His for a price

By: Caitlin Crews
CHAPTER ONE


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,” Mattie 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.

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