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The Marriage Agenda

By:Sarah Ballance

Chapter One

Chloe Lochlan swallowed in an attempt to chase away the nervousness  bundled in her throat. It was useless. Somewhere in the crowd, a man  waited for her. Not just any man, but the man-at least as long as Chloe  was inclined to believe her best friend's forward opinions on the  well-worn topic of Chloe's love life, or lack thereof.

Of course, if she'd learned to dodge Lila Powell's bright ideas, Chloe  would be on her sofa with a spoon and a pint of Ben & Jerry's.  Instead, she stood with her feet uncomfortably crammed into heels no  sane woman should wear, four inches taller and uselessly scanning the  clientele at Off the Record, an upscale hotel bar that doubled as  Washington, DC's premier place to see and be seen.

Blind date. If only she could have said no, she would have avoided the  whole awkward situation, but Lila knew Chloe too well. A blind date gave  Chloe absolutely nothing to reject-it was impossible to find flaw with  someone she'd yet to meet. But truthfully, her serial incompatibility  with just about every man she'd ever encountered had less to do with  failings of the opposite sex than with her admittedly one-track drive to  be a kick-ass investigative reporter. Chloe had always harbored an  ambitious streak, but a year ago, a devastating breakup narrowed her  focus to a laser-like precision. Her job wouldn't break her heart.

But Lila wouldn't hear of excuses. A night with a carton of ice cream  was no comparison to a man, as far as she was concerned, but Chloe had  stocked her freezer anyway. She'd endure the date, all the while  thinking of the threesome with Ben and Jerry waiting for her at home. A  couple of hours wouldn't kill her, right?

Maybe not, but she was beginning to think they might come close. As she  stood alone in the bar, second thoughts closed in. No one had approached  claiming to be her date. Had he taken one look at her and left?  Patience-and nerve-waning, Chloe scoured the room, hoping for a sign she  should leave. And she found one. A big one.

Watching her intently from a corner table was her ex-everything. And in  spite of a strict never-again policy for all things Knox Hamilton, her  body melted in traitorous anticipation. His trademark bedroom-tousled  hair, the same luscious brown hue as those smoldering eyes, did little  to kill the energy coursing through her at the speed of orgasm. Her  knees weakened, further threatening her unsteady perch on the stilts a  salesclerk had tried to pass off as a wardrobe staple.

Chloe stared at Knox, an uneasy feeling crawling through her chest.

All her synapses fired "flee," but her GPS was off. Her attempt at  escape landed her at the corner of his table, where she nearly collided  with a waiter setting something in front of Knox that was suspiciously  akin to Chloe's favorite drink, a strawberry daiquiri. Though the drink  beverage seemed to confirm her suspicions, she eyed the glass with a  touch of misplaced jealousy. It wouldn't surprise her if he had a date.  Well-known and filthy rich, up-and-coming politico Knox Hamilton had  everything, including his pick of eligible women.

"Chloe." He drawled her name, adding a seductive syllable or two. "You look amazing."

Her mouth watered at the sound of his voice. "Hi." Her voice squeaked with a less-than-dexterous reply.

He grinned. "It's been too long. Have a seat."

She eyed the daiquiri. "Actually, I have a date. As do you, it seems."

His gaze met hers over the deep amber mouth of his beer bottle. "I  ordered that drink for you." The words simmered with the husky promise  of the bedroom, slipping from his lips with an odd amount of reckless,  deliberate ease.

Entranced, she caught herself staring at his mouth.

He leaned back in his chair, giving her a good, long look at the way his  torso shaped his neatly buttoned and pressed shirt. "Will you join me?"

He had no right to look so good. She swallowed, getting a full taste of memories she'd sooner forget. "My date-"

"-is one unlucky bastard tonight. That is, of course, if you'll sit."

If she was smart, she'd give Knox a view of her amazing legs and  phenomenal ass as she teetered out of the bar on those damned stripper  heels. But curiosity would make a dead cat out of her yet. She pushed  back the logic screaming at her not to risk involvement-a year ago, he'd  made it clear the two of them had no future, and she had no interest in  being a serial plaything to a confirmed bachelor-and assessed the  offered chair. It appeared benign enough, and a reprieve from those  shoes would be heaven. Sitting across the table from him didn't have to  mean anything, and a free daiquiri made for good incentive as far as she  was concerned.         

     



 

With his eyes hotly following her every move, she eased into the chair  and waited for the dull ache of his rejection to return. But joining  Knox at a table made for two didn't fill her with quite the degree of  heartbreak she'd expected. Of course, their split hadn't been due to  anything unholy-he hadn't philandered, pillaged, or otherwise found  himself aligned with the wrong end of a horse. To the contrary, he'd  been a perfect everything, right until the moment he'd left her. Things  had gotten too serious between them, he'd said, and he wasn't interested  in being tied down.

Chloe hadn't exactly been aisle-bound herself, but the dismissal had  come as a blow nonetheless. When he'd spoken those words, she had  managed to stay on her feet until the door to her apartment had closed  behind him. Only afterward had she fallen apart. Once her eyes were no  longer swollen to slivers, she'd put all of her efforts into finding a  reason to hate him-wife, girlfriend, a dog he didn't walk-but to no  avail. Knox Hamilton was a great guy … he just didn't want her.

The best relationship of her life-one with the only man she'd ever loved-had been merely a means for him to scratch an itch.

Chloe admitted to no one she'd yet to get over Knox. Still, her refusal  to dip a stiletto in the dating pool ever since was evidence enough for  Lila, who had heard the whole sordid tale over an all-night binge of  hiccup-laden sobs. As far as finest moments went, that evening didn't  make the list. Chloe had given up trying to figure out what had gone  wrong. A year later, the most painful piece of the whole puzzle was the  failure of her judgment. A reporter with horrible instincts … no wonder  she'd thrown herself into her work, trying to prove otherwise.

Acutely aware of Knox's gaze on her, Chloe toyed with the straw poking from her drink.

"Your date. Is it serious?" He sounded outwardly detached, but Chloe  sensed a little more under the surface-almost as if he wanted to play it  casual but couldn't quite keep his voice there.

She probably was reading too much into it-wanting it too hard. Playing  his game, she said, "I don't know yet." She hoped the edge she'd managed  in her voice would morph itself into a wall-one that would protect her  from where this would likely go. "These days I'm more interested in  furthering my career."

He smiled, a bit too secretively for Chloe's taste and scoured his jaw with his palm. "Seems we have that in common, then."

Of course they did. Chloe squirmed. Her admission, however vague, hadn't  bothered her-she was rather proud of being a woman who didn't wither  without a man in her bed-but something told her his eyes saw too much.  They searched her, appraising. Beneath fabric suddenly far too thin, her  nipples peaked as if magnetically drawn to him. And why shouldn't they  be? The things that man could do with his tongue were lethal. If Chloe  wasn't so determined to hold on to a shred of her self-respect, she'd  probably reach for him, too.

She settled for her daiquiri, and what was supposed to be a ladylike sip  morphed into a gulp of liquid courage. The resultant brain freeze made  her skull throb but did nothing to settle her libido.

Neither did Knox's lopsided grin. "How long have you known this date you don't want?"

"It's a blind date. We've … never met." It would have been a humiliating  admission if she hadn't been so proud of her ambition and in no hurry to  resurrect her disaster of a love life. Knox could think what he wanted.

"How will you know who he is?"

She twirled her straw. "He's supposed to approach me. My friend Lila texted him a photo. She wanted to surprise me."

"And if he sees you with me, do you suppose he'll give up and leave?"

She laughed. "Is that your ego talking?"

"Maybe it's just the way I'm looking at you."

She took another sip of her drink, measuring her words. "How do you know how you're looking at me?"

He leaned close. "I want you, Chloe."

She froze, her hand clamped on the daiquiri glass. "For what?"

He laughed, stirring the air between them. Somehow, the entire bar and  everyone in it seemed to disappear, leaving just her, Knox, and a really  bad idea. One on which he elaborated. "I want to apologize. Explain.  Grovel for forgiveness. Come upstairs? We'll talk about it in private."

"Forget it, Knox. You can grovel right here." In public. Where it's  safe. He'd left her so she wouldn't distract him from his political  aspirations, and there he was, trying to get personal. Playing her …  But  to what end? Was this some kind of joke? She glanced around. Oddly  enough, despite the fact that he and his family ranked right up there  with the Kennedys, he wasn't drawing attention. At least not outwardly,  though the more closely she looked, the more she noticed a growing  number of sideways glances from other patrons. Fortunately the Off the  Record clientele wasn't easily impressed. Politicians were a dime a  dozen inside the beltway, and rubbernecking wasn't generally a sport of  the elite. It was more of a pastime for the uncouth, a grand specimen of  which seemed headed in their direction.         

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