Billionaires' Brides of Convenience, Book 4
When Elliot Reed offered a one-year contract marriage, I accepted it. Jobless, with a younger sister to provide for, I didn’t have much of a choice even though I found him insufferably arrogant and too attractive for my own good. But somewhere along the way, our terms seemed to have altered. Now Elliot wants a fresh start, and I agree. I would like a peaceful marriage — even if it’s fake, and even if it’s only for a year.
Despite our commitment, the ugly baggage we carry gets in the way. He demands nothing less than full openness, and I can’t leave my heart vulnerable to a man who may turn his back on me if he discovers my secrets.
As our pasts collide, his enemies become mine, and mine become his. Unless we can overcome our fear and mutual distrust, our fresh start is doomed…
Note: This is the second part of a three book-long story featuring Elliot and Annabelle.
If I could have anything I wanted, I’d like the power to stab myself in the face repeatedly…without killing myself. That would certainly hurt less than what I’m feeling now as I drag myself out of bed at my half-brother Ryder’s Beverly Hills mansion.
A hot shower does nothing to lessen my dark mood. At least his guest suite has a spare change of underwear. The dress shirt and slacks from last night hang limply over the back of a chair, and I put them on with a sigh of distaste.
I should’ve gone back home. Leaving my wife alone after that disastrous dinner—or what should have been our first social event together—is a dick move even if she did drop what amounted to a nuclear missile on my head. Drinking until I pass out rarely solves anything, but I don’t have the ability to go back in time and fix the situation either.
Goddamn it. This is why I hate secrets. They have the power to fuck with your head and good judgment.
Leaving my hair damp, I go to the kitchen for coffee. My half-sister Elizabeth is at the counter, sipping her own brew out of a pink mug that reads Nobody Does It Better.
In a modest cream-colored dress, Elizabeth looks as pristine as the first snow of the year. Her golden hair curls around her sweet, angelic face, her brown eyes focused on something on her phone. She’s several months older than me, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at us. She’s been untouched by cynicism or ugliness the way I have.
I take the stool next to her at the counter with a mug full of coffee. Mine says The Person Drinking out of This Is an Ugly Ogre. An accurate description of how I’m feeling right now.
“Good morning,” Elizabeth says, watching me carefully.
I take a sip of the coffee first, then grunt. “Morning.”
“You feeling all right?”
“I’m still alive.”
Her brows crease. “You know what I mean.”
“I’m not that hung over, if that’s what you’re worried about. Nothing some coffee and aspirin won’t fix.” Two pills magically appear in front of me, next to my mug. “Thanks,” I mutter.
I chug them down and close my eyes, willing the caffeine and drugs to kick in.
“So. How’s Gigi?” Elizabeth asks.
“Who?” I ask, disoriented for a moment.
“Uh, your wife?”
“Oh.” Damn. That’s right. Gigi is the name I used to introduce my wife. She’s a wreck. But my mouth autocorrects that to, “She’s fine.”
“Sleeping it off when I left.” And missed all the ugly-ass drama, thank god.
The gears in my brain start turning a little faster. I scowl into my coffee mug. “I fucked it up.”
“No. Tiffany did.”
“Bitch.” I have more creative things I could say about my father’s Wife Number Six, but I don’t want to shock Elizabeth.
“Look, I don’t know what happened between the two of you, but you should be with your wife now. Gigi could use your support.”
Except she doesn’t want it. But I don’t correct my half-sister. I can’t tell her what my wife’s told me—about her rape and subsequent miscarriage. I suspect she regrets relating the story, even though I’m her husband and by god it’s my right to know so I can track down the son of a bitch who violated her and punish him.
“Where are the lovebirds?” I change the topic. All I can do, since I can’t really get into anything about my wife.
“Probably sleeping. They’re jet-lagged.”
I nod. A part of me is glad I don’t have to watch them gaze at each other and smile. But another part is disgusted that I feel that petty. What the hell is wrong with me?
Abruptly, I stand up. “I gotta go.”
“Yes, go check up on your wife. And tell her I said hi,” Elizabeth says, apparently unaware of my inner asshole thoughts.
The Maserati is right outside the main entrance, where I left it last night. I climb in and start driving.
I should be thrilled for Ryder. He deserves every bit of his newfound bliss, and Paige is just the right person for him. And just because he stumbled upon the real thing doesn’t mean I should be bitter about my choice. Nobody put a gun to my head.
Bitter probably isn’t the right word. I’m still digesting what my wife said in the back of my mind, trying to decide what I’m going to do. I never imagined…
An irrational part of me wants to sue the hell out of the PI I hired to do a background check on her. But if everything happened the way she said, there’s no way he would’ve found it. Holding Paddington responsible is ridiculous.
Yet I want to hold someone responsible for what happened. Shit like this can’t just happen, or the people who did it will get away scot-free.
Shit, shit, shit!
I grit my teeth as I drive home. My hands flex around the steering wheel as I recall our argument. The ugly things we said to each other.
You’re just like that boy who took me when I was unconscious. To him I wasn’t a person either. Just some orifice where he could stick his dick for his pleasure.
All I wanted was some fun with a side of “fuck you” to my father. It should’ve been so simple. But Ryder’s right. It’s complicated because I care.
I care that I made her feel the way she does. I care that she was raped when she was fifteen. I care that she suffered—and still does.
If I could, I’d find the fucker and rip him apart with my bare hands. He’d never stick his pecker into another woman.
I park in the garage and sit there. The right thing to do is divorce her. She doesn’t want to be married anyway. It’s always been about the money. So let her keep the million—it’s already invested, and I don’t want it—and find her own happiness. If the whole thing only affected me, I’d do just that.
But it would affect all my siblings. Dad would use a divorce to deny us our legacy from our grandfather.
Really? That’s the only reason why you aren’t going to let her go?
Fuck my perverse mind. I glare at the gray concrete wall. If there weren’t any paintings to worry about… I squeeze my eyes shut.
I still wouldn’t let her go. I can’t. She’s ensnared me somehow. It isn’t the mystery of her that’s keeping me enthralled, either. I already know all about her background, plus the stuff that Paddington wasn’t able to dig up. But she’s like a problem whose solution I find too wondrous, too complex to toss aside. I can’t do the right thing and leave her. The notion just…claws at my insides.
I open my eyes, breathing hard. What the fuck am I going to do about my wife? I can’t just stop caring.
Finally I pull myself together and take the elevator to the penthouse. Hopefully she’s still asleep or went out with her sister. Right now I’m in a piss-poor mood, and something monstrously dark wants to make a point—that I’m not like that fucking asshole from her past. To me she’s a person and her pleasure matters more than mine.
The mirrored doors open with a soft chime, and I step out—and come to a dead frozen halt.
What the hell is she doing here?
Annabelle Graham Reed Underhill hasn’t changed a bit in the last five years. Still the same tall, willowy woman with a smooth heart-shaped face. Well…except she’s more expensive than before if the diamonds around her throat and earlobes are any indication. Her tight carmine dress is designed to show off her tits and ass. At some point I thought the gods must’ve given her those chocolate brown eyes and soft mouth.
I must’ve been on crack. Plastic surgery and the genetic lottery are what give you those things.
“Annabelle,” I say at the same time the door to the penthouse opens, revealing my wife. She’s in a blue cotton dress with silver glittery lettering that says Keep Calm and Let It Go. Her feet are bare, and her red hair hangs damply around her shoulders.
Her pale make-up free face registers shock, her green eyes wide. She’s never heard me say that name. I either refer to her as “my wife” or “Gigi”.
Another source of her anger last night.
Proximity to her scrapes my nerve endings. My skin tightens and I feel that crazy pull again, the same magnetic force that initially drew my eye at the strip club. It’s more powerful now because I know her strength and character.
Annabelle Underhill takes a quick glance at my wife, her gaze sweeping up and down. A corner of her brightly lipsticked mouth lifts as she turns to me. “Yes, love?”
I can’t look away from my wife, the emotions crossing her heart-breakingly beautiful face in rapid succession. I can’t figure out what they are; they’re moving too fast. Disquiet gathers within me as the sensation of something precious slipping through my fingers grows.
I vaguely register Annabelle Underhill putting a hand on my forearm.
My muscles tense as distaste rolls through me. I try to pull back, but her grip tightens. I twist my arm and grab her hand in mine not too gently, and return it to her side.
“You have to go,” I say without taking my eyes off my wife so I don’t miss anything. We have things to discuss without an audience.
“Who are you?” my wife asks, her gaze on the brunette.
“I’m Annabelle Underhill.” The voice is positively velvety. “And you?”
My wife’s eyebrows pinch. “Annabelle Key…Reed.”
“What a pretty name. Now, darling, give us some time because Elliot and I have some serious business to discuss.”
Before I can say a word, my wife gives me a cold glare and slips back into the penthouse, slamming the door behind her.
Damn it. Even as I curse inwardly, I feel the cold crusting over me like a layer of frost. It’s as though my wife’s taken the world’s warmth and sweetness with her.
I start toward the door, but Annabelle puts her body between me and where I want to be. Her perfume drifts toward me, and I sneer. “Get the fuck out of the way. I don’t have time for your bullshit.”
“I’m not going anywhere until I talk to you. You owe me that much after ignoring my emails and calls.”
“Don’t forget the texts,” I add harshly.
“Exactly.” She narrows her eyes. “You can’t ignore me forever.”
“Just watch. You’re trespassing.”
She faces me, her hands on the doorknob behind her. The pose is not wholly uncalculated. It thrusts her tits forward. A wasted move. I’m not looking below her neck.
“Remember what you did to me at the reception?” she asks, her voice going low and husky. “You liked it. Liked to be forceful…to bend me to your will…” Her lips curve, and her tongue darts out to wet them.
Most men would find the move seductive, and maybe I might have once upon a time. But now my skin crawls. “Shut up.” The nasty memory burns through me, and it’s all I can do to breathe normally. Did I really think I loved her at some point? Just how stupid was I?
She changes her strategy. “Come on. Think of Marlin.”
It’s one thing to tell her to go fuck herself, but another to express the same sentiment toward her uncle Marlin Graham. My twin Lucas and I owe a great deal of our success to Uncle Marlin’s guidance. Without his assistance, we probably would have been squeezed out of the lion’s share of the profits from our algorithm. We were too young and inexperienced.
“You have five minutes,” I say.
“Not here.” She looks at me through her long lashes. “I haven’t had coffee yet.”
“I’m not inviting you into my home.”
She shrugs. “Like your hooker’s going to care.”
“She’s my wife,” I grind out, curling my hands so I don’t throttle her.
“So it’s true? You’re married?” If I didn’t know better, I’d say she’s surprised. Or maybe she’s just improved her acting. “Take me to Starbucks at least.”
I glance at my watch. “Four minutes and forty-two seconds left.”
Anger tightens her face, then abruptly vanishes, leaving her skin smooth again. “I need to divorce my husband.”
I snort. “What does that have to do with me?”
“He doesn’t want to let me go.”
“Talk to a lawyer. Chicago’s full of them.”
“No one will take my case.”
“That’s really sad, but your marriage has nothing to do with me.”
“Yes, it does. You promised Marlin you’d help me.”
I glare at her. I made that dumb mistake three years ago. I couldn’t tell him no; the man was dying of cancer. “Only once. Are you saying you want to cash that in now?”
“Yes.” She pulls her right sleeve up. “Look.”
I glance down. Dark bruises cover her upper arm. I inhale sharply. “What the hell?” My gaze rises back to her face. “What happened?”
“Stanton.” She lowers the sleeve and covers the discoloration. “There are usually more, but nobody knows. He’s very careful.”
“So call the cops. Domestic abuse is more than enough to divorce him and clean him out.”
She shakes her head. “Nobody in Chicago will help me. Stanton has a lot of influence.”
“So what? Surely you can find one decent cop.”
“And one decent attorney?”
She has a point. Lawyers in Chicago would cut off their own reproductive organs to win Stanton’s business. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“You’re related to Justin Sterling. Introduce me. He’s the only one who can crush Stanton in Chicago.”
“Jesus.” I rake my fingers through my hair. “Whoever told you I’m related to Justin was mistaken.”
“He’s your cousin’s husband.”
“Vanessa isn’t my cousin. She’s Ryder’s cousin.”
“Same difference. You and Ryder are close. He’ll introduce you to her if you ask.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, she’s on the Pryce side of the family. They aren’t exactly crazy about my mother.” Geraldine Pryce, Dad’s Wife Number One, absolutely abhors my mother, who happened to be Wife Number Two. “You’re better off running into Justin at some party instead.”
“I can’t. He’s rarely in Chicago these days. Actually I can’t remember the last time he was in town.”
Not surprising. From what I heard, his wife just delivered a baby boy. I doubt he’s going to ask her to move to Chicago any time soon. Vanessa undoubtedly has him wrapped around her impeccably manicured little finger.
I shake my head. “Nope. Can’t do anything.”
“Are you kidding me?” She glares at me. “You’re not still pissed off, are you?”
“About what?” I say, keeping my voice blasé.
“Me leaving you for your father.” She steps back, crossing her arms. “You’re still upset about it, aren’t you? Because you care.” She stares at me with defiance, daring me to deny it.
The old humiliation courses through me, and I breathe slowly. I’ll be damned if I give her any satisfaction. “I think you’re confusing ‘upset’ with ‘grateful’. Imagine what I would’ve done in my youthful rashness. I might’ve even married you without a prenup.”
A dark flush rises on her face. Dad’s an asshole, but he’s a smart asshole. After the first two wives took big bites out of his fortune, he learned the importance of having an ironclad prenup. Annabelle got nothing but the clothes in her closet when he got tired of her—which happened within a year. He didn’t even let her keep the jewelry he bought her.
“Now your five minutes is up. Good-bye, Annabelle. Don’t ever come back.” I step forward to go into my penthouse, but she doesn’t move.
“I’m not going anywhere until you promise to help.” She tilts her chin, her mouth tight. “You’re going to have to put your hands on me if you want to move me.”
There’s no way I’m doing that, especially after having seen the bruises on her. I don’t like seeing women abused, even if it’s someone I can’t stand. “Fine. I’ll leave then.” I’m not going to bother calling the police since no male officer would be able to drag her out when she pouts and thrusts her tits out.
I spin around and go inside the waiting elevator. As the doors close, I hear her growl of frustration and allow myself a bit of satisfaction.