“What are you doing here?” She closed the door behind her, whisper-shouting.
I’ve been asking myself the same question since bailing on Keith and his snooze-fest speech.
What the hell was I doing here?
Something about Persephone getting potentially offed by the mafia?
The reasons blurred, but they seemed valid when I sat in the boardroom, considering a future with a woman I didn’t know and didn’t interest me. A woman who wanted an Aspen cabin as if it was the flipping nineties.
“When are you done here?” I demanded.
“Not for another four hours.”
“Take the rest of the day off.”
“Are you crazy? I can barely afford my lunch breaks.” Her eyes widened. “I only take them because I have to by law. I asked the director to stay after school hours to help clean up and get some extra money. I can’t bail.”
The woman was as stubborn as a mule.
And I was about to marry her.
Marry a manageable woman, Athair said.
It wasn’t too late to turn around and walk away but having this moron’s death on my conscience made me suspect I had one after all. The thought made me shudder.
No. Not a conscience. You just don’t want a big mess.
“Take the rest of the day off, or you will have no job to return to,” I gritted out, about to turn around and make my way outside before I got secondhand food poisoning from the smell here alone. I paused, examining her closely for the first time.
“What the hell happened to your face?”
Her lower lip was swollen, her cheek was bruised, and under the thick layer of makeup, I could see a prominent shiner circling her left eye.
She looked away, tilting her face down to hide it from me.
“It’s nothing. None of your concern, anyway.”
The loan shark had finished with his threats and moved to actions.
My pulse quickened. I cracked my knuckles. I didn’t understand my reaction to her face. She was clearly alive and in general good health.
But the idea of someone touching her…hitting her…
“You have ten minutes to wrap this up and meet me outside. You should know by now that I do not like to be kept waiting.”
I turned around and sauntered back to the Escalade, already regretting the decision to marry her. There weren’t enough painkillers in the world to save me from the headache Flower Girl had in store for me.
She appeared minutes later, wrapped in a cheap coat with holes in two different places. I opened the back seat door for her. She climbed inside, and I followed.
“Drive around,” I ordered my chauffeur, clicking the remote to raise the partition.
Persephone fumbled with the seat belt, avoiding eye contact.
I stared at the leather headrest in front of me while I spoke. Looking at her face in its current condition made me angry, and I was never angry.
“We will live in separate houses. I’ll remain in my estate, and you’ll live down the road. There’s a new construction on Commonwealth Avenue. A four-bedroom, thirty-five-hundred-square-foot condo. I asked my realtor to secure you the penthouse for a rental. You can discuss your permanent residence with her and tailor it to your preference.”
She whipped her head in my periphery, staring at me in shock.
“I said, there’s a new estate on Commonwealth Ave—”
“I heard what you said.” Her brows knitted. “I thought you wanted to marry someone else.”
“Want is a big word. I decided to settle for you since the other woman is not on the brink of extinction.” Unbuttoning my pea coat, I crossed my legs and lit a cigar, stinking up the entire back seat. The hail pounding on the tinted windows meant she had to sit in the small, confined space and breathe in my poison.
A good exercise for our future.
If she refused me again, I was going to drive us across the Canadian border and pay someone to marry us just to spite her. Never in my life had a woman made me feel edgy, but this assertive little shi…female had somehow managed just that.
She folded her arms, smiling triumphantly. “She said no, didn’t she? Couldn’t stomach being your wife.”
I puffed a cloud of smoke directly in her face, not gracing her nonsense with an answer.
“Smart girl.” She ignored the screen of smoke skulking between us.
“Judging by the state of your face, turning me down is not a luxury you can afford.”
She stared at me with her California sky eyes. Her complexion was so smooth and dewy that the need to sink my teeth into the side of her throat just to tarnish its perfection made my fingers twitch.
“Can I try your cigar?” She tucked a stray hair behind her ear.
“I’m offering you a twenty-million-dollar condo, and you are asking me about a cigar?” I shot her a sidelong glance.
“Paxton never let me try them. He said cigars are manly.” She licked her lips, her eyes on the thick brown roll of tobacco.
Paxton was an idiot. For more reasons than I could count.
Reluctantly, I passed her the cigar. She clasped her pink lips around it, her heavy-lidded eyes blinking back at me. She inhaled, almost coughing out a lung, and passed it back to me, waving her hand around. I didn’t take it, still preoccupied by the way her lips wrapped around the thing. This was an entirely new side of me—a fourteen-year-old one, presumably—I wasn’t eager to explore.
“It tastes like burning feet.”
“You’re not supposed to inhale.” A wry blade of amusement colored my tone. “Nor are you supposed to lick burning feet. Now suck on it like it’s a dick, not a joint.”
She cocked her head sideways, squinting at me in amusement.
“Sounds like an audition.”
“Don’t flirt,” I warned. “It’s not your affection I’m after.”
My desire normally wasn’t directed at a specific woman or individual. Rather, it was a prickly sensation I needed to squash. The women I’d used were merely vessels.
I was not accustomed to gravitating toward a specific human being.
Frankly, I didn’t know if I was capable of desiring a woman. If I were, I had no doubt it came with side effects I wasn’t going to like.
Persephone tried again, puffing on the cigar gently, then handed it back to me. The tips of our fingers brushed. A zing of electricity shot up my spine in a sensation I could only describe as both horrible and pleasant.