Kessen raised an eyebrow in response.
“Come on! I do!”
She laughed. “I’m sorry. How many times have you snuck into my room in the past twenty-four hours?”
“Those don’t count,” he argued
She stared at him. “I’m not an idiot.”
He threw his hands in the air. “Fine. You win—something I realize you hardly hear enough, so spare me your little happy dance. Let’s just go into the study, finish this stupid game, and go to bed.”
She cleared her throat.
He rolled his eyes. “Me in my bed; you in yours.”
“Perfect,” she beamed. “But first you have to do the dishes.”
“And why can’t you do the dishes?” he asked in an irritated tone usually reserved for Duncan.
“Because you forfeited the end of that question; therefore, you lose. I win, and I want you to do the dishes.”
He gave her a blank stare.
“What? No response or rebuttal? Hurry along then, servant … I have some reading to catch up on.”
She waved at him and left the room, but not before hearing him yell something about the duke in her new book killing off the love interest.
She could only assume he meant it as a threat.
Half an hour later Christian wandered into the room with a look of pure joy on his face.
Christian was excited, and who wouldn’t be? Kessen had forgotten to take the game with her, the same game they were going to be playing that night. He had memorized all the answers, meaning she would lose; now all he had to do was come up with a good bet.
“Kessen?” he asked, still smiling; he couldn’t help it if he tried.
“Yes, slave,” she said, not looking up from her ereader. “What is your desire?”
He clenched his teeth together in annoyance before answering. “Well, America, I’ve decided we should place a wager on this game.”
“Are you sure you want to do that, my lord? Didn’t that end badly for you last time? We wouldn’t want a repeat of last night, now would we?”
Christian plopped down next to her and sent her a melting smile. Her mouth immediately dropped open. Putty in his hands. “Yes dear, but that was yesterday. Today is a new day and a new game. You’re not chicken, are you?” He knew he had her. Her eyes flashed with anger as she pushed his hand away from hers.
“No, I was just trying to be nice, but fine! Have it your way; what’s the wager?” Her face was inches from his. If he was being honest with himself, all he wanted to do was make out with her, forget the game—burn it, for all he cared. What he needed was her lips on his, her hands on his body, her—
His mind was going downhill fast. It was time for a distraction, and being the competitive soul he was, he knew just the wager to bait her.
“If you win, I will dedicate the first week of our marriage to reading you every single book in the Vandenbrook series out loud, using accents, voices, and costumes.” Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. “But if I win you have to stay up all night with me. Tonight. Alone.”
He leaned in so his lips barely grazed hers. “So, are you scared, or are you game, America?”
She took a few ragged breaths than closed her eyes. “Game, of course. I have nothing to be afraid of since I’m winning.”
“We’ll see,” he declared. Christian laid out the game in front of them and motioned for Kessen to sit on the floor with him. “We will do five questions each. I’ve made it easier this time. I’ll give you five questions, and you can write down your answers on a piece of paper. I will do the same. At the end we will reveal the questions and the answers. Deal?”
“Deal.” She grabbed a pencil and paper and waited.
“Okay, Kessen. Here are your questions. Question one: what was my favorite animal as a boy and why? Question two: how long can I hold my breath under water? Question three: do I sleep with anything, alive or dead? Question four: what was my worst date? Question five: what is my biggest fear?”
He waited for her to write down all the questions. When she was finished, he handed her the other set of questions.
She began to read. “Christian, here are your five questions. Question one: do I snore? Question two: why is the Wall Street Journal my favorite newspaper? Question three: do I have any weird habits? Question four: what is my biggest fear? Question five: am I afraid of the dark?”
Christian spent a few minutes writing down the questions then stared at Kessen. She was concentrating on her writing. Her tongue poked out of her mouth and then she bit her lip. Christian felt his body respond immediately to the particular way her lip looked when the proper pressure was applied.
Aroused beyond belief by the look on her face, he cursed and looked away as he waited for her to finish writing. His answers obviously didn’t take long since he had already memorized them, but he pretended to take a long time and to be confused so she wouldn’t get suspicious.
He waited until after she was finished before putting down his own pencil. “Do you want to start or shall I?”
She shrugged. “Either way you’re losing—doesn’t matter to me.”
“Not that I like rewarding a bad attitude,” he said, putting the cap back on his pen. “But I’ll allow you to go first, my lady.”
She did a mock curtsy—how she managed to do it while sitting down was beyond him—and cleared her throat. “Your favorite animal was a bobcat because you thought they were all named Bob.”
She knew more than she led on, the little minx. He bit back a smile and motioned for her to continue.
“Number two is a trick question. You’ve never tried holding your breath under water for longer than ten seconds, because you believe it’s pointless. After all, who wouldn’t save a drowning marquess?” She didn’t hide the judgment in her voice or on her face. “You sleep in your room, alone, with nothing but your thoughts and sins to keep you company.”
Christian grimaced. That hurt.
“Your worst date was when Duncan set you up with a family friend and forgot to mention she was a fan of your family history. She ended up quoting you to you for an entire hour before sobbing her eyes out about how she was going to die alone. When the date was finally over, she slapped you for being too forward, when you pitied her and wanted to give her a nice peck on the cheek. She proceeded to press charges against you and won on account of psychological damage and now drives a luxury car.”
He shook his head in astonishment and pure anger. That girl had totally played him and used him for his money; he was still seething over that lawsuit. What he wouldn’t give for one more date to show her his true feelings. Too bad she had fled the country soon after and now lived quite comfortably in France.
“Okay, last question, America,” he said, irritated. She nodded her head. He repeated the question just in case and urged her to continue.
She bit her lip, which was something he noticed was a nervous habit when she didn’t know what to say or was uncomfortable. It always ruined his concentration, because it made him think of how soft her lips were and how warm they felt against his own.
He cleared his throat to distract his wandering mind.
“Your biggest fear,” she stated, “is you’ll end up alone.”
Christian cleared his throat to fill in the awkward silence. She had guessed on that last one, but rather than feel excited about winning, he felt nothing but pain. Of course, he had written down his biggest fear as being something silly, like bankruptcy or spiders.
In all honesty though, how could he deny the fact that her guess was spot-on, regardless of what he had written down for his answer? And to make matters worse, he wanted nothing more than to deny it to his grave. What type of aristocrat was he, if he couldn’t even fight off loneliness? He had everything anyone could ever want in this lifetime, yet without someone to share it with, he had felt positively empty. Until now.
He picked up his paper. “You missed the last one.”
“I did?” She sounded shocked.
“Yes. My biggest fear is spiders.”
Her eyes squinted with doubt. “Spiders? A big strapping man like you has a fear of spiders? I don’t believe it.” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Nope, you’re lying, and you’re cheating.”
He threw up his hands in frustration. “I’ll show you the answer sheet. You, my dear, are wrong. It’s possible, although probably not realistic, that I’ve somehow gotten an answer wrong myself. So, without further delay, let me read my answers to you.”
“Fine,” she bit off.
What right did she have to be angry anyway? He was the offended party. Kessen thought she knew him so well. It would be a dark day in Hell before he admitted to her she was correct in her assumption. The truly upsetting issue was, she had gathered that by only spending a few days with him.
Time to focus, he thought, then began reading aloud his answers. “You do not snore, but it’s also a tricky question, because you do tend to talk in your sleep. Nick refers to it as your own made-up language. Something like the Elvish tongue from Lord of the Rings.” He leaned forward and winked. “Just for your information, I am counting down the days until I can experience your private language myself.”
“Dream on,” she muttered.
He blew her a kiss and continued. “You love the Wall Street Journal, because the front of the page allows you to read every single news story within ten minutes. You’re able to find out which stories you want to read the most and which stories you’d rather not know about, without having to search the entire newspaper.”
She shifted uncomfortably and avoided eye contact.
“I’m not finished,” he said, snapping his fingers in front of her face. “You do have some odd habits. The oddest of them all is you have to smell everything you eat before it goes into your mouth. Including drinks and candy, but excluding anything chocolate, for the simple reason chocolate never changes. It is your one constant in your life.” He looked up from his paper and sighed. “Does it bother you that the longest relationship you’ve had has been with a piece of food?”
She threw a pillow at his face.
Thankfully, he knew her better than she thought and ducked just in time. Instead the pillow struck one of his family heirlooms and sent it flying through the air.
She gasped and closed her eyes. “Please tell me that was not the same vase your great-grandfather gave your great-grandmother in the last book I read.”
He shrugged slyly. “Alright then, it’s not the same vase.”
“Oh no. Oh no.”
“Kessen!” He grabbed her hands. “It’s fine. There are more family heirlooms. I’ll continue reading to get your mind off it, okay?”
He took that as a yes. “Your biggest fear is you’ll somehow let your father down, which, on a more personal note, you should realize is basically an irrational fear. Your father loves you, and you could never disappoint him.”
She sucked in a breath and stared, obviously not expecting what he said. In fact, he hadn’t expected to respond in that way either. Why was it always easier helping others with their fears instead of conquering his own?
“Ahem,” he said. “Last, but not least. You sleep with a Little Mermaid nightlight, which I believe sufficiently proves you are terrified of the dark.”
Kessen’s mouth dropped open. “You got all of them right!”
“I did?” He tried to sound surprised.
“I can’t believe it!”
“Nor can I!” he agreed, knowing wholeheartedly if he hadn’t cheated, he would have lost miserably. Christian had no idea what her biggest fear was, or that she slept with a nightlight.
“Use your words, Kessen,” he joked.
He waited, but she just stared, leaving him no choice but to grab her hands and say softly, “It means we’re having a slumber party.”
“Yay,” came her reply, albeit dry and dripping with sarcasm.
He would take it, though. In all actuality, he would take whatever he could get with this woman … and more.
Noticing Kessen wasn’t feeling comfortable at all he decided to lighten the mood. “How about we go outside, start a bonfire, throw in some of Nick and Duncan’s favorite shirts, and roast some marshmallows?”
Her eyes lit up. “It’s like you read my mind.”
Christian held out his hand for Kessen. It always was a stupid idea for them to touch. He clenched his teeth as her smooth hand wrapped around his. Blast, he was nearly brought to his knees just by touching her hand. When had a woman ever had this much power over him? The blood roared in his ears as he delicately led her through the house to the outside area for entertaining.
A small fire pit was located on the far end of the deck, as well as a few skewers to put marshmallows on.
Now all he needed to do was start the fire.
“You do know how to start a fire, don’t you?” Kessen asked doubtfully.
“I am a man,” he snapped.
“And that makes you knowledgeable because…?”
He snorted. “It’s part of being a man, something you’re born with, just like knowing how to spit and shoot things with a gun.”
She nodded her head. “Okay, my lord, so build the fire.”
He scratched his head in irritation, then looked around. No wood, no kindling, no matches. Where did the staff keep all the supplies?
He looked back to Kessen, but by the look on her face, she would rather die a thousand deaths than help him. How hard could building a fire from scratch be? All he needed was to chop down a tree and find some old newspaper.
“I’m going to go get some wood. You go get yesterday’s newspaper.” With that he left to locate an ax. Upon returning, Christian found Kessen sitting with two newspapers in her lap.
He rolled his eyes and walked past her to the Christmas tree farm behind their house. It had been around for years, and now would serve the purpose of being kindling.
The ax was heavier than expected, making him thankful he was the athletic sort. He swung the ax and got the tree to fall after only four blows. It wasn’t extremely impressive, considering the tree wasn’t large, but he had half a mind to turn around and growl just so Kessen could see how much of a man he was.
Then he heard something in the background, some sort of scratching noise. He looked down at the fallen tree and froze.
An enormous badger was staring up at him with hate in its eyes.
Everything happened in slow motion. He turned towards Kessen in horror and began screaming. “Run, run Kessen! It’s a giant animal!”
He nearly tripped on his own feet as he ran back to the house and locked himself inside. It wasn’t until he looked up that he realized Kessen was still outside and bent over with laughter.
Did she have no idea how terrible wild animals could be?
He opened the door a slit and whispered, “Kessen, get in here. It could have rabies!”
She turned towards him with her hands on her hips and sighed. “You don’t venture out into the country much, do you?”
He paused, then shook his head.
She threw him an “I feel sorry for your ignorance” look, and then trotted toward the fallen tree. On her way, she picked up two small rocks and began slamming them together. The giant badger, which now looked smaller than a cat, ran off leaving Kessen alone with the tree.
It took her less than five minutes to bring the tree back to the house, where she proceeded to cut it into firewood.
Christian felt like getting drunk, burping, making out with a stranger, and cussing all at once, if only to prove to himself and everyone else he was still a man.
He hesitated before going outside, knowing full well what Kessen’s response would be once he set his foot across the threshold. Most likely mocking, condescending, and many other things he didn’t care to review
Keeping his head down, he slowly stepped into the nighttime air and quietly closed the door behind him. The embarrassed little boy in him was definitely making a triumphant appearance as he shoved his hands in his pockets, all the while avoiding eye contact with Kessen and her lumberjack ways. When the splitting of firewood stopped, he heard Kessen toss some logs into the fire-pit and wipe her hands.
This was it, the moment that would define him forever. How would he react when Kessen began making fun of him? Would he rise to the occasion, or would he cower in the corner and finally realize he was nothing but a little boy?
She cleared her throat.
He looked up and squinted.
She put her hand out.
He took it.
“Uh … well, I mean, I like holding your hand,” she said, squeezing. “But what I actually wanted was matches. Unless you somehow know how to make fire appear out of thin air.”
No witty retort came; he was completely undone. Christian quickly looked around and located the matches he had found in the kitchen while making his narrow escape; he lit a few and started the fire.
“How did you…?” he started to ask.
“Colorado,” was her answer. “I like to think that when people judge me about where I live, they are doing it solely based on ignorance. It is a beautiful state, lots of mountains…”
“Badgers?” he offered, laughing.
She coughed to hide her laughter. “Yes. Yes, though we have badgers, they don’t like loud noises, you know.”
“Yes, I gathered that.” He licked his lips and smiled again, shaking his head from side to side. “You’re not going to tell Duncan, are you?”
Kessen leaned back and stretched. “Well, I could tell Duncan or Nick, but … I think I rather enjoy having something like this to hang over your head.” She winked at him.
He was again totally enamored with the girl.
He had to marry her.
No longer just something he’d do for his family’s honor, or for her father’s company, had was the word that best fit his feelings. Being her husband would never be boring; it would never be merely an arrangement. Instead, a friendship and passion were growing between them, something he hadn’t expected to find. Yes, he had to marry her. If for nothing else, his own selfish reasons of not wanting to ever live without having her near, even if she did scare him to death at least half the time they were together.