He hadn’t seen her in almost two weeks. No, that wasn’t right. Kirk stared out his huge office window, going over the past several days. After that disastrous visit to the fabric store, he’d seen Bethany a few times. They’d exchanged nothing more than one-word greetings. What they hadn’t done since their argument was have a meaningful conversation.
And he might have kept up the distance between them until his cousin’s wedding, but Kirk had important news to discuss with her. Avoiding her for a moment longer was going to drive him insane. He pulled out his cell phone from his jacket pocket and sent her a message. It was almost lunch time. Hopefully, she could spare an hour to talk with him at a nearby coffee shop.
His phone buzzed seconds after sending the message. He glanced at the text. Yes, Bethany could meet him in twenty minutes.
After letting his assistant know he’d be going out for lunch, Kirk got into his Mercedes and drove away from SIB.
He got to the Grindstone coffee shop with minutes to spare. The place was more upscale than the chain coffee shops, so it wasn’t nearly as full at this hour as it could have been. Since Bethany hadn’t arrived yet, he placed his order and grabbed a seat at a corner table.
Right as he finished checking his e-mails on his laptop, Bethany appeared.
“Hi.” She didn’t meet his gaze. Her hands were holding the strap of her handbag in a tight grip. Obviously, this was the last thing she wanted to do.
“Hello, Bethany. Have a seat.” He motioned to the drinks and food on the table. “I took the liberty of ordering for you. I hope that’s okay.”
“That’s fine. Thank you.” As she took her seat, her shapely bare leg brushed against his.
Even through the fabric of his pants he felt the heat of her bare skin. Skin he knew had to be soft as silk just from sight alone. Forcing his gaze from her leg, he looked up at her face. Focused on her captivating blue eyes, he tried to suppress his reaction to her. Too late. The sudden contact after days of barely seeing her aroused him. Made him shift in his seat as he realized how painfully hard he was.
After weeks of only catching glimpses of her, seeing her up close again was a heart-stopping experience.
“You’re probably wondering what I wanted to talk about,” he said as he closed his laptop.
She nodded. “Yes.”
Kirk shoved the laptop into its bag and pulled a stack of forms from the bag’s outside pocket. “I wanted to talk about your loan application.”
“You do?” She stared at him in confusion. “I thought the bank rejected my loan request.”
“It did,” he said. “But I wanted to see if I could still get you a loan. Or someone to invest in your business.” After their argument, he had gone over her application again. Mostly because he missed her, and looking through her application gave him something constructive to do with all his pent-up energy. It was either go over her form or brood over not being able to talk to her. Now that he’d gone over her application one more time, he had a good reason to talk to her again. He just hoped he wasn’t making things between them worse.
“Your business plan is solid and I know people with money.” He paused. “I’m not guaranteeing anything yet, so this is just very preliminary stuff. What I’d like to do is start asking around. Make contact with people looking to invest in new businesses.”
“No.” Bethany took a deep breath, her shoulders tensing. “I mean, why are you helping me?”
“I’ve explained this to you already,” he said, fighting to keep the exasperation out of his voice. “I know what it’s like to struggle and I want to help.”
“You don’t want to help me. You think you do, but you don’t.”
It was a strange thing to say. He narrowed his eyes, studying her to see if he could understand. Understand why she had pulled away from him so suddenly. Kirk didn’t know her that well, but she had been so warm. So easy to talk to. Now there was such a chill in the air around her, he wondered if she even wanted to be around him.
“I do want to help you.”
She shook her head sadly. “Just throw me out of your house. That’s what you want to do anyway.”
“I don’t want to throw you out,” his said firmly. “Where is this coming from?”
Her eyes lowered as she avoided his gaze. “I was awful to you. That day in the fabric store.”
“You weren’t,” he reassured her. Granted, nobody had talked to him the way she had in a long time. But he had probably pushed too hard. Ten years wasn’t long enough for some of Lloyd Livingston’s victims. So many people were still struggling with debt and financial ruin through no fault of their own. Of course, bringing it up would have been painful for her. “I shouldn’t have brought up the subject. Sometimes, in my effort to get something done, I push too hard. I wanted to help, and I focused on what I thought you needed instead of what was actually best for you. Forgive me.”
“You’re not throwing me out?” Her hands began to shake slightly and she curled her fingers around her coffee cup.
“No. Of course not. Is that what you thought this meeting was about?”
“Yes. I thought you were going to ask me to pack my bags. I wouldn’t blame you if you did.” She inhaled sharply, her entire body shaking. “The things I said were uncalled for.”
“Bethany, I’m glad you stood up to me,” he explained. “That’s how I know I can trust you. You don’t tell me what you think I want to hear, and that’s an admirable quality. Especially for a businesswoman.”
“Trust…” Her voice trailed off as she lifted her gaze to meet his. “You trust me?”
As crazy as it was, he did. Kirk trusted very few people in his life, and the person he trusted most was himself. But he saw in Bethany the same honesty and straightforwardness that he had. When he’d brought up the Livingstons, she had stood up to him. Even when she stood to risk losing a paycheck and a roof over her head. Her reaction had showed that she was willing to fight for her family’s honor. Plus, it showed that she had integrity. The more he saw of her, the more he wanted to help.
Help, a voice in the back of his head scoffed. No, he couldn’t lie to himself. This wasn’t some charity run. He wanted to help her because it gave him a reason to see her. An excuse to talk to her. Desire for her was dangerous, especially in light of their near kiss. He knew this, and yet he wanted to keep testing. Keep pushing to see how far they’d end up.
There was a calculated ruthlessness that he’d always displayed in business, but his desire for Bethany was more intense than that. So much of what he did in her presence was purely instinct. Primal need. Nothing about the way she intoxicated him was calculated or controlled.
“I do,” he finally said. “Though, I suspect you don’t trust me just yet.”
“It’s not personal,” she said softly.
“I get that. This town hasn’t been the same since Lloyd Livingston’s crimes were uncovered. It’s hard to trust after that level of fraud.” He spread his hands out on the table. As much as this was all a reason to speak to her again, he really did want to help her. Her family’s financial woes might not be his fault, but he felt some responsibility for what Livingston had done. After all, his parents had worked for the man and that brought with it some level of culpability. If he had any hope of doing right by her, he was going to have to gain her trust.
She took a sip of her whipped-cream-topped coffee. “I’m grateful for your offer to help, but what about your father? He sounds like the kind of man who wouldn’t want you helping me. And I don’t want you getting in trouble with him for me.”
“Bethany, what does my father have to do with any of this?”
“Well, you invited me to the wedding to please him,” she replied. “If you’re trying to project a certain image, do you really think getting into business with me would help?”
“You’re already going to pretend to be my girlfriend,” he reminded her. “I don’t see how having a professional relationship is going to be a problem.”
“So we’re still on for the wedding. I had wondered if you’d want to go through with that after how I acted.”
Leaning back in his chair, he said, “That’s definitely still on. A deal is a deal. And since we’re on the topic of deals, are you willing to let me help you get your store financed?”
“What kind of people will you be talking to?” she asked.
Clearly, her experience with Livingston was going to put her on guard. Not that he blamed her. If his family had been swindled, money would be a tough topic. “Mostly investor types. Especially businesswomen. I figured having some women invested in your business would be helpful. The business world needs more equality, and this is a good way to advance that.”
“Your mother is a pretty good businesswoman, isn’t she?”
“Pretty good is an understatement,” he said. “My mother might be a handful, but the bank can’t run without her. Don’t tell her I said that, though. She’d never let me hear the end of it.”
Bethany laughed, the breathy sound like a bolt of electricity to his heart. Damn, it felt good to hear her laugh. To see her upbeat after their argument. This was why he had wanted to break the silence between them. Getting her to laugh was a reward he’d never tire of.
“Your secret is safe with me.” Amusement flashed in her beautiful eyes and she took another sip of her coffee. “Okay. You can talk to investors, but before you do… could I get a list of the people you’re going to talk to?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “I won’t talk to anyone about financing your store without getting your approval first. So, are we friends again?”
“Friends.” Her lips curved up into a smile and he chuckled. A spot of cream was smeared in the corner of her delectable mouth. “What’s so funny?”
“You’ve got something…” Unable to keep his hands off her, Kirk reached out his hand. As he dragged his thumb across her soft lips, she stiffened.
He almost pulled his hand back as her body tensed up, but the tension disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Bethany relaxed visibly and her eyes locked on his.
For a moment, everything in the coffee shop vanished. The whir of the machines drowned out. All the patrons faded away. Nothing existed except for her. A pink blush stained her cheeks as she lowered her eyes. And then she leaned into his hand, as if relishing his touch. If he didn’t pull his hand back soon, touching her wouldn’t look so innocent.
As quickly as he could, Kirk brushed the cream away and pulled his hand back. “There. All gone.”
When she lifted her gaze, her beauty nearly knocked him sideways. Her golden hair was perfect, without a hair out of place, and yet the rest of her looked like she had just been in the throes of passion. Her eyes were glassy, almost hazy, with what looked like desire. The blush in her cheeks deepened and her lips were slightly parted. She had the most arresting glow about her, like she was burning from the inside out.
Bethany tilted her head, scrutinizing him as she did. “There’s got to be a way I can repay you for helping me.”
In her low, husky tone that sounded more like an illicit invitation than anything else. But he’d never accept that kind of payment, even if that was what she was offering. As much as he ached for her, he knew they weren’t on equal footing. Not as long as she was practically working for him and living under his roof. “No payment necessary.” A thought suddenly struck him. “Well, maybe you can help me with something.”
“What is it?”
“You seem to know a little about the way the upper class works,” he said. “And you understand Italian culture. That’s the kind of stuff my father wants me to get up to speed on.” Even though he loathed the idea of transforming into some entitled blue blood, if he had to learn something why not learn from Bethany? Having a beautiful, accomplished teacher didn’t sound so bad at all.
Plus, he was starting to suspect that Bethany was much more connected to the upper class than she let on. Livingston’s theft had probably forced her into a much lower income bracket.
Her eyes widened. “You want me to teach you how to be rich?”
Kirk paused to take a sip of his iced coffee. “Yes. I don’t want to take up too much of your time since you’re making my suit. If you’ve got an hour to spare in the near future, I’m ready to learn.”
A mischievous grin appeared on her face. She rubbed her hands together. “Oh, this is going to be so much fun.”
That glint in her eye was unsettling him. “Bethany, I asked you to teach me not torment me.”
She didn’t reply. Just laughed wickedly before taking a sip of her coffee.
Kirk groaned inwardly. He had requested this meeting to get them talking again. Now, he hoped like hell he didn’t end up regretting it.