There aren’t many moments I’ve regretted in my life, but this one would have to rank high on that short list. Doing the walk of shame through one of the most exclusive hotels in Sydney is not something I ever thought I’d do, but yet, here I am doing exactly that. I blame Rodney Stein. If he had just turned up to his own damn wedding yesterday and married his fiancé—my friend—none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t have insisted on getting drunk last night and I wouldn’t have had to match her drink-for-drink. And I wouldn’t have come back to this hotel with the guy I met and made a fool of myself.
My head hurts.
Yeah, well a lot more is going to hurt if you don’t get your ass home and then to your office in the next forty minutes.
I pick up my pace in an effort to achieve my goal. At the same time, my phone rings and I rummage in my bag for it.
Please God, don’t let anyone I know see me this morning.
“Lorelei, where are you?” It’s my best friend, Sienna, and the urgency I hear in her voice concerns me. She never takes that tone with me. Sienna is one of the most laid back people I know.
“I’m on my way home and then to the office. What’s up?” I keep my eyes down, focused on the marble floor while doing my best to avoid anyone’s gaze.
There’s a long pause where neither of us speak. When she finally replies, the urgency has given way to confusion. “Wait, did you hook up with that guy last night?”
I sigh. Admitting what I did is the last thing I want to do. “No… But I did go back to his hotel room. I’ll fill you in later.”
“Who are you and what did you do with Lorelei Winters?”
“I know… I know. Stupid.”
“No, it’s not stupid, but it’s not you. You don’t do sex with strangers.”
As she speaks, I push through the front doors of the hotel—finally—and step outside into the warm sunshine. It’s only eight in the morning, so this weather is unseasonably warm for a winter day in Sydney. The early morning hustle and bustle of Sydney fills my senses and I breathe it in. I love everything about this city, even the cranky cab drivers who honk at anyone who dares get in their way and the people who shove past you in their hurry to get to work.
“Sienna, can we go over this later when my head isn’t throbbing and I’m not madly trying to get home so I can take a shower and get to the office before my appointment?”
“Oh, shit! That’s what I’m calling for. Your appointment has been changed. The guy will be here in fifteen minutes.”
Today is going to be a bad day.
It can’t be any worse than last night.
“Wanna make a bet,” I mutter to myself as I bend my head so I can balance my phone between my cheek and my shoulder. I then fumble in my bag to make sure I have supplies on hand to fix my face now.
“Huh?” Sienna asks on the other end of the phone.
“Ignore me. I’m talking to myself,” I say as I find my makeup bag. Thank goodness I always travel prepared.
“How far away are you?” Sienna asks.
“I’m close, but this traffic is a bitch by the looks of it. Can you stall him if I’m running late?”
“Sure. I’ll sell him some financial services.”
I laugh at her while hailing a cab. Sienna is a financial adviser and can sell anything to anyone. I don’t doubt the guy will have hired her before he leaves our office.
“Thanks, babe. Gotta go.” I hang up and give the cab driver directions before sinking into the back seat. This day is just beginning, but I’m ready for it to be over. I can cope with most things, but hangovers are not one of them. Drinking is something I usually avoid for this very reason. I haven’t felt this ill in three years—not since the killer hangover I ended up with from my twenty-fifth birthday celebrations that Sienna organised. A girls’ weekend away at a winery in the Hunter Valley with ten of your closest friends will do it to you every time.
I attempt to make myself presentable for my appointment. Five minutes later, I’ve removed the mess of yesterday’s makeup from my face and have applied new foundation, all the while cursing Rodney Stein. Who has a Sunday wedding, anyway? He was the one who pushed for that day and then he didn’t even have the hide to show up. Sarah had been devastated. Naturally. Six years of her life with that man, gone.
“And to not have the fucking balls to tell her in person…” I mutter as I apply eye shadow.
“Did you say something, ma’am?”
My head jerks up at the cab driver’s words and I make eye contact in his rear-view mirror. “Sorry, talking to myself,” I reply before looking back down at the mirror of my compact.
My makeup skills have come in handy. I may be able to pull this off.
Except for the dress you’re wearing that screams, ‘I spent last night in a hotel with a guy I just met’.
I smooth the red satin material of the dress I’m wearing—the dress that shows just a little too much cleavage for a business meeting. I would have preferred to meet Ashton Scott looking anything but a woman who has just completed her first walk of shame. The guy is a legend in the business world and I want to make a good impression. The day his assistant phoned asking if I’d see him to discuss something that would benefit both of us, I jumped at the chance.
I’m going to kill Rodney Stein if I ever see him again.
The cab jerks to a halt and the red lipstick I’m applying ends up all over my cheek.
Worst. Morning. Ever.
Fuck you Rodney Stein.
“Lorelei!” Sienna stands as I enter our shared office. Her brown eyes widen in the way they do when she’s pissed off but doesn’t want to show it. “I’ll leave you and Ashton to it,” she says. As she brushes past me, she mutters, “Good luck with that arrogant asshole. I’ll bring you back a toasted caramel macchiato. You’re going to need it.”
She breezes out of the room and I turn to find Ashton Scott watching me from where he’s standing near the window.
Sweet baby Jesus, the man is something else. Dark hair, chiselled jaw, tanned skin and fit—he’s the kind of man pretty much any woman I know would kill to have in her bed. The thing that’s getting my panties in a twist? The way he’s wearing his five o’clock shadow first thing in the morning. Not to mention the way he’s teamed jeans with a black dress shirt and black jacket. It’s like a fuck you to the business world he inhabits—a fuck you that I like.
His gaze travels the length of me, resting for a moment on my cleavage, before finding my eyes again. A bolt of heat hits me and I swallow hard.
Switch your damn brain on, Lorelei.
I want to impress him with my business savvy. Lust has no place here.
I move to where he’s standing and extend my hand. “It’s good to meet you, Mr. Scott. I’m Lorelei Winters.”
He knows who you are. He came to you, remember?
He shakes my hand. “Lorelei.”
Just one word.
But hot damn if that one word didn’t slide through his lips like sugar. His voice is a God-given gift; a gift I’m sure could cause a woman an unhealthy addiction.
My brain misfires and I hold his hand longer than I intended. It’s not until he finally lets my hand go that I realise this.
“Sorry!” I say in more of a shriek than my preferred business voice. “Would you like a tea or coffee?” I am so damn flustered that I have no clue what might come out of my mouth next.
The corner of his mouth twitches. “No, thank you.” He takes charge of the meeting (because clearly I’m in no shape to do this) and indicates for me to take a seat.
The office I share with Sienna is a room we’ve rented off a friend in his company premises. It’s a modern space rather than a traditional business office. We have one large, round, glass table that we both work at in the centre of the room. There is usually a large vase of flowers in the middle of the table, but being Monday, neither of us has filled the vase yet. Cream paint on the walls is covered by a selection of art prints we love, including a large canvas I painted with some of our favourite inspirational quotes. A floor-to-ceiling window takes up one wall and we’ve hung a sheer, pale pink curtain that allows light to filter through.
Ashton takes the seat right next to me. His leg brushes against mine as he leans forward to speak.
Damn you round table.
I should never have convinced Sienna to get this table.
“I heard you were selling the building you own,” he says. “I’ve come to make you an offer.”
My business senses finally kick in. “Which one?” I only own one building, but he doesn’t need to know that.
He quirks a brow. “The one on Willow Street.”
Shit, he totally knows I’m lying. But he’s humouring me. I’m not sure which is worse.
“No, it isn’t for sale.” My grandmother would roll over in her grave if I sold the building she’d left me when she died.
His lips pinch together. “I’ve heard it is.”
How strange. I wouldn’t have thought the building he’s referring to would even be on his radar. Ashton is a property developer who deals in high-end properties from what I know. My building doesn’t fit into that category at all. And it’s definitely not for sale.
“I think perhaps whoever told you that has mixed up the information. There’s three shops in my building and one has just come up for lease, but the building isn’t for sale.”
“The person who told me never mixes up their information, Lorelei.” The sugar disappears from his voice and it’s clear I’ve said something he doesn’t like.
I straighten in my seat, slightly annoyed at the tone he’s taking with me. “I’m not sure who you’ve been getting your news from, but I can assure you it’s wrong.” I remove the friendliness from my voice to match his.
His gaze remains steady on me and it’s only because I’m watching him so closely that I see the tiny flare of his eyes. He seems shocked, but I’m not sure at what. That his information is wrong? Or, that I had the gall to tell him that? I bet Ashton Scott is used to always having the right information.
“Lorelei, I’m not a man to be screwed with. If you’re trying to play me to get more money out of this deal from the other party, I’ll make you regret that.”
My hangover collides with the anger bubbling up at his threat. Standing, I say, “You can leave now. I don’t appreciate you asking for a meeting and then coming here and threatening me. I’m not a woman who lies about anything. You want to know something from me? Straight up ask me and I’ll give you an honest answer. When I tell you that my building is not for sale, you can be assured that it’s not for sale. And I don’t respond well to intimidation. You can take your threat and go back to whoever fed you this bullshit and tell them to get their facts straight. And I would suggest hiring more capable staff.”
My pulse beats hard and fast as I catch my breath.
How dare he come here and insinuate I’m a money-grabber? Or, that I would lie?
He stands, his gaze still pinned to mine. His jaw clenches as he stares at me with infuriation. “This isn’t the end of this. I want that building and I always get what I want.”
No more words are exchanged before he stalks out of my office.
I take a few moments to get myself together. Angry thoughts explode through my mind and I struggle to think straight.
The absolute nerve of that man.
Ashton Scott can kiss my ass.
“Jessica!” My voice ricochets around my office, intensifying the headache taking hold of my head as I call out for my assistant. The meeting with Lorelei Winters that I’ve just returned from has completely fucked with my mind.
“I see Asshole Monday has returned,” she says as she steps into my office.
Scowling, I reach into the top drawer of my desk and yank out a box of Advil. “What the hell is Asshole Monday?”
Passing me the glass of water she’s holding, she says, “You’re welcome.”
Jessica can read my mind. It’s the reason she’s worked for me for five years. I down the pills before demanding, “Are you going to enlighten me?”
She sighs as she takes the empty glass from me. “You had a bad weekend, didn’t you?”
She places her hands on her hips. At just over five feet, she’s tiny compared to my six foot two and yet she is fierce when she wants to be. I know she’s about to have her say by the way she flicks her dark hair—it’s a mannerism of hers that indicates her annoyance with me. “Ashton, you’ve just barrelled your way in here with that shitty look on your face, barking at everyone along the way and generally being an asshole. It’s become a common occurrence around here over the last few months, but then you went back to being nice Ashton and we had some peace.” She spreads her hands out in front of her and adds, “Like I said, Asshole Monday has returned. And the fact it always happens on a Monday makes me think you must have had a shitty weekend.”
There are only three people in my life who get away with speaking to me this way—Jessica, my sister, Alessandra and my friend, Jack Kingsley.
“For the record, I did not have a bad weekend. But I will tell you what has been bad about my day so far—Lorelei Winters.”
She frowns. “Really? That’s surprising. From all the stuff I dug up on her for you, she sounded like a good person. I didn’t read one bad thing about her. Hell, she dedicates hours every week to women at a local nursing home giving them beauty treatments.”
“She was rude and she lied to me,” I snap, not wanting to hear what an amazing woman she is. The fact I will have to deal with her again irritates me, but I want her building more than I want to never see her again.
Jessica cocks her head to the side. “Tell me what happened, because maybe your Asshole-Monday mood got in the way.”
“Oh, for fucks sake…” I mutter. “I wasn’t in a bad mood until after I saw her.”
Crossing her arms over her chest she gives me the blank look that says she’s waiting for me to talk.
I walk around the desk and sit on the edge of it, resting my hands either side of me. My chest is so damn tight with annoyance. I can’t recall the last time a woman has managed to rile me up to this extreme. Men often, but not women. “She told me her building is not for sale and after I suggested she was playing me in an effort to get more for the sale, she suggested I employed idiots because I had the wrong information.”
Jessica’s eyes narrow at me. “Are you more pissed off that you thought she was lying or that she took a shot at your ego?”
“Are you sure I’m the one being an asshole today?”
“I just call it like I see it.”
“For a start, I don’t hire idiots. If the woman knew anything at all about me, she’d know that—”
She cuts me off. “Ah, see there’s that ego I was talking about. You naturally assume that everyone knows all about you. From what I read about her, Lorelei isn’t your standard businesswoman. She inherited everything she owns from her grandmother a year ago and has been stumbling her way through the business world since then. She probably doesn’t know that much about you at all.”
Jessica has this way of pulling my ass into line and it would appear she’s doing it again this morning. I blow out a long breath as I rake my fingers through my hair. “Well, that may be the case, but she still lied to me.”
She shakes her head. “Ashton, for a smart man, you’re being obtuse today. Give me one good reason why she’d lie about it? Don’t you think that if she really wanted to squeeze anyone for more cash, she would have let you make an offer and then she would have worked from there to get more for the sale?”
As much as I hate to admit it, she’s right.
Where the hell is your brain today?
“Where did we get the information from that the building was for sale?” I ask.
“Didn’t Alessandra tell you your father had made an offer on it?”
Pushing off from the desk, I nod. “Get her on the line for me.”
She doesn’t move, but rather stays where she is and watches as I walk around my desk to take a seat behind it.
“What?” I demand.
“I’m just trying to assess where we’re at with Asshole Monday. Are you good now, or do I need to get you a cup of Get Over Yourself?”
I purse my lips. Jessica will be the fucking death of me. “Just get Alessandra on the phone,” I snap, feeling my temper fraying.
She nods. “Good.” And with that, she sashays out of the office.
“What’s up, Ashton? I’m in the middle of a meeting with a supplier, but Jessica said it was important.” Alessandra sounds distracted, but my sister is exceptionally good at multi-tasking.
“Who told you that building on Willow Street is for sale?”
She’s silent for a moment. “Dad. Why?”
“Because I just had a meeting with the owner and she told me it isn’t. I’m trying to figure out why she’d tell me it isn’t if it is.”
“Ashton…” Her voice holds a warning—one I’m not interested in hearing.
“I want that building, Alessandra.”
“I know you do, but I worry it’s for all the wrong reasons. Just because it holds sentimental value to—”
I cut her off, not needing, or wanting, to hear what she is about to say. “It holds nothing for me. I want it purely to expand my holdings.”
“Bullshit, little brother. You want it to piss Dad off and because it holds meaning to you.”
I throw the pen I’m holding down onto my desk and stand. Ignoring what she said, I ask, “Did he give you any other information about the sale?”
She sighs. “No.” After a brief pause, she adds, “Let this go, Ashton. There’s too much hurt tied up in all this. It’s eaten you up for years and if you buy that damn building, it will keep eating you up.”
I’ve made my way out to Jessica’s office and motion for her to stop what she’s doing. Ignoring Alessandra again, I mutter, “I’ll see you tonight, Aly.” Before she can reply, I end the call and give my attention to Jessica. “What meetings have I got today?”
“You’re back-to-back from ten until three and then you’re free to go and apologise to Lorelei.” The look of expectation on her face makes it clear she expects me to do what she has said.
“Block off the rest of my day,” I direct. “And phone Lorelei to arrange another meeting, please.”
“Are we sure your mood will have improved by then?”
I turn to head back into my office. Calling over my shoulder as I leave, I say, “No one likes a smartass, Jessica.”
Her laughter floats through the air between our offices. “You do or else I wouldn’t still be here, boss.”
The knots I’ve felt in my neck for days ease a little. If there’s one thing Jessica does well besides organising me, it’s snapping me out of a bad mood. And God knows I could do with it today. After the weekend I’ve had and Lorelei Winters putting me off my game this morning, I need Jessica to work her magic.
Resting my head on the table, I squeeze my eyes shut and try to block the world out. Over the course of seven hours, this day has gone from bad to worse. First, I discovered one of my Willow Street tenants is going through a nasty divorce and her ex is causing her all sorts of trouble, including vandalising her shop. Today we had to deal with graffiti all over the building. Then I found out the roof on the building is in urgent need of repair. The storm we had two nights ago revealed some damage and the repairs can’t wait. After that, I had Ashton Scott’s assistant harassing me to hold another meeting with him. The highlight of my day was telling her no. And now I’ve just discovered some of my shares took a dive overnight.
On top of all that, I never made it home to shower and change, so I’m still wearing the red dress from the wedding that flashes my cleavage in a very unbusinesslike manner.
“I want a do-over,” I mutter to myself while I wallow in self-pity.
My head snaps up at the sound of that voice.
Sugar… Sweet, delicious sugar.
Bad, bad sugar.
Ashton Scott stares down at me with amusement in his eyes and I don’t fail to notice the way his gaze sweeps over my dress.
As much as I want to stand and tell him where to go, I can’t summon the energy to do that. “If you’ve come to issue threats again or to call me a money-grabber, I don’t want to hear it.”
He holds his hands up as if he’s surrendering. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” Nodding at the chair next to mine, he says, “Mind if I join you?”
I exhale my frustration. “I told your assistant that I didn’t have time for another meeting.”
Ignoring me, he sits. “Looks like you can squeeze me in.”
“So when you asked if I minded you joining me, what you really meant to say was that you were joining me.”
His eyes capture mine in a way that doesn’t let go. “I’m not a man who usually asks, Lorelei.”
There’s no denying the dominance surrounding this man. Everything about him declares control and power— from the way he stands tall with his shoulders back, to the deep, commanding tone of his voice, to the way he watches you with complete self-assurance. I can imagine he doesn’t ever have to ask for anything.
“I bet you aren’t.”
He doesn’t react to that except to wait a moment before saying, “I want to apologise for the way I spoke to you this morning. I was out of line with what I said and I’d like us to begin again.”
His voice is oh-so-smooth, as if he expects for this to go his way. “I also bet you don’t usually apologise.”
Again, no reaction.
Except for the vein that twitches in his temple.
His emotions are so contained; it makes me want to push him to see if I can provoke a response. I don’t cope well with people who hide what they are feeling or thinking. They make me second-guess myself more than I already do.
“You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”
“I’m not a woman who makes things easy for any man, Ashton.”
The hum of the offices around us fades into the background as a new tension settles in the room. Ashton’s body tenses and he takes a deep breath. His eyes never leave mine and I do my best to hide the way he unnerves me. I might have said what I did, but that doesn’t make it true, because as much as I don’t make things easy for men, I’ve never met one like Ashton Scott.
I’ve never met a man who turns me on, frustrates me and flusters me all at once.
After a few moments of silence, he leans forward and murmurs, “It’s a good thing I like a challenge.”
Desire curls through me and I want to rant at the injustice of this world. Who decided that men should be granted bodies and voices and faces and—oh my God—eyes that have the ability to screw with women’s mental capacities like this?
I need a moment to collect my thoughts so I stand. Smoothing my dress, I say, “I need a coffee. Do you want something?”
He rises and I notice his gaze taking in every inch of my dress again as he does. “Black coffee, no sugar, thank you.”
His eyes on me have only flustered me more. I wish I’d had time to go home and change out of this damn dress before having to see Ashton again. The fact my boobs are practically hanging out has put me off my game.
“You can stop judging this dress,” I snap, my ruffled state finally getting to me.
“That wasn’t judgement, Lorelei.” His deep voice moves through me as heat flushes my skin.
Oh dear, Lord, is there no end to his assault on my senses?
He can kiss your ass, remember?
“What do you want, Ashton? I’ve already told you my building isn’t for sale, so I’m not sure why you’re here.” I load the Nespresso with a coffee pod as I speak, doing my best to ignore the war of emotions rushing through me.
“Everything in this world is for sale for the right price.”
If there’s one thing my grandmother taught me, it’s manners. Those manners are the only thing holding me back from telling him what I really think about that statement. Instead, I face him and calmly say, “It would seem you’ve found something that isn’t.”
He rests against the counter and casually crosses one ankle over the other, like he’s settling in. “You’re attached to this building.” It isn’t a question, but rather, a statement.
“Yes. My grandmother owned it for years while I was growing up. She loved the opportunity it gives people.”
Frown lines etch his forehead. “What opportunity?”
I shake my head in annoyance. “You know nothing about that building.”
“I know there are three businesses that you lease space to in it and that it’s a piece of prime real estate in Potts Point. I’m guessing the opportunity you’re talking about is the exposure its location gives those businesses.”
It’s moments like these I truly question my chosen life path of building a business. The Willow Street building is all those things he mentioned, and yet it is so much more. However, the other things it is aren’t likely to rate high on any list that a man like Ashton checks off when considering acquiring an asset. The fact that I would include them on any list I make has me wondering at my ability to survive in the ruthless business world.
“No, the opportunity I was referring to was that the people she leased to, and that I now lease to, aren’t your standard business-type people. Pearl Winters established the Willow Street Fund to help people who have great business ideas, but who can’t afford to action them. The fund takes applications once a year and distributes money and works with the chosen businesses for a period of three years to get them up and running. If we have a lease available in the Willow Street property and they need a shop, we make it available to them at a deeply discounted cost.” I pause for a moment before adding, “There’s no way I’d ever sell that building. It’s too important to these people.”
He’s staring at me with a look I’m not quite sure of. If I had to identify it, I’d say it’s possibly confusion. “I knew about the Willow Street Fund and I knew your leases were too cheap, but I didn’t realise the two went together…” His voice drifts off as if he’s thinking about something else.
“It’s not something we make known. My grandmother figured that if people knew they could get cheap rent, she’d have everyone applying to the fund. When someone signs a lease, they also sign a nondisclosure agreement stating they won’t share that information with anyone.”
“So what you’re saying is that anyone who has ever had a business in that building was helped by you or your grandmother. They wouldn’t have had anyone else helping them. Financially, I mean.”
He continues to stare at me and doesn’t say another word, until he mutters, “That bastard…”
I frown. “Who?”
Without answering me, he pushes off from the counter. “I’d like to be the first to know if you ever decide to sell.” His phone is already to his ear and his attention has left me even though he’s still watching me.
I truly dislike his style of business.
As he walks towards the door to leave, I say, “No.”
He comes to a halt and turns back to face me. “Give me a minute,” he says into the phone before holding it to the side so he can speak to me. “No?”
I nod. “I told you it’s not for sale and never will be.”
“Yes, well we all know how business goes, Lorelei. Times get tough and assets need to be looked at. Call me if that time comes.”
I watch him leave and I feel a sense of accomplishment when my gaze stays firmly on his back rather than sliding down to take in that magnificent ass.
Ashton Scott would have to be the most arrogant man I’ve ever met.
And I have no intention of ever calling him.