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The Billionaire's Christmas Proposal
A Billionaire for Christmas
By Victoria James, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Victoria James
All rights reserved.
It was the worst day of her life.
Okay, so maybe not the worst. Maybe the second-worst day ... no ... well, it was definitely the worst day this month. Allison Barrington squinted at what remained of her apartment building, her eyes burning from the smoke. The orange blaze of the fire had mostly died down to an eerie gray smoke. It was still dark despite it being morning, but the red glare from the fire trucks and ambulances lit the sky, and the rush of emergency personnel buzzed around them.
"What a freaking disaster." No truer words had ever been spoken. Said words were uttered by her eternally sarcastic teenaged sister and roommate.
She turned to look at Danielle. "At least no one was hurt," she said, pleased that she could actually muster up something positive to say. It was all they had left, really. She glanced down at her dog, Captain Hook, who was currently peeing beside a lamppost.
"Hook," she said, giving his leash a gentle, but authoritative, pull. He looked up at her, his one eye locking onto hers before obediently ambling over. The eye patch on the other side had a smudge of soot on it. Deciding she needed to act confident and reassuring, she put her arm around her sister's shoulder.
"It's going to be okay, Dani."
"You say that about everything. This is not going to be okay. We have no apartment, no clothes, and seriously" — she paused to give Allison a once-over — "you are in desperate need of something else to wear. If this entire situation weren't so disastrous, I'd be humiliated for you. I mean, really Allie, flannel reindeer jammies and that ratty U of T sweater? Ugh. And that coat? At least button it up."
Allison didn't need to look down at herself to know what she looked like. But it was eight o'clock in the morning, and she hadn't been planning on standing outside in the crowded street while wearing it. She looked over at her sister, noting she was already decked out for the day. "Why are you dressed? The fire alarm went off at three a.m."
Her sister blushed slightly. "I was just —"
"Sneaking in, even though you promised me you'd be home by ten?"
Their conversation was interrupted as two young police officers walked toward them. "What a missed opportunity this is for you," Dani whispered in her ear. "Men in uniform everywhere, and you're standing here looking like a troll with a degenerate dog."
Captain Hook lifted his leg close to Dani. You couldn't ask for more loyalty than that.
"Gross!" she yelled, backing up a few steps. "So what are we going to do? Where are we going to stay?"
That was the million dollar question. She hadn't bothered getting renter's insurance, which meant everything would have to be replaced at her own expense. And yeah, she didn't have anything of huge value, and she wasn't on the brink of broke, so she could slowly replace things — key word being slow.
After a quick chat with the police and providing them with her contact info, she looked over at her younger sister.
"So now what? I'm not going back to Mom's."
No, of course they couldn't go there. Their mother was a train wreck, and they'd probably end up giving her money instead of the other way around. When she'd taken Dani out of there a few years ago, she'd promised her she wouldn't ever have to go back.
"What about the shelter?"
Allison shook her head. "We can't go there. They're beyond capacity, and now that they've been told they have to close ... no." In the last decade of being on her own, she had learned how to survive. She'd built up her own life, gotten her dream job, and found friends she considered closer than most family. But since learning the shelter she worked at was being forced to close because of some big corporation wanting to use the property for its real estate value, it seemed she couldn't quite shake off the feeling of being tired. Tired of the fight, of the constant uphill battle she was facing. She never regretted for a second that she'd brought her sister to live with her, but it was another mouth to feed, more responsibility. And now this; everything in the world she had worked so hard for had gone up in smoke. Literally.
"Hello? Allie? Now what? I'm freezing."
Now what? She buttoned up her coat, knowing where they'd go. Maybe she'd known the minute it had happened. Maybe she'd been dying to call him the second she'd managed to get them out into safety. Maybe she'd wanted to hear his voice, reassuring her. He was the one person they could go to, and he'd take them in without question. The only problem was she didn't want to be indebted to him, or anyone. She also knew she could rely on no one but herself. She had learned that lesson at a young age, and being the optimist she prided herself on being, she could say it had given her backbone. Really, if she only relied on herself, then no one could disappoint her. She had no expectations of anyone, except herself. This theory/policy of hers did complicate relationships, because if you were used to always taking charge and never needed anything from anyone, well, the relationships became very one-sided.
Nevertheless, this was one of those times she was going to have to reach out, but it wouldn't be for long, and of course if he said no then she'd come up with Plan B. Always have a Plan B, Allie. Now they'd go to Ethan because ... Ethan was Ethan. Ethan Dane was the guy she'd been trying to keep at a distance ever since her best friend and his best friend had gotten married. Their relationship was purely platonic only because she insisted it remain that way. She was either a saint for being able to resist a man like Ethan, or she was an idiot.
She looked down at her ensemble and cringed. Well, she had no choice; she needed to see him. "Let's go," she said to Dani and started walking away from the commotion outside the building.
"Uh, hello?" Dani said, catching up to her. The sidewalks were slushy, and the farther they went from the building, the quieter it became. Luckily, she'd been able to snatch her purse before evacuating the apartment. "It's like eight o'clock in the morning; where are we going? A hotel?"
Allison gave Hook's leash a little tug when he started lingering near a fire hydrant. This was not the morning for fire hydrant loitering. "No, we're going to see Ethan."
"Ethan? Yes! It's so great you have loaded friends."
"We're not going to overstay or take advantage. Just a couple of nights until we can get a new place."
"Perfect, then we can go to Hannah and Jackson's."
"No, they're at the cabin until New Year's."
"There's a bigger problem we need to address — you're about to walk into your hot, rich friend's condo looking like that."
"It doesn't matter what I look like." Though she did cringe at the thought of Ethan seeing her looking like a bag lady ... or troll. "Besides, Ethan's not at home now anyway."
"Where is he? And why are we walking?"
"He's at work, I'm sure —"
"At this time of the morning?"
"Most people work for their money, Dani." Ethan may have come from a very privileged family, but she knew how hard he and Jackson Pierce — his business partner and best friend — worked. It was one of the traits she admired about him ... among others. Not that it mattered. Different worlds, different problems. And despite her turning him down three times, they had managed to maintain a friendship. They would be completely wrong for each other.
They turned the corner and made their way into the financial district, and Ethan's building loomed in the distance. It was dark and cloudy; the snow on the ground was now mostly brown slush. The sidewalks were full, most people dressed in suits and coats, rushing to work. Dani plowed through the revolving door at the entrance, and Allison couldn't help but gasp at the image of herself in the mirrored foyer. Her sister had been right. She looked like a hideous little troll. Bag lady would have been a step up. She avoided eye contact with people in the elevator and kept her head low.
They rode the elevator to the top floor, and she refused to look at herself in the mirrors again. Instead, she listened to the sound of her sister texting and held on to Hook's leash tightly as he attempted to make friends with the women in designer clothes. Judging by their expressions, no one had any sympathy for the dirty, one-eyed dog or herself. Her sister was at the opposite end of the elevator, clearly pretending she didn't know them. She nudged Dani out of the elevator when the doors opened, and the three of them walked past the almost empty reception area. The soft glow of a light at the end of the corridor made relief seep through her, until the sound of soft voices grew louder as they walked toward Ethan's office. They slowed and looked at each other.
"Sounds like a woman," her sister whispered.
She wasn't surprised. And she shouldn't be disappointed. Disappointment implied feelings other than friendship. She had none of those. None. She looked down at her clothes and tried not to weep like a baby. They peeked through the glass wall of his office. Allison ignored the tiny little flip her stomach did at the sight of Ethan. The man could wear a suit like nobody else. He was tall and built in a way that made it very obvious he didn't spend all his time sitting behind his desk. Ethan came from a long line of old money, and he carried himself with the confidence and dignity of a man who had grown up among society's elite but was also capable of striking out on his own.
When she'd first met Ethan — at their best friends' wedding — she'd been charmed, floored, and, well, smitten. And smitten was not a word that was part of her regular vocabulary, but it applied in this circumstance. He'd made it very clear he was interested, and she'd made it very clear she was not. He intimidated her. Not to mention the fact that Ethan hadn't had a serious relationship in ... um, ever. She wasn't interested in being just another one of the women he slept with. So, difficult as it was to ignore the man's charms, she was determined. Even when he looked at her with those warm, whiskey-colored eyes and his mouth that always seemed to have a secret smile just for her. Nope.
So in the meantime they had become good friends. They saw each other frequently because of Hannah and Jackson and the fact that they were godparents to their first child, Emily.
Her sister nudged her, not taking her eyes off the window. "Who's Lawyer Barbie?"
Allison followed her sister's gaze. Lawyer Barbie indeed. What and who Ethan did in his personal or professional life didn't matter to her, or shouldn't matter to her.
"Actually, she might not be a lawyer. Maybe she's this hot model he's dating who likes to wear business suits that show off long, killer legs —"
"Stop talking." Her gaze moved past the woman, who was sitting in an unnatural pose on the corner of his desk. She did have killer legs, but Ethan wasn't noticing her — in that way at least. His gorgeous head was downturned, looking at something in a file.
"Maybe we should wait till she leaves," Allison whispered to Dani.
"Agreed. I feel even worse for you now. In fact, you're lucky I'm standing here with you so I can vouch for you in case security calls the insane asylum or whatever to drag —"
"Thanks. That's just what I needed to hear," Allison said. "Let's slowly walk back."
Hook suddenly started barking at his reflection with a fury, the high-pitched sound echoing in the silent office. Allison sucked in a breath as she made eye contact with Ethan. Mortification anchored her crappy rubber boots to the marble floor, and only the scattered bits of remaining pride kept her from weeping.
"Nice job, Hook," Dani muttered.
Allison wasn't paying her perpetually smart-mouthed sister any attention because instead of Ethan staring at her in horror, the man jumped out of his chair and bounded out of the room as though he were running to rescue his beloved ... someone. But it was her he was running to, which made her heart swell and her throat constrict because the look in Ethan's eyes made her forget that she looked like an escaped Christmas-loving sociopath. He made her feel like —
"What the hell happened to you, Allie?" The harshness in his deep voice was softened by the worry in his light brown eyes. His large hands gripped her upper arms and warmth seeped into her cold body.
"I, uh, I'm ..." Her voice sounded hoarse, and she realized her throat was clogged with something akin to emotion ... tears of some sort, because someone actually cared about her. Not someone —
"What's wrong with your voice?" he asked, frowning.
"I ... um —"
Dani sidled up next to him. "Smoke inhalation. She almost died. Firemen had to carry her out of —"
"Jeezus, Allie." Ethan wrapped her up in his arms, and the last thing she saw was her sister's smug face before the rest of the world was covered by Ethan. His chest was hard, the arms that wrapped around her were strong and comforting, and the man smelled like heaven.
"Oh, you know this person, Ethan? I was about to call building security," the woman said, standing in the doorway.
Dani scoffed and stood at attention. "She's his slightly disheveled, but otherwise very hot, friend —"
Allison broke free from Ethan's embrace, feeling cold again. "Dani —"
Her sister shrugged and leaned against the wall again.
"Why the hell didn't you call me? How did you get here?" Ethan ignored Dani and the woman and ushered her into his office. She didn't bother looking at Lawyer Barbie as she walked past her — the woman's huff was adequate proof of her thoughts.
"Sit," Ethan said, shoving her gently into his chair. "Now tell me what happened."
He was leaning against his desk, fine lines around an undeniably beautiful mouth.
She glanced over at the woman currently sending her a death glare from across Ethan's sprawling office and crossed her arms. She was suddenly self-conscious. "I don't really want to get into all this," she whispered.
Ethan frowned and then turned around. "Nadia, thanks. You can finish your presentation at the meeting this afternoon."
Her sister then proceeded to usher the other woman out the door, shutting it a little too loudly to be polite. She flopped herself down on Ethan's couch, completely oblivious to her slush-filled clothes on the pristine leather. Satisfied she wasn't listening when Dani pulled out her phone and began texting, she looked up at Ethan.
"Well, what happened?" he asked.
"Our apartment building blew up!" Dani said before she could answer.
Ethan's tanned face went a few shades paler than the snow outside.
Allison turned in her chair to glare at her sister. "Stop eavesdropping."
She turned back to Ethan and tried to concentrate. She needed a coffee.
"She's completely overdramatizing. There was a small fire in the building, and we had to get out —"
"Smoke everywhere, they had to put an oxygen mask on Allie's face."
He ran his hands through his hair. "Jeezus —"
"Stop talking, Dani." She continued to stare at Ethan, mesmerized by the look on his face. "It really isn't a big deal. No one was injured. I just ... all our stuff is gone. We have nothing right now."
"None of that matters," he said in a voice that sounded thick with concern for ... her. This caring, serious, protective side of Ethan was disconcerting. Flirty playboy she could easily dismiss. Big, protective, serious Ethan was a whole heck of a different ballgame.
"I wouldn't have come here except I didn't know where else to go. Hannah and Jackson aren't around, and I can't impose on the shelter," she whispered. He didn't know about her unreliable mother, and admitting that he was the only person in a city of millions that she could turn to was, again, disconcerting.
A look flashed through his eyes, but was gone before she could mull over its meaning. "You did the right thing. You and Dani can stay at my place."
"We'll need clothes and food."
Allie shook her head, embarrassed by her sister's big, teenaged mouth. "Just until —"
"Whatever. I've got more than enough room."
"I don't want to impose or intrude on your life. We'll be gone in a few days, I promise."
"Seriously, Allie, you're welcome in my home for as long as it takes."
The shiver that ran through her then was totally caused by the fact that she had walked through the freezing cold outside, not at all dressed for winter. Of course. It had nothing to do with the way Ethan said, in that warm, rich-as-a-cup-of-dark-hot-chocolate voice, that she was welcome in his home.
Excerpted from The Billionaire's Christmas Proposal by Victoria James, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2015 Victoria James. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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