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This was, without a doubt, the lowest Isabelle Winthrop-Betts had ever sunk.
Not even the sting of her father's open palm across her cheek had caused the humiliation she was feeling now thanks to Emilio Suarez, a man she once loved with all her heart and had planned to marry.
Her father had made sure that never happened. And Isabelle couldn't blame Emilio for the bitterness in his eyes as he sat behind his desk in his corner office at Western Oil headquarters, like a king on a throne addressing a local peasant.
Thanks to her husband, Leonard, that was really all she was now. She had gone from being one of the richest women in Texas, to a pauper. Homeless, penniless, widowed and about to be thrown in prison for fraud. And all because she had been too naive and trusting. Because when her husband had put documents in front of her, instead of reading them, she had blindly signed. How could she question the man who had rescued her from hell? Who had probably saved her life?
And the son of a bitch had up and died before he could exonerate her.
"You have a lot of nerve asking me for help," Emilio said in the deep, caramel-smooth voice that strummed every one of her frayed nerve endings, but the animosity in his tone curdled her blood. Not that he wasn't justified in his anger, not after the way she'd broken his heart, but she'd had no choice. She didn't expect him to understand that, she just hoped he would take pity on her.
His charcoal gray eyes bore through her, and she fought not to wither under their scrutiny. "Why come to me? Why not go to your rich friends?"
Because his brother, Alejandro, was prosecuting her case. Besides, she had no friends. Not anymore. They had all invested with Lenny. Some had lost millions.
"You're the only one who can help me," she said.
"Why would I want to? Maybe I want to see you rot in prison."
She swallowed the hurt his words caused, that he hated her that much.
Well, he would be happy to learn that according to her lawyer, Clifton Stone, nothing would prevent that now. The evidence against her was overwhelming and her best bet was a plea bargain. And while the idea of spending even another minute in jail terrified her, she was prepared to take full responsibility for her actions and accept any punishment they considered appropriate. Unfortunately, Lenny had gotten her mother involved in his scams, too. After suffering years of physical and emotional abuse from her husband, Adriana Winthrop deserved some happiness. Not to spend the rest of her life in prison. Not for something that was Isabelle's fault.
"I don't care what happens to me," Isabelle told him. "I want my mother's name cleared. She had no part in any of Leonard's scams."
"Leonard's and your scams," he corrected.
She swallowed hard and nodded.
One dark brow rose. "So, you're admitting your guilt?"
If blind trust was a crime, she was definitely guilty. "It's my fault that I'm in this mess."
"This is not a good time for me."
She'd seen coverage on the news about the accident at the refinery. The explosion and the injured men. She'd tried to visit him last week, but the front of the Western Oil headquarters building had been crawling with media. She would have waited another week or two, but she was running out of time. It had to be now. "I know it's a bad time and I'm sorry. This couldn't wait."
Arms folded across his chest, he sat back in his chair and studied her. In a suit, with his closely cropped hair combed back, he barely resembled the boy she'd known from her adolescence. The one she had fallen head over heels in love with the instant she'd laid eyes on him, when she was twelve and he was fifteen. Although, it had taken him until college to notice her.
His mother had been their housekeeper and in her father's eyes, Emilio would never be good enough for his precious daughter. That hadn't stopped her from seeing Emilio in secret, fully aware of the price she would pay if they were caught. But they had been luckyuntil her father learned of their plans to elope.
Not only had he punished her severely, he'd fired Emilio's mother. He accused her of stealing from them, knowing that no one else would hire her.
She wished her father could see them now. Emilio sitting there like the master of the universe and her begging for his help. He would be rolling in his grave.
See Daddy, he was good enough for me after all. Probably even better than I deserved.
Emilio never would have hurt her, never would have sacrificed her reputation out of greed. He was honest and trustworthy and loyal.
And right now, seriously pissed at her.
"So you're doing this for your mother?" he asked.
Isabelle nodded. "My lawyer said that with all the media attention, it's unlikely that your brother will be willing to deal. She'll serve some time."
"Maybe I'd like to see her rot in prison, too," he said.
She felt her hackles rise. Adriana Winthrop had never been anything but kind to him and his mother. She had done nothing to hurt them. She'd only been guilty of being married to an overbearing, abusive bastard. And even that wasn't entirely her fault. She had tried to leave and he'd made her live to regret it.
"Your appearance," he said. "Is it supposed to make me feel sorry for you?"
She resisted the urge to look down at the outdated blouse and ill-fitting slacks she had rummaged from the bag of clothes her mother had been donating to charity. Obviously he'd expected her to be wearing an outfit more suited to her previous station, but when her possessions had been seized, she kept nothing. For now, this was the best she could do.
"I don't feel sorry for you, Isabelle. It seems to me you're getting exactly what you deserve."
That was one thing they could agree on.
She could see that coming here had been a waste of time. He wasn't going to help her. He was too bitter.
Oh, well. It had been worth a try.
She rose from the chair, limp with defeat. Her voice trembled as she said, "Well, thank you for seeing me, Mr. Suarez."
"Sit down," he snapped.
"For what? You obviously have no intention of helping me."
"I never said I wouldn't help you."
Something in his eyes softened the slightest bit and hope welled up inside of her. She lowered herself into the chair.
"I'll talk to my brother on your mother's behalf, but I expect something in return."
She had expected as much, but the calculating look he wore sent a cold chill down her spine. "What?"
"You will agree to be my live-in housekeeper for thirty days. You'll cook for me, clean my house, do my laundry. Whatever I ask. At the end of the thirty days, if I'm satisfied with your performance, I'll talk to my brother."
In other words, he would make her work for him the way his mother had worked for her. Clever. Obviously he saw her plea for help as an opportunity to get revenge. What had happened to the sweet and kindhearted boy she used to know? The one who never would have been capable of dreaming up such a devious plan, much less have the gall to implement it. He had changed more than she could ever have guessed, and it stung to know that it was probably her fault. Had she hurt him so much when she left that he'd hardened his heart?
And what of his offer? The day her father died she had vowed never to let a man control her again. But this wasn't about her. She was doing this for her mother. She owed her. Besides, she had swallowed her pride so many times since the indictment, she was getting used to the bitter taste.
Despite what Emilio believed, she was no longer the shy, timid girl of her youth. She was strong now. Anything he could dish out, she could take.
"How do I know I can trust you?" she asked. "How do I know that after the thirty days you won't change your mind?"
He leaned forward, eyes flaming with indignation as they locked on hers. "Because I have never been anything but honest with you, Isabelle."
Unlike her, his tone implied. He was right. Even though she'd had a valid reason for breaking her word, but that hardly seemed worth mentioning. Even if she told him the truth she doubted he would believe her. Or care.
He leaned back in his chair. "Take some time to think about it if you'd like."
She didn't need time. She didn't have any to spare. Less than six weeks from now she and her lawyer would meet with the prosecutor, and her lawyer warned her that it didn't look good. For her or her mother.
This wasn't going to be a pleasant thirty days, but at least she knew Emilio wouldn't physically harm her. He may have become cold and callous, but he had never been a violent man. He'd never made her feel anything but safe.
What if he changed? a little voice in her head taunted, but she ignored it. The decision had already been made.
She sat straight, squared her shoulders and told him, "I'll do it."
Isabelle Winthrop was a viper.
A lying, cheating, narcissistic viper.
Yet Emilio couldn't deny that despite the fifteen years that had passed, she was still the most physically beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.
But her soul was as black as tar.
She'd had him duped, all those years ago. He thought she loved him. He had believed, despite the fact that she was a Winthrop and he was the son of a domestic servant, they would be married and live happily ever after. She told him she didn't care about the money or the status. She would be happy so long as they had each other. And he had fallen for it, right up until the minute he read the article in the paper announcing her marriage to finance guru Leonard Betts. A multibillionaire.
So much for her not caring about money and status. What other reason would she have to marry a man twenty-five years older?
When all was said and done, his relationship with Isabelle hadn't been a total loss. She had taught Emilio that women were not to be trusted, and he'd learned from her deceit never to put his heart on the line again.
That didn't mean he wasn't ready to dish out a little good old-fashioned revenge.
As for her being a criminal like her husband, he wasn't sure what to believe. According to the law, if she signed it, she was legally responsible. Now that Leonard was dead, someone had to pay.
Guilty or not, as far as Emilio was concerned, she was getting exactly what she deserved. But he was not prepared to be dragged down with her.
"There's just one condition," he told her.
She nervously tucked her pale blond hair behind her ears. Hair that he used to love running his fingers through. It was once shiny and soft and full of body, but now it looked dull and lifeless. "What condition?"
"No one can know about this." If it got out that he was helping her, it could complicate his chances for the CEO position at Western Oil. He was in competition with COO Jordan Everett and his brother, Nathan Everett, Chief Brand Officer. Both were friends and worthy opponents.
But Emilio deserved the position more. He'd earned it through more hard work than either of them could ever imagine with their Harvard educations that Daddy footed the bill for.
Maybe he was a fool to risk everything he'd worked so hard for, but Isabelle was offering an opportunity for revenge that he just couldn't pass up. After his father died, his mother worked her fingers to the bone trying to provide for Emilio and his three brothers. It was years after being fired by the Winthrops when she finally admitted to her children the verbal abuse she'd endured from Isabelle's father. Not to mention occasional improper sexual advances. But the pay was good, so she'd had no choice but to tolerate it. And after he had fired her, accused her of stealing from them, no respectable family would even think of hiring her.
Now Emilio's mother, his entire family, would finally be vindicated.
"Are you sure you don't want to brag to all of your friends?" Isabelle asked him.
"I'm the chief financial officer of this company. It wouldn't bode well for me or Western Oil if people knew I was in business with a woman indicted for financial fraud. If you tell a soul, not only is the deal off, but I will see that you and your mother rot in prison for a very long time."
"I can't just disappear for thirty days. My mother will want to know where I am."
"Then tell her you're staying with a friend until you get back on your feet."
"What about the authorities? I'm out on bond. They need to know where I'm staying. I could go back to jail."
"I'll take care of it," he said. He was sure he could work something out with his brother.
She looked wary, like she thought maybe it was a trick, but clearly she had no choice. She needn't have worried though. Unlike her, he honored his word.
"I won't tell anyone," she said.
"Fine." He slid a pad of paper and a pen across the desk to her. "Write down where you're currently staying and I'll have my driver come by to get you tonight."
She leaned forward to jot down the address. He assumed she would be staying with her mother, or in a high-class hotel, but what she wrote down was the name and address for a motel in one of the seedier parts of town. She really must have been in dire straits financially. Or she was pretending to be.
Several million dollars of the money they had stolen had never been recovered. For all he knew, she had it stashed somewhere. Of course, if she had been planning to run, wouldn't she have done it by now? Or was she waiting to cut a deal for her mother, then intending to skip town?
It was something to keep in mind.
"Be ready at seven," he told her. "Your thirty days will start tomorrow. Agreed?"
She nodded, chin held high. She wouldn't look so proud when he put her to work. Isabelle had never lifted a finger to do a thing for herself. He was sorry he wouldn't be home to witness what he was sure would be a domestic disaster.
The thought almost made him smile.
"Do you need a ride back to the hotel?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I borrowed my mother's car."
"That must be a change for you. Having to drive yourself places. It's a wonder you even remember how."