Kirk was beyond furious with his father. He’d guessed correctly when he’d explained his predicament to Bethany. Not only had his dad told Ian he was bringing a date to the wedding, but he’d told the whole family.
He was supposed to be going through the financial section of the newspaper like he always did on Sunday mornings. Sure, it was an old-school habit, but it always prepared him for the week. Instead he was on the patio, scrolling through breathless texts from his mother. Most of her messages were demanding he introduce her to his date before the wedding.
Irritated, he got to his feet to head back into the house. This whole setup was supposed to be easy.
What he wanted to do was go to the wedding with Bethany for appearances. While his father was distracted with that, he’d focus on getting the more established corporations to invest in SIB. Maybe he’d even go to one of those insipid upper-class events for show. Pretend to settle in to a more old-money lifestyle. Let his father think he was turning into what he wanted while he did the actual hard work of getting new corporations to invest in the company. By the time that happened, his father would be too pleased to care if he had a girlfriend or knew what Italian wine to pair with what meal.
Unfortunately, it looked like his father was dragging his paranoid, meddling mother into this, and that meant none of this was going to be easy.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a flash of gold. Bethany, and her glorious head of hair. He turned to face her. She was so stunning she had already made him lose his train of thought.
“Good morning.” Her glossy pink lips curved up into a smile.
“I didn’t see you at breakfast today,” he said.
“I asked one of the maids to deliver breakfast to the guesthouse. I wanted to work in there while I ate breakfast. I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s perfectly okay,” he reassured her. “It’s just, I haven’t seen you since yesterday morning.” After she had agreed to be his date, he’d gone to help his cousin create a menu for his wedding reception. He hadn’t seen her since. Which shouldn’t have mattered as much as it did, but that hadn’t stopped him from missing her. “I wanted to make sure you were still okay with our arrangement. I don’t want you to feel any pressure, so if you want to back out at any time—”
“I’m still okay with it,” she interrupted. “After everything you’ve done for me, I’m happy to help.”
“Don’t think you have to do this as some kind of payment,” he said. “Seriously, Bethany, I never want you to feel like you’re obligated to me in any way.”
“I want to help,” she said firmly. “Trust me on this—I know what it’s like to face pressure from my own dad.”
“Really? What kind of pressure has your father put on you?”
“Never mind that.” She waved her hands dismissively. “Anyway, I’m on my way out, so if you’ll excuse me…”
“Right.” He paused. “Where are you headed? I’ll drive you.”
“I’m on my way to the fabric store,” she said. “I got an e-mail about a special discount they’re offering me, so I thought I’d take advantage and get the fabric for your suit.”
“That’s great. I can come with you and help you choose the fabric.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You want to spend your day looking at luxury fabrics?”
He wanted to spend his day looking at her. Talking to her. Just being around her. Kirk couldn’t go back to focusing on work now. Not dropping everything to get closer to Bethany. “If we’re going to pretend to be a couple, it’s a good idea for us to get to know each other better.”
“That makes sense.” She chewed her lip and then nodded. “Okay. Let’s go then.”
Ten minutes later he was driving out of the estate, heading for downtown San Diego.
“My mother wants to meet you,” he told her, keeping his eyes on the road.
Bethany shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Why does she want to do that?”
“Don’t worry,” he said, detecting a hint of trepidation in her voice. “She wanted to meet my new girlfriend before the wedding, but I won’t let that happen. It wasn’t part of our arrangement. Not to mention, my mother can be…”
He chuckled. “Let’s just say that she can be a lot. If you stick by me during the wedding you’ll be safe from her.”
“She sounds like a handful. Kind of like my own mother.” Bethany sighed.
Kirk realized that she hadn’t given him many clues about her family. She was obviously having financial trouble, but her family remained a mystery to him. Maybe they were estranged. It sounded like her parents were a tough subject for her. “I’m sorry if you’ve been having issues with your parents. That can’t be easy on top of the ordeal you’ve had with your landlord.”
“Thanks. I guess it’s been hard these past few years.”
Silence fell. Her demeanor changed, and she seemed to withdraw from him. It was the same quick change he’d seen in her when he had brought up Lloyd Livingston. Maybe the Livingstons had stolen money from Bethany’s family. That would certainly explain a few things. Like her family troubles, her financial woes, and why he felt like he knew her from somewhere. There was a chance that her family had been victims of the Livingstons and she was just too ashamed to admit it.
“Bethany, you can talk about it,” he urged gently. “We don’t know each other well, but I’ve been there. My family had financial problems when I was a kid, as hard as it is to imagine. I know the strain it can put on families.”
“It’s just… our financial problems mean that my father can’t get a job. My brother can’t keep a job. And my mother is too drunk to do anything but stay at seedy motels. I haven’t seen her in weeks and I know she’s probably facedown drunk somewhere.” She let out another sigh, only this time it was agonized. Exhausted and full of unspoken pain.
“So, they expect you to solve everything,” he said.
“They do. Not that I’m complaining. It’s just a lot to deal with sometimes.”
He looked into the mirror and caught a glimpse of her staring down at her hands. The air of fragility that had clung to her the day he first met her was back. Making her look fragile. As transparent and breakable as glass. The urge to protect her now was so overwhelming he had to force himself to concentrate on driving.
“The burden is all on you,” he went on. “You’re the responsible one they’re all leaning on. That’s why you came in for the loan, didn’t you?”
“Opening a store is my dream, but…”
“But you also want to be financially independent enough to help your family,” he finished for her.
“Yes,” she said in surprise. “Am I that easy to read?”
“It’s not that,” he said. “I just know how it feels. When I was a kid I’d work every odd job I could and give every cent to my mother. I started working when I was ten. Right through college. When the other kids were out having fun, I’d be hawking stuff on sidewalks or working shifts at burger joints. Anything to help my family survive.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said quietly. “I mean, I’m an adult. At my age, I can handle the pressure. I can’t imagine having to work that hard as a child.”
“My parents started in the basement of the Livingston Bank before we ended up owning it and making it our own,” he explained. “They started off handling mail and dealing with old archive files. Then, they steadily worked their way up for almost fifteen years. As tough as it was, my parents aren’t struggling anymore. We’ve done well for ourselves. I guess what I’m saying is, if we can make it anyone can. If you refuse to let anyone stand in your way, you’ll be a success.”
“I’ll remember that.”
He glanced in the mirror again to get another glimpse of her. Bethany was smiling, only this time he realized the warmth of her smile didn’t reach the depths of her sad blue eyes.
WALKING INTO THE LUXURY fabric store was like walking into heaven. Bethany inhaled as she stepped inside, enjoying that new fabric smell. Rolls of fabrics were piled high on shelves. There was everything from crisp cotton to the finest cashmere.
She waved at the sales rep, who flashed her a warm smile. Visits to the store were frequent enough for her to recognize the staff on sight.
“So, where do we begin?” Kirk asked.
“We’re going to start with silk,” she said, heading deeper into the store.
He followed her. “You’re making my suit out of silk?”
“I’m lining the inside of your jacket with silk,” she explained. Though he’d probably only wear the suit once, she wanted it to be absolutely perfect. It might be part of her ruse to gain his trust, but she refused to attach her name to something of inferior quality. She had a reputation to uphold. Only the best for her clients. Even if they were Sterlings. “Besides, I have to get fabric to make my dress, too.”
Kirk stopped in his tracks. “Damn, I didn’t even think about the fact that you’d need a dress for the wedding. Let me buy you a dress so you won’t have to stress yourself out making one.”
She gave him a hard look. “I don’t buy dresses for special occasions. If I’m going to an event, I make sure it’s something I’ve made for myself. What kind of designer would I be if I didn’t wear my own designs? I have to show that I believe in myself.”
“But, won’t that be even more trouble?” He furrowed his brow, his breathtaking green eyes darkening with worry. “You’ll be exhausted from all the hours you spend making everything.”
“I’m used to hard work,” she insisted. “Plus, I’m going to keep my dress very simple. It won’t be nearly as complicated as a suit.”
“If you’re going to make a dress, I’ll buy the fabric for you,” he said. “I’ll buy all the materials you need. I’m the one who asked you to be my date, and paying for the material is the least I can do.”
She opened her mouth to argue, but he quieted her with a stern look.
There was no debating him when he insisted on getting his own way. Which she was starting to learn was something that happened often. Somehow he had wrangled his way into letting her stay at his home for free, commissioned a suit, and was now paying for her dress. He was asking a lot of her to be his fake girlfriend, but still.
Kirk’s confident, assured sort of kindness was unnerving her. Trusting him would be folly. The fastest way to ruin her father’s redemption. But he was being so generous. And now she guessed that generosity was because he had gone through hardship as a kid. She had always known that the Sterlings hadn’t been well-off, but she hadn’t known the extent of their financial difficulties. Poor Kirk. The thought of a little boy working to support his family made her heart squeeze in sympathy for him.
As a surge of emotion hit her, she turned her attention to the fabric on the shelves. Work would distract her from her feelings. It would remind her that too much sympathy for Kirk was misguided. Helping him with this wedding was one thing. Entertaining anything that prevented her from completing her mission was another.
She lifted her hand to gently touch the dark-blue silk overhead. Dark-blue silk for his suit and light-blue silk for her dress would be perfect. They’d match the wedding color scheme and each other. That thought made her face flush.
Suddenly, he raised his hand to touch the silk. His fingertips brushed against the back of her hand. For a second she thought he’d pull his hand back. He didn’t. Instead, he covered her hand with his, his intense eyes meeting hers.
“You have a hard time accepting help.” His words weren’t a question. They were a statement. A fact. Said as if he knew her so well no further questions were necessary. “Even when you ask for it,” he added.
Years had gone by without her accepting help from anyone. While she had drowned in student loan debt, she had sewn and designed for everything from high school theater productions to businessmen on their way up the corporate ladder. Nobody had helped her. Her brother had been dealing with his own issues. Her mother was a drunk. And her ex-boyfriend had turned out to be a two-faced jerk. Now, here was a man offering her more than she could have ever dreamed of and all she felt was guilt.
A relentless guilt that was eating away at her. Kirk was helping her and she was plotting to pay him back with ice-cold revenge. She couldn’t take his generosity anymore. Not without it stifling her and choking the life out of her.
“You don’t know anything about me,” she hissed sharply.
He pulled his hand back. “I’m not trying to push you. But it’s obvious that something is going on with you. Something you’re too ashamed to tell me.”
“I barely know you,” she snapped. “I don’t owe you an explanation.”
Picking a fight was the only way to force the gnawing guilt back down. If he was angry with her, he’d take back his kindness. Prove what she’d always known. That, deep down, he was like everyone else. Out to get his cut even if he had to fake being generous to get it. She needed to see his true colors. That way she’d know her plan for revenge was the right thing to do.
“You’re right, you don’t.” He kept his voice low and even, like he was refusing to be baited into an argument. “That isn’t going to stop me from being concerned about you.”
Infuriated, she took a step back. “I’m not worth your concern. One day you’ll realize that.”
Kirk reached out, his fingers curling around her shoulders. He was so imposing. His presence seemed to make everything else seem smaller. Like he was the center of everything. The only thing that mattered. “Don’t talk like that. You are worth the concern. I know more about you than you think.”
She gasped. “What are you talking about? What do you know?”
“I know that you feel humiliated over your financial problems,” he said. “And I’m guessing it has something to do with Lloyd Livingston.”
Panic sent her reeling. Desperate to get out of his grip before the accusation came, she wrenched free of him. “Please—”
“Your family lost money to his fraud.” His gaze met hers. Those green eyes were so piercing she felt frozen in place. Like she couldn’t run or hide from him even if she wanted to. As he looked down into her soul, she had never felt so exposed in her life. So naked. “I should have figured it out sooner. I’ve met so many people over the years who were left with nothing because Lloyd Livingston stole from them. Life savings gone. People declaring bankruptcy. That’s why you’re struggling, aren’t you? You lost everything to the Livingstons.”
Bethany’s guilt started to dissipate, fury and resentment replacing it. Her father was innocent. There was no way he could have stolen from people. Nobody had ever established a motive. Unlike the Sterlings, who had plenty of motive to seize her father’s company, steal billions, and then frame him for their crimes. “Fine. We lost everything. Are you happy now?”
“I’m so sorry—”
“Save it.” She cut him off sharply. “I just wanted to come here to buy fabric. Not talk about my family’s downfall.” Her breath hitched as her chest tightened painfully. She had picked a fight to get rid of the guilt. Arguing with him was supposed to distract her. Help her shake off the guilt so that she could keep going with her mission. And yet the argument hadn’t felt like a ruse at all. It had felt way too real.
Her body was shaking with anger. Regret tugged painfully at her insides. Kirk hadn’t lost his temper with her. Instead, he pitied her. Sympathized with her. Maybe she couldn’t tell him who she really was, but for a moment he had seen her pain. Seen it and hadn’t walked away. Why was he making this so difficult? Didn’t he see how much his generosity was tearing her up inside?
Disappointment made her turn away from him.
“Bethany, wait,” he said firmly. “Talk to me.”
Hot tears stung her eyes and she refused to let him see. Ignoring his plea, she started to head up the aisle. The best way to get through this ordeal now was to pretend that nothing had happened. Even if fighting with him hurt more than she could have ever imagined.