Beauty and the Billionaire (Page 26)
Beauty and the Billionaire (Billionaire Boys Club #2)(26)
Author: Jessica Clare
“I know. It’s just—”
There was a knock at the library door and Eldon came in, giving her a dour look. “You have a guest.”
“I . . . what?” She looked at him in surprise.
“A guest,” he enunciated, exaggerating each syllable as if she were some sort of nitwit. “A visitor.”
“Um, okay.” Into the phone, she said, “Can I call you back in five minutes?”
Her landlord hung up.
Well, shit. Surely they couldn’t change the locks in the next five minutes. She’d just call back after she got rid of whoever this was and explain that she could pay a big penalty fee if they’d just give her another week or so. Gretchen pocketed her phone and followed behind Eldon, who was already heading back down the hall.
Cooper stood in the front lobby of Buchanan Manor, a box in his hands. He was staring at the lofting ceilings and spiraling staircases of the entryway as if he’d just walked into a foreign land. It kicked her amusement into high gear. Had she looked as bug-eyed as he did when she’d walked in for the first time? How funny. “Cooper, what are you doing here?”
He lit up at the sight of her and set the box down. “Hey, Gretchen. There you are.” He held his arms out for a hug.
She moved into them and patted his back, returning the hug awkwardly. At any other time, she would think nothing of his hug. Now that she knew he was in love with her? It made things . . . strange.
“Audrey said you were having a hard time with your project. She said you’re behind on your deadline and was going to bring you a few things to help out. I told her I wasn’t busy and I’d stop by, and I thought I’d bring you a little care package from the Cuppa while I was at it.”
Had he held the hug for a little longer than was necessary or was she imagining things? Gretchen pulled out of his arms and smiled. “You’re a good friend, Coop. Did you bring me the brownie fudge mocha latte flavoring I love?”
“Of course.” He chuckled and picked up the box again, handing it to her. “You look great, by the way. How are you doing?”
“I’m awesome, of course,” Gretchen said cheerfully, juggling the box. “You want to come hang out in the kitchen for a bit?”
“I wouldn’t mind a coffee,” he said, and took the box from her. “Here, let me get that for you.”
She refused to release it, fighting annoyance. “I can carry my own boxes, Coop.”
“Yes, but men carry things for ladies.”
She snorted. “Who are you and what have you done with my friend?”
He laughed at her teasing, throwing his hands up. “Fair enough. At least I tried.”
The box was deposited on the kitchen counter, and Gretchen put a pot of coffee on. When it was brewing and Cooper had taken a seat at one of the stools at the kitchen island, she opened the top of the box, peeking in. There were two smaller boxes inside, one with the Cooper’s Cuppa logo. She reached for the other, glancing at Cooper. “This is from Audrey?”
He nodded, though he couldn’t stop staring at their surroundings. “I can’t believe you’re staying here for an entire month. It’s like a castle.”
“Oh, I know,” she said, setting the box down and pouring herself a cup of coffee. “Complete with creepy butler and everything.”
“I swear this could be something out of a movie,” he said with a grin. “Don’t tell me. The owner’s some Phantom of the Opera–style guy intent on sucking the blood of virgins.”
Gretchen spit out her coffee, coughing.
Cooper immediately got up, slapping her on the back. “You okay?”
“Just . . . breathed . . . wrong,” she said, coughing between words. It was kind of weird how close—and yet far away—Cooper had been with his guess.
After all, she was the one intent on the virgins around here.
With a weak smile, she opened the box Audrey had sent. Pink lace and black satin caught her eye and she immediately flipped it shut. Feigning ease, she pushed the box aside. “What did Audrey say she was sending me again?”
“Stress relievers, I think she said. Something to help things along.” He shrugged and sipped his coffee again. “She said you’d know what to do with it.”
It was clear he hadn’t looked in the box. “I have a pretty good idea, yeah.” At his inquisitive look, she lied, “Bath salts.”
“Ah. Girl stuff.”
“Definitely girl stuff.” And before she could giggle and ruin things, she pulled the other box out and pretended to sniff it. “I think I smell cookies.”
She flipped open the lid and sighed with pleasure. “Two dozen? You shouldn’t have.”
“And some toffee dream bars underneath, just in case you want a little variety.”
She pulled out the bags of cookies and smelled the bag of coffee beans that had been included. “You’re awesome, Cooper. I’m sure these cookies aren’t as good as mine, though.”
“They should be. It’s your recipe.” He was watching her with a soft, adoring look on his face. “I’ve missed seeing you, Gretchen. The Cuppa isn’t the same without your smiling face.”
And he reached across the counter to place his hand over hers.
Damn. It seemed they couldn’t even go a half hour anymore without things getting awkward. “Cooper . . .”
“I can’t stop thinking about you, Gretchen.”
“No, please, let me say this.” His eyes were pleading. “It’s time I said this.”
The door to the kitchen opened. Hunter stalked in, a dashing figure in his neatly pressed, too-formal-for-around-the-house-but-he-wore-it-anyhow dark suit. He glowered at Cooper and his hand on Gretchen’s, then moved to Gretchen’s side and kissed her cheek, his arm sliding around her waist.
A very possessive, obvious gesture.
White-hot shock drained the blood from Cooper’s face. He turned white, then went blood red with embarrassment, staring at Hunter. “I—”
“Introduce us, Gretchen,” Hunter demanded, his gaze on Cooper even as he hovered possessively over her.
She ground her teeth. Well, hell. This had just gotten ugly fast. She slid her hand out from under Cooper’s and gave him a soft, apologetic smile. “Cooper, this is . . . Hunter. He owns Buchanan Manor.”
“Yes. The phantom intent on sucking the blood of virgins, I believe you said,” Hunter stated coldly.
Cooper’s face turned an alarming shade of purple. “Uh . . .”
“Thanks for bringing the box, Cooper.” She shut it to give her hands something to do and so she could quit staring at the many shades of awkward that Cooper’s face was turning. “This is going to be really helpful for my deadline.”
“Of course. Anything you need, I’m here for you.”
Hunter seemed to glower even more. “You don’t need to be here for her. I’m here for her.”
Gretchen inhaled sharply. This was going from bad to worse. “Since you’re here, Cooper—”
“Actually, I was just about to leave.” He got up hastily, the stool nearly falling over with his jerky movements.
“Oh, but I was wondering if you could take a check to my landlord—”
“He said he has to go,” Hunter said darkly. “I’ll take care of whatever you need, Gretchen.” His gaze moved over Cooper again. “He knows that.”
“I really should go,” Cooper said. He gestured at the door.
“Eldon will show you out.”
And the annoying butler was there a moment later, holding the door to the kitchen open. Cooper headed for it, but not before giving Gretchen a wounded look as he headed out the door.
“Thanks again, Cooper. You’re a good friend,” she called as he was escorted out. When the door swung shut again, she buried her face in her hands. “Oh, God, that went really badly.”
“Who was that?” Hunter asked, his voice stiff with fury.
“He’s a friend of mine.”
“He was trying to hit on you,” Hunter bit out. “His hand was on yours.”
“Not through any of my doing,” she admitted. “I’ve been trying to figure out a way to let him down easy.” She glanced at the kitchen door and felt a twinge of remorse. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
“You didn’t tell him we were together?”
She tilted her head, giving Hunter an odd look. “Are we together, Hunter? You’ve never said and I didn’t want to presume.”
Shock crossed his face. “We had sex.”
“We had really great sex, Hunter. And I love hav**g s*x with you. But it doesn’t mean we’re together.”
The expression on his face looked shattered. “I . . . see.”
Why was he so upset at that? She was trying to give him an easy out. Here’s some casual sex with no strings attached. You’re welcome. Why was he so offended then? Most guys would be thrilled.
He turned away, and she noticed he was carefully hiding the scarred side of his face.
It hit her, then.
The phantom intent on sucking the blood of virgins, I believe you said.
He’d heard that. And she’d simply sputtered. She hadn’t defended him, or protested, and then to make matters worse, she’d just told him she wasn’t in this for a relationship.
No wonder he was acting wounded. “Hunter. That wasn’t what I meant.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself, Gretchen.” His voice was stiff and cold. “Spare me your excuses.”
“I’m not giving you excuses, you prickly jerk. I’m trying to tell you that if you don’t want to be with me, I understand. I’m not dumping you.”
He said nothing.
“Hunter!” she exclaimed, moving to his side and wrapping her arm around his waist. “I like you. I like you a lot. But I didn’t want to assume this was more than it was.”
“You let Cooper assume.”
“Cooper’s been my friend for years, and he’s my boss at the coffee shop I occasionally work at. I have to handle him with kid gloves, which isn’t easy when he’s trying to declare his love every five minutes. I’m not interested in him.”
Hunter’s dark eyes focused on her again, his gaze narrow and suspicious, as if he couldn’t quite believe what she was saying. “Answer me truthfully, Gretchen. Are you interested in me?”
“Now that’s a silly question,” she teased, tugging on his jacket sleeve. When he didn’t relax, she realized how deadly serious he was. No amount of teasing was going to ease this situation. And for a moment, Gretchen felt uneasy. Like she was stepping into raw territory. For some reason, it was very important that she not hurt Hunter. She didn’t want to hurt him more than anything. “I like you more than I should,” she admitted quietly. “Someone like you doesn’t really belong with someone like me, but I can’t seem to stop myself when I’m with you. I want to kiss you until you’re blushing, and grab your ass every time I walk past, and do dirty, lascivious things to you.”