The Billionaire's Embrace Page 21

“I think she could be an asset, with a little polish,” Angie said. “Voters like the minority wife. Just look at our new mayor.”

I sat there, hands in my lap, too stunned to speak. I had been envisioning Carter’s mother as a kindly older woman, someone who puttered around with gardening and charity boards. Not this.

“We aren’t discussing this,” Carter said. “Regan, ignore her, she’s being abominable.” He was smiling, though, like it was all some big joke.

Well, I wasn’t laughing.

“Oh, very well,” Angie said. “I’ll leave you be for now. But this isn’t over!” She motioned to the maid, who came forward to remove our plates, and replaced them with the next course.

It was the longest meal of my life. I ate mechanically, placing each bite in my mouth without tasting anything. My heart pounded, dulling conversation into a dim roar. Carter kept making attempts to draw me into the conversation, and Angie kept neatly excluding me, saying a sentence or two in response to Carter’s efforts and then returning to whatever she had been saying about Sutton Industries or her latest investments or her tennis lessons, subjects I knew nothing about and couldn’t contribute to. It was obvious that my input wasn’t necessary or desired. I kept quiet and ate.

I didn’t know why Carter had asked me to join him.

When Angie left the room to see about dessert, Carter leaned across the table and took my hand. “Are you okay? You’re being so quiet.”

“She hates me,” I said, and then immediately regretted it. Carter didn’t need to hear me whining about how miserable I was.

He looked startled. “Why would you say that? Because of the politics thing? Don’t pay any attention, she’s always like that.”

It wasn’t the politics thing—it was all of it, the way she looked at me, the way she had taken my measure in a single glance and dismissed me as someone unworthy of her notice. But I couldn’t say that to Carter. I didn’t understand their relationship, their strange verbal parrying, but they obviously had great affection for each other, and I didn’t think he would respond well if he thought I was criticizing his mother.

So I just said, “I’m sure it’s nothing,” and Angie returned with dessert before Carter could push the issue.

I wondered how long it would take for Carter’s mother to convince him to break up with me. I could imagine the conversation all too clearly: I was too poor, too unsophisticated, too ignorant about the way their world operated. I would never make a good society wife. I couldn’t even figure out which fork to use at dinner. It would be better to make a clean break, to end things before someone (me) got too attached. Angie would frame it as a kindness: Carter would be doing me a favor. She would talk him around to it, slowly and persuasively, and eventually he would come to see the light. I would be happier with someone of my own social class. And didn’t Carter care about my happiness?

I would just have to end it first, and preserve my dignity.

But I didn’t want to. That was the problem. I poked at my dessert and watched Carter describing some investment he had made, hands moving in abstract gestures, face animated. I wasn’t ready to lose him just yet.

Chapter 7

I woke up on Friday to a text message from Carter: Horrible charity ball Saturday night. Go with me?

I rubbed my eyes and went to make coffee. I needed caffeine before I could deal with this.

We hadn’t spoken since Wednesday night, after he took me home after dinner at his mother’s. I worked and licked my wounds, and waited for him to contact me first. And now he had, and it wasn’t what I had been hoping for. A charity ball? Really? His mother had been bad enough; now he wanted me to spend the evening with hundreds of people just like her, all of them staring at me with bright, glittering eyes, waiting to find any excuse to tear me apart.

Maybe I was being a little melodramatic.

I replied to Carter’s text. I don’t have a ball gown

Surmountable problem, he replied. So you’ll go? I need moral support.

I would need a Valium, or a lot of alcohol. I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Please? All you’ll need to do is look pretty. I won’t even make you dance.

I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to—but Carter had said please, and he’d complained to me before about how much he hated these balls.

But why was I always agreeing to do things I dreaded?

I made a bargain with myself. I would go to this ball, and if I hated it, I would tell Carter I never wanted to go to another one. And then he couldn’t tell me that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, because I would have hard, cold experience backing me up.

The thing was, I wanted to be a good sport. I wanted to show Carter that I would play ball and do my best to support him in the things that he cared about. But I also didn’t want to spent the rest of my life, or however long, doing things that made my stomach feel like unbaked bread.

Okay, I’ll do it. But I need a dress!

Wonderful. I’ll take you to Bergdorf’s tomorrow morning.

I winced. He would probably try to talk me into a fur coat and a diamond tiara. I texted him that I’d meet him at the store at noon the next day, and started getting ready for work.

The next morning, I set my alarm and took the subway to 59th Street. Midtown was packed with people doing their Christmas shopping. I walked the couple of blocks down 5th Avenue to the store, and waited for Carter beside the main entrance, where he’d said he would meet me.

The weather was warmer than it had been lately, and it was nice to be outside, even with people jostling past me on the sidewalk. I only had to wait for a few minutes before I saw Carter’s car pulling up to the curb, and he stepped out. He spotted me right away and waded through the crowds to reach me.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. “Traffic.”

“I just got here,” I said. I glanced around, worried that someone would see us together and take pictures. “Are you ready?”

“Let’s—what’s the saying? Shop until we drop?” He took my arm, and we went into the store.

I realized very quickly that Carter wasn’t your stereotypical helpless male when it came to shopping. He guided me straight to the women’s department and snagged one of the salesgirls. “Is Betty here? I’m in need of a dress.”

The salesgirl did a double-take. She obviously recognized him, and it was funny to watch her try to pretend that she didn’t. “If you’re in need of personal shopping services, sir—”

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