The Billionaire's Embrace Page 23

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The ball started that evening at 8, at a venue uptown. The car pulled up outside the building, and I gawked out the window at all the women in their fancy dresses, the men wearing tuxedos. They mingled on the sidewalk, laughing and talking. Everyone looked so glamorous.

I would have been much more worried about my appearance if Betty hadn’t given me her approval. I knew she had probably picked out the dresses for many of the other women who would be at the ball. Even so, I’d kept my makeup simple and done my hair in a basic chignon, too nervous to take any risks.

“Stop worrying,” Carter said. He put one hand on my knee, and leaned in to give me a kiss. “You look incredible. You’ll put everyone else to shame.” He kissed me again. “Are you ready?”

“I guess so,” I said.

“We’ll go straight inside,” he said. “We won’t stop for pictures.”

Pictures? My stomach clenched, but Carter was already getting out of the car, and I had no choice but to follow him.

Lightbulbs flashed, blinding me. “Mr. Sutton!” someone called, and someone else said, “Carter, who’s your date?”

I ducked my head, clinging to Carter’s arm as we walked toward the building. I hadn’t been expecting photographers. Carter had obviously known, and he hadn’t told me—maybe to keep me from worrying? But I wished he had given me some warning.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said, leading me through the front door. “There are usually a couple of lifestyle reporters at these events. They won’t be allowed inside.”

I took a deep breath, calming myself. “Okay,” I said.

The interior of the building was everything I expected it to be: huge, luxurious, filled with red velvet and marble. Party-goers swarmed the foyer, their voices echoing in the cavernous space. A string quartet played in a corner, and waiters dressed in black circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres.

Carter led to me a marble pillar at the foot of a staircase leading up into the darkness. “I’ll take your coat,” he said. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Alone, I smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from my dress and tried to look inconspicuous. My dress was too bright, too attention-grabbing. Nobody else was wearing yellow, and I was afraid that everyone would look at me.

Carter returned before I could work myself into a panic. He took my arm and said, “We’d better make the rounds. There are people here who expect me to speak to them.”

“Do I have to talk to people?” I asked. I would do it if I had to, but I wouldn’t like it.

“Not much,” he said. “I’ll introduce you; just tell them you’re pleased to make their acquaintance. I don’t intend to spend very long talking to anyone. In and out.” He smiled at me. “Then we’ll eat, and listen to the music.”

“That sounds nice,” I said. Maybe we could find a corner to hide in.

He led me through the crowds, moving confidently into the sea of people. As we passed, I heard murmurs from other guests. Even among these people, all of them wealthy and powerful in their own right, Carter was worthy of notice.

Scraps of conversation reached my ears. Everyone was talking about Carter. And, I realized to my horror, about me. “Shade of yellow,” someone said, and, “That dress.”

“How sweet,” I heard someone say, “he brought the help.”

My face flamed. Of course that was what they thought about me.

And, in a way, I was. I didn’t clean his house or cook his food, but we didn’t meet at the gym or a coffee shop, or a society function or a country club. We met because I served him a drink.

“Carter, my boy,” a voice boomed, and I looked up—and up—to see a tall man with a huge belly beaming down at us.

“Frederick, how are you?” Carter ask, and they vigorously shook hands. “I have to go speak with Cortland, but let’s get together soon to talk about that merger. I’ll be in touch.”

“Yes, wonderful,” the man bellowed, and Carter steered me away into the crowd.

“See? You didn’t even have to talk to him,” he murmured in my ear, and I placed my hand over his and squeezed it gratefully.

“Who’s Cortland?” I asked.

He grinned. “My mother’s dog, circa 2003.”

That happened three more times—people speaking to Carter, who gave them a polite brush-off and kept moving—before he got cornered by an older woman, probably his mother’s age, who seized him and said, “Carter Sutton, you are a terrible creature for not telling me you would be here tonight!”

Carter kissed her cheek. “Mrs. Chanler, it must have slipped my mind,” he said. “How are you? How’s Delilah?”

“Gorgeous and still single,” the woman said, eyeing me. “Although I take it you’ve been snapped up already.”

“Mrs. Chanler, this is Regan Cabatu,” Carter said, drawing me forward.

I didn’t try to shake the woman’s hand. I gave her a polite smile. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” I said.

Her mouth pursed like she had tasted something sour. “Yes, quite,” she said, and turned back to Carter. “So, tell me, how is your mother?”

Just like that, she neatly cut me out of their conversation. I stood at Carter’s side, feeling awkward and wishing I could go hide behind the drapes. Carter kept inhaling and saying, “Well,” clearly trying to make his excuses and escape, but Mrs. Chanler wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise. She went on and on about her daughter and her dogs and her tennis lessons, until I felt like screaming.

Someone cleared their throat behind me. I turned to see two women, probably about my age, standing there sizing me up. One of them, a tall blond, gave me a frosty smile.

I knew that look: like a dog pissing to mark its territory.

“You must be the reason Carter hasn’t been returning my calls,” the woman said. She looked me up and down. “What is it that you do?”

In for a penny. I refused to be ashamed. “I’m a cocktail waitress,” I said.

The woman exchanged a glance with her friend. “How... interesting.”

“What do you do?” I asked.

The woman laughed, a light, tinkling sound. “I don’t ‘do’ anything. Only the lower classes work to earn their keep.”

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