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The Marriage Contract

By´╝ÜKatee Robert

Chapter One

Callista Sheridan pulled at the hem of her dress, wishing she’d chosen something else for this ill-advised trip. But there was no help for it. She wanted to get a peek at the kind of man this fiancé of hers was, and he’d been remarkably adapt at avoiding her attempts to meet so they could get each other’s measure. After two weeks of his dodging her calls and his father digging in his heels, she was forced to take matters into her own hands.

The only time Brendan Halloran left that compound he called home was to come to Tit for Tat, which was why she was here in this seedy neighborhood, in a building that was most definitely not up to code.

She wrinkled her nose as she moved down the hallway of private rooms. It might claim to be nothing more than a strip club and bar—albeit a trashy one—but there was no mistaking the sounds coming from behind those doors. Dread wormed through her, climbing higher with each step. It had been child’s play slipping past the men Brendan had posted at the bottom of each stairway—they were looking for threats, not just another stripper. Wearing much more makeup than normal and a bright red wig, that was exactly what Callie looked like.

She stopped before the last door, her heart in her throat. This is where the girls had said Brendan would be. It wasn’t too late to back out. No matter what kind of man he was, no matter how against the marriage she’d originally been, the truth was that the Sheridans needed the Halloran alliance—and that alliance came at the price of her marriage to the Halloran heir. She knew Brendan’s father, Victor, by reputation, and it wasn’t one she wanted to be associated with, let alone link her family’s future to, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

And surely the sins of the father weren’t shared by the son?

If there were any other option, she would have readily taken it. There wasn’t. When her brother, Ronan, died, it left a gaping hole in the power structure. It didn’t matter if she was more than capable of moving forward as the heir, even if she mourned the cause for the necessity. Their enemies wouldn’t see that, and they certainly wouldn’t care—all they cared about was the perceived weakness.

The only way to fix that perception was an alliance…and so here she was, stalling in an effort to avoid going through a battered door where her fiancé was most definitely in the middle of doing something she didn’t want to witness.

Taking a fortifying breath, she cracked open the door before she could talk herself out of it. All it would take was a quick conversation to hash out their respective expectations for this “marriage,” and then she’d be out of this place that made her skin crawl and on her way home. If he’d just agreed to meet her in the first place, this disguise wouldn’t be necessary. But if any of his people had recognized her walking through the strip club door, they would have kicked her out—which meant her disguise was necessary.

She’d made it a full two steps into the room before her brain caught up to her eyes and understood what she was seeing.

The room was nothing fancy—just a bed and a small side table—but it was what was happening on that bed that rooted her in place. Brendan—because who else could it be with that massive body wound about with tattoos?—thrust into a woman, his big hands around her throat.

In those first five seconds, Callie tried to tell herself that it was some kind of kink play, but then he shifted and she saw the woman’s face. Bruises blackened both her eyes, and her lip was split, leaving a trail of blood down her cheek. Holy mother of God, is she even breathing?

She reached blindly behind her for the door, but missed it, smacking into the wall. He froze, turning his head and pinning her with eerie blue eyes. If she’d had any doubts about his identity before, she didn’t now. All the Halloran family had eyes that color. Even as she slid sideways along the wall, wanting nothing more than to escape and bleach this whole thing from her mind, he smiled. “Another present for me? You shouldn’t have.”

Breathe, Callie. Breathe and brazen your way through this. Her hand closed on the door handle. She had a split second to make a decision—come clean or try to lie her way back through the door. It was no contest. “Sorry, wrong room.”

“I don’t think so.” He was up and on her before she had the door open, moving faster than any man his size had right to. Even in her ridiculous heels, he dwarfed her. “You’re prettier than their norm here. You must be new.” He licked his lips. “I love breaking in the new ones.”

Oh God, oh God, oh God. No one knew she was here. He could do to her what he’d done to that other woman—who still wasn’t moving—and no one would know. Fear tried to blank her mind, but she’d been trained better than that. Show no weakness. She tried for a smile. “There’s been a mistake.”

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