The Billionaire's Temporary Bride

By: Avery James

"Ah, I see. So the unimportant stuff, like your love life, you leave to professionals."

Jack shot her a look.

"I didn't mean that," Charlotte quickly added. "I'm just saying, do you really think your love life is that unimportant?"

"I don't believe in love, not for people like me anyway," Jack said. "I don't have time for a personal life. I'll leave that to the rest of my family."

"I'll pretend, for your sake, that I believe that," Charlotte said. She could tell that he was annoyed. Jack looked like he was either trying to frown or posing for a picture. "So you're a martyr? Taking one for the proverbial team?" If Jack could push her to speak in public, then she could push him to admit that he had a capacity for a real relationship. She didn't believe for one second that Jack didn't want love.

"How about you?" Jack asked. "Why haven't you found your true love already?"

Charlotte sighed. "I have. He just happens to be two-hundred years old and fictional, but he has an incredible wit."

Jack laughed. "Just so you know, I'm perfectly capable of handling my own life and making my own decisions."

Charlotte decided to needle him a little bit more. In the half-light of the streetlamp, she could almost convince herself that she was on a real date. "I bet you have tonight all planned out according to the data."

"Is that right?"

"Yeah," Charlotte said. "We'll go to the restaurant, whatever it was called."

"Curio," Jack added.

"Curio. You'll hold my hand and open the door for me. Someone will snap a picture of you being a gentleman, and then you'll walk me back here tonight and manage to get caught giving me a kiss on the cheek. Tell me, what did the polling data say about the best light for photographing redheads?"

Jack blushed a little bit. "I don't think you give me enough credit."

"Surprise me," Charlotte said.

Jack paused and looked up and down the street and grinned. He reached over and grabbed her hip, pulling her chest to chest with himself. He leaned back against a wrought iron fence, and pulled her with him. She felt his hands on her back, and she swooned as the quick shift sent her full weight against him. And then he kissed her, his lips warm and smooth, his tongue just tickling the edge of her bottom lip, enough to send a shiver up her spine and make her kiss him back. The rush of endorphins and the pleasant buzz of excitement hummed inside her. Charlotte closed her eyes and floated on the warmth of that kiss. The feeling lingered until she took a breath and straightened up.

"Well, that's one way of surprising me," she said, still in shock that he had kissed her. She tried to straighten herself up without looking dazed in delight.

Jack kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear. "Photographers were on the other side of the street, and if I'm not mistaken, I think you enjoyed that." His mouth moved from her ear to her lips, and he kissed her again.

"Oh," Charlotte said, not sure what words could match the mixture of disappointment and embarrassment she felt at the moment. She lightly bit his lower lip.

She was not amused. How hadn't she noticed the photographers? Had they been followed the entire time? Even knowing someone was watching and that this was all an act, Charlotte couldn't help but lean into Jack a little more, savoring the warmth of his embrace.

I'm just playing a role, she tried to convince herself. He knows that. I know that. She just wondered how long it would be before she knew whether Jack felt the same pull that magnetic attraction drawing them together no matter how much they tried to deny it.

Chapter 7

Jack stood in the doorway of Curio and looked over his shoulder. You shouldn't have done that, he told himself.

Luckily Charlotte had bought the line about the photographers. There were none, at least not yet. Amy had arranged for them to show up at the end of the meal. They'd get "a few cute shots" of him and Charlotte sharing a dessert. He felt terrible about lying to her like that, but he hadn't been able to help himself. She had been daring him to kiss her, but that look of disappointment when he lied about the photographers leveled him. Making out on the sidewalk wasn't exactly part of the original plan, but he hadn't been able to help himself. Charlotte just had a way of getting under his skin.

And that kiss.

It was good. It was really good. It had taken all of his willpower to bail out and whisper into her ear, but he knew he had to. He knew that he had to chill the momentum and stop himself from doing anything stupid. He had asked Amy and Callie to find him a wife so he could avoid situations like this.

When they had picked Charlotte, he had worried how she'd do. He worried that she'd develop a crush on him in some way, and everything would just get messy, but then he saw her walk down those stairs, and he was the one who felt weak in the stomach. She had looked so beautiful that he had just wanted to stare at her. It had taken all his willpower to look away and act nonchalant. Now he was the one kissing her before their first date had even begun. What was he thinking?

He had been surprised at how easily things had come together with Charlotte, the effortless give and take that had started between them. They had chemistry. He knew it. Amy and Callie knew it. Even if she had been oblivious to it for a while, Charlotte seemed to finally know it, too.

So where did they go from here? Dinner was probably a good start. Best to keep a table between them in case he got any other dumb ideas.

The formality of sitting down for dinner helped cool things off. He and Charlotte had to sit there and make trivial decisions about what kind of wine to drink and what sort of experimental molecular gastronomy dishes to try. Jack was so accustomed to overthinking every decision, making sure it sent the right message, but really, who the hell cared if he ordered the salmon and olive spheres or the ginger beef foam? All he cared about was the gorgeous redhead sitting across the table.

He watched Charlotte as she looked over the menu. "Anything sound good?"

"It all looks… intimidating," Charlotte said.

"It's good. I promise."

"Where do they list the prices?" Charlotte turned the menu over in her hand.

"Don't worry about the prices." Jack smiled.

"It's just a little more upscale than I'm used to."

"What are you used to?"

"A few times a year, Callie and I go out to a little bistro out on MacArthur Boulevard. Really, we go there whenever we have something to celebrate. It's a little nicer than the normal places we go, and we get to dress up a bit, but it's not nearly this…"

"Stuffy?" Jack asked.

"I was going to say grand. It's a little place. I don't know why I'm blanking on the name. We've always just called it 'the bistro.' Anyway, this is wonderful."

The conversation broke as they ordered dinner. Jack chose a mango and lychee snapper dish and, at Charlotte's insistence on being unable to decide, ordered the even less familiar sounding oysters with mignonette on her behalf. As soon as the waiter was gone, Charlotte seemed eager to restart the conversation and end the silence.

"So, tell me about your job," she said. "What's one thing I should know?"

"To start, it's not as glamorous as people think. Unless we're voting on something, I'm almost never in the Capitol building. Most of the time I work from the House office buildings across the street. My office is small, and there's a ceiling light above my desk that is almost always broken no matter what I do."

"Come on, there must be something good, secret passages to the White House, stuff like that," Charlotte said as the waiter took the menus.

"There's a monorail between the offices and the Capitol building. It's not very interesting. The whole thing is kind of like high school. There are the popular kids and there's even a cafeteria serviced by the same company that serves food at most of the country's prisons."

"Couldn't you just order out?"

"I usually just eat something fast in-between meetings, whatever my secretary gets."

"I figured you'd have a place like this on speed dial."

"Nah," Jack said. "I mean this is great, but it's too much to do on a daily basis. Wait until you see dessert. It's elaborate and inventive, just like all the rest of the food here, but sometimes you just want a slab of pie instead."

"I know that's how I like my pie," Charlotte said, "in slabs. What's your favorite kind?"

"Rhubarb," Jack said quickly. "I like rhubarb."

"My mother used to make rhubarb pie. It's my dad's favorite, too. We'd eat it on his birthday with vanilla ice cream and a tall glass of milk instead of cake. My sister and I always hated that we didn't get to have cake."

"My father wasn't usually home for his birthdays," Jack said. He hadn't told Charlotte anything about his family yet, and he wondered how much he should let slip. A first date seemed like the wrong time to explain how his siblings resented him and his mother coddled him beyond belief. He wondered if he would ever be able to explain why he could barely stand to stay in the same room as them or why his blood boiled whenever someone brought up his father.

Probably better to bring up family as little as possible, Jack decided. His mind drifted to Maria and little Jack. He felt suddenly very conscious of the weight of the secret phone in his breast pocket. He wanted to change the topic of conversation as quickly as possible.

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