The Billionaire's Embrace Page 18

I clicked the link.

I shouldn’t have. I regretted it even as I did it, but the motion was automatic. It wasn’t a conscious decision. My hand moved and clicked the button, and the page opened.

The picture was grainy, like it had been taken from across the room and zoomed in as far as it could go. Someone with their phone, probably. But the quality wasn’t so bad that the people in the photo were unrecognizable. One of them was definitely Carter. I recognized his sweater, and the way his hand rested possessively at the small of my back. And I recognized myself, head tilted up to look at him.

We were standing in front of a marble statue, smiling at each other, ignoring the artwork.

It was the Greek wing in the museum. I remembered that room—all of the half-naked sculptures, and Carter cracking mild jokes about the ways of the ancient Greeks. We had been laughing about a corrupt art dealer Carter used to know, who would chop the hands off modern sculptures and claim they were thousands of years old.

And someone took a picture of us. I hadn’t even noticed anyone else was in the room.

I should have stopped there, closed the browser, shut down my laptop, and tried to put it out of my mind. But I didn’t. How could I? I’d opened Pandora’s box, and it was too late to turn back.

I ran a search for “Carter Sutton museum,” and blindly clicked on the first link that came up. It was something innocuous about his mother’s work with the board.

Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

I went back and clicked the second link.

“CARTER SUTTON: YELLOW FEVER?”

It wasn’t as bad as I thought. It was worse.

I didn’t know what to do. I called Sadie.

She picked up. “Girl, this had better be important. I’m at work.”

“There are pictures of me,” I choked out. “On the internet.”

A pause. “What?”

“With Carter. We went to the museum, and someone—took pictures of us. And everyone’s trying to figure out who I am, and—”

Sadie exhaled. “Oh, honey. Well, it was going to happen. He’s a pretty big deal, and if you’re seen in public with him, sooner or later someone’s bound to get curious.”

“They’re saying he has yellow fever.” My voice cracked, and I closed my eyes.

“Shit,” Sadie said. “People are racist assholes. Look, you already knew that. Don’t let it get to you.”

She was right, but it was getting to me. I couldn’t help it. “I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“You’ve got two choices,” Sadie said, and this was why I had called her, why I always called her when I was having a crisis: she went into matter-of-fact problem-solving mode, and talked me down from the ledge. “You can stay with him, and accept that public notoriety is part of the deal. As long as you’re dating him, people are going to be interested in you, and you’re going to have to give up your privacy. Or you can break up with him.”

I didn’t like either of those options. “I don’t want there to be pictures of me on the internet,” I said. I heard the whiny note in my voice and despised myself for it.

“Tough,” Sadie said mercilessly. “Get rid of him, then. Look, I really can’t talk. Do you want to meet up after I get off work? We can eat some ice cream and watch bad television.”

“I can’t tonight,” I said. “Thanks, though. I’ll be okay.”

“Okay,” she said, sounding skeptical. “Don’t do anything crazy. I’ll talk to you later, baby girl.”

She hung up. I got up and stared out the window, looking at nothing, seeing nothing, my mind racing.

Maybe Carter would know what to do. He dealt with the tabloids all the time; maybe he could get the pictures taken down. I texted him: Someone took pictures of us at the museum.

He didn’t respond right away, so I poured myself another cup of coffee and stood over the kitchen sink to drink it. My phone buzzed, and I looked at the screen.

I know. Saw them a few days ago.

I stared at my phone in disbelief. You knew about this and didn’t tell me?

My phone buzzed again. Carter was calling me. I picked up and said, “Hi.”

“Hi,” he said. “Regan, I’m sorry. It didn’t occur to me to let you know. I deal with these pictures all the time, and I don’t think about them much anymore. I forgot that you probably aren’t used to seeing your face plastered all over gossip blogs.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I was just—they’re saying horrible things, and—”

“I know,” he said. “I wish I could protect you, but I can’t. If I make a fuss and get them taken down, everyone will think I have something to hide, and they’ll start digging. It’s best to just ignore it.”

“It’s going to happen again, isn’t it,” I said. “Any time we’re in public.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m afraid it is.”

I fell silent. I didn’t want the pictures, but my other choice—to break up with him—was even less appealing. Rock, hard place. I had never been good at thinking on my feet, and presented with an impossible decision, I felt myself shutting down.

“We don’t have to be seen together in public,” Carter said. “If you aren’t comfortable with it, I’ll do everything I can to protect you.”

“I just—need to think about it,” I said. “For a little while.”

“Of course,” he said. “Are we still on for dinner tonight?”

I drew in a deep breath. I had told him I would go; I wouldn’t back down now. I would be brave. “Yeah,” he said.

“Great,” he said. From the warmth in his voice, I could tell he was smiling. “I’ll come pick you up at 7.”

We hung up, and I rubbed both hands over my face. God. What was I going to do?

* * *

I spent the day reading. Getting absorbed in a book was the best way to keep myself from worrying about things I couldn’t control. I had gone to the library a few days earlier and had a big stack of novels to choose from. I picked the one on top and started reading, and all of my concerns fell away. Before I knew it, my phone alarm went off, and it was time for me to start getting ready for dinner.

Despite my reservations, I ended up wearing a dress I used for work. It was black, knee-length, and conservative enough that I couldn’t imagine Carter’s mother objecting. Just to be safe, I pulled on a cardigan. I would be polite, demure, and totally irreproachable. I would speak only when spoken to, smile a lot, and compliment her decorating. What could go wrong?

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