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Desperate was the only word to describe her at this point, the only word to justify what she was doing.
Her heart rattled in her chest, and her clammy hands shook so hard she could barely control them.
She was stepping into a man's hotel roomuninvited.
She had lied to the housekeeper to gain access, and this only after days of having groveled to this elusive stranger's secretary and attempting to bribe his chauffeur. And now, as she embarked on her first felony, Bethany Lewis expected to crack under the pressure.
Legs trembling, she shut the door behind her, pulled out a little black book and clutched it to her chest as she eased deeper into the presidential suiteuninvited.
The space was lit by soft lamplight, scented with the sweet smell of oranges. Her stomach rumbled, still starved for today's breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A small lacquered desk sat by the window. Behind it, the satin, peach-colored drapes were gathered aside to reveal a wide balcony overlooking the city. A silver tray with chocolate-dipped strawberries, an assortment of cheeses and polished fresh fruit was laid out on a glass coffee table. Next to a single unopened envelope that read Mr. Landon Gage.
The name was synonymous with old money, sophistication, power. For years it had been whispered to Bethany in hate. Landon Gage will pay for this. The Gages will rot in hell!
But the Gages were swimming in money, and if this was hell, then Beth would take it any day against the purgatory she'd had to live through.
She navigated around the Queen Anne settee, thinking of her six-year-old's cherubic blond face as she'd last seen it, wary-eyed and fearful as she left for trial. Mommy, you won't leave me? Promise?
No, darling, Mommy will never leave you .
Hollowness spread in her breast at the memory. She would brave a fiery dragon. She would lie and cheat and steal if only to make those words real to her little boy.
She peered beyond the slightly parted double doors that led into the bedroom. Downstairs, the children's cancer charity function was in full swing. Bethany had planned to blend in as a waitress and make her move, but the tycoon had not made an appearance yet, although it was worldwide knowledge that he was in the building. Among the waiting crowd, his name had been whispered in anticipation, and suddenly Beth couldn't stand the suspense.
On the large king bed, a glossy-leather briefcase lay open, surrounded by piles and piles of papers. A laptop hummed nearby.
"You've been following me."
Startled by the rich, deeply masculine voice, her eyes jerked to where a man exited the walk-in closet. He swiftly closed the buttons of his crisp white shirt and fixed her with a sharp, ice-cold gaze. Bethany backed into a wall. His presence was so staggering, her breath wheezed out of her.
He was taller than she'd anticipated, broad, dark and intimidating as a night demon. His body was fit and toned under the dress shirt and tailored black slacks, and the damp hair that was slicked behind his wide forehead revealed a face that was both utterly virile and sophisticated. His eyesan old, tarnished silver colorwere weary and remote, somehow empty-looking.
"I'm sorry," she said when she realized she was gaping.
He took in her physique. His gaze lingered on her hands, the nails shredded down to stubs. Beth resisted the urge to squirm and fought valiantly to stand there, dignified.
Carefully, he absorbed the knit St. John jacket and skirt she wore, loose around her waist and shoulders after she'd lost so much weight. It was one of the few quality suits she'd been able to hang on to after the divorce and one she'd chosen precisely for this occasion. But his gaze narrowed when he caught the shadows under her eyes.
Her tummy clenched. She could tell he wasn't as impressed with her as she with him.
He seized a shiny black bow from the nightstand and pinned her with a bleary look. "I could have you arrested."
Surprise skittered through her. He'd been aware of her? Hounding him for days? Hiding in corners, calling his office, begging his chauffeur, stalking him?
"W-why haven't you?"
Halting before a vanity table that looked ridiculously dainty next to him, he tied the bow around his collar with long, nimble fingers, meeting her gaze in the mirror. "Maybe you amuse me."
Bethany only partly listened to his words, for her mind suddenly whizzed with possibilities, and was coming to terms with the fact that Landon Gage was probably everything they said he was and more. The very bastard she needed. A bona fide, full-throttle, lean, mean son of a bitch. Yes, please, let it be.
Something had become clear to Beth. If she ever planned to be reunited with her son, she needed someone bigger, badder than her ex-husband. Someone without conscience and without fear. She needed a miracleand when God wasn't listening, then a pact with the devil was in store.
He spun around, clearly put out by her silence. "Well, Miss ?"
"Lewis." She couldn't help it; felt a little intimidated by him, his height, the breadth of his shoulders, his palpable strength. "You don't know me," she began. "At least not personally. But you might be acquainted with my ex-husband."
The reaction she had been expecting did not come. His expression revealed nothing, not the mildest interest, definitely not the anger she'd been striving for.
Bethany wiped one clammy hand on her jacket and eased away from the wall, still keeping a careful distance. "I hear you've been enemies for a time."
"I have many enemies. I do not sit around thinking of them all day. Now if you'll make this quick, I'm expected downstairs."
She didn't even know where to begin. Her life was such a tangled, thorny mess, her emotions so beat up, her story so sorry she found there were few descriptors that would do it justice and no quick way to explain it.
When she at last spoke, the horrible words caused actual pain in her throat. "He took my son from me."
Gage slammed his laptop shut and began to shove the files into his briefcase. "Aha."
She focused on his hard profile and wondered if he'd known, suspected, that she would come to him. He seemed not in the least surprised by her visit. Then again, he looked like a man who'd seen it all.
"I need I want him back. A six-year-old should be with his mother."
He locked his briefcase with an efficient click.
Tamping down an anger that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her ex-husband, Beth attempted to level her voice. "We battled for him in a custody hearing. Hector's lawyers provided photographs of me having an illicit affair. Several, actually. Of me with different men."
This time, when his eyes ventured the length of her body, she experienced the alarming sensation of having him mentally strip off her clothes. "I read the papers, Miss Lewis. You've got quite a reputation now."
He reached for his wallet on the nightstand, slipped it into his back pocket and lifted a tailored black jacket from the back of a nearby chair.
"They paint me as a Jezebel. It's a lie, Mr. Gage," she said.
Gage unapologetically started across the suite and thrust his arms into the coat sleeves.
Beth briskly followed him out of the room and down the hall and to the elevator bank. Her heart tripped when he stopped. He slammed his finger into the down arrow, then leaned back on his heels and regarded her plainly. "And how is this my problem?"
"Look." Her voice shook, and her heart was about to pop. "I have no resources to fight him or his lawyers. He made sure I received nothing. At first I thought there would be a young lawyer hungry enough to put his name out there and take a case like this with no money, but there isn't. I paid twenty dollars to a service online just so I could see what my options were."
She paused for oxygen.
"Apparently, if my circumstances change, I could petition for a custody change. I have already quit my job. Hector accused me of leaving David all day with my mother while I worked, and my mother.well, she's a little deaf. But she loves David, she's a great grandmother," she quickly defended, "and I had to work, Mr. Gage. Hector left us without money."
His steady regard caused a burning heat to crawl up her neck and cheeks.
No doubt in her mind that she was being judged all over again, and right now, it felt as humiliating as it had in court.
The elevator arrived with a ping, and she followed him inside, inhaling deeply for courage.
And to her dismay, all she could smell the moment the doors closed and they were enclosed in such a small space was him. Clean and musky, his scent unsettled her nerves. It felt as if she had pins in her veins.
God, the man was seriously, ludicrously sexy and he smelled really, really good.
Beth shouldn't have noticed this, but she was having trouble organizing her thoughts.
Landon Gage crossed his big, strong arms and gazed with notable impatience at the blinking LED numbers, as though they couldn't reach the ballroom floor soon enough.
"I do not care about the money, I want my child," Bethany whispered, her voice soft and pleading.
No one had recognized the good, loving deeds she'd done right as a mother. No one had cared that she'd told David stories every night. No one had paid attention to how she'd been to every doctor visit, had mended every little scrape, had dried every tear. No one in court had seen her as a mother, only a whore. That is all they had wanted to see, and what they'd wanted to believe. Bethany, and men. Men she didn't know, men she'd never even seen.
How easy it was for the wealthy and powerful to lie and for others to believe them. How much had it cost Hector to doctor that evidence? A pittance to him, she was sure, compared to what he took from her.
Lost in thought, she had not realized Landon had stopped gazing at the numbers and was, instead, scrutinizing her profile as she gnawed on her lower lip. "And I repeat. How is this my problem?"
She met his gaze head-on. "You are his enemy. He despises you. He means to destroy you."
He smiled a fast, hard smile, as though he knew a secret the rest of the world didn't. "I would like to see him try once more."
"I have " She waved the book. "This little black book. Which you could use to bring him down."
"Little black book? Like we're in high school?"
Beth flipped the pages. "Phone numbers of the people he meets with, the kind of deals he's done and with whom, reporters he's dealing with, the women." She slapped it shut with some drama. "Everything is hereeverything. And I will give this book to you if you help me."
He stared fiercely at the little black book, then into her face. "And Halifax hasn't noticed this book is in his ex-wife's hands?"
"He thinks it fell overboard the day he took me yachting."
A dangerous fire sparked in Landon's eyes; a dark, forgotten vendetta coming to life.
But the elevator jerked to a halt, and his expression eased, once again calm and controlled. "Revenge is tiring, Miss Lewis. I'm not a man who makes a living at it."
And then he swept out past the doors, stalking into the noisy, swirling ballroom, and Bethany felt her heart implode like a soda can crushed under his foot.
Music and laughter boomed. Jewels glinted under the chandelier light. Beth could see the top of his silky ebony hair as he wound through the sea of elegantly dressed people and soaring marble columns. She could see himher one and only chancewalking away from her. And all she could think of was no.
Waiters twirled around with armfuls of canapes, and Bethany methodically maneuvered around the crowd. She caught up with him by the sloshing wine fountain as he snatched up a glass. "Mr. Gage," she began.
He didn't break stride as he tossed back the liquid. "Go home, Miss Lewis."
Beth sprinted three steps ahead of him and raised the black book with imploring hands. "Please listen to me."
He halted, set the empty glass on a passing tray, then stretched his hand out to her, palm up. "All right, let's see the goddamned book."
"No." The book went back to her chest, protected with both hands. "I'll let you see the book when you marry me," she explained.
"Please. I need my circumstances to change so I can get custody. Hector will hate the idea of you having me as a wife. He will he will want me back. He will fear what I can tell you. And then I can bargain for my child. You can help me. And I will help you destroy him."
Something akin to disbelief lifted his brows. "You're a little thing to be full of such hate, aren't you?"
"Bethany. My name is Bethany. But you can call me Beth."
"Is that what he called you?"
Her hand fluttered in the air. "He called me woman, but I can't see how that matters."
The disgust on his face said it all, how romantic he thought the "pet name" to be. Bethany did not have time to explain, for he'd plunged back into the crowd. Everyone, it seemed, either came forward or waved at him. Event security spotted Landon from their posts, and their quick eyes landed immediately on Beth.
"Look, I warn you," she said, bumping her shoulder against a woman who said, "Hey!" and swiftly apologizing before sprinting back to his side. "Hector is obsessed. He believes you're out to get him and he wants to get you first. If you do not actively do something, he will tear you apart."
He stopped and frowned darkly. "I don't think you have the vaguest idea of who I am." As he bent forward, his narrowed gray eyes leveled ominously with hers, making her hackles raise. "I am ten times more powerful than Hector Halifax. He'd dance in a pink tutu if I said so."
"Prove it! Because all I can say is Hector is happier than he's ever been. He's not hurting at all."
"Landon! God, Landon, there you are."
He did not glance up at the speaker, but stared at Beth with eyes so tormented they provided a peek into the darkest pits of hell.
Her heart pounded a thousand times in only a couple of seconds.
And still he didn't speak.
"Let me make this clear, Miss Lewis." Whatever she'd seen in his eyes vanished as though a shutter had dropped. "I am not in the market for another man's leavingsnor am I in the market for a wife."
"It will only be temporary, please, my family is helpless against his, I cannot even see my son! I crawl around the streets waiting for a glimpse of him. You're the only man who hates my ex-husband as badly as I do. I know you hate him, I can see it in your eyes."
His lips thinned into a white, grim line.