Billionaires' Brides of Convenience, 5
The proposition: One year of “marriage” for one million dollars. Sex, yes. Falling in love, no.
Desperate to escape crushing poverty and provide for my younger sister, I took the deal. But I violated the rules by falling for Elliot Reed, the gorgeous, brilliant billionaire bad boy…and he broke them by wanting more between us–a bond more profound than any legal contract could provide.
However, my complicated past isn’t the only thing derailing our marriage. Elliot has his share of skeletons in the closet, and his enemies are determined to use me to get to him.
Now it’s time for us to make our final stand—unite and fight for our happy ending—except it will require both of us to reveal our ugliest secrets to each other…and the world.
Note: No cliffhanger! This is the final book in Elliot and Annabelle’s love story.
Elliot hasn’t been in bed all night. I know the moment I open my gritty eyes, and my heart is heavy with regret and pain. I swing my legs to the other side of the bed and check the pool. It’s empty.
He didn’t come back from wherever he went last night. After our world came crashing down.
Will it ever be right again?
I drag myself slowly and mechanically to the bathroom. It feels weird — wrong — that I have to keep up my morning routine when there’s a huge knot inside me, one that’s so big and ugly I don’t understand how I can still function without crumbling. I brush my teeth, splashing my face with cold water to wake up. Eight hours in bed last night, but I didn’t sleep well. Most of those hours were spent tossing and turning. And it shows in the puffiness of my listless green eyes and the pasty complexion of my face. My flat and lifeless hair sticks to my skull like matted blood.
God. What a sight. I snort a humorless laugh. If Elliot were to see me like this, he would run the other way, screaming in horror. I stick my fingers into my hair, trying to get it to look better, but it’s no use. After a half-hearted attempt, I give up. He’s not home anyway, so what’s the point?
I manage to shrug into a robe and go downstairs. Nonny’s up — I can hear her moving around in her suite — but Elliot, of course, is nowhere to be seen.
If he did come home, he’s probably in his office. I reach the door that leads into it and put my hand on the cool handle. Clammy sweat coats my palm; suddenly I’m unsure. The muscles in my belly clench and flutter, and I inhale slowly, girding my loins for what needs to be done. I couldn’t tell him everything the way he wanted, but it wasn’t because I was trying to hide things from him. My life has been a series of failures since my dad was exposed as a fraud, and nobody likes to talk about failure.
The well-oiled hinges move silently, and I take a step inside. My head feels like it’s full of wet cotton balls. I ache all over, like I’ve been beaten with a bat, but I know it’s more psychological than physical. As predicted, Elliot isn’t in his office…although there’s a tumbler on the desk with lip prints. I pick it up and sniff. Alcohol.
I leave the office and grab my phone, wanting to call Elliot. We have to talk about what happened. Hopefully he’ll be less upset than he was yesterday.
The browser reloads when I unlock my phone. I clicked it shut last night after I saw all those hateful headlines about my stripper days. Not even days: one day, since I only lasted that long. But tabloids aren’t interested in the truth. It’s more fun to speculate, because speculation sells more copies.
The headlines have been refreshed, and the first one catches my eye.
Already Straying? Billionaire Seen with Escort.
Underneath is a shot of Elliot entering a hotel. It’s dated yesterday.
I shake my head. His being at a hotel doesn’t necessarily mean anything. And the tabloids could be lying about when the picture was taken. But I see another one with a redhead going inside, too. The unnamed source says she’s the mystery woman he’s been seeing for a while now.
My heart squeezes painfully. I’ve never felt such an inexplicably profound connection with another person. Nor did I expect the intense joy from such a bond. Knowing that it’s been ruined…maybe for good…cuts more deeply than I could have ever imagined. He and I were cocooned together in St. Cecilia. The realization that there was a chance I could’ve salvaged our relationship by being honest with him from the very beginning… That’s the unbearable salt in the wound.
I don’t know what I expect now, but I call Elliot anyway. We need to talk, and I’m going to tell him everything he wants to know and more.
The door to the balcony opens, and he walks inside. His deep brown eyes are slightly bloodshot, and his hand is closed around an empty bottle of scotch. The hair that usually has a dark chestnut sheen has lost its shine and is sticking up on his head. The first three buttons on his black dress shirt are undone, the fabric as worn and tired as his handsome face. The sight hurts. I know I’m the one who put the misery there.
Despite the empty bottle, he’s walking straight. It’s like he’s immune to alcohol. “You called?” he asks, his voice gravelly.
“Yes, I wanted to talk.” I wipe my clammy palms on the robe and straighten my back, try to put a little more strength into my voice. “Want some coffee?”
He inclines his head once.
My mouth dry, I start a pot and give him a mug full of the fresh brew. My hands start to shake and I hide them behind the robe. Calm down. You can do this.
Instead of drinking it, he studies the steam rising from the dark gray cup. The outside of it reads TRUTH HURTS in blood red letters. I wince inwardly. I didn’t see the logo when I reached into the cabinet.
He takes a few sips — finally — then says, “What do you want to talk about?” His voice lacks inflection, and that chills me. I can deal with emotion, but this…void? It’s scary because I don’t know if I can fill it the right way so we can fix what’s broken.
I clear my throat. “I’m sorry about the way you found things out.”
“So you’re sorry I found out?”
“No. That’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?”
I inhale. I suppose I deserve the cold treatment from him. He probably feels betrayed that I kept things to myself. “Elliot, I never mean to deceive you. I honestly didn’t think any of it mattered.”
“The fact that Grayson set you in my path, all the while telling you I needed a wife, wasn’t worth mentioning? Even when I asked you point-blank to tell me if there was anything that would impact the both of us?”
I have no excuse…except that I was too ashamed to talk about the kind of control I let Mr. Grayson have over me.
Elliot doesn’t give me time to respond. He continues: “What about Dennis? He probably wasn’t phoning you to reminisce. So what did he want? Or does that also have nothing to do with me?”
“Spare me,” he scoffs, suddenly animated and slashing the air with a hand. “You would’ve never told me any of this on your own. And now suddenly I’m supposed to stand here and believe that you’re going to be one hundred percent honest? How can I know that you’re telling me the truth — all of it — without having my PI dig into everything?”
“That’s not fair.”
“What’s not fair is you never trusted me. I trusted you enough to tell you about Annabelle Underhill. Do you think it was an easy story to tell?” He finishes his coffee. “At least what you said about your roommate checked out.”
“Of course I checked. Had to make sure I had all the facts.”
He comes closer until I can smell coffee and alcohol overlaying his warm flesh. My heart thuds, and I wet my lower lip, wondering what he’ll do next. “You know what I hate the most about all this?”
I shake my head.
The back of his forefinger brushes along my cheek. The gesture is unexpectedly tender, which just makes it hurt more.
“I still want you in spite of it all.” His words are so soft, they barely whisper across my skin.
“I need to shower and do some work.” He drops his hand like a guillotine and stalks away.
Closing my eyes against the pain, I bury my face in my hands. How can I fix our relationship when he hates the fact that he still feels the connection between us?
I can’t keep running. I ran before, when things went south in Lincoln City. People blamed me for being my father’s daughter, and there was nothing I could do to change that. But things are different here. Elliot doesn’t have a problem with who I am…it’s just what I’ve done.
I can work with that. I can find a way to make him see that I won’t do it again…and convince him I didn’t do anything to betray him.
I am not like the Annabelle from his past.