Elizabeth Bevarly - My Fair Billionaire
My Fair Billionaire
T. S. Eliot was right, Ava Brenner thought as she quickened her stride down Michigan Avenue and ducked beneath the awning of a storefront. April really was the cruelest month. Yesterday, the skies above Chicago had been blue and clear, and temperatures hovered in the high fifties. Today, gray clouds pelted the city with freezing rain. She tugged her scarf from the collar of her trench coat and over her head, knotting it beneath her chin. The weather would probably ruin the emerald silk, but she was on her way to meet a prospective vendor and would rather replace an injured scarf than have the perfect auburn chignon at her nape get wet and ragged.
Image was everything. Bottom line. That was a lesson life hammered home when Ava was still in high school. April wasn’t the only thing that was cruel—teenage girls could be downright brutal. Especially the rich, vain, snotty ones at posh private schools who wore the latest designer fashions and belittled the need-based-scholarship students who made do with discount-store markdowns.
Ava pushed the thought away. A decade and a half lay between her and graduation. She was the owner of her own business now, a boutique called Talk of the Town that rented haute couture fashions to women who wanted only the best for those special occasions in life. Even if the shop was operating on a shoestring and wishful thinking, it was starting to show a profit. At least she looked the part of successful businesswoman. No one had to know she was her own best customer.
She whipped the scarf from her head and tucked it into the pocket of her trench coat as she entered an elegant eatery. Beneath, she wore a charcoal-gray Armani jacket and trousers, paired with a sage-colored shell she knew enhanced her green eyes. The outfit had arrived at Talk of the Town just this week, and she’d wanted to test-drive it for comfort and wearability.
As she approached the host stand, her cell phone twittered. It was the vendor she was supposed to be meeting, asking to postpone their appointment for an evening later in the week. So Ava would be on her own for dinner tonight. As usual. Still, she hadn’t taken herself out in a long time, and she had been working extra hard this month. She’d earned a bit of a treat.
Basilio, the restaurant’s owner, greeted her by name with a warm smile. Every time she saw him, Ava was reminded of her father. Basilio had the same dark eyes, close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and neatly trimmed mustache. But she was reasonably certain that, unlike her father, Basilio had never done time in a federal prison.
Without even checking the seating chart, he led Ava to her favorite table by the window, where she could watch the passersby as she ate. As she lifted her menu, however, her attention was yanked away by a ruckus in the bar. When she glanced up, she saw Dennis, her favorite bartender, being berated by a customer, a tall man with broad shoulders and coal-black hair. He was evidently offended by Dennis’s suggestion that he’d had too much to drink, a condition that was frankly obvious.
“I’m fine,” the man insisted. Although his words weren’t slurred, his voice was much louder than necessary. “And I want another Macallan. Neat.”
Dennis remained calm as he replied, “I don’t think—”
“That’s right,” the man interrupted him. “You don’t think. You serve drinks. Now serve me another Macallan. Neat.”
“Now,” the man barked.
Ava’s pulse leaped at the angrily uttered word. She’d worked her way through college at three jobs, one of which had been as a waitress. She’d dealt with her share of patrons who became bullies after drinking too much. Thankfully, Basilio and her waiter, Marcus, were on the spot quickly to attend to the situation.
Dennis shook his head at the others’ approach, holding up a hand for them to wait. In gentling tones, he said, “Mr. Moss, maybe it would be better if you had a cup of coffee instead.”
Heat splashed into Ava’s belly at hearing the name. Moss. She had gone to school—long ago, in a galaxy far away—with a Moss. Peyton Moss. He had been a grade ahead of her at the tony Emerson Academy.
But this couldn’t be him, she told herself. Peyton Moss had sworn to everyone at Emerson that he was leaving Chicago the moment he graduated and never coming back. And he’d kept that promise. Ava had returned to Chicago only a few months after earning her business degree and had run into a handful of her former classmates—more was the pity—none of whom had mentioned Peyton’s return.
She looked at the man again. Peyton had been Emerson’s star hockey player, due not just to his prowess, but also his size. His hair had been shoulder-length, inky silk, and his voice, even then, had been dark and rich. By now, it could have easily deepened to the velvety baritone of the man at the bar.
When he turned to look at Marcus, Ava bit back a gasp. Although the hair was shorter and the profile harsher, it was indeed Peyton. She’d know that face anywhere. Even after sixteen years.
Without thinking, she jumped up and hurried to place herself between Peyton and the others. With all the calm she could muster, she said, “Gentlemen. Maybe what we need here is an unbiased intermediary to sort everything out.”
Peyton would laugh himself silly about that if he recognized her. Ava had been anything but unbiased toward him in high school. But he’d been plenty biased toward her, too. That was what happened when two people moved in such disparate social circles in an environment where the lines of society were stark, immutable and absolute. When upper class met lower class in a place like Emerson, the sparks that flew could immolate an entire socioeconomic stratum.
“Ms. Brenner, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Basilio said. “Men in his condition can be unpredictable, and he’s three times your size.”
“My condition is fine,” Peyton snapped. “Or it would be. If this establishment honored the requests of its paying customers.”
“Just let me speak to him,” Ava said, dropping her voice.
Basilio shook his head. “Marcus and I can handle this.”
“But I know him. He and I went to school together. He’ll listen to me. We’re...we were...” Somehow she pushed the word out of her mouth. “Friends.”
It was another word that would have made Peyton laugh. The two of them had been many things at Emerson—unwilling study partners, aggressive sparring partners and for one strange, intoxicating night, exuberant lovers—but never, ever, friends.