The Billionaire Boyfriend Bargain: Excerpt
Copyright 2015 Kendra Little
"So how do you like working for the enemy?" I asked Liam.
He paused and narrowed his gaze at me, his glass of beer half way to his mouth. "Kavanagh Corporation is not the enemy, Sophie."
I rolled my eyes and set down the three glasses of wine for my other customer and took her money. "It was a joke," I said as she balanced the three glasses precariously and walked off to her table and tipsy friends.
"Yeah," Liam said softly. "Sure you were joking."
"Don't believe me?"
I avoided his gaze and concentrated on cleaning the spilled beer off the countertop near his left elbow. Looking at him would only allow me to see the pity in his eyes, and I didn't want to see that. There was no room in my life for pity from friends, or strangers for that matter. Pity led to wallowing, and I refused to wallow. I'd end up in the shrink's office if I did.
"You forget that I know you pretty well, Soph." Liam wasn't going to give up now that the subject of the Kavanaghs had been raised.
"Dating someone for a few months will do that," I said with a laugh. But I no longer felt like laughing. Talking about his new position at Kavanagh Corporation brought back old memories. Painful ones that I thought buried. I still couldn't believe that one of my best friends was now working for the people who'd brought my old, carefree life to a crashing end and shoved me into this new one where the highlight of my day was not getting hit on by The Saloon's patrons.
Liam set his glass down and flattened his palms on the bar. He leaned a little closer and fixed me with his intense green stare. "Listen, Soph. I know you've got something against Kavanagh Corp. You've always disparaged them to me, especially since I went for the job. But unless you tell me what it is you don't like about the company, I'm going to defend it. I know this is only my second day, but I can already tell I'm going to like working there." He shrugged an apology.
I served another customer, a middle-aged man with spiky hair who winked when he gave me his order. I took my time, schooling my thoughts. "I'm glad you like your new job," I said to Liam when Spiky Hair moved off after giving me another wink. "But I have my reasons for disliking Kavanagh Corp."
"What are they?"
I swept slow circles on the bar with my cloth, even though there were no more spills. "My dad used to work there. They treated him badly."
Liam sat back and picked up his glass again. I could tell by the way he avoided my gaze that he wanted to lay the blame at my father's feet. His reaction was understandable. Liam only knew Dad as a drunken loser. He hadn't known him before Kavanagh had chewed him up and spat him out like a piece of rotten meat.
Wisely, Liam said nothing. He was a good guy like that. A nice guy. That's why we hadn't worked out. Me and nice guys weren't good together. They eventually came to resent my job as a barmaid, telling me I could do better and get out of the rut I'd fallen into. And then they met my father and got further into my life and realized they'd been wrong. I couldn't do better. My life had never been corporate lunches and highbrow conversations like theirs, and never would be. I lived in a crappy neighborhood, drove a crappy car, and barely had enough money to cover rent and food. I lived with my loser father after he'd lost his job three years ago, and my education had ended with high school. Working two jobs had left me with no time to "get ahead" as one ex had put it.
Not Liam. He had never been an asshole about our differences. He'd just quietly ended our relationship one day after telling me we made better friends than lovers. I agreed with him—now—but that didn't mean it hadn't stung at the time, coming right after he'd helped me carry Dad home from the bar where he'd been drinking for twelve hours straight.
I served another customer, and as I took her money, I glanced past her to the door. My heart did a little flutter as a God-like guy walked in. He was tall and lean, his hair dark and cropped short. His charcoal-gray suit looked expensive, but its sharp lines only added to his sexiness. He was clean-shaved and sported the chiseled features of a catalog model with none of the boyishness. He was as masculine as a sports hero. Even the way he glanced around the bar, taking in the few regulars who'd ventured in on a wet Tuesday night, was sexy. He wasn't arrogant and there was nothing look-at-me-I'm-so-hot about him, but he was commanding nevertheless. Like he didn't give a damn if anyone noticed him or not. I guess Gods didn't need to care what we mere mortals thought.
But boy did everyone notice. The Saloon wasn't noisy to begin with, but all conversations ceased and all heads swiveled his way. Men and women alike sized him up, some admiringly, others grudgingly accepting that they were no longer the hottest in the room. The group of three female lawyers on the table nearest the door gave him shamelessly flirty signals. He glanced past their hair twirling and eye fluttering and continued to scan the room.
"Christ," Liam muttered.
"You know him?"
"Yeah. He's a…friend."
"How come I never met him?"
"New friend. I didn't know him while we were dating." Liam signaled to the newcomer. The guy came over, his stride confident but not swaggering. The lawyers studied his butt as he passed their table, giggling and nudging one another. I tried to look sexy and sophisticated but gave up. There's nothing sophisticated about pulling beers.
"You made it," Liam said, shaking the other guy's hand.
He sat on a stool and leaned his elbow on the bar. "You spoke so highly of this place and the service, I thought I'd check it out." He looked around the room again, slower this time. "Nice atmosphere. Quiet. That's rare for around here."
"Comes with being tucked away in the lane," Liam said. "Only the regulars know it's here. I've been coming ever since I met Sophie."
He nodded at me, and the new guy followed his gaze. Whoa. Those eyes! They were the color of the ocean at its deepest—mostly blue but with a hint of dark green and moody gray. A girl could drown in eyes like those if she wasn't careful. But what I really liked about his eyes wasn't their color. It was the way they didn't roam over my body. Not once did he look south of my face. In fact, his gaze didn't leave mine. It was a more intense experience than any ogling I'd been subjected to.
"Sophie, this is Ash," Liam said. "Ash, meet Sophie."
Ash thrust out his hand. "Nice to meet you. Liam told me all about this place so I decided to give it a try. I work not far away, but I never knew it existed."
"Oh?" I shook his hand. His fingers were long, strong, with small calluses on the palms that didn't go with his sharp business image. "Where do you work?"
"In one of the high rises on Fifth."
"Ash works for himself," Liam cut in.
Ash raised both brows at Liam.
Liam shrugged. "Can I buy you a drink?"
"Beer." Ash watched me as I poured, and accepted the glass when I slid it over to him. "Have you worked here long, Sophie?"
"Too long." I smiled. He smiled back. Damn, but he had perfect teeth too and an easy smile, like it was something he did a lot. "I need to get out more, spread my wings so to speak." What the hell was I saying? I sounded like an idiot.
"You and me both," Ash muttered. "Some days I feel like I never leave the desk. I haven't eaten a real meal in a week, only takeout ordered by my P.A. before she heads home."
"What does she think of your work habits?" I asked.
"She once told me I needed to get a life."
"Your employees talk like that to you?"
"Only the ones who know me well enough. I think the others think I'm a machine since I'm there when they arrive in the morning and still there when they leave at night. Fact is, my P.A. is right. I don't have a life."
"You're out here tonight."
He sighed. "Truth is, I needed a drink. Family troubles. No matter how much I work, I can't escape them."
"We have something in common there." I avoided glancing at Liam as he quietly sipped his beer and didn't interrupt.
"You mean you have an older brother whose life is spiraling out of control and pulling everyone else's down with it?"
I gave him a sympathetic look. "Not a brother, a father. I'm an only child."
"Sometimes I wish I was," he muttered into his glass.
"Your brother giving you a hard time?"
"Indirectly, yes. My next oldest brother too. That one manages to cause problems without even living in Roxburg anymore."
"That's quite a feat. How many brothers have you got?"
"None. Maybe that's the problem. A sister would soften our family gatherings and bring a more feminine touch. On the other hand she might have turned out like Mom. She doesn't have a maternal instinct in her body."
I kept quiet. I was enjoying chatting to Ash and I didn't want to dampen the mood by bringing my mother's death into the conversation. "So where do you fit in the hierarchy of testosterone?"
"Middle. And yes, it is as bad as it sounds and no, I don't have middle child syndrome. Much." He grinned.
I laughed then had to serve another customer. Ash turned away at the same time and I gave Liam a nod of approval over his head. Liam smiled.
I was kept busy for the next twenty minutes, but managed to sneak into their conversation every now and again. They spoke easily to one another, mostly about sport and people they both knew, but none of it malicious. Liam didn't have a malicious bone in his body, and it seemed Ash was a lot like him. It was no wonder they were friends. Both had the easy-going temperaments of well-adjusted guys. Ash may have joked about his family troubles and being the middle child, but I suspected that's all it was—a joke. He seemed normal to me, and that always meant a normal upbringing with two loving, together parents. I envied the lucky girl who stole his heart. He didn't wear a wedding band, but that didn't mean he wasn't married or in a committed relationship. On the other hand, he hadn't mentioned a woman when he was talking about his late nights at work. Maybe he just didn't have the time to meet any.
I glanced around the bar. The three young female lawyers were still there, and still looking at Ash every once in a while. He still hadn't noticed, even though they were obvious about it. Maybe he was a machine. Or gay.
No, I couldn't see it. He was too masculine to be gay. Maybe I was stereotyping, but working in a bar for more years than I cared to count had given me a good instinct for people. Ash definitely wasn't gay.
He suddenly turned, catching me looking at him. I blushed to the roots of my hair, but to my surprise, he blushed too. He didn't look away, however, so he wasn't that embarrassed.
"Maybe your girlfriend can settle the argument," he said to Liam.
"She's not my girlfriend," Liam said at the same time I spluttered a protest.
"Not anymore," I added. "We used to date, but I decided he was too nice for me."
Liam's smile faded and he shook his head, silently admonishing me. "We're just friends now. We catch up here for a drink sometimes while she's working."
I leaned across the bar and lowered my voice. "That's what he says, but I know he's here for the occasional free beer I give him." I winked and Ash grinned.
"Free beer," Liam echoed, his voice teasing. "You've given me maybe three these last few months. Truth is, I just like the atmosphere of this place."
"And the service," Ash said, smiling at me. "So far, it's been excellent." Despite his casual response, I sensed something had changed in him. It wasn't something obvious and I couldn't put my finger on anything specific, but he seemed different since Liam had told him we weren't a couple.
He stayed until closing, despite Liam leaving an hour earlier. He helped me kick out the drunk crying into his beer in the corner and waited while I locked up. He offered to walk me to my car, parked at the end of the lane.
"It's just there," I said, nodding at the faded green Ford sedan.
"Can't be too careful around here." He didn't seem to be joking as he eyed the entrance to the lane. "Someone could be waiting behind the car or one of those dumpsters to attack you."
"Cheery." I let him walk me to my car. Liam used to do it when we were dating, but had stopped when he realized it was a safe area with the surveillance cameras overhead. I unlocked the door and threw my bag and jacket onto the passenger seat. "What about you, Ash? If it's not safe for me, then it's not safe for you either."
He gave me a lopsided grin that I'd decided a couple of hours ago I really liked. It made him even sexier, something that seemed impossible at first. He was already damned sexy. He'd removed his jacket and I got to see how his chest and shoulders strained his shirt seams. I wouldn't mind seeing him out of it, the pants too.
I swallowed and waited, half expecting him to ask me back to his place. I couldn't ask him back to mine with Dad there. But he didn't, and disappointment fluttered in my stomach, despite my conviction not to fall for a nice guy again. I might not think guys like Liam and Ash were long-term, but I was a sucker for them anyway. Maybe it was the simple fact they couldn't be long-term for me that I was drawn to them. I could absolutely have a one-night (or several-night) stand with Ash, and enjoy the delights of a well-honed body and handsome face.
"I can take care of myself," he said, leaning lazily against the door of my car.
I waited a moment more, expecting him to close in for a kiss. Nothing. Just a small smile that seemed more secretive than any he'd bestowed on me all night. And he'd bestowed a lot.
"I bet you can," I said, breathless.
His smile widened. "Good night, Sophie. It was nice meeting you."
"You too, Ash." I climbed into the car when it became clear he wasn't going to offer anything more than a smile. I tried to pretend I was cool and as classy as the women he must date. I might even have pulled it off.
He closed the door and waved. I watched him walking down the lane in my mirror, his jacket slung over his shoulder and that smile still on his face. Then he waved again.
Damn. So much for keeping cool.
I drove home on a high, but it quickly evaporated as I entered the apartment I shared with Dad.
"You're home early," he said from the small living room that also served as dining room, and occasionally bedroom if Dad couldn't be bothered getting off the sofa.
"It's nearly midnight." I threw my bag and keys on the table beside the door and headed to the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of water and downed it one gulp, then kicked off my shoes.
I was about to fix something to eat when I spotted the college papers on top of the fridge. I reached up to grab them and take another look at the entrance requirements, but Dad strolled in and belched.
"You making your old father a sandwich?" he asked.
I returned the forms and held out the butter knife to Dad. "Go ahead and make one yourself. You're capable."
He snorted and ignored the knife, instead opening the fridge door and pulling out another beer. He threw the empty one into the trash, but it missed and bounced onto the floor, leaving behind a line of beer drips.
"So, Soph, can I have a loan?"
"No!" I jabbed the knife in his direction. "I haven't been paid yet."
"What about that stash you've hidden?"
"It's for an emergency." And maybe for the college enrollment fee. If I enrolled.
"This is a freaking emergency." He lowered his voice. His pupils dilated and he wiped his hand across his mouth. "They're after me, Soph. Bad guys. If they come here, don't let them in, okay?"
I sighed. "Okay." I wasn't sure whether to believe him or not. He did seem serious, but Dad liked to have drama follow him around and I couldn't tell whether it was as much of a problem as he made out.
"I don't want my baby girl getting hurt," he tossed out over his shoulder as he walked from the kitchen. "You're all I've got left in this world."
Then why didn't he get a job and help me out? Oh right, because he was a hopeless drunk who'd been fired from his last job after Mom died. Dad had fallen apart, and started drinking heavily after her death. Kavanagh had wasted no time in letting him go, setting him adrift with his misery. Dad hadn't been the same since.
Ash returned to the bar every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night for the next month, as long as he didn't have something else to go to. He asked me along as his date to a function, something about launching a new phone, but I had to work. My regret was a palpable thing. I'd wanted to go out with him, but work had to come first. I got paid by the hour and needed the tips so I couldn't afford not to turn up unless I was dying. Besides, a corporate function like that seemed too much for a first date. I would be way out of my depth in my one and only little black dress and high heels. I liked Ash and wanted to be with him, but somewhere more intimate, where it was just the two of us. Like his bed.
He didn't ask me out again. I guess I blew my chance. Nothing seemed to have changed, however. He was still friendly and still walked me to my car in the lane at the end of my shift. Even if I was too busy to talk much and Liam wasn't there to keep him company, he waited patiently, nursing his beer, until I was free again.
Yet still he seemed hesitant somehow, like he wasn't sure whether to ask me out again. Maybe. I couldn't be sure. I was pretty good at reading guys, but Ash was more of a mystery than I was used to. His signals weren't overt. Or maybe they weren't even signals at all and I'd completely misread him. Maybe he was just killing time at The Saloon.
"Is something wrong with Ash?" I asked Liam one night when he was there and Ash wasn't.
"How the hell should I know?" he snapped.
He sighed and dragged his hand through his hair. "Yes. No. I don't know. Just a work problem."
"Want to talk about it?"
"She's not an it."
"Oh. A female colleague problem." I leaned both elbows on the bar, all ears. "Tell me about her."
He did and I wasn't jealous at all. It only proved that I was completely over him. I couldn't have felt freer and I had Ash to thank for that. He'd managed to occupy my thoughts morning and night lately. There was no room for Liam anymore, or anyone else.
Damn. I'd done it again. Fallen for a nice guy. Ash was totally unsuitable, totally out of my league, except for in the bedroom. But it was looking like he didn't even want me there.
He was at The Saloon again the following night and I could tell straight away he was going to ask me out again. He fidgeted with his glass, twisting it between both hands yet hardly drinking. Nor did he meet my gaze. The only time he looked at me was when he thought I wasn't watching him. My nerves clanged all night and I spilled a few drinks. Waiting was damned hard on my stress levels.
Finally, after Liam and most of the other drinkers left, he worked up enough courage. He cleared his throat. I tried not to smile, but I admit I was enjoying being the reason for his nervousness. It was flattering as all hell to be the object of such a hot guy's desire.
"Soph, there's something I want to ask you."
"Go ahead." I picked up a glass from the dish rack and dried it. I needed to do something with my hands or I'd grab his face and force him to kiss me.
He cleared his throat again. "It's kind of a strange request."
I stopped drying. Uh oh. He was going to tell me he was a dominant alpha looking for a submissive. Or worse, a submissive in search of a dominant female to tie him up with his gray tie and paddle his ass.
"I need a fiancée."
I lowered the glass. "Huh?" Real sophisticated, Soph.
He held up his hands. "I didn't explain that right. I need a woman to act as my fiancée for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks. I'm trying to seal a deal with a client who's a little conservative about working with guys my age who aren't married."
"Oh. Right. I see." His words went in one ear and out the other. I was still stuck on the idea of being his fiancée, even if it was only for a few weeks. The idea thrilled me—and plunged my heart to my toes at the same time. He must be mad to think I could pull it off in public. "Thanks for thinking of me, but I'm not sure it's a good idea."
"Don't say no yet," he said quickly. "Please, give it some thought." He fished in his back pocket and pulled out a business card. He flipped it over and wrote a phone number on the back. "That's my private cell number. I don't give it out to many people, but I want you to call me when you've given it some thought. You'll probably have some questions and I'll answer anything."
He handed the card to me and our fingers touched. Our gazes connected. A small pulse rippled along my arm and through my entire body, waking up parts of me that I didn't know were asleep. "Okay," I finally said. "I'll call you tomorrow when I've had a chance to think it through. But I still don't think it's a good idea."
He flinched and let go of the card. "I really hope you'll change your mind." He fiddled with his tie. "The client is really important to my business and…" He cleared his throat. "And I'd like to spend some time with you away from here."
I swallowed. I wanted to yell at him to invite me back to his place if he wanted to spend time with me, not ask me to do something that made me feel so uncomfortable that I would probably throw up my lunch as soon as I walked into any social gathering with his client. But I said none of those things. I flipped the business card over to slide it into my jeans pocket, but the corporate logo caught my attention.
And the name beneath it. Ash Kavanagh, CEO of Kavanagh Corporation.