Wariness bounced through Mayse like a tennis ball. She watched him with cautious eyes as he slowly came her way on predatory feet. She wanted to get up and run away as fast as she could but the devil stood in her path. She took another sip of tea, stalling for time and to still her racing pulse.
Brice planted a hand on each slim hip, silently watching her squirm. Yes, this is the one I’m looking for, he conceded. There really was no comparison between the two now that he’d seen Mayse again.
Mayse forced the words out. “What do you want?”
The curve to his mouth was seductive. “You. I understand you’re in the market for a good man.”
“Be that as it may, Mr. Mallory, but you’re not it,” she replied uncharitably, surprised her voice didn’t quaver. Her insides were shaking like an earthquake hitting a seven on the Richter scale.
The silence grew thick and heavy with tension. Brice let it linger on before he answered. He wanted to see just what she would do. “I don’t think beggars can be choosers, do you?”
Mayse closed her eyes and sighed. “No.”
“Then, what seems to be the problem?”
Ignoring the underlying sarcasm, she decided the best thing to do was lay it all out for him. The conditions of the will and her own stipulations would have him running for cover.
“Okay, let’s discuss the provisions of the will.”
Brice pulled out a chair and made himself comfortable. White teeth glistened as he flashed a smile, arched his brow, and said, “I’m listening.”
Mayse felt sick. Her stomach rolled and bounced. She wanted nothing more than for Brice Mallory to get out of her kitchen. Jayse chose that moment to pop in. Seeing the strained look on her sister’s face, she hurried to her side, frowning at Brice.
“Is everything all right, sis? You look kind of strange.”
“I’m okay,” Mayse informed her. “It’s just all this stuff we’ve been through lately. It’s wearing me thin.”
Jayse kept her eyes on Brice. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend here?”
Brice rose immediately, scooting his chair with the backs of his knees, offering his hand. “I’m Brice Mallory, soon to be your brother-in-law.”
Jayse’s brows shot up in surprise. “Brother-in-law! How ... what ... when did this happen?”
Mayse bristled, reminding Brice of a porcupine. Before she could respond, he hurried on, “I’m here to work out the final details. Why don’t you sit with us? Give us a little input.”
Jayse sat, swinging her head back and forth, first eyeing Mayse then Brice then back again. “This should be worked out between the two of you instead of a third party, Brice. Anything I say would only impede your progress. Mayse and I aren’t in the same situation. Similar but not the same.”
Mayse crossed her arms and gave Brice a frigid stare that spoke volumes of how she was feeling. “For your information, I don’t have to get married for my father’s money. I don’t need it. I’ve got more than enough of my own.”
“The will is a little strange, Brice,” Jayse explained when he said nothing. “My father knew neither of us had intentions to marry any time soon. Heaven knows, we’ve argued about it enough times. Mayse is self-sufficient whereas my chosen profession requires a lot of time, effort and money to operate. Sure, we both get a monthly allowance from him, but everything I get goes directly back into my business. Mayse doesn’t need his money but I do. So, in order for me to inherit, we both have to marry and have an heir, a male one at that.”
Brice thought it over. “So, what you’re saying is that unless Mayse marries, you won’t get a dime.”
“That part of the problem is solved then,” Brice assured her without delay. “The next step is for you to find a man who’s willing to go along with you as I’ve agreed to do with Mayse.”
Jayse shifted her attention to Mayse. “Is this true? Is he willing to go along with everything?” Jayse paused, hesitating. “All of it?”
Silently telling herself during this whole discussion she’d never go through with this regardless of what Brice said, Mayse told her, “We were just beginning to discuss it when you came in. However, I see no need to go any further with it because I’ve decided he’s not suitable for my needs.”
Storm clouds gathered in the shadowy depths of Brice’s dark eyes. Mayse saw it and braced herself for the onslaught of his wrath. She’d never seen someone so quick to anger before. Not even her father held that distinction.
Brice fought back his anger. Now was not the time to lose his temper. He nailed Mayse with the cold dark eyes she’d come to know. She could almost see the chill rise from him, it was so cold and penetrating. “What do you think this is, a fairy tale? I don’t see a knight in shining armor beating down your door for the honor of your hand in marriage! Who else is willing to give up their life to do this for you?”
“You’re doing it for a price!” Mayse shot back, determined he wasn’t going to get the best of her.
“We haven’t even discussed a price yet, Mayse,” Brice charged in a quiet voice. “You don’t even know my terms for accepting yours.”
Mayse swallowed back whatever words were on her tongue. The hair rose on her nape as she realized she was treading on dangerous ground. Brice was more of a threat now than ever before. Quickly deciding she wanted nothing to do with him, she held on to the words she was ready to fling at him. “I couldn’t consider a proposal from you, Brice. It wouldn’t be right.”
Mayse’s heart rose in her throat as she watched him. Underneath the table her fingers tightly clenched the edge of the chair. Slowly exhaling pent-up breath, she ordered herself to be calm.
“What wouldn’t be right about it?”
Mayse creamed him with an ill-tempered glare. “I think the unfairness is quite obvious.”
“Evidently, I must be awfully dull-witted because I can’t see the obvious,” Brice stated dryly.
“You’re Sherry’s brother. That’s the obvious factor in this scenario.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I just wouldn’t feel right about it, that’s all.”
“Look, Mayse, you’re not in any position to be so damn choosy. Time is running out,” Brice bitingly emphasized.
Mayse flashed him a drop-dead look. “We’ve got seven weeks yet.”
“You’re stalling, Mayse. You’re not afraid of me, are you?” he challenged.
Fire sparked brightly in her eyes as she seared him with a scathing glance. “What’s to be afraid of? You’re not even my type.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“The problem is, I’m being forced into this! Isn’t that problem enough?”
“This isn’t going to be a walk in the park for me either, lady!”
“Hey, get a grip, people!” Jayse shouted over their dispute. “What’s the matter with you two? This is supposed to be a convenient arrangement to serve both your needs. Mayse, is it not true, you’ve got to get married?”
Mayse threw a sharp look her way but answered dismally. “Yes.”
“And, Brice, isn’t it true you’re in it for the money?”
He just glared at Jayse without answering and looked away. She continued on the same track, ignoring him. “I think for all intents and purposes both your problems are solved. You’ll both continue to do whatever you want, am I right?”
Reluctantly they both agreed.
“Then, the next step is to make plans and carry them out, right?”
“Then let’s get it done.” Brice heartlessly snapped, “I do have a life other than rescuing rich damsels in distress.”
“Don’t you think we should wait?”
“Why wait? We’ll get started on the other immediately.”
Mayse choked on the obvious meaning of his words. The anger she felt was greater than anything she’d ever experienced with her father. “There will be none of that!”
“None of what?” he asked sharply.
“None of what you have in mind, Mr. Mallory.” Mayse raised her chin a notch in total defiance. “There will be no conjugal rights.”
There was no emotion at all on his face. Nothing to imply what his thoughts were. “And just how do you think you’re going to get a male heir?”
“Being a rancher I’m sure you’ve heard of artificial insemination. You don’t have to sleep with a man anymore to get pregnant.”
“That’s something we’ll have to discuss another time.”
“No,” Mayse insisted, “we’ll discuss it now.”
Brice’s dark eyes turned icy cold with a demonic gleam. His voice harsh. Before Brice could voice his reply, Jayse cut in. “I think we need to take this one step at a time, gang. Let’s plan the wedding first and you two can work out the details later.”
“No, Jayse, I can’t do it that way.” Anger laced it’s way through Mayse at her sister’s unsolicited help in the matter. “I want him to know up front I will not sleep with him. The only thing he gets from me is my money.”
Brice ground out viciously, “Did it ever occur to you, Miss Farrell, I don’t want to sleep with you either?”
The derision in his voice curled and burned her insides. How dare he take that kind of mocking tone with her! Mayse’s jaw clamped down hard in fury. Rising swiftly, her face a vivid mask of pure contempt, Mayse killed him slowly with a look that would’ve impaled a vampire and walked out.