The Bastard Billionaire

By: Jessica Lemmon

She locked the gate behind her and let herself into the warehouse. Eli lived upstairs, and the downstairs was empty, a huge sprawling area not set up for anything in particular. Shame. It was a great space.

Shaking the early autumn rain from her coat, Isa ran a hand through her hair and pressed a button on the freight elevator to Eli’s lair. Upstairs, she slid open a heavy, metal elevator door and stepped inside, shutting it behind her. No doubt Eli was aware of her entrance. The metal scrape had echoed off high ceilings and tall windows she had no idea how he kept clean. They were, though. Rain pattered the cobweb-free panes as she stepped into the apartment, her mouth gaping in awe. She’d never seen anything like this place.

Stylish exposed brick walls dotted with windows; concrete floors with rugs separating rooms. A long, wooden table encircled by mismatched cloth chairs took up most of the dining room. A leather couch, chair, and coffee table (no TV) marked the living room area. Fat concrete pillars were interspersed with a few dividing walls—like the one hiding the area behind the dining room table. A bed peeked around a doorway at the end of the corridor, and a room she guessed was a bathroom bisected the hall. To her right was the kitchen, divided by a long countertop and a half wall over the sink.

“Don’t get comfortable,” came a low, male warning from behind the wall that must be hiding Eli’s office.

Heels clicking, then muting when she stepped onto the rug, Isa made her way into the bowels of Eli’s sanctuary, her heart hammering. She wasn’t typically the nervous type, but the dim light inside the warehouse and somber rain pecking the windows gave the space an eerie quality. As she paced closer to the room where the voice had come from, she heard the distinct crackle of a fire.

In the air there was a different kind of crackle entirely, a low buzz of premonition in her bones.

She’d owned her confidence on the phone with Reese, but now that the air in Eli’s home was pressing down on her, she was less sure of her promise to reform the middle Crane brother. Standing in Eli’s hallway was like hovering at the mouth of a cave where a hibernating grizzly bear hid. And she was unarmed.

But you are armed, she reminded herself. She hadn’t been lying when she’d told Reese she could handle this situation. As a woman who had walked away from her family’s money, expectations, and the man they’d chosen for her, Isabella Sawyer was nothing if not capable of overcoming challenge.

She was a woman who’d branched out on her own and had taken control of her life, without her family’s blessing. One surly ex-soldier with a chip on his shoulder wasn’t going to scare her away.

Squaring her shoulders, she stepped around the wall to find no door separating her from Eli’s office space. The dark-haired man in question jotted notes on a paper, his head down, a lamp on his desk lighting his way. In the dim glow, she made out the edge of a beard and a trail of tattoos decorating one arm. Squinting didn’t help her discern the inky images.

Without looking up, he spoke again. “You can leave.”

Bite me, Crane.

She was tempted to say it aloud, but she wasn’t positive he wouldn’t bite her. In his case, his bite could be worse than his bark, and his bark was downright intimidating. It wouldn’t be the first time Isa had stood up to a man who believed he held the cards, but she was playing a long game. Best not to push too hard just yet.

She stepped into his office and introduced herself. Or, well, the version of herself she wanted him to know.

“Hello, Mr. Crane. My name is Isabella. Sable Concierge sent me to serve as your personal helper. I’ve already been brought up to date by your brother about Crane Hotels’s latest—”

“Isabella.” He tossed the pen onto his desk. Lifted his head and met her eyes.

Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, the remainder of her speech glued to it. Dark hair ruffled like he’d repeatedly pushed his fingers through it, an equally dark, thick beard lining a strong jaw, Eli Crane commanded attention. Deep blue eyes narrowed as he tracked down to her stilettos and up her professional—and, yes, a little tight at the thighs—dress she’d worn for this appointment. There was nothing overtly sexual about the dress, but no matter what she wore, her curves tested the limits of the seams. She was a woman and refused to hide her femininity—or mute it—especially for this man.

He shifted at the desk, pushing one palm into the wood, and his tattoos flexed, his muscles shifting temptingly.

Lord have mercy.

The crackle in the air this time wasn’t a buzz of warning but of something else. Something heavy and weighted.

Unwanted attraction.

The kind you feel for a man when you know that you shouldn’t. The kind packaged to be tempting, but when you get close, learn that the enticing beauty is laced with deadly poison.

The feeling was so strong, the pull so palpable, Isa struggled not to advance a step.

“No,” he said.

“No what?” She tightened her grip on her Kate Spade tote, wedging her heels to the floor.

“No to Isabella. Too ornamental.” His lip curled with what appeared to be disgust and she tamped down the temptation to be offended. This was his game. She wasn’t going to play. “Can’t you go by something else?”

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