The Billionaire's Embrace Page 12

He was rich, and he lived like a rich person, but he didn’t have a pet tiger or diamond-encrusted silverware. He had the things that I would probably want to have, if I were rich.

I rubbed my temples. Too much thinking before noon. I dragged myself out of bed and turned on the coffee maker. Everything would make more sense once I had some caffeine.

While I was waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, I texted Carter. Dinner at 6:30. Sadie lives in Carroll Gardens so we can meet there. There was no reason for him to come all the way to my neighborhood and then backtrack to Sadie’s place. I typed in her address and hit send.

He didn’t respond until I was settled on the couch with my coffee, making my usual morning rounds of blogs and email. Don’t be silly. I’ll come pick you up. What should I bring? Wine?

I thought about it. Wine was usually a safe bet, but Sadie had said Indian food, and I didn’t know what else she had planned. I’ll have her call you if that’s okay.

Sure. I’m in meetings all morning, but she can leave a message. Can’t wait to see you tonight.

I bit my lip to hold back a foolish grin. That was the problem with Carter: my brain told me that it couldn’t last, that it would end in sorrow and suffering, but my heart wanted him so much that it bloomed in my chest, an extravagant flower, with the slightest provocation. He was kind, and thoughtful, and good, a fundamentally decent person, and that was why I hadn’t bailed yet. He gave me hope. His earnest belief that the world was a good and worthwhile place was contagious. Being around him made me feel like everything would turn out okay.

Foolishness. False dreams. I looked around my apartment, grounding myself in reality. Dirty dishes, overflowing hamper, drug addicts yelling outside. Real life. The way that real people lived.

Well, real people didn’t have to live in filth. I spent the day cleaning, and then realized it was already 5:00, and Carter would be ringing my doorbell in less than an hour. Panicked, I hopped in the shower, and then spent far too long trying to decide what I wanted to wear. A dress? Jeans and a nice top? A skirt and a slouchy t-shirt, for the casual-but-classy look? I had finally settled on skinny jeans and a silky blouse when my doorbell rang.

My hair was still wet, and I hadn’t put on an ounce of makeup. I swore a blue streak. Whatever. Sadie and Ben had seen me looking worse, and Carter would just have to cope. I pulled on my coat and clattered down the stairs.

Carter was waiting for me in the vestibule. He was wearing—oh God—his usual outfit of wool slacks and a dress shirt, overcoat slung over his arm. At least his sleeves were rolled up. I should have told him to dress down. We were just going to dinner at Sadie’s apartment; he didn’t need to look so fancy.

I opened the door. “You’re early,” I said. “I mean, you’re not early, you’re right on time, but I lost track of time, and—I didn’t have time to do my hair, or—”

He smiled and touched my wet hair. “So I see. You look wonderful.” He bent to kiss me. “Are you ready? Henry’s waiting outside.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m ready,” I said.

We went outside and climbed into the warm car. “I’m afraid I’m a little overdressed,” Carter said. “I came straight from the office. I hope your friends won’t mind.”

Guilt washed over me. Of course he’d been at work, even though it was Sunday. He wasn’t trying to show off, or make Sadie and Ben feel inadequate. He just hadn’t had time to change. I shouldn’t have assumed the worst. “I hope you’ll talk a lot about how you had a long, exhausting day at the office and make them both feel really lazy,” I said.

He grinned. “I’m sure that will endear me to them. It wasn’t that exhausting.”

Double guilt. “I didn’t mean to—I wouldn’t have asked you if I’d known you were working all day. If you want to just go home and relax, I’m sure they’ll understand. It’s not—”

He took my hand. “That’s not what I meant. Being with you is relaxing, Regan. I would much rather do this than go home to my empty apartment.”

I couldn’t think of any way to respond that didn’t involve bursting into tears, so I slid across the seat and leaned against him, resting my head against his shoulder and letting him wrap one arm around me and hold me close.

His warm and solid presence made me realize how nervous I’d been all day. I was worried about what he would think about Sadie, and what Sadie would think about him. I wanted them to like each other, and I was afraid that they wouldn’t, and I was annoyed with myself that it mattered so much to me. I was an adult, and I could make my own decisions. I didn’t need anyone’s approval.

“Sadie asked me to bring wine,” Carter said. “I picked up a couple of bottles.”

I tensed. “What kind of wine?”

He kissed the top of my head. “Cheap wine. Twenty dollars a bottle.”

Twenty dollars a bottle still sounded like a lot. “I just don’t want you to think you have to spend money on me,” I said. “Or that I’m taking advantage of you.”

“Seeing as how you get that horrified look on your face every time I try to do something nice for you, it would be difficult for me to believe that you’re using me for my money,” Carter said.

I covered my face with one hand. “Horrified?”

He laughed. “Like you’ve smelled something repellent. It’s very sweet, and I’m glad to know you like me for more than just my credit card. Although I do wish you would let me spoil you a little.”

I didn’t reply. I was still trying to figure out how I felt about Carter’s money. It was a fact of his existence, just like his blue eyes. I wouldn’t ever be able to strip away his wealth and find the “real Carter.” Money wasn’t a veneer concealing his true self. It was part of him, an inextricable part of how he interacted with and thought about the world. I thought that probably a lot of the things I liked about him—his self-confidence, his easy charm—existed because he had money. It was easy to be confident when you never had to worry about paying rent.

And so even though I sometimes wished that he were an ordinary person, that he took the subway and bought his toilet paper at a corner store, I knew that it didn’t work like that. Without the corporation and the money and the tabloids, he wouldn’t be Carter. He had been shaped by his environment the same way I’d been shaped by mine. I couldn’t reject his wealth without rejecting him.

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