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HOME: In the Billionaire’s Hands, Book 1

(A BBW May/December Cinderella Romance)


Published by SpreadEagle Publications at Smashwords


Copyright 2016 by Meghan Alexis Moore




All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


The text of this publication or any part thereof may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, storage in an information retrieval system, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher or author, except for brief quotes used in reviews.


Copyright © 2016 by Meghan Alexis Moore

All Rights Reserved.

Published by SpreadEagle Publications.






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Contents


Acknowledgement

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Thank you!

Also By Meghan Alexis Moore



Acknowledgement


A big ‘thank you’ to all my wonderful readers.





HOME


Lauren Matthews is working two jobs and sleeping on her friend Stacey’s living room sofa to pay off her debts.


When Stacey begs her to cover her shift for one night as a waitress at a gentlemen’s club, Lauren can’t refuse. Not when Stacey practically saved her from sleeping rough on the streets.


So, Lauren squeezes her curvy body into a bunny outfit but knows it’s a BAD IDEA!


Seems she’s right.


Before she even serves her first drink, she’s hurried away to the private office of Drake Patterson, the club’s enigmatic billionaire owner.


Is she in a ton of trouble, or about to be offered a proposal too good to turn down?


WARNING: This two-part billionaire romance is for busy women who devour stories in bite-sized morsels.



One



Why do I feel like an extra from Bridget Jones Diary?

Lauren Matthews took a deep breath to steady the fluttering in her stomach before leaning over to grab the rabbit’s ears that completed her costume off the passenger-side seat.

As she swung her legs out of the car, the chill of the night hardened her nipples into prominent peaks.

Behave! she silently scolded them.

This was no time for them to act in their typically uncontrollable fashion.

Hastily wrapping the black, ankle-length duster jacket closer around her body, she hurried to the imposing building a few metres away.

Tomorrow morning, as she’d done every Saturday and Sunday morning since she’d been employed as a weekend cleaner at Black’s an elite gentlemen’s club, she’d used the rear entrance.

But tonight, she headed for the side entrance, as she’d been instructed by her friend Stacey.

Her steps faltered as she neared.

It wasn’t too late to turn back.

Yes, it is! she reprimanded herself.

Not only did she desperately need the money, she’d made a solemn promise to a friend who could lose her job if Lauren didn’t cover her shift.

She turned, took two steps towards her car, hesitated and then turned around again.

She couldn’t believe that it had come to this.

Four months ago she was in a relationship with a man who was going to be her future husband.

If hadn’t mattered that Neil wasn’t the knight in shining armour she’d dreamed of as a little girl. She acknowledged that with her fiery hair, pale skin and fuller figure, she probably hadn’t been all he’d hoped for as a boy either.

But the shock of coming home exhausted from a particularly frustrating day at work to find him gone had almost killed her.

And sadly it hadn’t been because she’d been so much in love with him that his leaving had broken her heart.

No, she’d settled for Neil, perhaps in the same way he’d settled for her. It hurt more because she’d gone against her instincts and ignored everything inside that warned her that he was nothing but a user.

He’d left a note, brief and to the point, telling her that the landlord was being a dick and had refused to return his deposit at short notice, so she had six weeks to vacate the premises.

No ‘I’m sorry’, no ‘Goodbye’, no ‘Thank you’ for the eleven months she’d supported him financially while he’d developed his first Android game.

So different from the little ‘love’ notes he’d left her all over the house previously. The ones she’d saved, reassured of his love as she’d first maxed her overdraft and then her credit card.

With over fifteen thousand reviews and a near perfect five-star average, the free beta test of his game had gone brilliantly. When he’d launched the cleaner, paid version users had been just as keen to download it. He’d shown her evidence and she’d waited just as eagerly as he for his first payment, relieved that he would be able to clear both her debt and his in a few short months.

She had envisioned the two of them living a life of ease, although she’d wondered sometimes if having more money would make Neil any less tight fisted. He’d promised to be, claiming that it was purely the lack of money which had prevented him from buying her nice things previously.

For the most part that hadn’t worried Lauren. Her tastes had never been extravagant—she’d never seen the point of spending thousands of pounds on designer clothing. To be honest very few items she possessed cost over a hundred.

If she had a weakness it was for shoes. Her size 4 feet were her secret pride and joy. They were easy to find shoes for, unlike clothing for her curvy body. According to studies, the average woman’s shoe size in the UK was a 6, so she was always fortunate to get great bargains when sales were on. Often the most gorgeous shoes were slashed to less than half their original prices and she snapped up as many as she could afford.

Handbags were another weakness since they weren’t dependant on body size, though she avoided the too tiny ones which made her feel larger in comparison.

Being in debt had been against everything her parents had tried to instil in her. They saved for everything they wanted. The only exception was the mortgage on their two bedroom home after they’d married and that was now fully repaid.

Lauren hadn’t even possessed a credit card prior to Neil urging her to get one when her overdraft had reached its limit. It had been worrying when the game had been nowhere near complete in the three months he’d allocated after resigning his very decently paid City job, but he’d convinced her that her faith in him would be repaid handsomely.

What a stupid, blind idiot she’d been!

They should have made economies when he’d decided to give up his job. For one, they should have moved from the pricey, furnished Docklands flat he’d struggled to afford until she’d moved in. They should have stopped dining out or ordering takeaways on Saturday when they no longer had two salaries to support the extravagance.

But, though English born, Neil had the charm of his Irish ancestors. With his silver tongue, he could sell snow to an Eskimo. She’d been putty in his hands.

Nothing had warned her as she’d leaned over and kissed his forehead as he lay snuggled in their warm bed that fateful Friday morning that she would be coming home to find him and everything he owned gone.

Along with their plasma television, microwave, kettle and toaster.

She had been the TV addict, the one to follow the vacuous lives of B-list celebrities and reality stars. She had been the one forced to spend her free time lying alone on the couch watching programme after programme as he’d locked himself in the spare room working feverishly for as much as twenty hours in a day.

He had barely touched the kitchen appliances in all the time they’d been together. Yet he’d taken them and the TV, just to spite her.

With the income from the game, he could have afforded the latest, most expensive models, but not content to leave her bleeding with nearly thirteen thousand pounds in debt, he’d spitefully turned the knife and deepened the wound.

The loss of the microwave and toaster hadn’t mattered in the end. She’d longed for a comforting cup of tea, but food had been the furthest thing on her mind as she’d crawled into bed that evening still in her working clothes and pulled the covers up over her head, like a child hoping to find the monster gone when she emerged.

She’d contemplated suicide a million times that weekend, but couldn’t bear the thought of her elderly parents receiving news of the death of their only child.

After a weekend of black thoughts and blacker coffee, made by boiling water in a pot on the stove, she’d dried her eyes and her heart had hardened to a stone within her.

Neil, she’d decided as she turned over and tried to get some sleep that Sunday night, had done his worst. And true to her word, she hadn’t wasted another tear or thought on him.

She’d focussed instead of finding a way of shovelling her way out of the shit in which he’d left her.

The six-week grace period hadn’t been nearly long enough, but Lauren had been grateful for the small mercy. At least she’d had a roof over her head; if she’d returned home that day to find him gone and her belongings at the front door, the shock might have been the final straw that pushed her over the edge.

Money—the large amount she owed versus the small amount she earned each month—had been the first thing she’d decided to tackle head on as soon as she’d stopped wallowing in her misery. Even if she moved into the cheapest dive and lived on bread and butter for the next year, she would still have an outstanding balance on her credit card.

Post Brexit, finding a better-paying full-time job had been virtually impossible, even with her bachelor’s degree in Business Studies. Degrees were ‘two a penny’ or ‘a dime a dozen’ as they said in the US. Other than a basic knowledge of Word and Excel, she had no marketable skills to make her stand out from other job applicants.

She called several agencies unsuccessfully, before she was offered a weekend cleaning job at a gentleman’s club. Her first instinct had been to refuse, her stomach roiling in distaste at the idea of cleaning up after its drunken patrons. But, not only had the pay been better than expected, the hours had be perfect for her needs. When the woman had mentioned the possibility of overtime, Lauren had stiffened her spine and agreed to try the position for at least weekend.

The job had turned out to be a hundred times less filthy than she’d imagined. From the first day, she’d jumped at any chance of overtime. Seeing her debt slowly diminish week by week had been the first ray of light in the darkness than her life had become. Sometimes it felt like a David-and-Goliath struggle. She knew she could win if she kept throwing every spare penny she had at it. Sometimes though, it felt as though for every two steps forwards, she took one backwards when monthly interest was added to the balance.

Before she’d known it, five weeks had passed and she still hadn’t found somewhere to live. A room in East London, the area with the cheapest rents in the capital, was all her meagre funds would have stretched for. She’d sunk further and further into despair the more properties she’d viewed. Some had seemed wholly unsanitary, while others had felt unsafe both indoors and out.

That Saturday, after she’d thoroughly disinfected the luxurious ‘Gents’ facilities at the club, she looked around it and thought that she’d rather live there than some of the places she’d seen offered for rental. A feeling of hopelessness had suddenly taken her over and made the tears well up for the first time since she’d shed the bucket load the weekend after Neil had left.

After weeks of jumping out of bed early instead of having her usual lazy weekend lie-ins as well as the unaccustomed physical exercise, Lauren had been exhausted and feeling sorry for herself. She hadn’t been able to find anywhere cheap to rent and she was due to vacate the place she’d shared with Neil in less than a week.

She’d ducked into one of the cubicle, collapsed onto the closed seat to have a good self-pitying cry.

Life hadn’t seemed fair. How could Neil be somewhere enjoying his riches without a care when he’d left her saddled with the debt she’d incurred for him?

Her parents would be mortified if they knew she was working as a cleaner—though they valued hard work of any kind—because they’d tried their very best to give her as easy a life as possible. She hadn’t even worked until she’d left home to attend university. They had given her a decent allowance and insisted that she enjoyed being young and carefree. She’d used the money on magazines and music CDs of her favourite pop groups, aware that many of her peers had to work to afford those luxuries.

Her mother would die if she knew the ‘little princess’ she’d thought too good to clean their toilet at home was now employed to clean several.

Even worse than being in the situation was not being able to confide in her parents. She hadn’t been able to visit them either, in fear of taking one look at their dear faces and blurting out the whole sordid story.

As she’d sat in the stall at the club that Saturday morning, it had felt as though the world was crashing down on her head.

“Are you okay?”


***


Lauren had jumped—the voice sounded almost as though it was in her head. She’d opened her eyes and found Stacey looking down at her in concern.

She’d forgotten to lock the stall and Stacey, the cleaning supervisor doing her inspections, had found her.

“It’s nothing,” Lauren had insisted, hastily wiping her eyes with the back of her hands.

“You need a hot drink,” Stacey had said. She took a step backwards and held the door open for Lauren.

After washing her hands and splashing water on her flushed cheeks, Lauren had meekly followed the woman to the kitchen.

“I work here weekends as a waitress,” Stacey had explained as she quickly boiled the kettle and poured the water over the teabags she’d placed in two plain white mugs. “The tips are great, but hubby doesn’t always get steady work. This job helps us put something aside for when he can’t find work.”

“I work full time at Camden Council,” Lauren had admitted. “I took this job because I desperately needed some money.”

“It’s not a bad job. I’ve done other cleaning jobs. They were horrible and badly paid.” The woman grimaced and then smiled. “This is like cleaning my own home.”

“That’s true,” Lauren had agreed. It was easy money, but she had been warned that every surface had to be polished to a high shine.

“So what were you crying about?” The woman had asked suddenly changing the conversation.

Stacey’s sympathetic smile had been too much for Lauren as she’d sat opposite, her slim hands wrapped around the matching mug.

Lauren’s story of woe had come flooding out, like a river that had burst its dam. She hadn’t expected anything but the relief of finally sharing her problem with someone else.

“I have to find somewhere by the end of this week, but I can’t afford any of the places that I’ve seen and thought were half decent,” she’d sniffled at the end of the tale.

Stacey had totally surprised her. “Well, you can have my sofa for free, if you want it.”

Lauren had initially refused, of course. She’d barely known the woman. In the four weeks she had been employed, they had spoken twice. Once, on Lauren’s first day at work to explain what was expected of her and then days later when they’d both lamented the torrent of rain that had followed an exceptionally sunny British day.

Stacey had persisted.

“Won’t your husband mind?” Lauren had asked.

“He comes from a large family. He’s used to an overcrowded house.”

“But I’m not family,” Lauren had protested.

“It doesn’t matter.” Stacey had put her arm around Lauren. “I grew up in a house without sisters. It will be nice to have another female around. Come for dinner this evening and see the place for yourself.”

“I take you up on your offer if you’ll allow me to give you some money towards bills.”

“Another person in the house will hardly make a difference,” Stacey had argued. “If you really want to help you can do the washing and the ironing—I hate both.”

“And the cooking, if you want me to,” Lauren had suggested.

“Agreed.” The woman had scribbled her address and telephone number on a piece of paper, given Lauren a reassuring hug and said, “Now let’s get back to work. I need to get home in time for hubby to have the car.”

They had stacked the cups in the dishwasher and hurried back to their respective duties.

Later, after the first square meal Lauren had had since Neil had left, she’d been already half decided to take Stacey up on her offer.

The woman had then revealed that she’d fallen pregnant unexpectedly and wouldn’t mind a bit of extra money. Lauren’s doubts had fled. The sum Stacey had suggested was so ludicrously small, Lauren had laughed it off. She’d thought an amount two and a half times the figure was still too low, but she would have been comfortable paying it. In the end they’d met halfway—£350 each month, a pittance compared to what Lauren would have otherwise paid for food, rent and utilities.

She’d thanked God every day since then that she hadn’t dismissed Stacey’s offer.

Before leaving the flat she’d shared with Neil, Lauren had contemplated returning some of his spite. His name alone was on the lease. He was the one who would have been responsible for any damage caused and for settling all final utility bills. She’d thought of wrecking the furniture and fittings, of leaving pipes running day and night, of turning the heating up to sauna temperatures whenever she was out of the house, of…some many vengeful things that would have repaid him in kind, but she’d decided against them all.

Somewhere deep inside, she knew that one day Karma was going to bite him hard on the butt.

He’d regret the hurt he’d caused her.

He’d also regret losing the love she’d tried to shower on him, though he was impossible to love.

Stacey’s offer had reminded Lauren that there was kindness in the world, that there were still people who gave more than they took.

So even though wrecking the flat would have sent a message to Neil that he was lucky to have escaped without injury, Lauren had given the flat a good cleaning and left it ready for the tenants due to move in the day after she vacated.

As Stacey had predicted, her husband Richard had had no problem with Lauren staying.

Their house wasn’t large, but it was kept tidy save for their daughters’ toys. The three-seater sofa was left in the living room as a makeshift bed for Lauren, while the two armchairs and the large television set were moved to the dining room. It meant some inconvenience to the family, making that room serve both purposes, but Lauren had been welcomed like a sister by Stacey and her husband. To their two little girls, she was Aunty Lauren, a playful aunt who let them get away with the naughty things their parents didn’t.

Stacey and her husband weren’t exactly destitute, but Lauren was pleased to know the money she gave them was indeed being saved for the baby’s birth. And grateful for the chance to make a more significant dent in her credit card balance, she did everything she could to make up for sponging off them. She did the washing and ironing Stacey wasn’t fond of doing and often the dishes. She took the girls to the nearby park to enjoy afternoon walks, so that they came back tired enough not to protest going to bed once they’d been fed and bathed.

She also tried to make herself as unobtrusive as possible, but she always felt guilty when she went by the dining room on her way to the kitchen or bathroom and saw each of the girls sharing one of the armchairs with a parent, or worse, sitting on the carpet. They probably did the same when the sofa was available—kids seem to love nothing better than sitting on floors, clean or dirty—but the sight made Lauren feel terrible each time she witnessed it.

Cooking dinner on Saturdays was yet another way of Lauren showing her appreciation, although Stacey often accompanied her, peeling, slicing or dicing whatever ingredients were necessary. Occasionally Stacey thanked Lauren again for taking on the task and used the opportunity to put up her still-slender ankles and rest, after working the waitress shift the previous night and then supervising the cleaners only hours later.

The family went to Stacey’s mother every Sunday after the women returned home from their morning cleaning. Lauren loved being around them but looked forward to the peace and quiet of the five or six hours each week. She spent them lazily, eating leftovers for lunch and sleeping both to recover from the last two-job week and to prepare for the upcoming one.

The only ‘fly in the ointment’ so to speak was the fact that the living room was directly beneath Stacey’s and Richard’s master bedroom.

Their younger daughter suffered from mild allergies, so the house had no carpeting to mask sounds.

The couple made love with enthusiasm.

And vigour.

Their lovemaking sounded nothing like what Lauren and Neil had gotten up to.

For starters, it lasted a good deal longer.

Though Stacey was slim, she was nearly six feet tall. Richard’s curly blond head easily topped hers by several inches and he had a broad, heavily-muscled physique. Their poor bed probably groaned under their combined weight while they were sleeping. It practically begged for mercy when they were in motion on top of it.

Stacey had told her that Richard loved the added bra cup sizes she gained when she was pregnant and could hardly keep his hands off her. She’d also said that she was usually horny during pregnancy, but this time it was ridiculous. She was convinced that they were having a boy.

Despite sometimes having to don earphones so she didn’t feel a little like a voyeur, Lauren had settled in comfortably.

Well, as comfortably as she could knowing that she was occupying both the room and the piece of furniture the couple used when Richard was in a particularly naughty mood and didn’t want to disturb their sleeping daughters. Stacey had made the confession one day when the two had been exchanging confidences. The woman hadn’t meant for Lauren to feel guilty, but she did, knowing that she was in some way inhibiting the couple’s adventurous sex life.

Apart from this, everything had been going smoothly until two days ago when Stacey began to feel a little unwell.

Still able to fit into her costume, Stacey had continued to work as a waitress. She’d managed her Friday night shift, though she’d confessed that the patrons’ expensive aftershave which she usually loved had made her briefly nauseated and a little lightheaded, on more than one occasion that night.

Lauren had urged her up to bed to have a good rest before she was due to work again, but by mid-afternoon it had become clear that Stacey wasn’t going to make it in that night.

Unfazed, Stacey had rifled through her contacts, expecting one of the other waitresses to jump at the chance to cover her shift, even at late notice. None of them could and she’d turned to Lauren in desperation.

At first, Lauren had refused with a bark of surprised laughter.

Her in a bunny costume? Come on!

But it soon became apparent that Stacey was quite serious. She could have called in sick, but her boss Maxwell had noticed that she was off colour the previous night and suggested that maybe the time had come for her to take a break. She’d assured him that she would be fine, thinking that some sleep would do the trick.

It wasn’t that Stacey couldn’t have then called in sick. She’d said that the club was run so efficiently one less member of staff wouldn’t have been noticed. But Maxwell would have been irritated that she hadn’t heeded his advice. By sending Lauren as a substitute, Stacey hoped to minimize his annoyance and make him more amenable to her carrying on a bit longer. The waitressing job was freelance unlike Stacey’s other job at the club. She wasn’t financially ready to quit and would only do so if absolutely necessary. She knew she couldn’t hide her pregnancy for much longer, but was hoping to continue working for at least another six weeks.

Lauren had been sympathetic to her friend’s plight, but had still not been able to see how she could be of help. She’d said that it was like asking a dachshund to substitute for a greyhound.

Stacey had chided Lauren for putting herself down.

And then the woman had casually mentioned what Lauren could earn in tips in a single night.

Lauren had first gaped and then let out a slow whistle. Though things were better financially since she’d moved in with Stacey, the tidy sum would carve out a decent chunk of her outstanding debt.

Finding a costume in her size hadn’t been easy, but she had eventually found one that fit…almost.

After a lifetime of never easily finding outfits that correctly fit her curvy figure, Lauren had learned to adapt. A pro with needle and thread, she’d let out the seams in the hip and adjusted the middle to fit her small waist, in less than an hour. The high-cut leg showed more of her behind than she was usually comfortable showing, but there wasn’t enough material for her to adjust it as she would have liked. And as she surveyed her image in the mirror one last time before leaving home she’d realized that tightening the waistline hadn’t been the smartest idea. It drew more attention to her breasts which looked in danger of spilling out of the top of the outfit and the expanse and sway of her hips.

The only positive of the evening was the fact that her part-time job at a nearby café while at university had made it easier to practise balancing a tray, even though she’d worn flats back then, not six-inch heels.

Here goes!

Lauren stiffened her spine, something she seemed to be doing constantly in the last months, and closed the distance to the staff-entry door.

She rapped sharply and held her breath.

“Yes?” A huge bouncer peered down into her face with suspicion.

“I’m working Stacey Leitch’s shift tonight.”

Lauren held up her employee pass to him though it stated her occupation as ‘cleaner’.

The man hesitated only fractionally before moving aside and letting her enter.

As she quickly stuffed the crushproof jacket and her purse into an empty locker, two waitresses went past her talking animatedly and Lauren understood the bouncer’s reluctance to admit her.

Like Stacey, they were both tall and slim, with legs to their armpits. She on the other hand was vertically challenged, curvy and had legs that only went up to her hips.

Resisting the urge to pull on her coat and escape quietly through the back, she hurried after them, feeling like an overfed, fluffy bunny in comparison.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

WTF!

She’d only just left the damn changing room!


*****

Two



Heart pounding, Lauren turned with a polite smile plastered on her face to address the owner of the rich, deep, very masculine voice.

And almost twisted both ankles in her high-heeled shoes.

He was tall—six-four, six-five. His thick raven hair had silvery strands at both temples.

Instead of making him look old, they added sophistication and enhanced his grey eyes.

He was drop dead gorgeous.

“L-Lauren Matt-hews,” she stammered and extended her hand politely.

“Beautiful name for a beautiful woman.” He took her hand and raised it to his lips.

I bet you say that to all the girls.

“I’m Drake.”

“Pleased to meet you.” She pulled her hand free when he made no attempt to release it and turned to leave. “I must go. I have to let the bartender know that I’m—”

“Not anymore.” He briefly raised a finger and Maxwell hurried over.

How had the man even seen Drake’s subtle gesture? It had been so fleeting; the man had to have been watching Drake to have noticed it.

Lauren felt her face burn. The manager had interviewed and hired her for the cleaning job. He was probably wondering what the hell she was doing in the club prancing around as a waitress.

“Lauren won’t be working tonight,” Drake told the man without the slightest explanation or hint of apology.

“Certainly.” The man agreed with a nod of his perfectly coiffed dark head. “I will let Amaund know.”

“How dare you!” Lauren hissed as soon as the manager was out of earshot. “Now I won’t get paid.”

“Of course you will,” he responded. “I own the club.”

“Oh!”

Lauren’s legs threatened to give out from under her. How could she have not made the connection the moment the man mentioned that his first name was Drake?

It wasn’t a typical name.

Not in the UK.

But, she thought resentfully, he should have introduced himself properly. He should have given his freaking surname!

The name ‘Patterson’ she would have recognized immediately.

He was her employer after all…and every, every bit as mouth watering as Stacey had described him.

He took off his jacket with the practised air of a male model on a runway and she shivered in reaction as he draped it around her shoulders.

It smelled heavenly: of dark wood, warm spices and cool lakes and Lauren had to fight the urge to snuggle her face into it and take a deep breath.

She almost missed his next words, “Let’s cover you up. Can’t have you driving other men to distraction.”

Other men?

He couldn’t mean that she was driving him to distraction?

Surely not!

Stunned and feeling out of sorts, she was grateful for the support when he took her by the elbow…until he started leading her from the room.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked in alarm, trying in vain to release herself from his grasp. She couldn’t afford to aggravate him. She could lose both her job and Stacey’s as well, but there was a limit to what she was prepared to do to keep a job.

Her resistance was futile. Though it wasn’t painful, there was no escaping his firm hold.

“You will be safe,” he assured her with a smile that conveyed the opposite as he propelled her forwards. “I promise.”

A minute later he stopped in front of a solid-looking dark wood door, took a slim card from his pocket and swiped the entry-pad to gain entry.

Lauren always thought that the club was magnificent. Even with little spare time on her hands while she cleaned her allocated areas, she’d often paused to admire its décor.

The room Drake now led her into was usually kept locked. She hadn’t minded—one less room to clean she’d consoled herself—but it had always intrigued her. Having been told that it was the club’s billionaire owner’s office, she’d let her imagination run riot fantasizing it was either a bedroom with black silk sheet where he ravished a different female each night or ‘a red room of pain’ with whips and chains hanging from the walls, possibly a helpless, half-naked female still attached.

As she entered the room its opulent yet masculine furnishings took her breath away.

And relieved to see that reality couldn’t be further removed from her wild imaginings, Lauren collapsed weakly against the thick padded seat he ushered her to.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” Drake said, his eyes scanned her face keenly as he went around the large dark wood table that dominated the room. “When did you start working for me?”

“I’ve been working here weekends as a cleaner for almost three months,” she explained. His left eyebrow rose fractionally, marring the perfect symmetry of his face but adding a sexy, roguish look. She continued hastily, not wanting him to think that she had promoted herself to the more highly paid job. “But I’m covering for my friend Stacey tonight. She wasn’t feeling well and asked me to cover her shift. I know that I’m totally unsuitable, but she couldn’t find anyone else.”

“Totally unsuitable,” he agreed, but the expression in his eyes made what should have been an insult almost a compliment.

“I…” Lauren paused as she felt her face go warm.

She hastily lowered her gaze, praying that he hadn’t noticed the colour rush to her face.

“Couldn’t you have refused?”

“Stacey didn’t want to leave you short handed.” Lauren straightened and tried to look him in the eye once again. This was no time to be acting like a shy, stammering virgin. She had to make him understand that she and her friend had acted as much for the club’s benefit as their own. “And she’s been so good to me. I couldn’t refuse.”

“I admire loyalty.” Approval warmed his cool grey eyes. “Tell me about yourself.”

“I’m 25 and I’m from Yorkshire,” she replied, belatedly realizing that she sounded like a contestant on Cilla Black’s Blind Date, the TV show she’d watched with her mother as a little girl.

He raised an inquiring brow. “I couldn’t tell by your accent.”

“My parents are originally from West London,” she explained. “I guess my accent’s more like theirs.”

He smiled and relaxed back against his chair as though satisfied a great mystery had been solved. “So, Miss Matthews, what do you do when you’re not wearing a bunny outfit and trying to drive me crazy?”

He’s flirting with me, she thought in disbelief.

She wished now that Stacey hadn’t done such a skilful job in applying her makeup. The man would assume that she looked this way all the time. Even she had been stunned when Stacey had applied a final stroke of mascara and stepped back to allow Lauren to see the beautiful stranger staring back to her from the mirror.

“I work for Camden Council.”

“Full time?”

“Yes.”

“Yet, you need another job? Is the pay that terrible?”

There was no condemnation in his voice, but Lauren felt her hackles rise. He was no doubt thinking that she was working a second job because she was one of those spendthrift females who just had to have the latest designer dress, shoe or bag.

She shouldn’t care what he thought.

She shouldn’t, but found herself taking a deep breath and explaining, “The pay is decent but due to unforeseen circumstances, I needed some extra money.”

“You shouldn’t be working as a cleaner.” A quick frown marred his noble-looking brow. “You shouldn’t be working at all.”

We weren’t all born with silver spoons, she wanted to retort.

“You should be spending your days supine on cushions,” his eyes seemed to flash at the thought, “being worshipped like the goddess you are.”

Are you on crack?

Lauren couldn’t help herself. She laughed outright.

“Even your laughter is full, rich and joyous,” he said, his eyes twinkling at the sound.

Lauren immediately sobered. He was probably being polite. Her laughter was not the most genteel of sounds. Neil had even called it a ‘whore’s laugh’. She always tried to restrain it, but Drake’s comment about her being a goddess was so ridiculous it called for a good unreserved ‘belly laugh’.

Her lips tightened at the thought of Neil. She wouldn’t have minded if he’d told her that he was no longer in love with her and wanted to end the relationship. People fell out of love all the time. But to leave without saying goodbye and in financial trouble had been unspeakably cold-hearted of him.

“What’s the matter, sweetheart?”

Drake’s concern made tears spring to her eyes. She was being a total ninny—she had good health and many things to be still grateful for—but being in debt when she’d always been careful to save for the things she needed really stung.

“Nothing,” she lied, even though his strong shoulders looked the perfect place to lay her burdens.

“Tell me what’s troubling you.” He reached his palm across the desk and after a brief pause she placed her hand in it. “Tell me everything.”

He curled his large hand around hers and she marvelled that he managed to engulf it entirely. He was a mountain of a man and seemed the kind who would put you behind him and take on an army of men if they threatened to harm you in any way. The kind of hero she’d fantasized about at sixteen, alone in her bedroom while the other girls had been going on dates, experiencing first kisses and more.

It would be good to share the pain of Neil’s betrayal—she hadn’t told even Stacey everything—but she hesitated.

She couldn’t tell a complete stranger her problems, could she?

Seeing a therapist—if she could have afforded one—might have made her feel less undesirable and unloved. She had racked her brain for a reason why Neil would leave her the way he’d done. She’d done nothing to anger him; often biting her tongue and quelling a tart response when he had been rude or insulting. She had taken great care of him, ensuring that he was well fed and his clothes always laundered. Sometimes it had been like having a spoilt teenager around, picking up wet towels and dirty clothes wherever he dropped them, but she had done it without complaint.

In her heart of hearts she knew that nothing she’d done warranted Neil’s actions.

It was pure greed and selfishness that had made him abandon her.

Yet, she couldn’t help feeling in some way lacking as a woman. She’d been good enough for him when he was down and out, but not good enough to share his success.

Stacey often consoled that Neill was a ‘complete and utter bastard’ and his leaving had nothing to do with her.

Most days Lauren agreed.

But there were days when she looked at herself in the mirror and wondered if she shouldn’t be grateful instead that Neill had stayed with her for such a long time.

“Talk to me,” Drake said persuasively, tightening his hand on hers and bringing her back to the present.

“It’s nothing,” she repeated.

It would have been a boost to her confidence to have another person agree with Stacey’s assessment, but really what good would that do?

“It’s everything,” he contradicted. “Something is troubling you and I need to know what it is.”

Need…not want…to know.

He made it seem as though it was important to him.

And what the hell, she wouldn’t see him again after tonight.

Not unless he woke at six in the morning to ensure that the cleaners he employed were earning the wages he paid them.

“Alright,” she conceded and took a steadying breath before continuing, “Neil…my boyfriend of almost four years recently walked out on me and left me in serious debt.” Just saying the words brought a lump to her throat. “I supported him for almost a year, paid every bill in the house when he left his City job to devote his time to developing his first Android app. He worked hard. Sometimes I had to drag him away from the computer to get some sleep. I knew he was serious and that his hard work would eventually pay off.” If Neil had lazed around, she wouldn’t have supported him, even for a minute. But, from the minute he left his job, he’d been razor focussed on developing the skills he’d started as a hobby before she’d met him. “His hard work paid off alright. Just not for me.”

“Tell me.”

Surely you get the picture?

“From the start of our relationship, he talked about saving enough money to leave his job to pursue app design full time. But, he likes nice things and always lived above his means. My parents taught me the opposite.” If only I had listened to them! “He begged and begged until I finally agreed that he could leave his job and work on the game he was developing for three months. It took three times as long. He couldn’t get more credit…not at a decent rate of interest anyway. I ended up using my credit card. He’d asked me to marry him and talked about buying me a ring as soon as the money from the game started rolling in. I thought we were going to be together, so I foolishly trusted—”

“No.” Drake’s hand tightened and for a moment she thought that he would crush every bone in her hand. She winced and he immediately relaxed the pressure, and raised her hand to kiss her knuckles in silent apology. “He was the one who was foolish. He had a precious jewel and he didn’t treasure it.”

“Yes,” she agreed, feeling her lips trembling as she tried to smile.

“His loss.”

“I doubt he thinks that,” she contradicted.

“Are you still in contact with him?”

“No.” Lauren shook her head. “He blocked his number.”

And had been careful not to introduce her to his mother, the only person who might have chastised him for his shoddy behaviour towards Lauren.

“I’m sure when he comes to his senses he will regret what he did to you,” Drake said warmly.

“I doubt that very much. Now that he has the money he’s always craved, he probably doesn’t remember I exist.”

The truth of the statement hurt because it was entirely possible that Neil hadn’t given her a single thought in all these months. She might have been able to forget him just as easily, if the bastard hadn’t left her in a financial black hole.

“I doubt that he would have forgotten you…not easily.” The words did something to Lauren’s insides. “And if he’s one to live above his means, no amount of money would ever be enough for him. He will probably be in debt again before he knows it.”

“Not unless he buys a Ferrari.” She’d seen the amount he was going to receive on the very day he had walked out on her. That first scheduled payment had been substantial; the next more than double the amount. He had even checked his account in her presence just the night before and had been disappointed that the payment hadn’t been credited earlier than scheduled. She hadn’t been as impatient, but she’d felt an enormous sense of relief that her trust in him had been so amply rewarded. She hadn’t expected a large share of the bounty—he hadn’t been the most generous of boyfriends—but she trusted implicitly that he would clear the debts she’d racked up on his behalf. Instead, he’d played her like a violin, making sure that he’d used her until the very last minute, probably packing his belongings the minute he confirmed that the money had landed in his account. “The game did well from day one and is still doing well.”

Its popularity was waning slightly—she couldn’t resist an occasional peep, hoping that it had somehow tanked since she’d last looked—but it should be still giving Neil a decent income.

“Even he couldn’t have spent that amount of money is so short a time.” Lauren smiled bitterly. “He’s rolling in dough, probably living in some swanky West End flat while I’m sleeping on a…”

Drake drew in a sharp breath, sitting up straighter as he demanded, “Sleeping on a what?”

“It doesn’t matter.” She hadn’t meant to go into the nitty-gritty. “I’m comfortable enough and my bills are being paid off.”

“Sleeping on a what?” he demanded again.

“I’m staying with Stacey Leitch and her family,” she explained. “It’s a two bedroom house and she has two small daughters. I sleep on a sofa bed in the living room.” His jaw tightened in anger and she added quickly, “It isn’t ideal, but they’ve made me very welcome. And it’s only temporary. As soon as I’ve paid off my credit card, I’m going back to Yorkshire.”

Jobs were harder to come by there, but she would do whatever she had to. After working as a cleaner, any other job would be a breeze. It was a little petulant running back home to Mummy and Daddy, but it would give her the time and space she needed to lick her still-raw wounds.

“You don’t have to do that.” Drake’s hand tightened on hers as he said the words.

“Yes I do.”

“You don’t,” he replied firmly. “I’ll give you enough money to pay off what you owe.”

“I’m not a prostitute,” she said stiffly and pulled her hand away.

“Good,” he said with a smile of satisfaction. “I’m not looking for one.”

“Then why would you offer me money? You don’t even know me.”

“I pride myself in being able to read people,” he replied with a confidence bordering on arrogance. “My gut tells me you’re telling the truth and that’s all I need. It’s what makes me a successful businessman.”

He looked so big and strong and self assured, Lauren felt the urge to just lean on him and let him take care of everything.

It had been a nightmarish three months. She could have asked her parents for the money, but she hadn’t wanted to worry them. They had a small nest egg that they would have happily have parted with if they’d known that she was in financial trouble.

It wouldn’t have been fair on them—not when they took great pride in living frugally but happily on her father’s small pension.

They were both in their late sixties—Lauren had come late into their lives when they had all but given up conceiving. They had pampered her more than enough her whole life, she couldn’t have asked for more of them. Her mother had been a stay-at-home wife and mother. They had done so much together Lauren hadn’t missed not having many close friends.

And maybe because they were so few in number, Lauren tended to cherish her friends.

Neil had been a friend before they had become lovers. That’s why she’d tolerated so much from him.

They had been classmates in secondary school, but he had barely spoken to her before he’d disappeared in the middle of their first year. For years she’d vaguely wondered what had become of the skinny, little runt he’d been at the time and had been strangely relieved to bump into him one night while she was out with her best friend Mary.

Even then he’d been too busy fawning over his very fashionable girlfriend Suzette to talk to Lauren.

Newly-single, he’d been much friendlier at their next meeting at their friends’ engagement party.

When she’d asked, he’d explained that he’d been sent to live with a foster family after his mother had been deemed unfit.

For a man who’d turned out to be notoriously tight lipped about his personal life, he’d opened up to her about a lot of things that night. Looking back she realized it had been a deliberate attempt to elicit her sympathy. He’d even managed to make her feel guilty for having a quiet upbringing.

She told herself a thousand times she was better off with him, that she should be grateful that she hadn’t married. She would have settled for a ‘beige’ life instead of one filled with passion and excitement.

The fact that she’d wasted her time and energy on a man she hadn’t truly loved sometimes hurt as much as his betrayal.

She would have forgotten him the moment he’d left, if she didn’t have the outstanding debt that swallowed all the money she earned in its gluttonous jaws.

She hadn’t allowed herself a single treat since that dreadful night—not even a bar of her favourite chocolate—at a time when she needed pampering and comfort the most.

Losing the extra weight—the twenty pounds she’d gained since cancelling her gym membership in order to make saving when Neil had quit his job—was no consolation. She would have been grateful for the small mercy, if it hadn’t come at such a high price.

“How much do you owe?” Drake asked, as if able to read her depressing thoughts.

“I’ve paid off quite a bit already.” Working at the club had made more of a difference than she’d imagined. After deductions, the pay was less than £100, but it was slowly chipping away at the credit card balance. She’d even worked several weekday mornings when there had been staff shortages. These had not only become easier now that she was staying at Stacey’s and able to get a lift to and fro and still get home in time for her day job, she was also perfectly placed to get first dibs at the overtimes since Stacey was the one who had to arrange cover. “I’m currently applying for better-paying jobs within the council. If I get one and keep my outgoings as they are, I’ll clear my debt in less than a year.”

“I can’t allow you to impose on your friend for the next year.”

“Allow me?” Lauren stood up to glare at him. She might not be paying a king’s ransom, but she knew her contributions made a difference to Stacey and her family. “I’m not free loading off—”

“My concern was for you, not Stacey.”

He smiled and Lauren suddenly became aware of her breasts rising and falling in anger, and looking more in danger of spilling their confines.

“Oh!”

She dropped inelegantly back onto the chair.

Damn his ability to get under her skin!

“I have a proposition for you.”

“Proposition?” she asked warily.

She wasn’t sure that she would like what he was about to propose.

“Come and live with me. I have plenty of room.”

“Why would you do that…offer a complete stranger a room in your home?

“That’s not all,” he went on without answering the question. “I’ll pay you ten thousand pounds a month for the next year if you agree.”


*****

Three



“What?” Lauren was convinced that she’d misheard him.

“I’ll pay you ten thousand pounds a month for the next year. I promise we won’t have sex until you beg me to take you.”

“I’d never—!” she started indignantly, but he leaned forward and placed a firm finger against her lips to stop the words.

“Never say never, my sweet.”

Take you…

And now my sweet?

Who spoke like that in this day and age?

The words should sound ridiculous.

They should.

Yet they seemed somehow appropriate coming from a man like him.

My sweet. It was as though he’d tasted her and found her so.

He stood up and walked to the wall as though he was about to walk through it—he looked capable of doing so—then she heard a click and a section of the wood-panelling slid aside to reveal a safe.

She heard the rustle of paper but couldn’t see what he was doing. When he turned, he held a bulky brown envelope in his hands. He extended it towards her, its open flap revealing four bundles of £50 notes. “Here’s ten thousand pounds. It’s yours without any ties. If you decide to take up my offer, I’ll give you another ten thousand this month and every month for the next year. After that we’ll re-negotiate terms.”

Yours without any ties?

Maybe she hadn’t heard him right.

“This money is mine without any strings attached?” she asked without touching it.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Use it to pay off your debt.”

“I don’t need that much,” she protested.

“Living as you must have done these last months couldn’t have been easy. Use the rest to spoil yourself a little.”

“A little?” She laughed. “A £2.50 bar of Lindt dark chocolate with hazelnuts is all the treat I need.”

“Then buy several.” He smiled and then sobered. “Once your debt is cleared, give my proposition some thought.”

“I have to be dreaming.” Lauren blinked her eyes twice. Each time she opened them the money was still on the table before her. She used her right hand to pinch her left wrist hard. Even the sharp pain didn’t convince her that she was actually awake. She looked across at Drake for help. “Is this really happening? Am I awake?””

“Yes.” He smiled as he reached across the table to soothe the sore spot with his thumb. “No need to mar your beautiful skin.”

Beautiful skin?

She had the skin tone of a sheltered, female pre-twentieth century aristocrat and he found it beautiful?

Lauren stared across at him, beginning to worry again that he might indeed be on some kind of mind-altering drug.

He smiled as he placed the envelope in her hand and rose to his feet. “Now, let me take to Stacey’s.”

“I drove my car.”

“You can leave it here.” He frowned as she shook her head. “I’ll have it delivered in the morning.”

“There’s no need,” she protested. “I can get myself home. No one else knows that I will have the money on me.”

“Then I’ll follow you to ensure you arrive safely.”

“I can’t take you away from your club on your busiest night.”

“I employ competent staff. I don’t have to be here to oversee them.”

“Please,” she implored, not wanting to seem ungrateful, but at the same time not wanting to be a nuisance. “I promise I’ll call you as soon as I get in.”

Drake’s eyes narrowed speculatively. She wondered if he thought she was running away now that she had his money in her grasp.

“I’m staying with Stacey, remember. I can give you her address, or you can look up her file.”

“Okay,” he agreed and picked up the intercom, looking only marginally less displeased with her show of independence. “Are your things in the dressing room?”

“Yes. Locker six.” He smiled as she slipped her hand under the coat and tried to fish the key out of the tiny, hidden pocket on the side of the costume. “I have the key right here.”

She waved it in the air triumphantly and his mouth again twisted in amusement.

Where did he imagine she’d kept it secreted?

“Maxwell will have a spare in the office.” He said the words with assurance and Lauren had no doubt that the manager was as organized as his employer was giving him credit for. Drake picked up the intercom and ordered, “Have Ms Matthews’s things brought up from locker number six.”

Two minutes later Maxwell knocked and entered, Lauren’s coat neatly folded over his left arm, her small handbag in his right. Handing the items to Drake, he gave Lauren a slight nod of acknowledgement and left the room.

As the door closed behind the manager, she stood up to shed Drake’s jacket.

Drake got to his feet as she did.

“Allow me.”

He slipped the jacket off carefully.

And absurdly it felt as though he cared more about not damaging her exposed skin than ruining the expensive garment.

“You smell wonderful.”

Unexpectedly, he dipped his head and pressed a kiss as soft as eiderdown against the side of her neck.

Lauren shivered convulsively as he straightened up.

After slipping her coat into place, he handed her the purse and said, “Come.”

Then taking her hand in his, he opened the door and ushered her out of the building via a private lift she had failed to notice before.

“Call me the minute you get indoors safely.”

He handed her a plain white business card.

She wrapped her hand around it and nodded wordlessly.

“I don’t mean when you arrive outside the house,” he clarified. “I want you inside the house with the door locked safely behind you.”

“Okay,” she promised.

Her eyes felt unaccountably misty as she slipped into the driver’s seat while he held the door open.

It was all too much to take in.

She was afraid to leave in case she suddenly came back reality and it felt like a slap in the face. Yet she needed some distance before she agreed to something she would later regret.

“Goodnight.”

As she said the words, he cupped her face and turned it up to his. Dipping his head, he pressed a kiss against her lips that was as soft as the earlier one he’d brushed on the pulse at the base of her neck.

“I will await your call,” he told her and stepped back from the vehicle.

As she drove out of the club’s huge car park, he stood watching, a large, dark, man-shaped outline.

Once she was out of his line of vision, Lauren pulled over to settle the fluttering in her stomach. After two deep, calming breaths, she proceeded on her journey. They would do for now, though she still felt shaken. The last thing she wanted was to keep Drake waiting for her call.

The first time she was stopped at a red light, she stuffed the envelope into her purse. It was a tight squeeze, but it felt safer somehow to have it concealed.

The rest of the drive home was a blur.

She looked at the time on dashboard.

It wasn’t yet midnight.

How could so much have happened in so little time?

Could there be ten thousand pounds in the bag on the seat besides her?

She felt as though she was in a TV prank show and at any minute the money would disappear in a puff of smoke.

But, every time she stopped at a traffic light, she turned her head and there was her handbag stretched by the bulging envelope and confirming that she was wide awake.

As soon as she entered the house, Lauren kicked off the high-heeled sandals and pulled out the card.

She dialled his number and before he could say hello, she blurted, “I’m home.”

“Good.” The relief in his voice warmed her stomach. Did he really care that much? “Have a good night’s sleep and give my proposal some thought when you’re rested.”


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