Bargaining for the Billionaire

Bargaining for the Billionaire

JM Stewart

New York    Boston

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For my readers. Thanks for taking a chance on me.

D
read sank in Madison O'Riley's stomach as the musical jingle of her phone announced the arrival of a message. Any other day, that sound could bring a smile. It would've meant she'd gotten a text from one of her two best friends: usually Christina confirming details for a girls' night out or Hannah sending a picture of her three-month-old daughter, Emily.

Tonight, however, that sound meant the message she'd been waiting for had arrived. For a moment, she could only stare at the sender's name, blinking on the small, black screen. Was she really ready for this?

“Is that him?” Seated on the couch across from her, Hannah leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees.

Maddie lifted her gaze, peering across the coffee table. Seated on the couch, Hannah grinned, ear to flippin' ear, her dark brows all the way up into her hairline. The rat. Christina, at least, tried to hide her excited smile. More refined, she sat with her long legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. She looked calm and unperturbed, but the glimmer in her eyes gave her away. Both women clearly waited for the “deets.”

Maddie sighed and shook her head. “How did I let you two rope me into this?”

Okay, so she knew the answer. Both of the other women had found their soul mates. They were all so damned happy it made her flat-out jealous. At this point, she was stalling. This blind date they'd “encouraged” her into should be a good thing. She hadn't dated in three years, and they were right. It was time. This hare-brained scheme provided a middle ground. After all, what harm could a little flirting do?

Hannah straightened, leaning back into the sofa cushions. “Because you're lonely, babe. You said it yourself. But you also said you weren't ready for another relationship.” She shrugged. “It worked for me. I got to know Cade online. Start there. It's just Gchat. If you decide you don't like him, you don't have to go through with the auction.”

Christina flashed one of her smiles, the soft kind that always managed to melt the nerves raging in Maddie's stomach. There was something so calming about Christina.

“Hannah's right. There will be hundreds of women willing to take him off your hands. But he's nice. I promise. And he's not a
toad
, as you so aptly put it. I gather only the best for my auctions.” Christina grinned, giving her a sassy little wink that had Maddie hard-pressed not to laugh.

Her two best friends couldn't have been more different. Where Hannah was quiet and shy and often uncertain of herself, Christina was all elegance but bold as brass. Maddie had known Hannah since her days spent working in the marketing department of Bradbury Books, a mid-sized publisher on the rise. Long before they'd taken a walk on the wild side and opened their little bookstore four years ago.

She'd met Christina through Hannah. Christina was Hannah's husband's twin sister. They'd officially become friends when Christina had asked for help planning Hannah's bachelorette party. She'd made an instant lifelong friend that night.

Hannah had had an online affair, one that eventually led to her falling in love and getting married. Hannah had taken a chance and met Cade in person. What began as a two-week fling while he was in Seattle had become more.

Exactly how Maddie now found herself staring at a Gchat from a stranger, nausea swirling in her stomach. She wouldn't exactly call herself celibate. After her breakup with Grayson three years ago, she'd sworn off men and dating. Which meant it wasn't raining men in her world, either. It didn't help that she'd trust another man when little pink elephants flew south for the winter.

Hannah reached out a socked foot and nudged her toe. “Oh, go on. Answer him. What harm can it do? He doesn't have your number, just your e-mail address, and believe me, nobody in the world is going to know who Mad Hatter Three Thousand is.”

Maddie's mouth went dry, a dull pounding starting in her temples. “Oh, God, I think I'm going to be sick.”

Her hand trembled as she picked up her cell from the coffee table. She swiped her finger up the screen, then tapped the Gchat icon. The message that popped up was innocuous, really, but her phone shook in her palm anyway.

BookNerd: Hey. Christina gave me your e-mail address. Apparently, you're my date for the auction this year. ;)

Christina came from a wealthy family. Founder and head of a local charity her family made a sizable donation to every year, her “baby” was a bachelor auction, carried out in the name of raising money for breast cancer research. Maddie had met her at the auction, where Cade had been one of the bachelors.

As with every year, twelve hunky guys were being auctioned off for a good cause. Any other time, she'd have been all over that. She had no desire to date, or God forbid, fall in love again, but she was a woman, after all. With needs and yearnings, and she missed things like sex. She had a sore need to get laid. She wanted the weight of a man's body pressing her into the mattress, yearned for a real cock pounding into her, hot and hard and not made of rubber. She wanted the huff of his warm breath on her neck, and by God, she ached for the luscious rush of an orgasm she didn't have to give to herself.

She'd grown damn tired of her Battery Operated Boyfriend, otherwise lovingly referred as to as B.O.B, but sex with a real man meant complications, which she flat out didn't do. Flirting with a hot guy made her nerves shake, but could make her whole night. Knowing the men Christina chose for her auctions were all successful, with muscles on top of muscles, didn't hurt, either. Christina had excellent taste.

This year, Maddie had a date with someone she'd never met and wouldn't meet until the night of the auction. Exactly two weeks from today.

She glanced down at her phone again. His e-mail address seemed harmless enough. It hinted that they had something in common—books. Her stomach still wobbled all the same, and she cursed her nerves. It wasn't like her to be so nervous. She was a people person, damn it. Besides, she couldn't stay single forever. If she truly wanted a night of hot, sweaty sex, she had to get back up on that horse. And it started with this Gchat.

Her thumbs hovered over the on-screen keyboard. “What on earth do I say to him?”

Christina gave a soft, airy laugh. “You could start with hello.”

“Hello.” Maddie nodded. “Right. I can do that.”

Oh, God help me, here goes nothing.
Her fingers shook so hard she had to type the word twice.

MadHatter3000: Hi

She swallowed past the lump of fear stuck in her throat, punched SEND and waited. His reply popped up almost immediately, sending the butterflies in her stomach into an uproar.

BookNerd: How are you?

Maddie grinned. Okay, this was easy. This she could do. She punched in another quick reply.

MadHatter3000: Good, thx. U?

BookNerd: Oh, I'm fairly certain my night just got a whole lot better.

Maddie rolled her eyes. Oh, that was cheesy.

MadHatter3000: Ur a flirt, aren't u?

Once again, his reply was instantaneous.

BookNerd: Guilty as charged.

Across from her, Christina arched a brow in silent question.

Hannah sat forward again, bouncing on the couch like an excited child. “What'd he say?”

Maddie pursed her lips and lifted her gaze. “He's flirting with me.”

Hannah's grin nearly split her face in half. “That's not a bad thing, Madds.”

Maddie shrugged. The knots in her stomach weren't so convinced. “I suppose.”

Christina smiled over the top of her wineglass, her eyes gleaming with playful impishness. “This is where you flirt back. If you want some company after the auction, you're going to have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the man.”

Maddie laughed and shook her head. Christina was right, of course. If she wanted an orgasm from somebody other than B.O.B., she'd have to come out of her shell a bit. After all, wasn't that what she'd told Hannah to do? When Hannah had been in the same place two years ago, trying to decide if a fling with Cade was what she wanted, Maddie had urged her to live in the moment or else she'd regret it. And Maddie had a lot of regrets. What would that weekend with Grayson have amounted to had she not gotten cold feet?

She sighed. “Okay, okay. Let me think. I'm rusty at this.”

She tapped her finger on the side of her phone, thinking. The words popped into her thoughts seconds later, and Maddie typed and hit send before she lost the nerve to say them.

MadHatter3000: Confident aren't we? Don't think a date means ur automatically getting into my pants. ;)

She stuffed the nail of her index finger into her mouth and waited. Had she been too rude? Too presumptuous?

Seconds ticked by before his reply came back. Just long enough for the doubts to close around her throat. She had to be insane for agreeing to this.

BookNerd: Are you challenging me?

Her head filled with visions of what he must look like. Tall, dark and handsome, like Cade and Sebastian. Full of muscles for sure. And sitting somewhere doing exactly what she was—his phone in his hand, waiting on her replies. The thought had her heart hammering a giddy beat, and her palms sweating, but damn. This could be addicting. It was the most fun she'd had since…well, since Grayson.

Thoughts of her ex had the beginnings of panic clawing their way up her throat. Hands shaking in earnest now, Maddie leaned forward and set her phone down on the coffee table. “I can't do this. This isn't me.”

Hannah set down her glass of soda and pushed off the couch, coming to perch on the arm of Maddie's recliner. She looped an arm around Maddie's shoulders, hugging her tightly. “Yes, you can. You're the first person in the store to pounce on any halfway decent-looking man who walks through the door. You're an incorrigible flirt. Why does this one make you so nervous? It's just a date.”

Maddie shook her head, memories rising over her. “When I flirt with the guys in the store it's just fun. I haven't had an actual date in three years.”

Grayson Lockwood wasn't the first guy she'd fallen in love with, but that breakup had hit the hardest. Discovering his lies had destroyed everything she'd sworn they had and made her feel like a hopeless fool. She'd discovered on the front page of a local newspaper that he wasn't just another editor working his way up through the rungs of the publishing company they'd worked for at the time. He
owned
the company, had inherited it from his father when he died.

Which meant he'd lied to her the whole time she'd known him. His lies had made her question their entire relationship. Was anything he told her real? Or was she just part of the charade? Did she really know him at all?

Like Matt, in college. She'd met Matt originally in Biology class. He'd chatted her up, playing the nice guy, the geek, helping her with her homework. Then one night, he'd invited her to a frat party on campus. He'd fed her spiked drinks, and she'd woken up the next morning alone, confused and violated.

Grayson wasn't Matt, but he'd still lied to her about who he was. Liars. She despised them. A deep pain crushed her chest every time she thought about it, because it brought her screeching back to that awful night in college. Learning the truth about Grayson had only reinforced what she already knew: that men couldn't be trusted. Because they all lied.

In the end she'd decided she didn't want to know which parts of their relationship were truth and which were more lies. She couldn't do it. She couldn't put her trust in another man who'd only hurt her again.

Her phone pinged again from the coffee table. She and Hannah both turned. Another reply flashed on the black screen.

BookNerd: Nervous?

“Do what you do best, Madds. He's just a guy, and you need this. You want this. You said so yourself.” Hannah squeezed her tight then released her and resumed her seat on the sofa. “Try being honest with him. Always worked for me and Cade.”

Maddie sighed. She had to admit, Hannah had a point. Cade was good for Hannah. He'd opened her up and given her confidence. Hannah no longer hid the scars that cut across her face. The two of them were so damned happy Maddie couldn't even envy them. Hannah deserved to be happy. More to the point, if honesty worked for them, maybe it would work for her, too.

She picked up her phone, typing in a more honest reply.

MadHatter3000: I don't usually do this sort of thing.

BookNerd: Honestly? Me either.

This reply soothed the knot in her chest. His confession, however, filled her with questions.

MadHatter3000: So y r u?

BookNerd: Because I told Christina the only way I'd participate was if she made sure I didn't end up with some 80 y/o woman or her lonely daughter.

Ah, now they were getting somewhere.

MadHatter3000: So, u don't want to do this, either.

Knowing her date didn't feel so certain either wasn't the most promising prospect she'd ever had, but the nausea swirling in her stomach eased by a large degree. At least she wasn't alone in her nervousness.

BookNerd: Not originally. I don't usually participate in these things. I have no desire to end up as someone's plaything. But I have to admit I'm enjoying this. Christina mentioned that you don't trust easily. Truth is, neither do I.

Maddie smiled. Beginning to finally relax, she couldn't resist teasing him.

MadHatter3000: How do u know I'm not an ugly hag?

BookNerd: lol I've known Christina since high school. I trust her judgment.

Hold the phone. Christina had distinctly left out that little detail.

Maddie peered across the coffee table at Christina. “You know him?”

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