~ Jai ~
When I learned that my parents had sold me into marriage to pay off my sister's debts, I was in no way surprised. They'd taken everything else from me my entire life. Why not my freedom, too? But Jake D'Amato is unlike anyone I have ever met. He's sweet and kind, and seems to really care about me. When my family decides my sister would make him a better husband, I put my foot down. For once in my life, I was going to fight for what I wanted, and I wanted Jake.
~ Jake ~
I hadn't gotten to where I was in life without learning to fight for what I wanted, and the moment I discover the abuse Jai Thomas is suffering due to his family, I decided I wanted him. Getting him to agree was going to be the hard part. He wanted no part of my money, which was a switch for me, but it also intrigued me enough to consider making our marriage of convenience permanent. I just had to keep his family away from him long enough to convince him to take a chance on a total stranger. Easier said than done when his sister decides she wants to replace Jai, not for my affections, but for my bank account.
I groaned when my phone rang and I saw the caller ID. I knew there was no point in ignoring it, no matter how much I might want to. I doubted I could stand another visit from my father so soon after the last one.
My bruises were still healing from the "reminder to respect my mother" beating he had given me two days ago.
Resigned, I picked up my cell phone and answered. "Hello, Mom."
"I was just getting ready to jump in the shower. Was there something you wanted?"
If she asked for more money this month, she was out of luck. I'd spent the last of it buying a loaf of bread and I wouldn't get paid for another week. I was really starting to loathe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"I wanted to talk to you about your sister."
"Of course you do."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You never call to ask how I am doing, what I've been up to, or anything. It's only about my sister. It's always about my sister."
I was really starting to get fed up with being a second-class citizen in my own family. I was also starting not to care that my father would come over and beat the shit out of me for it. He seemed to come visit even when he was bored, so what did it matter?
"Really, Jai, is that any sort of attitude to have with me after everything your father and I have done for you?"
A burst of shocked laughter shot out of my mouth. "What have you ever done for me?"
Good god, where was all of this anger coming from? Granted, this was how I really felt, but I had never had the guts to say anything about it before. Now, I couldn't seem to keep my mouth shut.
"I raised you!"
"No! I raised me. You and Dad were always off spending time with your precious little angel. You never had time for me. I had to make my own meals since I was six years old. I've had to pay for them since I was fifteen. How is that raising me?"
"Don't you feel a shred of gratitude towards us? Without us, you wouldn't even have a life. Showing a little gratitude and helping your sister is the least you could do."
"Jasmine has always been your golden child. Not me. If you need money, why don't you go ask her?" I had no doubt whatsoever that that was why she was calling me. "I don't have the money to pay off Jasmine's debts."
"Oh, don't worry about that. We've been made a great offer that makes it unnecessary for you to pay off your sister's debts."
A cold chill ran down my back. I gripped the phone even tighter. "What?"
"There's a very wealthy man that has approached your father and I about marrying one of our children."
"Great." What did that have to do with me? "Sounds like you have it all figured out then."
"Oh, yes, we are quite excited. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Jasmine. So, you need to get ready to be married. All of the plans have already been made. You'll need to meet with the lawyers at the end of the week to sign some papers."
I couldn't have heard that right.
"This man says he wants to marry you, Jai."
"Me?" I swallowed tightly. "This has got to be a joke. You're joking, right?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Jai. I wouldn't joke about something as serious as this." My mother let out a little laugh. "I was a bit surprised at first myself. I mean, why would he want to marry you when he can marry my beautiful Jasmine? But then I heard his name and it all made sense."
"What's his name?"
I racked my brain trying to figure out where I had heard that name before. It sounded vaguely familiar.
"Where have I heard that name before?"
"Harry and his mother used to live in that trailer park on the edge of town. He was a few years older than you, so you didn't go to school at the same time, but his mother worked as a clerk in the grocery store just down the street from our house."
My brow furrowed as I finally placed the name. "Didn't they move out of town about the time I turned fifteen?"
"Yes, Harry's mother passed away, and god knows where he went. Probably to prison. Harry always was a troublemaker. I heard that's why they had to move. I guess Harry got caught stealing or something. It was quite the scandal at the time. His mother must have gone to her grave in shame."
"And this is the man you want me to marry?"
"Of course, Jai. He's rich. Apparently, he invented some stupid gadget that they use on computers and made a lot of money. He owns a little manufacturing company now. He's not a millionaire or anything, but he does seem to make a decent salary."
"What does that have to do with me?"
"He sent his lawyer over with an offer of marriage. He even offered a pre-nup that includes a dowry of one hundred thousand dollars, which is just enough to pay off your sister's debts and give us a little more to help Jasmine realize her dream of being a super model."
"You want to force me to marry a man I don't know in order to pay off my sister's debts and pay for Jasmine to go to Paris again?"
"Well, it is your duty, Jai. Just think of how much this would mean to Jasmine. You should be thankful to be given an opportunity like this to help your sister."
This woman was unbelievable.
"No." It was that simple. My life might suck, but it was still my life. I wasn't going to give it up for my sister. "I'm not doing it."
"What?" my mother screeched. "This is an offer we can't refuse, Jai. It's the only way to save your sister. The dowry will completely pay off her debts."
"Until she does something stupid like that again, and then what? You're going to have me marry someone else? That's called bigamy, Mom, and that's against the law."
"Oh, Jai, you are such an idiot."
What was that suppose to mean?
"This man might not be a millionaire, but he is still rich. Once you marry him, we'll be family and he can't refuse to help family when they are in need."
Oh god, I could see where this was going.
"No." I started shaking my head even though my mother couldn't see it. "I don't know this guy, but I can't do that to him."
My family planned to bleed him dry.
"Oh, really, Jai. Must you be so naive? It's not like you're going to get a better offer than this. You're not even dating anyone. Just marry this man and pay off your sister's debts so she can become a model and then find a rich handsome man to marry. She'll be so happy."
"What about my happiness, Mom?" I whispered, knowing she really didn't care. "Don't I get to be happy?"
"Don't you want to see your sister happy?" Mom asked instead of answering my question.
I could have cared less if Jasmine was happy.
"You really have no reason to refuse, Jai. If he turns out to be a bad husband, you can just divorce him, after taking a large alimony payment, of course. We'll still get the dowry because of the pre-nup so it doesn't really matter one way or another."
"God, you people are sick. Is that all you see? Dollar signs?"
"This man wants to marry you, Jai, and he's offering to help your family out in the process. Sounds like a win-win to me."
Except where I was forced to marry a man I didn't know.
"Anyway, it's too late to refuse now. Your father already accepted on your behalf and signed the papers the lawyer gave us. You can't renege now."
"What?" I snapped. "How could you do that to me?"
"The offer was too good to pass up, Jai. The quicker your sister pays off her debts, the quicker she can become a model and find a rich husband. That's what you want, isn't it?"
Kind of, yeah. If she married some rich guy, maybe she would stop trying to bleed me dry? On the other hand, I wouldn't wish my sister on anyone.
"We did consider letting your sister marry Harry, but she cried and cried, refusing to even consider the idea. I can't say that I blame her. It just wouldn't look good for her image or modeling career if she married a criminal, so you have to marry him."
"You don't know that he's a criminal, Mom."
"I don't know that he's not either. He was from the trailer park after all, and nothing came out of there but druggies and whores. God knows what he turned into."
"I doubt a druggie became the owner of his own business, Mom."
I wasn't even going to address the whore comment.
"It doesn't matter, Jai. Once you marry him and he pays off your sister's debts, she will be free and clear. And I'm sure your new husband can introduce her to one of his rich friends, preferably one not raised in a trailer park."
"Wow." I sat back in my chair, shocked to the very core. "You are amazing."
My mother laughed. "I know, right?"
Doubted we meant it in the same manner.
"You and Dad have treated me like crap my entire life. You have treated me like a burden and a slave, and if I dared to step one foot out of line, Dad started in on me. At the same time, you treated my sister like she could do no wrong, like she was an angel sent down from heaven."
"She is an angel from heaven," my mother insisted.
"No, she's not. She's a spoiled, lazy bitch that wouldn't know what a hard day's work was if it hit her in the ass. She spends my hard-earned money like it was falling from trees, gets indebted for thousands and thousands of dollars trying to chase a dream she is never going to achieve, and you want me to fix it all by marrying some guy I have never even met?"
"Yes," my mother said simply. "Do I need to send your father over to help you decide? This is for your family, Jai. Do the right thing."
I knew I should have been shocked that my mother was threatening me with a beating by my father, but I just wasn't.
"Fine, I'll marry him, but then I want you, Dad, and Jasmine out of my life for good. I don't want you calling me, coming by to see me, or even texting me. I want nothing to do with any of you. If you can promise me that, then I'll marry him."
It would be worth marrying a stranger to have them out of my life for good.
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