His cell phone rang beside him on the bed. His sister Lucy’s picture popped up on the screen and he shivered in horror at having a hard-on at the same time. He shook his head to dispel thoughts of an angry yet turned-on Hayden from his mind and answered the phone.
“Luce. What’s wrong? You need bail money again?”
“Funny. You should take your act on the road.” He couldn’t help but smile at her sarcastic response. His sister looked and acted like a sorority girl, but she was hell on wheels. Yet underneath her strawberry curls, so like their mother’s, lurked a closet brainiac. Her intelligence motivated him to work twice as many hours. What was a couple extra hours in a greasy garage when his little sister might take her college education and change the world someday? If she didn’t get herself killed skydiving or speeding on her moped first. “Besides, that one time was a misunderstanding. I didn’t know bonfires weren’t allowed on campus. There should be clearly marked signs.”
“That say what? ‘Use your common sense’?”
She snorted. “All right, I’m going to let you get away with that one. I’m too happy with you today to take issue with your stuffy tone.”
He glanced back at the connecting door. What the hell was taking Hayden so long? “Happy with me?”
“Of course! How come you didn’t tell me you were applying for tuition grants? I would have helped fill out paperwork. Who knew I was even eligible for one?”
Brent felt a sense of foreboding settle in his stomach. His sixth sense kicked into high gear. This was somehow bad news. He just knew it. “Okay, let’s start from the beginning. What grant are you talking about? Who told you the tuition had been paid?”
“The bursar called me. They received funds for the remainder of my tuition from the…” She trailed off and he heard some papers rustling in the background. “The Winstead Foundation.”
His hand tightened on the phone until he heard the plastic creak in his fist. When he spoke, the words felt like they were being strangled from his throat. “Did they say anything else?”
“Nope. Just that I’d been personally selected by the head of the foundation. Some rich person named Hayden Winstead. I’m not even sure if that’s a man or a woman’s name. What do you think?”
“Woman,” he answered through clenched teeth. “She’s a woman.”
A long pause. “O-kay. You seem pretty sure about that.”
“Oh, I am. I have to go, Luce.” He hung up on her concerned response. For long moments, he sat there staring into space, trying to get his anger under control. Then he realized he didn’t want to get it under control. In his life, he couldn’t remember ever feeling this way. He didn’t have a name for the foreign emotion boiling in his chest. Just knew that in one fell swoop, Hayden had managed to take away everything he’d worked so hard to accomplish. Every day, he got up and busted his ass to provide for his loved ones. It’s how he defined himself. How he looked at himself in the mirror. What the hell had been the point if someone who didn’t understand the concept of money just made a phone call and took the privilege away from him?
As if on cue, the connecting door opened and Hayden walked in looking so goddamn beautiful it made breathing difficult. She smiled as though she hadn’t just turned his world upside down by passing on her American Express number to pay for his sister’s education. As if she hadn’t just stripped him of the only thing he had. His pride.
“Story called. They want to check out and grab brunch somewhere before heading back. Sound good? Daniel said he’ll show up when he’s ready, whatever that means.” Her easy glide in his direction faltered. “What’s wrong?”
“When did you do it?” he said quietly, voice echoing in his own ears. “Did you even consider consulting me first?”
“Do…what?” She shook her head. “I’m not following.”
He pushed off the bed, scoffing as he passed her. “My sister just called me. If your plan was to play stupid, you should have made the grant anonymous.”
She stared at him for a beat. “You might as well be talking in Swahili. I gather you’re upset, but I assure you I’m not playing stupid.”
“Right, Hayden. Just keep up the act and maybe the idiot mechanic will eventually buy it.” He shoved his wallet and keys into the front pocket of his jeans. “My sister just called. The Winstead Foundation paid for her college tuition. Selected personally by Miss Hayden Winstead herself.”
Her face drained completely of color. She opened her mouth to speak but only a few confused words emerged. “I don’t…but that makes no…sense.”
Even with righteous anger coursing through his veins, the sight of her in distress felt like a hard kick in the stomach. He dismissed his need to yank her into his arms and forgive her, just so she’d smile again. But he wouldn’t mean it. So he stood his ground.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You tried to pay me after our last night together.” His pronouncement caused her to fall back a step. He ignored the immediate sting of regret over his choice of words. There was no room for regret in addition to his resentment. “I didn’t accept your money last time. I won’t accept it this time. Or ever. Keep your goddamn money, Hayden. We’re not all sitting around hoping for a piece of the Winstead fortune.”
“Of course not. That’s ridiculous. I never saw it like th—”
“God. Can you even see outside of your privileged bubble? Just because your life is planned and controlled down to the smallest detail, doesn’t mean you can control everyone else with money, too. What you did was purely selfish.”
Brent watched as she absorbed his words. And changed right before his very eyes. In a matter of seconds, she went from the casual, playful girl he’d spent the night with to the cool, ivory-tower-dwelling princess he’d fought with relentlessly for months. Warm, chocolate-brown eyes turned shuttered. Her posture stiffened. Brent wanted to shout at the ceiling as he watched her slip away from him, knowing that whatever they’d found in the darkness last night had just been obliterated. Ironically, instead of defusing the bomb-like situation, he’d allowed it to explode in his face.
Hayden laughed without humor and it sliced through him. “I can’t believe I thought for one second that you could get past the damn money. It’s never going to end, is it? You think I’m a spoiled brat and no matter what I say or do, nothing will change that. Every time we fight, I’m going to be reminded of how very little I know about the real world, about honest work. You’ll do it every time. Well, guess what? I’m already sick of it.” She took a step toward the door. “Count me out.”
Brent followed her. “You went behind my back. Accomplished something in minutes that should’ve taken me years. You really can’t understand why that would fucking bother me?”
“I understand that it bothers you, Brent. I understand,” she returned. “But without giving me a chance to say a word, you went right to your knee-jerk response of crucify the rich girl.”
He shrugged. “If the Italian leather pump fits…”
Fuck. That one finally pushed her too far. He briefly considered hiding underneath the desk to avoid the inevitable explosion, only he wouldn’t fit. Her breasts rose and fell in her fury, fists curled at her sides. Jesus, she looked gorgeous when she got worked up. “Go ahead and return the money, you moronic asshole. I’m going to use it to erect a statue in Times Square. A hundred-foot, bronze middle finger pointing toward Queens.”
Brent couldn’t help it. He pushed her further. His anger outweighed his common sense. And his libido crushed them both. Pissed-off Hayden equaled rough, dirty sex and he needed the release. The distraction. The idea of losing himself in her tempted him beyond control. “If you need a reminder of how much you enjoy my middle finger, just ask. You don’t have to go building memorials in its honor.”
She shook her head slowly. “This has all been one huge mistake.”
No. No, that’s not the reaction he’d wanted. He wanted her to throw him on the bed and ride out her temper. But she was already
striding back into her room, steps clipped and purposeful. “Where are you going? This isn’t over.”
“It was over before it began.” Brent caught up with her, but she jerked away when he grabbed her arm. Her rejection didn’t deter him. Wouldn’t deter him. Boosting her onto the waist-level dresser, he moved between her thighs and went to kiss her hard. As his mouth descended, her look of undiluted panic confused him and he paused. Words escaped her mouth in a rush. “Yes, I paid the tuition. It was nothing to me. Nothing. I’ll spend that amount on hair product this month alone.” She averted her eyes. “Get off me. When I decided I wanted a kept man, this isn’t what I had in mind.”
Hayden used Brent’s shock as an opportunity to grab her overnight bag and dart out of the room.