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Authors: Elizabeth Bevarly

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BOOK: The Billionaire Gets His Way
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The opening credits for
My Man Godfrey
had just finished when there was a knock at Violet's front door. Which did more than startle her, since not only was she not expecting anyone, but only the most dedicated serial killer would brave five flights of stairs, indicating the one at the door must be truly intent on wreaking mayhem.

Oh, stop it,
she told herself. It was probably a delivery for her downstairs neighbor.

A quick peek through the peephole, however, and Violet knew it wasn't a delivery. She also knew it wasn't a serial killer. More was the pity. Because she would have been infinitely more grateful for one of those instead of Gavin Mason, who was, in fact, standing on the other side of the door. What on earth was he doing here?

“Who is it?” she called through the door.

“You know exactly who it is,” he replied. “You have a peephole.”

“Through a peephole, everyone looks like a giant fish,” she stalled. “So unless you're a giant fish, then I don't know who you are. And even if you are a giant fish, I still don't know you, because I don't know any giant fish.”

She heard an exasperated sound from the other side followed by “Open the damned door.”

Violet hooked the chain in its groove, then opened the door the four inches that would allow. “Why, Mr. Mason,” she said when she saw him. “To what do I owe this honor?”

She was proud of herself for not sounding anywhere near as uneasy as she felt. Really, what
was
he doing here? In a tuxedo? Looking freshly showered and shaved, and smelling even better than he had the last time she saw him?

He studied her intently for a moment. “Actually, it's you who owes me,” he said. “And I'm here to give you a chance to make good on the debt.”

Oh, she didn't like the sound of that
at all.
“I beg your pardon?” she said. Mostly because she had no idea what else to say.

“I had a date for a fundraiser tonight,” he said. “A woman named Marta who read your book, recognized me in Ethan, and who now refuses to speak to me.”

“Gee, that's a shame,” Violet said. “Not that you don't have a date for the evening,” she hastened to clarify, “but that you date women who don't have enough brains to recognize the difference between fact and fiction.”

He frowned at that, obviously wondering if that was a dig at him, too. Which, of course, it was. But he said nothing, evidently thinking that best. Good man.

“Sorry I can't help you out,” she told him. “But I'm not a dating service.”

He smiled at that. Well, okay, it was actually more like gritting his teeth. But she was going to give him the benefit
of the doubt—unlike some Chicago business magnates she knew—and go for smile. “No, you're certainly not a
dating
service,” he agreed. “But I'm not here because I want you to fix me up with someone. I'm here because
you
owe me.”

It took a moment for his meaning to gel in Violet's muddy brain. “You want
me
to go to this thing with you?” she asked incredulously.

“No, I don't want that. But I don't have much choice. No other woman in town will be seen with me, thanks to you. And going to this thing alone would only illustrate that fact to everyone there.”

“Well, sorry, but I already have plans for the evening,” she said. “Maybe next time you could call first. Surely if you can figure out where I live, you can locate my phone number. Both are unlisted, after all.”

She started to push the door closed, but his hand shot out, his palm flattening against it, and he pushed it effortlessly to its limit again. “I don't think you understand, Ms. Tandy,” he said. “You seem to think you have a choice in the matter. Like me, you don't.”

She turned her shoulder to the door and pushed as hard as she could. It didn't budge. She told herself it was because she couldn't get any traction on the hardwood floor wearing socks. But she didn't really believe herself. With a fretful sigh, she gave up and looked through the gap in the door again.

“You owe me,” he said again. “And I'm not leaving until you pay up.”

Oh, she
really
didn't like the sound of that. “Do you honestly think I'd open my door to you after you say something like that? Not every woman is as dumb as Marta, you know.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I need an escort to the fundraiser tonight. I figure since it was your damned book that put me
in this situation, and since that's how you used to make your living, you can help me out by going in Marta's place. It's the least you can do.”

Actually, the least she could do was slam the door in his face, but she'd already tried that and failed. It wasn't her fault Marta had bailed on him. The woman obviously wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Gavin should be grateful she
had
bailed on him. He'd made clear his disdain for Violet, so why would he even want her to fill in for the woman who'd dumped him? That made no sense.

As if he'd read her mind, he said, “I've called every woman I know. None of them will even take my calls. The ones who haven't read your damned book have heard enough gossip to know I'm in it, and none of them wants anything to do with me anymore. The only reason no one rescinded my invitation to the fundraiser tonight is because I'm one of their biggest donors. Money talks, even louder than gossip. Except among women who are easily slighted.”

Something in his voice almost—
almost
—made Violet feel bad for him. Until she remembered he was threatening her with a lawsuit that could upend her entire life and destroy a dream future she was
that
close to turning into a reality.

“Can I come in?” he asked, sounding almost—
almost
—solicitous. “I have a proposition for you.”

Oh, she bet he did. So much for solicitous. Solicit
ing
was more like it. “Thanks, but no thanks. As I've said a billion times, I'm not now, nor have I ever been, a call girl. Or an escort, either. I'm not interested in your…proposition.”

He had the decency to wince at that. “Maybe that was a bad word choice. It's not that kind of proposition. Look, let me come in for a few minutes to talk, all right? I think we can help each other out.”

“Oh, I don't think—”

“Let me in, Violet.
Now.

Five

S
omething in his voice when he uttered his demand made all Violet's reserve puddle around her ankles like something she'd rather not think about puddling around her ankles. After only a small hesitation, she closed the door, released the chain then opened it again. Gavin pushed past her into her apartment, and it was he, not she, who closed the door. Then, for good measure, he placed himself between it and Violet, making it truly impossible to escape from him.

Not that she wanted to escape.
Escape
was such a desperate word, after all. And she wasn't desperate. She was merely a little concerned. Okay, a lot concerned. For some reason, though, her fear wasn't for her physical safety. It was for something else she didn't think it would be a good idea to consider too closely.

“Here's the situation,” he said. “The event tonight is a very big deal, not just because—” He halted abruptly,
looking Violet up and down, from her head to her toes. “What the hell are you wearing? Is that sushi?”

For the first time, it occurred to her how underdressed she was. Then she reminded herself that she was relaxing at home, making her attire perfectly acceptable. Gavin was the one whose outfit was out of place—he was grossly
over
dressed. Yeah. Put the burden on him, where it belonged.

“Well, it's not like I'm wearing
real
sushi,” she replied indignantly. “And pajamas are perfectly in keeping with my plans for the evening. Which is to do nothing.”

She hoped she punctuated that announcement adamantly enough that he would realize he was wasting his time with whatever his
proposition
was.

“Well, you're going to have to change. You can't wear that to the Steepletons' party.”

She crossed her arms over her midsection, realizing for the first time that her pajamas were so big, the sleeves nearly covered her hands. “Problem solved then. I'm not going to the Steepletons' party. Thanks so much for stopping by.”

She started to reach past him for the doorknob, but as he had done at his office that day, he snaked out a hand, circling his fingers firmly around her wrist. Deftly, before she even realized his intent, he switched their positions so that she was between him and the door. Only where she had kept her distance from him, he crowded into her space again, anchoring one big hand on the door by her forehead and arcing the other arm on the door above her head. She tried to shrink away but found herself effectively pinned to the spot without him even touching her. In spite of that, her breath caught in her chest, heat pooled in her belly, and something snaked down her spine that left a trail of heat in its wake.

“Like I said, this event tonight is a very big deal for me,
not only because it raises money for a cause I respect, and not only because I'm one of the biggest, if not
the
biggest, donors.” He dipped his head lower to hers, his voice going steely and cool. “But even more important than that right now, if I don't show up or, worse, if I show up without a date, it's going to look like I'm not there because I'm hiding out. Or, worse, that I can't get a date.”

She swallowed with some difficulty, then pointed out, “But you
can't
get a date.” Quickly, she added, “Not that that's my fault, since my book is a work of complete fic—”

“So I need to be there with a date. Because showing up with a beautiful woman on my arm will prove there are still some people who don't believe a word of your damned book, and there are still beautiful women who are willing to be seen with me.”

Color her shallow, but it took a moment for Violet to move past the word
beautiful.
He thought she was beautiful? In her sushi pajamas? Then she remembered that both times he'd seen her before this evening, she'd been arrayed in thousands of dollars' worth of gorgeous rented clothing and accessories and artfully applied cosmetics. All modesty aside, she supposed she did clean up rather well. Still, it was obvious that his
beautiful
—both times—had been for Raven French, not Violet Tandy.

Then she moved on to the rest of his statement and realized a number of problems with it. “Okay, first,” she said, “you showing up with the author of the book isn't going to do anything to dispel the so-called rumors that people think you're a character in the book.”

“I won't be showing up with Raven French,” he said. “I'll be showing up with Violet Tandy.”

Oh. So did that mean those
beautifuls
had been for her, after all? And why did that make something inside her go all
warm and fizzy? Who cared what Gavin Mason thought of her? The guy was a Neanderthal when it came to women.

“You can't show up with Violet,” she said. “Violet doesn't have anything to wear to a high society party.”

“Why not?”

“Because Violet doesn't go to high society parties.”

He nodded at that. “Right. Violet only attends private parties, doesn't she? I guess the attire for that would be a bit limited. In more ways than one.”

Okay, that did it. No more Ms. Nice Guy. Splaying both hands open on his chest, Violet pushed Gavin with all her might. The action must have caught him by surprise, because he actually stumbled backward a step or two, looking at her in disbelief when he finally came to a halt.

“Oh, no, you don't,” she said. Before he had a chance to trap her again, she strode defiantly into the middle of her living room to put more distance between them, then spun around to face him. “You are not going to stand here, in my home, and impugn my reputation.”

He laughed at that. A deep, full-throated laugh that came from somewhere deep inside him, sounding rich and dark and, well, kind of sexy, truth be told. Violet had always loved hearing men laugh, because they so seldom did, most of them. And Gavin's laughter was in keeping with the man—confident, powerful and larger-than-life. “
I
impugn your reputation?” he managed to say through his laughter. “Sweetheart, you've done a fine job of that all by yourself. This may come as a shock to you, considering the world you live and work in, but even in today's decadent society, women who take money in exchange for sex don't have a reputation to impugn. It doesn't matter if you
are
making money now with…a different body part. Once a prostitute, always a pros—”

“I am not a prostitute!” she shouted at the top of her
lungs, hoping, in hindsight, that her downstairs neighbor wasn't home. “You know, you're not helping your own cause here if you expect me to do you a favor.”

“It isn't a favor,” he said, completely unfazed by her outburst. “It's your chance to pay up on a debt you owe me.”

“But—”

“Think of it this way,” he interrupted her. Again. “If you go to this fundraiser with me tonight, being no more than Violet Tandy, writer—not that you need to tell anyone what you wrote—I might be inclined to reconsider my lawsuit.”

Now Violet was the one to narrow her eyes. “You're saying if I go to this party with you tonight you'll forget about suing me?”

“I said I'd reconsider it.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning maybe I'll change my mind about pursuing it.”

Violet dropped her hands to her hips, a deliberate attempt to look less as if she were on the defense and more as if she were on the offense. Even if she still felt plenty defensive and in no way offensive. “
Maybe
isn't good enough,” she told him.

“All right then. Probably. I'll probably change my mind about pursuing it.”

“That's no better than maybe.”

“Of course it's better,” he told her. “Probably means much more likely than maybe.”

“But it's still not definitely.”

“It's still better than maybe. And it's the best offer you're going to get. And, it's only good for—” he lifted an arm and pulled back the jacket and shirt sleeve to reveal an elegant gold watch beneath “—another sixty seconds.” He dropped his hand to his side. “One minute, Violet. Make a decision.
Either go with me tonight and instill a feeling of gratitude in me that might make me rethink prosecuting you for libel, slander and defamation of character, or turn me down and know I'll go after you with both guns drawn.”

Oh, like that was any kind of choice. Heads he won, tails he also won. There was no guarantee of anything in it for Violet.

Except for the opportunity to attend a swanky Gold Coast party, she thought, which she'd never done before and doubtless never would again. Except for the chance to rub shoulders with the cream of Chicago society. And maybe, you know, get some material for her new novel, which so happened to be about the cream of Chicago society—fictional society, natch, lest there be some confusion about that at some point—and which was barely half finished. And which her publisher was breathing down her neck to turn in so they could capitalize on the success of
High Heels and Champagne and Sex! Oh, My!,
striking while the iron was hot and all that. So maybe there was a little something in it to benefit Violet. Other than spending an evening with Gavin Mason.

No! Spending an evening with Gavin Mason wasn't a benefit. That would be a punishment. The burden she had to bear in order to get the good stuff. Which was not Gavin, lest there be some confusion about that, too. Which maybe there was, since Violet was getting more confused by the moment, but—

“Thirty seconds, Violet.”

She mentally ransacked her wardrobe, coming up empty until she remembered a black dress she'd purchased secondhand for a graduation from high school party. That had been ten years—and okay, okay, ten pounds—ago. But it was a forgiving jersey knit with a simple cut that would stay in style forever.

“Fifteen seconds.”

Coupled with a rhinestone bracelet and earrings that could pass for cubic zirconium, provided the lighting wasn't great, and a pair of slender heels she'd worn to the same graduation party, and maybe, just maybe—

“Five seconds, Violet. Four, three, two—”

“Okay,” she said. “Okay. I'll go to the party with you. And you, in turn, are promising you'll probably change your mind about the lawsuit.”

He said nothing for a moment, then smiled. But instead of saying he promised to do anything, he only echoed one word. “Probably.”

It was the best she was going to get, she told herself. And it was at least a little bit better than what she'd had before. Because there was a chance now, however small, that Gavin would leave her alone after tonight, and she'd never have to see him again.

So why didn't that make her feel at least a little bit better? In fact, why did she kind of feel worse?

Sugar rush, she finally concluded. All that ice cream was creating one of those carb crashes. Yeah. That had to be it. No other explanation made any sense.

“When can you be ready?” Gavin asked.

Violet looked down at her sushi pajamas, then at Gavin's flawless tuxedo. Then she drove her gaze higher, to his face, marveling again at how exquisitely his features were arranged. Never, she thought. She could never be ready for a man like him.

“Fifteen minutes,” she told him. “Give me fifteen minutes, and I'm good.”

 

Fifteen minutes, Gavin echoed to himself as he watched Violet hesitate at the entry to the Steepletons' ballroom. Fifteen minutes, she'd said, and she was good. Good.
Unbelievable. Not only did she look way better than
good
—words like
radiant, luminous
and
stunning
came most readily to mind—but any other woman would have needed hours to put herself together so well.

The black dress was styled simply, even modestly, with a straight neckline that went from collarbone to collarbone in front and had a slight dip in back that revealed just enough skin to make a man want to see more. But it hugged her curves like a lover's caress, making it not very modest at all. She'd even managed to twist her hair up into something sleek and elegant that revealed the slender column of her nape, a creamy span of flesh that beckoned to a man's fingertips…and mouth.

Her jewelry was a puzzle, however. Gavin had bought enough diamonds for his companions over the years—though not, God forbid, a ring of any kind—to know whether a woman's gems were real or not. Violet's were not. He would have thought that among her clientele over the years, there would have been at least a few generous types who gave her a trinket or two for services rendered, even if they were paying good money for those services. In Gavin's experience, men who bought women liked to decorate them from time to time, if for no other reason than to remind them who was really in charge of the arrangement. Evidently, Violet's customers had never given her anything but her required fee, otherwise she would have been wearing the real thing. Maybe he should get her a little something for—

For what? he immediately asked himself. For helping him out tonight? Why should he feel grateful because she'd done an amazing job of looking incredibly beautiful in a matter of minutes? Hell, she was used to putting herself together quickly. A woman in her profession would naturally need to wind things up with a client quickly and make an elegant
exit to ensure being hired for another night, even if the jerk didn't buy her something nice now and then. Violet had had a lot of practice looking this good in fifteen minutes.

She turned around to look at him, smiling a soft smile. And just like that, Gavin felt like someone had punched him in the gut. Because when she smiled that way, without artifice or inhibition, she went beyond beautiful. That naiveté was back, but with it was an innocence and purity that he would have thought impossible to fake. For the first time, he could see why men would pay money, and lots of it, to bed her. Because bedding Violet would make a man feel like he was her very first, that no man had come before him, that he would leave an indelible impression on her that would outstay any man who came after him.

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