Beauty and the Billionaire (Page 34)
Beauty and the Billionaire (Billionaire Boys Club #2)(34)
Author: Jessica Clare
“Daphne, please just be quiet,” Audrey said in a low, unhappy voice. “Please.”
Daphne ignored her twin, wrenching her arm out of Gretchen’s grip. “Why are your panties in such a wad, Gretchen? So you’re dating an ugly dude. So what.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, I get it. He’s rich, isn’t he?”
Horror burned Gretchen’s cheeks. Oh, God. That wasn’t it at all, but everyone at this party was going to think that of her, weren’t they? “You are leaving, Daphne. Right now.” She grabbed her sister’s thin, veiny arm. Audrey grabbed the other side. “Tell everyone you’re sorry and I won’t call your manager.”
“Gee, I’m sorry everyone,” Daphne slurred as they dragged her out of the room. “Sorry my sister is being such a lame piece of shit. Gretchen was always the fun, slutty one. Guess Audrey made her boring.”
Gretchen inwardly groaned at the shocked chuckles in the room. Great. Just f**king great. Now she was a slut and a gold digger in their eyes.
Eldon escorted them down the hall, moving valuable objects out of Daphne’s writhing grasp. It took the two sisters a few minutes to drag their protesting sister to the front door, but when she was finally there, Daphne seemed to calm down. “All right, all right. I’m going.” She looked at Gretchen with a pitying smile. “If you needed money, sis, all you had to do was ask. No need to whore yourself out to fugly guys.”
“Can I be of assistance?” Cade arrived, glancing at Audrey before moving toward Daphne.
Daphne’s drunken expression softened. “Cade. You remembered me.” She held out her arms for a hug, and he moved into them.
“It’s going to be okay, Daphne,” Cade said in a soothing voice, stroking the thick tangle of Daphne’s hair. “I’ll take care of you.” He nodded at Gretchen and headed out the door, Daphne huddled against him.
Audrey followed them, a stricken look on her face.
Gretchen waited until she was sure they were gone, then turned from the door, feeling as if she wanted to vomit. God, Daphne was ruining everything.
In the hallway, Eldon stood there, staring at her. A look of hatred was on his face. “I never liked you much, Ms. Petty, but I never thought you were deliberately cruel. I see I was wrong.”
“You’re still wrong,” Gretchen told him, but it was clear her words weren’t getting through. “I’m not dating Hunter because he’s rich.”
Eldon ignored her, clearly choosing to believe otherwise. “I am returning to the party to serve dinner,” he told her a moment later, then left without bothering to see if she followed.
This was going to be a long, long evening.
Gretchen paced the halls of Buchanan Manor, trying to compose herself. What a mess. She’d have to go in and apologize to everyone. She’d wanted a nice, quiet party among friends, perhaps impress her editor a little. She’d gotten a nightmare instead, and the urge to run away and not return was overwhelming. Hunter had to be miserable.
It was the thought of his misery that prompted her to return to the party. Gretchen headed back to the dining room.
Before she could open the door, though, Kat stepped out. She looked relieved at the sight of Gretchen. “Hey, kiddo. Can we talk?”
“Right now?” Gretchen bit her lip and gestured down the hall. “Let’s go to the kitchen, then. I need to make sure the desserts are ready to serve.”
They walked down the halls in silence. Once they pushed into the kitchen, Kat whistled, gazing at the enormous room. “This is impressive.”
“There’s three of them in the manor, actually.” Pride for Hunter made her offer the tidbit. “The entire house is lovely, isn’t it?”
“I imagine.” Kat gave her a knowing look and picked one of the slivered almonds off a delicately frosted cupcake and popped it into her mouth. “So is that why?”
Gretchen sighed at her friend. If Kat was going to pick at her creations, she’d have to fix them. She turned and headed for the large walk-in pantry. “Why what?”
“Why you’re with you know who. Scarface.”
She jerked open the door to the pantry and stepped inside, shoving aside cans, searching for the bag of slivered almonds. Irritation flared through Gretchen. Did everyone have to call Hunter names? She didn’t even notice his scars anymore. They gave him character, nothing more. Why was everyone fixated on them tonight? And where the hell were the damn slivered almonds?
She pushed aside a bag of chocolate chips with force. “I don’t know where you’re going with this, Kat.”
“I just wonder if you and him is about money more than lust. I mean, I get it. I like money, too, but jeez. He’s a lot to take in.”
“You know me,” Gretchen said sarcastically, “I’ll do anything for a paycheck.” If her agent believed that about her, they clearly weren’t as good friends as she thought. Still, Kat did seem to see the world in terms of money. She couldn’t grasp the concept of dating a man simply because she was fascinated by him. Annoyed, she continued to search the pantry. “I can’t believe you even had to ask me that.”
“I just have concerns for you. Do you need money that bad?”
Where were the damn slivered almonds? She shoved aside a tin of baking powder and spotted the bag. Finally. Gretchen grabbed it. “Honey, I always need money. But—”
Hunter stood in the doorway of the kitchen and had listened to every word they’d said. His face was mottled red, the scars a livid white against his angry flush.
Kat was still seated, picking at a cupcake. As Gretchen’s voice died, she turned around and sucked in a breath.
“People are asking about you,” Hunter said, his voice cold enough to freeze the Arctic. “I thought I’d come and check on things.”
“We’re coming back,” Gretchen said brightly. “We were just making sure dessert was ready.” She bustled to the doorway and moved to give Hunter a quick kiss.
He sidestepped her embrace, avoiding her.
Hurt spiraled through Gretchen, but she ignored it, keeping a smile on her face. “Shall we get back to our dinner guests?”
“If we must,” Hunter said, his voice still ice cold.
With a sick feeling, Gretchen suspected he’d heard far more than he cared to. She needed a chance to explain.
She wondered if she’d even get that chance.
Dinner was an excruciating affair. Her food was praised, but Hunter was silent to all parties, and everyone seemed incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Kat drank glass of wine after glass of wine, and Brontë kept casting Gretchen concerned looks from the far end of the table. Determined to make the best, Gretchen was a little bit loud, a little bit brash, and kept the conversation going even when it died an awkward death time after time.
Soon enough, dessert was served and demolished, and guests began to slowly trickle out. Brontë and Logan were two of the first to go, and Brontë promised to call her in the morning, no doubt to offer support or simply to get details out of her. Hunter’s other friends quickly followed, until there was no one left but her new editor, Preston Stewart.
As Gretchen walked him to the door, she chatted on and on about the letters and the history of Buchanan Manor.
“It sounds like a fascinating project,” he said. “I can’t wait to see the finished manuscript. When do you think you’ll be done?”
Gretchen kept her too-fake smile pinned to her face. “I wanted to ask you about that. I’ve had a bit of a setback and need a few more weeks to hit my deadline. Is that going to be a problem?”
He frowned slightly, then shrugged. “I’ll run it past our boss and see what he says.”
Gretchen paused, surprised. He wasn’t making sense. “Our? What do you mean?”
The editor grinned. “I’m sure you can wrangle an extension out of him.” He gave her a lewd wink. “Just do what you do best.”
She took a step backward, appalled. “What are you talking about?”
“Hunter? It’s obvious you’re sleeping with him.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
For the first time, her editor looked puzzled. “Hunter’s the owner of Bellefleur Publishing. It was his idea for this project, and he insisted you work on it.”
Her jaw dropped. “I . . .” She paused, flabbergasted. She didn’t know what to say to that.
This new publisher that had requested her specifically . . . was set up by Hunter? Bellefleur? The floral name should have tipped her off, since he loved roses so much. The contract offered specifically to her with no logic behind it.
But why? It didn’t make sense.
She needed to talk to Hunter right away. Giving the editor a tight smile, she excused herself, wished him a good night, and then hurried back to the formal dining room, where she’d last seen Hunter.
He wasn’t there.
Heavy with dread, Gretchen calmly walked to the north wing and headed for Hunter’s rooms. She headed for his office and turned the doorknob.
It was locked.
He didn’t want her in there. Well, damn it, she wanted to talk to him. Gretchen knocked, hating how embarrassingly awkward it felt to wait for him to deign to let her in. All the while, she kept thinking about what the editor had said.
I’m sure you can wrangle an extension out of him.
She felt dirty at the thought. She knocked on the door, ignoring the twist in her gut.
A long, interminable moment passed before the door opened. Hunter glanced at her, his face rigid, and then turned away, walking back to the large desk in the center of his office. He hadn’t spoken a word to her.
Gretchen followed him in, unsure of how to begin the conversation. Apologize for Daphne’s behavior? Explain the sarcastic conversation he’d overheard between her and Kat that made her look bad?
But she kept coming back to something else, instead. “Why does my editor think that if I ask you for an extension, I’ll get one?”
Hunter looked up from his computer screen, then flicked his gaze away again as if she were unimportant. He began to type once more. “He has a big mouth. It seems to be a trend with our dinner guests.”
“Daphne’s not herself.” Gretchen moved toward his desk, wishing that he’d stop typing for just a minute and look at her, really look at her. “She’s under a conservatorship because she can’t seem to stay out of drugs and alcohol. Audrey’s spent half her life cleaning up Daphne’s messes.”
“I don’t give a shit about your sister,” Hunter said coldly. “Is that what you came in here to talk about? I’m busy.”
She flinched. “You overheard me talking to Kat, didn’t you? You can’t possibly think all that is true.”
“What part’s not true? You weren’t exactly refuting her claims.”
“I would never sleep with you just to get to your wallet. I’m a little hurt that you think I would.”