His for a Price
Part of the Vows of Convenience Series
Greek tycoon Nicodemus Stathis was never able to forget beautiful heiress Mattie Whitaker. And now, ten years of delicious tension later, Nicodemus finally has her right where he wants her.
Mattie’s once powerful family dynasty now lies in ruin, and only Nicodemus can offer them a solution—a solution with vows! She might not have a choice, but Mattie refuses to be the sacrificial queen to his king.
But Nicodemus’s slow, deliberate seduction wears down his new bride, and the word “checkmate” lies on his lips like a promise.
His for a Price
If she stood very still—if she held her breath and kept herself from so much as blinking—Mattie Whitaker was sure she could make the words that her older brother Chase had just said to her disappear. Rewind them then erase them entirely.
Outside the rambling old mansion high above the Hudson River some two hours north of Manhattan, the cold rain came down in sheets. Stark, weather-stripped trees slapped back against the October wind all the way down the battered brown lawn toward the sullen river, and the estate had shrunk to blurred gray clouds, solemn green pines and the solid shape of the old brick house called Greenleigh, despite the lack of much remaining green. Behind her, at the desk that she would always think of as her father's no matter how many months he'd been gone now, Chase was silent.
There would be no rewinding. No erasing. No escaping what she knew was coming. But then, if she was honest, she'd always known this day would arrive. Sooner or later.
"I didn't hear you correctly," Mattie said. Eventually.
"We both know you did."
It should have made her feel better that he sounded as torn as she felt, which was better than that polite distance with which he usually treated her. It didn't.
"Say it again, then." She pressed her fingers against the frigid windowpane before her and let the cold soak into her skin. No use crying over the inevitable, her father would have said in that bleakly matter-of-fact way he'd said everything after they'd lost their mother.
Save your tears for things you can change, Mattie.
Chase sighed, and Mattie knew that if she turned to look at him, he'd be a pale shell of the grinning, always-in-on-the-joke British tabloid staple he'd been throughout his widely celebrated bachelorhood in London, where he'd lived as some kind of tribute to their long-dead British mother. It had been a long, hard four months since their father had dropped dead unexpectedly. Harder on Chase, she expected, who had all their father's corporate genius to live up to, but she didn't feel like being generous just now. About anything.
Mattie still didn't turn around. That might make this real.
Not that hiding from things has ever worked, either, whispered a wry voice inside her that remembered all the things she wanted to forget—the smell of the leather seats in that doomed car, the screech of the tires, her own voice singing them straight into hell—
Mattie shut that down. Fast and hard. But her hands were shaking.
"You promised me we'd do this together," Chase said quietly instead of repeating himself. Which was true. She'd said exactly that at their father's funeral, sick with loss and grief, and not really considering the implications. "It's you and me now, Mats."
He hadn't called her that in a very long time, since they'd been trapped in that car together, in fact, and she hated that he was doing it now, for this ugly purpose. She steeled herself against it. Against him.
"You and me and the brand-new husband you're selling me off to like some kind of fatted cow, you mean," Mat-tie corrected him, her voice cool, which was much better than bitter. Or panicked. Or terrified. "I didn't realize we were living in the Dark Ages."
"Dad was nothing if not clear that smart, carefully chosen marriages lead to better business practices." Chase's voice was sardonic then, or maybe that was bitterness, and Mattie turned, at last, to find him watching her with that hollow look in his dark blue eyes and his arms crossed over his chest. "I'm in the same boat. Amos Elliott has been gunning for me since the day of the funeral but he's made it known that if I take one of his daughters off his hands, I'll find my dealings with the Board of Directors that much more pleasant. Welcome to the Dark Ages, Mattie."
She laughed, but it was an empty sound. "Should that make me feel better? Because it doesn't. It's nothing but a little more misery to spread around."
"We need money and support—serious money and very concrete support—or we lose the company," Chase said, his voice flat and low. So unlike him, really, if Mattie wanted to consider that. She didn't. "There's no prettying that up. The shareholders are mutinous. Amos Elliott and the Board of Directors are plotting my downfall as we speak. This is our legacy and we're on the brink of losing it."
And what's left of them—of us. He didn't say that last part, but he might as well have. It echoed inside of Mattie as if he'd shouted it through a bullhorn, and she heard the rest of it, too. The part where he reminded her who was to blame for losing their mother—but then, he didn't have to remind her. He'd never had to remind her and he never had. There was no point. There was scarcely a moment in her entire life when she didn't remind herself.
Still. "This is a major sacrifice, to put it mildly," she pointed out, because the thoughtless, careless, giddily reckless creature she played in the tabloids would. "I could view this as an opportunity to walk away, instead. Start my life over without having to worry about parental disapproval or the stuffy, disapproving Whitaker Industries shareholders." She studied her brother's hard, closed-off expression as if she was a stranger to him, and she blamed herself for that, too. "You could do the same."
"Yes," Chase agreed, his voice cool. "But then we'd be the useless creatures Dad already thought we were. I can't live with that. I don't think you can, either. And I imagine you knew we had no other options but this before you came here today."
"You mean before I answered your summons?" Mattie clenched her shaking hands into fists. It was better than tears. Anything was better than tears. Particularly because Chase was right. She couldn't live with what she'd done twenty years ago; she certainly wouldn't be able to live with the fallout if she walked away from the ruins of her family now. This was all her fault, in the end. The least she could do was her part to help fix it. "You've been back from London for how long?"
Her brother looked wary then. "A week."
"But you only called when you needed me to sell myself. I'm touched, really."
"Fine," Chase said roughly, shoving a hand through his dark hair. "Make me the enemy. It doesn't change anything."
"Yes," she agreed then, feeling ashamed of herself for kicking at him, yet unable to stop. "I knew it before I came here. But that doesn't mean I'm happy to go gentle into the deep, dark night that is Nicodemus Stathis."
Chase's mouth moved in what might have been a smile, had these been happier times. Had either one of them had any choice in this. Had he done much smiling in her direction in the past twenty years. "Make sure you tell him that yourself. I'm sure he'll find that entertaining."
"Nicodemus has always found me wildly entertaining," Mattie said, and it felt better to square her shoulders, to lengthen her spine, as she told that whopper of a lie. It felt better to make her voice brisk and to smooth her palms down the front of the deliberately very black dress she'd worn, to send the message she wished she could, too. "I'm sure if you asked him he'd list that in the top five reasons he's always insisted he wanted to marry me. That and his fantasy of merging our two corporate kingdoms like some feudal wet dream in which he gets to play lord of the castle with the biggest, longest, thickest—"
She remembered, belatedly, that she was talking to her older brother, who might not be as close to her as she'd like but was nonetheless her older brother, and smiled faintly.
"Share," she amended. "Of the company. The biggest share."
"Of course that's precisely what you meant," Chase replied drily, but Mattie heard something like an apology in his voice, a kind of sorrow, right underneath what nearly passed for laughter.
Because his hands were tied. Big Bart Whitaker had been an institution unto himself. No one had expected him to simply drop dead four months ago—least of all Bart. There had been no time to prepare. No time to ease Chase from his flashy London VP position into his new role as President and CEO of Whitaker Industries, as had always been Bart's ultimate intention. No time to allay the fears of the board and the major shareholders, who only knew Chase from what they read about him in all those smirking British tabloids. No time to grieve when there were too many challenges, too many risks, too many enemies.
Their father had loved the company his own grandfather had built from little more than innate Whitaker stubbornness and a desire to best the likes of Andrew Carnegie. And Mattie thought both she and Chase had always loved their father in their own complicated ways, especially after they'd lost their mother and Big Bart was all they'd had left.
Which meant they would each do what they had to do. There was no escaping this, and if she was honest, Mat-tie had known that long before her father died. It was as inevitable as the preview of the upstate New York winter coming down hard outside, and there was no use pretending otherwise.
Mattie would make the best of it. She would ignore that deep, dark, aching place inside her that simply hurt. That was scared, so very scared, of how Nicodemus Stathis made her feel. And how easy it would be to lose herself in him, until there was nothing left of her at all.
But you owe this to them, she reminded herself sternly. All of them.
"He's here already, isn't he?" she asked after a moment, when there was no putting it off any longer. She could stand here all day and it wouldn't change anything. It would only make the dread in her belly feel more like a brick.
Chase's gaze met hers, which she supposed was a point in his favor, though she wasn't feeling particularly charitable at the moment. "He said he'd wait for you in the library."
She didn't look at her brother again. She looked at the polished cherry desk, instead, and missed their father with a rush that nearly left her lightheaded. She would have done anything, in that moment, to see his craggy face again. To hear that rumbling voice of his, even if he'd only ordered her to do this exact thing, as he'd threatened to do many times over the past ten years.
Now everything was precarious and dangerous, Bart was gone, and they were the only Whitakers left. Chase and Mattie against the world. Even if Chase and Mattie's togetherness had been defined as more of a polite distance in the long years since their aristocratic mother's death—separate boarding schools in the English countryside, universities in different countries and adult lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. But Mattie knew that all of that, too, was her fault.
She was the guilty party. She would accept her sentence, though perhaps not as gracefully as she should.
"Well," she said brightly as she turned toward the door. "I hope we'll see you at the wedding, Chase. I'll be the one dragged up the aisle in chains, possibly literally. It will be like sacrificing the local virgin to appease the ravenous dragon. I'll try not to scream too loudly while being burned alive, etcetera."
Chase sighed. "If I could change any of this, I would. You know that's true."
But he could have been talking about so many things, and Mattie knew that the truth was that she'd save her tears because they were useless. And maybe she'd save the family business, too, while she was at it. It was, truly, the least she could do.
Nicodemus Stathis might have been the bane of her existence for as long as she could remember, but she could handle him. She'dbeen handling him for years.
She could do this.
So she held her head up high—almost as if she believed that—and she marched off to assuage her guilt and do her duty, at last, however much it felt like she was walking straight toward her own doom.
* * *
The worst thing about Nicodemus Stathis was that he was gorgeous, Mattie thought moments later in that mix of unwanted desire and sheer, unreasonable panic that he always brought out in her. So gorgeous it was tempting to overlook all the rest of the things he was, like profoundly dangerous to her. So gorgeous it had a way of confusing the issue, tangling her up into knots and making her despair of herself.
So absurdly gorgeous, in fact, that it was nothing but unfair.
He stood by the French doors on the far side of the library, his strong back to the warmth and the light of the book-laden room, his attention somewhere out in all that gray and rattling wet. He stood quietly, but that did nothing to disguise the fact that he was the most ruthless, wholly relentless man she'd ever known. It was obvious at a glance. The thick, jet-black hair, the graceful way he held his obviously dangerous form so still, the harsh be-guilement of the mouth she could only see in the reflection of the glass. The menace in him that his smooth, sleek clothes couldn't begin to conceal. He didn't turn to look at her as she made her way toward him, but she knew perfectly well he knew she was there.
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.
End of excerpt
His for a Price
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