Beauty and the Billionaire (Page 40)
Beauty and the Billionaire (Billionaire Boys Club #2)(40)
Author: Jessica Clare
“Thank you,” said Gretchen, her lips twitching again. This time she was able to contain her laughter until she shut the door behind her in Hunter’s office.
His expression was unreadable and wary. He stood behind his desk but made no move to approach her. “Hello, Gretchen.”
She shook her head, still chuckling. “Where exactly did you find that secretary of yours?”
He grimaced. “It’s a long story.” His gaze moved over her, devouring her. “You look gorgeous.”
Oh, right. She was supposed to shrug off her bulky coat and show him what he’d been missing. Gretchen fumbled with the buttons of her coat, then struggled to pull her arms out of the sleeves. Not smooth. By the time she got her coat off, her sweater—and her ponytail—were sticking to her body thanks to static. Lovely. “I thought I’d come by and say hi.”
Her lack of grace didn’t matter, though. She was pleased to see that his fascinated gaze was riveted on her.
He gestured at the seat across from his desk. “Please sit.”
She did, deliberately crossing her legs in a slow motion, enjoying when his eyes followed her. Now this was a heady, feminine power. “I wanted to come by and say thank you for the roses.”
Hunter inclined his head, studying her.
She suddenly felt awkward and unsure. What did she want to come out of this meeting? For him to beg for her to return to him? Keep teasing him for another week or two and make him suffer?
Actually, she kind of just wanted to bask in his presence for a bit.
Gretchen glanced around. “Nice office. I didn’t know you had one here.”
“I didn’t until last week.”
She looked at him, startled. “What made you decide that you needed one?”
“You were right,” he said bluntly. “I’ve been hiding away from the world for a long time. I told you about my accident. Things weren’t easy for me after that. It became easier to hide from the world than to go out into it. When I . . . returned to my father’s house after the hospital, he hired private tutors for me and I hid from the world. He’d insisted I go to college, though. I tried to get out of it, but he refused. It was like living in a waking nightmare. Being amongst all those strangers . . .” His voice trailed off, and then he cleared his throat. “College wasn’t easy for me. If it weren’t for the friendship of . . .” His words died and he looked frustrated for a moment, then said, “Logan and the others, I would have never made it through. I was picked on and women flinched at the sight of me. When I inherited my father’s business, I set up in my house and it was just easier not to leave unless necessary.” He shrugged. “It became easier to avoid the world than to live in it . . . until I met you. You’re why I bought this place.”
Gretchen’s cheeks warmed. “So I made you buy real estate? That’s a pretty good super-power, I have to admit.”
His mouth tugged up on one side. “I already owned this office. I just decided to keep it for myself.” He glanced out the window onto the main section of the floor. “It reminds me to be out there in life, instead of hiding away.”
“I’m very proud of you,” she said softly. “And I hope that you someday realize that you’re not this monster you’ve painted yourself to be. You’re just a man.”
The man who I love.
But the words clung to her throat.
“I took your advice about Eldon, too.” Hunter folded his hands on his desk. She noticed his knuckles were white, as if he were gripping his hands tightly despite his casual pose.
Oh, no. Did he fire his assistant-slash-butler? Now she felt bad. “He’s very loyal—”
“He’s a cranky old bastard,” Hunter admitted. “But yes, he’s very loyal. He’s also elderly and has family in the west. I gave him a very large retirement bonus as thanks for his tireless work, and I suggested he visit his daughters for a time. And I hired some additional staff at Buchanan Manor. It’s rather . . . quiet lately.”
She inclined her head back to the main room. “Maylee’s not exactly what I had in mind when I suggested you hire a new assistant.”
To her vast amusement, he grimaced. “Maylee is a . . . problem.”
“She seems like a sweet girl.”
“That is the problem.” Hunter sighed and rubbed a hand over his mouth. “When I had Eldon call the agency, I told them to find me someone pleasant. She’s very pleasant,” he said in a sour voice. “But I feel I should have been more specific. She’s not good with computers. Or phones. Or the copier.”
A giggle escaped her throat.
He gave her a vexed look, seemingly aggrieved. “Yesterday, she set up a meeting for a client and then didn’t tell me about it because she couldn’t find her sticky note. I was extremely . . . annoyed.”
“Oh, no. What did you do?”
“I suggested she use the computer to keep my schedule instead of Post-it notes.”
Gretchen thought back to the sea of yellow sticky notes on Maylee’s desk. “And what did she say?”
“Nothing,” he said in a pained voice. “She cried.”
“What did you do?”
“What else could I do? I gave her a raise.”
Gretchen burst into laughter. “Really?”
He looked aggrieved. “This is her first job since leaving Arkansas and no one else will hire her because she is a hick, as she likes to tell me. I can’t fire the poor girl simply because she’s unorganized.”
“You big softy,” Gretchen teased, her heart swelling with warmth. “Maybe you should hire an assistant for your assistant.”
“Maybe so.” His gaze moved over her with obvious pleasure. “You look beautiful.”
She shivered at the husky tone of his voice. He looked so delicious that she wanted to crawl across the desk, start kissing him, and never stop. She forced herself to look at the gigantic windows instead.
“Forgive me,” Hunter said in a tight voice. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable. Did you see my invitation?”
She glanced at him in surprise. “I haven’t been by work yet. You sent me an invitation?”
His nod was short. “Today’s flowers came with an invitation to a charity fundraiser scheduled for this weekend. A ball. It’s at Buchanan Manor.”
Her eyes widened and she sat on the edge of her chair. “You’re hosting a charity ball? Are you serious? Who are you and what have you done with Hunter?”
Hunter gave her a patient look. “I was approached because the venue that the charity ball had originally been scheduled for cancelled on them. They were desperate. It seemed like the polite thing to do.”
Polite had never bothered him before, though. “What should I wear?”
His eyes warmed at her question. “Something formal. I’m told there will be dancing.”
“Do you plan on dancing with me?”
“If you’ll be my date.”
“Oh, you just want me to be your date because I put out,” she said in a teasing voice.
His face flushed an angry red and he jerked to his feet. “I’m sorry you think that of me.”
And just like that, their easy banter ended. Gretchen felt a moment of sadness. She’d messed it up this time, and it was clear from Hunter’s stiff posture that the moment had vanished.
“The invitation is yours if you want it,” he told her in a cold voice. “Feel free to decline with no obligations. It was meant as a friendly gesture.”
And she’d killed it. Clearly if she was going to bring them back together she’d have to be the one to do it.
“I’ll think about it,” she lied.
When Gretchen’s taxi pulled up to Buchanan Manor several days later, she did a double take. She knew that having the charity event at the house was a big move for him, but it took seeing the throngs of people and the endless line of limos curving up the driveway to impress into her mind just how much of an effort he was making.
She smoothed her little black dress nervously. He’d made an effort. Had she done enough? She pulled out a compact and checked her hair. Her upsweep—so different from her normal messy ponytail—still looked perfect thanks to Audrey’s help, and she had a yellow rose tucked behind one ear. It was the only accessory she wore, and she hoped it was enough. Her dress was plain since she didn’t have the money in her bank account to buy something. But she’d had a dress in the back of her closet that was simple, but elegant. It was a black dress with tight, elbow-length sleeves, shirred sides, and a boatneck collar. It made her red hair stand out, and she knew Hunter liked her hair.
Staff in white shirts with black ties opened the doors to the house to let her in. Had he hired more staff only for the party? Or was this a new change? She thought she recognized a few of the women wandering the room with trays as the housecleaners, but she didn’t approach them for fear of making them uncomfortable. Instead, she mingled with the crowd and scanned the room. Buchanan Manor looked as gorgeous as ever, but it was unnerving seeing it full of guests. She was used to seeing the rooms empty and silent.
Oddly enough, the house no longer felt lonely.
As she pushed through the throngs of people, a woman whirled past her with a tray and then turned. “Would you like a hors d’oeuvres—oh, Gretchen! Hello!” She broke into a smile.
“Brandy, how are you?” Gretchen smiled back at her. She recognized the maid from her excursions into the cleaning wings. Brandy was fond of Gretchen’s banana nut bread and always talked about how much her children enjoyed Gretchen’s cooking.
“Busy,” she said, offering Gretchen a fig-covered confection from her tray. “But happy. There’s been lots of changes in this house in the last two weeks.”
“Oh? What kind of changes?” She pretended to be casual, though anticipation strummed through her body at the thought. Had Hunter made changes because he wanted to impress her? Why did that make her positively giddy?
“Well, first of all, he got rid of that nasty assistant of his.”
Gretchen grinned. “So I heard.”
“Yup. From what I hear, he’s got three assistants now. Two localized here in the house and one at the office.”
“Three. That seems like a big change.”
“It is. And that’s not all. That man of yours hired more staff and gave the rest of us a raise.” She patted her pocket. “I got a Christmas bonus, too.”
“That’s wonderful,” Gretchen said with a smile. “But I don’t know that he’s my man. I—”
But Brandy was already on her way to the next group, a cheery smile on her face. “Hi there. Hors d’oeuvres?”
Her man. Gretchen popped the appetizer into her mouth and tasted the words. Her man. She liked that. Did he miss her like she missed him? God, she hoped so or this was going to get awkward, fast. She turned around and sucked in a breath.
There he was, at the center of the room, in the thick of the party. He looked pained and uncomfortable . . . and utterly gorgeous. A black tuxedo fit him to the nines, and his hair had been cut recently, his new hairstyle keeping his hair off his forehead and giving him a slightly rakish air. He stood with a group of people, a flute of champagne in his hand. A stiff-looking silver-haired couple were talking to him animatedly, and he kept a polite smile on his face even though he looked a bit trapped.