behavior. And fan-stalkers are everywhere.
She gives me the bag of ice. “Just hold it on there. Should make you feel better.”
“Thanks. And can you let me know as soon as you get an update on Paige?”
When the door closes behind her, I numb my lip with the ice and will Paige and the baby to be all right.
* * * * *
Ryder’s here. In the building.
One part of me wants him by my side, but another doesn’t. We haven’t talked about — much less resolved — anything. This isn’t even his baby, but he held my hand in the ambulance and whispered soothing words I couldn’t comprehend over the roaring in my head. I’d rather not put him in a position where he feels forced into providing me with empty words of comfort and meaningless pats on my shoulder…but I still want him here.
The clock on the wall says it’s only been hours, but everything seems to have happened over years. I hate being alone with nothing but my fears, anxiety stretching every second into something interminable.
I tense as a doctor finally walks in with a thick folder and chart.
He’s surprisingly young, with gel-spiked black hair and dark eyes. A hoop hooks around the highest point of his left eyebrow. Sniffing, he runs a finger under his nose and flips through the papers.
Except for the lab coat, he looks nothing like a doctor should. Sweat slickens my palms. “Is everything all right?” I ask, unable to wait a second longer for information on my baby.
His head snaps up. “What? Yes. Yes, your baby is fine.”
Sagging with relief, I lay my hands over my belly. Thank god.
“By the way, I’m Dr. Min. I don’t recall if I introduced myself.”
I give him a neutral smile. Even if he did, I probably wouldn’t remember. Everything since I got out of Ryder’s Ferrari with my bloody skirt is sketchy, like I experienced it through a dense fog.
He continues, “But you should still be careful. Your blood pressure is a little high for my liking. That and this incident — plus your weight — make this a high-risk pregnancy.”
High risk. The words echo in my ears as I stare at the doctor. He’s not the first medical professional to tell me to watch my weight, but it’s the first time I’ve had somebody tell me it might harm the baby. I try to speak, but my mouth is so dry I can barely vocalize. I clear my throat and try again. “Are you telling me I should diet?”
He gives me a look. “I know how futile it is to tell a pregnant woman she needs to diet. Hard enough normally, and a lot worse when you have cravings. But next time, you should consider losing some weight before getting pregnant.”
I cringe inwardly at the matter-of-fact way he speaks. I know it’s nothing personal, but somehow I feel like I’ve failed my baby. I stroke my stomach guiltily.
“Take it easy, and make an appointment to see your regular doctor as soon as possible. Dr. Silverman, right?”
“She’s good.” He grins unexpectedly, and suddenly looks like a teenage boy. “Any questions?”
I look down, then raise my eyes to meet the doctor’s. “Did you…see my fiancé outside?”
“No. But I’ll ask a nurse. Anything else?”
I shake my head.
He leaves, his step brisk. I’m sure he has hundreds of other patients.
I pull up my phone and text Ryder.
Sorry it was such a long wait. I’m done. Ready to go?
I wait a while, but no response. I text him again just in case.
More time, and still nothing. I know he has his phone; he used it to call nine-one-one earlier.
A hole grows in my chest. Did he just…go home? I asked him to wait outside even though I knew he wanted to come in with me. To be honest, I would’ve preferred that he be there for the consultation. But there’s this small part of me that doesn’t want to be dependent on him. He’s only marrying me so he can get his grandfather’s painting.
And it’s only going to be for a year.
I could contact my stepsister, but that would create problems. I still don’t know what to tell her about my scandalous situation with the sex tape. And I haven’t told her about my pregnancy. I don’t want to say a word about it, not even to her, since Ryder and I are planning to make an announcement after the wedding.
There’s a quick knock, and a uniformed chauffeur I’ve never seen before walks into the room. He’s in a black suit with a heavily starched white shirt and a pair of white gloves. Silver roots show at the temples, and the left side of his face is slightly darker than the right. “Ms. Johnson,” he begins, his voice courteous. “My name is Perry Finds. Mr. Reed sent me to pick you up.”
“Oh.” I guess Ryder sent him for me. “You didn’t happen to bring me a change of clothes, did you?”
He pauses. “I’m afraid not, miss.”
“I…um…soiled my skirt.” I clear my throat.
“Of course,” he says, as though bleeding all over one’s skirt is an everyday occurrence. He shrugs out of his jacket and hands it to me. “Will this be acceptable to cover it up?”
Startled, I look at the proffered garment and him. He doesn’t look any less formal without his jacket, and I feel awkward, but beggars can’t be choosers. “Thank you.” I take his jacket. The fabric isn’t rich, but it’s not cheap either.
“I’ll wait for you in the hall. Please take your time.”
He walks out, and I quickly change into my outfit and wrap the jacket around my waist to cover the bloodstains. They’ll probably never come out, and I’m going to have to throw the skirt away. But I’m too grateful to care. My child is going to be okay. That’s all that matters.
I take my purse and step out. The chauffeur is waiting, standing with hands clasped and feet spread.
“I need to fill out some paperwork for the discharge and instruct the hospital where to send the bills.”
“No need to worry about that. Everything’s been taken care of.”
Typical Ryder: take care of the hospital bills, but forget a fresh change of clothes for me. He isn’t used to handling such details. That used to be my job, but he doesn’t have me doing it anymore. I doubt his new assistant knows what’s going on. It takes a while for people to earn his trust.
Perry puts a hand at my elbow and escorts me outside. On the curb is an idling black Bentley. It’s so waxed and shiny I can use it as a mirror.
He opens the door for me, and I slide in. Then I stop short.
Julian Reed is in the car. He moves toward the window, giving me ample space on the luxurious leather bench — a subtle dig at my size? Although he’s Ryder’s father, they don’t share many similarities. He is blond, while Ryder is dark-haired. He is of average height, while Ryder is tall. He is petty and snide, while Ryder is not.
“Hello, Paige.” He smiles, but the expression isn’t particularly welcoming. He tilts his head at the driver. “Perry, let’s go.”
The door shuts behind me with a solid thunk.