Billionaire's Blackmail Bride: Billionaire Brothers Kent

By: Judy Angelo

CHAPTER ONE





Sweet. The gods must be smiling down on him today. Lani Donatelli was sitting right here in his office and she was in big trouble. Could things go any better?

Leaning back in his chair, Ridge tented his fingers and regarded her through narrowed eyes. He was going to play tough even though he was laughing inside. She’d fallen right into his hands and he could not believe his luck.

“How’s that again?” he asked, feigning confusion, watching the emotions flit across her face.

Lani gave an exasperated sigh. “Ridge Kent, you heard every word I said. Why should I repeat myself?” The color rising in her cheeks, Lani was clenching and unclenching her hands like she was trying hard not to hop out of her chair, reach across the desk and strangle him. She looked so cute when she was angry, like a little pink pixie, so tiny she could pass for a kid as she sat there, lost in the big, black office chair. And it didn’t help that she was sporting a super-short boy haircut. If he didn’t already know her he’d swear she was a stray twelve year old who’d wandered into his office.

But enough of admiring little Miss Cuteness. She’d asked a pointed question and he was only too willing to answer. “Maybe you should repeat yourself,” he said, his tone cool, “because you really need this favor.”

At his words Lani’s eyes shot daggers and she looked like if she could have killed him with her glare she would have. “You don’t need to rub it in,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Oh, but I do,” he replied. “I most certainly do.”

“Jerk,” she muttered under her breath.

But that didn’t faze him at all. He knew exactly what he was doing. “I’m waiting,” he said, just in case she needed a little more prompting.

Lani gave a heavy sigh then shook her head. “I’ll go slower this time just so you’ll understand. I’ve lost my funding for the research project I’m working on. A very important project. It’s impossible for me to find alternative funding at such short notice and that’s why I need your help.”

“I see.” Ridge leaned forward, holding her gaze. “And what’s so important about this research project of yours? Why not shelve it and move on to something else?”

She looked at him like he was just short of being a blinking idiot. “Don’t you get it? This is important. Life changing. It could make a difference in thousands of people's lives. You don’t start a study that could make such an impact and then you shelve it. Are you crazy?”

For someone who’d come to his door begging she sure wasn’t acting humble. The way she was speaking to him it was like he was the one who needed the favor, not her. Ridge had to hold in a chuckle. He kept his face serious as he asked the next question. “So if your project is that important why can’t you get funding? Isn’t this the sort of thing those big pharmaceutical companies want to be involved in?”

Lani grimaced. “Not this one. I’m not doing research on a synthetic drug, something they can patent. My research is on natural plant alternatives so they don’t give a damn. If you can’t make billions off it they don’t want to hear about it.”

“I see,” he said again, nodding slowly as he pondered her words. “So what you’re saying is, you want me to invest in a project for which there is no return. The pharmaceutical companies won’t do it so why should I?”

“Why should… is that all you ever think about? How much money you stand to make?”

Her scowl was so dark Ridge was having a hard time keeping a straight face. God, he was having fun pushing her buttons.

He shrugged. “I’m a businessman,” he said, his tone nonchalant. “If you ain’t makin' money you ain’t got no business.”

That got her good. He could see it in the way her teeth clenched and her eyes narrowed. “Well, if that’s the position you’re going to take it looks like I came to the wrong person.” She slapped her hands on the arms of her chair and hopped to her feet. “Thanks for nothing. Good day, Mr. Kent.” Then she turned and stalked off toward the door.

Ridge waited until her hand was on the knob and then he spoke. “Come back here, Miss Donatelli.” His voice was firm and curt. “Come back and sit down,” he paused for maximum effect, “or else you’re not getting a cent out of me.”

She froze, hand still on the knob, and then slowly she turned and stared back at him. Eyes narrowed, she frowned. “So you’re giving me the money?”

Ridge gave her a crooked grin. “I might. But there’s just one thing.”

Her frown deepened and, moving slowly, she folded her arms in front of her. “What,” she said slowly, the word dripping with suspicion, “thing?”

She was curious now, and wary, but he wasn’t going to make things that easy. Lani would have to learn that he was the one holding the blade and she’d better tread carefully.

“I’ll tell you,” he said, his tone frigid, “as soon as you find your butt back in your chair.”

He saw her quick look of surprise at his imperious tone but in a flash it was gone. Now her ebony eyes glinted with unmistakable anger. It was obvious she wanted to tell him to go to hell but she was too smart for that. Her mind was ticking fast and he could see the second that she decided to suck it up and do what he’d ordered. She was a proud and independent woman but she wasn’t stupid.

With a twist of her lips she released her arms and marched back to the chair she’d just vacated. It was a good thing she was wearing slacks and not a dress because she practically flung herself down into it, her expression telling him that whatever it was he had to say to her, she was not looking forward to it.

“So what ‘thing’ is it you want to tell me,” she said, “before you give me the money?”

Ridge didn’t answer. He’d been planning to make her a friendly proposition, one she could live with, but screw that. Little Miss Lani was being a bit too haughty for his liking…even though she was the one asking favors. Time to take her down a notch or two.

“I’ll give you the money,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers, “on one condition.”

Lani drew in a slow breath and her gaze grew even more suspicious. “What condition?”

“You can get your money to do your precious research project,” he said, his tone even, “as long as you agree to marry me. I want you to be my wife for a year.”

That declaration didn’t get him the reaction he’d been expecting. Instead of the shock and horror he’d anticipated Lani did the very opposite. The contrary girl burst out laughing.

“I heard you could be a joker but this takes the cake. So you’re a businessman turned comedian now?” She wasn’t shy with her guffaws. She was laughing so hard Ridge was thinking she might pitch forward and fall out of her chair.

But he wouldn’t say a word. He would let her have her moment of fun and then he would set her straight. That grin would be wiped from her face soon enough.

When she finally calmed down enough to stop laughing and slide back in her chair Ridge got up and walked over to the credenza on top of which sat an ice bucket with bottles of water and juice. He glanced over at her. “Want one?” he asked.

She shook her head.

With a shrug he turned, grabbed a bottle of water and tipped it to his lips. He downed a third of it in one swig. As he lowered the bottle and replaced the cap he regarded her with casual interest. “Ready to talk to me now?”

“About what?” she asked, a smile teasing the corner of her mouth. “Of course you weren’t serious.”

He gave her a slow smile. “I’m dead serious.”

It was only then that things seemed to sink in for Lani. The smile that had tickled her mouth disappeared. The lips that had just curled so prettily now turned thin and firm. “But why?” she asked, her tone half combative, half confused. “Why would you want me to marry you? We don’t even like each other.”

And the way she said the last sentence, curling her lips like the very thought repulsed her, made him even more determined to stick to his guns. He would bring her to heel if it killed him.

“Let’s just say I’ve got my reasons.” He spoke calmly, not giving away the fact that she’d just pissed him off. There would be time enough to get his revenge for that transgression.

“But I don’t get it.” As he walked back to his desk her eyes followed him, boring into him, never letting him go. He definitely had her attention now. “Ever since we met,” she continued, “we’ve been at loggerheads. In fact, I wouldn’t even be in your office right now if I weren’t desperate.”

Ridge smiled. “That, little Lani, is the operative word. The question is, how desperate are you?” He made sure to put emphasis on the word just so she didn’t miss the point.

Lani’s breathing was growing more and more agitated by the minute. Nostrils flaring, she got up and out of the chair and stood there, hands clenched at her sides. “You’re sick. You know that?”

His smile deepened. “I may be,” he said, his tone relaxed as ever, “but you’re the one who’s going to make this decision. Not me.”

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