I don’t care if you like me or not.
Insatiable lust for power and control runs thick in my veins. My father served as president of the United States of America—and his father before him. Montgomeries are born to lead and rule, to fear nothing and cower to no one, to make allegiances not friends.
But I digress.
With a senate campaign about to launch and presidential aspirations at fever pitch intensity, imagine my dismay when my strategist tells me I need to “settle down” with a “nice girl” in order to appeal to my constituents.
Enter Rowan Aldridge, a head-turning stunner with a charm school walk, Jackie O. refinement, and a well-connected family.
So I’ll do what I have to do, make her believe what I need her to believe, and as soon as the campaign’s over and I’ve secured my senatorial seat, I’ll release my pretty little butterfly back into the wild.
But this isn’t about all of that.
This is what happens a villain falls in love.
“There was a girl crying in the restroom,” she says. “I had to console her.”
“Let’s make rounds, shall we?” I ask, downing the rest of my champagne before leaning into her ear. “I’d like to get out of here while the night’s still young. You slinking around here in that dress and knowing I can’t touch you the way I want to is driving me fucking insane.”
Her chin tucks and her mouth slips into a smirk.
Rowan slips her hand into the bend of my elbow, and I lead her into the crowd. The ballroom is filling by the minute, guests still arriving, and the jazz band in the corner is playing some Frank Sinatra tune.
Everywhere we go, people stare, and I don’t blame them.
We look incredible together, but it isn’t just our outward appearance. It’s everything. We just mesh. We fit. She gets me. I get her.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” I tell her, squeezing her hand as we approach a bald man in a dark gray suit. “Senator Harvey.”
The senator turns, his eyes landing on Rowan first then lifting to me, and when he recognizes me, he extends his hand, grinning wide.
“Keir,” he says. “It’s been a long time. Look at you.”
“Rowan, I’d like you to meet Senator Bill Harvey,” I say. “He was one of my most influential professors at Dartmouth. Now he’s influencing millions. Congratulations on passing that reform bill last year. I know what a labor of love that was for you.”
He rolls back on his heels, nodding. “Almost lost hope for a second, but it pulled through at the last minute. How have you been? How are things going for you?”
I glance at Rowan before answering. “Never better.”
And I mean it.
Rising on the balls of his feet, he makes eye contact with someone in the distance. “Looks like my wife is trying to flag me down, Keir. It was nice talking to you. And great meeting you, Rowan.”
Moving on, I take her from senator to representative to ambassador to billionaire benefactor, all of this serving two purposes.
Primarily, I want these people to feel comfortable supporting me once I announce my candidacy, and in order for them to feel comfortable, I want them to see that I’m getting settled, calming my wild ways. And second, I want Rowan to feel at ease in this world. I want her to feel like a part of it, a part of me. If she stays with me, she’ll need to schmooze and smile and socialize while I get my career off the ground.
When we’ve spent a solid two hours making our rounds, I call the car around.
I want to get her home and I want her all to myself.
I’m done sharing her.
And tomorrow, when she makes her decision, it better be me. And if it isn’t, I’m going to do everything in my power to change her mind.
I can’t lose her. I can’t let her go. Not now, not ever.
I realize tonight, with complete certainty, that I’m falling madly in love with this woman.
I knew her as the sultry voice blowing up my phone for late night chats about Proust and Hemingway interspersed between the best phone sex I never knew I could have.
We’d never met.
Until the day she walked into my office, her cherry lips wrapped around a candy apple sucker and an all too familiar voice that said, “They said you wanted to see me, Principal Hawthorne?”
The last block of the day is taking for-ev-er, so I ask for a hall pass and make my way around the school, loitering at every drinking fountain and bulletin board. The teacher’s probably wondering where the hell I am, but I’m not afraid to tell him I got my period. That usually shuts them up.
Rounding the corner by the front office, I’m making a beeline for drinking fountain number six when the door swings open and out walks Kerouac.
Or rather, Principal Hawthorne.
We both stop so as not to bump into each other, though he’d be so lucky.
I saw the way he looked at me in his office this morning, the way his body responded to my voice. I knew the instant he started talking that it was him, though it took all the strength I had to ignore his chiseled jaw, dimpled chin, thick, dark hair, and hooded, honey-brown eyes.
Principals are supposed to be old with gray hair, glasses, and dad bods.
They’re not supposed to look like fucking supermodels.
Our eyes lock, and I smirk. To think, all those times I was talking to this.
This is what was on the other end. That stock photo doesn’t even hold a candle to the striking Adonis standing before me. No wonder he doesn’t want to commit. For a man like that, the world is one giant, all-you-can-eat buffet of beautiful women.
“Excuse me,” he says, stepping out of my way like a gentleman.
God, that voice. That gentle, low rasp of a voice. I about creamed my pants when he did the overhead announcements earlier. Almost had to excuse myself from class so I could finish the job in an empty bathroom stall.
It doesn’t help that all anyone can talk about lately is how fucking hot the new principal is. I overheard a group of senior girls earlier making a wager to see who could sleep with him before they went off to college. The winner was to get a thousand bucks.
Ha. Stupid girls.
If they only knew who they were dealing with.
But I’m no better than they are. I know the man that lies beyond the carefully crafted exterior, behind those dark, hooded eyes and that confident stride. The man on the inside is a million times sexier than any of them could begin to imagine.
“You’re excused.” I make my way to the fountain, press the button, and lower my mouth to the jet stream of fresh water. His stare is heavy, weighted, and I’d give anything to know what he thinks when he looks at me.
The halls are empty and quiet. It’s just the two of us.
Across the way a male teacher drones on about World War I and the Lusitania, and when I glance into the classroom, I spot Bree sitting in the front row, gnawing on the tip of her pen as her eyes wander in our direction.
I move out of her line of sight. Ford follows.
“I’d like to talk to you sometime,” he says. “About—”
I rise, turning to him. “About what? Nothing happened.”
He squints, studying me. He must think I’m planning to blackmail him, but he’d be mistaken. While his rejection stung at the time, I’m over it and I’ve got bigger fish to fry—specifically a bottom-feeder by the name of Bree.
“I tried to reach out to you after we last spoke,” he says, keeping his voice down. “I wanted to make sure you were okay. Couldn’t find you on the app.”
“I deleted it.”
His lips press, and he nods. All those long phone calls and messaging sessions this summer, and the man can’t find more than a handful of things to say to me now. He must still be in shock. I can’t say that I blame him. He’d have a hell of a lot more to lose than I would. The stakes are higher for him. I might be legal and an adult, but there isn’t a single red-blooded soul in this entire school district who’d be okay with a principal striking up a sexual relationship with one of his students.
On paper, it would seem atrocious. Scandalous. Disgusting.
But it doesn’t keep me from wishing we could’ve made it work, as insane as that is.
“You know, we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other around here, so let’s do ourselves a favor and get the fuck over what happened,” I say, arms folded as I maintain my icy demeanor. My ego may be bruised, my heart may be longing for him, but I’ll be damned if I run away with my tail tucked like some rejected schoolgirl. “If you’re going to look at me like that every time you see me—”
“I’m sorry.” He won’t stop staring. “I just … I can’t believe it’s you.”
“Believe it.” I begin to walk backwards, distancing myself from him.
He may have closed the door a few weeks ago, but I’m the one who locked it.
Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.
I needed to get away from the city, away from the hot mess that had become my life.
When I stumbled upon my childhood home on RentBnB.com, I took it as a sign, cleaned out my life savings, and hightailed it to the only place that ever meant something to me, a place I hadn’t seen since a lifetime ago.
Only when I arrived to the familiar South Dakotan farmhouse, I was met by a brooding, we-don’t-take-kindly-to-strangers cowboy by the name of River McCray, who insisted this was his house and most definitely not a rental property.
I’d been internet scammed.
And that cocky, smart-mouthed stranger had the nerve to make me a humiliating offer: I could stay in his house for the next two months rent-free, but I had to work for him.
He’d be my boss. And my roommate.
With no money and nowhere else to go, I agreed. But nothing could have prepared me for the tension, the attraction, and the bombshell revelation that changed … everything.
“Babe, I’m not done yet.” My fingers press into the back of his arms as his naked body unsticks from mine. My lips, parted and breathless, wait for his to return, craving the heat of his tongue as I bask in the early Arizona sunrise peeking through our curtains.
Grant pushes himself away from me, rolling to the cold side of the bed. The contents of his climax spill from the unsatisfied ache between my thighs.
“Thought I told you.” He offers a two-second apologetic smile. “I’m meeting a client at eight. Have to go in early.”
I glance at the vintage alarm clock on his nightstand. There’s more than enough time.
“Five more minutes?” I roll to my side, my swollen lips curling into a slow grin as I trace my fingertips along the crumpled sheets between us. “Please? That’s all I need.”
He smirks, like he thinks I’m being cute, and then he walks around to my side of the bed. Bending to kiss my forehead, he drags his thumb along my lower lip and exhales through his nose.
“Here,” he says, reaching toward my bedside table. Pulling the top drawer open, he fishes through the contents before retrieving my purple vibrator, a relic from the early days of our relationship when I was still trying to be the girl I thought he wanted me to be. A plan that backfired and then some. “This ought to help.”
If there were more light in our bedroom this morning, he’d probably be able to see the color draining from my face.
“You don’t want it?” he asks, pausing for a beat before placing it on the bed to my left.
I can’t answer.
Ever since Grant finished law school at NYU and made partner at his uncle’s prestigious law firm in Scottsdale, he’s become self-involved, self-obsessed, and disgustingly self-centered. It’s all about him, all of the time.
I didn’t want to see it.
I didn’t want to believe it.
All this time, I made excuses for him, convincing myself it was a phase. Convincing myself one of these days I’ll get the old Grant back …
… the one with the charming smile who couldn’t keep his hands off me …
… the one I fell in love with fresh out of college …
…the one who was obsessed with me, seeing to it personally that my happiness was above all else …
… the one who almost made me forget about the ones before him and not think twice that there might ever be one after him …
Grant strides toward the en-suite bathroom, his tight ass flexing as he moves, and I listen as he flushes the toilet a moment later. The shower begins to spray. My eyes move to the vibrator. I refuse to touch it.
And besides, my mood has miraculously vanished.
Twisting the diamond engagement ring on my left finger, I run my fingertip along the sharp edges of the glimmering brilliant-cut stone.
It was supposed to symbolize his commitment to me. Hope for the future. Infinite love that never ends.
Peeling myself out of bed, I wrap the percale sheets around my body. Suddenly the idea of standing naked before him feels awkward and vulnerable in a way I’ve never felt around him before. As I make my way to the bathroom, I clear my throat and feel the creep of nervous heat as it blooms up my neck.
He turns to me, rinsing suds from his eyes as his fingertips massage his thick, sandy blond hair. “You want to get in?”
“I don’t want to be with you anymore.” I didn’t rehearse the line. I didn’t ponder the decision longer than the time it took me to walk from the bed to the en-suite. Sliding the diamond ring from my finger, I place it gently next to the sink.
Grant scoffs, pressing the glass shower door open and sticking his head out. “Leighton.”
I shrug before tucking a messy strand of dark hair behind one ear, unable to meet his gaze because although my head knows the man standing before me is different from the one I once knew, my heart knows no difference. As soon as he leaves for work, I’ll clean myself up and pack my things.
I’m not sure where I’ll go, but I’ll figure it out. Anyplace would be better than sticking around here like Grant’s personal doormat.
“All because I didn’t give you an orgasm?” He laughs. He isn’t taking me seriously.
Shaking my head, I say, “It’s not that.”
He rinses the soft white suds from his body, steps onto the mat, and wraps a white towel around his waist, tucking it at his hip. The scent of cedar wood shower gel permeates the muggy air, suffocating my senses as his hands circle my waist.
Spinning me to face him, he cups my chin in his right hand.
“Talk to me,” he says, focused. “What’s this about? What’s going on here?”
He rolls his eyes, still smiling. “Of course I’ve changed. I’m building the life we’ve always dreamed of. The long hours? The Maserati? The wardrobe? It’s all part of an image I have to project. Nobody wants to hire a lawyer who rolls up in a rusty sedan in an off-the-rack suit. Come on. You know that.”
“I’m not talking about that.”
His brows meet. “Then how have I changed?”
“You’re selfish,” I say, “And you never used to be. We used to be in this together. You and me. We used to fit together so easily, and now … now it’s like we don’t even line up anymore.”
“Christ, Leighton. You know I love you. You know you’re the center of my world.” He drags a hand through his damp hair. “I’m sorry my career is overshadowing what we have right now, but I promise it’s not forever.”
My mind replays a moment from last weekend, when we attended a charity gala in downtown Phoenix. I counted at least eight women who couldn’t take their eyes off Grant all night, and the man was well aware. He strutted around, peacock proud, introducing himself to anyone who so much as met his cunning emerald gaze. Never once introducing me as I stood in his shadow like a forgotten afterthought.
There’s a difference between networking and schmoozing.
The old Grant would’ve worn me proudly on his arm, kissed my forehead every chance he got, and introduced me like a true gentleman.
Instead he left me alone by the open bar, at one point spending twenty-five minutes chatting up a leggy redhead in head-to-toe Givenchy. She couldn’t stop smiling in his presence, touching his arm as she laughed at everything he said, and he stood unusually close to her.
I’m not a jealous woman, and I never have been, but seeing how Grant looked at every other woman that night with the same gaze he used to lovingly reserve for me filled me with doubt and made me question our relationship for the first time since we met.
“You scheduled a client dinner on our anniversary last month,” I say. “And you forgot my birthday this year.”
Grant places a hand over his perfect, chiseled chest. “And I apologized for those incidences, did I not?”
“The old you—”
“—the old me?” His brows lift, incredulous. “There is no old me. Stop being dramatic. I’m going to work before you make me late with all of … this.”
A little piece of me dies every time he takes that tone with me, which lately has been more frequent than ever.
He shakes his head, disgusted, and heads to the closet. When he returns with a red gingham tie in hand, he releases a quick breath.
“We’ll finish this when I get home tonight.” He places the tie on a robe hook, and his tone is softer than it was a second ago.
For a splintered moment, I second guess my decision.
Am I being rash?
Do other people spend almost eight years with someone and then wake up one morning and decide it’s over? That it’s not worth trying to salvage? That it’s suddenly come to this?
I watch Grant as he stands over the sink, lathering shaving cream onto his chiseled cheek bones, humming a Rolling Stones song to himself like it’s any other day. I don’t think this man has ever worried for a single second that he might lose me, and maybe that’s why he’s pushed me to the back burner over the last couple of years.
“I love you, Leighton.” He stares into the mirror, our eyes meeting in his reflection. “I’ll fix this. Whatever’s bothering you, we’ll figure it out tonight. I’ll make it right, I promise.”
That’s Grant: cold and cutting one moment, sweet and tender the next.
He never used to be this way.
Grant’s razor drags along his cheek, leaving a track of smooth, tanned skin in its place, and he flashes his trademark disarming smile that makes me think the old him might still be in there somewhere, waiting for me to breathe him back to life.
I pause before stepping out of the bathroom and heading back to bed. Mondays are my late day, and I don’t have to be at work for another three hours, which will give me more time to think this through.
Passing his nightstand, I catch his lit phone screen from the corner of my eye.
Normally I wouldn’t look, but there’s a nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach, a jarring feeling that tells me something isn’t right.
Peering into the bathroom, I don’t see Grant. He must be in the closet, changing into his suit. Sucking in a deep breath, I steal a look at the text message taking up half of the screen.
And then my heart drops to the floor.
I’M READY FOR MY CROSS EXAMINATION THIS MORNING, COUNSELOR, BUT I HAD A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS BEFORE WE PROCEED. LACE OR SILK? MY OFFICE OR YOURS? XO
A million questions swarm my mind, all of them circling at once.
Who is she?
How long has this been going on?
Is she the first?
How could I not know?!
Why would he initiate sex this morning?
Why would he tell me he loves me and then run off to fuck someone else?
“Leighton?” Grant’s voice brings me back, and my frozen stare moves from his phone to the bathroom doorway where he stands. His hands adjust the Windsor knot of his tie, though right now I’m wishing they were my hands, pulling it tighter and tighter still. If I can’t breathe right now, why should he get the privilege? “What’s wrong?”
My vision drowns in warm tears.
It was different earlier. There was a sense of pride in knowing I could make the decision to end things based on principle.
But now …
It seems the decision has been made for me.
There’s no recovering from this.
There’s no bouncing back.
This is the bottom dropping out.
“Leighton, talk to me.” Grant moves closer, lowering to his knees and taking my limp hands in his. I want to recoil at his touch, but I don’t have the energy. “Did something happen? Is it your grandmother?”
He doesn’t get it, at least not right away.
But when his eyes move toward the phone, his breath catches. And then he lets me go, his hands sliding off of mine, slow and careful.
Grant stands, straightening his posture before slipping his phone into his pocket and studying my face.
The weight of his stare is heavy, but the silence between us is heavier.
The man who has argued hundreds of cases over his budding career is officially speechless, unable to defend his reprehensible actions.
And how could he?
The evidence is damning, and his lack of words may as well be a guilty plea.
But not for long.
Coming April 27th
And it’s only three months.
I’m in the midst of scrawling “I QUIT!” onto his fancy cardstock letterhead when my boss corners me. He needs a favor, he says. And then he asks how well I can act …
Hudson Rutherford needs a fiancée.
With his old-moneyed parents forcing him to marry some bratty hotel heiress and his hedonistic, playboy lifestyle at stake, the only way to get them to back off is to make them think he’s truly, madly, deeply in love … with me—his third personal assistant this year.
But I can hardly stand working for him as it is.
Hudson is crazy hot and well-aware. He’s arrogant, spoiled, and silver-spooned. He checks me out when he thinks I’m not looking, and his life is a revolving door of beautiful women. Plus, he can’t even pronounce my name correctly—how’s he going to convince his family he’s in love with me?!
I’m seconds from giving him a resounding “no” when he flashes his signature dimpled smirk and gives me a number that happens to contain a whole mess of zeroes …
On second thought, I think I can swallow my pride.
But, oh baby, there’s one thing I haven’t told him, one teensy-tiny thing that could make this just a hair complicated …
Here’s hoping this entire thing doesn’t explode in our faces.
Dear Mr. Rutherford,
I humbly request that you accept this as my two-weeks’ notice. As of Friday, May 26th, I will be stepping down from my position as your personal assistant. I’ll do my best to ensure this is a smooth transition for the company.
I press my pen into his thick cardstock, scratching out my neatly written resignation before crumpling the paper in my hand and pushing it to the corner of my desk. It’s too nice, and Hudson Rutherford does not deserve nice.
It’s half past seven, which means I have thirty minutes to come up with something better than this—something that’s going to leave a lasting impression.
I’m his third personal assistant this year and it’s only May. There’s a reason no one can tolerate working for him longer than a month or two, and someone ought to point this out to him.
Might as well be me.
Clearing my throat, I try again.
You’re rude and inconsiderate, and I no longer wish to work for you. You think the world revolves around you. Your excessive wealth disgusts me, as does your secret Rolodex of women’s phone numbers that you keep hidden in your third desk drawer on the left. Your good looks are overshadowed by your vanity and arrogance, and your kindness, I’m convinced, is non-existent. You treat your employees like indentured servants, and you’re the most hypocritical asshole I’ve ever met.
I work sixty hour weeks for you without so much as a thank you, a raise, or a glowing performance review. I’m tired of running your menial errands, and I didn’t spend four years at college to make photo copies and coffee.
I didn’t sign up for this.
You lied to me.
With zero fondness and absolutely no gratitude,
Sighing, I crumple this one too. I think my message got lost amongst all the spiteful word vomit, and the last thing I want to do is come across as trite.
Fed up is what I am.
Underutilized, underpaid, and overworked.
But not trite.
I toss the wrinkled paper in the waste basket and grab one last sheet of letterhead. Ditching the formalities, I decide to go a more direct route. My mother once told me it’s not in what you say, it’s in what you don’t say. And my father always says actions speak louder than words. Maybe I’ve been overthinking this whole resignation letter? With my pen firmly gripped, I scrawl my final version.
Smiling, I admire my work, fold it into thirds, then slide it into a cream-colored envelope with Rutherford Architectural’s logo in the upper left corner. Licking the seal and scribbling his name on the front, I stick it on top of a pile of mail I plan to hand to him the second he arrives. I’ll give him a moment to read it, and while he’s doing so, I’ll pack up my things and make a beeline for the elevator before he has a chance to stop me.
“Mary.” I glance up from my work station to see Hudson strolling into work in his signature navy suit and skinny black tie. He’s early today.
“It’s Mari,” I correct him for the millionth time, inhaling his cedar and moss cologne. It’s the only thing I’ve come to like about this man. “Rhymes with sorry—remember?”
His eyes narrow in my direction, and as he angles toward me, I see his right hand lifted to his ear. He’s on the phone.
Hudson says nothing, only gathers the mail from the corner of my desk and strides down the hall toward the enormous glass-walled office that tends to make my stomach twist every time I have to walk in that direction.
This entire office space was his design. Glass walls. Zero privacy. Everything is clean-lined and modern. Chestnut-colored leather seating, white walls, reclaimed wood and custom mid-century modern lighting installations are working in tandem here to create a space buzzing with creative inspiration, and all decorative accessories have to be approved by the head honcho himself. I tried to bring in a gray ceramic planter last month for my dendrobium orchids and Hudson said it was too drab and industrialist. He claimed it would fuck with his energy—and he uses words like “fuck” and “energy” because he thinks he’s some kind of renaissance boss.
My heart’s pounding crazy fast, and I’m stuck trying to determine if I should bolt now or wait. Hudson usually checks his mail first thing in the morning, but for all I know, he’s still on his phone call.
Drumming my fingers against my glass desktop, my feet remain firmly planted on the wood floor, though they may as well be frozen solid. The second my phone rings, it sends my heart leaping into my throat. I’m not afraid of him—I just hate drama. And I have a feeling Hudson’s going to try to make this into a big thing.
“Yes?” I answer, my eyes scanning the caller ID. Hudson’s extension flashes across the screen.
He read it.
And now, the moment of truth.
“Mary, what is this?” he asks.
“What is … what, sir?” I ask. And that’s another thing—what kind of twenty-nine-year-old architect demands to be called “sir?”
“This invitation to the Brown-Hauer Gala? RSVPs were due two weeks ago. Call and find out if it’s not too late,” he says, his voice monotone. The tear of paper fills the background. He’s quiet.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to go?” I ask. I’m not sure why I’m phrasing this as a question because he did say he didn’t want to go. As a matter of fact, I know I have it in an email …
“I said that?” he asks, a sardonic chuckle in his question.
“I don’t remember saying that.” He exhales. “I never would’ve said that. Not to the Brown-Hauer. That gala hosts the who’s who in the architectural world, are you fucking kidding me?”
His voice raises slightly, and my breath seizes. I should just hang up and get the hell out of here.
“Mary,” he says.
“Mari,” I correct. “Rhymes with sorry.”
In case he didn’t hear me two minutes ago …
“Can you come back here for a second?” he asks, his voice as stiff as his winning personality. “There’s something we need to discuss. Immediately.”
Anxiety forces my jaw into a tensed state. I shouldn’t let this asshole get to me, and I know that, but he’s literally the boss from hell. People like him are the reason happy hour was created.
At least he won’t be my boss for much longer.
I’m almost positive he’s read my note and he’s calling me back to try and talk me out of it but I refuse.
My stomach churns, and I think I’m going to be sick—but not because I’m nervous.
Not because he scares me.
But because I’m pregnant.
And morning sickness is one hell of a bitch.
“I need a minute,” I say, reaching for the bottle of room temperature water in front of me, though the sight of it intensifies my nausea. I meant to stop for saltines and ginger ale on the way here this morning, but I spaced it off because I was too preoccupied with second-guessing my decision to quit my job so abruptly with single motherhood on the horizon.
“You may have a minute to spare, but I don’t,” he says. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait. My office. Now.”
Hudson hangs up before I have a chance to protest, and before I can stop myself, I’m marching back to his office like Darth Vader on a mission, heavy breathing and all.
I’m doing this.
I’m standing my ground.
And I’m walking out of here with my head held high.
Normally I’d knock three times on his door and wait for him to tell me to enter, but seeing how all the walls here are made out of crystal-clear glass, he’s looking directly at me, and I’m seconds from quitting, I don’t see the need.
Rushing into his office, I place my hands on my hips and plant myself in the doorway. Hudson reclines in his chair, his hands resting behind his neck as his full lips hold an amused little smirk that perfectly contradicts the snarky tone he took with me a few moments ago.
Everything about this man is a walking contradiction, and it drives me crazy.
“What’s with the attitude, Mary?” he asks, eyes scanning me from head to toe and back. “It’s Friday. Lighten up.”
I glance at his desk where my letter rests on top of the mail pile.
He hasn’t opened it yet …
“What did you need?” I ask, but only because I’m curious. I don’t actually intend on doing a damn thing for this smug asshole from this moment on.
“Did you get my email this morning?” he asks.
Ah, yes. The infamous pre-work emails he sends from his treadmill at five in the morning. Not going to miss those.
My brows meet. “I haven’t had a chance to check it yet.”
“I’m going to need you to pick up my dry cleaning at ten. Drop everything off at my place afterwards, then stop by Palmetto’s Deli to grab me a number four with no mustard. And make sure you check it before you leave. Last time you didn’t, and you know how much I despise soggy bread. Oh. And after lunch, I need you to call the Brown-Hauer foundation and get me on the list for their gala. Email me as soon as you’re finished so I know you didn’t forget …”
He’s rambling on, but I tune him out. My fists clench at my sides, and my vision darkens. He doesn’t need to qualify his requests with insults.
This is why I hate this man.
This is why I have to quit. Immediately.
I don’t care what he says, I refuse to let him talk me out of this.
I came to Manhattan with a gleam in my eye, my little Nebraskan heart filled with optimism and hope. I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be someone.
Little did I know, nobody in New York cares if you graduated at the top of your class at some tiny little private college just north of the Bible belt. All that matters out here, is who you know. And if you don’t know anyone? Then you have one of two options: screw your way to the top or work your ass off and hope that someone throws you a bone.
I had every intention of doing this with integrity, but clearly accepting a position at Rutherford Architectural was a bad move in the wrong direction.
So much for building up a respectable curriculum vitae.
“Mary, are you listening?” he asks, leaning forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his glass desk. Behind him is an expansive view of downtown Manhattan flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with every architectural college text, magazine, and coffee table book known to man. If there’s one other positive thing I could say about Hudson Rutherford—besides the fact that he smells like money and oozes obnoxious charm that apparently no one but me can see through—is that he’s passionate about architecture. The man lives, sleeps, and breathes design.
If I wasn’t so busy hating Hudson, I’d probably find his intense passion kind of sexy …
“No,” I say.
“Excuse me?” He scoffs, smoothing his thin black tie down his muscled chest before straightening his shoulders.
“When you speak to me like that,” I say, holding my head high, “it makes me want to tune you out. I can’t help it. It’s an automatic reaction.”
His jaw clenches, but his eyes glint, and I wonder if he’s ever had an assistant speak up before?
“Am I supposed to speak to you like you’re on my level? Like we’re equals?” he asks, chuffing. “Mary, I’m your boss. Your superior.”
“Which is exactly why you should talk to me with a little more respect. It’s called being professional.” My lips are tight and numb. I can’t believe I’m saying this … “I make your coffee. I field your calls. I grab your lunch. I do anything and everything you ask because let’s face it, I’m the idiot who signed up for this job, but you treat me like your whipping post. If you forget something, it’s always my fault. If someone else forgets something, it’s always somehow my fault. If you’re having a bad day, it’s my fault. If I only work fifty hours instead of my scheduled forty, you make me feel like a slacker. If I ask for a day off, nine times out of ten, I’m told ‘no.’ It’s exhausting working for you, Hudson. It’s only been two months, and I can’t do it anymore.”
“So what are you saying?” he asks. I try to get a read on his expressionless face, but it’s impossible. He’s a man who holds his cards close to his chest at all times. I’m not sure whether he’s panicked, relieved, or something else entirely.
Pointing to the letter on the top of his mail pile, I say, “I quit.”
It doesn’t feel as liberating as I thought it would, and it’s all rather anti-climactic, but it’s done. I turn on my heels and show myself out of his office, hurrying to get the hell out of the place I’ve come to call the Pristine Palace for the last two months.
“Wait,” he calls after me as I head for my desk to gather my things. I glance behind me only to see him standing in his glass doorway. “I’d like to make you an offer before you go.”
Ha. Just as I expected.
I smirk, rolling my eyes as I keep walking. “No, thanks.”
“Mary.” There’s a deep husk in his voice, but I continue strutting away, my heels clicking on the reclaimed wood floor.
When I reach my desk, I grab my bag from the bottom drawer and toss a few personal items inside: my hand cream, lip balm, a tiny bag of emergency chocolate, and my back up water bottle. I’d toss some company pens in there too because they’re fancy as hell, but I prefer never to so much as glance at the Rutherford Architecture logo ever again. Before I forget, I slide the elevator key to his penthouse apartment off my keyring and slap it on the desktop.
“Fine.” The sudden, close proximity of Hudson’s voice jumpstarts my heart. I glance up to see him standing before me, his smooth hands splayed across my desk and his back arched. His sapphire blue eyes meet mine, refusing to let them go. “You can quit. Be my fucking guest. I’ll have you replaced by tomorrow afternoon.”
I offer a faux smile. “Glad everything’s going to work out for you.”
I fling my bag over my shoulder and stand tall, eyes grazing past his shoulder toward the elevator bay where the doors part and Hannah from accounting steps off. Our eyes meet, and she gives me what is clearly her “Oh, shit …” face.
It’s a shame I won’t be sticking around long enough to tell her everything’s fine. Everything’s abso-fucking-lutely fine.
“Goodbye, Hudson. And best of luck in finding a suitable replacement. I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you needed.” I move out from behind my desk and give him a sarcastic smirk, only I’m not prepared when he slips his hand around my wrist and guides me closer to him. “What the hell are you doing?”
I yank my hand from his, clutching it against my chest, fingers balled into a tight fist.
“One last thing before you go …” he says, his eyes softening just enough that I almost believe he’s being sincere for the first time since I’ve known him.
Trying not to laugh too loud, I shake my head. “No.”
“Hear me out,” he says.
“Why should I?”
“Because I’ll make it worth your while.”
Rolling my eyes, I suck in a deep breath, mulling over the extent of my curiosity. What could he possibly need from me, a disgruntled employee in the midst of storming out of his office?
My stomach gurgles and another wave of morning sickness evolves into an impressive hot flash. A sheen of sweat forms across my forehead. I think I’m going to be sick, and if he doesn’t get the hell out of my way, I’m about to be sick all over his immaculate Prada suit.
The wave passes, dissipating into nothing, and I pull in a clean breath of the hospital-grade air Hudson insists on piping through the office vents because it helps “keep his energy clean.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but there isn’t anything you could say or do at this point that would convince me to work another day next to you. I won’t be doing you any favors, Hudson. You disgust me.”
Oh, god. Here comes the word vomit, rising up my chest with unstoppable force.
“You walk around like you’re better than everyone,” I add. “You’re self-centered. And arrogant. And cold. And inconsiderate. And rude. And you’re delusional if you think you’re going to get me to stick around, so, goodbye.”
The corner of his mouth smirks, revealing a half-second flash of a dimple that sends an inconvenient and unexpected weakness to my knees. I hate how attractive this man is. And I hate how distracting his looks are.
“Calm down, Mary.” His voice is low, and when he leans in close, I find myself inhaling—and enjoying—the warm, musky scent radiating off his skin. “I know I’m a pain in the ass to work for. Well aware.”
“Then why don’t you try to change that?”
“Why should I? There’s an entire city full of girls just like you begging to work here. Why should I have to change who I am to accommodate them? Besides, there’s a whole world of assholes just like me—no, worse than me—waiting on the outside. If my employees can’t handle me, they’re sure as hell not going to be able to handle the next guy. The way I see it, I’m doing you all a favor. I’m prepping you for the real world.”
“I refuse to believe bosses like you are the norm.”
“Then you’re extremely naïve.” He huffs, his indigo-blue eyes lifting to the ceiling then back to me. “Anyway, three million dollars.”
“Three million dollars—what?” I squint at him, not sure where he’s going with this.
“If you agree to help me out, I’ll give you three million dollars. Cash. And then you’ll never have to work with this insufferable asshole ever again.”
He’s got to be joking.
“Aside from the fact that you’ve officially lost it, I’m not sticking around, not here. Not as your personal assistant. I’m better than this.”
“I’m not asking you to be my personal assistant.”
“Okay, whatever it is, I’m not interested. I have a degree in business analytics and international marketing with a minor in finance.” My arms tighten across my chest. I’m not interested in his bait money or whatever the hell kind of stunt he’s attempting to pull. “I know my worth, and I know when a job isn’t worth it.”
“So you understand that three million dollars is a pretty generous chunk of change, yes? Since you, uh, minored in finance and you know all about … worth?” He’s trying to fight a smile, like he’s not taking me seriously.
“Can you not?” I lift my hand to my right hip.
“Can you not be so patronizing? It never ends with you.”
“I’ll work on it,” he says. “If you stick around.”
“No need,” I remind him. “I’m not.”
“Swallow your pride and agree to help me,” he says. “You won’t regret it.”
“No,” I say with as much conviction as I can drum up. A wave of nausea rolls over me once more, a silent reminder that it’s not about me anymore. “Whatever it is … no.”
Three weeks ago, after a sexually debilitating dry spell no twenty-five-year-old should ever have to endure, I downloaded one of those stupid dating apps that everyone knows is really only used for hooking up, and I found myself the perfect one-night stand.
I thought I was smart about it. I’m on the pill. He used a condom. All precautionary measures were taken.
He was Ivy League educated, or so he claimed, and he had one of those rich people names, Hollister. His photos were all Nantucket and sailboats and he quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald in his bio. When we met, Hollister was friendly and well-mannered, well-groomed and clean cut. With disarming honey brown eyes and thick, sandy brown hair, he was everything he had shown himself to be. And the night was satisfying enough if not a little boring. But it filled the void and accomplished the mission, and we both went on our ways.
But a few days ago, I happened to pop open my birth control pack and realized I was four sugar pills in with no sign of Aunt Flo. An hour later, I’d purchased an array of tests from the local Duane Reade, never believing in a million years I’d find myself face-to-face with a myriad of blue plus signs and happy faces.
That’s the day the bottom dropped out.
Hollister was the first person I called—it only seemed right since he was the father. But his number was conveniently no longer in service. I had no way of getting a hold of him and no way of knowing what his last name was. I even spent hours trying to find him again on the dating app, but it was as if he’d just disappeared into thin air.
So now it’s just us …
Me and this tiny little life I’m now fully responsible for—on my own.
This weekend I’ll pack up my place, rent a moving truck with whatever credit remains on my MasterCard, and hightail it back to Nebraska. I can’t afford to raise a baby in this city, at least not by myself. And now that I don’t have a job, I can’t afford the rent on my shoebox studio anyway.
“You’re a fool.” Hudson watches me sling my purse over my shoulder, and then he eyes the elevator bay in the distance. “With this money, the right investments and a little time, you could be an extremely wealthy woman. Now you’re going to spend the rest of your life working for assholes exactly like me because you were too proud to say yes to this one little favor.”
“You’re planting doubt in my head,” I say. “You’re trying to manipulate me. I see through you, Hudson. Always have. You’re nothing more than a self-serving asshole. You couldn’t shut it off if you tried.”
“You’re right. Me and every other man in this city.” His soft, strong hands slip into his pants pockets and he exhales like a man who shamelessly owns his behavior and makes no apologies. “Anyway, aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know what I want from you?”
“Not really.” My lips bunch in one corner. “You pay me forty grand a year here, which isn’t really a livable wage in this city I might add. And you work me to the bone. I shudder to think of how much work three million dollars would entail.”
“Can you act, Mary?” he asks, ignoring my refusal.
“It’s not random at all. It’s pretty straightforward. Stop wasting my time and answer it.”
“I was in drama club in high school,” I say, smoothing my hair from my face and pulling my shoulders back like a proud drama nerd. “And for a couple years in college. I’ve done community theatre as well.”
I’ve never seen him full-on smile like this.
“Perfect.” His blue eyes crinkle at the corner. “I have to have you, Mary. You’re hired.”
My jaw hangs. “I’m … what? I didn’t say … I don’t want … no.”
Hudson wraps his hand around my wrist, pulling me just outside the front doors of the office and out of ear-shot of the rest of the office.
“Listen,” he says, voice low. He tightens the space between us. “I’m sure you’re wondering what the fuck I’m about to propose and rightfully so. But believe me when I tell you it’s going to change your life. And mine—because I’m a self-serving bastard and we both know that. But it’ll be the easiest three million you’ll ever make in your life, and when it’s all said and done, you’ll never have to see me—or work for anyone like me—ever again. It’s win-win, Mary. And you’d be a damn fool to walk away.”
I inhale, harboring a breath before letting it go. When our eyes meet, I silently chide myself for remotely considering making a deal with this devil.
Sure, he’s impossibly handsome with his chiseled jaw, dimpled smirk, coffee-colored hair, steel blue eyes, runner’s build, designer wardrobe, and genius IQ—not that I’ve taken inventory of his assets before … but none of that is enough to overpower the ugliness that resides beneath his perfect, polished façade.
Without saying a word, I turn on my heel and press the call button on the nearest elevator.
“What are you doing?” he asks, voice rushed.
The doors part, and I step on flashing a smirk and shrugging my shoulders. “Being a damn fool.”