“Oh!” She visibly shook herself, her face transforming with…embarrassment? A robe went on over her shoulders as she crossed the room. Brent watched in confusion as she picked up her purse and removed a wallet. “We never discussed…what you wanted to be paid for tonight. Just tell me how much you wanted…whatever you think is fair.” Finished with her ramble, she looked up at him expectantly.
It took Brent a moment to process her meaning. When it finally hit him, anger washed over him in a wave. Here he stood, about to beg for another few hours in her bed, when she’d merely considered him a business transaction. He averted his eyes. “You certainly didn’t waste any time putting me in my place, duchess.”
She paled, the purse dropping to her side. “I thought…”
“You thought what? I’m so hard up for cash that I need to suffer through three hours of canapés and smooth jazz to make a buck? Keep your money. I’ll sleep in Grand Central Station before I ever take a dime from you.” Brent snatched his jacket off the ground. “No, I did it to teach you a lesson. Plain and simple.” He jerked his chin toward the bed. “I had no idea you’d be such an eager student.”
“Oh, fuck off, Florence.” She yelled as he reached the living room. “Don’t let the door hit you on your well-spanked ass on the way out.”
“Your concern is touching, sweetheart. Miss you already.”
He wrenched open the front door and walked into the night.
Hayden pushed open her window and let the cool air off the Hudson blow across her overheated skin. Pressing her palms to her cheeks, she tried to banish the sting of humiliation, but couldn’t seem to manage it. If she made it through a single day for the rest of her life without seeing a replay in her mind of what had just taken place, she’d consider herself lucky. In some kind of weird Pretty Woman role reversal, she’d offered a man money, moments after sleeping with him. Brilliant.
For a split second, before he’d transformed back into her adversary, she’d caught a flash of hurt move across his features. God, that bothered her. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.
She’d just been at such a loss over how to proceed. Standing at the end of her bed, he’d looked at her as though he wanted something more, but didn’t know how to ask for it. Maybe she’d wanted that thing to be her, but his flippant, sex-is-no-big-deal attitude told her she was wrong. He’d practically jumped out of bed to get away from her, so why would she assume he wanted to stay? Why had she wanted him to stay?
Dammit. Just dammit. She’d made a huge mistake in judgment. Not just by offering him money. Cringe. Bringing him here. Thinking they could be mature enough to scratch the itch and move on. That had been her mistake. Now she’d made herself look like the materialistic dingbat he’d assumed her to be. But worse, so much worse, the pigheaded jerk had rocketed her into another stratosphere in bed. Going into this ill-advised endeavor, she hadn’t known what to expect. Would sex with Brent be awkward since they hated each other? Would he simply lie on top of her and work out his own lust like the men of her experience? None of the above. He’d let her take the lead. Mostly. It hadn’t been easy for him, letting her set the pace, but he’d known exactly how to encourage, to force a response from her without being patronizing or obvious.
Hayden had discovered something about herself tonight. At first, she thought she’d merely been missing control. And she certainly had. Taking the reins had put air in her lungs. Purpose in her belly. However, she’d been just as turned-on when Brent flipped her onto her back and dominated her. She suspected because, in her mind, she knew that with Brent, she always retained some level of control. Top or bottom, he listened to her. Wanted to give her what she needed.
The man she’d always assumed took the title for biggest self-centered asshole in the universe was actually a perceptive, unselfish lover. What a kick in the ass. In the past, she’d been treated to polite, non-sweaty sex. No wonder she’d found it overrated. Not anymore. Now she knew how amazing it could be. Yet the thought of being so uninhibited with anyone besides Brent felt…wrong. He’d made her feel safe and desirable. He’d lost his control, too, in the process. She didn’t think it would be very easy to find that with someone else.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she moved to close the window, then jumped when she heard footsteps in the living room. Her heart leaped before she could stop or analyze her reaction. Had he come back? She went to her bedroom door and pushed it open.
“Mother?” She yanked her robe tighter. “What are you doing here? It’s almost midnight.”
She set her purse down, cast a look into the bedroom behind Hayden. “I needed to speak with you and it couldn’t wait until morning.” A sigh whistled past her lips. “Obviously you couldn’t wait either. I met your date sneaking out like a thief in the night.”
Hayden pushed her hair over her shoulder, wincing at the thought of Brent running into her mother. Had they exchanged words? She didn’t even want to know. “I’m a big girl, Mother. I don’t have to account for my every move to you.” She dropped down on the couch. “What did you need to talk to me about?”
Her mother picked a piece of lint off her jacket. “I just thought you should be aware of how your actions tonight might have indirectly sent this family into bankruptcy.”
Heart pounding in her ears, Hayden shot to her feet. “Excuse me?”
Mother replaced daughter on the couch. “I certainly hope he was worth it.”
She took a deep breath, attempting to calm her racing pulse. “Please, stop being dramatic for one second and explain what you said. Bankruptcy?”
“Gladly.” She gestured for Hayden to take a seat across from her. Feeling numb, Hayden obeyed without protest. “Dear, I haven’t been pushing Stuart on you because of his sparkling personality. Believe it or not, there is a method to my madness.” She sighed heavily. “Your father wouldn’t like me telling you this. He thinks he can fix it without anyone’s help, but I know better. The company has had three bad quarters in a row. We’re losing investors and clients by the day. Barely treading water. We’ve managed to keep it quiet, but your father can only call in so many favors.”
“Oh my God.” Hayden’s hand flew to her throat. Her first thought was for her poor father, having to shoulder the entire burden on his own, keeping a brave face throughout. “What does Stuart have to do with any of this?”
“Stuart, for all his…quirks, is very successful at what he does. His hedge fund is growing by the day, but not fast enough for his liking. He needs the big-time investors. Connections. And that’s where your father comes in.” She leaned forward. “Unlike Stuart, we’re old money, dear. We can introduce him into an invaluable world. And in exchange, he would pay off the hefty loan your father has coming due. If we default on that loan…” She patted her hair. “Let’s just say none of us will be living the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed.”
Hayden’s brain scrambled to keep up. She didn’t like where this revelation was heading. Not at all. So she delayed the inevitable. “That’s great news, right? If Stuart is going to pay off the loan, what’s the problem?”
Her mother took her hand. “Stuart thought he could use your father’s connections for free, dear. And you know your father, he’s too kind. He’d help Stuart without a thought for himself. Or us.” She sat a little straighter. “I finally managed to convince your father that influence doesn’t come without a price. Unfortunately, Stuart is looking for a guarantee on his investment.”
Dread curled through her body at the direction this conversation
had taken. She’d never thought her father belonged in the cutthroat business world. He’d managed to survive this long running a company he’d inherited, but how much longer could he keep it up? If their family lost everything, he would be crushed. “Mother, please just say it.”
She nodded once, going from motherly to businesslike. “Stuart came from nothing. Paltry introductions from your father won’t give him instant credibility, but linking himself more firmly to the Winstead name will. He has a great fondness for you, Hayden. He’s agreed to pay off the loan only if you marry him.”
Hayden’s stomach bottomed out. Even though she’d seen the bombshell coming, it still hit like a well-placed blow. None of it seemed real. This morning, she’d woken up to her neatly ordered life. Before Brent had swaggered in and blasted holes in her perception of herself, of everything. Now, her freedom was in danger of being snatched away. A marriage of convenience. They still happened frequently in her world, but she’d never expected to be part of one. No, this couldn’t be happening.
“This came as a surprise to me, too, you know. I was blindsided when I saw our bank statement and realized how much of our family money he’s already sunk into fixing the problem. Millions upon millions. Gone. Of course, he refused to touch any of your charity accounts.”
Her mother watched her carefully. Hayden knew her horror must be showing on her face, because she finally went in for the kill. She spoke very quietly, but her words stung like little bees all over Hayden’s body. “Dear, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what your father did for us all those years ago. Where we would be without him. Frankly, we owe him.” She clutched her purse in her lap. “Your father knows nothing of this, mind you, and we need to keep it that way. He’d be devastated if he knew I’d burdened you with this.”
Yes, Hayden thought dully, she did owe him. It was the only reason she’d even entertained the idea of marrying Stuart this long. Her father, her paternal father, was long dead. Two brothers had inherited millions of dollars and Winstead Investments, but only one had shouldered the responsibility of running it. The other had taken his half of the money and blown it on bad investments, partying, and women. She’d been the product of a one-night stand, back when her mother was a college student. Her father had overdosed before Hayden had been born, and her mother had been left behind with an unwanted pregnancy. She’d come to Hayden’s now-father, begging for help. After a paternity test, he’d taken them both in, adopting Hayden in the name of respectability. Blood is blood, she imagined he’d said. After all, she’d only been a baby at the time. But she knew this story by heart as her mother brought it up whenever it became necessary to keep her in line.