She stayed out of his way for days. She only communicated with him through short text messages, updating him on her progress with the suit. After she had run out of her own guesthouse like a fool, she had gotten into her car and taken a long drive. When night fell she came back to Kirk’s mansion, taking the longer back road to get into the guesthouse. Letting him see her after her wanton display was out of the question.
Now, it was the day of his cousin’s wedding. Bethany opened the front door to the guesthouse and headed out. She put on a stylish pair of sunglasses and perched a fabulous hat on her head. Both would be perfect for hiding during the wedding. Ian’s bride was from a new-money family, so that meant the wedding would be full of new-money types. Not the sort of people the Livingstons rubbed elbows with at the height of their power. With a hat to hide under and people she was unlikely to know, she probably wouldn’t be recognized at the wedding. Which made it the perfect place to get some intel about the Sterlings.
She ran her hands down her simple, but elegant, blue satin dress and threw her shoulders back.
Days might have gone by without her seeing much of Kirk, but now it was show time.
Holding her head up high, Bethany made her way into the mansion. She had sent over Kirk’s suit the day before, so he was wearing it when she found him on his phone in the living room. Try as she might, it was impossible not to stare. The suit fit him perfectly, showing off his height and his broad shoulders. Even as he wore all those layers of clothing, she could tell how muscular he was underneath it all. After all, she had seen how muscular he was during his fitting days ago. Seen it and felt his hard muscles beneath her fingertips as she kissed him.
The kiss had been so incredible she could still feel it on her lips even now. Days later. Kirk had held on to her like he never wanted to hold anything else. He’d captured her mouth and her body with that kiss alone. Breaking that kiss had been like fighting the force of a storm. Because his desire was as strong as hers. She’d felt it in the way that he held her. In the way his tongue had tasted her.
He wrapped up the call the moment he spotted her, and put his phone in his pocket. “You look beautiful.” Appreciation flashed in his eyes.
“Thank you.” Her voice sounded shrill to her ears, with a fake cheeriness that made her cringe. On top of trying to get intel on the Sterlings, she also had to pretend to be Kirk’s girlfriend. After their kiss, that was going to be even more complicated than she’d bargained for. “The suit looks great on you.”
“I’ve wired the second half of the payment to your account. You’ve done an amazing job.” He stepped over to her and offered her his arm.
“Thank you.” Not knowing what else to say, she took his arm.
Heat spread through her as he placed his large hand over hers. “You’re probably going to get a ton of business because of this wedding.”
With butterflies fluttering in her stomach, she gazed up at him. This wasn’t her wedding, and yet she was so unbelievably nervous. She still had a mission to complete. Still had to work to bring Kirk’s family down, but all she wanted to do was kiss him again. “Thanks to you, I will.”
“Bethany…” His green eyes focused on her.
If he brought up their kiss, she was going to sink into the floor. Even if she knew that he was attracted to her, it was still wrong. As much as she wanted to kiss him again, she had taken advantage of his kindness. Her mission was to take down his family, which was harsh enough. Adding lust to the equation was probably adding insult to injury. She had to shut the topic down before things got even worse.
“We should probably be heading out,” she said loudly. “We don’t want to be late.”
He paused for a second then nodded. “No. We don’t.”
Without saying anything more, Kirk led her out the front door.
His black Mercedes was running in the drive at the front, a chauffeur sitting in the driver’s seat. The chauffeur nodded in greeting and Kirk helped her into the car. When he was satisfied that she was comfortable, he slid into the back seat beside her. The chauffeur navigated down the long drive, through the property’s heavy gates to the street outside.
They made their way to the Mountain View Golf and Country Club. It was definitely not the type of club her parents had ever frequented. Its membership was made up of newly elite who had the money to burn, but not the old-money connections they’d need to get into the older clubs. Not that it mattered. As they joined the line of cars leading up to the front of the main clubhouse, Bethany took in the expansive property. The lawns were perfect, the property shaded by trees.
At last they made it to the front of the clubhouse, and Kirk helped her out of the car. Then, he led her through the clubhouse until they made it to the well-manicured lawn on the other side. The lawn was decorated with gorgeous blue ribbons and flowers, the chairs set out on either side of the aisle.
Guests were busy taking their seats, their excited chattering creating a buzz of excitement in her. “I do love an outdoor wedding,” she said.
He gave her a smile that helped to ease her trepidation. “Let’s go to our seats. I think I see my mother up front. She’s not an easy woman to deal with, but I’m here. A little small talk will convince her that you’re my new girlfriend.”
The mention of his mother brought her trepidation roaring back. From all accounts, Kirk’s mother was an iron-willed woman. Iron-willed enough to have dragged down the Livingston family name after a century of success.
Swallowing hard, she let Kirk lead her across the grass to their seats.
A woman with short, stylishly-cut white hair frowned as they took their seats beside her. Luckily, Kirk would be sitting between her and the harsh-looking woman.
“Hello, Mom.” Kirk wrapped a protective arm around her. “I’d like to introduce you to Bethany Walker. My date.”
Bethany stiffened under his mother’s withering gaze.
With a derisive sniff, his mother said, “I’m Vivian Sterling. A pleasure.”
The way Vivian said it made it sound like anything but.
“Pleasure to meet you, too,” Bethany said. Kirk needed her to convince his mother that she was his loving girlfriend. The best way to do that was to be polite to his mother no matter how difficult it might be.
Vivian’s eyes narrowed and she leaned forward. “You look familiar, dear.”
Her body started to shake from panic. “I don’t think so. I just have one of those faces—”
“Oh, no you don’t. You don’t see bone structure like yours every day,” Vivian said, cutting her off. “That’s why you look so familiar. I recognize you.” She crossed her arms. “In fact, I know exactly who you are.”
HIS MOTHER WAS DOING it again. Pushing her paranoia onto his private life. Keeping his arm around Bethany’s shaking shoulders, he turned to his mother. Clearly, she was making Bethany uncomfortable. “Mom, Bethany was a SIB client. That’s probably where you recognize her from. Can you not do this for once? Can we please just enjoy the wedding?”
Vivian frowned, but thankfully didn’t say another word.
Fine with him. As long as his mother reported to his father that he’d shown up with a date, he didn’t care if he irritated her in the process.
Kirk turned to Bethany and gave her an encouraging smile. “You’re safe with me.”
She dipped her head and leaned even closer to him. “Thank you.”
Shielding her was now almost second nature to him. Protecting Bethany from anyone who might want to harm her was a compulsion. An instinct he couldn’t override. For someone he was only pretending to date, that was dangerous. It was probably even more dangerous than the kiss they’d shared, because it lasted longer. Their kiss. The moment her soft lips had yielded to him, something animalistic had switched on inside him. He had practically devoured her. Savored her taste the way she’d taught him to savor wine.
The hush that fell over the crowd dragged him from his increasingly lustful thoughts.
His cousin, Ian, was taking his place inside the small gazebo at the end of the aisle.
“Looks like it’s almost time,” Bethany whispered.
Realizing that he still had his arm wrapped around her, he pulled it back. As much as he wanted to protect her, they hadn’t actually discussed anything after that kiss. She had just run off. Kissing her had felt so damn right, and yet he felt guilty about it. Felt guilty about pursuing something with a woman who was relying on his help to survive. Yet, before she had fled from the guesthouse, she had insisted that she was taking advantage of him.
As complicated as the situation was, it was obvious that she needed her space. Maybe he’d pushed too fast. But how could that be if she had kissed him with the same urgency? The same passionate fire?
Another hush fell over the guests. The sounds of violins playing a wedding march filled the air and the last few stragglers took their seats. Suddenly the crowd let out an awed gasp as Ian’s bride stepped out onto the lawn with her father.
Ian’s bride, Margaret, was stunning, wearing a smile that lit up her face as she walked gracefully down the aisle. Pride for his cousin swelled in his chest. As distracted as he’d been with work, Kirk was grateful that he was here now. His cousin was as close as a brother, and he was damn happy Ian had found someone to share his life with. Instead of the pressure to find a relationship like he thought he’d feel, Kirk was almost hopeful. If Ian had found someone despite the pitfalls of newly-found wealth, maybe there was a chance for him yet.
That thought made him turn to look at Bethany. She was staring at Margaret in absolute delight, the tension she’d been carrying in her shoulders now gone. Seeing her open, unashamed joy for someone she barely knew made Kirk’s heart burn with a yearning of its own. He knew that Bethany had gone through some kind of tragedy, yet here she was, absolutely overjoyed at a near stranger’s happiness.
Her teeth grazed her lower lip as she leaned forward in her seat. Clasping her hands, her eyes followed the bride. Everyone else in the crowd was looking at the bride as well. But not him. While everyone else was looking at Margaret float down the aisle, he couldn’t take his eyes off Bethany.
Though her hat cast a shadow over her face, her blue eyes glittered. Her blond hair was pinned up, exposing the column of her slender neck. He would never say it out loud, but she outshone the bride.
“She looks so beautiful,” Bethany breathed.
He nodded, eyes still trained on Bethany. “She does.”
The ceremony went off without incident. When it was finally time for Ian to kiss Margaret, Ian’s mother burst into happy tears from her seat up front. As Ian and Margaret headed back up the aisle and out of sight, the guests started to get to their feet.
“The reception is going to be inside the country club,” he reminded Bethany. “Chef Henri will be doing the catering.”
“That means the food is going to be delicious,” she said. She had a dreamy look on her face, and Kirk wasn’t sure if it was for the food or because of the ceremony they’d just witnessed.
Placing his hands around her small waist, he guided her out of their row of seats. It was going to be tough to maneuver through the crowd, so he wanted to be around to keep her safe.
“Just a moment.” His mother practically shoved her way past them, blocking their path.
Kirk gritted his teeth. “What are you doing?”
“We need to talk—”
“Right now? At Ian’s wedding?” He narrowed his eyes in warning. “Whatever it is, it can wait. I’m serious, Mother. Give it a rest.”
“Fine. Have it your way. You can learn—you know what, forget it. I have business to attend to anyway.” His mother folded her arms and stormed off, disappearing into the crowd.
He rubbed Bethany’s back, trying to reassure her. “I’m sorry. Looks like my mother has it out for you because I didn’t introduce you to her before the wedding.”
“It’s probably best if we stay out of her way,” she said. “If we leave early, we won’t have to deal with her being upset.”
“We can’t leave early,” he told her. “This is my cousin’s wedding. Plus, we have a deal, remember? We have to sell our relationship. It’s the best way to get my father off my back.”
Her lips thinned as she nodded. “I remember.”
Bethany’s discomfort wasn’t surprising, so he made a mental note to get her away from the crowd later. His mother must have really gotten to her. They might not be able to leave early, but he’d check up on her in private when an opportunity presented itself. “Anyway, there are some investors here that were on the list you approved. This is your chance to network and pitch ideas to them.”
That didn’t cheer her up the way he’d expected. Her face was pale and she looked positively shaken. “If you’re nervous about meeting investors, don’t worry. I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Finally a shaky smile. No doubt meeting investors was adding to her anxiety. Today was probably almost as nerve-wracking for her as it was for the bride and groom. The best thing to do now was to find their seats and make sure she ate something.
Taking her hand in his Kirk led her through the thinning crowd, walking her through the country club to the reception hall.
Guests were milling about, talking and drinking while they waited to be served. Ian and Margaret were already seated at the large center table, surrounded by their parents and siblings.
Luckily there wasn’t a seating arrangement, which meant he wasn’t going to have to suffer through sitting with some insufferable relative. Or worse, his mother.
He spotted a familiar face across the hall. “There’s Jane Tanner. She’s excited about meeting you.”
“Really?” Bethany asked with an arched eyebrow. “I know I approved her being on the list of investors, but why does she care about fashion?”
“Jane is as new-money as they come,” he answered. “Her parents made their fortune in fast food chains. Old money wouldn’t be caught dead welcoming a fast food heiress into their inner circle without a good reason. Jane thinks that investing in a high-fashion brand might give her more respectability. And, she’s got money to burn.”
Bethany chewed her lip.
He squeezed her hand. “Your investors aren’t going to slap their logos onto your designs.”
“Okay.” She straightened her posture, determination etched on her face. “Let’s do this.”
Together they walked over to Jane and her group of boisterous hangers-on. Kirk made the introductions, making sure to look like a supportive boyfriend. They were killing two birds with one stone during this reception. He was getting a fake relationship out of this, while Bethany would get her shot at finding an investor.
Jane reached her hand out to Bethany, a giant smile on her face. “Oh, wow. Don’t tell me you designed this dress yourself?”
“I did,” Bethany replied breathlessly. “I also designed Kirk’s suit.”
“Holy cow, I thought Kirk was full of it when he said his new girlfriend was a designer.” Jane laughed loudly, her red curls bouncing. “These rich guys are always forcing their girlfriends on the rest of us, trying to get them jobs or investments.” Jane rolled her eyes then lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Don’t say I said so, but most of those girls are either brainless or talentless. But you, my dear… I’m dying over this dress.”
“Uh… thank you.” Bethany blinked, obviously surprised by Jane’s in-your-face manner.
While he wasn’t very close to Jane, since she ran with a party crowd, her forthrightness was something he admired. In a world as cutthroat as the upper class, it was good to know people who were direct. “Bethany went to fashion school in Italy,” he said with genuine pride.
“No way!” Jane’s smile widened.
“It was more of a foreign exchange thing,” Bethany said quickly. “I wasn’t in Italy the whole time.”
“Well, wherever you learned, that dress is killer,” Jane said. “I’m so going to introduce you to the rest of my friends here. They’re all going to beg you to design clothes for them.”
For the next several minutes Jane, Bethany, and Jane’s friends talked about fashion. Not a topic he was interested in, though he didn’t mind it. Watching Bethany loosen up and talk about her passions was more than enough for him. Her previous anxiety was now replaced by a relaxed ease, her charm winning everyone over. Including him. Seeing her so confident was knocking him sideways. Kirk started to imagine what it would be like to have her on his arm all the time. He doubted future upper-class events would ever be tedious if she was around.
After Bethany handed out her business cards to Jane and her eager friends, one of the hostesses serving drinks announced that lunch was being served.
“It was awesome to meet you, Bethany,” Jane said enthusiastically. “I want to hear your ideas for the store, so now that I’ve got your card I’ll be in touch.”
Bethany smiled and thanked Jane profusely before he walked her to one of the tables. Lunch was soon served, and it was truly spectacular. Chef Henri had outdone himself. After lunch came toasts, speeches, and finally the cutting of the enormous wedding cake.
As the cake was being cut, guests got up from their seats and started dancing to music from the live jazz band.
“Do you want to dance?” he asked.
Bethany shot him an incredulous look. “You dance?”
“I dance if you want to.” Any excuse to hold her in his arms.
“Then, yes. I’d love to.” She took off her hat and set it down on the table beside her purse.
He reached for her hand and led her to the dancefloor. The tempo of the music slowed down to a lazy, sensual jazz number that made him wrap his arms around her waist. He pulled her close. Relished the sensation of their bodies so close together. When she wrapped her arms around him, she held his gaze. Fire burned in her eyes as they moved, every line and curve of her body perfectly molded to his.
His arousal was almost immediate. So immediate that he had to force himself to concentrate on dancing. Focus on the way his hands splayed across the small of her back. Concentrate on keeping time to the music, when all he wanted to do was make the world vanish. Make it vanish long enough to lose himself in her.
Out of the corner of his eye he spotted his mother. Charging towards them, undeterred by the dancing couples in her way.
Without hesitating, he grabbed Bethany’s hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
She took a quick glance over her shoulder, squeezed his hand, and followed him away from the reception hall.
The best course of action was to get away from his mother entirely. He wasn’t in any mood to deal with her meddling. Not now that he had a chance to be alone with Bethany.
Once he made arrangements at the front of the clubhouse, he got a room key and headed to one of the guest rooms on the property.
He unlocked the guest room door and motioned for Bethany to step inside. “We can hide from my mother in here.”
“Do you usually hide from her?” Bethany asked as she walked inside.
He shut the door behind him. “No. But for our own sanity it’s best to avoid her when she gets like this. She has a way of dragging down a mood when she’s ready.” Kirk sighed. “I know I warned you about her, but I didn’t know it would be this bad.”
“I think my presence offended her,” she murmured.
“I seriously doubt she actually recognizes you from somewhere,” he said. “She’s just trying to stir up trouble. Anyway, we can forget about her for now.”
His cell phone started buzzing. Maybe he had spoken too soon. He reached for his phone and glanced at the screen. His mother. Irritated, he ignored the call, put his phone on silent, and shoved it back into his pocket.
“This is a nice room.” She walked around, slowly taking in her surroundings.
In addition to its elegant furnishings, the room was also small. There was a pair of armchairs, a TV, and a four-poster bed. Now that he was alone with her, Kirk wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. They at least needed to talk about the kiss they’d shared. Get their feelings about it out in the open once and for all.
When she stopped at the foot of the bed, Bethany turned to face him. Curiosity and something else flashed in her eyes. Recognition. That’s what flashed in the depths of her blue eyes. She looked as if she was about to ask a question while already knowing the answer. “Kirk, did you bring me to this room to get me into bed?”