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Authors: Kat Cantrell

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BOOK: Marriage With Benefits
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Kids. No, thank you.

Lucas’s warm hand settled at the small of her back as he talked shop to the couple who had asked Fran for an introduction. The wife needed larger office space for her CPA business. Cia smiled and nodded and pretended as though she wasn’t imagining how Lucas would approach fatherhood.

But she was.

He’d kiss her pregnant belly while peering up at her through those clear blue eyes. He’d treat her reverently, fetching her drinks and rubbing her feet.

When the baby cried at night, he’d smooth Cia’s hair back and tell her to stay in bed while he handled it. Later, he’d throw a ball for hours with a little dark-haired toddler. Lucas would label it fun and insist work could wait, even if it couldn’t.

As quickly as those wispy images materialized, they vanished in favor of much clearer images of flashing lights atop black-and-white squad cars and grim-faced policemen who knocked on the door in the middle of the night to utter the words, “I’m sorry. The accident was fatal. Your parents are gone.”

The only way she could guarantee that no child of hers would ever go through that was not to have any children. She tucked away the sudden, jagged longing for a life that would never be.

Fran’s friends wandered toward the dance floor, the wife clutching the business card Lucas had retrieved from a hard, silver case, and another well-dressed couple looking for a real estate broker promptly replaced them.

“This is my wife, Cia Wheeler,” Lucas said.

“Robert Graves,” the male half of the couple said and shook Cia’s hand. “Formerly Allende, right?”

“Right. Benicio Allende is my grandfather.”

Robert’s eyes grew a touch warmer. “I thought so. My company does the advertising for Manzanares. It keeps us hopping.”

“Oh?” Cia asked politely.

It never ceased to amaze her how people loved to name-drop and rub elbows because of her last name.
Former
last name. Robert Graves was no exception, prattling on about Abuelo’s shrewd negotiations and then switching gears to announce right then and there that he’d like to do business with Lucas. It wasn’t said, but it was clearly implied that he’d decided because of her.

She made Lucas stable. Connected. Exactly as they’d hoped this marriage would do.

The room spun. Was that why Lucas wanted to blow off the divorce? Because he didn’t need the Manzanares contract to save his business anymore but he did need her?

Not possible. A few paltry clients couldn’t compare to the coup of Manzanares. She’d done exhaustive research. She’d considered all the angles.

Except for the one where she worked hard to be an asset to her husband and succeeded.

No. He’d keep his word. He had a high ethical standard. Surely he’d return to form before too long. Lucas excelled at racing off to the next woman—his brother had even warned her of it.

Lucas didn’t want to give up sex. Fine. Neither did she, and
compromise
wasn’t a foreign word in her vocabulary. They could keep seeing each other on the sly after the divorce.

The idea loosened the clench of her stomach. She didn’t have to quit Lucas cold turkey, and, as a bonus, she would gain a little extra time to shut off all these unwelcome feelings she’d been fighting.

As soon as the Graves couple coasted out of earshot, Fran signaled a waiter, and Andy Wheeler joined the group in time to take a champagne flute from the gilded tray.

“A toast,” Lucas’s dad suggested with a raised glass. “To all the new developments and those yet to be born.”

Cia raised her glass and took a healthy swallow.

“Oh, you’re drinking,” Fran said with obvious disappointment. “I guess there’s no news yet.”

Lucas flashed a wolfish smile in Cia’s direction. “You’ll be the second to know, Mama.”

“Why do I feel like you’re talking in code?” Cia whispered to Lucas.

“I might have casually mentioned we’re trying to get pregnant,” Lucas whispered back. “Don’t worry. It’s just window dressing.”

“Window dressing?” Cia said at normal volume, too startled to rein in her voice. “What kind of window dressing is that?”

“Excuse us for a moment, please.” Lucas nodded at his parents and dragged Cia away by the waist to an unpopulated corner of the room.

“Pregnant? Really?” she hissed and blinked against the scarlet haze over her vision. “No wonder your mom stopped by for tea and chatted me up about identity and being called ‘Mama.’”

“Well, now. I guess I don’t have to ask you how you feel about the idea.” Lucas tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear, and it took supreme will not to slap his hand away.

“It doesn’t matter. We don’t have a ‘trying to get pregnant’ marriage and never will. Should I say it again? In Spanish, maybe?” She stuck a finger deep into his ribs. “Why did you tell your parents something so ridiculous? We don’t need any more window dressing. In fact, we should be taking the dressing
off
the window.”

“Since several people are at this very moment watching us argue, I believe dressing is peeling away rapidly with every finger jab,” Lucas responded. “Simmer down, darlin’. Matthew’s gone. I’m the only Wheeler who has a reasonable shot at producing the next generation. It’s Wheeler Family Partners. Remember?”

She swallowed, hard, and it scraped down her throat as if she’d gargled with razor blades. “So I’m supposed to be the factory for the Wheeler baby production? Is that the idea?”

“Shocking how people leap to cast my wife in that role. One might wonder why you’re having a meltdown about the mere contemplation of bearing my children, when you’ve been so clear about how our marriage is fake and we’re divorcing, period, end of story.” He stared her down with raised eyebrows. “Mama was upset when Matthew left, and I told her we were trying for a baby to soften the blow. Not because I have some evil scheme to start poking holes in the condoms. Okay?”

Oh, God. All part of the show.

She filled her lungs for what felt like the first time in an hour and let the breath out slowly, along with all the blistering anger at Lucas for…whatever offenses she’d imagined. It was a lot to balance, with the sudden presentation of
alternatives
and being an asset and baby talk.

Evil scheme aside, Lucas still had a serious obligation to start a family, and he’d never shun it. Her lungs constricted again. They’d have to be extremely careful about birth control going forward.

Going forward?
There wasn’t much forward left in their relationship, and she stood in the way of his obligations. It would be selfish to keep seeing him after the divorce.

She grimaced at the thought of another woman falling all over herself to be the new Mrs. Wheeler. Cooing over his babies. Sleeping in his bed. Wearing his ring.

Soon, she’d be Señorita Allende again. That should have cheered her up. It didn’t. “We could have easily coordinated stories. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

Lucas lifted one shoulder and glanced at his Rolex. “Slipped my mind. It’s almost eight-thirty. I’ll race you to the coat closet.”

She crossed her arms over another pang in her chest. “It’s seven-fifteen, Wheeler. What is going on with you? As slippery as your mind is, you did not forget casually mentioning we’re trying to get pregnant. You wanted to see my reaction in a place where I couldn’t claw your skin off. Didn’t you?”

A smear of guilt flashed through his eyes. He covered it, but not quickly enough to keep her stomach from turning over.

She was right. Oh, God, she was
right.

Long-term marriage suddenly didn’t seem like an off-the-cuff, not-really-serious suggestion. The anger she’d worked so hard to dismiss swept through her cheeks again, enflaming them.

“Not at all,” he said smoothly. “I have a lot of balls in the air. Bound to drop one occasionally.”

“Learn to juggle better or a couple of those balls will hit the ground so hard, I guarantee you’ll never have children with anyone.” She whirled to put some distance between them before she got started on that guarantee right this minute.

Lucas followed her back into the mix of people, wisely opting to let her stew instead of trying to offer some lame apology or, worse, throwing out an additional denial. Matthew’s exodus had triggered more changes than the obvious ones.

Lucas’s commitment phobia had withered up and died and now he’d started hacking away at hers with a dull machete. How could this night be any more of a disaster?

Fifteen minutes later, she found out exactly how much more of a disaster it could become when she overheard a conversation between four middle-aged men with the distinct smell of money wafting off them. They were blithely discussing her shelter.

She listened in horror, frozen in place behind them, as they loaded up plates at the buffet with shrimp and caviar, oblivious to the fact that they were discussing
her shelter.

“Excellent visibility for the donors,” one said, and another nodded.

Donors?
Maybe she’d misheard the first part of the conversation. Maybe they weren’t talking about the hotel site or her new shelter. They couldn’t be. She’d made it very clear to Lucas she didn’t want to depend on donations to run the shelter. Hadn’t she?

“Any venture tied to Allende is a gold mine,” the third declared. “How could you not be in after Wheeler’s fantastic sales pitch? The property’s in great shape. Most of the updating will be cosmetic, and the renovation contract is already on my lawyer’s desk.”

The property? Lucas had taken people to the site? How many people?

“Domestic violence is a little, shall we say, uncouth?” the fourth one suggested with a laugh. “But the Hispanic community is a worthwhile demographic to tap from a charitable perspective. It’ll cinch my bid for mayor. That’s the kind of thing voters want on your résumé.”

Acid scalded her stomach. No. She hadn’t misheard. Lucas had charged ahead without her—without her permission or even her knowledge. He’d made the proposed shelter site public, rendering it useless.

What more had Lucas done? Had he been presenting an
alternative
to divorce or a done deal?

What exactly had the necklace been an apology for?

 

Twelve

L
ucas and Cia had been home a good twenty minutes and she hadn’t spoken yet. In the car, she’d blasted him with a tirade about an overheard conversation, which she’d taken out of context, and then went mute. That alone chilled his skin, but coupled with the frosty set of her expression, even a stiff drink didn’t melt the ice forming along his spine. So he had another.

Then he went looking for her.

The little ball in the center of the mattress was quiet, so he eased onto the edge of the bed. “I didn’t know they were going to make such a big deal out of it.”

Nothing.

He tried again. “Talk to me, honey. Scream at me. I don’t care, as long as you don’t keep up this deep freeze. This is all a big misunderstanding. I can fix it.”

“Fix it?” The lethal whip of her tone sank into his skull, which was already sloshy with alcohol and the beginnings of a headache. She sat up, and the light from the bedside lamp cast half of her scrubbed face in shadow. “You’ve done enough fixing for today, Machiavelli. I’m tired. Go away and sleep somewhere else.”

“Ouch. I’m in that much trouble?” He grinned, and she didn’t return it. So, jokes weren’t the way to go. Noted. “Come on, darlin’. I messed up. I shouldn’t have taken people to the site. I’ll find another hotel for your shelter if that site’s compromised. It’s not worth getting so upset over.”

“Do I seem upset?” She stared at him, and her dry eyes bothered him more than the silent treatment. Unease snaked through his gut.

“No.” He’d wandered into the middle of uncharted territory full of quicksand. This had all the trappings of their first official fight as a couple. Except they weren’t really a couple—yet—and, technically, they argued all the time. “Does that mean you’ve already forgiven me?”

She palmed her forehead and squeezed. “You really don’t get any of this, do you?”

“Yeah, I get it.” Somehow, his plan to come up with the operating expenses for the shelter hadn’t happened as envisioned. “You’re ticked because I tried to tap sponsors for the shelter site, and now the location is compromised. I’m in real estate, darlin’. I’ll find another one. A better one.”

“I’m sure you will. Eventually.” She lay back down and covered her head with an arm, blocking his view of her face. His firecracker’s fuse was noticeably fizzled. How could they get past this if she wouldn’t yell at him?

“Cia.” He waited until she peeked out from below the crook of her elbow. “I should have talked to you before talking to the money. I’m sorry. Let’s kiss and make up now, okay?”

“No. No more kissing. This isn’t only about the shelter.” Her voice was steady, a monotone with no hint of the fire or passion she normally directed at him. “It’s about you running the show. You say I have a choice, but only if it’s a choice you agree with. I’m not doing this anymore. In the morning, I’m moving back into my condo.”

“What? You can’t.” This situation was unraveling faster than he could put it back together. But whatever happened, he couldn’t let her leave. He wiped damp palms on the comforter and went with reason. “We have a deal. Six months.”

The arm came off her face, and bitter laughter cut through the quiet bedroom. “A deal, Wheeler? We have a
deal?
Oh, that’s rich. We have a deal when it’s convenient for you to remember it. Every other waking moment, you’re trying to alter the deal. Presenting alternatives. Trying to give me money. Talking about babies with your mother and seducing me into believing you really understand me. It’s all about the deal, isn’t it? As long as it’s the best deal for
you.
What about what I want?”

He swore. Some of her points could be considered valid when viewed from a slightly different perspective. But her perspective was wrong—the tweaks to the deal were good for everyone. “What do you want?”

“A divorce! The same thing I’ve wanted since day one. I fail to understand how or when that fact became confusing to you.”

“It’s not confusing.” He refused to lose control of the conversation. She needed him, and his job was to help her realize it. “I know that’s what you think you want. But it’s not.”

“Oh, well, everything is so clear now. Are you aware of the fact that you talk in circles most of the time? Or is it deliberate, to bewilder your opponent into giving up?”

“Here’s some straight talk for you. We’re good together. We have fun, and I like being with you. You’re fascinating, compelling, inspiring and all of that is out of bed. In bed…” He whistled. “Amazing. Beyond compare. I’ve told you this. No circles then. No circles now. Why can’t you see a divorce is not what you need?”

“Do you hear yourself?” she asked so softly he strained to pick up the words. “Your whole argument was about why a divorce is not what
you
need. My needs are foreign to you. And you’ve spent the last few months fooling me into believing the opposite, with the dresses and taking care of me and pretending you were interested in the shelter because you wanted to help me.”

“I
do
want to help you,” he snapped. God Almighty, she pushed his limits. Stubborn as a stripped screw. He forced his tone back into the realm of agreeable before he gave away the fact that she’d gotten to him. “You’re mad because it was mutually beneficial? That’s what made the original deal so attractive. We both got value out of it. Why is it so bad to continue the tradition?”

“All lies! Matthew left and now you’re hot for a wife who’ll give you a baby. You’re too lazy to go find one, so you thought, ‘Hey, I already have a wife. I’ll hang on to her.’”

Lazy?
She was more work than a roomful of spoiled debutantes and jaded supermodels. Yet there was not one woman he’d want long-term besides Cia. They were compatible on every level, and the thought of living his life without her—well, it wasn’t a picture he liked. Why else would he be talking about it? “I get the feeling anything I say at this point would be wrong.”

“Now you’re onto something. There’s no defense for any of it, least of all compromising the shelter site. If a woman’s abuser finds the shelter, he might kill her. Do you understand how horrible your cavalier attitude is? Do you have any clue how it made me feel when I realized what those men were talking about?”

“I’m sorry. I do understand how important discretion is. It was a mistake. But I stand by my offer to find another site.”

“How magnanimous of you,” she said with a sneer. “I’m not stupid, Wheeler. You got me all excited about it, then oh, no. Bring in the entire upper crust of Dallas, so everyone knows where the shelter is. Oops. You sabotaged that site, hoping to buy time to talk me out of the divorce. Maybe
accidentally
get pregnant in the meantime.”

Was she listening to anything he had said? He’d apologized twice already. “Compromising the site might have been the result but that was not my inten—”

“Betrayed. That’s how I felt when I stood there listening to my entire world crumble around me.”

Everything with Cia was a hundred times more effort than it needed to be, which he knew good and well she did on purpose to keep everyone at bay. But why was she still doing it with him? Hadn’t they gotten past this point already? “That’s a little melodramatic, don’t you think?”

There came a tear, finally, sliding down her cheek. “Melodramatic? You broke my heart, Lucas!”

“What?” Every organ in his chest ground to a halt, and he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the lone tear laden with despair and hurt.

No. No way.
This marriage was about the benefits, both physically and business-wise. She needed his unique contribution to the relationship. Period.

He’d been one hundred percent certain she was on board with that. Hurt and feelings and messiness weren’t part of the deal. And when the deal fell apart, he walked away. Usually.

But he was still here.

She dashed away the teardrop, but several more replaced it. “Surprised me, too.”

All of this was too fast. Too much to process. “Whoa. What are you saying?”

“Same thing I’ve been saying. Since you have to file for the divorce, I have no power here. Therefore, I’m leaving, and I have to trust you’ll eventually find another potential mother for your next generation, at which point I’ll get my divorce. Clear enough for you?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Back up, honey. Now
you’re
talking in circles. I didn’t make you mad—I hurt you. How did that happen?”

“Because I’m an idiot.” Her eyes shone with more unshed tears. “I had expectations of you that you couldn’t fulfill. You’re not the man I thought you were.”

“Wait a minute. What did you expect?” He was still reeling from the discovery she’d developed
feelings
for him and hadn’t bothered to say anything.

What would he have done with such information? Run in the other direction? Run faster toward her?

Actually, he didn’t know what to do with it now.

“I expected you to be honest, not hide your real agenda.” She snorted. “
Dios,
how naive am I? I walked right into it, eyes wide open, certain I could hang on to my soul since you weren’t asking for it. You gave and gave, and I never saw it for what it was. An exchange. You slipped under my guard, and the whole time, you were planning to exact payment. You betrayed me, not once but twice, with alternatives and then with sponsors. You don’t get a third chance to screw me over.”

When thunderclouds gathered across Lucas’s face, Cia was too tired to care that she’d finally cracked his composure.

“That’s enough,” Lucas declared. “I listened to your mental origami, and let me tell you, I am impressed with your ability to fold facts into a brand-new shape. But it’s my turn to talk. Are you in love with me?”

She almost groaned. Why did he have to go there? “That’s irrelevant.”

He tipped her chin up and pierced her with those blue laser beams. Scared of what he’d see, she jerked away and buried her face in the pillow.

Great.
The entire bed smelled of pine trees mixed with her lotion.

“It’s not irrelevant to me,” he countered quietly. “I’d like to know what’s going on inside you.”

So would she. Thoughts of babies and long-term should not be so hard to shove away. The hurt shouldn’t be so sharp.

“Why?” she mumbled, her face still in the pillow.

He growled in obvious frustration, “Because I care about you.”

She rolled over and said, “You have a funny way of showing it.”

“Really? I’d argue the exact opposite.”

“You can argue about it all day long. But you’d be wrong. You like to take care of me. That’s different than caring about me.”

He snapped out a derisive laugh. “Maybe we should start this whole conversation over. We suck at communicating unless it’s ‘more,’ ‘faster’ or ‘again,’ don’t we?”

No, they didn’t have any communication problems when they were naked, which was exactly what had gotten her into this mess. Intimacy with Lucas could never be divorced from emotion. Why had she pretended it could be? “Which is why we’re done with that part of our relationship.”

He sighed. “Look, honey. I messed up. But I’m here, talking to you, trying to fix it. And you still never answered the question. Are you in love with me?”

“Stop asking me!” she burst out, determined to cut off his earnestness and dogged determination to uncover the secret longings of her heart that she didn’t understand and did not want to share. He had enough power over her already. “It’s just warm feelings for the man I’m sleeping with because he’s superawesome in bed, okay? It doesn’t change anything. You’re not in love with me. You’re still on the lookout for a baby factory. And I need a divorce, not all of these complications.”

“Complications are challenges you haven’t conquered yet,” he said, and the tension in his face and shoulders visibly eased.

Her tension went through the roof.

Of course he hadn’t fallen all over himself to declare his undying love. Not that she had expected him to after she’d backtracked about her broken heart.

In matters of the heart, they were cut from the same cloth—excellent at emotional distance and not much else. The divorce deal was perfect for them both.

“I’m not up for any more complications
or
challenges, thanks. Can we cut to the chase?” She sat up and faced him. “Are you going to file for divorce or not?”

He held her gaze without blinking, without giving away his thoughts. “No.”

Her eyelids snapped closed. He’d finally made his move.
Checkmate.
“You can’t do this to me, Lucas. Please.”

“I can’t do what? Give you what you really need instead of a divorce you’ll regret? You’re a vibrant, beautiful woman, yet you aim to shrivel up alone for the rest of your life. That’s not right.”

He ran a hand through her hair, letting it waterfall off his fingers, and his touch, so familiar, nearly caved in her stomach.

Being alone had never been her goal. Avoidance of suffering had been the intent, but she’d done a shoddy job of it, hadn’t she? The tsunami of agony hadn’t just drowned her; it had broken through every solid barrier inside, allowing sharp-edged secret dreams to flow out, drawing blood as they went.

“Cia, I’m offering a long-term partnership, with advantages for both of us. We already know we like each other. The sex is great. We’ll figure out how to do your shelter without the trust fund. Together, we’re unstoppable. Why can’t you consider it?”

“Because it’s not enough. There’s a reason why I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. I don’t know how to do long-term.” He started to respond, but she cut him off. “And neither do you. Sex isn’t enough. Liking each other isn’t enough.”

He hurled out a curse. “What is enough?”

Love.

Oh, God.
She wanted something he couldn’t give her. Something she didn’t know how to give him. No wonder she couldn’t answer his questions.

She shied away from relationships because she had no idea how to love a man when living in constant fear of the pain and loss sure to follow. She had no idea how to love without becoming dangerously dependent on it.

BOOK: Marriage With Benefits
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