The Billionaire's Embrace Page 19

Well. Everything.

When my door buzzer rang a little before 7, I threw on my coat and ran down the stairs.

Carter was waiting for me in the vestibule. He gave me a kiss and said, “You look great. My mother loves it when people dress up for dinner.”

“You should have told me that!” I said. “What if I’d worn jeans?”

He grinned. “You know, it didn’t occur to me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in jeans.”

I thought about it. “That’s not true. I wore jeans when we went to Sadie’s.”

“I stand corrected,” he said. We walked out to the waiting car, bickering cheerfully about who had worn jeans and when. It was snowing lightly, fat flakes drifting down from the dark sky, and I turned my face up toward them. No matter how long I lived in New York, I would never get tired of seeing the snow fall.

Carter, holding the car door open, smiled at me. “That’s right. You probably didn’t see much snow, growing up in California.”

“None at all,” I said. “I was eighteen the first time I saw snow.” I shook my head, and got into the car before Carter got sick of waiting for me. I still remembered my first snowfall: I left the windowless building where I was working at the time, some crummy temp job for an insurance agency, and stood in the middle of the sidewalk, staring up at the falling snow, until a passerby cursed at me and told me to get out of the damn way. Most people in the city hated the snow, the way it turned into gray slush and made traffic a snarled mess, and I always nodded and agreed that, yes, it probably wouldn’t melt until July, but secretly, I couldn’t get enough. I would be happy if it snowed every day from October until April.

Carter’s mother lived on the Upper East Side. It was a long way from my apartment in the hinterlands of Brooklyn. We sat together in the roomy back seat of the car, one of Carter’s arms wrapped around my shoulders, and talked about nothing in particular, the kind of rambling conversation that happened so often when you were first growing close to someone: childhood pets, favorite movies, secret aspirations. Carter told me about a man who showed up for a meeting with a boa constrictor in his briefcase, and I laughed until tears streamed down my cheeks. I told him about a woman at my first job who kept a dead cat in her freezer for three years because she couldn’t figure out where to bury it.

We sobered, finally, speeding along FDR Drive, the East River a black expanse to our right. Carter said, “I should have warned you about the pictures.”

I shrugged, uncomfortable. “It just took me by surprise.”

“It’s surprisingly easy for me to forget that this is all new to you,” he said. “In the past—” He exhaled. “Well. When I was younger, I mainly dated women who sought the exposure that came with dating me. My girlfriends since then have all—well. Let’s say that they’re friends of the family.”

“You mean they’re rich,” I said. “They know the rules.”

“Right,” he said. “So I forget. Forgive me. I don’t want this to be a trial for you. I don’t want you to have any reason to decide that dating me is too much trouble to be worth it.”

That was exactly what I had been thinking about, but I leaned against him and said, “It’s worth it.”

Was I lying to him? Maybe. It was worth it, except when it wasn’t. If only he weren’t who he was. If only we could be anonymous nobodies together in Brooklyn.

I didn’t want to think about that anymore.

His mother lived in a huge building on Central Park East. We got out of the car and I stared up at the marble edifice, too intimidated to speak or move. I’d had a job, for a while, cleaning apartments on the Upper East Side. I knew what was waiting for me, and that made it even more intimidating.

The doorman held open the door for us as we approached. “Good evening, Mr. Sutton,” he said.

“Hello, Reginald,” Carter said. “I hope you’re keeping warm.”

“Best kind of weather there is,” the doorman said. “Your mother asked me to tell you that the gravy boiled over.”

Carter laughed. “Thanks for the warning.”

We walked into the lobby, Carter’s hand at the small of my back. “That’s a code,” he said. “It means she broke out the good Scotch.”

“Sure,” I said. I was too busy gawking at the opulent lobby to say anything worthwhile. Rosy-cheeked cherubs frolicked on the ceiling, and the marble floors echoed with our footsteps.

We got in the elevator, and Carter pushed the button for the top floor. I said, “Did you grow up here?”

Carter shook his head. “My mother downsized after my father died.”

Downsized. To a penthouse overlooking Central Park. I shoved my hands into my coat pockets. I didn’t think I would ever get used to this.

The elevator opened into a small foyer with a console table and a solid wooden door. Carter pushed a doorbell, and the door swung open almost instantly to reveal Carter’s mother. She had been waiting for us.

She was small and trim, her gray hair cut in a fashionable bob. She was wearing a low-cut dress and heels and jewelry that probably cost a small fortune. She looked like someone who had seen everything the world had to offer, and decided that not much of it was worthy of her attention. “Carter, darling,” she said, holding out her arms, and Carter bent to give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She turned to me, and said, “And you must be Regan.”

Was I supposed to hug her? That seemed too familiar. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, and held out my hand.

She looked at it like it was a dead fish, and then limply clasped the tips of my fingers. “I’m so glad you were able to join Carter this evening.”

So. I had screwed up already.

I shot Carter a pleading look, but he was looking at his mother. “Are we late? Traffic on FDR was horrible.”

She scoffed. “Late? My child? Never. Dinner’s growing cold, but don’t fret about me, your poor, beleaguered, widowed mother—”

He laughed. “Was the knitting circle especially tiring today?”

They bantered as Carter’s mother led the way into the apartment. I hung back and gaped at my surroundings: pale wood floors strewn with rich carpets, antique furniture that probably came straight from Paris, oil paintings that—from what Carter had told me about his mother’s interest in art—were probably originals by famous artists. And the huge windows on every wall that opened onto the city skyline and the park.

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