I stared at the folder in Griff’s hands. More specifically, my gaze was frozen on the sheet of paper with a photograph of my staff I.D. It was from my old job at the South Boston branch of the public library.
Griff had said my name.
My real name
I saw the anger and betrayal brewing in his dark eyes.
His upper lip curled in derision. “Well?”
“Yes,” the word came out in a croaky whisper. I cleared my throat. “Yes, I’m Scarlett Jennings.”
He threw the folder behind him on the desk and stood up. I felt the stifling vibrations of his fury. “Since when?”
My heart raced as I began to realize the ramifications of him discovering who I was.
What would happen to my sister once Octavius knew I’d blown this? Heart pounding, fingers trembling, I forced myself to meet Griff’s gaze. “You met Melanie the first two times. It’s been me since the ruse officially began.”
Griff scoffed, turning away to run a hand through his hair. “I knew it. You were like night and fucking day. Christ, I’ve been slow on the uptake.”
“How did you…?” I was afraid to ask how he’d discovered the truth, not wanting to incite his anger any more than I already had but Octavius would ask.
He turned slowly, his lids lowering over his eyes as he drawled, “You were tight as a virgin. No escort would be that tight.”
I flushed crimson at my naivety. It had never even occurred to me that my inexperienced body would give me away. “I’m not a virgin,” I muttered for some inane reason.
“No, because you were married once, weren’t you?”
Not wanting to discuss Eric, I changed the subject. “I’m sorry for deceiving you. I have my reasons. I—”
“I could give a flying fuck what your reasons are.” His words fairly trembled with his anger. “Unfortunately, I don’t have time to figure this bloody catastrophe out because Amelia has arranged a surprise engagement party for us. Thankfully, Quentin knows me well enough to know I hate surprises.” He cut me a meaningful, aggravated look. “And gave me the heads up that our dinner tonight is actually a party.”
“I didn’t know that we had a dinner tonight.”
“Yes, well, I’ve been a little preoccupied to tell you, what with having discovered your true identity.”
Confused, I shook my head. “You want us to attend this party? Tonight?”
“I haven’t worked out what the hell I’m going to do with you yet, so yes, for all intents and purposes tonight we’re still engaged.”
“Then let me explain before we go.” I took a step toward him. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Surprisingly my chest ached at the mere thought of inflicting any kind of damage on him. Every time I convinced myself my feelings toward this complicated man were purely physical, my emotions suddenly proclaimed otherwise.
“Do not for one second think you are capable of hurting me, Miss Jennings.” He dragged his gaze down my body in a contemptuous sneer. “I’m furious that you’ve been able to con me but I’m not hurt. That would imply emotional feelings were involved. Thankfully I didn’t make that mistake. The only mistake I made was letting my cock lead my actions.”
I flinched, his words like physical blows.
He narrowed his eyes. “Was that the game, Scarlett? Your sister was too hardened to be able to get a man to fall in love with her but you were softer… maybe you could. Maybe I’d fall in love with you and you’d have access to my money. Money to be shared with your delinquent whore of a sister and her pimp.”
That he would think that… I stumbled back from him, disgusted. “My sister is not a whore.”
“No? Well a few nights ago you became one.”
Fury scalded through me. And outrage. So much for developing real feelings for this man! No matter how much I wanted him, he’d just proven that he was far too capable of cruelty for those feelings to deepen. He relished hurting me.
I could never love him.
If my sister’s life wasn’t in danger I’d walk out on him without another thought. I straightened my spine, turning that angry heat to ice. “I am no man’s whore.”
“No?” Griff took a step toward me. “So if I asked you to sit on my desk and spread your legs, you wouldn’t?”
I hated him like this and for once my rational mind controlled my body. When before I would have felt more than a tingle of erotic thrill course through me at his words, I felt cold inside. Being treated like a whore, especially by him, killed my desire.
“Go to hell,” I bit out.
Instead he surrounded me. But his familiar smell, his heat, it didn’t make me want to fall into him, to kiss him, to be held by him as it had before.
It made me want to cry.
And I hated him for that too.
“I think the lady doth protest too much,” he muttered, his dark eyes filled with bitterness he couldn’t hide. He was hurt and wanted to lash out. Guilt mingled with my fury.
Griff reached up to drag a finger down my neck toward my chest.
“Stop it.” I batted his hand away.
His face flushed with anger. “I want to fuck and I’m paying you to be here to see to my every need. Right?”
“Wrong. I’m not an escort.”
“I don’t understand. The other night you let me fuck you for money.”
I wanted to rake my nails down his face.
“I see no difference now, except this time I’ll say the right name when I come.” He reached for me once more and I batted his hand away again.
“Don’t touch me,” I warned.
“But I’m paying for the pleasure.”
“I’m not playing games with you. This isn’t like the other night. If you try to touch me, you’ll regret it.”
Griff reached out to caress my cheek and I moved. I stomped on his foot with the heel of my stiletto and while he bit out a curse and bent over slightly, I gripped his biceps and used his body as leverage to bring my knee up between his legs with all the force of my rage.
Griff let out a bellow of agony and dropped to his knees.
I left him there, curled on the floor, grunting in pain.
My entire body shook with adrenaline as I marched out of his office. My feet took me out of the club before anyone could stop me.
The bastard thought he could play games with me. Call me a whore. Treat me like one. Griff could say his feelings weren’t involved until he was blue in the face but his unforgiveable behavior in his office proved otherwise. I had betrayed him. I had hurt him. So he wanted to hurt me back. He actually thought my attraction toward him would supersede my anger! He didn’t know me at all if he thought he could talk to me like that and still get me into bed!
Imagining him writhing on the floor of his office gave me a certain sense of satisfaction. Because now he certainly knew that you didn’t call Scarlett Jennings a whore and get away with it. As for my guilt, I buried it. It was just easier to be angry at him than try to figure out my feelings for him.
As distance allowed me to calm down I began to worry. What if Griff decided to end the contract between us? What did that mean for Mel? And me? Was I now in danger from Octavius?
I didn’t know how long I’d been wandering but apparently it was too long. My cell rang. The club’s number glared at me from the screen and my heart started to race. Would it be Griff?
Blowing out a shaky breath, I answered.
“Miss Jennings,” Well’s voice made me relax somewhat, “Mr. Mandeville asked me to call you to remind you of your plans for this evening.”
If Wells thought it was odd he was relaying this message to me instead of my supposed fiancé I couldn’t hear that in his professional tone. I sighed knowing I had to face Griff sooner or later. Clearly, despite me kneeing him in the balls, he wanted to go through with our ruse this evening. “I’m on my way back.”
“Very good, Miss Jennings.”
We hung up, and realizing I had wandered all the way to the harbor I hailed a cab. My feet were burning in my espadrilles and I hadn’t even noticed. By the time the cab driver dropped me off at The Patrician my agitation had grown tenfold. I shouldn’t have attacked Griffin. We both knew he would never force himself on me, that he was playing with me, but I’d wanted to tear him apart for trying to make me feel cheap.
Whether it was sex or anger, this man brought out my base animal instincts.
He was dangerous to me and part of me actually hoped he would let me out of this deal. I’d find another way to protect Mel. I always did.
Wells greeted me upon my return and informed me that Griff would meet me in the foyer in two hours. That gave me two hours to prepare, not only for a surprise engagement party I had to somehow fake my way through, but also to face him again.
Suffice it to say I was a nervous wreck as the elevator took me down to the foyer. Feeling petulant, I dressed for the part Griff insisted I was playing. It infuriated me he wouldn’t give me a chance to explain myself. He thought me mercenary. That I was using my body to get what I wanted. Fine! I pulled out a Christopher Kane black velvet off-the shoulder pencil dress. The velvet sculpted to my every curve and it was black so deep my red hair fell like flames against it. I wore sky high Alexander McQueen sandals. They were simple but effective with a black leather strap across the toes, a black leather ankle strap and a silver stiletto heel. I kept my make-up subtle except for my lips. They were scarlet red.
Everything about me screamed femme fatale, including the way I strolled out of the elevator toward a waiting Griffin Mandeville. My hips swung from side to side, deliberate, slow. I was channeling my twin sister to the maximum.
Triumph soared through me at the way Griff’s eyes darkened with lust seconds before he banked it with contempt.
“Decided to drop the act, have you?” He gestured to me.
“Oh it wasn’t an act,” I replied. “This is how I look when I’m angry.”
“Like a fucking vampire?”
I looked down at my outfit and smirked. It was a little vamp. I shrugged.
It seemed to annoy him even more.
Following him outside, I called goodnight to the guys at the door and hurried down the steps toward a waiting town car. My heart was pumping too hard in my chest and I could feel sweat gather under my arms. The driver held the door open for us and I slid in first, my damp palms sticking to the leather.
The door closed once Griff was inside beside me. Thankfully, he left a lot of distance between us. Silence reigned thick and heavy as the car pulled into traffic.
“My balls are fine, thank you for asking,” he drawled.
I didn’t reply. I shouldn’t have hit him but I couldn’t really bring myself to feel badly about it. “When a woman tells you not to touch her maybe you’ll pay attention next time.”
“You’re right.” He surprised me. “I crossed the line. I read the situation wrong and I—you did the right thing.” He glared at me.
Despite his statement I saw the betrayal in his eyes.
My anger dissipated.
Somewhere along the line Griff had begun to trust me and I’d betrayed him. That horrible ache grew in my chest again. He wouldn’t let me explain before, but now he had nowhere to turn. He was trapped in the car with me and there was a privacy screen between us and the driver.
“Melanie is the only family I have left,” I said.
He held up his hand. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“Tough luck, you’re going to.” I turned my body toward him, my gaze almost pleading. “Griff, I’d do anything for my sister. She’s a mess but she’s my mess. I followed her here when she went to prison for her DUI. When she got out I stayed even though I’d see her only once a month. I didn’t even know she’d moved to New York. I had no idea she was an escort for Octavius until I got a call from a jail cell. Mel screwed over Octavius, Griff. Badly. She and her boyfriend stole drugs from him. Octavius told her that he would consider most of her debt paid if she signed this contract with you. So she did. But her boyfriend was still in trouble and for some stupid reason she let him talk her into holding up a seven eleven to get the cash they needed to pay back Octavius.” I shook my head. “My sister isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the pack. Anyway, they got caught. I went to Brooklyn to see her in jail and she told me she was looking at eighteen months for armed robbery. That she’d already signed this contract with you and that Octavius would kill her if she didn’t hold up her end of the deal. That he’d have someone ‘take care’ of her in prison.”
Griff’s eyes narrowed on my face as I explained. I reached for his hand and squeezed. “I didn’t want to leave my life behind. This… lying to you, and then being paid to lie to everyone… it’s not who I am. But I couldn’t let anything happen to my sister. You have to understand. I never meant to betray anyone. I just wanted to save my sister. And the money? I’m not getting paid to do this. The money you paid Mel went to Octavius. All I care about is Mel. But I’m so sorry for betraying your trust.”
When he didn’t reply, I withdrew my hand and slumped against the back seat.
After a cold, long moment of silence his gruff voice filled the car, “I shouldn’t have called you a whore. It was wrong of me.”
“I was angry but that’s no excuse.”
His gaze turned contemplative. “I don’t know if I believe you. But I don’t want to have to look for someone else to do this. What you’re saying is, is that you believe Octavius might harm your sister if we broke our arrangement?”
I nodded, frustrated by his mistrust but understanding it too.
“I don’t know if I can trust you again. I need time to think. But if we decide to continue we’ll have to write up new contracts with your correct name on it.”
My stomach dropped suddenly. If my name was on the contract then… Mel wouldn’t be taking over for me when she got out of prison. This would be my life for the next five years.
Griff frowned. “What is it?”
I took in a shuddering breath as I braced myself for his coming reaction to the truth. “In the interest of being totally honest with you, the plan had been for Mel to take my place once she got out of prison. I could go back to my life, to my job, and she would be your ‘estranged wife’ until the five years were up.”
He cut me a look of disbelief. “And if we were still fucking each other? She’d take over that too?”
Guilt kicked me in the gut. “You have to know I didn’t expect us to…”
“To fuck, Scarlett. We fucked.”
I glowered at him. “I didn’t anticipate an attraction between us—”
He snorted, loudly and inelegantly.
“I’m not exactly a mastermind at this stuff.” I shook my head at my own naivete. “It was always going to unravel.”
“It wouldn’t even have gotten to fucking,” he carried on as if I hadn’t spoken. “If your sister switched places with you I would have known the moment she opened her mouth.”
For some stupid reason I replied, “She’s good at imitating me. She’s done it before.”
“You’re wrong. You’re so wrong I can’t believe it took having sex with you to realize you weren’t her.”
I flinched at the bitterness in his tone.
“You both have beautiful eyes,” Griff said, his voice gruff now. “When I first met Melanie I remember thinking how hardened and experienced those eyes were. Calculating. Mercenary. But she could turn them to sex in an instant. They did nothing for me. But that was good. She seemed perfect for the job.”
My breath caught as he turned to look at me with heat in his eyes. “When we met I thought I’d underestimated Melanie. That she’d put on her game face for me and showed me what I wanted to see in those first few meetings. Because suddenly those beautiful eyes weren’t hardened and experienced. They were innocent, vulnerable, stubborn, kind… and worse when yours turn to sex a man really believes he’s the reason why. You’re infinitely more dangerous than your sister, Scarlett.”
My heart was pounding. “I never lied about wanting you.”
Scorn painted his face. “Sweetheart, you could be lying right now for all I know. Maybe yours is the long game.”
It hurt that he would think so but I had lied to him and so I couldn’t blame him for not trusting me. I wanted to. I wanted to scream at him for not sensing how real our attraction was.
“I’d have known in an instant the moment your sister switched with you,” his tone hardened. “And you’re not who I thought you were if you could do that to me.”
Tears burned in my eyes. It was the first time since he’d discovered my identity that he let me hear his hurt. I knew I’d hurt him. Deep down I knew. But it was worse hearing the slip of emotion in his tone.
“I couldn’t have gone through with it,” I whispered. “Not after we…”
“Fucked, Scarlett.” He was cool, collected now. “All we did was fuck.”
I turned away from him because I couldn’t stop the tear that slipped out. I couldn’t explain why his coldness toward me hurt so much. It shouldn’t hurt this much. As discreetly as possible I brushed the tear away, blinking back the rest, and we continued on our journey in absolute silence.
Traffic kept us in the car longer than we should have because we were only travelling to Beacon Hill. Amelia and Quentin owned a beautiful multi-million dollar townhouse on Revere Street. The last time we visited Amelia had given me a tour. The front door opened into a beautifully-decorated sitting area with a gas-fire and modern surround. Beyond that was a dining area. All the walls were white but Amelia still maintained a grand but comfortable look with gleaming walnut floorboards throughout, broken up with rugs in warm woven fabrics. Although her fabric choices were all creams and light coffees, the choice of dark woods against the white really added an unexpected warmth. A large staircase in white and dark wood stood opposite the front door leading upstairs. Behind it, near the dining area, a staircase also led downstairs to a den and a fourth bedroom. The second floor housed another gorgeous fireplace with a comfortable corner sofa and seating area. It shared the open plan space with a high-spec modern kitchen and island. The staircase led off the kitchen up to the third and final floor where there were three generous bedrooms. Amelia and Quentin’s master included a stunning bathroom.
It was a beautiful home and it wasn’t tiny at a generous twenty-five hundred square feet but I remembered marveling when Griff told me it was worth just under three million dollars. Three million dollars for only twenty-five hundred square feet. That was what living in the heart of Beacon Hill bought you. It boggled my mind to even consider how much The Patrician was worth.
The driver pulled up to the stunning townhouse and got out to open the door for us. When I slid out after Griff he stared at me for a moment. Then he showed visible reluctance when he held out his hand. As if he was afraid my touch was toxic.
Trying not to appear hurt I tentatively took his hand, confused by the way he squeezed it reflexively before loosening his grip. Holding my hand like he was being forced to he led me up the front stoop of the townhouse. The door flew open before we could knock and Amelia stood before us in a beautiful white cocktail dress that matched her home. She ushered us inside. A chorus of “Surprise!” hit us from the guests who were crowded into the first floor.
My stomach dropped.
How the hell were we going to make it through this?