Seducing Her Rival
things had turned out in the end. Even if he acted as though he liked her just the way she was, Lucas Bellamy was a drug, one far more addictive than anything she’d tried back in college.
    She needed to immerse herself in something else—anything else—and clearly her attempt at focusing on heights had been a wash. Without another thought, she dropped a quarter into the slot machine and pushed the button. The reels spun and spun, like her damn mind, jolting to a stop on the least useful images in the world.
    Nothing.
    No answers, just pieces that didn’t fit together.
    Dios , she was turning into a melancholy bitch.
    This time she shoved the quarter in like she was smacking the machine and yanked the handle. Buttons were for lazy-ass gamblers.
    Spin, spin, spin.
    Better Todays.
    Playground.
    Marco Belluci.
    School.
    Drugs.
    Lucas Bellamy.
    Stop!
    Mercedes rubbed the heels of her hands against her temples, trying to drive the thoughts away. Damn that man for bringing memories better left buried back to life.
    “Headache? I’ve heard foolhardy acrobatic stunts can do that to a person.”
    She didn’t open her eyes as she leaned against the machine, her forehead hitting the button to send the reels spinning again. It was so much easier when she was allowed to just hate him. This plan to get close to him, while lucrative, was complicating everything.
    Charming. She needed to be charming. Too bad every instinct told her to lash out and then run as fast and as far as she could. “What are you doing here? Not even sure Pinocchio’s conscience was this attentive.”
    “Probably not, but you’re far more attractive than a wooden boy. And I hope I’m more enticing than a cricket.” He settled on the stool next to her and ran his fingers through her hair. Mercedes fought not to lean into his touch. “I know you gave me my truth and the kiss, but I needed to make sure you were okay.”
    “Why?”
    “Because I care?”
    A question, not a statement. Care didn’t equal love but maybe, if she was going to go through with this, it was a step in the right direction. “And in a few days, you’ll disappear and stop caring. It’s why you scare me.” He didn’t need to know the truth hidden inside that particular lie.
    For a minute he didn’t say anything, just sat there, combing through her hair like the conversation had reached a natural conclusion. “I’m not going to spin some bullshit line and say I plan to make an honest woman of you at the end of the week.”
    She snorted. “Does anyone actually say that anymore?”
    “Probably not, but the point is, beyond the money you just won, I still owe you a hundred hours. I made a commitment and I’m going to honor it. The end of the cruise isn’t the last day we’re going to see each other.”
    Somehow we’re still going to work together sounded less like love than caring did. At least she could use it though. “It’s not going to work.”
    “What?”
    She heard the laughter in his voice—he knew perfectly well what. “Pretending that will mean something more than it does.”
    “I wasn’t doing that, but I could start if you’d prefer.”
    No. She’d prefer he’d been anyone other than Luc Bellamy so this could be real. Even the risk of losing something worthwhile would be more acceptable than the risk of losing herself to New York’s biggest playboy. “Perfect. You go buy me a giant diamond ring and I’ll hold my breath until you come up with the perfect proposal.”
    He laughed, the sound so full and rich she wanted to wrap herself in it. “If I was going to propose to you, I would take you to Harry Winston’s or Tiffany’s. It certainly wouldn’t be anything I’d pick up on a cruise ship.”
    “Of course you would. How silly of me.”
    Fingers pressed gently into her chin. She wanted to resist and stay right where she was, but just his touch had her shaking all over again. So she turned and tipped her head up to meet his eyes. “For now, we’ll

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