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The Secret Billionaire's Mistress

Written by Dani Collins

Chapter Two

Ten months later, Monika rose from Sebastien’s bed after their first night at Waldenbrook. The estate had been built for a Duke in the seventeen hundreds, then occupied by a rock star who had modernized everything. It still had a working studio off the wine cellar, but the rest had been redecorated to its former glory by its last owner, a horse breeder. The master bedroom was positively palatial, with high ceilings and silk rugs, a second huge bed in the connected room and a bath between that was so luxurious, it was criminal.

It was an investment, Sebastien kept reminding her.

She didn’t believe it. Not when he’d let her name all the rooms. Not when it had a dozen bedrooms, including a nursery, begging for a family to fill it.

Snagging his shirt off the chair, she pushed her arms into it on the way to the windows. Something heavy in the pocket tapped her breast. She closed a couple of buttons, and reached to use the long sticks to push the heavy drapes aside, letting fall sunshine pour in. Dewy grass sparkled around the pond, the trees were turning, and roses bloomed in a riot of final color. She sighed in pure bliss.

Then she fished for the cold weight against her skin and brought out a coin, gold, judging by the weight. As she held it to the light, she could tell it was very old.

“It’s a Spanish Tricentennial Royal,” Sebastien said on a yawn, stretching so the covers whispered and slid down his torso, stopping across his hips. “Worth half a million American dollars, so count your change at the shop.”

“You left it in your pocket?” He was so protective of his fortune at times, to the point it felt like a lack of trust, causing her a persistent heartache she never openly acknowledged. It stemmed from the poverty of his youth, but then he was laissez-faire at other times, making him impossible to fully understand.

“It’s part of next spring’s challenge.” He folded his arms behind his head. “If I misplace it, I’ll tell them it’s here, instead of where I plan to hide it. They’re a determined bunch. It wouldn’t stay lost.”

She tried not to stiffen up. They rarely fought, but the few times they had, it had been about work. They were greedy for each other’s time. That was a good thing. It meant this connection between them, which had grown into deep love on her side, was equally strong on his.

She told herself.

She moved to sprawl on her stomach across her side of the mattress, propping on her elbows as she dropped the coin in the middle of his chest. “You haven’t told me much about it.”

He never did. Some challenges were only a day or two of cave diving and rock climbing without gear, base jumping or hang gliding. Others were longer events that he filmed. The secrecy and element of surprise was part of the value. She understood all that, but felt very shut out by it.

Worse, she wasn’t allowed to express her very real fears. Racing cars across the desert sounded like clean fun until she learned more than one had rolled and caught fire. Not to worry, Sebastien had said when she’d seen the footage. Stavros is like a cat. Has nine lives and he’s determined to burn through all of them .

It wasn’t funny. Life was short enough. But they’d made a deal.

And, like the rest of his club members, Sebastien was an adrenaline junkie. Loving someone meant accepting them as they were.

He shifted his arm from behind his head so he could play with her hair.

“Remember when you asked me about geocaching? It’s like that. I’ll be a day or two ahead of the rest, planting the lasts few items of a treasure hunt.”

“Where?”

“Off the grid. I’ve already left Marie Antoinette’s pearls in a shipwreck and a Ruby Dragon teapot in a cave halfway down a cliff face in China. Good luck with that, kids. Bats.” He made a face.

“How do they win?”

“By getting what they want. They’ll all get the coordinates and recommended equipment lists, but they’re only allowed to keep one prize. If they have a prize when they reached a cache, they have to exchange it or leave the prize that’s there. They have to collect a token, though, proving they reached all twenty-four. If they don’t have all their tokens at the end, they don’t get to keep the prize they carry across the finish line. Half of them will negotiate exchanges for months anyway. I know what appeals to each of them.”

“Oh, Sebastien.” It sounded like his most inventive, but punishing challenge yet.

He dug his fingertips deeper into her hair. “I was thinking about that fundraiser you have to organize for next spring. Why don’t you do it here?”

She tilted an admonishing look at him. “You don’t have to fob me off. I didn’t say you shouldn’t do the challenge.”

“And I’m not saying I hate when you work sixteen hour days and have nothing left for me.” He kept his tone casual, but she knew her job irked him. Sebastien understood working hard for personal gain. Pouring effort into something for people she didn’t know made no sense to him.

This was their real bone of contention. She believed there were more important things in life than money, but he’d grown up in a poverty of love as well as financial. His mother had been shunned for carrying the bastard son of the village school’s headmaster. His father hadn’t just failed to acknowledge him, he had openly rejected him.

“I don’t mean to put my job ahead of you.”

“No?” That’s how he saw it, and it wasn’t even a good job.

She frowned, gaze on the disc of gold in the nest of his chest hair, feeling the pull of an impossible situation. “Am I supposed to prove I care for you by giving up what I love?”

She wasn’t even using the word ‘love’ as something between them, but he shut down immediately, dropping his hand away from her hair.

This was why she hadn’t told him she loved him. He froze up at the slightest hint of a deepening relationship.

Tamping down on the streak of pain in her chest, she sidestepped by asking, “Do you want me to go back to modeling? Would earning more money make my not being available to you ‘worth it?’”

His stony expression hardened even more. “No.”

He’d met her stepfather once and said afterward, I’d prefer you met your mother alone in future.

“So? How would quitting my job and letting you support me prove I care about you?” She cleared her throat and forced a very hard, painful truth into the light. “You already believe I’m only with you for the perks I do accept.” Weekends away, fine dining, and the odd designer outfit.

He didn’t refute that, crushing her.

She sat up, hot with temper, but sad. Incredibly sad.

“What do you think? That I’m biding my time, playing coy about not accepting your support, hoping to cash in on a bigger prize? I don’t want your money, Sebastien. I want you. I worry about you when you go off on your challenges because our future is uncertain enough.” They never talked about what might happen beyond six months or a year. Now she felt as though she was pushing what they did have onto shaky ground.

The silence protracted, thinning her nerves.

She reminded herself that love was give and compromise and an offer to heal. Her spine softened as she bent. For him. For them.

“Do you mean that about using this as the venue? It would give us more time together. I’d be out here most weekends. Half the week, sometimes.”

He took it as the conciliatory offer it was, rolling onto an elbow behind her.

“That’s what I was thinking.” He pressed a kiss through his shirt and said nothing about the rest.

She bit her lips to keep from releasing a sound of agony. When she could speak in a steady voice, she said, “Then, thank you. I’ll talk it over with Rhonda. I’m sure she’ll be as excited as I am.”

* * *

Monika caught her breath as the chocolate egg came into her vision, cutting off what she’d been about to say to the audience. A garden of daffodils, bluebells, and pansies blossomed in delicate scrolls of colored icing on a background of dark chocolate.

“Happy Easter, darling.” Sebastien’s warm hands settled in a possessive brand on her waist.

A light gasp of delight went through the crowd, mostly from the women in their filmy, pastel dresses and fascinators. A few of the men, ones she was quite sure would rather be golfing than suffering through a champagne brunch on a warm April day, made noises of approval and offered a round of applause.

One tiny choke, more sensed than heard, came from Monika’s left, where her boss, Rhonda, stood near the table of prizes. The plump, middle-aged activist had founded Raise For Rights. Rhonda had needed convincing to hold the Spring Fling here, ever suspicious of Sebastien’s motives.

Monika had just announced all the silent auction winners, prompting Sebastien to rise from their table and fetch the egg, but why on earth had he brought it to her, rather than taking it to their table?

She turned her head to give him a quizzical glance.

The corner of his mouth tilted ever so slightly, suggesting he knew something others didn’t. “Open it.”

The microphone picked up his intimate tone, carrying it to the back of the marquee, making the crowd go silent.

Her breath jammed in her throat as she realized the egg held something precious enough to account for the ridiculous price he’d paid for it. He hadn’t wanted to risk losing it to other bidders!

Now her pulse took off like one of the thoroughbreds he’d stocked in the stables. It wasn’t an engagement ring! Was it?

The spring breeze itself seemed to hold its breath, creating a pressure cooker atmosphere beneath the white canvas, as everyone waited on her.

“It’s too beautiful to break.” She sounded overcome. Was. Her heart was exploding, rising to expand in her throat with a hot burn of joy. The rest of her trembled.

After last year, when they’d had that awkward first morning here at Waldenbrook, it had taken weeks to get back onto their old footing. She had been so careful not to get her hopes up or betray she wanted more than he was ready to give. Now—

Someone in chef whites appeared next to her, rattling her as she took in the silver platter and a knife wrapped in a bar cloth.

A thrilling sting burned down her arms and legs, making her feel clumsy as she transferred the egg from the podium onto the platter. She had to blink like mad to keep it together in front of their audience.

The chef pointed out where Monika should pry the egg open and she nodded, but couldn’t resist a glance toward Rhonda.

Her friend thought Sebastien was only keeping his mistress biddable by hosting this event on his estate. Monika knew he wasn’t that shallow, believed deep in her heart she meant more to him. Today he was proving it. Look how many of his friends and colleagues were here.

She had built the cost of the marquee and catering, the hyacinths and freesia centerpieces, the string trio and the grand prize of an adventure tour into her budget, but Sebastien had yet to pass on those invoices to her—because a decent man would hardly let a non-profit charity foot the bill on his engagement party.

Oh, she was so happy, she could hardly function!

As the tip of the knife went in, she glanced at him again. Her lover. Her soul mate.

She expected to see his love shining back at her from his misty gray eyes, but if anything, a cool fog had taken hold. He looked more reserved than ever.

A chill of misgiving went through her as her wrist twisted, prying open the egg so the two halves severed and dropped open, revealing—

A watch.

An antique Tiffany, if she wasn’t mistaken, encrusted with diamonds set in platinum.

Her mouth fell open for entirely the wrong reason. Given the fact she was on a dais in front of nearly two hundred pairs of eyes, she had to pretend to love it.

She picked it up, the weight of it like some cold, dead creature in her hand. Her rosy, romantic dreams hung limp as those reticulated links, dangling lifelessly between her fingers.

“It’s beautiful.” She forced the smile that had graced fashion magazines with exactly as much fake joy before she’d come of age and extricated herself from that money mill.

The crowd said, “Oooh!” but she heard the suppressed shock and laughter. Even they had expected something else. She refused to look in Rhonda’s direction, not wanting to see her expression of pity and I-told-you-so.

Nor could she look at Sebastien. She felt sick. Not just hurt, but humiliated.

“You’ve worked so hard, put so much time in.” His casual tone sounded forced as he took the watch to clasp it over her wrist. “I wanted you to have something pretty to look at, as you count the hours I’m away next week.”

Her pulse throbbed beneath the silver, coursing poison through her veins, making her hot and achy, but for the sake of the money raised and the organization’s reputation, she hid all of it. Instead, she went on tiptoe and kissed him.

* * *

Sebastien considered himself well past worrying what anyone thought of him, but the sideways looks he received over the next two hours were interminable, harking him back to his childhood, when the entire school had known he was the headmaster’s bastard son, a man who never spoke to him except to strap him. Without pity. To prove there was nothing between them.

After seeing off the last guest, he followed Monika into the front doors of Waldenbrook.

“Let’s have it,” he said as she climbed the interior stairs, always preferring to just get his beatings over with.

She paused on the second flight, one hand on the rail, her expression the one she wore if she called her mother and had to speak to her vermin of a stepfather. Somehow that defensive stare cut deeper than any words of anger.

“I didn’t expect you to think it would be a ring,” he burst out. Defensively. He hated feeling defensive. Any sort of weakness was intolerable. “I’ve never once encouraged you to believe I’d offer you one.”

Her eyes grew shinier. Her mouth trembled before she firmed it. “It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t say ‘yes’ if you had.”

Why it surprised him that he could hurt her, he didn’t know. Maybe the surprise was how much it hurt him to realize he could hurt her.

He hung his hands off his hips and stared to the right, not taking in what he was seeing beyond blocks of oxblood and cream. “It was a miscalculation. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“Last week, Rhonda said you only keep this relationship going because I’m such an economical mistress. I defended you, but this is all I am to you, isn’t it?” She held up her arm, then unclasped the watch and set it on the banister. “I’m a pretty timepiece you wear on your arm, occasionally giving me three minutes of your attention.”

“Not that economical. Does she realize what today will cost me?” It was supposed to be a shot at Rhonda, who had never been his fan, but Monika took the remark personally, sucking in a pained breath.

“I thought you wanted to support Raise For Rights. Not because it’s my job, but because you care about what we do. God, Sebastien, when are you going to get it through your head that I want more from you than what is contained in your pants? Zipper or pockets?”

Her words echoed off the marble floor and carved pillars and crystal chandelier dangling two stories above him.

No matter how they resounded in his ears, he couldn’t believe it. He had been nothing as a child. His own mother had resented him and other children hadn’t dared associate with him. Girls hadn’t wanted him until he’d had the means to buy them drinks or dinner. The rich hadn’t consorted with him until he’d provided them with thrills they couldn’t get elsewhere.

She continued up the stairs, but he didn’t go after her. He didn’t grovel. Either she settled for what he offered or she could leave—and he was quite sure she wouldn’t leave.

* * *

Monika couldn’t decide if she was taking this too hard, or finally seeing how things really were. He didn’t love her. Never would.

Which made her feel stupid for giving him two years of her life. Her stepfather was right—

No. She refused to berate herself. She had fought hard to get past her stepfather’s denigrations. Working for Rhonda had given her the confidence to believe she was intelligent and capable. She made a difference in people’s lives.

She had thought she could make a difference in Sebastien’s. Maybe that was naïve, maybe it was arrogant. Either way, she had tried. She had opened her heart to him and that had to count for something. She wasn’t cynical like him, looking for ulterior motives, never believing in anyone. She fought to make the world a better place by being inclusive and honest, optimistic and caring.

She had thought she was getting through to him, especially when he chose this house and they seemed to be settling into it so nicely.

No, she had seen what she wanted to see. Now she was stinging under the lash of his, What today will cost me.

It was costing both of them. Dearly.

Minutes later, she rolled her suitcase across the marble of the entry hall, slowing it near the front doors and leaving it there as she walked to where Sebastien was staring at her from his desk in the library.

It took courage to face him. Her middle churned like a washing machine while a burn in her chest nearly closed her windpipe.

He held a glass of what was likely a seventy-year-old scotch. Aside from the single tap of his index finger against the rim of the glass, he showed no reaction.

“If all of this...” She chucked her chin toward the window and the last of the catering trucks pulling from the drive. “If you only did this so I would sleep in your bed, then I’ll make sure you’re reimbursed.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“You’re under reacting.” If she had thought opening the egg made her tremble, this was far worse. It wasn’t fear, it was loss. A kind of shock at the limb that was being severed without anesthetic. “I love you, Sebastien.”

A muscle pulsed in his jaw, but that was his only response, although he watched her so closely she could hardly breathe.

At his silence, she grew unbalanced and dizzy. Like she was falling from an airplane, ground rushing up. Her torso remained so constricted, each word strained and ached across her shoulders. Don’t cry, she willed her hot eyes.

“I thought we were...like souls. That we had a common experience in having our potential underestimated. I’m not just one more asset you have acquired.”

“I care about you.” He ground the words out like they were bullets dug from his chest.

“You don’t even trust me! You still wear condoms.” She’d been on birth control their entire two years. “You won’t marry me because you’re afraid I’ll divorce you and take half your fortune. I earn my own money.”

“That pittance you take home is not ‘money.’”

“It’s enough, but not for you. Earn all you want. It won’t fill you up. But I don’t know how to convince you of that.” She shook her head, loose hair falling around her cheeks. Then she did the hardest thing possible. She turned to the door.

“I don’t know what you want from me!”

“I want you to ask me to stay. Forever. Because you love me.” She turned back. “But you won’t. Will you?” The words scraped her throat like they were made of broken shells.

There was no substance hard enough to compare him to. Marble? Industrial diamond? He was motionless and opaque, perhaps not even breathing.

“Remember this, Sebastien. Remember it was your choice to end this. If you want me back, you have to ask. I can’t be the only one who gives.”

She could see him thinking, I give. She lifted helpless hands and turned away.

He let her go without another word.

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I’m the eldest of three daughters, which makes me the bossy one....

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Dani Collins

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