Despite the Gentleman's Riches: Sweet Billionaire Romance (For Richer or Poorer Book 1)

Despite the Gentleman's Riches

 

by Aimee Easterling

 

Copyright © 2014 by Aimee Easterling.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.   The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
Read more about my books at www.wetknee.com.
 

 

Chapter 1

When I was eight years old and dreaming of adulthood, I never planned to be a Food City checker. But here's the thing—when your parents kick the bucket and drop you into foster care before you become a teenager, you find out fast that life is a struggle to get and stay on your feet. You lower your standards, take whatever job is offered, and find a way to entertain yourself in the process.

At the ripe old age of twenty-four, I now filled my days by silently ranking the nutritional quality of the grocery items that rolled toward me down the black rubber conveyor belt. It was a depressing statement on our nation's food choices that most folks rated a D or F, maybe a C if I felt generous. Value packs of soda, frozen dinners that weren't as healthy as their packaging liked to suggest, and plenty of white bread seemed to be my neighbors' staples. You might remember that big brouhaha a few years ago about folks on food stamps buying junk with their benefits, but who ever judged the people paying full price for such crap? I figured that was
my
job...or at least a way to make the long hours of my real job pass more quickly.

So when my hands started picking up olive oil, avocados, bags of apples, and shelled walnuts, I couldn't help myself. The words were out of my mouth before I was able to call them back.

"Wow, you're the first person I've ever met who made an A plus on the quality of your food choices!" I exclaimed, raising my eyes to see what kind of paragon chose tuna over tortiglioni. (Not that our backwoods Food City even stocked that kind of fancy pasta, but a girl could dream....)

The customer was as delicious as his food choices...and that was saying something! Broad shoulders filled out a fitted sports coat, a gleaming blue shirt underneath brought out the guy's eyes, and dark hair drifted down to brush against one cheekbone. He was movie-star handsome, and not dressed for a rural grocery store either. If I hadn't sworn off men years ago, I would have written my phone number on the back of the receipt and then begged him to check this checker out.

"Ahem." A throat clearing off to the left broke my gaze, which was probably a good thing since I'd stared at the customer long enough to embarrass even myself. But how often did you see so many fresh fruits and vegetables rolling down the conveyor belt?
Never—that's why I was staring
, I protested silently. Right. Now, if I could just convince
myself
of the innocence of my actions.

"An A, huh?" offered another male voice, this one attached to a forty-something farmer whom I'd noticed passing through other checkers' aisles several times over the last few weeks. The older customer stood at the credit-card reader, waiting for me to push the button on my cash register that would send his information up the phone line and into whatever database in the sky made sure the customer wasn't exceeding his credit limit. (Yes, I'd spent a lot more time learning about nutrition than about credit cards. I mean, who really cares why credit cards work?) "I'm sure my wife will be glad to know that her list-making skills pass muster," the farmer added with a kindly smile.

For half a second, I envied his wife. Sure, the man was two decades my senior, but he was also clearly going to live a very long time rather than dying of a heart attack while driving his wife home from buying Chinese takeout, leaving his daughter to make her own way in the world at the tender age of twelve. Not that I was speaking from personal experience or anything.

The moment of introspection turned my usual smile a trifle tremulous. Usually at this point in an interaction, I'd be cheerfully chattering with the customer, trying to lend a little brightness to his or her day—after all, positive social interactions were bound to boost longevity, and most of my customers needed all the help they could get in that department. But the food options currently filling the farmer's cloth bags (yes, he'd brought his own satchels from home...and they were hand-stitched) ensured that he'd live a long and happy life. Plus, I was fighting back tears due to slipping and thinking about my departed parents, so I kept the small talk to a minimum as I waited for the middle-aged customer to sign the digital display, then handed him the receipt.

"So, how do
I
rate?" asked the movie-star look-a-like, yanking my attention away from the farmer, who I was pretty sure I saw heading toward a very unfarmerly Prius instead of to a gas-guzzling pickup truck like the ones that ninety-nine percent of my customers drove. His wife really had found a keeper.

But the new customer was demanding my attention, making me realize that I'd forgotten all about pretty boy as soon as I realized that the walnuts belonged to another man. So I glanced down to take in hunky guy's offerings. Frozen pizza. Boxed French fries. A six-pack of beer. "Well, I don't usually tell people their ratings...." I back-pedaled, not wanting to have this guy call the manager and complain about me after I let on what he really ranked—an F minus. I was already skating on thin ice with the higher-ups since I'd gotten involved with the fight against a coal-fired power plant soon to be located in our town. Most of the community was in favor of the economic opportunity that the new industry would provide, so my stance hadn't exactly made me popular with my neighbors...or with my boss.

And, unfortunately, I really couldn't lose this job if I was going to pay the lot rent on my forty-year-old trailer. I'd managed to save up enough money to eliminate the debt on my mobile home last year, making me the proud owner of a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room at the tender age of twenty-three. But without anywhere else to park the hunk of junk, I was still out a couple of hundred bucks a month to lease the earth beneath its wheels.

Luckily, my customer hadn't taken offense. "Hey, this is fish!" the guy teased, lifting up a box of fish sticks that I was pretty sure contained more breading than seafood. "Good for the heart," he added, rubbing a hand over his chest.

I rolled my eyes in an attempt to draw my attention away from the chest in question. After all, high school had taught me that the cutest guys were usually either dumb or mean. And since I couldn't stomach either option, that broad chest was a turn-off rather than a turn-on...or so I wanted to believe. Still, the hunk in front of me seemed as witty as he was beautiful, and despite my reservations, I bantered back: "Not with all those trans fats and carbs."

The customer smiled, and I found myself leaning toward him without conscious volition.
Get a grip
, I berated myself, and suited actions to words by latching onto the counter in front of me. Letting go with one white-knuckled hand, I started sliding cardboard boxes (for the record, real food does
not
come in cardboard boxes) across the scanner as quickly as possible.
Beep, beep, beep
. The sooner I got this guy rung up, the sooner he'd take the temptation of his unhealthy body out of my sight.

I worked in silence for a minute, trying to figure out who could eat ten pizzas before the cheese succumbed to freezer burn, but any effort at making my hormones jump off their current track was a dismal failure. Even though I kept my eyes down, scanning his "food" (and I use that term loosely), I could still feel the hunky customer's blue eyes boring into my body. I'd like to be snarky and say that he was staring at my boobs, but the truth is that a few subtle glances seemed to instead catch the guy watching my face as if I were a jigsaw puzzle missing all the edge pieces.

"So, you don't think much of me," he said at last, pulling out a credit card that, by its shimmer, seemed to be made out of silver. I started to tell him that we didn't take...whatever that was...here, but even though the sliver of metal lacked both numbers and letters, my machine didn't complain as the card passed through its slot. My nerve endings told me I also wouldn't complain if this guy's hands slid across my skin....

Whoa! Down girl! Eyes on the ball!
Or, rather, eyes on the cash register. Yes, everything I said, even within my own mind, seemed to be loaded with innuendo today.

So I put on my fakest smile, forced myself to look the customer in the eye, and replied, "I was only kidding about the food rating." I tried to add a "sir" on the end of that sentence, but I just couldn't force myself to build that layer of distance between us. "You could have saved $3.23 today if you'd used a Value Card," I added. "Would you like to sign up?"

"If I put my phone number on the application, will you call me?" he asked, leaning on the check-writing station, his lips so close to mine that the breeze of his breath tickled against my skin. The guy reached over and pulled a Value Card pamphlet out of the slot, pretending to leaf through it while looking up at me from under striking eyebrows.

Deliberately misunderstanding the customer's flirtation, I assured him that, no, his phone number wouldn't be added to any marketing list if he applied for a Food City Value Card. "And you'll save on gas too," I continued, deep in my sales patter. "Fuel Bucks are a great way to..."

"Come out to dinner with me," he interrupted, the unmarked application fluttering down to the floor as he reached out and took one of my hands in his. The guy's palm was tremendous, big enough to hide most of my fingers as well as the base of my hand, and his skin seemed to emit a heat that sent tingles running down my arm.

I knew I needed to tell him no. Or to feign obliviousness and keep talking about business. But the few guys I'd dated in the past hadn't made me feel like this—I thought I might melt into a puddle of desire on the hard tile floor at the mere touch of his hand. And when I opened my mouth, no words came out.

"You know you don't want me to eat this crap," the guy continued, pointing at the pile of frozen offerings that had built up beside the bagging station. It was a slow time of day, so I didn't have a designated bagger, usually doing that job myself unless the one pimple-faced teenager in the rotation hit my aisle at a propitious moment. Now, the packaged fish sticks and French fries sat and slowly melted, ignored by both their new and old caretakers alike. "I'll even let you order for me," the guy added, sweetening the pot. "You can get...
vegetables
." The final word seemed unbearably salacious coming from his mouth, and my own lips turned upward into an honest smile.

There's no restaurant in town that serves food worth eating
, I thought, but halted the words before they could leave my lips. I
should
be telling the customer that this conversation was grossly inappropriate since it had nothing to do with Value Cards, especially given that I didn't even know his name. Instead, I was smiling and preparing to state a culinary preference?

No, no, NO! I wasn't going out to dinner with a random stranger, no matter how hot he was.
Especially
because of how hot he was. Guys like that coasted through life, and I wasn't a coaster—I was a bulldozer. I knew where I was going, and a man would only slow my journey down.

"No," I finally forced out, the sound more like a cough than a word. But I'd done it! I could feel the spell that had pulled us together dissipating into the cold grocery-store air, our bond wiped out by tile cleaner and windex.

My hand slipped away from the customer's grasp and I surreptitiously wiped my palm on the leg of my jeans as his eyes narrowed. I could tell that my handsome customer wasn't used to being rejected, probably because of the expensive cut of his suit and because of the credit card that screamed "more money than you'll ever see in your life!" Women could be so shallow.

Yes, like most girls, I'd dreamed about being taken care of, about never having to worry about paying the electric bill again. But I'd "enjoyed" a brief stint as a live-in girlfriend a couple of years ago, and I didn't relish the complete lack of control that came with the territory. Sure, being a kept woman was easy, but I wanted more from life than "easy." I reminded myself that, like his broad shoulders, the number of zeroes on this guy's bank account balance was repellent to me.

Keep telling yourself that and it just might come true
.

The customer could see that I was wavering, so he smiled and moved in for the kill. "The restaurant doesn't have to be in town. I'll take you anywhere you want to go," he said, the words loaded with innuendo.

Mutely, I shook my head, looking away from the stranger at last and paling as I noticed the manager bearing down on me.
Shoot.
I was taking way too long with this customer, and even though there was no one else waiting in line behind him, I knew I was in for a tongue lashing. I just hoped against hope that this rich guy wasn't still around when I was torn back down to my rightful place on earth—at the very bottom of the social pecking order.

The guy followed my gaze and his cute-boy charm faded into a frown, his eyes turning cold and hard in an instant. My manager was no milquetoast, but he paused as he met my customer's stare, then turned to straighten a display of vanilla wafers.
Scary but effective
. I was glad that dark glare wasn't pointed at me—yet another reason to let this customer disappear into the void where I'd (hopefully) never see or hear from him again.

"I don't want to get you into trouble," the stranger said when my silence began to stretch to epic proportions. "Here." He handed me a business card as shiny as his credit card had been, a number strewn across the paper but no words in sight. "That's my personal line. Call me if you change your mind."

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