“I know, but I’ve never blown smoke up your butt. I’m not about to start now. What are you going to do?”
“What do you mean, nothing? You’re not going to find a bride and win the prize?”
“Hell no! Dad might want to keep his promise to Mom, but I won’t vow to love, honor, and cherish some stranger, then start making babies. I’d rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable. My brothers can race one another to the altar and fuck up their lives for a fat check. I’m not doing it.”
“Once the single women in Haven hear about the five million, you won’t have to worry about marrying a stranger. Every girl in town will be busting down your door.”
“Great,” he drawled. “I don’t want a damn gold digger who only wants my money. I want a woman to care about me.”
“What if you found a woman who wasn’t a gold digger and did care about you?”
“Like me,” Al whispered softly, dropping her chin and shrouding her crimson-stained cheeks beneath a veil of auburn curls.
Allison O’Connor just volunteered to be my bride?
Houston’s heart sputtered.
His stomach knotted.
The thought of marrying his best friend, his sister from another mother, sent a depraved and immoral shiver rippling through him. Shocked speechless, Houston simply gaped at her.
The air grew heavy and awkward, making it even harder to think of something to say.
Finally, Al lifted her chin and sent him a weak smile that did nothing to erase the rejection stamped on her face. He hated that he’d hurt her feelings, but in the twenty years they’d been buddies, not once had Houston ever thought of her…sexually. Not because she wasn’t pretty. She was…in her own way. A fact he hadn’t noticed until that instant.
What else haven’t I noticed?
As the rejection in her eyes gave way to regret and embarrassment, Houston shook his head. “Don’t do that.”
“Beat yourself up. I’m flattered by your offer, but I can’t…no, I won’t steal your future or your happiness for any amount of money. One day, some man is going to come along, fall head-over-heels in love with you, and sweep you off your feet. You’ll never find your happy ever after if you’re in a fake marriage with me.”
She scoffed and rolled her blue eyes. “Get real. I might read about knights in shining armor riding off into the sunset with their one true love, but it’ll never happen to me.”
“Because it’s make-believe. It’s called fiction for a reason,” Al drawled, tugging her gray cardigan around her middle.
The gesture made him pause and glide a critical stare over her practical black flats, black slacks, white button down shirt, and gray sweater. He’d never paid attention to her clothing before, and while she looked the way she always did, he realized that he’d never seen her wear bright, flashing colors or prints before. While he’d never thought of Al as a tomboy, she didn’t dress like the girls in Haven. Hell, she’d never dressed like any of the girls in school, either. Al wasn’t in the popular clique. She never flirted, wore makeup, or spent all year planning what she was going to wear to prom.
That’s because she never went to prom, Einstein. No one had ever asked her.
A fact that sent tendrils of guilt wending through his veins. Al wasn’t a party girl. She was happiest with her nose in a book. Though she probably would have turned him down, Houston should have asked her to prom.
“It’s all right,” she said with a careless wave. “Forget I even said anything. But if you want my opinion, I think you should reconsider your dad’s offer.”
“I value your opinion, but I already told you—”
“I know, but it wouldn’t hurt to look a little harder around town. There are lots of pretty girls in Haven. You’ll have no trouble finding one who’ll steal your heart and become Mrs. Houston Carson…with or without five million bucks.”
“I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”
“Good,” she said forcing a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.