Authors: Bec Linder
THE BILLIONAIRE’S EMBRACE
by Bec Linder
arter was late.
Fifteen minutes late, in fact. I poked at my phone, trying to seem busy and important, when in fact I just felt awkward and out of place in the fancy restaurant. Carter had coaxed me into having dinner with him here, despite my reservations—too expensive, too classy—and now he couldn’t even be bothered to show up on time.
To be fair, he hadn’t simply abandoned me. When I first arrived, the maitre d’ took my name and then said, “Miss Cabatu, I’m afraid that Mr. Sutton is running late. He sends his apologies.”
“Oh,” I said, startled. “Did he say how long he’ll be?”
“I’m afraid not,” the man said, with the warm and insincere smile that was so familiar to me. I used it myself on an almost daily basis.
So I waited. I wondered why Carter hadn’t called me, or at least sent a text message. Why rely on the maitre d’? Maybe that was just how rich people did things.
The waiter brought me a glass of wine while I waited. It was good wine, probably; I didn’t know anything about wine. I bought a $10 bottle a few times a year to take to dinner at someone’s house, and beyond that, I had never given the subject much thought. But if I kept spending time with Carter, I had the feeling I would get a thorough education.
I texted Sadie, my best friend, but she didn’t reply. I checked my email, but my inbox was empty. Then I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I drank my wine and looked around the restaurant.
It was packed at this time of the evening—almost 8:00—and I felt conspicuous sitting alone, a single person taking up a whole table. The other customers were well-dressed in a way I had learned to identify as a subtle indication of wealth: nothing flashy, but expensive materials, and well-tailored. I was glad I had ignored Carter’s assurances that I could wear whatever I wanted, and had instead worn a silk dress and pearls. Well, the pearls were fake, but I didn’t think anyone would be able to tell. Carter didn’t know what he was talking about; he wore the same thing all the time, and he was so rich that even if he were under-dressed, nobody would give him the side-eye.
When rich people wore the wrong thing, it was because they were charmingly eccentric. But if you were poor, it was because you had no class and were morally deficient.
I really hoped my pearls looked real.
I was hungry. I wasn’t used to eating dinner so late. I usually had a quick meal when I first arrived at the club, before it got too busy. Even before I started working there, I’d never been able to keep New York dinner hours. I was always starving by 5:30.
My phone buzzed. It was a text message from Carter, finally:
Almost there. 5 minutes. Please forgive me!
My irritation evaporated. I couldn’t ever seem to stay mad at him. Everything he did charmed me, and I knew it was just chemicals going wild in my brain, dopamine and oxytocin and the like, but my heart fluttered in my chest anyway. I was even delighted by the way he always used proper capitalization and punctuation in his text messages.
The sad truth: I was smitten.
It had been a little more than a month since I first met Carter at the upscale gentlemen’s club where I worked as a cocktail waitress. This would be our third official date since the evening he showed up at the club and asked me to give him a chance. In the couple of weeks since then, we had exchanged countless text messages, video chatted on nights he was stuck late at the office, and had a couple of makeout sessions in a back room when he came to visit me at work.
It was going well.
It was going
well; better than I had dared to hope. He was busy, of course—running a multinational corporation took, as I was learning, a considerable amount of time and effort—but he made time for me, carving out a few minutes to email me an article he thought I would like or a video of corgis running through the snow. I felt like I was walking on clouds all the time, and my tips at work had increased noticeably. Beth said I kept smiling at the customers like I really meant it. I couldn’t help myself; I was happy, and I wanted to share it with everyone around me.
I felt a prickling sensation at the back of my neck, and turned around in my chair.
Carter was walking toward me. He looked tired, but he broke into a smile when he saw me looking at him, and I felt myself smiling in response, even though I wanted to make him grovel a little for leaving me alone.
He came to a stop beside my chair. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” he said, and bent to kiss me, tipping my head back with one hand cupping my chin. I closed my eyes and breathed in the musky scent of his cologne, feeling his five o’clock shadow scratching deliciously against my skin.
He drew away and sat opposite me at the round table. “Are you hideously angry that I kept you waiting for so long?”
“Yes, hideously,” I said. “You’ll have to buy me something really expensive to make up for it. Like...” I racked my brain, trying to think of something appropriately decadent.
He let me flounder for a few moments, and then said, “How about a Maserati?”
“Isn’t that a car?” I asked, and then felt stupid as soon as the words left my mouth. Of
it was a car. I really needed to learn to think before I spoke.
But Carter just grinned at me and said, “A car manufacturer, yes. You can drive it to work, and to buy groceries.”
I shook my head. “Where would I park it? On the street outside my apartment?”
“It would get stolen in about five minutes,” he said. “We’ll have to think of something else.” He picked up my wine glass and took a sip. “Nice wine. Did you order this?”
“The waiter just brought it to me,” I admitted. Carter would never believe that I had mastered the art of ordering wine. “I haven’t even seen the menu yet.”
He chuckled. “There isn’t one. It’s prix fixe. Did the maitre d’ tell you I would be late?”
I nodded. “You could have just called me, you know.”
“Well, I thought you would be more impressed if the maitre d’ gave you the message, and maybe you wouldn’t yell at me too much.” He took one of my hands. “There was a crisis at the office. I really am very sorry. I don’t plan to make a habit of leaving you stranded.”
Someone, at some point, had taught this man how to apologize and mean it. “I forgive you,” I said, and squeezed his hand. “What kind of crisis?” I was trying to learn a little about his work. I would never understand all the ins and outs of international business, but I wanted to show him that I was interested in his life. I knew his business mattered to him a lot.
He sighed. “Oh, the Japanese stock market opened low, and the guys in the Tokyo office started panicking. It took me half an hour on a conference call to calm them down. I need to send someone out there to get a handle on things. They’ve been acting like headless chickens since the chief finance guy got poached by Mizuho.” He shook his head. “Let’s not talk about this. Very boring. Are you hungry?”
“I could eat,” I said, unwilling to admit that my stomach had been gurgling almost continuously for the past half an hour.
“Starving, I take it,” he said. He released my hand and signaled to the waiter, who instantly materialized at our table. Carter ordered a bottle of wine and requested our food, and I sat there like polite furniture. This was Carter’s world, not mine.
That part of it was still hard. I was determined to be honest with myself about our developing relationship. We hadn’t made each other any promises, and I was trying to keep my eyes open and stay realistic about the situation. If things weren’t working out, I needed to be able to walk away with my heart and dignity intact. I didn’t want to completely lose myself in him, because then there would be nothing left of me.
Dinner came, in tiny, elaborately arranged portions that didn’t look much like food. I poked at the first course with my fork, not totally sure what it was.
“Scallops,” Carter said. “And...” He peeled off a long green strip and dangled it from the tines of his fork. “Well. I don’t know what this is.”
And just like that, effortlessly, he made it a joke between us, a shared experience, both of us laughing about our mysterious food. I had to take a gulp of wine to hide my gratitude. He could so easily have started pontificating about varieties of caviar or something and left me feeling completely out of my depth. Instead, he was making fun of himself, and inviting me to join in.
I wondered if someone had taught him to be so careful of other people’s feelings, or if it was just an innate part of his personality.
“Next time we’ll go to an Olive Garden,” I said. “I guess you probably haven’t ever been to Olive Garden.”
“I can’t say that I have, no,” he said.
“It’s the food of my people,” I said. “Bland, mass-produced, and... full of carbohydrates, I guess? It’s wonderful. You’ll be horrified.”
He grinned. “You’re funny. Did I know that about you? You usually seem so shy.”
“I just don’t like to talk all the time,” I said, “unlike some people.”
He pressed his close fist to his chest and slumped in his chair, pretending I had stabbed him in the heart. “Ouch. I deserved that.”
“I’ll try to talk more,” I said. I shoved some food around on my plate. “I just, you know. I don’t always have much to say.”
“Oh, Regan. You should talk exactly as much as you want to, and no more,” he said. “I shouldn’t tease you. I know this is a sore spot.”
I would have responded, but just then the waiter brought us our next course. I stared helplessly at the pillar of food on my plate, leaning to one side, with a spray of some sort of herb—parsley?—draped over the top.
Carter started laughing, and when I gave him a questioning look, said, “The look on your face! We’ll have to eat it and find out.”
As peculiar as everything looked, it tasted incredible. I wasn’t used to this sort of fine cuisine, and I was awed by the careful melding of flavors, and the way one dish laid the groundwork for the next. I realized that Carter had gone easy on me the first time he took me out to dinner. We’d gone to a sushi place—fancy, but nothing out of the ordinary. I grew up in California; I’d had sushi plenty of times.
food, though, was something else entirely. There was probably someone in the kitchen wearing a tall white hat and speaking French.
We made light conversation throughout dinner, talking about the food and the wine and what we had done since we’d seen each other last. Carter was easy to talk to. He asked enough questions to seem interested without prying, which I appreciated. I was still a little wary of sharing everything about myself with him. There were things about me that I didn’t think he would understand, and I didn’t want to pour my heart out and have him reject me in some way.
I was determined to play it safe. Maybe it was a bad idea—Carter seemed like the kind of man who was ready to jump in with both feet—but I was cautious by nature, and I wanted to take it slow and see what happened.
Our final course arrived at last: creme brulee, perfectly golden on top. The waiter asked me if I wanted some coffee, and I shook my head. Whenever I had coffee in the evening, I had trouble sleeping. I was like an old person.
Carter requested a cup, though, and I raised an eyebrow at him. “Planning a late night?”
I only meant that he was going to stay up late and work, but he looked at me in that slow, dark way that was so familiar, and my heart rate kicked into high gear.
“I suppose that depends on you,” he said.
“I just meant,” I said, flustered, “you know, if you—have to work more—”
“I don’t need to do any more work tonight,” he said. He folded his arms on the table and leaned toward me. “I cleared my calendar. And if you want it, you can have my absolute, undivided attention.”
Oh, I wanted it. We hadn’t had sex since that night at his penthouse, when he took my virginity. It was mainly due to lack of opportunity, but I had also sidestepped the issue. After our first date, he took me back to my apartment and lingered in the doorway, obviously waiting for me to invite him up, but I had only kissed him and said goodnight. I didn’t quite understand why. Maybe it was that I wanted a clean slate. We had turned a new page, and were writing the beginning of a new story. I didn’t want to screw it up by rewriting the old story.