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The Arrangement: A Marriage of Convenience Book 1

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Chapter 2

Ashlyn thought it was comical that half her closet consisted of dresses she rarely wore unless her mother hosted a charity event. This particular event was a spectacle of self-congratulatory wealth patting themselves on the back all night long. It did support an important cause, but she didn’t see why they couldn’t donate money instead of hosting dinners.

Making a face at herself in the mirror, she applied her earrings. She chose a floaty, sheer white dress with silver lining. It swirled around her ankles comfortably and the bodice was decorated with intricately crusted jewels. They created the illusion of a sweetheart neckline and the long, gauzy sleeves fit like second skin. It was finished with a thin, metallic belt that clasped in the back.

For her hair, she chose understated waves and they fell in a blonde curtain down her back. The earrings remained simple and so did her make-up. The dress took center stage as she knew her mother would want. After all, it was Ann’s event and she wanted everyone talking about her and her daughter in a positive light.

Grabbing her clutch and wrap, she left one lamp on by the door and locked it behind her. As expected, the limo waited at the bottom of the stairs. When she slipped in next to her mother, she was enveloped in a swirl of perfume and heard the pop of a champagne bottle. Not to be outdone, her mother wore a startling red dress that showed her well-toned body for a woman nearing 60.

“Oh, that’s the perfect dress, Ashlyn! Well done.”

She murmured her thanks and accepted a glass from her mother’s outstretched hand. If she needed to spend the night entertaining, a few glasses of champagne wouldn’t hurt.

Face glowing with the anticipated triumph of her event, her mother sipped her own drink. “I think you are going to be pleasantly surprised this year, dear. Canlis does not cater, as you know, generally. But I managed to talk them into it. The food there is exceptional. We have a live band, of course. There should be plenty of men for you to choose from to marry.”


“What? I’m being serious. We only have two months.”

I only have two months, mother. I will choose who I marry.”

Mouth pinching at the corners, Ann lifted her chin. “I’m only trying to help you, dear.”

Ashlyn rubbed the back of her neck, feeling the on-rush of a headache. “I know, mother. I do appreciate it. But if I have to spend a year of my life with someone, I need to be able to at least like them. Now, can we not talk about this tonight?”

“Yes, yes, of course, dear.”

The ride was peppered with her mother’s comparisons of Canlis’ menu, the latest gossip and who was dating who. When they arrived at the ballroom, she allowed the valet to help her from the car and waited for her mother to join her. Cameras flashed, press called out questions. The glitz and beauty surrounded her, as false as the people wearing it.

When they entered, her mother immediately separated from her and joined her friends. Wishing again that Josh had agreed to be her escort, she settled for another glass of champagne and slowly wandered the room, making casual talk with anyone who stopped her.

One group stood out to her for the large crowd surrounding a single man. When she caught a glimpse of him, a strange tingling started at the back of her neck and went lower. He was undeniably handsome. With carefully combed jet black hair and crystal blue eyes, he commanded both the men and the woman in front of him. His tuxedo fit perfectly, obviously tailored to his strong shoulders and slim waist.

Something about him was familiar, but she couldn’t place his name. He wasn’t a regular at her mother’s events.

Another sip on her champagne, and she was startled when his eyes met hers. They held and the heat in his gaze pinned her to the floor. Warmth spread in her cheeks and she hoped he didn’t notice her admiring him. The last thing she wanted was to invite someone so intense over to talk with her. Especially not if he got the wrong idea.

If she was going to marry anyone, it would be someone agreeable and pleasant. Ashlyn had been around enough of her father’s business colleagues over the years to recognize a shark when she saw one. This man would think nothing of swallowing her whole and casting aside what was left when he finished.

To her dismay, he broke from the crowd and started her way. Looking for a polite exit would be optimal, but her breeding wouldn’t allow it.

As he made his way toward her, those eyes never left her face. Up close, he was even more imposing. Taller than her by nearly a foot, she realized her heels were all that gave her an advantage.

He bowed his head. “Miss Ashlyn Gray.”

Ashlyn offered a smile. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Mr...?”

“Cross. Deacon Cross.”

Of course, Deacon Cross, self-made billionaire despite coming from a wealthy family of his own. Her father praised him on more than one occasion for his innovation and youth. If she recalled correctly, even Edward Gray hadn’t liked Jebediah Cross, Deacon’s father. Her father had been amused that Deacon formed his own corporation and made his own money.

“Mr. Cross. A pleasure to meet you. My father spoke highly of you.”

He smiled; a white slash of teeth, oozing male sexuality and confidence. Ashlyn was more than annoyed that she couldn’t be immune.

“Your father was a good man.”

“Thank you.”

Turning down a glass of champagne brought by the wait staff, he looked around. “Your mother has outdone herself this year.”

“That would be her intention.”

“All for a good cause, yes?”

Since those sentiments echoed her own thoughts, she could only nod.

“Can I interest you in a dance, Miss. Gray?”

“Ashlyn.” And she wanted to deny him, but knew she couldn’t. “Yes, thank you.”

He reached out, taking her glass to deposit on a roving platter. Their fingers brushed and the contact sang down her arm in delicious waves. Since she couldn’t recall when a man had done that to her, she unconsciously felt herself backing away until he placed his hand on the small of her back. The press of his palm burned through her dress and into her skin.

“Ashlyn. Please call me Deacon.”

In the circle of his arms, she felt enveloped in a wave of heat. She was surrounded by his scent and the raw maleness of him. Did he have any idea what he was doing to her? She thought he would be amused if he did. It wasn’t difficult to surmise women fell at his feet, considering the crowd around him earlier.

She didn’t plan to be one of them.

Bending down, lips near her ear, he said in the rich baritone of his, “I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”

She suppressed a shiver at the caress of his breath on the delicate flesh. “I’m in university. I don’t go to all of my mother’s charities.”

“What are you studying?” He surprised her by asking as he expertly guided them around the floor.



She nodded. “Yes. I’m very nearly finished. Only three more years.”

“That sounds like you’ve a ways to go.”

“Well, after five years, three more doesn’t seem like that many.”

“That’s very ambitious of you.”

She looked up at him, wishing she hadn’t. “It’s important to me.”

“I would imagine.”

As they swirled around others, she was aware of the envious glares of passing women. Either his past conquests or ones wishing to be in the future, she guessed. She wanted to tell them that he was all theirs. She had no intentions of claiming him.

“I’m sorry for the loss of your father.”

She blinked at the sudden change in topic. “Thank you.”

Something in the depths of those blue eyes cautioned her. There was a calculation there that immediately set her on edge. A niggling feeling in her stomach told her this meeting might not be chance at all. But what could someone like Deacon Cross want with her?

“I understand you’re in a bit of dilemma.”

Thoughts immediately going to her mother, Ashlyn kept her tone cool, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“While I admire your poker face, Ashlyn, let’s not pretend I don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?”

He smiled again. Only this time, there was a wolf behind the gleam.

“The stipulations of your father’s last will and testament.”

Ashlyn pulled back from him. “How do you know that?”

“Your father and I talked before his death.”

“And why would he do that?”

Deacon shrugged, an elegant movement in a man like him. “He didn’t say.”

“So why are we talking about this then?”

“I have a proposition. An arrangement, if you will.”

Cold trickled down her back, as if ice poured over her. “Surely you aren’t suggesting-”

“Why don’t we meet tomorrow, 9 AM, in my office to discuss it?”

This time she did step out of his arms. “I’m not discussing anything with you.”

“You shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss before you hear the terms.”

“You talk of marriage as if it’s a merger.”

“Isn’t it?”

She was wrong about him. There might be heat in his gaze, but there was ice in his veins.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cross. We’ve nothing further to discuss here.”

Turning on her heel, she started to walk away.

“Two months, correct? That isn’t very much time when you don’t have any other offers.”

Stopping, back stiffening, she took a few cleansing breaths and counted backward from five. That sort of provocation was not something she intended to give in to. As much as it would feel good to slap him in the face, she would not make a scene.

Spinning, she narrowed her eyes on his face. “And how would you know whether or not I have any prospects?”

“It’s my job to know.”

“Why would I want to discuss anything with a man who thinks nothing of insulting me?”

A smile played around his lips. “I wasn’t insulting you. Simply speaking the truth.”

Her lips tightened. What could she say to that when it was the truth?

“Tomorrow, 9 AM. Give it a chance, Ashlyn.”

“And what do you have to benefit from this, Mr. Cross?”

“Deacon. And we can discuss that tomorrow.”

She wasn’t about to call him by his first name now, but a part of her admitted intrigue. Would it hurt to at least hear him out? It was only a year of her life after all. A year she might have to spend with an arrogant, self-appreciative ass like him.

His words cut into her confidence. It ate at her that he knew her current position. If she said she wasn’t angry with her father right now, she would be fooling only herself.

“I understand if you’re afraid to entertain the idea...”

His taunt undid her. “All right, Mr. Cross. 9 AM. But don’t think you’ll be getting everything you want.”

The smile he gave her held a mystery she wasn’t sure she wanted to solve. “We will see about that, Miss Gray.”

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