“Go to lunch?” She gaped at him. “With you?”
Who else would you be going to lunch with? Bethany tried her best to keep from cringing. Her nerves were getting the best of her, making it hard to think straight. Food did sound really good right now. And food with him sounded even better. For about a million reasons.
He nodded. “I’ll pay, of course. And we can talk some more about your loan application.”
Her stubborn pride hated relying on anyone for money, but this was her chance to get close to him. Stumbling into Kirk Sterling of all people was a stroke of luck. “Okay. I’d like that very much. Thank you.”
“Excellent.” He gave her a smile that made her stomach flutter. Her body reacting to him was the last thing she needed on her mission.
Kirk got up, handed back her application, and walked her out of the loan office. He placed his heavy hand on the small of her back, guiding her through the bank. His touch burned through the fabric of her dress, the weight of his hand reminding her of how long it had been since she’d had any kind of physical contact with a man.
God, she was over-thinking this encounter already. The way she always did. Her days of youthful confidence were long behind her.
When they made it into the sunshine outside he led her to a sleek, black Mercedes in the executive parking lot.
As he helped her slip into the interior’s plush leather seat, she subtly sized him up. Tall, dark, and handsome didn’t even begin to describe him. She hadn’t been kidding when she had said he would fit in if he visited Italy. With his jet-black hair, tanned skin, and intense green eyes he had the looks of an Italian model.
He got into the driver’s seat beside her and revved the engine.
Her breath caught in her throat as he tore out of the parking lot and out onto the street. It had been ages since she had been in a car this luxurious. Even longer since she had flirted with a man this handsome. Or this wealthy.
“We’re getting Italian for lunch,” he informed her, navigating the car through lunchtime traffic with ease.
Kirk didn’t say it like it was a suggestion. He said it like he was in complete command of the situation. Which, of course, he was. He was a Sterling, after all.
And Sterlings are always in control, she thought bitterly.
Which made her wonder, what exactly did Kirk want from her? There was no way he usually invited lowly, debt-ridden clients like her out to lunch. This wasn’t some gesture out of the goodness of his heart. Kirk was a Sterling. Everyone knew that the Sterlings didn’t have hearts. He had to have some kind of ulterior motive.
If he knew her ulterior motive, he wouldn’t hesitate to destroy her. The same way his family had destroyed her family all those years ago. Earlier at the bank, Kirk had thought he recognized her from somewhere. That had nearly thrown her off completely. Luckily, he hadn’t figured out that she was a Livingston. She just hoped that nobody at the restaurant recognized her either.
“I DON’T EXPECT THIS to taste exactly like the real thing.” He opened the restaurant door for her. “Italiana is a terrific restaurant, but you’ve probably been spoiled by your time in Italy.”
She slipped inside, flashing him a grateful smile. “Managing my expectations?”
“Hardly.” Kirk leaned in close enough for her to smell his masculine cologne. “While you might have been spoiled by the food over there, I doubt the men knew how to keep up with you.” The deep timbre of his baritone voice and the implication of his words made her shiver.
Her eyes widened at the realization that he really was flirting with her. Maybe that had been his sole motive for inviting her to lunch. “It takes a special kind of man to keep up with me, Kirk.”
Italiana was obscenely opulent. The kind of restaurant her parents would have taken her to for some minor occasion when she was a girl. Chandeliers hung overhead and they walked on a gleaming floor of white marble. All of the décor was a pristine white, from the painted wooden chairs to the columns that gave the place an old-style Italian feel.
A waiter guided them to an empty table. Once they were seated, she picked up a leather-bound menu and flicked it open. Every single dish was beyond anything she could afford. These days her idea of a hearty meal was packet noodles.
Bethany made sure she held the menu as close to her face as possible. This was the kind of restaurant her family’s former friends frequented. If someone recognized her, the game would be over before it had even started.
“See anything you’d like?” he asked.
It would be gauche to order the most expensive item on the menu, but since Kirk Sterling was the one paying she’d risk it. “The pasta with white truffles sounds good.”
If he thought the three-hundred-dollar price tag was too high, he didn’t show it. All he did was nod and flash her a small smile. “You have incredible taste,” he said in an approving tone that made her flush with heat.
She mentally kicked herself. Bethany had been so starved for any kind of approval over the years that she was now actually relishing the approval of her family’s greatest enemy. The Sterlings were the ones who were responsible for her current debt and poverty. For her brother’s aimlessness and her mother’s alcoholism. Their cruelty had sent her father to prison for ten long years. Her family had been stripped of everything after the government had seized their assets.
“What about you?” she asked. “See anything you like?”
He lifted his gaze, his eyes sweeping over her. Heat blazed in their depths, turning his green eyes as brilliant as emeralds. There was something thrilling about a man looking at her like he was. With stark, unrestrained hunger. A hunger she could use to her advantage. “I do,” he said, looking right at her. “I see something I like very much.”
Her response was a knowing smile. The trick to ensnaring him was to make sure she didn’t appear too greedy for his attention. She hadn’t expected to bump into Kirk today, and she had to be quick on her feet if she hoped to get as much dirt on him as she could.
The plan for today had been to get into Sterling International Bank to dig for incriminating evidence she could use against the Sterlings. She had worked out an entire plan over the phone with her father these past several weeks. But Bethany had been expecting to get intel out of a lowly loan officer. Never had she imagined that Kirk Sterling himself would be the one to handle her loan. When she spotted him, she hadn’t believed her good fortune. Finally, after all these years, it looked like her bad luck streak was going to end.
“I’d recommend a wine, but you’re the expert,” he said. “Besides, I’ll lay off the alcohol since I’m driving.”
“There’s an excellent pinot grigio on the menu that I’ve been dying to try again.” She cast him a glance, making a show of sizing him up. If he thought she was into him for his personality rather than his money, he’d be more likely to let his guard down. “I’d recommend a shakerato for you.”
“What is that? Some kind of girly drink?”
She laughed. “It’s iced coffee. You’ll love it.”
“Well, I can’t argue with a take-charge kind of woman.” He returned her smile and put down his menu. “So, Bethany. Tell me more about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?” Apprehension flooded her. Making up an entire backstory about her life was putting her on edge. It was always easier when a lie was as close to the truth as possible. How could she possibly tell a convincing lie, if even hinting at the truth would blow her cover?
Their waiter appeared to take their orders before quickly vanishing.
“Tell me about your family,” Kirk pressed.
No topic was more fraught than the topic of her family. The family that Kirk and his parents had torn apart on her seventeenth birthday. Her charmed life as an heiress had been shattered that day. Her father had been arrested, accused of the most heinous crimes. Crimes she knew he would never commit. No matter what they accused him of, Bethany would always believe in his innocence. Always.
With the help of testimony from the Sterlings, her poor father had been accused of stealing and embezzling funds from everything from charities to wealthy investors. People’s life savings and pensions had vanished overnight. The Sterlings and their lies had sent her father to prison with a fifteen-year sentence.
That was why she had to get dirt on Kirk and the rest of his family. Her family wasn’t going to move on from the betrayal. She wouldn’t rest until her father got the justice and, yes, revenge he deserved for his years of suffering at the hands of the devious and conniving Sterlings.
“There’s not much to tell,” she said. “I’ve got my parents and my older brother.”
“So, no boyfriend or anything?”
His curiosity about her relationship status let her know that she had his interest now. If she could lead him on for a while, she’d get close enough to him to get all the dirt she needed to bring down the Sterlings. “No boyfriend,” she replied in a sultry tone. “I’m totally free and single.”
“Frankly, I’m amazed someone as beautiful and ambitious as you is single, but I’m not going to question my good fortune.” He paused. “Not that I’m presuming anything. I’m just grateful for your company today, Bethany.”
Their order arrived and she started to dig in to her pasta and truffles.
Kirk took a taste of his drink. “You were right about the shakerato. It’s terrific.”
“Glad you like it,” she said. “We’ll make an expert out of you yet.”
“I hope that means you’d be open to learning about my expertise.” His low voice made her think of decadent nights wrapped in silk sheets. And wrapped in his arms.
She pushed that treacherous thought aside. This mission was about pretending to get close to him. Not actually fantasizing about falling into bed with him for real.
“And what would that be?” she asked, fighting to keep the breathlessness out of her voice.
“Latin American cuisine,” he answered. “The food is incredible. I’ve been learning a lot about it now that SIB has been expanding into Latin American markets.”
Anger and jealousy flared in her. That expansion should have been her accomplishment. Her destiny. SIB had been the Livingston Bank before Kirk and his parents stole the bank from her father. And as if that wasn’t enough, they had assured their power by getting her father out of the picture permanently. Stealing a hundred-year-old family business hadn’t been enough for them. They had to ruin her father and her family on top of it all. Now Kirk was lording it over her.
The anger was so overwhelming she reached for her glass to force down some wine to cool her anger.
“I’ve never been anywhere in Latin America,” she said truthfully. Before her father’s arrest she had been planning to take a gap year to travel through the Americas. But with her father behind bars and the family wealth gone, that dream had never come true.
And while her father had wasted away in prison, she had been the one to deal with the day to day humiliation. She had gone from a life filled with happiness to being an outcast. Childhood friends ignored her frantic calls. Extended family had cut her off, wanting nothing to do with her. Meanwhile, her father’s alleged victims hounded her for years.
Bethany had gone through months of daily harassment, threatening phone calls, death threats, and break- ins. Some women had actually spat in her face when they saw her. Grown men had roughed her up in an attempt to take out their frustration on anyone connected to her father. Two fires had mysteriously broken out at her old apartment. The media had even accused her of knowing about the embezzlement, but how could she have known? She had been just a child.
The worst of it came when three of her father’s victims had committed suicide when they learned the scale of their financial losses. Their deaths would haunt her for the rest of her life.
That was why she had taken on her mother’s maiden name. Being non-descript Bethany Walker was so much easier than being Bethany Livingston, daughter of an alleged financial fraudster.
“Maybe that will change,” Kirk said, dragging her from her bitter thoughts.
“I hope it does.”
When they finished their meal, Kirk ordered dessert. While they waited for their dessert to arrive Kirk leaned forward, genuine curiosity burning in his eyes. “So, how long have you been a designer?”
She paused to think. “Well, I’ve always designed now that I think about it. I’ve been sketching fashion ideas ever since I was a kid.”
“Do you have any sketches with you?” he asked.
“Oh.” She was stunned that he wanted to see her work. Stunned and suspicious. No doubt he had his own reasons for showing interest in her work, but she would oblige. Bethany reached into her tote bag to retrieve her portfolio. “I have a portfolio of older sketches. Most of those ended up getting made.” She handed over her portfolio binder.
Kirk flipped the binder open to look over her work.
Her heart started to pound as she watched him appraise her sketches. For some reason, she cared about what he thought. That scared her more than anything. It didn’t matter that he had so kindly invited her to lunch. Didn’t matter that he had been so attentive to her interests. He couldn’t be trusted.
“This is impressive work,” Kirk said enthusiastically. “These suits have a classic feel. Like something out of an old black and white movie.”
“That’s exactly what I was going for.” She stared at him in surprise. “I grew up on old movies and I like infusing that in my designs. What kind of style do you prefer? I can tell from what you’re wearing that you like your suits well-tailored.”
He was wearing a perfectly cut black suit without a tie. The fabric was blended from the look of it, and cost an absolute fortune. “Honestly, my assistant usually buys whatever designer suits the fashion houses send me.”
She chewed her bottom lip, thinking over what would look good on him. As an idea formed in her head, she took her sketchbook from her bag and started sketching as fast as she could. Then, she grabbed some colored pencils to add some color. “I know green is kind of a bold choice, but I think a dark green suit would work well on you.”
Their dessert arrived, but Kirk ignored the mouthwatering tiramisu to pick up her sketchbook. “This is amazing. I would never have tried a color like this.”
“The green matches your eyes,” she said softly. “Plus, you could use a chocolate-colored tie to offset the green. It’s bold, modern, masculine. Maybe a little flashy.”
“Are we still talking about the suit?” He gave her a lopsided grin.
“The suit is an expression of who you are,” she said, returning his smile. “I want my store’s focus to be on high-end, ready-to-wear designs. While also including haute couture and bespoke designs. Getting to know my clients would mean they’d get a personalized touch they couldn’t get anywhere else.”
“You know, having a personal designer of my own sounds like a great idea,” he told her.
“I’d be up to the task if I had a store of my own,” she said.
His smile faded, dashing her hopes. This mission was about getting revenge for her father, but she had dreams of her own. Her dream of opening her own fashion boutique was real. Besides, she needed an excuse to be around him if she had any hopes of getting dirt on his family. Without a reason to be around Kirk, there was no way she could help her father get his revenge. And now it looked like Kirk was going to hit her with some bad news.