“Bethany, we need to talk. Now .” Kirk was standing in the doorway of the guesthouse.
Eyes widening, she stared up at him. She had never heard him speak in that tone. Nor had he ever looked at her like that, a combination of anger and disappointment flashing in his green eyes. Usually he came home from work in the evening, but it was early afternoon right now. Her stomach knotted up.
She had kept to herself for the past few days as she went over ideas for a plan. Since she couldn’t confess everything to Kirk, she tried to figure out another way to warn him. That way he’d be ready for whatever came when his family was finally exposed. Nobody had warned her when her father had been dragged off and arrested. Nobody had prepared her for the humiliation of being harassed for years. Maybe if they had, the shock of it wouldn’t have been so complete.
Mouth too dry to speak, she nodded.
Kirk turned around and sauntered away from the guesthouse, back towards the main mansion.
Apprehension hit her, but she forced herself to close the front door and struggled to keep up with his long strides. Once they were inside the house, he made his way to his study and ushered her inside.
She had never been in this room before. The study was imposing. All dark, masculine wood and antiques weighted down by history. His desk was enormous, and the towering bookshelves made her shrink back. Never had she felt so small.
For weeks she had hoped to find a way inside, yet now that she was in his study all she wanted to do was run back out. As expansive as the study was, a terrifying claustrophobia pressed down on her. Like the walls were slowly closing in. Choking the life out of her.
“What’s this about?” she asked quietly.
He crossed his arms and stared down his nose at her. “I just wrapped up my meeting with Jane Tanner.”
Shivering under his gaze, she asked, “Did something go wrong?”
“I had sent her all your loan forms earlier this week,” he said, jaw clenching. “You’ll never believe what I discovered after a background check. I had to get poor Jane up to speed on your family, but I managed to vouch for you nonetheless.”
Her entire body started to tremble as the realization sank in. “I can explain—”
“Can you?” he demanded with a snarl. “Please, do explain, Bethany. Explain to me how I just got concrete proof that you aren’t who you say you are.”
She took a step back from him, needing to put distance between them. The only way to salvage what they had was to cool his anger. Get him to understand that she really was trying to protect him now. “I am who I say I am. It’s just that I left some things out.”
“Because…” Her chest tightened painfully. Bracing against the pain, she shut her eyes for a moment before opening them again. “You know who my father is. So, you know why I couldn’t tell you.”
“I’ve given you ample opportunity to tell me.”
“What do you mean?” She paused. “You knew. Oh, fuck. How long have you known?”
The disappointed expression on his face hardened into pure anger. “Don’t try to turn this back on me. I found out from my mother at the wedding. Do you know how many chances I’ve given you to come clean?”
Bethany searched through her memories, going through everything that had transpired during the wedding and after. “When exactly did you find out at the wedding? Was it before we slept together?”
“Are you joking right now?” He glared. “No, I had no idea who you really were when we slept together. That was genuine. To me, anyway. You’re the one who’s lied this entire time. You seduced me for whatever dark, twisted plan you have with your father.”
Her lower lip trembled. “It was real for me, too, Kirk.”
“You’re a liar,” he spat out. “I told you things I’ve never told anyone. I trusted you, Bethany. Damn, I was such a fool. You’ll never be able to fool me again.”
“I lied. I did. Lloyd Livingston is my father,” she said desperately. “But my feelings are real. I swear it.”
“Is that why you hooked your claws into me from the moment we met? Because you’ve got feelings for me?”
“The day I walked into the bank, I never thought I’d meet you,” she admitted. “I thought I’d meet a loan manager and use them to get information. When I saw that it was you—”
“And you just had to run with it,” he said. “You saw me and you saw a chance. What was your plan? Frame me for something? Get me sent to prison just like your father?”
“No. Never.” The thought of him believing she was capable of something so cruel made her take several steps towards him. No matter how badly she wanted to clear her father’s name, she never intended to do it by setting Kirk up. She had always wanted the truth about the Sterlings to come out. The truth. Not some cooked up lies for her own gain. “I only wanted to find out your family’s secrets. Use those secrets to clear my father’s name. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Do you hear yourself? You actually planned on clearing that crook’s name? That thieving monster?”
“He’s not a monster,” she insisted. “My father didn’t do those things.”
“You actually believe that.” He laughed humorlessly. “Fuck, you’re just as warped as he is. Your father ruined thousands of people’s lives. People committed suicide because of him. It’s not my family’s fault that your father chose to destroy everything he ever touched.”
“He was set up,” she said. “I know he was. If you knew him like I knew him—”
“You’re lost, Bethany. I see that now. You’re so wrapped up in this story you’ve told yourself that you can’t see right from wrong.” Kirk shook his head sadly. “I can see now that, even though you’re a master manipulator, your father is also manipulating you into believing his lies. The same way you manipulated me into thinking you gave a damn about me.”
“I do care about you,” she choked out. Tears slid down her cheeks. “I started off with a plan to get dirt on you, but that changed when I saw the kind of man you really are. You’re a good person, and so I stopped wanting to hurt you.”
“More lies.” He walked over to the desk. “You’ve been trying to ruin me this whole time.”
“Not you. Your parents maybe, but not you.”
Kirk grabbed a manila envelope from his desk, holding on to it tightly in his rage. “Am I supposed to believe that bull? You’d hurt my parents, but not me? Are out of your mind? My parents are the people I love most in the world. If you destroy them, you destroy me. How in the hell could you think I’d forgive you for ruining them?”
“They’re not what you think they are,” she said. “You say my father is a crook, but he’s not. It’s your parents. They’re the real crooks.”
“Not another word,” he barked, making her flinch in surprise. “If you utter one more lie, I swear I’ll have you arrested for fraud and trespassing.”
She forced down a breath, desperate to fill her lungs with air. “You have every right to believe that I’m a liar. I’ve given you no reason to believe me. Please see that I care for you.”
“I see that you’ve been through something traumatic,” he said. “And you need someone to blame for your father’s crimes. For that reason, I’m giving you this.” He held up the envelope and shoved it into her hand. “Take it. It guarantees that you’ll get a loan from Jane Tanner. I’ve made sure to let Jane know that, even though you’ve lied to me, your goals are real. If there’s even a hint of impropriety with Jane’s investment money, you will be going to prison for a very long time.”
His threat broke her. Sobs wracked her body. He didn’t believe in her anyway. After all his kindness and generosity, he had lost trust and faith in her. The pain was almost unbearable, with shock as cold as the shock she had felt when her father had been dragged away. Only, this shock was her fault. There was no one to blame but herself for the awful things she had done to Kirk.
She gulped down some air, desperate to breathe through the agony.
Through her blurry vision she saw the hatred burning in his eyes. Hate and contempt. The same look everyone who recognized her gave her. She was the daughter of an alleged fraudster. A crook who had brought people to their own deaths. For ten years she had steeled her spine and found a way to withstand that look. Yet nothing could have prepared her for having to see that same look in Kirk’s eyes.
His burning hatred ground what was left of her into dust. The one person she had started to count on after all this time loathed her.
Unable to bear another moment, she walked back to the heavy doors. Clutching the precious envelope in her hands, she said, “Thank you for getting this loan for me. I’m going to call Jane right away to thank her.”
“You can call her, but you won’t be doing that from my house.”
“You heard me,” he said icily. “This is your last hour here. I can’t stand to look at you a moment longer. Stay away from me and my family. Pack your bags and get the hell out of my house.”
Pain lanced through every fiber of her being. Down to her soul. “I’m sorry, Kirk. I’ll go.”
“Go, and don’t ever come back here. Never say another damn word to me,” he thundered. “Goodbye, Bethany Livingston. This is the last time you’ll ever see me.” With that, he turned his back on her without giving her a second glance.