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"Jeremy Harper is here to see you."
"Send him in," Isabella McNamara said, even though he wasn't on her calendar. She hung up the phone and settled back in her leather executive chair, blowing out a long breath. This was just another meeting. She faced heads of Fortune 500 companies all the time—facing Jeremy would be no different.
She wiped her sweaty palms on the fabric of her silk skirt and immediately regretted it. She wanted to look her best, to pull off some of Angelina Jolie's charm and confidence. Taking a deep breath, she repeated a few words in her head—calm, cool, clever.
Everything was always different with Jeremy. She'd seen him exactly twelve times in the last three years. And each of those meetings had left her shaken, hungry and wanting more of the man. Of course, since she'd pretty much signed away her body to him, every time they'd met all she could think about was what it would be like to feel his naked skin rubbing against hers.
Oh, God, he'd turned her into a sex fiend. She knew that being a man's mistress wasn't about sex; it was about money. But Bella had never been able to think of anything to do with Jeremy as only business.
She didn't have to guess why he was here. Three short years ago, she'd made a deal with Jeremy and now it was time to pay up. She didn't kid herself that he was here for any reason other than to collect on that debt.
The door to her office opened and she stood to greet him. He wore a Dolce & Gabbana suit with the same ease that teenagers wore jeans and T–shirts. He sauntered into the room as if he owned it.
She caught her breath, wishingfor a minute she didn't find him so attractive. But she always had. And that was probably why she was in the position she was: Owing this man a debt she had no idea if she would survive paying.
The door closed firmly behind him, but she barely noticed. Instead she tried to ignore the spicy scent of his aftershave and the way his bluer–thanblue eyes watched her.
He was her devil. The man she'd sold her soul to–and he was here to collect. She twisted her fingers together, trying desperately to believe that she wasn't scared of a six–foot–two man. But she was.
His voice was deep and low–pitched. She'd spoken to him on the phone countless times, yet his voice always sent little shivers of awareness pulsing through her veins.
"Jeremy," she said, then remembered a very important lesson that her mother had taught her. Never let them see you sweat. Of course, her mom had been referring to the Palm Beach jet set they'd once been a part of, but Bella figured the same rule applied to sexy billionaires. "Please have a seat."
He moved farther into the room, seating himself in one of her guest chairs. She sank down into her leather chair, opening her center desk drawer and touching the jewel–encrusted Montblanc fountain pen that had once been her mother's and was now Bella's lucky charm. She rubbed her fingers over it before taking it out of the drawer and placing it on the desk.
"What can I do for you?" she asked carefully. He might be here for another reason. Maybe he wanted her to cater an event for his company or his family's annual Fourth of July bash. "I think you know."
She sighed. Not an event after all. "Time's up." He laughed, a rich sound that filled the room, and for a moment she forgot to be afraid. Forgot that he held all the cards in this situation by her own design.
"I was hoping time would have helped alleviate your fears."
"I'm not afraid of you," she said, very aware that her words were a lie.
She didn't care if Jeremy knew it, either. She'd spent most of her life dealing with people she was afraid of, ever since her father had died when she was fourteen and they'd gotten the news that his entire fortune was gone. She'd learned to deal with the fear of being mocked by the same people she'd once called friends.
She'd faced fear again when her mother died four years later and the sole responsibility for raising her fourteen–year–old brother, Dare, had fallen to her. She'd known real fear—survival fear—and she'd never once admitted to it out loud.
Jeremy arched one eyebrow at her—an arrogant gesture that fit him to a tee.
She forced a smile. "Dare is still in college." "He's graduating at the end of summer. And he has a job lined up with Fidelity starting in the fall."
"How do you know that?" she asked. Dare had only just called this afternoon with the job news. She'd known then that she needed to call Jeremy.
To let him know that she was now ready to fulfill her part of the bargain.
"I told you I'd make sure your brother's future was taken care of."
"I thought you meant the scholarship." But she'd suspected he'd done more. Dare had mentioned a few times that Jeremy had visited him at school.
He shook his head. "I'm not here to discuss your brother."
No, of course he wasn't. He was here to discuss her and the contract she'd signed three years ago. A contract in which she'd agreed to be his mistress for six months in return for the help he'd given both her and her brother.
"So, it starts tonight?" she asked at last. For three years he'd been waiting for her to be free of her obligation to her brother. For three years she'd seen him every three months to affirm that the deal was still on. For three years she'd dreamed of his passionate embraces…and the hope that, once they started their affair, she'd be able to convince him that she was meant to be more than his mistress. Because she wanted to be Jeremy's wife.
"I believe you're free," he said.
She was available tonight. The new manager she'd hired had proven himself capable of handling all the events, so she was taking a rare night off. How did he know? "Did Dare tell you?" "He didn't have to. I asked your assistant."
"You're a very thorough man." She was going to have a talk with Shelley about giving out personal information. Her hands were shaking and she clenched them together so he wouldn't notice. He was just a man. But for some reason he'd always been more to her.
"When I see something I want…" he said.
"And you want me?"
"After the kisses we've shared, I know you don't doubt that."
She didn't. But by the same token, she'd always sort of wished she'd just imagined the intensity in Jeremy's eyes when he looked at her.
She had no real idea how to respond to that. "Um…I…"
He stood up and walked around her desk to stand next to her chair. She tipped her head back to look up at him. "Changed your mind?"
She couldn't read the emotion in his eyes—there wasn't any. For all the reaction she saw, he might not care either way. And that was why she was afraid. She'd been desperate when she'd agreed to the contract, wanting to stop feeling so alone in the world. People she knew left but, if she had the chance, she knew she could convince Jeremy to stay.
Jeremy had gone beyond what he'd said he would do, introducing her to business partners of his and recommending her party–planning services before she had any real references. he'd helped tremendously to get her business off the ground, and to ensure its success.
And she wanted him, she did. She was just afraid that the secret crush she'd always had on him would make it too easy for her to believe there was something more between them than a contract.
She was attracted to Jeremy. She'd been in lust with him since she'd first met him when she was sixteen. She'd been working at the Palm Beach Yacht Club as a waitress and he'd been dining with a bunch of his college friends. he'd been tan and fit and incredibly handsome. And polite—the nicest to her by far.
When he'd finally approached her a few years later, she'd been thrilled at first. Until she realized that what he was offering was a business arrangement. An arrangement that she'd never regretted not turning down.
"I haven't changed my mind. I gave you my word." She didn't feel guilty about the contract she'd signed. A lot of women married for money and then divorced and married again. In essence she was doing the same thing.
"And your word is your bond?"
"It has to be. I didn't have anything else when you made your offer." She didn't like to remember those days, the despair and the sense of failure that she'd been mired in. "You had your pride," he said softly, running one finger down the side of her face. He cupped her jaw in his hand and she held her breath.
His gaze fell to her mouth and stayed there. She licked her dry lips and his gaze narrowed. Silly as it sounded, she could feel his eyes on her lips.
"I still do."
She leaned away from him. "It would make me feel more comfortable if everything you said didn't sound so arrogant."
"I can't help that."
"You can, you just choose not to."
"I've had thirty–four years to get this way."
"And no one has ever complained?"
"Not to my face."
"I don't think I'm going to be able to keep my comments to myself."
"I wouldn't want you to. I'm not asking you to pretend to be someone you aren't."
But he was. The woman she was today was different from the one she'd been three years ago. And at twenty–six she wasn't sure she could pretend they were dating when she knew the truth. That she was his mistress. That the relationship was stamped with an expiration date. And that he was planning to walk away from her without looking back or leaving any of his emotions behind.