Finally Yours: Chapter One
There was no way.
Absolutely no way.
It didn’t matter how many times I stared at the number, it didn’t get any smaller.
As if that would matter.
Even if it got smaller, I’d still be screwed.
I clicked on my phone one more time in case there’d been some sort of miracle, and scrolled through the email that had come through from the college admissions office one more time.
Yup. Still screwed.
For one semester.
Well, maybe it wasn’t quite eleven thousand. I was rounding up. But only by a few dollars. Not enough to make any real difference. Either way, the number still made me sick to my stomach. How could they get away with charging so much for college classes? Was it even legal? Did it even matter?
It didn’t, because I needed those classes to finish the college degree I should have finished years ago. The real question was, where the hell was I going to come up with that kind of money to pay my tuition?
So much for bettering myself.
So much for trying to start a whole new life after my husband of over fifteen years proved to not only be a philandering asshole, but also a cheat and a fraudster, too.
I really needed to stop being so shocked by it every time I thought of it. It was pathetic and I may be a lot of things, but pathetic was not and would never be one of them.
All the signs that Daniel was a dishonest swindler siphoning millions of dollars from his client’s investments had been there for most of our marriage. I’d simply chosen to ignore them. Just as I’d chosen to ignore his string of girlfriends for the last ten years or so. It was easier not to rock the boat. Fortunately, it didn’t make me complicit in the crime. Just an idiot.
An idiot who, at forty-one, was trying—and clearly failing—to start over her life.
How could anyone start their life over when the only job you could get without a college degree in the upscale town of Aspen Valley was minimum wage, which barely paid for rent and food? Never mind trying to afford anything extra, like the education I should have pursued instead of marrying Daniel and falling into a life of luxury that turned out to be based on nothing more than lies.
I wasn’t usually such a negative person, but it was starting to look more and more hopeless. Since I had to declare bankruptcy because of Daniel, there was zero hope of getting a loan. Hell, I was lucky I even got a job. Apparently being married to a douchebag who’d swindled millions and claiming ignorance about it all didn’t make you seem very credible or smart.
Not that getting the job in the pro shop at the Aspen Valley Country Club I used to be a member at was very lucky. Far from it.
Serving the men and women who used to call themselves my friends was—
Speak of the devils.
Bitsy Neville and Janine Lister, two of the women who I’d spent countless hours shopping and lunching with in my former life—my stomach turned just thinking about how I’d become such a shallow version of myself while I was with Daniel—flitted into the pro shop.
Bitsy’s gaze zeroed in on me. She raised one heavily penciled eyebrow and pursed her lips together. “Isn’t there a club policy about employees using their cell phones during working hours?” She made a clicking sound with her tongue and wagged her finger, as if I were a child.
I swallowed hard.
You need this job. You need this job.
“We wouldn’t want management to hear about this, now would we?”
You need this job.
“After all,” Bitsy continued, a sour grin taking shape on her overly made-up face, “club members are the most important thing, aren’t they?”
I could say a lot of things about what was really important, but I didn’t. My mantra still rang through my head. I did need the job. As demeaning as it was. Every penny counted.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Neville.” I tried not to choke on the formal way I addressed her. Club policy. “What can I help you with today? Is there something specific you’re looking for?” My voice dripped with fake sincerity, not that I expected her to notice. And she didn’t.
Instead, she flipped her hair over her shoulder and shrugged. “No. I’m just browsing today.”
“Of course.” I nodded demurely. “You just let me know if—”
“You should probably put that away now.” She nodded to my cell phone, still in my hand. “I would hate to see you reported, after all.”
“Of course.” Dutifully, I tucked my phone away under Bitsy’s watchful stare.
Satisfied, she spun on her heel and wandered around the shop, picking things up, carrying them around, and then purposely putting them down again where they didn’t belong.
You need this job.
Although I was fairly certain the job had only been given to me to humiliate me and make the other members feel better about themselves. Sadly, most of these people enjoyed treating me like a piece of shit on the bottom of their overpriced designer golf shoes a little too much.
Still. It was the only job I had. It was a paycheck and I’d take it. At least until I could finish up my degree and get a real job.
If I could find the rest of the money I needed for the final semester. I had vastly underestimated how much tuition prices had gone up since the last time I’d taken a class. Not for the first time, I was kicking myself for not just finishing my degree while I had a chance. Marriage could have waited a few more months. In hindsight, it could have waited a lot longer than that. Like, forever. But, hey…there was no turning back time now
At any rate, I almost had all the money I needed. Almost.
I had some from my grandmother’s inheritance when she passed a few years ago that the banks couldn’t touch when they came collecting. The classes were paid for. Mostly. The books for those classes were another thing altogether. Over a thousand dollars for books? It was robbery. Especially considering most of those books were delivered digitally. How was I supposed to study from my phone? I realized I was showing my age, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to pull out an old-fashioned highlighter and a packet of sticky notes like the old days. And if I was going to have to sell a vital organ in order to pay for those books was it too much to ask to actually have the books?
And it was looking like I might have to if I didn’t come up with a solution, and soon.
I took a breath, exhaled slowly, and scanned the shop. I tried to ignore the stacks of sweaters that Bitsy had very clearly tousled and the shelves of boutique lotions that were no longer neatly lined up with the labels facing outward. I’d fix that later.
My eyes landed on Janine Lister, who was trying on shoes. No doubt she did need assistance if she was trying to shove those size ten feet of hers into a size eight golf shoe. I rolled my eyes. For as long as I’d known Janine—a long time—she always insisted she wasn’t a size ten.
To hell she wasn’t.
I shook my head, but didn’t bother going over to offer help because even if I offered it, I knew from past experience she wouldn’t take it. Instead, she’d stick up her nose and make some kind of snide comment about my clothes or my car or…well, any other insult she’d probably spent the night before thinking up.
As terrible as Bitsy had been, Janine seemed to have made it her personal mission to try to make me feel as worthless as she possibly could. Just the way she used to spend all of her time sucking up to me. But that was when my husband was one of the club’s most influential members.
Her two faces were just about as overpowering as the scent of her flowery perfume that probably cost more than my paycheck that filled my senses a few minutes later when she wandered up to the till with a box of the size eight shoes in her hand.
Janine never did know when too much was too much.
It made my stomach roil to think that I used to be friends with these women. Not that you could ever really be friends with stuck-up, snobby socialites. For the millionth time in the last few months, I was grateful I’d maintained my friendships with my real friends. Women who’d been by your side since you were thirteen and knew everything about you, and loved you despite it, were worth their weight in gold.
“Did you find everything you were looking for, Mrs. Lister?” Rules were rules. “These are a nice choice,” I continued before she could say anything. “And an eight. I’m so glad we had your size in stock.” I smiled. If she’d been paying any attention at all, she could see how fake it was.
Fortunately for me, unless they were actively insulting me, none of them paid me any attention. Not now. Now I was a nothing. This time last year, she would have been kissing my ass because of who I was married to. It was such bullshit. So fake.
How quickly things changed. And those changes were not necessarily all bad. Not at all.
“I’ll wear them at the charity event next week.”
Janine was talking. I nodded and smiled as if I cared at all. She handed me two hundred-dollar bills to pay for shoes that were one hundred ten and didn’t even bother looking at the change before she stuffed it in her Gucci wallet.
It would have been so easy to short her. She’d never notice a few dollars missing, and maybe I could at least pay for my—
No, Abby! I chastised myself while at the same time putting on a bright smile for her. “I hope they bring you luck.”
Because your game is terrible.
Fortunately, Janine was too dumb, or too oblivious, to notice my jab. I held my fake smile until Bitsy rejoined her and together they left the shop. As soon as they were gone, I sagged against the counter.
Fuck. Double fuck.
I could not start stealing. I was not Daniel. I was absolutely not my husband.
Ex-husband, I quickly corrected myself.
No. I had morals. Daniel didn’t even know what they were. But…fuck morals. I needed the cash. Besides, this was different. Daniel took money from the rich and kept it. I would be taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. Me! That was different. And I was just as much a victim of Daniel’s crimes as everyone else.
Okay. Maybe not.
But still. Was it fair that I was left to piece my life back together when all of Daniel’s victims barely even noticed a few dollars missing from their own bulging bank accounts?
But it was too much of a stretch. I was desperate. But not that desperate. Yet.
I gave myself a nice little pep talk and did my best to put my money troubles out of my mind. At least for a few minutes. I focused on stocking the shelves and changing out displays until my shift was over and I could go home to my tiny apartment.
I was standing on a step stool, doing my best to reach for the bust of a mannequin dummy that needed a fresh shirt display, when I heard his gruff, rough voice.
“You should be careful up there. It’s not safe to stand on a ladder without someone spotting you.”
I spooked and lost my footing a little, causing the ladder beneath me to wobble. To my horror, I shrieked like a little girl but then quickly found my footing a moment later when the ladder stabilized. And that’s when I finally dared to look.
I knew the voice.
I knew it very, very well.
And I knew damn well what was attached to that voice. Which was why I both didn’t want to look and also, more than anything, did.
I squeezed my eyes shut for another second, took a breath in an effort to compose myself, and finally looked down to see Phillip Conrad.
The Phillip Conrad.
Phillip was a ridiculously handsome man, built like a Greek god, with a full head of thick dark hair streaked with silver, and just a bit of stubble—that was new—on his incredibly chiseled jaw. Somehow, while most of the men in Aspen Valley got soft around the middle and had hairlines that moved farther back on their foreheads, Phillip did the exact opposite and just got more handsome. If it were possible.
And apparently it was.
Just like everyone else at the club, we used to be friends. Only Phillip had been more than a friend. A lot more. He’d been…well, we’d dated a long time ago. Before Daniel. I’d really liked him. I mean, really liked him. The kind of like that you might even call…love. At least you might call it that under different circumstances. Very different circumstances.
But that was all ancient history, because then I’d met Daniel. And even though I was dating Phillip at the time, as soon as Daniel came along, it was as though Phillip suddenly lost interest in me. As if I didn’t even exist. One minute, I thought we were getting serious and ready to take our relationship to the next level, and the next minute…it was over. It left my head spinning. Fortunately—or not, in hindsight—I had Daniel to distract me.
But that didn’t mean I’d stopped thinking about Phillip. Not at all. For a while, I’d tried to talk to him about us. But I had my pride and it didn’t take long to figure out that he wasn’t interested in whatever I thought we’d had. So, I moved on. Mostly. After a while, it was just easier to go out of my way to avoid him. It sure as hell hurt less if I didn’t have to see him. Because no matter how much time passed, every time he looked at me with those dark eyes, it did something to my insides.
And now, here he was. Standing directly beneath me, one hand on each arm of the ladder, his face pointed up—giving him a fantastic view up my short khaki uniform skirt at my—oh shit. I was in desperate need of doing laundry, but the shoebox I was renting didn’t have machines and I hadn’t had time to go to the laundromat and—I’d gone commando.
The blush in my cheeks came hard and fast. I grabbed the mannequin with one hand for balance and quickly made my way to the safety of the solid floor. “Thanks.”
He grunted in acceptance but didn’t move away, leaving me boxed in between the ladder and his hard chest. He was taller than me, at least six two, with a wide, broad chest, and thick, muscular arms that—despite the fact that he probably thought I was a nothing just like everyone else—sent a thrill through me, right between my legs. Something about a big, strong man never failed to turn me on.
No. Correct that. Something about Phillip never failed to turn me on. Not that I’d admit it. Especially not now. And especially not with his dark eyes and the way they were staring at me that would have definitely made my panties wet—had I been wearing them.
“You shouldn’t be putting yourself in danger like that.”
He looked at me with a disapproving smirk on his face.
“But you might not have been.”
“Right.” I tried to slip away, but his arm didn’t move. “Excuse me.”
My body trembled, and I hoped like hell it didn’t show.
I had no right to let myself feel anything around this man. Although it had been him, not me, who’d lost interest in our relationship. I thought we were going to…it didn’t matter. Once Daniel came home from Europe, and I met him for the first time, everything changed. He’d pursued me intensely and Phillip…he’d just backed off, as if I hadn’t meant anything.
And maybe I hadn’t.
But maybe if he’d called again, asked me out one more time…maybe I wouldn’t have married Daniel.
Yes. I knew that was true.
I’d liked Phillip a lot more than Daniel. I’d been completely turned inside out with him. I would have done anything for him, and our attraction to each other was off the charts. So I’d thought. But it had never gotten physical. He said he wanted to wait, and I’d agreed because I didn’t want to mess it up by sleeping with him too soon. But then again, maybe that’s why he was able to walk away so easily? I still wondered about that. Like Phillip was the one that…what? Not got away. But the one that filled my thoughts. That I thought about. And fantasized about. All. The. Time.
“I mean it, Abigail. You could have been hurt.”
I paused and looked at him suspiciously, just the way I looked at anyone in this place who said more than two words to me. Let alone anyone who showed any concern at all about me.
“Of course, Phill—I mean, Mr. Conrad.” I caught myself and the stupid rule of employees not calling the members by their first names. Talk about degrading.
For a minute I thought he might correct me and ask me to call him by his given name. Instead, he nodded and said, “Mr. Conrad? Hmm…”
I couldn’t even begin to explain why such a simple comment turned me on the way it did.
I needed to stop thinking of him like that. After all, not only was he a member, he was Phillip Conrad. Perhaps one of the most important, and wealthiest, members of the club. And there was too much history between us for it ever to be anything else. And that’s exactly how I should be thinking of him. In fact, it was the only way I should be thinking of him.
“Yes, Mr. Conrad.” I nodded as demurely as I could. “You’re absolutely right. Next time I’ll have someone hold the ladder.”
He eyed me for a moment. If it had been any other time, I would have been absolutely sure there was desire in his eyes. Just when I was starting to think I should go back to work, he took off his suit jacket and handed it to me. “I forgot to return this to the restaurant,” he said. “It’s a ridiculous dress code. You’d think since I spend thousands of dollars here every bloody day that they’d let it slide.”
“Rules are rules,” I said, just the way I was supposed to, even though I agreed with him. Phillip Conrad was known to routinely tip extravagant amounts in the bar and restaurant. If only I could get transferred there and away from the stupid pro shop, a lot of my troubles would be over. At least financially. I’d have a whole host of new problems actually serving my former friends. Still.
I took the jacket from him and laid it over my arm. “I’ll return it right away, Mr. Conrad.”
For a moment, I thought he might say something else. His lips turned up in a very slight, very sexy grin. “It was good to see you, Abigail.” And then he nodded before he turned to leave.
I watched him walk away. No, I watched his firm ass as he walked away. Damn.
As soon as he left the shop, I let out a breath I didn’t even know I’d been holding and returned to the till to find something to occupy my time until I could close up. The sooner I could put Phillip and his ass out of my mind, the better I’d be. I needed to focus, and not on the one who got away.
I’d return the coat on my way out. The restaurant had a ton of loaner coats for guests who forgot the dress code or, like Phillip, just refused to comply. They wouldn’t miss this one for another hour or so. I tossed the coat up on the counter and something fell out of the pocket.
Phillip’s money clip.
He must have forgotten it. I picked up the thick stack of bills. And holy shit was it thick. There must have been thousands of dollars there. I flicked through it quickly, mentally adding up the numbers.
“Oh my God.”
I counted again. Slower this time.
Twenty thousand dollars. And he’d just forgotten it, as if it were nothing.
What was clearly pocket change to that man could have paid for two whole semesters of my college education.
Or maybe only a few bills could pay for my books?
The idea was intoxicating.
And so very, very wrong.
It’s not as if Phillip would miss it, and it would be a life changer for me. I’d be able to breathe again. I wouldn’t have to drop out of school. Really, it would be an act of charity.
Only the donor would never know.
Not that it mattered.
I fingered the bills again, and before I could chicken out, peeled off a few of them and stuffed them into the only place I could think of—my bra.
Holy shit! What had I just done?
No way had I just done that.
If anyone found out, it could cost me my job. Hell, I could go to jail. It could cost me everything. Just like it had Daniel. But…it was just so easy.
And nobody would get hurt. Phillip was richer than God. And he… He wouldn’t—
A hand clamped around my arm like a vise and a familiar rough voice rumbled through me. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
* * *
I’d gotten all the way to the car before I realized I’d left my billfold in the pocket of that stupid jacket. Shit, Abigail Blakely—I mentally used her maiden name—she had me completely distracted. Just the way she always had. And that was before I’d had a look up that sexy little skirt the club made her wear.
Did she even know she wasn’t wearing panties?
Of course she knew.
I’d seen the flush on her cheeks.
I blew out a breath, slammed the door of my car, and turned back to retrieve my money clip, and I sure was glad I did. Because not only did going back give me another chance to see Abigail—and I’d take as many chances as I could get—but as it turned out, I was treated to a whole different kind of show.
Abigail didn’t see me watching as the money clip fell out onto the floor. She didn’t notice me when she picked it up and started flipping through the bills. She wasn’t paying any attention when her eyes grew wide and then even wider as she realized exactly what she was holding.
Twenty thousand, five hundred and twenty-two dollars.
You didn’t get to my position in life without knowing exactly how much money you had at any given time.
It wasn’t any secret that Abigail Blakely was broke. Worse. She was broke and humiliated. Maybe it should have surprised me to find out that Daniel had been arrested for embezzlement and fraud. But it didn’t. He always had been the snaky sort. Point in case, he’d gone after and taken Abigail right out from under me all those years ago. Just the way he’d always taken everything else he’d ever wanted. As if Abigail could ever be taken. No. She was so much stronger than that. It was only one of the reasons I was surprised she hadn’t seen right through what a douche Daniel was back then, or any of the years in between. I almost stepped in when she agreed to marry him. Almost. But what would I have said? Don’t do it? You deserve better?
Yes. I could have said any of those things. But like a fool, or a chicken shit, I’d kept my mouth shut. Maybe it had taken years, but at least she’d finally seen the truth about Daniel now.
Not that she had any other choice when the authorities burst into their home, dragged her husband out, and confiscated pretty much everything they owned. It would be pretty hard to miss the truth then.
Still, watching Abigail look at my money clip the way she was, as if it were food and she were starving, tugged at something deep down in my core. Or was it a different kind of hunger she stared at that money with? Her breath came faster and harder, her polo straining and pulling against her breasts with every breath.
It was probably just my imagination. Lord knew that when it came to Abigail, my imagination knew no limits.
I could have watched her all day. Although, as it was, my dick throbbed painfully, needing release. Abigail always did have that effect on me. It was why I’d tried to stay away over the years. Distance was the only way I could manage not being with her.
It was why I needed to get away then and why I needed to get away now.
Just as soon as I got my money clip back.
I was about to set foot into the pro shop and do just that when, out of nowhere, right there out in the open, in front of what probably were security cameras tucked in the corner, and directly in my own line of sight, Abigail peeled off at least five bills and shoved them in her bra like it was nothing.
I knew she needed the money. How could she not?
But to take it? That wasn’t the Abigail I knew. She must be more desperate than I thought. The thought of it caused me physical pain.
I couldn’t be sure how much she’d taken, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t need it.
But she did.
And just like that, I had a choice.
I didn’t have to say anything. In fact, it would have been a whole fuck of a lot easier for me to turn the other way and pretend I hadn’t seen a damn thing. And really, what did I care if Abigail took a few dollars? I certainly wouldn’t miss it. Sometimes I felt I owed it to her in a weird, twisted way for introducing her to Daniel. Besides, if she got caught, it was her ass on the line, not mine.
Damn. Her ass was like a ripe peach in that snug, short skirt. It was that ass that had caught my eye over fifteen years ago, too. And like a magnet, it was once again her ass that had attracted me into the pro shop in the first place. I’d just happened to glance in the shop on my way out, and caught a glimpse of those curves I would know anywhere. Abigail. Normally, I would have dumped the loaner jacket with the doorman, but it gave me a good excuse to get a close-up look at her, her still luscious breasts, and—who was I kidding—to talk to her. Because that’s what I really wanted to do.
Sure, it was her ass that caught my eye. But it was every other single thing about her that held it.
So with the opportunity to talk to her right in front of me, I’d be a fool to pass it up. And I was a lot of things, but a fool was most certainly not one of them.
Which was exactly why, instead of turning around and walking right back outside, or even pretending I didn’t see anything when I went to reclaim my money clip, I walked right in there and grabbed her arm. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Sure, it would have been easier for me to look the other way, but I’m a smart man, and smart men do not pass on these types of situations. Even if I still had no idea what I was going to do with it.
Besides, it was Abigail. She’d always been feisty, with a strong-willed streak that was sexy as hell, while at the same time also infuriating. Especially once she was no longer mine and the opportunity to tame her wild side was no longer mine. No. Not tame. Abigail could never be tamed. And thank God for that. I liked her a little wild.
I took a deep breath—forced myself to take a deep breath in order to maintain some semblance of calm and control—and willed my cock to settle down. But the second I looked into her big brown eyes, widened in fright and…defiance, it hardened up again.
I was already in over my head. Abigail had an effect on me that clearly hadn’t lessened over time. Quite the opposite.
“Phillip…I mean, Mr. Conrad.” Her voice shook but to her credit, she didn’t cry. Abigail would never cry. Not for something like this.
A pride I had absolutely no right to swelled inside me.
She clamped her teeth together and swallowed hard. “I didn’t do—”
“Abigail,” I said slowly. “I saw you.” But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to see more. Because I did. More than I should. “And you’re not going to get away with it.”
“No.” She squirmed in my grasp, but I held her arm tight. Her eyes flared, and I saw the moment she locked in. Any smidge of fear she had gave way to something else. “You didn’t see anything. Because there was nothing to see.”
So that was how she was going to play it.
“I may be a few years older, but I’m not blind, Abigail. I saw—”
“Nothing.” With a yank, she pulled her arm away and turned her back on me. “You didn’t see anything.”
Desire flared, hard and fast, inside me. I couldn’t tolerate the lie—or the theft—but I had to admire her dedication to it. If it were any other situation, I might have let myself smile. As it was, I had to swallow hard to keep myself focused.
“I should report you.” I had no idea why I said that. I would never report her. Hell, I didn’t even like the management of this pretentious club. The very last thing I’d do was run off and tell them about Abigail’s slip. Especially considering, no doubt, they’d enjoy it way too much. I hated how everyone at the club treated her just because she had the poor sense to marry an asshole.
But I was stuck. I had to do something. I’d called her out. And I never backed down. All feelings aside, I did have a reputation to protect.
Just as surprised as I was by my declaration, Abigail turned around, shock and maybe even a bit of humor on her face. “You’re going to report me?”
I crossed my arms over my chest in response.
“I need this job, Phillip.”
It wasn’t lost on me that she’d dropped the formalities.
“You should have thought of that before you took what wasn’t yours.”
Fuck. I hated myself right now. I sounded like a grade-A douche bag. Maybe even worse than the asshole she’d married. But I couldn’t make myself stop. Something inside me, deep down, wanted to hear her ask for my help. After all these years, I wanted her to need me. And it fucking killed me.
Her breasts strained against her polo again as her breath picked up, and I knew she was starting to panic. Or at least finally starting to worry. Her skin flushed, and I followed the trail of pink down to the V of her shirt where it was unbuttoned just a little too low, the creamy swell of her breast exposed to me. Abigail knew damn well that was against dress code. As was the skirt that was a little too short, riding up those long, lean legs and the complete and total lack of panties.
Again, my cock strained in my pants as my eyes took in all of her. No doubt she knew exactly what I was thinking, too. Well, maybe not. She was probably not thinking about how badly I wanted to pull her up against me so those full, ripe breasts were pressed up against my chest while I wrapped one hand around the back of her head and held her lips to mine as I kissed her the way I should have kissed her all those years ago instead of letting her walk away.
Abigail was probably not thinking that.
She was much more likely thinking that if management knew about the money she’d taken from me and the break in dress code, they’d have no choice but to fire her. Even if the decision to hire her had been more about punishing the wife of the man who’d swindled from so many members.
God, I hated this club.
“So?” Abigail challenged after a few moments of charged silence passed between us. “What are you going to do?”
She was doing her best to act brave, but I could see through it. She was scared shitless. Rumor had it she’d gone back to school to finish her degree after all this time. It made me proud. Again, a pride I had no right to feel. Still. I never agreed with her dropping out of school. If she’d been mine—it didn’t matter.
What mattered was she was doing it. Where she had found the money for that, I had no idea. College courses had only gotten more expensive over the years, and she’d had a hard time making tuition when we were young. Money would be a problem, definitely. That wasn’t a secret. Nor was it a secret that she needed more of it. And she needed this job. Maybe that made me every bit the douche bag I was acting like at the moment, but I couldn’t help it.
I opened my mouth to say—what? I wasn’t completely sure—when her tongue darted out and licked her bottom lip.
She was turned on. At least I thought she was. Maybe it was just the fear of the situation, and what I might do about it. But…maybe it was more. Was it me? Did she still have…it didn’t matter. My fingers yearned to slide up those smooth, bare legs to dip under that tiny skirt and see if I still had the same effect on her. I didn’t need to wonder; I knew. Because I knew this woman. I knew her fifteen years ago in so many ways. Even if it wasn’t all of the ways I would have liked. Or for as long as I would have liked. Still, I knew her.
The flash in her eyes and the flare in her nostrils confirmed it.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said before I could stop myself. She crossed her arms over her now heaving bosom, which had the delicious effect of pushing her breasts up and together. No doubt, she knew exactly what she was doing. “I won’t say a word about what I saw and you can keep your job.”
She wasn’t stupid. I liked that about her. There was always an if.
“If you agree to my conditions.”
My mind worked overtime to build those conditions in my head before I said them out loud. But I didn’t need to think long. I knew what I wanted. What I’ve always wanted.
Her stubbornness was intoxicating.
“You’re mine for the weekend.”
Abigail took a step back, her mouth opening in an O as shock registered all over her face. I was certain that even from where I stood, I could smell her desire on the air between us.
Was it my imagination, or did her voice tremble a little bit?
“There’s an event at the club this weekend, and I need a date.”
“Are you going to repeat everything I say?”
Her lips pressed into a thin line, but she didn’t say no, so I doubled down.
“I need a date, and it will be you. Plus dinner the night before, and breakfast Sunday morning.”
Her eyes widened.
Abigail opened her mouth to object to my little indecent proposal, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had. Hell, I even surprised myself with my boldness. Still, I did not want her to say no, so I delivered my final blow. I knew I was being an ass, but I couldn’t stop myself. She always had such an effect on me. “Or I’ll report you to management.”
Her lips pressed shut again and she squeezed her eyes together, but just for a moment before looking at me again. Her eyes grew dark with what was no doubt a combination of anger and desire. Maybe more anger in this case.
“I’m not a prostitute.” Her words were clipped. “I am not for sale.”
I was not trying to imply such a thing. Not at all. But the second I paused long enough to think it through, I could see—dammit.
I swallowed hard, but kept my composure. She couldn’t say no. I needed her to say yes.
“Of course you’re not,” I said slowly. “And I’m not suggesting anything…” I waved my hand between us lamely. “Just think of it as old friends helping each other out.”
Her eyes narrowed, but still, she didn’t say no.
“Old friends don’t bribe each other.”
“Old friends don’t steal from each other.”
Our eyes locked.
“Think about it,” I said after a moment. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. I’ll expect an answer. Spend the weekend with me, or I report the theft to management.”
“I didn’t admit to taking anything.”
I grinned. “You didn’t have to. I know you took it, Abigail.”
“It’s Abby.” She bit her bottom lip and sighed, the first sign of her letting her guard down even a little bit. “What am I supposed to do? Daniel took…well, I don’t have to tell you.”
Something inside me softened at the show of her vulnerability, but I shook my head. I couldn’t lose sight of what I was trying to do. Even if I didn’t fully understand it myself yet.
“Tomorrow.” I looked her in the eyes so I knew she understood, turned, and walked out.
“He said, what?” Jessie, one of my very best friends, leaned forward on her elbows across the table. Her mouth fell open as I recounted the story of what I’d done, and what Phillip had suggested, to my girlfriends. We were at Rosie’s Diner, the little diner on the edge of town that Jessie had bought from the original owner—Rosie—ten years ago when she became a single mom. We tried our best to meet up once a week to catch up on our lives, offer moral support, and more often than not these days, reminisce about the old days, when we were in our twenties. Young. Fun. With no responsibilities.
Damn. At just over forty, we were still way too young to feel so damn old. Life wasn’t over just because we were a few decades older, right? I mean, fun was still possible after a certain age, wasn’t it? I’d known these girls since we were thirteen and all ended up in the same homeroom in grade seven. We’d been just as different from each other then as we were now, but we had the common bond of not knowing anyone else and needing allies in a brand-new middle school.
Over the years, we’d seen it all together. First loves, broken hearts, drunken nights in a field, driver’s licenses, first jobs, high school graduation, fake IDs, college acceptances, or not, more boyfriends, more broken hearts, marriages, divorces, and everything else in between.
And through all of those important milestones, we’d had fun. Mostly. But I couldn’t help but think that the older we got, the less fun we had. Was that because life just got in the way? Or did getting older somehow become synonymous with boring? Did the hot sex, the hookups, the wild adventures all end sometime after your twenties?
It was a thought I’d been having more and more of lately. It was also one of the reasons—okay, the main reason—that I hadn’t dismissed Phillip’s offer right away. Not that I’d told my girlfriends that particular detail yet.
“I say, do it.” Brittany Donahue, arguably the most successful out of our group, was a CEO of some sort of tech company that none of us really understood. “I mean, why not? Phillip’s hot and you’ve always kind of had a thing for him, right?”
“I don’t know if you’d call it a thing.” I picked up my glass and looked into the clear liquid of the martini I’d made myself earlier. It was strong. Very strong. It had to be if I was going to come to grips with the shitshow my life had become.
Yes, I had a thing for Phillip Conrad. Although, to say simply that I had a thing for Phillip Conrad was a massive understatement. I’d definitely had a thing. A thing that I’d once been positive was love. So much so that I thought that I would marry him instead of his best friend, Daniel. But then he’d let me go. No. He’d practically shoved me toward a relationship with Daniel. Not only did Phillip not fight for me, he walked away from me. And no woman wanted a man who didn’t want her. Right?
“I don’t know,” Sandy Clark said. The mother of two girls, and a widow for the last four years, she was definitely the most conservative of our group of friends. I knew she’d be horrified at Phillip’s proposal. Sandy sipped at her drink—a coffee with Bailey’s—and shook her head. “It sounds kind of—”
“Dirty!” Darla Diamond chimed in.
I knew she’d be on board with Phillip’s plan. Single and happily so, Darla had never settled down. She’d spent the last twenty or so years since high school jumping from job to job, and from man to man. And she liked it that way. Frankly, it was exhausting to watch, but Darla seemed to enjoy it. And more than once I’d been jealous of her sexual exploits. Okay, maybe you could still have fun after forty. At least, Darla could.
Darla put her whiskey glass on the table and stared into my eyes. “Do it. Why not?”
“I can think of a few reasons.”
I actually could only think of one. Well, one that really mattered anyway. Sure, if I went to that party at the club with Phillip, all eyes would be on me. Eyes that used to call themselves my friends. Every single person there would be staring at me, judging me and gossiping about me. But that didn’t really bother me. Not really. After all, those people had never been my real friends, and I didn’t really care what they thought of me. Not anymore.
And then, of course there was the whole I’m not for sale thing. But…I knew Phillip well enough to know he wasn’t that kind of guy. So despite how it sounded, he wasn’t the type of man to mean anything derogatory with his offer.
And that was the whole problem, and the only real reason I could think of not to do it.
It was Phillip.
Britt was right; I did have a thing for him. And I was pretty sure he had one for me. Always had. There were feelings there. And even if I were entertaining that possibility—and I couldn’t possibly—I’d just stolen from him. Which made me…ugh. A terrible person.
And would I really be able to pretend there was nothing between us? That I didn’t have heart palpitations every time I looked at him? Never mind how he made me feel when he touched me. Was I strong enough, or a good enough actress? Even for one night?
I wasn’t sure.
I ignored the intense way Britt stared at me, as if she could see exactly what I was thinking and instead focused on Jessie, who sat across from me with her glass of white wine.
She spun the stem of the glass between her fingers. “But do you really have a choice?” Her voice was soft and full of concern. “You’ll lose your job if you don’t, right?”
I nodded and then added a shrug.
Phillip was a fair man, and I had stolen from him. But I didn’t really think he’d take it so far that I’d lose my job. Not really. I couldn’t shake the idea that there was more to this offer than that. Much more.
“Why would you take the money?” Britt’s voice was sharp from across the table. There was nothing but water in her glass; she saved alcohol for very rare occasions, and then it was a simple vodka and soda. Although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually seen her drink one. “You know I would have given you—”
“No.” I cut her off. “I will not take money from you.” I looked around the table at my friends’ faces. Even though Britt was the only one with means to help me out financially, they had all offered their help when Daniel was arrested. “I could never ask that of any of you.”
Britt shook her head and looked away.
“Well, I say go for it,” Darla said. “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? You have a little fun? Maybe some hot sex? What could be wrong with that?”
I flushed, but didn’t bother denying that the idea of hot sex, especially with Phillip, did sound appealing. Very appealing.
“I never did have sex with Phillip.” The words slipped from my mouth before I could stop them.
“What?” I thought Jessie’s eyes might fall out of her head. “I totally thought…but he…and you…I mean…” She swallowed hard and tried again. “You guys dated for…”
I shrugged. “We just never…we were waiting.”
“Waiting?” Britt all but choked on her water. She stared, open-mouthed, at me. “For what exactly?”
“Do not say marriage,” Britt challenged.
I shrugged. The truth was, I didn’t have an answer. Not a real one anyway.
“Really?” Sandy asked. “That’s so romantic,” she continued. “You were going to wait until marriage? That’s what Greg and I did too. It was so special to wait for the wedding night and—”
“But Abby and Phillip didn’t get married,” Jessie interrupted. “Remember?”
Sandy, jerked out of what had obviously been a memory of her and her deceased husband, blinked hard and nodded. “Right,” she said. “I know. I just…”
“It’s okay.” I put my hand over hers and squeezed gently, once more reminded of our differences. “With Phillip, it was just different. Like we were waiting, but I don’t really know why.” I shrugged and moved to the default explanation I’d settled on all those years ago, and reverted to again now. “I think he just wasn’t that into me, to be honest.”
“Bullshit!” Darla slapped her palm on the tabletop. “You could have been blind and still seen the way he looked at you.”
“That doesn’t make any—”
“I agree,” Britt joined in. “He always did have a way of looking at you as if he was imagining you completely naked.”
“Well, that settles it,” Darla said.
I looked among my friends. “Settles what?”
“This is your chance,” Darla continued. “It’s exactly what you’ve both been waiting for. I don’t know why you two didn’t hook up years ago, but here you are, so go have some crazy hot sex and get it out of your system. Get him out of your system.”
“Her system?” Sandy looked horrified. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“That’s exactly how it works,” Britt said.
I should probably have been more disturbed at the way Darla and Britt were agreeing on this particular subject. The two of them rarely saw eye to eye about men or sex or…well, much of anything.
Sandy shook her head. “But what if it’s about more than getting him out of her system?” she challenged. “Besides, it’s not okay to offer her what he did.”
“You mean a weekend with a super-hot man in lieu of not losing her job?” Jessie tossed back the rest of her wine and reached for the bottle. “I don’t know. I think if someone made me that offer, I might just consider it.”
I laughed, but Sandy was horrified. “You would not!”
“It’s been a hot minute.” Jessie lifted her wine glass. “Or two, or three, or…well, let’s just say it’s been a long time.”
Britt laughed and raised her glass of water to clink with Jessie’s.
“I think all of us could use a little bit more fun, a.k.a. sex in our lives!” All eyes turned to Darla, who shrugged. “I mean, except me, obviously. I already have lots of fun and a whole lot of sex. But you guys? When was the last time you had a one-night stand with a man whose name you didn’t even know, Sandy?”
Sandy turned bright red and ducked her head. They all knew the answer—never. As she’d just admitted, she’d been a virgin when she’d married Greg, and since he passed away four years ago, she hadn’t so much as looked at another man.
“And what about you, Jessie? Can you remember the last time you climaxed so hard you couldn’t even remember your own name?”
“I’ll take that as a no.” She laughed and turned to Britt. “I’m not even going to ask you the last time you had something between your legs that wasn’t battery operated.”
Brittany narrowed her eyes, but she didn’t deny it was true.
“Come on, ladies. We’re in our forties—we’re not dead! Remember when we were young, and we promised that we wouldn’t let each other get old and boring? Well…”
It was true, and exactly what I’d been thinking of for the last few weeks. We’d gotten old long before we should have. I dropped my head and stared into my glass. I’d been so busy being a socialite wife, throwing the right parties, going to all the right events, wearing the right thing, that it had been years since I’d done anything right for me at all. And Darla had a point: we weren’t dead yet. Far from it. Besides…Phillip. Maybe Britt was right and it was time I got him out of my system once and for all.
What was the worst that could happen? Some hot, no-strings sex? I could think of a whole lot of things worse than that.
I picked up my glass and downed the rest of my martini in one gulp. “I’m going to say yes,” I declared. “And hopefully I’ll have a whole lot of fun while I’m at it.”
I knew she would say yes.
Abigail was too stubborn for anything else. It was one of the things I loved about her.
I pushed the word out of my consciousness. The same way I’d been doing for years. Being so close to her, yet with so much distance between us all this time, had been my own penance for letting her go to Daniel without fighting for her. It was my loss. A terrible loss with no chance of redemption. Until now.
The day after my indecent proposal, I walked into the pro shop for her answer. She’d looked me straight in the eyes—a challenge? Maybe. And without wavering, she’d agreed.
That was two days ago, and I’d thought of little else.
I would have an entire weekend of Abigail all to myself. Well, mostly to myself. Forty-eight hours where I would have her in my home. On my arm and in my—no. I would presume nothing.
Although having her in my bed would be the ultimate goal, we were a long way from that. And despite everything, I was a gentleman. At least, I’d do my best to act like one. Besides, as much as I regretted waiting with Abigail all those years ago, that’s not what this weekend was about. Not even close. This weekend was about so much more than simply sex.
I knew the moment she arrived. The air around me shifted. It was electric. I could feel it.
She was here.
A quick glance at the app on my phone that showed me my security cameras proved I was right.
She drove an old beater car that had more rust on it than paint. I cringed. Her asshole husband had screwed her over in the worst way. I hated Daniel for what he’d done to her. How he’d used her almost from the very beginning. Hell, had he ever really loved her? I couldn’t allow myself to think of the alternative, that he’d been with her just to take her from me.
I knew it was true. And I’d let it happen. It was because of me that Abigail had ever ended up with Daniel. It was my fault that he’d destroyed her socially and financially. Not that Abigail gave any fucks about her social status. She’d always had her group of solid, real friends. The women at the country club were anything but real. Or friends.
Still, she didn’t deserve the treatment she’d received from those women after her husband’s scandal broke. She hadn’t deserved any of it. I owed her the opportunity for a little retribution. Having her on my arm tomorrow night at the party would raise eyebrows and get tongues wagging. But more importantly, Abigail would have the opportunity to stand proud in front of those terrible women and show them that despite their best efforts, they couldn’t bring her down. And that’s exactly what I was hoping for. Well, that was part of what I was hoping for.
Again, my mind went right back to that dirty, sexy place. How could it not?
I watched on the screen as Abigail moved from the car and grabbed a duffel bag of her things. She wouldn’t be needing any of them. I’d seen to that. My cock twitched at the thought of the gifts I’d chosen specifically for her. I knew I was walking a fine line with her. A very fine line. But she deserved nice things. Hell, she deserved all the nice things. And if I knew Abigail the way I used to, she’d love everything I’d selected.
I probably should have turned the screen off, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself and I spent the next few minutes watching her through the app as she was greeted by my housekeeper, Mrs. Mclean. The older woman had been in my employ since I’d made my first millions and she had a sharp memory. She hadn’t said, but I knew she remembered Abigail well enough. No doubt the older woman also knew exactly why I’d never married, or seriously dated since Abigail, too.
She was more than a house manager. She was like family to me. Mrs. Mclean knew me better than I knew myself some days. She was smart and discreet, and I knew she’d take good care of Abigail, the same way she took special care with everything in my life that was critically important to me.
I kept the volume off the screen and watched while Mrs. Mclean took Abigail’s bag from her and led her up the stairs toward the room where she’d be staying. I swallowed hard against the lump that had formed in my throat. Having Abigail so close, yet still down the hall from me, was a strange, almost surreal feeling. The last time she’d been in the house, she’d turned the other way down the hall. To the primary suite. My suite. And that’s where I wanted her again. In my room. In my bed.
That was a long time ago. A lot had changed.
I clicked off the app as they arrived at Abigail’s room. I didn’t have cameras in the rooms and even if I did, I wouldn’t watch. Again, I was a gentleman. And having Abigail here was far more important to me than just the one weekend.
I’d be patient.
* * *
It had been years since I’d been in Phillip’s home. A lifetime ago. My stomach flipped and a rush of feelings slammed into me as I followed Mrs. Mclean down the hall. Did she remember me? Certainly she must have. There’d been a time when I’d spent a lot of time here.
I even thought I might live here one day. With Phillip.
And here we were.
Some of the furnishings had changed, but the feel of the home was the same. The floor was laid with black and white marble. The walls were light gray and the overall feeling was one of power, masculinity, and money. Involuntarily, a shiver ran through me. Once upon a time, there’d been fresh flowers on every available surface. Purples, pinks, blues, and yellows. The blooms had lightened the stuffiness of the house. Warmed it up and made it welcoming.
I stopped before a side table that had once held a massive display of my favorites. Carnations. Such a simple flower, but gorgeous in their simplicity. Once Phillip knew I liked them, almost overnight they’d filled vases in the house. Often with other flowers to complement them. But sometimes, as it was with the large bouquet on the side table, the carnations got to be the star of the arrangement.
It was silly really, but an overwhelming pang of loss hit me in the gut as I stared at the now empty table. I felt like I might cry, and I almost never cried.
“I hope you’ll find your room to your liking.” Mrs. Mclean chattered on as I followed her through the long halls.
I knew I would find it very much to my liking. Mrs. Mclean was amazing at what she did. Which was everything. If she had anything to do with my room, it would be gorgeous. We walked up a long, curving staircase and took the stairs that branched off to the right, leading to yet another impossibly long hallway. She stopped in front of a set of large double doors and waited for me to catch up before she opened them with a flourish and stepped inside what was easily the most beautifully appointed room I’d ever seen.
Just as I’d expected.
It was perfect.
The entire suite was at least twice the size of the shoebox apartment I’d been renting and far bigger than the master bedroom I had in the home I’d shared with Daniel before it had been seized. But then again, Phillip had always had more money than Daniel. A fact Daniel had always resented. “He might have more money, but I got you.” I shuddered at the memory of the way he’d boast about having me or winning me.
What had I ever seen in him? How could I have been so blind? To everything.
Unlike the rest of the house, the room Mrs. Mclean showed me was feminine. And very…me. It was painted in a soft pink color. Floor-to-ceiling windows covered one wall; gauzy curtains floated in a light breeze coming from the open window. The huge four-poster canopy king-sized bed was the feature of the space. It was made up with a pink floral duvet and more pillows than I could count. It looked like a marshmallow that I couldn’t wait to fall into.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed as I stepped into the space. My feet sank into the plush carpet.
“Mr. Conrad will be pleased you’re satisfied with the accommodations.”
“Satisfied?” I walked to the window, pushed the curtain aside, and gazed out over the grounds. My eyes lingered on the pool, surrounded with plants and gardens that gave it the feel of an oasis in a desert. Maybe I’d have time to sneak down for a swim? It had been a long time since I’d enjoyed that luxury.
“Mr. Conrad has selected your wardrobe for the weekend.” The housekeeper’s voice shattered my thoughts, reminding me exactly why I was in Phillip’s house in the first place. “You will find it in the walk-in closet through the en suite bathroom.”
I spun around and stared, open-mouthed, at her. “He’s done what?”
She ignored me. “He’s requested that you dress in something appropriate and report to his study at four o’clock sharp. You should knock twice and wait in the hallway.” She moved to leave.
Was she serious?
Anger bubbled up inside me. How dare he have specific requirements for how I was to behave? It was outrageous.
As was the entire reason I was there in his house in the first place. But that was a detail I was choosing not to focus on for the time being. The point was, I was there. And now…
Now I made the best of it and got through the next few days.
The fact that I didn’t want to just get through the next few days was very much at the forefront of my mind, but again, I pushed those thoughts from my head.
One thing at a time.
I pulled myself from my thoughts in time to see Mrs. Mclean moving toward the door.
A surge of unease and something that started to feel annoyingly like panic rushed through me. “Wait!”
She stopped and turned, with a small smile on her face.
Did she know what I was thinking? About why I was there? About why I was really there? Did I even know?
I wasn’t used to being so unsure of myself, and it was becoming increasingly annoying.
Mrs. Mclean waited patiently for me to say something else, so I blurted out the first thing I could think of.
“Where’s the study?”
Despite the fact that we both knew that I knew exactly where the study was, she gave me instructions before she slipped from the room, closing the door behind her. When she was gone, I looked to the clock on the wall. It was already quarter to four. I had only fifteen minutes to get dressed, whatever that meant, and report to Phillip.
I probably should have been annoyed or even offended by his presumption that he could dress me and order me around, but oddly, I wasn’t. In fact, I was more than a little turned on by the thought. Phillip always did have a way of taking control of a situation that was sexy. Besides, I’d made the decision to be there. I could choose what I did or did not want to do while I was there.
And I’d already decided that Darla was right. We were way too young not to have a little fun—or maybe, if I got really lucky, a lot of fun. I’d spent far too long pretending to be something I wasn’t. I was overdue for some excitement. And what if the forties really were the new twenties? Only better?
There was only one way to find out.
I shot the girls a quick text to let them know that I’d arrived safely. I took a quick photo of the decadently plush bed and hit Send before powering off my phone. No doubt the picture would spark all types of comments. Most of them inappropriate. I was curious for sure, but I was running out of time if I didn’t want to keep Phillip waiting. And to my surprise, I found that I didn’t. Not even a little bit.
With a devilish grin on my face, I went to explore the rest of my accommodations but almost didn’t get past the bathroom. Setting foot in the white marble room was just like a visit to the spa. From what I remembered. One breath of the peppermint and lavender scent that filled the air, and I was drawn like a magnet to the oversized bathtub set in the corner. What I wouldn’t give to sink into a tub full of hot, steamy bubbles.
How long had it been since I’d immersed myself in the simple joy of a bath?
I closed my eyes and inhaled, letting the smell fill my senses before I opened my eyes again. When I did, my gaze landed on two huge double doors on the opposite side of the massive bathroom.
I couldn’t help but feel a little overdramatic as I pulled the closet doors open with a flourish. But the drama faded into pure astonishment as the closet and its contents were revealed.
My mouth fell open.
There was room enough for an entire store’s worth of clothing in the space that was easily double the size of the bedroom in my apartment. Most of the room was empty, with only one rack on the far side that held clothes. I crossed the space to see what my choices were.
It was an interesting mix of garments and despite the fact that I’d only agreed to stay for the weekend, there were enough outfits for at least a month.
Phillip had beautiful taste, I’d give him that. And each item had obviously been chosen specifically with me in mind.
There was a floor-length gown in a royal blue that I knew would make my eyes pop, but it wasn’t the color the caught my attention. It was quite possibly the sexiest and most gorgeous dress I’d ever seen. No doubt he wanted me to wear that to the club the next night. The other women’s mouths would fall open and their husband’s eyes would all be on me. I grinned in anticipation, because there was no doubt Phillip also knew exactly what would happen. I secretly loved how his mind worked.
I quickly examined the other few articles hanging up, all beautiful dresses. None quite as elegant as the blue gown, but all equally stunning and very expensive. No doubt each dress cost more than I made in a month at the club.
I turned my attention to the dresser.
The moment I slid the first large drawer out, heat flooded to my face. Phillip had chosen this?
I’d never seen lingerie that was both gorgeous and so completely slutty all at the same time. I pulled out a pale-pink silk corset. There were matching thong panties with an accompanying garter in the same soft pink.
What. The. Hell?
It was one thing for him to pick out a few dresses for me to wear, but lingerie? My face flushed. There was no way he remembered how much I used to enjoy wearing things like this. Was there? Those days felt like a million years ago. It had all been different with Daniel.
But Phillip had remembered.
We were still so young when we’d dated, but I’d recently discovered how good sexy lingerie felt. I’d reveled in the silk and lace. But mostly, I’d loved the fact that when I was wearing it, no one else knew what was under my clothes.
No one except Phillip. Even though we’d never taken our relationship all to the next level, we’d come pretty damn close, and it had been hot. I’d loved to tease him with little peeks of what was under my dress when we went out to dinner. Seeing his excitement only increased my own enjoyment.
But that was a long time ago.
I dropped the corset on the pile of silky things.
I hadn’t worn anything like that in far too long. Daniel was never a lingerie guy. He used to say that he never saw the point of spending so much money on something you just took off right away.
But Phillip…he obviously understood.
And I couldn’t figure out how that made me feel. A kaleidoscope of feelings rushed through me. Guilt for taking the money in the first place—I wasn’t Daniel. I never should have done that. But it couldn’t have been all bad. After all, it had brought me here. To Phillip. And I would be lying if I said there wasn’t more than curiosity there when it came to him. There was much more. There always had been.
I lifted the lingerie again.
What was he thinking with this?
Did he expect me to wear these things? For him?
The idea of wearing any of these items for Phillip sent a thrill through me.
But would I?
Was he feeling the same way I was? Confused? Turned on? Guilty?
“Go have some crazy hot sex and get it out of your system.” Darla’s voice echoed in my brain.
Yes. I would wear them.
But did he expect me to? Or did he want me to? There was a difference. And I needed to know which it was.
With the pink corset still clutched in my hands, I left my bedroom suite, went down the curved staircase, and marched through the grand hallways. My confusion grew with each step until I found the door to his study. I didn’t bother knocking. I turned the handle and shoved the door open. It slammed roughly against the wall, and Phillip Conrad looked up from his desk as if he’d been expecting me.
He probably was.
“Abigail.” The flicker of humor in his voice only made me more upset. “You aren’t dressed. Didn’t you like what I picked out?” He chuckled and leaned back in his chair.
“Did I get the size wrong?”
He scanned me up and down, a move that from anyone else I’d find offensive. Hell, I should have found it offensive coming from him.
But I didn’t.
I momentarily forgot why I’d gone in search of him in the first place. I was completely transfixed by him and the mixture of feelings he elicited in me. The power and wealth and control he exuded simply from sitting in his chair behind his massive oak desk radiated from him in waves. Never mind the way he was looking at me. I could see it in his eyes. Maybe after all this time, he needed to get me out of his system, too. And he thought by buying me lingerie, that would be a given.
Damn. That was beyond cocky.
“You aren’t dressed,” he said again when I still hadn’t spoken.
His words snapped me back to why I was there. I shook the corset in my hand. “Did you really think that by buying me some cheap shit like this, I’d just jump into bed with you?” I couldn’t even believe the words coming out of my mouth. Did I even care if that’s what had happened? Wasn’t that why I was there, too?
Shit. I didn’t know.
I stepped forward and tossed the corset on the desk in front of him.
Phillip looked down at the item in front of him and then slowly got to his feet. “Cheap?” He picked up the corset. “You think this hand-stitched, custom-made silk work of art is cheap?” He glanced down at the garment and then his eyes landed on me, pinning me in place.
“It’s not the quality,” I argued. “It’s that I’ll look…I can’t dress like a…”
“Like a what?” he challenged.
“Like a whore!” I spat out the word and instantly regretted it. That’s not at all what I thought about Phillip. He would never…Phillip wasn’t that kind of guy. My thoughts crashed through me, and I couldn’t make sense of anything. Being so near to him was messing with my mind. My heart clenched as I watched his handsome face twist into a mask of horror. I’d made a horrible mistake.
“Oh God, Abigail. No! I would never—”
“Then why? I mean, I took the money and I’m sorry, but I don’t think—” Shit. I’d just confessed, and I could see that he’d noticed, too.
To his credit, he didn’t mention it. “I would never insinuate anything of that sort, Abigail, and I think you know that.”
But so many feelings were crashing through me. It was as if I were having an out-of-body experience. The combination of my guilt for taking the money, his offer, the fact that I’d accepted because I wanted to be close to him, and the feelings I couldn’t even begin to make sense of, combined with being there, in his house and seeing the lingerie…years of questions and no answers, feelings that had never gone away—it was all too much.
I gulped for a breath. I needed something, anything, to center me. But what I really should do was get the hell out of there. I should just turn around and walk away before I made a bigger fool of myself, before I said something I really couldn’t take back. But I couldn’t move. I was completely transfixed by him.
Phillip had moved around the table. He looked as if he wanted to touch me, maybe try to convince me that no, that’s not what he was inferring. And truthfully, I didn’t really think he was. Phillip just wasn’t like that. I knew that deep in my soul. Despite what I’d accused him of.
I tried not to tremble as he stood only inches from me.
“You don’t really think that of me, do you?”
I swallowed hard and opened my mouth to object, but he held up a finger and pressed it to my lips.
“I have nothing but respect for you.” His voice was smooth and slow. “You can leave anytime you want. And I won’t report you to management. I’ll even let you keep the money. That’s not what this was about. That’s not what this was ever about.”
Was he really saying what I thought he was? He was letting me off the hook?
Of course he was. It was never about the money. We both knew it.
But…no! I didn’t want to leave. I definitely didn’t want to be let off the hook.
The thought crashed into me hard and a hot pool of need settled between my legs as I realized I was exactly where I wanted to be. Here. With him.
I inhaled slowly, and making my decision, snatched the corset from his hand, spun on my heel, and left him standing behind me.